Mr. Hartman told Jacqueline never to write about the weather, but the day of the electric storm seemed like a good exception. A million small jolts, fine as spider silk and hot as toaster wire, whipped around and made her skin tingle and she got gooseflesh just to think about it. Except it hasn’t happened yet. Jacqueline looks up from her composition book out the schoolhouse window: the small rectangle of sky she sees is stripped of cloud, utterly, innocently blue.
“What’s this,” Mr. Hartman asks, startling Jacqueline. He had padded up the row of desks silently in his soft English shoes. Everything about Mr. Hartman is stealthy: his quiet sweater vest, his tamped-down voice that felt like the condensation on a can of Coke. The other students look up from their writing. He means well, but he makes Jacqueline nervous. He’s always taken a special interest in her. She goes rigid and hopes he does not touch her.
He lifts the notebook from Jacqueline’s desk and reads aloud: “‘When it comes nobody knows it and a million small jolts fine as spider silk and hot as toaster wire whip my skin make it so I can’t think straight…’
Somebody’s desk creaks. Nobody speaks.
Mr. Hartman hands her back her composition book and strolls back toward his desk, hands clasped behind his back. “That’s quiet an imagination you have, Jackie.” He pauses to lick his thumb and rub an invisible scuff from the ceramic apple on the corner of his desk, a red delicious with a bite taken from it. The apple was a gift from the parents of some prior class. Under the ceramic apple is a ceramic book, made to look like an old leather-bound volume—East of Eden—with gilded edges, out of which a curious little worm poked its bespectacled head.
“Why do you use the word ‘whip’ here, Jackie? Are you afraid of being whipped?”
Jacqueline stares at her composition book. Mr. Hartman always calls her special, but moments like these she always feels so dumb. Had she revealed something unintended? She meant to write about the storm, how it made her feel. Had some contraband meaning wormed its way into her essay?
A student in the back titters. Mr. Hartman silences him with a single raised eyebrow. “Why don’t you read the passage out loud? Go on, Jackie. From ‘I never wanted there to be a storm.’ Everyone, listen to how Jackie crafts a scene.”
Mr. Hartman always professes his belief in her, but she feels like he’s believing something he wants to believe. She wants to feel empowered, to rise to the level of her own potential. But really she’s not that smart. And there’s this thing, she doesn’t quite understand it but she knows it’s there, where she’s never sure if she’s dreaming something or if it really happened. Like the time she burnt the eggs and then dumped them in the trashbin melting the plastic liner and her momma came at her with the Dustbuster and gave her a cut cheek and black welts that lasted for weeks: it hadn’t actually happened, and Jacqueline felt her cheek and found neither bruise nor bump, vindication that it wasn’t real, but alarming because she knew it was coming. When it did, she ducked. Her momma hit the edge of the counter instead and smashed her hand up pretty good, and Jacqueline ran out the house leaving the screen door banging and she ran to the schoolhouse where one of the other teachers was leading a group of preschoolers around on an expedition of the playground. She staked out her turf on the swing set, and the preschoolers didn’t go near her. Alone she swung, unable to even sob, cursing herself for her stupidity and wishing she had thought of the eggs and not the Dustbuster. What kind of specialness is that?
“Whenever you’re ready, Jackie,” Mr. Hartman says, and Jacqueline looks down at her paper. If only he knew what was in store.
“When the electric storm came everyone was inside the schoolhouse, listening to me read. Mr. Hartman was listening especially to me. The sky was clear and no one thought nothing of it, but then the clouds came like a monster truck rolling in over everything and there was lightning and everyone ran outside into the field to see what the fuss was. I went outside too, not because I wanted to see the storm but because I felt I had to because everyone else was doing it. The air tasted sour and I was afraid of being electrocuted and I wanted to go back inside but everyone was out there playing. Little tongues of miniature lightning started nipping at me. A million small jolts, fine as spider silk and hot as toaster wire whip my skin, make it so I can’t think straight. Then everyone is running into the storm cellar but me, because I’m stuck out there looking. And suddenly I’m all alone out there and very afraid.” Jacqueline looks up. “That’s all I got.”
“That’s good, Jackie,” said Mr. Hartman. “You’ll want to watch the tense shift in your last paragraph, but that is very good.” Then to the class: “What did you think of Jacqueline’s story?”
No answer. The lazy drift of the late afternoon lulls the class half to sleep and the only other sound is that of someone surreptitiously scratching their initials into wood. Then someone from the back, near the window, shouts: “Holy crap, look at those clouds!” His statement is punctuated by a rip of lightning that flashes across the classroom, freezing everyone’s face in a look of bewilderment. After the flash, everyone realizes how dark it’s gotten, and a murmur goes through the classroom. Jacqueline’s heart races, but not because of the lightning. The thunder follows two moments later, sending the class into peals of frenzy. “Calm down,” says Mr. Hartman. “Please, take your seats. Back to your seats, everyone, it’s only lightning.” The lightning cracks again and the students rush the door, throwing it open and rioting into the bristling field outside. Jacqueline grips the edge of her seat and goes through all the curse words she knows. Because this is the day that Jacqueline Ramone was going to finally run away.
She and Mr. Hartman are the only ones left inside. Mr. Hartman frowns and cocks his head to one side, looking at her funny. He’s about to say something to Jacqueline, but maybe he’s not sure how to put into words what he’s thinking, and anyway Jacqueline doesn’t want to hear it. Afraid to leave, afraid to stay, the second peal of thunder silences her panic. Her heart bottoms out: she pulls herself out from her desk and runs to join the rest of her classmates outside.