Stories From Wildfire: Heat Lightening

I’m in Florida, away from home and my husband, Matt, for three weeks at an artists’ residency. It’s my first time really away, since before. Before the thing that happened to me.

At a reception after a poetry reading, I talk to someone about a Spiritualist community nearby. I have a fascination with the topic: ghosts, psychics, auras. We stand outside in the warm, damp night air, and chat about the town and the readers, and she admits to being a little that way.

I’m “sensitive,” she says, and describes the spooky things she has predicted. Then she cautions me: if I go for a reading, I should be okay with hearing something negative. “There’s the good, and then there’s the bad,” and the swarm in my brain picks up, unsettled. Sometimes as I walk a bee or some other insect will haunt me, buzz in my ear aggressively. I keep going, stiff armed, head down, through the vegetation, not wanting any trouble.

She’s sensitive, she says.

I think of the time on my birthday when I went to two psychics on my way to the bar, ready to hear the fabulous things my 28th year had in store for me.  They did not mention that I would spend half the summer in Rome, they did not mention Paris. Instead they both told me, “You are headed somewhere dark,” and warned me that I needed to do something or I would be consumed. “Why are you so resistant to getting help?” one demanded.

I had forgotten this until I was going through a journal over a year later. Four months after those readings I was diagnosed with cancer.

I don’t believe in this stuff anymore. I don’t. But tonight, when she warns me to be ready for bad news, I get filled with that old feeling. All that buzzing in my head. If there’s bad news coming, I know what it will be. I lose myself to that roar of tiny wings.

I get a glass of wine, and wander, and hide in the bathroom for a while. “Don’t cry, not here” and “keep it together, keep it together” on repeat, but that hum is furious and strong.

I want Matt. I need to fall into his arms, and for him to fiddle with the clicker because “fixing the remote is easier than fixing you,” as my therapist friend says. I need his imperfect presence, the reality of his body, the perfume of him that is mild everywhere but on his pillow, so that when I roll onto it in the morning after he’s up I can’t sleep for suffocating in him.

At the party I load my plate with cruciferous vegetables, those promoters of cancer cell death, and all the colors the nutritionist says I should eat.

In this moment, this is all there is: warding off death with a crudité. I chomp cauliflower like a maniac, can’t make conversation for all the chewing.

In the van ride back to the residency, I fight the nausea that I will say is from motion sickness but is really my hive inside stirring me up. We are headed toward a column of clouds, full of orange lightning that I have never seen before. I am used to it being white or blue. I wait for the storm that will come with this light, and break the autumn swelter. But we drive for a long time, and nothing happens. Just more light show, in terrifying gorgeous hot colors. Finally I ask the driver, “Is that just heat lightning?” and I shock myself with how frightened I sound. He says he thinks so.

When we’re back, I race to my room, and take one of scored little pills I’ve been given by my oncologist. I do not split it in half, like I normally do.

And then my phone buzzes, and I see there are a hundred texts from Matt I’ve missed and I panic that there’s something wrong, but it’s just that he’s gone to a new restaurant and is loving it so much. They have a thousand different burgers, and his favorite beer, and macaroni and cheese.

“It’s like this place was built in my mind,” he writes.

I laugh, and then cry because I don’t want to miss the places he builds in his mind, and I don’t want him to be alone. Ever. I don’t want to be alone. Ever. And that’s what it is, isn’t it? The end I mean. Alone, forever. That’s what I thought when I was a little girl, probably after my dad read me A Christmas Carol. I thought you were in a box, under the ground. In the dark. Alone. Just waiting. Kind of like getting a PET scan, except no voice talking to you through the speaker, telling you when to breathe, when to hold it, and when to stay absolutely still.

I don’t tell him this; I don’t tell anyone this. He is still texting gleefully. He’s like a little boy. My little boy.

The Ativan is starting to kick in.

In dark moments I think that me being away right now might be for him a kind of practicing, in case I should one day be gone. Not in a way that makes me jealous or sad, but in a way that might be good for him. He could get used to it, maybe, and then maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much. Though who would he be texting these messages to at 10pm on a Tuesday?

In his last one, he is begging me to guess what the best thing of all about this restaurant is. And I know the answer, so I finally type back: It’s reasonably priced. Reasonably priced is some of his highest praise. He’s not cheap; he just honors fairness.

That heat lightning flashes all night. I collapse in bed with Netflixed Betty Draper, and the effects of the Ativan. It works so well that sometimes I’m afraid I might take a whole bottle.

You are considered cured of this disease if you die from something else.

The next morning, I look up heat lightning online. I always thought it was byproduct of heat and humidity, all the energy bumping around and sparring. It turns out that’s a myth. A theory put forth by people sitting on their front porch and watching the electricity. They are real storms, just too far away to hear. Here in Florida they’re often out over the sea, and they rage for hours, unheard and unfelt on the mainland.

A few days later, Matt comes to visit me in Florida. We sit on a dock, and watch dolphins roll cartwheels in the waves. We visit the Spiritualist town, and attend a meeting in the town hall, with mediums-in-training working the crowd. One calls to me. She looks at my face, and croaks out, “Oh, oh my God.” I brace. But instead she fumbles around, talking about my grandparents in a way that doesn’t quite sound like them.

After, we talk about how we both held our breath in that moment. But there are no storms. There are no swarms. Not this time. Emily Helck

Emily Helck. Writer, artist, and marketing and communications manager at Young Survival Coalition. Diagnosed age 28. Stage I, ER-, PR-, HER2+. Emily lives in Jersey City, NJ, and was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012.    

Editor’s Note: This piece has been republished with permission from WILDFIRE Magazine, the 2016 “Love” issue (Vol 1, No 2, Copyright (c) May 2016 by Wildfire Community LLC). More information available at

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