Quinlan, dripping wet and shivering, paused at the magazine rack, but he wasn’t looking at the half-nude, three-headed picture of someone named Lady Gaga. Instead, he was looking beyond it, focusing between the torrential rain outside and the reflection of the teenage attendant taking cash from a customer. The kid pressed some buttons on the cash register.
A blinding burst of white light lit up the interior of the gas station an instant before plunging it into darkness, while at the same moment, a loud snap and a deafening clap of thunder were followed by the popping of blown transformers and the screams of startled customers. Quinlan crouched and ran in the sudden darkness, silently passing people scrambling to get out. He paused at the head of an aisle, waiting for the last person to leave. Alone at last, he vaulted over the front counter and checked the cash register, smiling when he found it still open.
So he had timed it perfectly.
Quinlan stuffed the bills into a waiting Ziploc, sealed it, slipped it into the drenched pocket of his cargo shorts, and left the station by the opposite door through which the attendant had exited. By the time he had run three blocks in the downpour, sirens had sounded in the distance.
The morning sun scraped across Morgan’s exposed skin like a dull knife. The walk down their long driveway to the mailbox, empty, had been brutally hot for 8 a.m., even in early June. Beads of sweat had gathered on her forehead and above her lip so she wiped at her face with her forearm.
Thunder rumbled. Surprised, Morgan stopped and turned in the dirt road, smiling when she saw the wall of blue-gray clouds to the west. A sheet of silver illuminated multiple times across the surface of one of the cloud columns. Finally, she thought. Months had passed with little more than a drizzle and this storm looked promising. Excited, Morgan decided to watch it come in from the family barn. Her reading corner in the loft would be the perfect vantage point.
After a few minutes of brisk walking, Morgan reached the barn. Pulling one of the heavy doors open, she stepped inside, crinkling her nose at the stuffy air that smelled like dead grass, dust, and the faint odor of long-gone animal droppings. Walking to the shaded corner to the left of the door she ascended the ladder and stepped onto the hay-covered loft, smiling as a deliciously fresh breeze blew past her from the glassless western window.
Morgan spread the faded quilt that she kept in the loft for reading and napping over a large pile of hay, lowered herself onto it stomach-down, and watched as the dark cumulonimbus rolled in. A thick curtain of slanting rain was pouring from the billowing clouds, blurring the horizon line. Thunder made her teeth jar as the flashes of lightning grew closer and closer, the blue sky bleeding to Payne’s grey until even the mid-morning sun was blotted out. The oak trees below shuddered beneath the suddenly stronger wind as a dirt devil panicked past the corner of the barn before dissipating at the barbed wire fence. A cloud of dust came swirling through the windows as a roaring sound rushed closer.
The rain struck. It pounded with shrill fury on the tin roof of the barn. Cold phantom drops swirled inside, landing on Morgan’s forearms and face. Lightning struck, though she didn’t see the bolt, but the almost instantaneous crash of thunder made her nervous.
That was close. What if lightning strikes the barn? Uncomfortable with that thought, Morgan stood, folded the quilt, tucking it away from the windows, and carefully descended the ladder into the corner.
One of the barn doors blew open.
Lightning flashed, briefly revealing someone’s shadow in the rectangle of light in front of the doorway.
The fine hairs at the back of Morgan’s neck stood on end.
A young man, dressed in cargo shorts and a dark t-shirt stepped inside. He was absolutely soaked, dark hair wild and dripping past his eyes, water running down his nose and falling from his chin.
Heart racing, Morgan quickly looked around for a weapon, finding only hay. She hadn’t even brought her cell phone with her. Trying to stay focused, she slipped farther into the dark corner, hardly daring to breathe as she watched the stranger’s profile.
He swung the door shut and when he turned, Morgan caught a brief glimpse of a pale face drawn with exhaustion. He took a few steps forward and sat down heavily on the floor, slipping a medium-sized backpack from his shoulders. Then he lay down on the floor, his chest rising and falling in rapid movements, one hand draped over his stomach, the other at his side.
Morgan’s mind raced. Is he—is he going to take nap?! No, people don’t barge onto private property to take a nap. Is he a thief?
Vaguely, she noticed the rain begin to lessen until only a soft metallic pattering remained, even the wind hushing itself.
Suddenly, the boy pushed himself up, roughly running his hands through his hair and flinging shiny drops of water everywhere. He began working off his shoes, putting them aside, then pulled off both socks, wringing the water from them before setting them lengthwise beside the shoes. Bending his head down, he began to rub both of his feet. Even with the rain still thrumming, Morgan could make out small pops and cracks, presumably from his joints.
After he finished rubbing his feet, which looked extremely white in the semidarkness, he grabbed the backpack, pulling out a medium-sized Ziploc bag. He opened it and out came a power bar, which he ate in three quick bites. Then from the same Ziploc, he brought out a fat white pill bottle. Morgan couldn’t make out the label. He unscrewed the lid, shook the rattling bottle over a hand, and then swung his hand to his mouth, leaving his head up as he swallowed.
Morgan didn’t know much about drugs, but that was a pretty big bottle. Didn’t addicts and dealers use small bottles or tiny baggies?
While Morgan was recalling movie scenes involving drug use, the boy opened the backpack again and reached inside, yanking out several more Ziplocs before producing a large square object that was wrapped in plastic. Baffled, Morgan watched as he uncovered it and fiddled with two knobs before setting it between himself and his socks and shoes. The thing reminded her of the toy talking radio she’d played with as a child. He leaned towards the square object and at that angle she could make out more of his features. His face was dominated by slightly hollowed cheeks that gave way to rounded cheekbones and thick eyebrows that hung like thunderclouds over gleaming eyes.
The boy suddenly stood, bent over and peeled off his saturated shirt. Shocked, Morgan continued to watch, eyes wide. His skin was so very pale. He was leanly muscled, but looked thin, like a runner or swimmer. He wrung his shirt out, laying it next to his socks.
When his fingers went to the button of his drenched, low-lying shorts, Morgan blurted, ”Don’t move!”