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On an unnaturally hot spring afternoon, the day after the last day of seventh grade, Chance Bee Jeopard, a brown-haired boy of narrow build whose ears stuck out perhaps a bit too far, was digging a hole in the backyard of the small house he shared with his older sister, Pauline, and their mother, Daisy, when plork! Chance’s rusty old shovel hit something that was most certainly not dirt.
Chance was, before anything and above all, a tester of limits. He was a questioner of assertions, a taker of risks. Chance felt compelled to do things like hurl homemade javelins and overinflate basketballs and break ceiling tiles with his forehead and try to hold his breath longer than his friend at school Jiro Kurosawa (eighty-one seconds being the record to beat); in other words, Chance liked to do anything that dirtied his hands, challenged his body, or dared his mind.
Hole digging, it so happened, encompassed all of this. He wondered why he hadn’t thought of it sooner.
Chance had been working on digging his hole every day after school for the last week, lifting shovelfuls of cool, loamy dirt from the deepening hole in the farthest corner of the backyard. There, he was conveniently shielded from his house by the crumpled tree house a twister had some years before knocked off its perch in the branches of a spreading pecan tree, the same tree that now provided Chance with a measure of relief from the sun as he dug, dug, dug.
It was to be the deepest hole in the small town of Starling, a place that held the distinction of being the hottest spot in all of Texas, which was saying quite a bit. Chance had borrowed a shovel from the next-door neighbor Mrs. Applebaker, whom Chance knew from experience was good with secrets.
The hole, currently seven and a half feet—two and a half feet deeper than Chance was tall—was deep enough that Chance could no longer heave dirt out of the hole with the shovel and was instead forced to haul it up a painter’s ladder in a tin bucket. The hole was narrower at the bottom than the top, so Chance’s work focused on widening as well as deepening it.
It was when Chance was thinking he’d like to dig six more inches before he quit for the day that he suddenly struck something with his shovel. Something that felt like a … a skull. Or at least it sounded like what Chance imagined a skull poked with a shovel might sound like—a hollow, chalky plork. Whatever it was, he had broken it, leaving a small hole from which a quiet but continuous sucking sound emitted. It reminded Chance of the fwussssh of a can of tennis balls freshly opened.
Chance fought a moment of panic. What if there was a whole body down there, dead by some nefarious hand, its wakeful and disruptive ghost ready to haunt Chance now that he had violated its rest? Chance gripped the ladder and was about to start climbing as fast as he could when his senses returned. Ghosts didn’t exist. There weren’t demons or vampires or fairies or shellycoats or Querquetulanae or any of that stuff. At least that’s what Pauline, his older sister, would have said, and Chance, as much as his sister bugged him, had to admit she was right, at least some of the time. Maybe most of the time. Okay, all the time.
So Chance closed his eyes, took two long breaths, innnn … ouuut … innnn … ouuut—his mother was an Ashtanga yoga instructor and expert breather, and she had taught her children well—then got down on his hands and knees to examine his discovery.
It wasn’t a skull. It was a big pipe of some kind, made from the same sort of ceramic that flowerpots were made of. Judging by the curvature of the exposed bit, Chance estimated the pipe to be about two feet in diameter. He had caused a jagged, roundish hole with the tip of the shovel, large enough to get his hand through. The walls of the pipe looked like they were about an inch thick. He did not actually put his hand inside; he wasn’t up for that kind of test today. What if there was hydrochloric acid in there? Or giant rabid rats? Or something no human had ever seen before—something with big, knifelike teeth as sharp as ocular scalpels and a slobbering appetite for human flesh?
So he kept his hands to himself. Nothing was leaking out of the pipe. There was only the sucking sound, which he realized was just rushing air; the pipe appeared to be a kind of wind tunnel. He carefully bent down and peered inside.
Nothing. Dark as the intergalactic medium.
Wait, what was that? Chance thought he saw something, a faint, dull-gray something, moving quickly. It was there, then it was gone.
Then, Chance heard something all too familiar in the late Texas spring: thunder. If there was ever an enemy of the seven-and-a-half-foot-deep backyard hole, it was a violent afternoon thunderstorm.
Chance riffled through his pockets, looking for something to jam in the hole he’d made in the pipe, but could find nothing. A fat ball of rain popped on the crown of his head. Another rolled down his back. A third exploded on the toe of his right sneaker.
Ah, of course. Chance kicked off his shoes. Then he stripped off his socks, rolled them up, and stuck the sock balls in the hole. Better than nothing. The rain began to fall harder, like it meant business. Chance quickly climbed out and bolted for the house.
He ran inside, where he found that crimson-haired, hazel-eyed human curiosity, Pauline. She was sitting at the dining room table, studying something on a laptop. Pauline seemed to have grown six inches in the last month, her lanky form bent over the keyboard like a sapling in the wind. She looked up and stared intently at her brother.
Chance often wondered if Pauline knew whenever he was doing something he ought not be doing, like puncturing their property with big holes. Chance became conscious of the dirt covering his clothes. But he was usually covered in dirt. Pauline just rolled her eyes and returned to her computing.
As anyone within a hundred miles could have told you, Pauline Dearie Jeopard, freshly graduated from ninth grade, was, first and foremost, a skeptic. She was particularly skeptical of anything supernatural—werewolves, limbo, little green men, spontaneous human combustion, demonic possession, zombiism, underground realms, poltergeists and ghostly cold spots, psychic spoon bending, and telepathy. Especially telepathy.
No, Pauline believed in the empirical sciences, laboratories, the timeline of geology, the physics of space-time. The only magic in Pauline’s life was the miraculous precision and flexibility of mathematics.
And the internet.
Pauline, excited about the coming thunderstorm, was searching the internet for photographs of fulgurites, as the subterranean tubal branches of fused minerals caused by lightning ground strikes were called, an example of which Pauline desperately wanted to find in situ—she did not want to buy one from a rock shop—when she looked up again to regard her dirt-covered little brother, who seemed a bit more dirt-covered than usual.
“Some people have an outdoor cat,” said Pauline. “I have an outdoor brother. What have you been doing?”
“Nothing, nope, what have you been doing?”
“Research. Mom is not going to like all the extra dirt you brought in.”
“I know, but it’s starting to rain.”
“I’m about to go out to the top of the Indian burial mound.”
“But … lightning!”
“That’s the reason I’m going out there,” she said. Her eyes grew large. “You can see for miles.”
“But … but … lightning will kill you,” said Chance, waving his arms about, sprinkling dirt like cracked pepper on the floor. “You know that!”
“I’m going to wear rubber galoshes,” said Pauline. “Plus, I’m going to lie down in the grass. Want to come?”
“No way, José. I don’t want to get struck and killed by lightning. I have too many projects to finish.”
“Don’t tell Mom,” she said to her brother, sotto voce. Their mother, Daisy Bopp Jeopard, was in her room concentrating on trikonasana, one of the most strenuous and difficult positions in yoga. The day after tomorrow, she was heading to Denver to teach other instructors the niceties of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, a modern-day variant of the ancient discipline.
“If you do, I’ll tell her you’ve been digging a giant hole in the backyard.”
Chance’s eyes turned to perfect circles and his mouth dropped to the floor like an anvil.
Pauline left him there, then put on her raincoat and galoshes and slipped out the front door.
She pulled a shovel out of the dirt in her mother’s garden of Knock Out roses, got on her red ten-speed, and pedaled as fast as she could out to the old Indian burial mound, a monolith of dirt a hundred feet in length rising forty feet above the surrounding terrain.
The storm was at full strength. The winds whipped up the flaps of her coat, the bullets of rain struck her body, the slaps of thunder deafened her. She finally reached the top of the ancient, muddied hill, tossed the shovel a safe distance away, lay flat on her stomach, and watched the horizon.
There! A lightning strike to a magnolia tree, more than a quarter of a mile away. And whoa! A strike to the lightning rod at the Barrows’ ranch a few hundred yards to the north. And yow! A bolt to an old Volkswagen bus bumbling down US Highway 123. The strike didn’t even cause a hiccup in the vehicle’s merry travels.
Strike after blinding strike erupted from the thundercloud above, but none hit the ground.
She squinted into the distance, waiting, waiting, as the horizontal rain battered her side.
Pauline wished Chance was with her. But she knew why he wasn’t.
* * *
Nothing had ever tested Chance, or Pauline, as severely as the events of an otherwise ordinary Tuesday less than one year before. They were thirteen and eleven then, and their moody, impenetrable second cousin, twenty-year-old Pye McAllister, was staying with them while Pauline and Chance’s parents were out of town. Their mom was in Rhinebeck, New York, teaching Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga at the Omega Institute, and their dad, Albert Wuthering Jeopard (TV meteorologist extraordinaire), was visiting central Florida, home of the most frequent and powerful lightning strikes on the planet, to partly fulfill his dream of experiencing the world’s worst weather firsthand. He had endured the scorch of the Sahara and Death Valley; felt the lethal winds of Mount Washington in New Hampshire; suffered the cold at East Antarctic Plateau in the dead of winter—August—where in 2010 the world’s coldest-ever temperature, -136°F, had been recorded. Central Florida was one of the few megaweather locales he had put off visiting, as he had more than just passing anxiety when it came to lightning; he suffered from full-fledged astraphobia. To overcome this, a trip to the lightning fields of Florida was requisite.
And there, near the town of Kathleen, on a low rise in a field much like the one Pauline was currently inhabiting, a serrate bolt tinted baby blue found Albert Jeopard, taking him instantly and painlessly out of this life.
Text copyright © 2018 by Bill Cotter
Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Red Nose Studio