Saturday, October 17, 2015

BALL LIGHTNING

Copyright (c) 2015 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.


BALL LIGHTNING
By R. Peterson

Lemont Hicks burped and tossed his empty Coors-bottle into the back of Ed Fowler’s mud spattered pickup. Bert Wilson’s garage sale was the event-of-the-year for nineteen fifty-nine. The deceased milkman had been one of those UFO chasing weirdoes, but he had also been the biggest junk collector in Cloverdale. Nothing over $1.00 a hand lettered sign proclaimed.
Lemont and Ed walked past mountains of alien-blocking egg cartons as well as water-pistols spray-painted silver to look like ray-guns. Fowler’s brother, Jerry, was getting salty with Wilson’s widow over the price of a battered short-wave radio. Janna Stone and Tina Andrews, both looking radioactive, were laughing as they tried on twenties-era clothing that had been pulled from Mrs. Wilson’s too-full closets and hung on a clothesline.
A pimple-faced Ed Fowler yanked a greasy comb from his back pocket and slicked-back his duck-butt haircut. He kicked a box of Mason canning-lids with his work-boot, but the clatter didn’t make the girls jump. Hicks laughed at the hub cap; he’d show his friend how to spread apple butter.  Hoping for a little back seat bingo, he sauntered over with a practiced James Dean cool and suggested a date on Friday night while looking past the High School Queen at an imaginary, more-interesting something. Janna shoved the hood away and told him to “Get lost!”
Just then Fowler, hoping to distract attention from their defeat, pulled an object from a junk box. “This looks like it might solve the ignition problems on your Ford!’ he called to his clutched friend. Hicks welcomed the distraction as he stomped away from the two girls who continued to ignore both young men. “Are you sure this is the right part?” he asked as he examined the strange metallic cylinder with an engraving that looked like a stylized paper-clip.
“What else could it be,” Fowler said. “It has two screws to hook wires to your battery and a place for the big cable that runs to your distributor.”
“I don’t know …” Hicks said. “Something about this thing feels goofy.”
“What do you mean goofy?” Fowler was looking through a box of old 78rpm records.
“That box has been sitting in the sun all morning,” Lemont told him, pointing to the cardboard container filled with car parts. “But this thing feels cold … too cold!”
Mrs. Wilson had just turned away from Ed’s brother. She hugged the radio against her chest, as if she suspected Jerry might steal it. “How much for this coil?” Fowler called pointing to the object. Mrs. Wilson frowned. “That’s one of Bert’s crash-site souvenirs,” she said. “How about twenty five cents?”


-------2-------

            Lemont Hicks’ battered 1952 Ford with a wrecker-boom in the back, sat in weeds next to his parent’s trailer-house. “Cloverdale Motors wanted four bucks for a new coil,” Lemont said as he lifted the hood on the rusty truck. “I hope this works!”
            “You make twice that every time you winch some nosebleed out of a ditch,” Fowler said. “Why didn’t you just hand over the money and get this heap running?”
            “I still owe Lavar Haskel for a starter and a battery,” Lemont said. “That jerk, won’t sell me any more parts until I’m paid up.”
“Speaking of Haskel,” Fowler said. “I hear Eddie jacketed that seat-warmer you tried to tickle at the garage-sale.”
Hicks laughed. “Eddie Haskel and Janna Stone? Suck eggs! If she won’t date me, there is no way her and him are going steady!”
Ed Fowler lit a Lucky Strike cigarette as Lemont hooked up the wires. “Damn-it!” Hicks bellowed. “The opening for the coil wire is too big!”
            “Not by much,” Fowler said, trying the wire himself. “Swipe some tin-foil from your mamma and we’ll snug this baby down.”
Ed Fowler was crushing the butt of his cigarette into the dirt driveway when Hicks returned waving a box of Reynolds Wrap.
A minute later, Lemont climbed in the truck-cab and turned the ignition key. After a brief hesitation the whole pickup seemed to glow electrostatic blue - Fowler stepped back, just before the engine rumbled to life.
            “Runs like a kick,” Lemont smiled as he leaned out the window. “Climb in.”
            “Where are we going?” Ed asked. He was still blinking his eyes when he plopped onto the dusty seat next to Hicks.
            “To pull some sucker out of a ditch,” Lemont said as he backed up the truck. “If we can’t find any accidents … we might have to make our own.”


-------3-------

Hicks and Fowler listened to Jerry Lee Lewis singing Great Balls of Fire on the radio. They didn’t notice the blue static that followed the truck or the electrical vapors following strands of barbed wire turning the grass alongside the highway brown and scorching the wooden fence posts that surrounded endless fields of wheat and potatoes. Just before they crossed the Cottonmouth River, Lemont hit a chuckhole and the truck bounced and stalled for an instant. The engine backfired. A basketball sized sphere of electricity shot from the exhaust, moved along the metal bridge railings and surrounded two people fishing before it exploded. “What the hell!” Lemont gasped as he pulled the truck to the side of the road and shut off the engine. You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain! Two burley men dropped their poles and approached, glowing like blue mantels from a Coleman gas lantern. Lemont and Ed were ready to fight, but the men surprised them. “What can I do for you?” the first asked. His eyes had a vacant just-left-town look. “You say and we obey,” the second added. You broke my will, oh what a thrill!
Lemont thought they were joking … or being smart asses. He had a reply ready. “I was hoping you’d drive that piece of crap …” He pointed to a station wagon parked just off the pavement.  “… into the river so I could yank you out and charge you four dollars,” he told them.
            “That sounds reasonable,” the first said. Lemont’s mouth fell open as the man started the Dodge Sierra and drove it into the water without hesitation. Hicks and Fowler were both gaping at each other as the man swam from the partially submerged vehicle and climbed the muddy bank. “Give me your chain and I’ll hook it up,’ he offered. “Here’s your money,” he said opening his dripping wallet and pulling out a five. “Keep the change … We’re so glad you came along!”
            “That’s five bucks from you too,” Hicks told the other man. “You were part of the accident … weren’t you?”
The man reached for his wallet with no change in his blank expression.
The mill workers were drying out the Dodge wiring when Hicks and Fowler drove away ten bucks richer. “Can you believe those schmucks?” Fowler said. “It was like they were both under our control. We could have asked them lay down in the road naked and they would have obeyed.”
Lemont and Ed decided to take a joy ride and think about their new change of fortune. Goodness gracious great balls of fire!

-------4-------

“It had to be that ball of fire that shot from under the hood,” Hicks said. “Probably from a backfire. It somehow put them under our control.”
They were passing a secluded house on Canyon Road. A young Spanish woman wearing a blue dress was hanging wet sheets on a clothes line. Hicks noticed an absence of vehicles in the farm yard. He shut the ignition switch off for two seconds and pumped the gas pedal. When he turned the key back-on the resulting backfire sent a blue ball of fire along a power line and toward the lady. A crackling static sphere of blue electricity divided just before it jumped to the metal clothes line cable. A wandering mass of electrical charge surrounded the woman lifting her skirts in the air and showing her long legs and white cotton underwear just before it exploded.
            “¿QuĂ© quiere usted que haga?” the woman with singed hair asked with a dreamy voice as she sauntered over to where Hicks had parked the glowing Ford under an apple tree. She looked hypnotized inside a coat of shimmering blue static. Lemont pointed to a shed filled with loose straw. “Por favor. We want to see the inside of your granero,” he told her. His hand caressed her backside as the three walked toward the piled hay. “… along with a lot of other things.” Come on baby, you drive me crazy!

--------5-------

Lemont Hicks staggered from the barn doing up his belt buckle. A moan came from atop the piled straw. Fowler was still riding the woman. Ed appeared five minutes later, with bits of straw stuck in his sweaty hair. “What we going to do now?” he asked. “Or who are we going to do?” he laughed.
“Tomorrow is November fourth … Voting Day,” Hicks said. “It’s also the Comanche County Fair.” He looked at his friend and grinned. “I’ve always wanted to be elected mayor of Cloverdale,” he smiled. “Everyone in the county will be in town,’ he said, “walking around eating hot dogs and cotton candy. I wonder how many people our ball of lightning can surround at one time?” Goodness gracious great balls of fire!

-------5-------

Francie Jenkins adjusted the straps and tried to pin the waist on the sequined sack dress her mother had bought her from the Sears catalog. “My God! This thing is ugly,” Fran muttered. “It looks like something great aunt Elsie would wear.”
Emma Jenkins stood at the base of the stairway and called up to her daughter. “That Mickle boy just pulled in the yard. Are you ready?”
Fran looked out her upstairs window. Tom had just turned into the yard driving the nineteen thirty-six Ford he’d spent months turning into a hot rod. She wondered sometimes why the best looking guy in high school didn’t dump her for someone like Janna Stone. She vaguely remembered walking through the tall rows of corn and being taken up in the spaceship. Fran didn’t realize the tiny green men with mouths like ducks that had made Tom Mickle super cool had also made her alluring and beautiful.
            Tom smiled when she ran out to his car. “You look great,’ he said. “Is that dress new?”
            “It can’t be,” Fran lamented. “I saw a photo of my mother’s aunt wearing this same dress in nineteen twenty-one.”
            “My jitterbug is a little rusty but I’ll try to keep up if we decide to stay for the dance,” Tom told her with no hint of a smile.
            “Let’s just get to the fair and ride the Ferris Wheel,” Fran told him. ‘I want to feel like I’m leaving this sad world, if only for a little while.”

-------6-------

Early the next morning, Hicks and Fowler gathered the other members of the Lucky Dice car club and then allowed the truck to backfire at every house on the way to Cloverdale. By the time they arrived at the fair grounds they were a caravan with more than twenty cars and a tractor pulling a hay wagon filled with blue, glowing followers. Most of the vendors at the fair sold their wares under canvas tents held together with aluminum frames. Lemont parked the wrecker next to a stand selling elephant ears, large thin scones coated with butter, sugar and cinnamon. By the time the truck had backfired twice and loosened the ball lightning, the people in the hay wagon were eating free elephant ears and waiting for Hicks to tell them what to do. A group of zombies climbed off a blue glowing roller coaster and formed a circle around Hicks waiting for his commands.
“The voting places don’t open until nine,” Fowler told Hicks. “What are you going to have your followers do in the mean time?” Hicks sent Oradell Higley to bring back a megaphone which he hooked to the truck battery. His voice boomed from the back of the truck as Ed drove slowly around the outside edge of the fairgrounds, making the glowing truck backfire and hurtling spheres of ball lightning into the metal carnival rides. “It’s time this town elected a mayor who really cares,” Hicks yelled to the growing crowd. “If Cloverdale is going to have any future at all, all you fine citizens must write the name Lemont Hicks in the “any other candidate” blank box at the bottom of each ballot. As your next mayor, I thank you.”

------7--------

            Fran and Tom were stopped in a car at the top of the Ferris Wheel. The watched as one carnival ride after another glowed with blue light. The crowd around Lemont Hicks’ truck grew larger and his voice louder. “I can’t believe he thinks people are going to vote for him,” Fran said. “Lemont Hicks has been in trouble since the day he was born.”
            “People often vote for bad government because they are duped into thinking their lives will change for the better,” Tom said. “They see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear without really looking or listening.”
            “He using those glowing balls coming from his truck to control people,” Fran said.  “He’s creating an army of zombies to do his bidding!”
            “It seems like we’ve been stuck on the top of this ride for a long time!” Tom leaned forward and caused the car to tilt. Fran hung tightly to the safety bar. “The guy operating this ride just walked away,” Tom said. “Damn! We’re stuck up here!”
            “I don’t want to become one of Hicks’ mindless twits,” Fran said. “Can’t you do something?”
Tom was already climbing from the swinging gondola. “The balls of energy coming from Hicks’ truck have to follow a metal line to reach people,” he said. “What we need is a lightning rod to transfer the power into the ground.”
            “You’re either the bravest guy I know or a complete idiot,” Fran gasped as Tom began to climb down the structure. “Promise me you won’t fall.”
            “I promise not to fall,” Tom called back, “…and may ball lightning strike me if I do.”

-------8-------

            Sheriff John Walker could see the electrical glow of plasmid energy affecting the rides even before he entered the fairgrounds. He parked his car and walked inside making sure to stay clear of any metal objects. “What the Hell do you think you’re doing?” the sheriff yelled to Hicks as the wrecker swept past with Lemont in the back. Hicks signaled for his driver to stop.
            “Campaigning,” he told the sheriff, “…anything wrong with that?”
The sheriff noticed the large crowd following Hicks included several members of the Cloverdale police force. They all looked like blue glowing mindless robots waiting for an operators signal.
            “Politics has always been a dirty business,” John told him. “But you’ve reached a new low. Shut your engine off and release these people!”
            “No one tells the mayor of Cloverdale what to do!” Hicks yelled. He turned to his mass of followers. “Lock the sheriff inside the city jail for interfering with an election,” he ordered. He looked at his watch. “We have less than ten minutes before the polls open.”

            Sheriff John Walker was helpless to do anything as the crowd swarmed over him. These were the people he’d grown up with; people who’d voted him into office. He surrendered his service revolver and allowed himself to be taken.
            Hicks laughed. “There is a new boss in town, sheriff … it’s time you learned that!”

-------9-------

Tom Mickle used the powers obtained during his alien abduction to sever a huge support cable on the Ferris Wheel and used it to swing Tarzan like to the massive center hub. Hicks’ wrecker was approaching; there wasn’t much time. He wrapped the heavy cable around the gigantic center axel supports and hoped the cable was strong enough to ground the electrical energy like a lightning rod. Tom was halfway to the ground and safety, but there was no way he was going to allow Fran to stay at the top of the wheel alone. He reached the top of the Ferris Wheel the same time that Hicks’ wrecker arrived at the base. “Is everything okay?” Fran gasped as she looked down at the crowd forming around the ride.
            “I hope so,” Tom said as he climbed into the gondola. “I saw the crowd drag the sheriff away. If this works the way I think it will … we’re both going for a ride we’ll never forget.”
Tom put his arm around Fran and held her close. They both watched as Hicks’ wrecker backed up to the ride.

-------10-------

            Lemont Hicks stared up at the huge wheel and smiled. “Now Mayor?” Ed Fowler called from the driver’s seat of the wrecker. He was obviously anxious to unleash another sphere of ball lightning. Hicks looked at his watch … less than a minute until the polls opened. “Wait!’ he said. “When this thing fires up it will be seen for miles. People from all over the county will come into Cloverdale to see what’s going on!” He grinned. “I want my election as mayor to be a landslide … don’t you agree?”
            Seconds later members of the Lucky Dice Car Club all began to honk their horns as the clock above the Gold Strike bank in Cloverdale struck ten a.m.. Oradell Higley, Rodney Phost and Charlie Crane broke the locks on all three polling stations in town and prepared for the voting to begin. Long lines of zombie like followers waited at each location.
            “Now!” Lemont Hicks yelled to Ed Fowler inside the wrecker. Fowler revved the engine to red-line and then turned off the ignition for an instant and pumped the gas pedal. When he turned the switch on two seconds later the backfire was like a sonic boom. The largest sphere of ball lightning so far, blasted from the tailpipe and immediately struck the enormous wheel. Glowing tendrils of plasmid energy swept up the wheel and then stopped at the axel. A ball of lightning formed around the center hub … growing brighter and shrinking as if unable to move. A waterfall of sparks spilled down the side of the wheel and sprayed the crowd below as the two-inch thick steel of the axel support beams began to melt under a temperature comparable to the surface of the sun. Ed Fowler turned off the Ford wrecker ignition and jumped from the cab just as the center of the Ferris Wheel exploded. The blast blew him, Hicks and most of the crowd to the other side of the fairground.

-------11-------

            “You know what?” Fran told Tom as the giant wheel began to roll. “I thought before we ever dated that going out with you might be kind of dull.” She looked down and gasped as the wheel rolled over a hotdog stand and rolled toward the parking lot. The crowd below looked like tiny ants scurrying away from catastrophe in all directions.
            Tom pulled her close and kissed her. “I’m glad that you like being around me,” he said. “But this date isn’t over yet … we still have places to go … things to see!”
The huge wheel had rotated almost 180 degrees and was beginning to wobble. “When I say now … close your eyes and jump,” Tom told her. He gripped her hand and pulled her to her feet just as the gondola car they were in came level with the tops of the vendor tents. “Now!” he yelled. Fran closed her eyes, held tightly to Tom … and jumped.

-------12-------
           
            Lemont Hicks picked himself up off the ground and glared at Ed Fowler who was caught in the canvas tent cover of a ring-toss game. “What the hell did you leave the truck for?” he yelled. “That wrecker is the only way we can keep control in this town.” He looked around. Without the Ford engine running, the glow that had surrounded his followers was already starting to fade. “You bring my truck back here and you don’t shut the engine off for nobody!”
Ed struggled to extract himself from the tent. He finally used a switch blade knife to cut himself free. He was almost to Hicks’ wrecker when he saw the 52 Ford fire up and spin sideways. Its wheels spat gravel as it tore out of the fairgrounds.
            “Who the hell is driving my truck?” Hicks was furious. “You’ve got the fastest car in town,” he yelled at a gaping Oradell Higley. “Don’t just stand there … we got to get my truck back before my whole political career gets flushed down the sewer.”
Less than a minute later Higley pulled up in a 57 Chevrolet Bel-Air with an air scoop protruding from the hood. All the members of the lucky Dice car club piled inside.
            “How we gonna stop them?”  Rodney Phost asked.
Hicks opened the glove box of Higley’s Chevy and pulled out a 44 Magnum pistol. “We shoot out the tires and then we shoot them,” he said. “Nobody stops me when I’m this close to the top.”

-------13-------

            Fran hit her head on the trucks headliner as Tom shifted gears and headed the Wrecker out of Cloverdale. “Where are we going?” she asked her date.
            “There is something in this truck that makes the ball lightning,” he said. “I don’t know what it is … so the only way we can stop Hicks is to destroy this truck!”
            “How exactly are we going to do that?” She fastened her seat belt as the speedometer climbed above eighty.
            “Magician’s Canyon,” Tom said. “It’s the only place I know where you can lose something like a river and never get it back!”
            “The only way this date could be any better would be if we had some music,” Fran said. She turned on the radio. The Coasters were playing Charlie Brown, she turned up the volume and her and Tom both sang along as the ‘52 Ford turned onto Canyon Road and hurtled across the desert … “Fe-fe, fi-fi, fo-fo, fum … I smell smoke in the auditorium…”

-------14-------

            The members of the Lucky Dice Car Club were listening to the same radio station … He's gonna get caught … Just you wait and see… “Faster!” Hicks reached over and punched Oradell Higley on the shoulder. “You drive like an old lady!” Rodney Phost giggled from the back seat “Faster!” he chorused. Oradell stomped on the gas pedal and the round Chevy speedometer moved past one hundred and twenty. He rubbed his sore arm and sang along with the low verse of the song.  “Why's everybody always pickin' on me?”
Hicks smiled as the tail-lights in the distance grew brighter … closer. He spun the cylinder on the revolver making sure it was fully loaded. This might be better he thought an out of the way place to show his constituents how he dealt with adversity. He could see a girl sitting alongside the young kid driving. “Pull up alongside and then run them off the road,” he ordered as he leaned out the window and aimed the gun. “We’ll have a little fun before we take the truck back to town.”
           
-------15-------

Tom looked in the truck’s rear-view mirror. Oradell Higley’s souped-up Chevy was almost riding their back bumper. He could see where Canyon Road dead ended less than three-hundred yards ahead on the edge of Magician’s Canyon. “Do you trust me?” he asked Fran as he opened his door. “Yes,” she cried just as a gunshot blasted from behind and the truck careened sideways. Tom held Fran tight. He hoped the powers he picked up from his ride with the aliens would be enough to protect himself and the one he loved. He pulled her with him and they tumbled together from the truck rolling in a tight ball across the sagebrush just as the wrecker flew over the edge of the canyon.

-------16-------

            Oradell Higley hit the brakes on the Bel-Air and they slid to a stop inches from the canyon’s edge,  just as Hicks’ wrecker exploded on the rock wall on the other side. Bits of engine metal and glass fragments flew outward in all directions. Hicks didn’t have to be back in Cloverdale to see the blue glow leaving the crowds of people to know his magic was gone. The popular song on Higley’s car radio was just ending as he climbed from the car and kicked the Bel-Air tires. Why's everybody always pickin' on me?
Less than a hundred yards away Tom and Fran lay entwined together hidden under a Mulberry bush. “Are you okay?” Tom whispered.
            “Better than okay,” Fran said. “I’m in love!” And then they kissed.

-------17-------

Three days later the town of Cloverdale was back to normal. The damage to the fairgrounds had been repaired and shamefaced police officers let Sheriff Walker out of his jail cell. The prosecuting attorney declined to charge Hicks or the other members of the Lucky Dice Car Club arguing that they were also victims of the powerful ball lightning.
            On a craggy edge near the bottom of Magician’s canyon a grazing Mountain Goat spied a strange metal cylinder with an engraving that looked like a stylized paper-clip in a clump of snake grass. The object was impossible to chew so the animal did what it always did with strange objects … it swallowed it.
Late that night the agile animal stood on a large rock outcropping overlooking the desert. The desert sage and grass inside its stomach were already fermenting around two lengths of chewed barbed wire forming a crude intestinal battery. Blue electrical energy arched between its backward curving horns.
            The sheep’s closest relative belched under the light of the moon and a ball of lightning flew from its mouth and floated across the desert. More than a mile away the floating sphere of electrical plasma contacted a wire fence surrounding more than five-hundred Black Angus steers and exploded. The glowing agitated animals circled the inside of the wire fence for almost a minute before they broke through their enclosure.
            Early in the morning a cooling breeze blew from the west and the Mountain Goat left the hill looking for greener pastures … and a glowing herd of blue-tinged cattle followed. Goodness gracious great balls of fire!


THE END?

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