The park ranger crouched in the bushes. Moaning voices echoed from a nearby tent. Black clouds collected overhead and the thick aroma of a gathering storm filled the night air. The ranger smiled. Roy had been doing this for years but it never got old. He looked up. A flash of lightning lit up the sky. Roy felt the familiar, electric buzzing in his bones. With stealth that was practiced and perfected, he crept up beside the tent. The mercury fillings in his teeth hummed. Roy stood up straight, right next to the tent. A woman in the tent announced that she was coming. A man testified in agreement. Their voices rose in tandem. They called out to God. Thunder roared. And a furious bolt of pure, white lightning hammered the tent.
The lightning bolt pierced the tent’s ceiling. Burning heat struck the lovers. Electric waves fried their insides while their screams echoed in Roy’s ears. Flames danced inside the tent, growing and spreading over the thin fabric to create a funeral pyre. The bodies of the man and woman bounced in the fire. Their screams echoed through the mountains. Roy drew his gun. He waited.
The woman sprung out of the fire, her skinned blackened and her hair ablaze. Roy shot her in the forehead. She stumbled into the brush and collapsed. The man followed. His arms flailed. He shouted and ran toward Roy. The ranger shot the man in the stomach. The young lover collapsed and Roy shot him two more times in the back of the head. Roy looked down at the young man’s charred skin. It glistened in the moonlight. “Barbeque for the bears,” he sneered.
After watching the burning tent dwindle down to a smoldering pile, Roy stomped out the embers and strolled into the woods.
“Yo, this weed is the bomb,” Mickey said. He coughed out a monster cloud of smoke and passed the joint to his left. Jane handled the fat spliff in her nimble fingers. She took a long drag and broke out in a coughing fit. Mickey giggled and took back the joint. “Damn, you’re gonna be so fried.”
Jane snickered. “I’m toasty.”
The two teens laughed and swung their legs from the tailgate of Jane’s truck. Leaves rustled and twigs snapped in the darkness behind them.
“What the eff was that?” Mickey said, looking around.
“What the eff was what?”
“That’s what I just asked you.”
“Oh,” Mickey said.
“Oooohhhh!” Jane exclaimed.
Guffaws pealed from Mickey and Jane, covering up the rustle and crunch of approaching footsteps.
Thunder cracked and shook the forest around them. Lightning burst through the sky, lighting up the dark, revealing Ranger Roy standing in front of them, his beady black eyes peering out from behind his thick glasses. His singed ranger hat sat snug on his head. A crooked smile crossed his face.
Mickey and Jane started with a screech. Pure reaction caused Mickey to toss the half-smoked joint onto the ground. The ranger stepped closer.
“Hey, kids, great night for a smoke, ain’t it?” Ranger Roy bent down and picked up the smoldering doobie. Smirking, he put the smoke to his lips and inhaled deep once, twice, three times. He held in the smoke and then let out a great plume into the air. The wind blew and carried the white cloud away. Another peal of thunder rattled the pines. “Ah, that’s a fine flavor there.”
Ranger Roy handed the joint back to Mickey and retrieved a cigarette from the pack in his shirt pocket. “Helluva storm brewing,” he said. “You kids might wanna find shelter or head on home.”
Jane stared at the forest ranger through the thin slits that her eyes had become. “Old dude?” She said.
“Yes, young lady.”
She pointed at the black mark that covered the top of Roy’s hat. “What happened to your hat?”
“Oh, that’s just where I got popped with a bit of lightning,” Roy answered.
“Shit, man, I’ve heard of you!” Mickey piped in. “You’re that ranger.”
“What, is he like… famous?” Jane asked as Mickey passed her the joint.
“This old dude has been struck by lightning seven times!”
“No shit?” Jane said.
“Seven times!” Mickey repeated. “He’s like, a fucking legend. You’re a legit legend, aren’t you, old dude?”
The ranger cleared his throat and spit. “My name’s Roy, young man.” He straightened his hat and pulled his shoulders back.
Jane elbowed Mickey. A deep, intoxicated smile came over her face. “Seven times… Seven times!” She fell into Mickey, laughing uncontrollably.
Mickey sputtered and his sputters became wide, echoing booms. He and Jane clutched each other, wrapped in hysterics, oblivious to the lightning crisscrossing the sky overhead.
“Seven times!” Mickey shouted, doubling over and nearly falling off the truck’s tailgate. “How does that even happen?”
Ranger Roy felt indignant. “Just an occupational hazard, that’s all.”
“Maybe you should get a new job, idiot!” Mickey howled.
As the teens made fun of Roy, he felt the same, reliable buzzing in his back teeth. A pulse of electricity tickled his veins. The rolling chortles from the stoned teenagers punched him in the heart. He screamed, “Shut up!”
A monster bolt of lightning shot down from the clouds, forking just above Mickey and Jane, striking each of them in the face. Like melons under a jackhammer, their heads exploded. Blood and flesh and gore showered ranger Roy. Spewing blood from their necks, the teens’ headless corpses swayed and fell off the tailgate.
“That’s what I’m talking about!” Roy shouted at the sky. He cackled triumphantly and skittered off into the trees.
“Really, seven times?” The man asked.
Ranger Roy nodded from across the campfire that burned in the center of the small clearing. The man on the other side appraised the ranger.
“How’d you get all that blood on you?”
“Yeah, that happens.”
The man wore a careless, disheveled appearance. Roy figured him for either a weekend camper or someone on the run from the law, or, maybe even one of those hippie vagrant types. Ugh, hippies. The man took a long swig off the whiskey bottle and passed it to Roy, who allowed himself a generous gulp. He winced as the liquor burned its way down. Thunder struck above them, close.
Ranger Roy glanced up. “Storms almost here.”
The camper joined Roy in gazing up into the night sky. “Yep,” he added.
Roy handed the bottle back to its owner. The man gripped the bottle and turned it up before setting it down at his side. He coughed and cleared his throat.
“So,” the camper began, “If you don’t mind me asking, why are you still out on the job if you’ve been struck by lightning so many times? I mean, considering the probability, seven times is a high number.”
“I’m just doin’ the lord’s work,” Roy sighed. “Someone’s got to, you know.”
The camper snorted. “The lord, yeah right.” He spit into the fire. “I always wondered about you rangers. Are you protecting nature from us, or us from nature?”
Roy grimaced. “Nature don’t need my protectin’, I’m just doin’ what’s asked of me, that’s all.”
“What did nature… ask of you?” The camper said. His eyes glazed over as the whiskey took hold and slowed the man’s words.
Roy looked at the man with hard, serious eyes. “Just to help maintain the balance. That’s what I do. I help.” Roy pulled out a cigarette and lit up.
“Sure you do, old-timer, sure you do.” The camper eyeballed Roy’s cigarette. “You got another one of those?”
Roy reached into his front shirt pocket. The camper leaned forward and reached out his hand. A crack of low thunder bounced through the trees. A jagged streak of lightning shredded the darkness. The white-hot bolt stabbed the camper’s outstretched hand. A second flash lit up the pines and a ribbon of light nailed the man in the back. He cried out in agony. Electrical currents filled his body. Foam poured from his mouth.
A third firebolt struck the camper on top of his head. Bright bolts of electricity bounced over the man’s convulsing body. He surged forward and fell face-first into the campfire. Ranger Roy stood up slowly. The camper’s body spasmed and became still. Roy threw his cigarette down on the man’s burning corpse. He removed a piece of paper from his pocket and unfolded it. He grimaced.
“I thought I recognized you,” Roy said, looking from the paper in his hand to the man in the fire.
In stark black and white, the leering face of the camper stared up at Roy from the flyer. Above the photo, bold letters announced that the man was wanted for the murder of a family of four. Roy tossed the flyer into the flames and watched it change form. He reached into his pants pocket and retrieved a short newspaper article. The headline read: After Killing Five Year Old Child in Hit and Run, Marijuana Using Teens are Released on Technicality. Roy thought of the teens’ exploding heads. He grinned and dropped the column of paper into the fire. For a third time, Roy reached into his pocket. Another article. A malicious husband and wife burned down a nursing home and eluded police. “They didn’t elude me,” Roy muttered. He tossed the paper into the fire.
Roy lit another cigarette and listened to the quiet of the forest, of his home. He smiled and looked up into the dark sky. “Nice workin’ with you tonight.”
A bright star peeked out from behind the cloud cover. It glimmered in the dark and seemed to wink at Roy. The tired old ranger laughed to himself and shuffled into the darkness, satisfied with a job well done. Once he was deep under the canopy of trees, the first drops of rain began to fall.