Lily Wright is ten years old and knows that if there is a secret in the woods behind her house, she and her little brother Jack will find it.
She doesn’t know why she’s so convinced that there’s something back here, but she knows that there is. Her friend Kaitlyn has an uncle who swears he saw a giant gator, and she looked out her window one night and saw little lights between the trees which a book she was reading said might be will-o-wisps. Kaitlyn said if she went out here the gator would get her, but she knows what an angry gator sounds like and how to climb a tree well enough to get out of it’s way, so she’s not scared. She’s not scared of much of anything.
Lily marches through the underbrush, the sandy, pine needle covered ground shifting beneath her worn sneakers and the cycads scratching at her legs. Spanish moss drapes from the trees above her, from trees filled with howling cicadas. Jack follows behind her doggedly, stopping every once in a while to crouch and look at some bug or patch of moss, to peer upwards through the branches at the shadows of birds.
Jack stops in a clearing and points at the silhouettes in the sky above them, circling lazily. “Hey, the vultures!” he says, genuine excitement in his voice. “Dylan says they’re bad luck, but I don’t believe him.”
“Of course they’re not bad luck, Jack,” she says, because she’s two years older than him so he’ll believe anything she says. “They’re always above the Publix. They’re just birds.”
“Well, I know that. I think they’re cool.” He runs to catch up with her, and peers through the trees ahead. “Do you think the gator is nearby?”
“We have to get to the lake first, but we’re almost there. So, maybe,” she says, pushing aside a larger palm frond. She can see the lake in the distance, shimmering slightly past the thin trees ahead. Maybe there’ll be bones in the lake, from someone the gator ate, or something hidden in a tree on the shore, or maybe the gator is protecting something resting in the lakebed. She doesn’t hear any of the bellowing that means that there’s a gator nearby that’s angry, though, so she runs forwards to the lake ahead, Jack on her heels.
The lake is perfectly triangular, man-made, with a subdivision on the other side and a wide ditch between the edge of the woods and the water. A great blue heron eyes them from the water’s edge but doesn’t move.
The two of them scramble through the ditch and stand at the edge of the water. Jack squints at the far side of the lake.
“No gator,” he says, dejected.
“It’s probably just on the bottom somewhere,” Lily says. “It’ll come back eventually.”
Without waiting for her little brother’s response, she skids back to the bottom of the ditch and walks along it, her back to the sun as it sinks quickly towards the horizon. There’s a few inches of stagnant water and mud at the bottom which she splashes through, quickly soaking her shoes through. Every once in a while, there’s a stray board that someone placed as a makeshift bridge over the water. Lily kneels on one and tries to see if there’s any frogs in the muck, to no avail.
“Lily, I think I see it!” Jack says from behind her. A flashlight beam sweeps over her, and over the edge of the ditch, and she turns to see him looking out across the lake. She scrambles up the side of the ditch and stands next to him as he turns the flashlight out across the water, now still and black as ink as the sun sinks the last few inches below the horizon. The flashlight beam catches a small cluster of eyes in the shadowy water, glinting red in the twilight - gators for sure, and more than one. She grins out across the lake.
“That seems like kind of a lot of them,” Jack says, uncertain.
“They’re more scared of us than we are of them,” Lily replies, all confidence. That might have been about snakes, but it’s probably true for gators too. She takes a step towards the lake at the same time as Jack takes a step back.
Three pairs of eyes vanish. The last pair flashes as the gator blinks. It bellows, and the sound echoes out across the lake, ancient and terrifying.
Jack has retreated to the relative safety of the far side of the ditch. “Come on!” he hisses, ready to bolt for the woods, but Lily doesn’t move.
A tail splashes through the water, seeming nearly the length of the lake, and the eyes vanish. Waves lap through the layers of reeds, and a heron takes off in a flurry of wings. The water goes still, with the gator nowhere to be seen, vanished in the pitch-black waters.
Lily laughs as she runs through the ditch and joins her brother on the other side. “That was it!” she says as she turns on her flashlight. It’s well after dark now, but the woods seem no more intimidating than in the golden light earlier. They know this place too well. “Kaitlyn is never gonna believe me.”
Jack just laughs in response, fear forgotten, and the two of them run back through the magnolias and cypress and palm, the flashlights throwing long shadows across the ground. The cicadas howl around them, and nightbirds call somewhere in the distance, and the shadows and the darkness is nothing to be afraid of because Lily Wright is ten years old and she is not scared of much of anything.
Lily hears something clattering and turns to see Jack climbing onto the roof, rain-soaked and grinning. He sits next to her on the slick roof tiles, and pretends to not see her roll her eyes.
“Jack, what are you doing?” she sighs. “You know you’re not supposed to be up here.”
“Uh, says the person who was literally up here first. I’m just following you. If either of us is gonna get in trouble, it’s you,” he says. Lily rolls her eyes again, but she knows he’s right. Not that she would ever admit that to him.
“Whatever. You know that they’re not gonna find us anyways. They’re watching TV.”
“Sixty minutes just started, so we’ve got an hour. Unless this storm knocks out the signal,” he says, leaning back on his elbows and looking out into the storm. “Are you looking for ball lightning?”
“No,” Lily says, but it’s not convincing. Thunder crashes and her eyes dart across the horizon looking for the source, but there’s no flashes of light. The rain slams into her as the wind picks up, but it’s warm summer rain and she doesn’t pay much attention to it. She’s already soaked.
In an objective way, she knows that sitting on the roof in a thunderstorm isn’t the safest thing, but she’s sixteen and it feels better than sitting in her room, struggling through her algebra homework. Ever since she figured out that the air conditioning unit right outside her room was the perfect height to clamber to the roof, she was out here most nights. Most of the time, Jack climbed out of the window of his own room, ran around the side of the house to the air conditioner, and followed her up here. She’d bring binoculars and they’d narrate the lives of the stray cats scattered through the neighborhood like it was a nature documentary.
She’s sixteen and knows that she should have outgrown telling stories about cats by now, but on the roof, no one can exactly tell her that.
“Sure,” Jack says. “Then I’ll help you not look for ball lightning.”
“Has anyone ever told you how annoying you are?” she says.
“Yeah. You do. All the time.”
She whacks him in the shoulder, and he punches her in the arm. “Aren’t you supposed to be writing that book report for Ms. Davids?”
“Yeah, but the book was stupid. I’m just gonna do it tomorrow during study period,” he says. Lily knows that he usually just goes to study period instead of lunch, as the other kids have gotten increasingly nasty, but she doesn’t pretend that it doesn’t worry her.
Not that high school was any easier for her. The Wright siblings had come to the mutual understanding that they were outcasts at school, shunned for reasons they didn’t totally understand. They both pretended it was fine. Jack spent all his free time in study period, ducking out of people’s view, while Lily grew thorns, and made sure the whole school knew that she was ‘that Wright bitch’. The two of them never really talked about it, but sometimes they talk circles around it up here on the roof, where they feel a little more untouchable.
Thunder cracks again, and lightning arcs across the sky, tracing every cloud above them and lighting the world around them in pure white. Jack laughs, craning his neck to watch the last tendrils of it vanish across the horizon. Even Lily can’t hide her expression of wonder.
“That was a good one!” Jack says, still laughing, pushing the hair plastered on his face out of his eyes. The last rumbles of thunder fade in the distance, rolling across the sky, and the smell of ozone is heavy in the air. “Not what you were looking for, but still.”
“Yeah.” Lily agrees. She leans back on the roof too, and looks straight up at the dark clouds overhead. The rain, still coming down mostly sideways, hits her cheek.
“What are you even looking for ball lightening for anyways?” Jack asks, never one to let silence last long. “Like, what makes it so important?”
Lily takes a deep breath. This is something she doesn’t know how to vocalize. Maybe it’s still wanting to be able to be a kid, running through the swamps and looking for the skunk ape and giant alligators. Maybe it’s being able to prove something unreal. Maybe it’s some desire she can’t name for the world to not be as simple as it seems because then if she’s not as simple as she seems, it’ll be ok. Maybe it’s because ball lightning is often linked to the St. Elmo’s Fire phenomenon, which promises safety for sailors. Or doom. One of the two.
“They’re an extremely rare phenomenon,” she says, matter-of-factly. “If I can get evidence of it, it could advance science.”
Jack just nods. “I think if I saw it, I would just use it as bragging rights,” he says with a grin. “Like, look at me, scientists! I saw this and you didn’t!”
“You’re so obnoxious, and you’re full of crap,” Lily says.
“Whatever,” Jack says, rolling his eyes.
They sit beneath the rolling storm, watching the lightning, which mostly lances between the clouds overhead, only reaching all the way to the ground once. Lily counts the seconds from that one, and it’s still almost ten miles away.
They watch the rest of the storm roll out, their parents still safely distracted by the TV below as the rain turns to drizzle turns to mist, and the only thunder they can hear is twenty, thirty miles away. The thick clouds thin out to reveal the stars beneath, the half-moon behind a haze. The cicadas and the crickets start up at the same time, as soon as the thunder is a memory, filling the humid night air with song.
It’s late, but neither of them has a watch or particularly seems to care.
Lily hears Jack take a deep breath next to her. He starts to talk, then hesitates. She keeps her eyes fixed on the orange glow on the horizon from Orlando in the far distance, miles and miles from here. Impossibly far.
“I just...you’ll always be on my side, right? No matter what?” Jack says, voice small. The vulnerability she hears scares her - the two of them are close, but they’ve never been the type to be outwardly emotional in any way.
Lily looks straight upwards, at the stars above. Somewhere, thunder rumbles, impossibly far.
“Of course,” she says, trying to make her voice less harsh than usual. “No matter what.”
“Even when you get evidence of ball lightning and I steal it from you so I can go on Ellen?”
Lily laughs. Jack has an uncanny ability to twist things from serious to joking in a split second, and it always works without fail. “Maybe not then. That’s pushing it,” she says. “But every other time, yeah.”
Jack laughs, too. “You’re ruining my life’s dream of being on Ellen.”
“Ellen doesn’t let people on her show for ball lightning. Find another reason, idiot.”
The light streaming across the backyard cuts out suddenly, leaving the world a little darker, the tell-tale sign that their parents have gone to bed. Jack grins at her. If they haven’t found out that their children aren’t currently in the house yet, now there’s no chance of it.
“Do you wanna go down to the lake?” Jack asks. She can only just see him, in the moonlight, half his face cast in shadow.
“Sure,” she says, already climbing to the other side of the roof. She jumps down into the wet grass, Jack right behind her, and they cross the yard and duck into the woods, right back in those familiar cycads. The ground is spongey beneath her feet, saturated with rain.
She’ll do her algebra homework tomorrow. For now, the world is theirs. They may as well explore it.
It’s 7 am, and Lily Wright is hunched over the small desk at the motel, trying to put together a story that’s barely there about North Carolina pig farmers. The coffee at her elbow has long gone cold, but she cups one hand around it regardless as she squints at the screen of her laptop. She knows that the interviews they have set up today will give her more to work with, but she pieces things together regardless, snippets of information and previous research and distant hunches.
On the bedside table somewhere behind her, her phone vibrates. She pushes back her chair and grabs it, hoping it didn’t wake up Pippa and the intern, and steps out of the room, shutting the door softly behind her.
It’s Jack’s contact information on the screen - the photo of the two of them from years ago, long before he left for California filling her phone, and something in her instinctively freezes. Her and Jack are back on speaking terms again, after too many years of silence, but it’s still a fragile sort of relationship. He hasn’t ever called her out of the blue before, and if she remembers the conversion right it’s still 4 am in California.
Concern for her little brother twists in her stomach as she picks up the phone and puts it to her ear. She does her best to ignore it.
“Jack?” she says, as silence echoes from the other end of the line. “Jack, you there?”
“Lily, I-” says the voice through the phone, and it’s not Jack, it’s Sammy fucking Stevens, who she hasn’t heard from in years and would have been happy to never hear from as long as she lived. She bristles.
“Sammy,” she says, tone lined with ice even as alarm bells go off in her head. Why does Sammy have Jack’s phone, why is Sammy calling her, is something wrong with Jack, why is he calling at four in the morning - “what do you want.”
It’s not a question. It’s a threat.
She hears a deep breath echo through the line, and hears how it shakes, and her stomach drops straight through the floor. “It’s Jack,” says Sammy, his voice strained and terrible and uncertain, and Lily wants to hang up the phone, she wants to hang up the fucking phone - “he’s - he’s not here. He’s gone. Have you - you haven’t heard from him, have you?”
“Well, that would be pretty hard seeing as you seem to be using his phone right now,” Lily says, all venom. The world feels like it’s tilting under her feet. She feels unsteady, and her heart follows her stomach straight through the ground.
“I knew you wouldn’t talk to me if you saw who it was - please, Lily, he’s just gone -”
There is a part of Lily that is nearly ten years old now that remembers the Sammy Stevens she used to know, the one that she sat next to when he was throwing up in the bathroom at a party, that would sit on the counter of her and Jack’s apartment and laugh, face lit up like the sun, that would play shitty music when they drove down to the beach, that pulled his shoulders up to his damn ears when he was upset and would refuse to talk to her, and wants very badly to comfort him, to tell him everything will be ok. To sit next to him, like when she had a particularly bad breakup and he had sat with her and somehow said all the right things even though he was tall and stupid and awkward, and for them to be alright.
That part of her is very, very quiet. And unfortunately, the rest of her is in freefall.
“Where is he, Stevens?” she says, every word a dagger. “Where - the fuck - is Jack?”
“His car is still in the driveway, his keys are in the ignition - he wouldn’t have just walked anywhere - I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Sammy is sounding more and more hysterical. Lily stands in the dewy morning grass, thousands and thousands of miles away, and feels distinctly as if something important has broken in the world, in her.
“You did this,” she says, dangerously quiet. She wants him to understand just how fucking much she hates him right now, how fucking much she hates him because he’s in L.A. and Jack was in L.A. and now Jack is gone and she’s on the other side of the fucking world. “I don’t - I don’t ever want to talk to you ever again, Stevens, do you hear me? Never fucking again.”
“Lily, I’m so sorry,” Sammy says. There’s the edge of a sob in his voice. “I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to do-”
Her hands are shaking when she hangs up the phone. She wants to fly to California and strangle Sammy, she wants to fly to California and sweep every street, every single street until she finds Jack, she wants to track him down and strangle him too.
Lily sits down heavily on the curb in front of her door and looks blankly out onto the lawn. The dew has soaked through the top of her shoes and she shivers, clutching her arms around her stomach. There’s too much to think about. Too much to process. She can’t - she can’t imagine a world without Jack in it, her stupid little brother who followed her almost everywhere and hid behind her in middle school, who she didn’t talk to for five fucking years -
“Hey, Lil, I’ll talk to you next week, ok?” he had said, last time they had talked, sounding nervous and scattered. “I love you.”
“Yeah, yeah. Talk to you next week.” she had said, and hung up the phone.
Her whole body shakes. She puts her head on her knees, and chokes back a sob.
In her head, she sees the woods behind the house she grew up in. She sees her and Jack racing to climb trees, running through ditches, flashlights through tree branches and summer storms, a wild kind of freedom when the lovebugs swarm and the cranes fly overhead. Lily swears she smells all the familiarity of Florida summers - gasoline and stagnant water, heavy in the air. The threat of ozone. She feels like she can’t breathe.
In her head, she is climbing out of the window of her room to run through the humid night air. Jack is right behind her because of course he is, because he always is.
When she opens her eyes, she is in a world that Jack Wright is no longer in - she knows that, she feels it like a fact, an absolute - and she doesn’t know what to do.
Maybe if she just leaves that window open, he’ll crawl back in, still sixteen and lanky with leaves in his hair and some new joke about the skunk ape, ready for some new adventure out on the lake, with the gators and the herons.
Maybe. Just maybe.