I HAVE A DEEP, incapacitating fear of lightning. On occasions too numerous to count I've actually, involuntarily, shrieked aloud at the terror of being struck down by a shimmering electric bolt from the sky.
The first such instance occurred the summer I was eight. My sister, grandmother, and I were alone at our cottage on a lake in Ontario. It's a great old wooden barn of a place, a hundred years old and drafty, surrounded by pines and junipers and blueberry bushes. It could burn down easily—the cottage and the whole island with it.
One night it decided to storm. My sister and I crawled into bed with Granny while long, terrible spears of lightning lit up the sky like daylight, one after another. The thunder was deafening and constant. Through a screen door that opened onto a veranda, we watched a boathouse on the opposite shore take a bolt to the roof and catch fire. I was speechless with horror, envisioning our doomed evacuation should our cottage go up in flames. Outside, a solid crash of thunder shook the house. Then someone screamed, a long, fearsome howl. It was me.
In the morning, we inspected the damage. A 60-foot white pine, with a fresh smoldering scar through the bark, lay wedged between the kitchen and the laundry shed, having barely missed both.
Twenty-two years later, lightning no longer scares me when I'm safe inside four walls (cars count), but catch me outside as a storm moves in and the reflexive terror is always the same. With the first fork comes a silent dread, then a panicky, futile attempt to plot my getaway, followed by the grand finale: my scream.