Sunshine flooded the one-room schoolhouse. Outside, a meandering road traced the spine of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
Ellie Harrell glanced up, distracted by the clip-clop of a passing horse. Her feet didn’t reach the floor, but rather, swung like pendulums. Next to her sat her best friend, Melissa. Melissa’s feet hung motionless. She was not a wiggler like Ellie.
Legs pumping the air, Ellie’s eyes flitted about. Green as a Luna moth, they peered through the window.
A log shifted in the potbelly stove. Ellie’s attention drew back inside. She watched Asa Thornton’s blonde head duck down. He surreptitiously reached up in front of him to tie Anna and Susan’s braids together. Ellie’s lips pursed.
Asa. Asa looked like a cherub, a rich cherub. The Thorntons’ owned the biggest farm in the county. Ellie had observed the pretty boy flatter the teacher, steal apples from younger children, overstate his wins, and hide his losses. Intrigued by Asa’s beauty while repelled by his behavior, Ellie was torn. She suspected he was a rotter, but worried she was unfair.
Unlike Asa, Ellie enjoyed helping others and had a knack for explaining knotty ideas. She yearned to be a teacher. She’d shared her dream with her Ma.
“Missy, I’m sorry. That is too big an idea. We ain’t got the money. You marry a good man. Have a family. That’s better for a girl.”
Ellie cried, then decided she’d make her own way to becoming a teacher.
A decade later, Ellie’s dreams had crashed. Try as she might to save from her measly clerk’s job, she still couldn’t afford teachers’ college.
One Saturday, Ellie and her parents went downtown to get ice cream. Up came Asa, dapper as always. He doffed his bowler and gave a dazzling smile. As Asa and her father talked farming, Ellie felt Asa’s eyes light on her, then soar about like a bat winging from the barn at dusk.
A week later, Asa stopped by the farm to talk about apple species with Mr. Harrell. Of course, Mrs. Harrell happened to be baking a pie. She invited Asa to stay. And of course, Mrs. Harrell made damn sure Ellie served the pie to the good-looking rich boy.
Asa became a frequent visitor, encouraged by Ma and Pa. A tad slow to comprehend what the other three were plotting, by the time Ellie figured it out, things were too far gone.
Asa’s proposal shocked her. In Ellie’s heart she feared he remained an untrustworthy bully. Her parents harangued her to accept Asa’s proposal.
“Ma, I don’t know. I’d like to be a teacher. Wait on marriage.”
“Don’t be silly. Just nerves. All girls feel like that.”
“Here, let’s work on your hope chest. That’ll cheer you up.”
Beaten, Ellie accepted Asa’s offer.
Yet she hedged her bet. She dropped in at the fortune teller’s place. Exotic scents filled the air. Paisley curtains parted. Melissa popped out.
“Oh, it’s you,” said Ellie. She’d lost touch with Melissa. “I didn’t know you told fortunes.”
“Yes, indeed. Our family trade…we keep it quiet. Some folks wouldn’t approve. How can I help?”
“Well, I want to know my fortune. I’m getting married – to Asa. I want to know what’ll it be like. In case…in case maybe I want to… uh… “
“Break it off? Hmmm. Well, let’s see.”
They settled in at the oak table. In its center, sat a cantaloupe-sized glass ball. Numerous bubbles swirled in its interior.
After a scrambled incantation, Melissa prognosticated.
“Ellie, your future will be happy. You won’t want for anything and you’ll achieve your heart’s delight.”
“What about Asa? Has he changed? Will he?”
“Alls I can say, Ellie, is your future looks good.”
On her wedding day, Ellie’s father drove her to the church with the tall spire rising above pastureland. Ellie looked beautiful. Around her neck dangled Melissa’s locket. Blue forget-me-nots nestled amid her bouquet’s roses.
Glancing at the Blue Ridge, Pa frowned. A black cloud bank peeped over the scalloped mountains. The storm rumbled. Lightning struck the ridgeline. A mule at a nearby wagon brayed, showing the whites of her eyes.
“Com’on, Sissy. Let’s get inside. Don’t pay no mind to those old superstitions.”
“What superstitions, Daddy?”
“That rain on a wedding day is bad lu…ck…oh, never mind. Let’s just go.”
At the altar, Asa smiled. His eyes darted about the sanctuary then returned to Ellie. The pastor, white hair aglow in the darkening church, spread his arms wide in welcome. Lightning flashes illuminated the dusk-dark interior. The storm was upon them.
The minister plowed on. Ellie gripped her bouquet. Asa appeared non-plussed. A baby cried. Men shifted their bottoms. Outside the mule heehawed.
“I now pronounce you man and wife.”
Asa planted a dry peck on Ellie’s lips. Then, he pulled back into the dead center of the space in front of the altar and turned with a smirk to the congregation.
The thunderstorm quieted and in the lull built up virulence. The loudest noise Ellie ever heard boomed as a sheep-sized wildly rolling orb of blinding light energy careened down the aisle, faster than a freight train, and smote Asa like a dead fly smacked with a swatter. And he was. Dead. Burned to a crisp by the ball of lightning, a phenomenon most in the congregation had not even heard about. Only Melissa knew about fireballs. Melissa in the third row, her mouth quivering as she tried to extinguish the tiny smile on her full lips. Melissa knew.
As Asa’s widow, Ellie inherited the Thornton farm. She sold it and moved to Ohio. There, in Yankeedom, she studied teaching. Once she mastered the occupation, she came home to Virginia, married Melissa’s brother, birthed a brood of adorable children, and became the best teacher in the county. And each year, on the anniversary of her marriage to her first husband, she raised a prayer of thanks for the lightning ball.