Into the Lightning Suit

My brother, Ben, rebuilds Mother out of leather, gears, and compressed steam. Iron plates, for her face. A cylinder with bearings, for a spine. Her brain is the only organic part, suspended in syrup within smoke-colored glass, with a shred of spinal cord dangling below, connected to wires and tubes.

Ben spends hours tending to the brain, but I can never bear to look at it. I already said goodbye to Mother, anyway. It’s Ben who’s still hanging on.

“Perhaps we should let Mother rest,” I mumble. A storm is raging outside, turning the night into a cloudy stew. Even with the windows shut, our steam carriage shudders and groans.

Ben glumly shakes his head. He’s not ready to move on yet.

I sometimes wonder if he’ll ever be.

“We’ve come this far, Cora,” he says. “Why stop?”

I can think of a dozen reasons, but I keep them to myself. Ben may be mad, but he’s still family. “I don’t know,” I mutter.

In the quiet that follows, I nurse the fragile hope that, one day, my brother will come to his senses.

“We need more than lightning,” Ben finally says, “to wake Mother up.” He reaches around the steering wheel and dips a thermometer into Mother’s brain syrup.

I grimace from the back seat, then peer at the octagon beside me—this strange box that functions as Mother’s heart. Electricity quivers in the upper chamber, illuminating its copper-lined windows. The lower chamber is dark and empty. I drum my fingers against the glass slits and ask, “What else do we need?”

Ben squints at the thermometer, seals Mother’s brain, then frowns at the heart-box beside me. “Hydrogen halides,” he mutters. “And ash.”

I blink dumbly at him.

“That means,” he says with a sigh, “we need a volcanic vent.”

* * *

Aside from our steam carriage, a suitcase stuffed with dehydrated food, and Mother—the lightning suit is all we have. Part scrap metal, part diving suit, part modified insanity. From what Ben has explained, the fabric inside the suit disperses the static, while the iron exterior grounds the charge.

Or something. I’ve never paid attention to the details.

“Can the suit withstand a volcano?” I ask.

Ben dribbles corn starch into Mother’s brain syrup. “Absolutely,” he says. “. . . I think.”

I frown and grope under the passenger seat, until I find a dusty map. The parchment crackles when I unfold it.

Ben leans over and taps the paper. “There.”

I gape at the markings beside his finger. “That’s easily a month’s trip.”

Ben shuts Mother’s brain case. “She would’ve done it for us, Cora.”

I honestly doubt that. But I merely roll my eyes, slide into the driver’s seat, and wrench the carriage into gear.

* * *

We travel for weeks—quibbling over directions, toiling with the carriage’s leaky boiler, scavenging the hills for wood to fill the firebox. Our meals consist of: beef powder, starch paste, dehydrated omelets. Ben’s beard grows in wild.

I still wear my corsets, my stockings, my hats. When Ben asks why I bother, my answer upsets him. “Because,” I whisper, “I still believe sanity will prevail.”

* * *

Hand-painted signs adorn the curbs on our journey, announcing the volcano.

Glimpse the planet’s lifeblood!

See Hell floweth over!

Fiery peril ahead—and fresh fruit!

We reach the cracked earth after midnight. Ben clambers into the suit, then lumbers outside, cradling Mother’s heart-box. The area is deserted, the night tinged with smoke. I scramble around with my eyes shut and stinging. Somehow, I chain the suit to the carriage.

By the time I stumble back inside, Ben has trudged out of sight. Only the chain remains, dangling above the parched soil, its end vanishing beyond the glow of the carriage’s headlamps.

I watch the magma blaze on the dark horizon, until I can’t watch anymore.

* * *

When Ben comes crawling back to the vehicle, I know something is wrong. Crawling isn’t normal behavior in a two-hundred-pound suit. I crank the winch, dragging him the rest of the way. Then I do my best to wrestle him free from the suit.

All the while, he doesn’t stop screaming.

* * *

Back in the carriage, I examine Ben carefully, prodding at whatever makes him shriek. The injury is obvious: a badly fractured leg.

I fashion a splint from the hem of my dress, using the trim from our suitcase. It’s not ideal, but it’ll have to do. “Perhaps this is a sign,” I say.

Ben stifles a sob. “We can’t surrender, Cora,” he says, sitting up. “Not this close.”

I shove him back down. “You’re crazy. You could’ve died.”

“Perhaps I should’ve,” Ben grumbles.

It takes everything I have not to slap him.

“I dropped her heart, Cora,” he whimpers. “All this way, and I stumble at the end. You have to retrieve it. You must! There’s simply no other choice.”

The sigh I let out is long and draining.

* * *

And after our shouts have withered into silence, this time it’s me who climbs into the lightning suit—not because I want to, but because Ben wants me to.

Because my brother doesn’t know how to let go.

Because I now understand what I must do.

When I finally lumber outside, the world is all noise and fury. I chain the suit to the carriage, then trudge toward those blazing lines in the dark. The suit clatters against the rocks. The visor bubbles and drips. My lungs beg for relief.

This might be the death of me.

Then I spot it on a ledge above the volcano’s steaming mouth: Mother’s octagonal heart, close enough to touch. Waiting to be saved.

I twist around and eye the shimmering carriage, its edges barely visible through the heat. How long before Ben realizes what I’m doing? Probably not long at all.

His rage will be tearful. Cruel, even.

But necessary.

I turn back toward the crater, squeeze my eyes shut, and kick Mother’s open heart into the flames.