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Ponder and Lightning
By Mizhowlinmad (HBF), 2010
Summary: Response to the ATSB prompt “A dark and stormy night.” Murdock remembers the first time he ever met with a mental health professional.
Disclaimer: Murdock and the rest of the A-Team belong to SJC and Universal. I am just borrowing them for one dark and stormy night.
“Electricity is really just organized lightning.” ~George Carlin
There weren’t many dark and stormy nights to be had in southern California, even in the limited imaginations of the hordes of aspiring screenwriters who took day jobs as waiters and valets and gofers.
But this, for certain, was a storm. A real frog-strangler…he’d never quite sure what that meant, exactly, but it was fun to say. Sheets of rain lashed the stucco walls of the Socorro Motel in an irregular racket. Overhead, the constant, ominous beat of raindrops had become less snare drum and more timpani in the past few minutes. Every ten seconds or so, the bass growl of thunder. It was like a symphony. Like that scene in that Disney movie I always liked, with the cute little unicorns and the pretty girl centaurs, and the big guy in the sky that got really, really mad and started chuckin’ thunderbolts.
Murdock liked, no…loved, big thunderstorms. Frog-stranglers. They were common back in East Texas. Here, they were a special treat, like those gigantic bowls of ice cream at Farrell’s, or getting to play all the arcade games you wanted at Chuck E. Cheese, or…
The only light in the room, the cheap fake Tiffany lamp on the nightstand, flickered feebly, then died. The electrical grid in Bear Track, population 431, must have been another casualty of the storm.
Atop the other twin bed, Face muttered something that sounded like “Humma,” turned over, but did not wake.
“You’re missin’ all the fun,” Murdock said.
And he meant it. These were the kinds of events that made you feel energized, in awe, alive. He could even feel the little hairs on his forearms standing straight up, like they were at attention.
A half-smile appeared on his lips. It was a lot like shock therapy. Same kinda feeling. Weird, a little tingly, but satisfying.
The brand-new Spider-Man books in his duffel could wait. The storm was a limited engagement, and it would not.
He rose from his seat on the sagging mattress and stood before the window. Beyond, only darkness. The van was a hulking shape outside, barely visible through the gloom.
If Decker catches up, we’re in a world of hurt. Almost outta gas…but who in his right mind would be out in this?
The little smile remained. He, after all, was not his right mind.
A triple fork of blue-white lightning flashed somewhere close, illuminating briefly the pine forest and the Sierras beyond. For that instant, it was as bright as an early dawn. Then, another crash of thunder, this one rattling the window the way a four-pointer might have.
Murdock pressed his cheek to the glass, clammy with condensation. The rain’s lively scherzo continued. It was at least two more hours until dawn; still his watch. He didn’t need to glance at his watch to know.
A free light show, with an appreciative audience of one. Even better than Tuesday nights, when they ran back-to-back hours of Looney Tunes on the UHF station.
FlashBOOM! This time, the strike couldn’t have been more than a hundred yards off. If it hit the antenna of the van, they’d really be FUBAR. From what he could see, it hadn’t. Good.
It was one of those things that had never been sufficiently explained. Why did lightning never strike the same place twice? Like quarks, or UFOs, or whether or not Santa really existed. Hard to pin down. Impossible to comprehend.
“I need you to concentrate.” The burly, forty-something man behind the mahogany desk spoke, his voice measured and calm. “Look again.”
He held a small laminated card with four pictures: a wolf, a honeybee, an eagle, and a small cloud with a bolt of lightning.
The man, whose brass nameplate read L. Browder, PhD, blinked owlishly. “Why the honeybee?”
“Because,” said the squirming boy in the chair opposite him, “the bees are so boring, always going in groups, you know? That there’s a lone wolf, and a lone eagle, and the lightning is, well…” He trailed off, brown eyes searching the room for inspiration. “Special. Unique.”
Dr. Browder removed his glasses. “All right. Unique.” He jotted a few lines on his yellow tablet, then looked up. “Would you like to try the inkblot again?”
“Do I have to?” pouted the boy.
“Yes.” Browder smiled. “It’s all part of the test. We’re almost done.” He traded the little card for a larger one, this one featuring a vaguely insectoid purple blotch.
“It’s a freight train,” said the boy without hesitation.
The doctor made no visible reaction. “A freight train?”
The boy’s eyes darted toward the door. He’d been here for almost an hour. He had to go to the bathroom pretty soon. “Um, maybe more like a circus train? With giraffes sticking their necks out?” He pointed one little finger at the edge of the blob. “Right…there.”
More scribbling on the pad. “I see.” He finished his writing, and gave his young patient a warm smile. “I did promise you one of these, didn’t I?” he asked, producing a green lollipop in one hand.
“Now, if you will give me just a few minutes with your grandparents? You can ask Miss Gatewood for a magazine to read, if you’d like.”
“Mmm-hmm.” The boy hopped up and bolted towards the door. “Um, where’s the bathroom?”
“First on your left, right outside.”
He hurried out, right past his astonished grandparents.
The bathroom was nothing like the one at home. The toilet and sink were shiny and brand-new, and flushed without having to jiggle the handle at all. He sighed with relief, washed his hands, and closed the door behind him.
Dr. Browder’s door was closed. Granny and Granpa were in there with him. Talking about him, no doubt. The only other people in the lobby were a lady in an expensive-looking coat with a tiny girl who was rocking slowly back and forth.
“Young man, would you like something to read while you wait?” The receptionist, Miss Gatewood, flashed a pearly smile.
“Mmm…do you have National Geographic? Or Plane and Pilot?”
The smile froze in place. “I don’t think we have those, sweetie. Maybe a Highlights? We just got this month’s.”
“No, thanks anyway,” he said, studying the scuffed dress shoes Granny had made him wear. You’re going to Houston, H.M., she’d said. You need to look presentable. They hurt his feet; he’d outgrown them sometime last spring.
“Maybe a little bit of water? Are you thirsty?”
“No,” he answered, with more irritation this time. Grown-ups always talked to him like he was a baby. Patronized; he’d just learned that word in a book.
After all, he was nine. Old enough to ride a bike to school, and old enough to help Ray Reynolds fix his plane on the weekends, and old enough to know what patronize meant.
Miss Gatewood was on the telephone, gabbing away about her neighbor’s daughter, by the sound of it. H.M. inched closer to the door. This might be interesting.
He put his right ear to the door. There wasn’t much to hear. Dr. Browder’s voice was soft, but he could make out bits and pieces.
“Brilliant…might be troubled…considered counseling…special curriculum…”
The words made sense, but just hearing them by themselves was like pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle without the picture to go by.
He grinned. Mrs. Conway, his teacher, had called him “brilliant” once too, in front of the whole class. But then Chuckie Yancey, the kid who sat behind him, had called him a “rat-face suckup,” and he’d punched Chuckie right in the face and yanked out a bunch of his hair, which was just one reason he was in stupid Houston in the first place instead of with Ray out on the airfield…
Dr. Browder was still talking. “Lightning…needs channeling and guidance…sure you’ll understand.”
Lightning. What did that mean? Was he like lightning?
That was kinda neat…like in that Greek mythology Mrs. Conway had gotten for him, where Zeus had thrown lightning bolts on all those poor little mortals who’d made him mad, like Chuckie Yancey.
Boom. RIP, Chuckie.
H.M. didn’t realize a fiendish grin had come across his features. His grandparents came out of the office, their expressions solemn, like after church on Sundays.
“H.M.?” Granny asked. “You alright? Look like he’s thinkin’ of fried chicken and biscuits, don’t he, Al?”
His grandfather nodded. “I suppose he does, Emmy. Been a long day, hasn’t it?”
Dr. Browder shook both their hands. “Mr. and Mrs. Murdock, it’s been a pleasure. I’ve given you my card. Please call me if you should have any questions.” He tilted his head slightly as if to convey some other meaning.
“You got any more lollipops?”
Browder pulled another one from his breast pocket, this one orange. “H.M., you’re a special young man indeed. You be good now, all right?”
“No more tests?” H.M. looked ecstatic now.
The Murdocks took leave of the office, leaving the psychologist to tend to the little rocking girl and her mother.
The pickup’s wipers splop-splopped through the heavy rain. “Damn tropical storm,” muttered Grampa as a Ford sedan pulled in too close ahead of him.
Granny, from the passenger seat, pursed her lips. “Not in front of H.M., Al.”
“Ain’t nothing he hasn’t heard from Ray, Emmy.” Grampa stared straight ahead, hands tight on the wheel.
“Don’t mean you have to say it.”
H.M., between them, squirmed again, though his bladder was empty now. “Um, Grampa?” he said in a small voice.
“Why’d we have to come all the way here, just for me to look at those crazy pictures and answer all those questions?”
For a moment, the rain was the only sound. Grampa cleared his throat, but Granny spoke first.
“H.M., you know when you were seven, and you done broke your wrist real bad?”
He remembered. Roller skating.
“We had to fix you up, right? ‘Cause that wrist weren’t right.”
“Am I…” He swallowed. “Broken?” The word didn’t come easily.
Grampa threw on the brakes, barely avoiding the Ford’s back bumper. “No. You’re not. We just gotta make sure, well…” His fingers fidgeted.
“What your grampa is tryin’ to say is, we all need little tweaks and tune-ups now and then. You heard what that doc said ‘bout you?”
He thought hard. He’d said a lot of things. “That I was special?”
“You are, kiddo.” Granny ruffled his hair, which was sticking everywhere despite the gel she’d put in it that morning. “Special. Like a lightnin’ bug in a world fulla cockroaches and crickets.”
Lightning bug. Lightning.
“So what else did that doc say about me?” H.M. looked from Grampa to Granny, searching for clues.
His grandparents didn’t answer right away.
“Well, we got a ways back to Beaumont. I ‘spose there’s time…”
Half past five.
Murdock’s cheek was partially stuck to the glass. He pulled away, not knowing how long it had been there.
The rain had given way to a thick, translucent mist. Somewhere to the east, a faint pinkish tinge announced the sunrise.
Just outside, the van waited, like a patient horse left tied to a hitching rail.
It was morning. The storm was over. Now it was time for all the little unicorns and the pretty little centaurs to dance around. Or something like that.
Face was still asleep. Probably dreaming about a place without rain and with lots of scantily clad girls.
“Hey, Face, you awake?”
Nothing, not even a “Humma.”
The lamp was back on. Which meant that Decker probably was on the way.
There was a short knock, then two long knocks. Hannibal.
“Morning, Captain. Better get him up,” said the Colonel, gesturing to the still-sleeping Face. “We gotta get going.”
“I’m so hungry I could eat an armadillo,” Murdock said. It had been since last night’s hamburgers that he’d had anything. His long watch, and the spectacular light show, had preoccupied him. His tongue felt like a sandy slug in his mouth.
Hannibal paused. “What happened to your cheek?”
Murdock caught a glimpse of his pale reflection in the window, one side visibly redder than the other.
“Colonel, I’m afraid I had another flashback.” He twitched.
Hannibal placed one hand firmly on his shoulder. “As long as it wasn’t one of those flashbacks,” he said knowingly.
“Nope. It was kinda like…” Murdock trailed off, dreamy.
Outside, the world was clean, reborn. Peaceful.
“Like a bolt of lightning.”
“Well, lemme explain, Colonel…”
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