Flashes before Night

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Death near our high school

Submitted: December 06, 2011

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Submitted: December 06, 2011




Flashes before Night

“It’s an ambulance—coming here!”

High school study hall had been quiet and routine. I had been about to nod off, but that exclamation and the sound of a siren woke me up. A speeding ambulance was unusual in our small town—it could mean something big was going on.

Kristy and I and many others got up, went to the windows, and strained to see.But the ambulance didn’t turn off toward school. It went by on the main road about a block away. A bit of our excitement went away; maybe it was just a wreck up in Devil’s Canyon. The siren faded and then whined to a stop—not too far away. What was it? No one could see anything.

We had largely forgotten about the ambulance and were in our next classes when the Principal made an announcement over the school’s public address system. “Johnny Krueger has been in an accident at the saw-mill.” There were looks of shock and a few gasps in class. We all knew Johnny. What had happened? None of us, including our teacher, could concentrate on the class. Work stopped. I wondered why Mr. Lewis had made the announcement—unless Johnny was…in really bad shape. But, even then…

After another ten minutes or so, Mr. Lewis made another announcement. He sounded nervous—or shaken. “I am most saddened to have to tell you that Johnny has passed away.”

Like an avalanche ripping through a stand of pines, the news stunned us; we could think of nothing else. Mr. Lewis ended classes for the day. We streamed out into the hallways.

Someone said they had heard that Johnny was standing by a logging truck, loosening a chain that held the pile of logs on the truck, when the load unexpectedly shifted, and several big Ponderosa logs rolled off the truck. Johnny was crushed. He was already dead by the time the ambulance got there.

We milled around and tried to take it in, to talk about it.

A girl in tears said, “That’s awful, just awful! I think his wife just had a baby too.”

Only a few months before, Johnny had been among us, graduating in the spring of that year to set forth and take his place in the world. He had always worn black boots, Levi’s, and a black cowboy hat with a silver Concho band. Johnny was quiet and easy going, and he had the shoulders of a line-backer, but also a slight limp from childhood polio. We hardly ever noticed the limp.

His red pickup always carried Buddy, his huge gray-and-white Alaskan malamute. He looked like a timber wolf—and that got everyone's attention. Everybody in town must have known Johnny and Buddy. Whenever Johnny was in town, Buddy was there too, sitting up tall in the bed of the pickup, following Johnny’s movements with his big silver eyes. Nothing could deter him from his sentry duty, not even squeals and pats from kids. If Johnny gave a whistle, Buddy would jump over the side of the truck and come galloping.

Kristy had not known Johnny, but she shared the shock that gripped the school. She told me, “I’ve learned so much about him that I almost feel I knew him too. It’s so sad…”

To me things seemed sullen and frozen for a while, and familiar places less well known. For many of us in the close-knit school and in the town the earth wobbled.

But, by the time crystalline rainbows of morning ice began to form around the margins of the creek, the big hurt was mostly over. We were again busy at our designs.

That winter was cold. For weeks, the river supported bridges of ice and snow all the way across, revealing only hints of the dark waters gliding in complete silence underneath. We had several big snowstorms, and high winds created snow-drifts three or four feet deep. On many evenings, the arching neon lights on the local movie theater painted pastel reds on the low-hanging bellies of snow clouds.

From my bedroom window up the canyon, I watched as big snowflakes, flashing like newly minted quarters from the sky, made unannounced appearances out of the blackness above, executed smart spirals and flips in the glow of the streetlamp, and finally gave up their careers, merging into the sculpted whiteness below.

Now Johnny who was somewhere under that snow. And, this time, Buddy could not follow.

Danger and death became a lot more personal for all of us—Johnny had been one of us. The impossible had become possible, and that threw a whole new light on the fact that each one of us was mortal after all. Youth was no protection against death. And, sooner or later, under a brilliant sun or concealed in a frozen night, our luck would someday run out and we too would leave others behind.

Nothing in life seemed quite the same for me after that realization, and even the glories of spring days or snowflakes falling in moonlight could ever make me entirely forget that the beguiling sparks we strike from life will soon wink out in vast and unknown darkness.

The present is all we have.

But, amid the blessings of cherished hearts, and all wonders both nearby and distant, that is enough.


Adapted from my novel Gifts of Snowflakes


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