My best friend Aiden believes his father is a god.
“Not some dumb comic book god like Thor,” he says. He paces around the headstone I sit back against, as he smokes his stolen Marlboros. “No, he’s the real deal. He’s Ambisagrus, the Celtic lightning god. You know that, right, Dove?” He brushes some ash from the sleeve of his black trench coat.
“Yes, Aiden, you’ve been telling me that since kindergarten.” I adjust my braces and pull myself up with my crutches. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea to tell our tenth-grade gym class.” I can still hear their cruel laughter in response to Aiden’s proclamation of divine blood. He’d fled here to the cemetery, and I’d followed, even though it meant detentions for both of us for skipping classes.
“Those bullies need to know who they’re dealing with.” His eyes dart around the cemetery. “They’ll be sorry.”
“I agree you need to stand up to them. Just not that way. It only makes it worse.”
He stops moving long enough to flash me a rueful smile. “I don’t have crutches to beat them with.”
I smile back. I’d been known to do that once or twice. “I’m serious. Don’t make it easy for them.” He continues to pace while I speak, puffing on the cigarette and muttering under his breath.
“Did you take your meds today?” I ask.
“I don’t need them. I don’t have ADHD, you know that.” He smashes the cigarette out on the top of the headstone, flicks it away, and runs a hand through his brassy hair. “It’s the lightning inside of me. I don’t know how to channel it.” He continues his manic ambling. “But someday I will. Someday soon, my father will come to me, and he’ll teach me how to control it. Then they better watch out. I’ll fry them. I’ll evaporate them. I’ll blacken their guts and crisp their skins. I’ll-”
“Aiden.” I hobble over to him as he circles near me.
He stops. “What?”
“Time to grow up.” I lean in on my crutches and kiss him. I guess I’ve wanted to kiss him for a while now, but he’s been too caught up in his own world to even think of making the first move. So I do it. I don’t stick my tongue in his mouth or anything, but I taste the cigarette on his lips.
It lasts only a few seconds, and when I pull away, he looks as if he doesn’t recognize me.
“Why did you do that?”
My cheeks burn. “I don’t know. I just wanted to.” I just want him to stop talking, to stop pretending, to stop waiting for his stupid lighting god father to show up, and to start seeing me. Maybe I thought he’d stop being crazy if I kissed him, that he’d change like the frog prince. But I don’t believe in fairy tales.
“I gotta go,” he says, not meeting my eyes. He fumbles with the pack of Marlboros, pulls one cigarette out, then shoves it back in. “I’ll see ya.”
I’ve been angry with Aiden before, but sprinkle a good dose of humiliation on top of it, with a dollop of hurt for good measure, and I’m not going to just let him walk away.
“Your father’s never going to come, Aiden,” I call out to him. “Ambisagrus doesn’t exist.” They’re words I’ve longed to say for years.
He turns around, his face contorted with anxiety. “Don’t say that, Dove. Of all people, I thought you understood.”
“I understand that your father is not some Celtic god. He was probably just some loser who took off after your mother god pregnant. Can’t you see that?”
He raises a trembling finger at me. “You shut up now, Dove. You just shut your mouth.”
Something vicious gripps me. Once the words started to spill out, I can’t stop. “I know it’s hard for you to believe that your Virgin Mary-loving mother would spread her legs for a mere mortal, but that’s what happened. Or maybe she was raped. You ever think of that, Aiden? It was so traumatic that she made up the whole thing to put a good spin on it. Maybe she even believes it.”
Aiden’s eyes darken with every word, and his red hair glints in the glaring May sunshine. He burns like some angry fire god, in defiance of my disbelief. It scares me, but not as much as the vitriol I am spewing at my best friend.
I wait for him to scream at me, or cry, or push me to the ground, but he doesn’t. He only turns around and walks away.
“Aiden,” I call, regret already stirring inside me. He doesn’t look back and I don’t follow. With my shuffling gait, I’d never catch up anyway.
I carefully lower myself to sit against the gravestone and cry. I’m not normally a crybaby about things. I’ve learned to deal with stuff most kids never have to consider. Surgeries and catheters and adult diapers. The crutches I lean on. Whatever.
I cry because I may have destroyed the only crutch Aiden possesses.
I don’t see him for three weeks, and he won’t answer my calls or texts. I finally knock on his door one oppressive June day.
His mother peeks out, wrinkling her nose at me. “Aiden’s sick.”
“Can I see him?”
“No.” She closes the door in my face. She probably thinks spina bifida is contagious or something.
I imagine her returning to her knees to pray for Aiden’s health at the Virgin Mary altar in her living room. Maybe she feeds him hot soup despite the heat, or reads him tales of the Irish gods and heroes while he broods in bed.
Catholicism and Celtic mythology has blended into a strange mysticism in Kathleen O’Connor’s world. She’s spoon-fed Aiden the story about Ambisagrus since birth. She claims that the Mary statue cries every year on his birthday because the god has not come yet to claim his son.
Aiden has always been there for me during my numerous medical crises. Whether he’s really ill or mourning his deflated delusions, I want to be there.
The next day I walk the three blocks back to his house, although a thunderstorm brews in the distance. It’s so humid my sweaty forearms slide against the cuffs of my crutches. No one answers my knock, and the door swings open when I try it. The first rolls of thunder patter across the sky.
It’s silent inside the house, and dark despite the unattended altar candles that still burn. Aiden is probably in his room. I gaze at the dozen stairs rising before me and sigh. Sitting on the bottom stair, I hold my crutches in my lap and work my way up backwards.
At the top, I hurry past Kathleen’s bedroom and knock on Aiden’s closed door. No answer.
“Aiden, it’s Dove. Look, I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said those things. I’m a monster. Will you forgive me?”
Nothing. I open the door. “Aiden, please-”
He shivers in his bed despite the ninety degree weather. He’s never been big, but he looks puny now, lost in the sheets. His hair lies flat and damp on his forehead, and his dull eyes stare. His chest rises and falls like a sick animal.
I rush to the bed and take his hand. It’s damp and cold as a dead fish.
“Dove,” he whispers when his eyes finally focus on me. “It’s the lightning. It’s killing me.”
“Where the hell’s Kathleen?”
“At church, praying.”
“What’s wrong with her? You need to be in a hospital.”
“Never mind that. Listen.” He raises his head from the pillow with great effort. “Can you hear it?”
Thunder grumbles above his shallow breathing.
“He’s coming,” Aiden says. His eyes glint with hope. “Ambisagrus.”
“I’m calling my mom.” I pull out my cell phone. “She’ll bring you to the hospital.”
“No, help me. I need to be outside.” He tries to sit up, but falls back against the pillow, trembling like an old man with a palsy.
“Are you crazy? A storm’s coming.”
I start to punch in my mom’s number.
He reaches out and stopps me with clammy fingers on my arm. “Dove, if you’re truly my friend, you’ll help me in this.” His shadowed eyes burn with an intensity I’ve never seen before.
“Fine, but if you die, I’ll never forgive you.”
“I’m not going to die.” He eyes my crutches. “Let me borrow those.”
I sit on the edge of the bed and hand them over. He rolls himself to the other side and, with the help of my crutches, shakily pulls himself to his feet. Stumbling his way out of the room, he pants and sweats over to the stairs and sits on the top step. Holding the crutches under one arm, he slides down on his bum one step at a time.
Thunder crashes across the darkening sky now. The curtains of his bedroom window flapp with a cool wind. Rain falls now in a steady rhythm, leaving the widow sill soaked.
I totter over to the window and look down just as Aiden comes out the back door. He shambles to the middle of the large, empty lawn, drops the crutches and falls to his knees.
“Aiden, what are you doing?” I call.
He doesn’t hear me over the noise of the rain and thunder. He raises his face to the sky and lifts his arms in supplication. Black clouds boil above him, cracking with thunder. His drenched t-shirt and shorts cling to his thin frame; his hair whipps in the fierce wind and sticks to his hollow cheeks in wet strands.
He looks so pathetic that I pull out my cell phone again to call my mom. Just then, a white-hot finger of lightning streaks down from the violent sky and strikes Aiden. The bright flash sizzles across my eyelids, and my ears ring with the sonic boom.
When I can see again, he lies unmoving on the grass.
I haven’t crawled on the floor like a baby for a long time, but I do it now. I cruise across the wooden slats of his room and slide myself down the stairs as fast as I can manage. The Virgin Mary watches with utter tranquility as I scrape my knees across the carpet of the living room. I bruise them on the linoleum of the kitchen floor. They sink into the sodden grass of the lawn beyond the open back door.
By the time I reach him, the rain has slackened to a drizzle, and the dark clouds drift away. Thunder rolls away to the east, like a receding conversation.
“Aiden.” I touch his face. His skin, though warm, is unburnt. He cheeks, no longer sunken, glow with a healthy ruddiness. The dark rings around his eyes have disappeared. His lips, no longer pale, pout pink and moist.
His open eyes focus on me.
“Dove.” He sits up with a dazzling smile. “Did you see him? It was Ambisagrus.” I hesitate, and he continues before I can speak. “The moment he touched me, he spoke to me. He said my name. Dove, he took the lightning from me.”
“Oh. I’m sorry, Aiden.”
“No, you don’t understand. That was his gift. To take it away, so it didn’t crackle inside me anymore. I’m quiet now.” He pauses to look around the yard, then finds my eyes. “It feels good.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m perfect.” He leans in and kisses me. I’m not about to argue with him.
Kathleen claims that Mary no longer cries at Aiden’s birthday, and I won’t argue with that, either. Statues can cry, and miracles can fall out of the sky in a bolt of lightning. Frogs can turn into princes, with the right kiss.
And I’ll beat anyone who says otherwise with my crutches.