It was six years ago when I first met the Lightning Bringer, on a cloudy day just a few weeks past my tenth birthday.
That's when I invented the name, though I never spoke it, and no one else ever used it. Most of the townsfolk called him "Mister" Jackson. They didn't know why, but they called him mister, even though he looked pretty much like any other hard-faced drifter. Not normally the sort they'd talk to at all, except maybe to order off their property -- once they were sure the police had arrived.
I knew he was different from the first second I saw him. It's like a photograph stuck in my personal album, that memory. I walked out the school gate, and there he was, leaning against his motorcycle. His jet-black motorcycle that looked like a Harley-Davidson but wasn't. It didn't have any brand name or anything on it. He was leaning against it, twice my height back then, because he was tall, easily six foot three or four. Muscles tight under the black T-shirt, the twin blue lightning tattoos down his forearms. Long hair somewhere between blond and red, tied back with a red-and-white-spotted bandanna.
But what I really noticed was his aura. Most people have dim, fuzzy sorts of colors that flicker around them in a pathetic kind of way. His aura was all blue sparks, jumping around like they were just waiting to electrocute anyone who went near.
The guy looked like trouble. Then he smiled, and if you couldn't see the aura, that smile would somehow make you think that he was all right, the biker with the heart of gold, the drifter who went around helping out old folk or whatever.
But I saw part of the energy go out of his aura and into the smile, flickering out like a hundred snakes' tongues to touch and spark against the dull colors of the people around him.
He charmed them, that's what. I saw it happening, saw the tongues coming out and lighting up the older kids' gray days. And then I saw all the electric currents come together to caress one student in particular: Carol, the best-looking girl in the whole school.
Of course I was only ten back then, so I didn't really appreciate everything Carol had going for her. I mean, I knew that she had movie-star looks, with the jet-black hair and the big brown eyes, and breasts that went out exactly the right amount and a waist that went in exactly as it should and legs that could have been borrowed from a Barbie doll. But it was sort of secondhand appreciation at that stage. I knew everyone thought she looked good, but I didn't really know why myself. Now I can get really excited thinking about the way she looked when she was playing basketball, with that tight top and the pleated skirt ... at least till I remember what happened to her ...
She was looking especially good that day. With hindsight, I reckon she'd found out that she was really attractive to men, picking up a certain confidence. That air of the cat that's worked out it's the kind of cat that's always going to get the cream.
When the Lightning Bringer's smile reached out for her, her eyes went all cloudy and she kind of sleepwalked over to him, as if nothing else even existed. They talked for a while, then she walked on. But she looked back -- twice -- and that electricity kept flowing out of the drifter, crackling around her like fingers just aching to undo the big white buttons on the front of her school dress.
Then she was around the corner, and I realized everyone else had gone. there was just me and the man, leaning against his bike. Watching me, not smiling, the blue white tendrils pulling back into the glowing shell around him. Then he laughed, his head pulled back, the laughter sending a stream of blue white energy up into the sky.
That laugh scared the hell out of me, and I suddenly felt just like a rabbit that realizes it's been staring into the headlights of an oncoming truck.
Like a lot of rabbits, I realized this too late. I'd hardly got one foot up, ready to run, when he was suddenly looming over me, fingers digging into my shoulders like old tree roots boring into the ground. Like maybe he'd never let go, till his fingers plunged through the flesh, squishing me like a rotten apple.
I started to scream, but he shook me so hard I just stopped.
"Listen, kid," he said, and his voice was scraped and raw, like maybe he'd drunk a bottle of whisky the night before, on top of a cold. "I'm not going to hurt you. You can see, can't you?
I knew he wasn't talking about normal eyesight. I nodded, and he eased off his grip.
"I'll tell you something for free," he said, real serious. He bent down on one knee and looked me right in the eye, except I ducked my head, so I had only about a second of that fierce, yellow-eyed gaze burning into my brain.
"One day, you can be like me," he whispered, voice crawling with little lightnings, power licking away at my head. "You saw how that girl looked at me? I'm going to have her tonight. I can get any woman I like -- or any man, if I was that way inclined. No one can touch me either. I do what I want. You know why? Because I was born with the Power. Power over things seen and unseen, power over folk and field, power over wind and water. You've got it too, boy, but you don't know what it can do yet. It can go away again if you don't look after it right. You've got to keep it charged up. You've got to use it, boy. That's the truth. You have to feed the Power!"
Then he kissed me right on the forehead, fire flaming through my skull, and I could smell my hair burning like a hot iron, and I was screaming and screaming and then the world spun around and around and I wanted to throw up but instead I lay down and everything went black.
When I came to, the Darly twins were turning my pockets inside out, looking for money. I was still pretty dizzy, but I punched one while I was still on the ground, and he fell back into the other one, so I got up and kicked them both down the street.
That made me feel better, and I thought maybe the worst of the day had happened and it could only get better from there.
But I was wrong.
I was real restless that night. Everybody was. The air was hot and sticky, with thunderheads hanging off on the horizon, black and grumbling but not doing anything about moving in to break the heat. There was nothing on television either, and we all sat there flicking between channels and complaining, till Mom lost her temper and sent everyone to bed. Including Dad, but he lost his temper too and they had a shouting fight, which was rare enough to send us shocked to bed.
I remember thinking that I wouldn't be able to get to sleep, but I did. For a while, anyway. I had this awful dream about the Lightning Bringer, how he was creeping through the house and up the stairs, blue sparks jumping around the bent-back toes of his boots. Then just as those lightning-tattooed arms were reaching down, fingers spreading around my neck, there was this incredibly loud burst of thunder, and I woke up screaming.
The thunder was real, drowning my scream and bringing a cold wind that rattled the shutters in counterpoint to the bright flashes of lightning behind them. But the rest was just a dream. There was no one there except my brother, Thomas, and he was asleep.
Still, it shook me up pretty bad. I can't think why else I would've gone to the window and looked outside. I mean, if you have a nightmare, normally that's the last thing you do, just in case you see something.
Well, I saw something. I saw the Lightning Bringer on his motorcycle, parked out in our street, looking right up at the window. He had Carol with him; her arms tightly wrapped around his well-built, leather-clad chest. She had a bright red jacket on and jeans, and a red woolen hat instead of a helmet. She looked like the sort of helper Santa Claus might choose if Santa read Penthouse a lot.
The Lightning Bringer smiled at me and waved. Then he mouthed some words, words I understood without hearing, words that seemed to enter my brain directly, punctuated by the distant lightning.
"I can have anything I want, boy. And you can be just like me."
Then he revved up the bike and they were gone, heading up the road to the mountain, the lightning following on behind.
I never saw Carol again, and neither did anyone else. They found her a few days later, burned and blackened, her fabled beauty gone, life snuffed out.
"Struck by lightning," said the coroner. "Accidental death."
No one except me had seen her with the Lightning Bringer. No one except me thought it was anything but a tragic accident. She'd been foolish to go out walking in the thunderstorm, stupid to be out that late at night anyway. Some people even said she was lucky it was the lightning that got her.
I was the only one who knew she didn't have a choice, and it wasn't any ordinary lightning that killed her. But I didn't tell anyone. Who could I tell?
I'd like to say that I never thought of the Lightning Bringer after that day -- and what he'd said -- but I'd be lying. I thought about him every day for the next six years. After I got interested in girls, I think I thought about him every five minutes. I tried not to, but I just couldn't shake the memory of how Carol had looked at him. I wanted a girl like Carol to look at me like that, and do a whole lot more besides.
I used to think about the Lightning Bringer before school dances when I just couldn't get a date. Which, to be honest, was all the school dances up until about two months ago. Then I met Anya. Okay, she didn't look at me like Carol had looked at the Lightning Bringer, and she didn't look like Carol. But she was pretty, with sort of an interesting face and clever eyes, and she used to know what I was thinking without me saying anything. Like when I'd want to undo the back of her bra strap and just slide my hand around, and she'd shift just enough so I couldn't reach -- before I even started to do anything.
Which was frustrating, but I still really liked her. She had an interesting aura, too, a bit like apricot jam. I mean apricot jam colored, and quite thick, not like most of the fuzzy, thin auras I saw. I often wondered if she could see auras too and what mine looked like, but I was too embarrassed to ask her. Which was a bit of a problem, because I was too embarrassed to talk about sex with her either, and I knew that this was probably half the reason why she kept shifting around when I tried to put my hands places that seemed quite normal to go. And why she never let me kiss her for more than a minute at a time.
I mean, I think she would have if I'd talked to her about it. Maybe. Once I ignored her trying to pull away and I just kept kissing, sticking my tongue in even harder and putting my hands down the back of her jeans. Then she started jiggling about, and I thought it meant she was getting excited, till I realized it was sort of panic and she was just trying to get loose of me. I let go and said sorry straight away because I could see in her aura she was really frightened, and I'd gotten sort of scared as well. Anyway, she was mad at me for a week and wouldn't let me even hold her hand for two weeks after that.
It was only a few days after we had gotten back to the holding hands stage that the Lightning Bringer showed up again. Outside the school, on his black motorcycle, just like he'd done six years before. I felt my heart stop when I saw him, as if something from a nightmare had just walked out into the sun. An awful fear suddenly becoming real.
Which it was, because this time he was smiling at Anya. My Anya! And all those electric tendrils were reaching out for her, blue-spark octopus tentacles, wrapping around and caressing her like I wanted to do but didn't know how.
I tried to hold her back, but she ignored me, and I felt these shivers going through her, like when a dog's fur ripples when you scratch in exactly the right place. Then she pulled her hand out of mine and pushed me away, and I saw her looking at the Lightning Bringer just like Carol had six years before, with her mouth slightly open and her tongue just whisking around to leave her lips wet and her chest pushed forward so the buttons went tight ...
I screamed and charged at the man, but he just laughed, and the blue energy came gushing out with his laughter, smacking into me like a fist, and I went down, winded. He laughed again, beating me with power, so all I could do was crawl away and vomit by the bushes next to the gate. Vomit till there was nothing to come up except black bile that choked and burned till it felt like it was taking the skin off the inside of my mouth and nose.
When I finally got up, the Lightning Bringer and Anya were gone. For a second I thought maybe she'd gone home, but I knew she hadn't. She didn't stand a chance. If the Lightning Bringer wanted her, he'd take her. And he'd do whatever he wanted with her, till he got tired and then she'd be just like Carol. An accidental-death-by-lightning statistic.
I think it was then that I realized that I didn't just like Anya, I was in love with her. I'd been petrified of the Lightning Bringer for six years, terrified of what he could do, and of the darker fear that I might somehow be like him.
Now all I cared about was Anya and how to get her back, back safe before the thunderclouds in the distance rolled over the town and up the mountain. Because I knew that's where the Lightning Bringer had gone. I felt it, deep inside. He'd gone to get closer to the clouds, and he'd gone to call a storm. It was answering him, the charge building up in the sky, answering the great swell of current in the earth. Soon they would come together.
I think it was about this time that I completely flipped out. Totally crazy. Anyway, the Darly twins later said they saw me running along the mountain road without my shirt, bleeding from scratches all over and frothing at the mouth. I think they made up the frothing, though the scratches were certainly true.
Basically, I turned into a sort of beast, just following the one sense that could lead me to Anya. I could tell where she'd gone from the traces of her apricot aura and the blue flashes left by the Lightning Bringer. They were intermingled too, and in some deep recess of my mind I knew that they were kissing and those tree-strong hands were roaming over her, her own clasped tightly around him as they'd never been properly clasped around me.
I think it was that thought that started the animal part of me howling ... but I stopped soon enough, because I needed the breath, just as the first thunderheads rolled above me with the snap of cold air and a few fat drops of rain, the lightning coming swift and terrible behind.
I ran even faster, pain stitching up my side, eating into my lungs, and then I was staggering out onto the lookout parking area and there was the black motorcycle silhouetted against the lightning-soaked sky. I looked around desperately, practically sniffing the aura traces on the ground. Then I saw them, the Lightning Bringer pressing his black-clad body against Anya, her back on the granite stone that marked some local hero's past. She was naked, school dress blown to the storm winds, lips fastened hungrily to the man, arms clasped behind his head. I watched, frozen, as those arms sank lower, hands unzipping his leather trousers, fingers laced behind muscular buttocks.
He raised her legs around him, then thrust forward, his hands reaching toward the sky. With my strange sight I saw streamers fly up from his outstretched fingers, streamers desperately trying to connect with the electric feelers that came questing down from the sky. When they did connect, a million volts would come coursing down through the man's upraised arms -- and through Anya.
I ran forward then, leaping onto the Lightning Bringer's back, lifting my hands above his, making the streamers he'd cast my own. He stumbled, and Anya fell away from him, rolling partly down the hill.
Then the lightning struck. In one split, incandescent second it filled me with pure light, charging me with power, too much power to contain, power that demanded a release. It was an ache of pleasure withheld, the moment before orgasm magnified a thousand times. It had to be released before the pleasure burned all my senses away. Suddenly I knew what the Lightning Bringer knew, knew how I could have not only the Power, but the ecstasy of letting part of it run through me to burn its way, uncaring, as I took my pleasure.
"You see!" he crowed, crouching before me, shielding his eyes from the blazing inferno that my aura had become. "You see! Take her, spend the Power! Feed her to the Power!"
I looked down at Anya, seeing her naked for the first time, her pale skin stark against the black tar of the parking area. She was frightened now, partly free from the Lightning Bringer's compulsion.
I started toward her and she screamed, face crumpling. And somewhere in the midst of all the burning, flowing power I remembered her fear -- and something else, too.
"I love her," I said to the Lightning Bringer. Then I kissed him right in the middle of his forehead.
I don't know what happened next because I was knocked unconscious. Anya says that both of us turned into one enormous blue-hot ball of chain lightning that bounced backward and forward all across the parking area, burning off her fringe and melting both the motorcycle and the bronze plaque on the stone. It didn't leave anything at all of the Lightning Bringer.
When I came to, I was a bit disoriented because I had my head in Anya's lap and I was looking up at her -- but since all her hair was gone, I didn't know who she was for a couple of seconds. She had her dress back on again too, or what was left of her dress. It had some really interesting tears, but I was in no state to appreciate them.
"You'd better go," I croaked up at her, my voice sounding horribly like the Lightning Bringer's. "He might be back."
"I don't think so," she said, rocking me backward and forward like I needed to be soothed or something. I liked it, anyway.
"I'm just like him," I whispered, remembering when I wouldn't stop kissing her, remembering the feel of the Power, wanting to use it to make myself irresistible, to slake its lust and my own on her, make her just a receptacle for pleasure ...
"No, you're not," she said, smiling. "You always gave me the choice."
I thought about that for a second, while the dancing black spots in front of my eyes started to fade out and the ringing in my ears quieted down to something like school bells.
"Anya ... can you see auras?" I said.
"Sometimes, with people I know well," she whispered, bending down to kiss me on the eyes, her breast brushing my ear.
"What color's mine?" I asked. It seemed very important to know, all of a sudden. "It's not blue and kind of ... kind of ... electric, is it?
"No!" she answered firmly, bending over to kiss me properly on the lips. "It's orange, shot with gold. It looks a lot like marmalade."