Thunderstorm, the voice on the television said, and that was all it took. Steven had promised Justine they’d go biking today, but now he wished he could wriggle his way out of it. He waited for her to tease him, the way she always did.
“You’re afraid of everything,” she said.
She was close to being right. It wasn’t just storms he feared; it was anything shocking and intense—heights, flying, roller coasters. Even when it came to their bike rides, he preferred the gradual inclines to her power-line hills. Still, he had to make her understand.
“It’s like you and spiders,” he said.
Early that morning, a girlish squeal had summoned him to the bedroom, where he found her crouched beneath a wolf spider on the ceiling. As always, he grabbed the glass candleholder from the bureau and scooped the critter into it. “You’re my hero,” she had said in a melodramatic, childlike voice.
A hero, until thunder and lightning.
They took their usual loop through the schoolyard and golf course, past the dream houses and the apple orchard, and the pumpkin stand down on the farm road. The sun was out, but the air was thick with that storm-day feeling. It calmed him to watch Justine up ahead in her skin-tight shorts and lemon-yellow helmet, her glimmering-wheat hair whipping at her neck. She was carefree and happy, and nothing was going to happen.
Steven kept an eye on the sky as clouds gathered and thickened. The road was strangely shadowy as sun filtered onto it in speckles and stripes. He measured the distance between light and dark sections of cloud, trying to somehow calculate their return time to the house. Ahead of him, Justine stopped at the entrance to the Pine Grove path, waiting for him to catch up.
“It’s either this or the long way home,” she said.
He looked at the tall trees, and all he saw were lightning rods. But he didn’t want to be a wet blanket anymore. He was tired of his irrational fears, and of envying those who didn’t have them.
“It’s fine,” he said.
They headed down the path through the woods. He looked up to the canopy of leaves and branches to an opening where the sky peeked through. What had been blue sky now was a gauzy blue-gray, melting to violet.
Justine sighed loudly. “Just don’t look at it.”
“Easy for you to say,” he said. “Don’t think about all the spiders in here.”
“I’m not that afraid of spiders.” Her voice was smooth, a more confident voice than this morning’s helpless one. He wondered if she really was afraid of spiders, or if she pretended for his benefit.
They were halfway along the path when it started. There was a faint flicker of light, a distant rumble, a muffled pop, and then a silver vein splintered across the sky. The trees turned fluorescent blue. Like a fairy tale, he told himself, and thought of how he loved storms as a child. When did he become so afraid?
Evening settled in and the storms calmed to a far-off murmur, but the rain persisted, pelting the roof and pouring down the bedroom windows. As Justine flipped through the television channels, Steven heard the local reporter’s voice, the words Pine Grove.
“Wait,” he said, crawling into bed next to her. “I want to see.”
The reporter stood in the same spot where they entered the woods hours before. A young man’s image popped on the screen, then a video showing a backpack on the ground, the wheel of a bicycle. The words in the red banner across the screen were not what Steven expected.
Man Killed in Hit and Run.
Justine gasped. “That could have been us,” she said.
Steven turned cold. The reporter continued, saying the accident most likely happened around three that afternoon. The victim was a local man, one of those faces Steven may have passed by in the mall or even chatted with in line at the supermarket. Now he was a dead man on the evening news.
Justine huddled close to Steven and glanced towards the window. “Did you hear that? It’s starting up again.”
Steven didn’t hear anything, but as the bedroom walls lit up from the flash outside, he knew. It took three seconds for the sharp clap to reverberate throughout the house.
“You gonna be okay?” she asked, her voice gentle, sincere.
“I’m okay,” he said. He wasn’t sure he felt anything, even as thunder rumbled again. It was an odd feeling, waiting for his heart to race, his stomach to turn. “How about you?”
She curled up against him and put her hand on his chest. “I can’t stop thinking of that poor man,” she said. She flinched, pointing to the end of the bed. “Is that a spider?”
“No,” Steven chuckled. “It’s a piece of lint.” He took her hand. Maybe Justine didn’t realize just how many spiders they encountered on their bike rides through woods and meadow paths. Many, many spiders, so many more than any episodes of thunder and lightning he would encounter in his lifetime. “But it is that time of year,” he added, “when spiders come inside.”
She pulled the sheet tight around her neck. “I guess I’m feeling a bit vulnerable tonight.” She looked at him. “Aren’t you?”
Justine was the woman with little fear, who now waited for the creepy, eight-legged bodies to crawl up the bed frame to the mattress and pillow, from all the unsuspected cracks and crevices of the room. Steven showed her a smile, even though he did feel vulnerable—just not in the way she might have thought. A more rational, palpable fear had crept into him today. But for now, sheltered from the storm and the crimes of reckless drivers, he could be the hero. He pulled her close and breathed more calmly than usual, while outside, thunder crashed and lightning pierced the night sky.