I was in the barn patting down Old George when the thunder sounded; it was an unexpected storm on the summer solstice. Through the planks of the wooden gate, I saw dark clouds gathering, and moments later a jagged strand of light appeared on the horizon. Again came the drum of thunder.
I shouldn’t have gone for it, but my wife was in the mood and waiting for me at home. We already had one child, Harry, but Jeannie had her sights set on another.
“Good night, boy,” I said to Old George, pushing open the gate and going outside where warm rivulets of rain streamed down, glinting like metal when the sky flared. I swung the gate closed and trudged through the muck in the corral, headed for the smudge of house some hundred feet before me. Jeannie’s face, a blur, was at the window.
I was more than halfway home when the lightning hit. It sliced through me and I went numb.
My spirit flew to the sky, while my body lay in the mud.
Then the Queen Spirit of the Night spoke.
“You’re supposed to die now, Jules,” she whispered.
“You got any alternatives?” I said.
There was an awkward silence.
Usually, I was not so bold as to request something outside of the expected, but one moment I anticipated making love; the next my spirit soared toward what I figured must be heaven. I preferred to stay earthbound.
“Please, Queenie,” I begged, hoping the use of a nickname would seem familiar, not disrespectful.
She remained silent a while longer. Damn, I thought, she’s sending me to heaven.
Then she said, “The body may stay alive until the time of its old age death. But I get your spirit now. You may visit the body once a year on the summer solstice.”
It seemed like a shitty deal, but beggars can’t be choosers.
My spirit was dispatched to Antarctica, where I have been for a few years now. Queenie made me guard of Mount Kirkpatrick, so this is where I hover, but let’s be honest: there’s not a whole heck of a lot going on here. It’s very quiet hanging around the cliffs and the expanses of ice walls, watching the white-spotted mountains in the distance. Sometimes at twilight I leave my post and fly over the ocean, looking at the sky turn purple, skimming past ice shelves and glaciers.
“Hey, Queenie, when can I get a promotion?” I asked her once. “How about something in southern Africa?” I had always wanted to see Madagascar, after all.
“You’re lucky I let you go to the body once a year,” she said.
Ah, once a year. Just before the summer solstice (the northern one, that is—she kept me on that schedule though I’m stationed in the southern hemisphere), Queenie turns my spirit into a shadow and sends it hurtling across the sky, over the Atlantic Ocean and South America and Mexico toward good old California, where it descends.
When it reaches Auburn in the dim morning light, my shadow spirit glides beyond Jack Hodges’ horse ranch and Eileen O’Donahue’s apple orchard, to the crushed gravel driveway leading to the front of our house. It slithers through the cracks of the closed front door, floats through the den and the kitchen to the bedroom, and enters my body through its eyes. The sensation is akin to falling through ice into the chilly water and being pulled out: first shock and fear, but relief once I feel the ache in my muscles and bones.
Then I have one day to spend with my family.
The last time I was home, Harry and I milked Sally and patted down Old George. We picked plums from the purple-leaved trees in the small orchard by the side of the barn and brought them to Jeannie for canning.
The three of us had ham sandwiches and lemonade for lunch, sat on the screened-in porch watching the ducks on the pond, and played skat while the early summer sun beat down around us. Harry could speak in full sentences and count to one hundred. Jeannie had a glow about her and a bump in her belly; evidently, my body had still been up for some friskiness, even with its spirit so far away.
After dinner I told Harry a bedtime story about a boy who met a magical squirrel and wished for a football field. He laughed.
Once he was tucked in, I helped Jeannie with the dinner dishes, and while we cleaned, “In the Still of the Night” came on the transistor radio. I plucked the drying towel from her hands, placed it on the counter, and pulled her arms around me. We danced.
“I love when you’re like this,” she said. Her face tightened. “I know it’s not your fault, but ever since the accident, it’s like you’re not even here most of the time.”
As much as I wanted to say something, I could not. Queenie had instructed that doing so would jeopardize returning.
We fell asleep on the couch in the den, and just before midnight I felt the stirring. My shadow spirit shot out of my body’s eyes, and off it went, streaming through the front door to the driveway, where I forced it to pause. I looked back.
“Come on, Jules, no loitering,” I heard Queenie say.
But I held her off long enough to see Jeannie shove open the front door, as if a noise outside had startled her. She walked to the edge of the patio and stood in the warm night air. The moonlight caused her silhouette, baby bump and all, to fall upon the lawn as she gazed out at the spot where I had been struck by lightning.
BIO: Lucien Brodeur is a high school English teacher who lives with his wife and two boys in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. His stories have appeared in The Blue Hour Magazine, Mirror Dance, and Eunoia Review. He knocked heads with another boy in a soccer game in eighth grade and has been concussed for the subsequent 27 years.