By The Prophet
At sixteen, Michael knew perfection.
At a sleepover party with his steady girlfriend, he had been woken in the night by a tremendous thunderstorm. the living room, where almost a dozen people lay sleeping, was lit intermittently by the brilliant, colourless flare of lightning, and the thunder roared close on the heels of each stroke, yet no-one else stirred.
Michael rose, and crossed to the window. The house was isolated, an old farm in the country, and beyond the glass a darkness deeper than any the city ever held was cut by a leaping fork of blue-white light. The alien beauty of the landscape revealed by that moment of illumination took Michael's breath away. At the same time he sensed someone next to him.
Her name was Clare, and her face was half-turned to him as his was to her when the next flash lit them both. In that cold, hard light, Clare seemed to possess a beauty more mature than her years, and something passed between them in the darkness as the thunder rolled over them. Their hands met, and with a single mind they passed into the empty master bedroom.
As the storm raged around them its actinic light cast sharp, inhuman shadows from Clare's euphoric face, yet at each revelation she seemed more beautiful. And as the thunder receded, and they stood together on the balcony, letting the rain wash the scent and sweat of each other from their skin, Michael knew that what had passed between them was somehow special; sublime.
That was not the first time for Michael, but it became the benchmark for every time after. His girlfriend left him soon after that night, and a day later he asked Clare out; he knew it was a mistake before he asked. Clare - two years older and about a decade cooler - shot him down. They never spoke a word about what had passed between them in the storm.
Clare went to university; Michael's life went on. He had two other girlfriends before he too left for university, but both relationships fizzled when he failed to recapture the magic of his night with Clare. It was the same through university; despite every effort, nothing and no-one measured up. He was obsessed, and before long he found that women would be scared away by his intensity even before he felt the need to move on; to try again.
Michael graduated and came home. He got a good job, dated sporadically, but still nothing seemed quite right. Then one night, he met Clare, quite by chance, in a pub. Still older, but no longer so much cooler, she bought him a drink and they talked. With eyes that seemed old, and a voice of sweet regret, she finally broached the subject of their moment; as perfect for her as it had been for him.
They ended the night in bed. It still was not the same, but Michael knew that it could never be anybody else for him, and so he told himself that it would come back in time.
"I love you," she told him, and he said the same.
Clare told Michael that she could not have children, but they were married anyway. They were happy together, in their way, but Michael still ached for the perfection which eluded them. Clare too seemed sometimes preoccupied, and even melancholy, and Michael was positive that she felt the same as he did. Certainly something was missing from their lives. Thinking that perhaps it was the absence of a child that troubled them, Michael raised the topic of adoption once, but Clare burst into tears and he never spoke of it again.
Clare insisted that they keep secret from their friends the fact of her sterility. "We're just not ready yet," they told concerned friends after five years. "We're not sure we're cut out to be parents," after ten.
After fifteen years of marriage, the magic returned, and in a raging storm the time was burned away like matchwood. The cold light which had given maturity to a pretty girl, now gave fresh and untouchable youth to a beautiful woman. Once again they found that perfect union in the flawless, monochrome moments between the darkness and the thunder.
"I love you," Clare whispered, breathless, ecstatic,but achingly sad. She rose before he could reply, and left the bed. She never came back.
The coroner ruled that her drowning was accidental death, but Michael knew better. He just did not know why his wife should kill herself; not then.
Five years on, and the obsession ruled him again. Five years, a dozen affairs, and nothing to compare with those two nights. Clare's death weighed on him, but even his grief could not compete with the need to feel that complete again, and he kept searching, desperately.
Then, one night, in a country hotel, came another storm. He was on business, alone, but as he gazed from the window, consumed by longing, he sensed a presence beside him. He turned, and it was like that night, so long ago: The perfect beauty framed in the alien glare; that instant connection between two people.
She was half his age, but the need the storm woke in her was as fierce as that which had smouldered in him for all those years. The storm cast its galvanic blessing on their union in that grand hotel, and for the third and final time in his life, Michael knew perfection.
Afterward, he did not know what to say, or if he should speak at all. It was the girl who broke the silence.
"That was creepy," she said.
Creepy? Surely not. Surely it was perfect for her, as it had been for him. Wasn't it?
"I think so," she admitted. "It's just..." She was adopted. At her graduation she had learned that fact, although she had long suspected as much. Along with that knowledge, she had received a long series of letters from her biological mother. Confessional stuff, among the earliest of the letters had been an account of her conception, an account which had haunted her imagination ever since: A chance encounter in the ghostly glare of a lightning storm.
To relive her mother's experience; that was what was creepy.
Michael was quiet for a long time.
"I love you," he whispered at last, and something in his tone kept the girl from shrugging it off. He rose and left her, stopping at the door to ask her name.
"Michaela," she replied. Before she could ask his, he had gone, and so she never knew that it was him that they pulled from the river two days later.
Michael's drowning was ruled as accidental death by the coroner, while Michaela went on with her life, trying to recapture a lost, perfect moment.