HEAT LIGHTNING by Hallie Johnston

While both our parents are at work at the grocery store across town, Leigh and me sit on the roof of our trailer. She’s thirteen and I’m eleven. Even though it’s after dinner and there’s only a thumbnail’s worth left of the sun, the roof is still warm from the August day in Alabama. It heats us through like an oven. From up here, Redfield looks different. Smaller. Like a little air has been let out of everything. Highway 10 makes a clean part through the kudzu growing like wild, untamed hair along the side of the road. It weaves in and out through the chain-link fence, wrapping around our trailer park as if it’s holding us in.

Across the way, the military base is still busy as an ant hill even as the sun sets. Leigh and me watch the cars drive in and out until it turns dark and the heat lightning starts. In Redfield, watching heat lightning is like watching a fireworks show. That’s what we’re doing on the roof in the first place. We’re watching for heat lightning.

“Jessie, it’s coming,” Leigh says. “I feel it.” She’s sprawled out on the roof, her body open to the sky. It’s been two months since I first followed her out her bedroom window, up the tree, and onto the roof, feeling as if I deserved to, having started my period then, making me closer to what she was. But I still keep my knees pulled close to my chest, still afraid something bad might happen.

“I can’t get my eyes open,” I say, struggling to pry apart the eyeliner and mascara gluing my lashes together like a sealed envelope. Before we’d gone up, Leigh made me over into a Redfield High Ruby. In my town, us girls dream of growing up to sparkle under the football stadium lights in a silver-sequined one piece, cut off at the thigh and clasped at the back of the neck. To have smoky eyes, traced in lines as dark as shadows, and bow tie lips, red as candied apples. Our next-door neighbor, Jeanine, made it last year. The first Friday night we saw her lined up with all the others, it took a while before we could pick her out. Like one of those pictures drawn out in colorful dots that trick you at first, making you go cross-eyed, but finally show themselves after you’ve stepped back and looked at it for a while.

“There!” Leigh yells.

“Missed it,” I say. “Why’d you put so much on me this time?”

“Takes more to cover up that baby face of yours,” Leigh says. She was always saying things like this, talking about my baby face.

“It’s getting thinner,” I would tell her, and she would say, “There’s a lot more to growing up than that,” and I knew what she meant and I didn’t, both at the same time.

“Here,” she says, unclipping a link from her bracelet made of safety pins. I manage a small slit of sight just in time to see her coming at me with the point of the pin. I jerk away. “Hold still.” She works my lashes apart.

“There,” she says. “Now, next flash, pose.” I frame my face in a V below my chin, and Leigh puckers out her lips into a kiss.

Ever since her thirteenth birthday earlier that summer, when Leigh and me were on the roof after her party and caught Jeanine making out behind the trailer park’s pool with her boyfriend, she makes the kiss face whenever we pretend the lightning is a camera.

If it hadn’t been for Bear coming to scoop out the dead rat floating on the surface, I think Jeanine and her boyfriend would’ve kept going for a while. Jeanine says Bear’s always catching people doing stuff at school, coming out from the shadows of corners and from behind doors and things. Like a bear out of his cave. That’s half of how he got his name. The other half being he can predict down to a field goal the final score of any Alabama football game. Jeanine says he didn’t get enough oxygen as a baby, so his brain can only hold enough words to talk about Alabama football. She laughs when she says it, but it doesn’t seem all that different from anyone else in this town.

Because Bear’s daddy is in the army, he lives over at the base, but I see him when he drives to our trailer park in that car of his, with the one headlight and squeaky door, to fish out the roaches and crushed-up cans from the pool. “I do the job all for my baby,” he says, talking about that car, “so one day I can take her and get the hell out of Dodge. If you stay in this town,” he says, “you’ll be wearing a uniform to work one way or another. And I don’t wear uniforms.” Bear’s been a sophomore at Redfield High for almost two years, but because of his strict army daddy, everybody knows he’s not going anywhere until he’s got his diploma. And when he does, he’ll be leaving with the army.
That night after her birthday, Leigh and me heard Bear as he started “oohing” at Jeanine and her boyfriend before they finally pulled apart. “You’re gonna get stuck like that,” he was telling them, laughing so loud it sounded like an echo. He was always saying things like this. That’s why people hate him, Jeanine says.

“There it goes,” Leigh says, breaking her pose and letting her lips fall loose as another flash of heat lightning passes. “I think that must be what it’s like.”

“What?” I ask.


“Like lightning?”

“Like heat lightning,” she says. “But in your stomach.”

In the time right after the sun goes down and before the moon comes up, everything is gray. The bleachers Leigh and me sit on blend into the light as we watch the Rubies kick and high step at band practice. We usually stay all practice, taking turns being different girls. But now that the football team practices at night—too many boys were passing out in the sun—Leigh’s always looking across the field.

It’s been four days since the heat lightning, and Leigh says if she doesn’t get kissed soon, she’ll dry up like an old prune. “Prune’s aren’t old,” I say. “Old people eat them. They’re just plums, dried up real small.”

“You don’t get it,” she says and moves up a bleacher. “What about him?” Leigh points to a saxophone player.

“Too old,” I say.

“Him?” She points to a drummer.

“I don’t know.”

“What about Bear?” Leigh asks as he laps the football field, wiping his sweat on his shirt sleeve as he rounds the corner. Because of his grades, Bear can’t play football, but he still comes out to practice, circling the field around and around like a vulture forced to run instead of fly.

“Gross,” I say. “Don’t you remember all Jeanine’s stories?” Last year, before he failed again, Bear was in Jeanine’s art class. One day she said he squirted hot glue on the tip of his finger then stabbed his skin with the point of a safety pin, saying, “No pain, no gain.” “He was trying to play real tough,” Jeanine said. “But then he started bleeding all over the place. There was so much we thought it had to be paint.” Seems like Bear was always taking jokes and things too far.

He rounds the corner again, this time shedding his shirt. “Maybe he’s not so bad,” Leigh says, stretching out her legs in the space between us. Her shorts are bunched up high around her thighs, and I’m surprised to find her legs shaved above the knee where mine aren’t. And I get it, all at once, why a girl would do that.

It was right after Jeanine made Rubies that she got her boyfriend. On the days they go parking after practice, Jeanine gives us the signal from the field, arching one eyebrow so we don’t follow her to the car, but start walking home instead. It’s just a few roads over, and Leigh and me usually dance all the way. These days, I’m the only one dancing because Leigh’s still thinking about kissing.

I do a turn and the red dirt flies up from my feet. It hangs in the air a while. Coming up to the trailer park, all the houses seem to stand tall, making the wood carved beaver on the Beaver Creek Trailer Park sign seem more like a squirrel or a large rat.

“What about getting kissed in the rain?” Leigh asks.

“What about it?” I ask, leaping into the air so that I don’t really hear her answer. Before I ask what she said, a loud noise comes from behind. It’s Bear and that car of his that’s always winking.

“Hey, ladies. Need a ride?”

“What? A few feet?” Leigh asks, real sassy, like she’s being mean or flirting, and I know which.

“You snooze, you lose,” he says. “Later, gators.” He grinds past us real fast, his engine clanking like a screw has come loose somewhere, but can’t find its way out.

That night, there’s no heat lightning. Our parents are working late, so Leigh and me sit in the bathroom and make each other into Rubies.

“Like this,” she says, opening her eyes wide. Leigh places her tongue at the corner of her mouth and re-traces my eyes.

“Do I look like one yet?” I ask after Leigh shoves the eyeliner cap back on until it clicks.

“Not yet.” She tugs at her bracelet of safety pins. “Your lashes are too short. They’re sticking together again.” She unclips the pin. “Hold still.”

“No,” I say. “No more.”

She looks back at me with her Panda-ringed eyes, and I wonder what boys see when they look at us with makeup and if wearing it long enough could turn us into different people after a while.

“So what about kissing in the rain?” she asks, widening my eye with her finger, trapping me.

“What about it?” Because I can barely move my lips with Leigh’s safety pin that close to my eyes, the words are more like sounds without endings.

“I think it’s romantic,” she says and sits back, and I blink hard, knowing I’m leaving mascara prints on my cheeks.
“I think it would be wet and cold,” I say, and Leigh just shakes her head no. Then she closes her eyes, and I know she’s thinking about kissing because I can feel the heat from her skin. Almost like a fever.

The next day, Jeanine is arching her eyebrow almost half-way up her forehead before practice is even over. Dark clouds sit low in the sky, so Leigh and me decide to take off early. We cut across the parking lot just as a flash of lightning strikes in between two clouds. It’s more than heat lightning. A clap of thunder follows, and when Bear’s car pulls up next to us, we’re ready to get in before he even offers.

His car makes a whirring sound as it cuts through the humid Alabama night, speeding down Highway 10 on the way back to the trailer park. Even with all the windows down, the whole car smells like the vanilla air freshener ticking back and forth on the rear-view mirror.

At the red light, his car rocks back into a stop. Pennies and chewed up pen caps tumble along the floor. When the light turns green, he looks over at Leigh in the passenger seat. “You ever played freeze out?” he asks.

“What?” she asks, but he doesn’t answer. He just turns back around. In the next moment, the car lurches through the intersection. We’re going in a straight line, but it feels like we’re climbing—higher and higher. The wind rushes through the car, tangling my hair in knots.

Because we’re going so fast, I don’t notice at first when it starts to rain, and I’m so cold I could die.
By the time Bear slows down, it’s raining so hard he almost misses the turn into the trailer park, and the car bounces off the curb on the way in. When the car door opens without a sound, it’s as though the rain has turned the whole world mute, so I don’t hear the splash of Bear’s cannonball into the pool, followed by Leigh’s smaller one. I’m in such a hurry to get out of the rain I almost run right past them until Bear’s laugh breaks the sound barrier and I follow its echo into the pool.

“Get in,” he yells. “Before you get wet.” He laughs again. The echo follows. A shiver runs down me, and when the latch doesn’t open right away, I almost turn back.

But then Leigh says, “Get in. It’s warm,” so I work at the gate a little more until it finally swings open.

The water is colder than I expected, so I don’t move right away, but just float on the surface with the dead roaches. I can see a fuzzy picture of Bear and Leigh’s legs standing at the opposite end of the pool. When I come up for air, the rain is so hard it parts my hair.

“Leigh,” I yell and swim toward them, close enough to see Bear’s tree trunk legs moving in slow motion toward Leigh. Before long, he’s wrapped them around her, and I watch his hand move underneath her waistband. It stays there, moving real fast like it’s trapped, and I’m almost drowning because I think it’s a dream, and when I finally come up for air, they’re kissing real tight. Leigh’s got her eyes wide open. For a moment, I wonder if I should leave, but the rain starts coming down even harder until I can barely make out the two of them.

“Leigh,” I yell again. I hear splashing, like maybe a struggle, and before I know it, I’m being yanked out of the pool, Leigh’s arm is hooked in mine, and together we’re moving far away, toward our trailer where she releases me and without saying anything, starts into a jog until she’s out of sight.

The storm passes, and when Leigh’s back, she goes straight into the bathroom and comes out with her face so naked she’s disappearing.

“Let’s go to the roof,” she says, and once we’re there I say, “Where’s your bracelet?” And she says, “Lost it in the pool.”

Then we don’t talk. She wraps her arms around her legs, and I stare at the chain-link fence, silver in the lightning, that holds together what feels like is coming apart.

Hallie Johnston is a fiction writer from the South. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Miami. Her work has appeared in the Southern Humanities Review.