From acclaimed New Face of Fiction alumna Grace O'Connell, a suspenseful, poignant and provocative tale about violence, sibling love, friendship, heroism--all told through the lens of a young woman trapped in a hijacked bus.
On the surface, Veda's life in Vancouver seems to be going just fine--at nearly thirty, she has a good job, lifelong friends, and a close bond with her brother, Conrad. But Conrad's violent behavior, a problem since he was a teen, is getting more and more serious, and Veda's ongoing commitment to watch out for him is pushing her to a breaking point.
When Veda is injured as a bystander during one of Conrad's many fights, she knows it's time to leave Vancouver for a fresh start. She heads to New York, staying in the Manhattan apartment of old friends Al and Marie. Exploring the city, she swings between feeling hopeful and lost--until one day the bus she's on is hijacked by a sweet-faced gun-toting man named Peter. He instructs Veda and the other passengers to spray paint the bus windows black, and what ensues is a gripping and unpredictable hostage situation, the outcome of which will make Veda question everything she knows about herself and the nature of fear.
Told with powerful immediacy and warmth, at once unsettling and engrossing, Be Ready for the Lightning is a story of violence, its attractions and repulsions; of love, loyalty and friendship; and of a young woman finding an unexpected kind of bravery.
About the author
GRACE O'CONNELL is the author of the national bestseller Magnified World and 2014 winner of the Canadian Authors Association Emerging Writer Award. She holds an MFA in creative writing, and her work has appeared in various publications including The Walrus, Taddle Creek, The Globe and Mail, National Post and Elle Canada. She has taught creative writing at the University of Toronto and now works as a senior editor at Open Book Toronto and writes a books column for This Magazine. The author lives in Toronto, ON.
Excerpt: Be Ready for the Lightning (by (author) Grace O'Connell)
I’ve never been shot. I’ve never even seen a gun up close, other than my father’s hunting rifles up at the cabin. And those old .22s, with their wooden stocks, are more like something from Davey Crockett than Quentin Tarantino.
He took Conrad into the woods to shoot sometimes—my dad, not Quentin Tarantino. Muffled booms from deep in the trees. It was just pop cans off stumps, and once, on a whim, the slowest, dumbest rabbit. Tears from Connie afterwards.
They didn’t invite me into the woods to shoot. It wasn’t because I’m a girl. Just an assumption that I wouldn’t have wanted to go. They were right. I wouldn’t have.
I get on the city bus that day in April after running three blocks down Fifth Avenue, along the side of Central Park. I’ve been in New York a couple of months already, but there’s still a part of me, a dorky tourist part, that can only think I’m running down Fifth Avenue. I’m running beside Central Park as I go. A numbskull commentary of the obvious.
I’m wearing my shoes that got ruined in the rain. They’re half-slipping off my feet, but the bus is almost at the stop, so I run past souvenir stands and lemonade carts and a pile of seemingly discarded blue wooden slats telling me sternly, “Police Line Do Not Cross.” It’s unseasonably hot in Manhattan, and I’m sweating in my pits, down my back and a little where my bra meets my skin.
On the bus, there isn’t an open seat except where I would have to really squeeze in beside someone, which I don’t like, so I just stand. I hang from the clammy pull-down handle, swinging and swaying around. I bump into a moustached man beside me and apologize.
He says, “Don’t worry dear,” and my homesick heart gives a little jump, because that is something my dad would say, the dear. I can almost hear him saying it, the faded Irish lilt buttering the edges of his voice. When I’m away from them, I miss a version of my parents
that doesn’t really exist, a sort of cuddly perfect-family nostalgia. Maybe I’m not the only one; maybe this is why people leave, move on, put distance between themselves and where they’re from—so they can miss a Vaseline-lens version of things.
Central Park goes on forever. Just before we pass by the Met and its grand entrance, a crowd of kids gets off the bus with a woman herding them, probably a teacher. There’s a playground peeking out above the stone wall of the park. I don’t know why—I don’t get sappy about
kids usually—but it makes me smile.
After the kids go, there’s enough room to sit, but I don’t bother. Neither does the moustache man. I feel attached to him, as if we are friends. I do this with strangers all the time. I do it with cars that I drive behind on the highway for a long time. I get sad when they exit.
A tall guy, one of those slab-of-meat Russian types, gets on the bus and sits down in one of the spaces vacated by the children. He’s talking loudly into a cell phone.
“Yeah, I’m on the M1 now, I’ll be there when I’m there, it’s good. Doesn’t matter, anyway, she wouldn’t even let me pick him up, like picking him up is something so big, too big for me apparently. It’s some bullshit, but what am I supposed to do? I got my mom to do it,
apparently that was okay, even she wouldn’t say no to my mom—”
A professorial-looking man across the aisle makes a shh sound and says, quietly, “Could you keep your voice down? You’re disturbing everyone.”
Without even moving the phone away from his mouth, the first man says, even louder, “Don’t tell me to shh, I ain’t disturbing anyone but you.” The two of them glare at one another for a second, and I get tense all over. I hate fights. There is that swollen, pre-storm feeling that crackles between men sometimes. Then the smaller guy drops his eyes, and the loud one returns to his call, and there is an air of relief and emasculation around the man who complained.
In the seat in front of him, two teenagers are taking photos of each other with a phone.
The girl says, “What’s it called? Photographic memory? I totally want that.”
And the boy says, “Anyone can do it, it’s easy.”
“No, it’s not, you have to be born with it.”
“No, you can learn it. You need these special lights, and there’s a book that teaches you how. My sister told me about it.”
At this the girl looks cowed, impressed. Then the boy points the phone at her, and she smiles again.
I’m looking out the window, somewhere in the lower fifties or upper forties, watching a man take a photo of his wife on the sidewalk as she pantomimes throwing her umbrella into a trash can.
I picture them torturing their nieces and nephews with a computer slideshow of those photos, when they get home. Why take a picture like that? Celebrating the end of the rain, the beautiful
day? I guess I opted for the bus over the subway for the same reason, and because I don’t like being underground, and because
I’m not in a hurry.
I haven’t been in a hurry since I got to New York. I’m filling my hours, wandering around, tutoring kids who are either too dumb for me to ever get them where their anxious parents want them to end up, or too smart to need me. I prefer the dumb ones. I can comfort them, and some of them have already developed appealing compensations for their dumbness—humour or charm or selfdeprecation. They know that they’re not going to make their parents happy. The smart ones are sadder, more desperate. They want to be even smarter than they are; they are already worried about being anything less than perfect.
One girl asked me to write a college essay for her. I was confused, because she’s one of the brightest kids I tutor. I knew whatever she wrote would be good. “Not good enough,” she said, her perfectly smooth hands twisting together on the dining room table. “I’ll pay you. I have my own account. How much do you want?” Sounding slightly manic, she started listing the things she could give me: this purse or that cell phone; she could give me her brand-new laptop and tell her parents she lost it; did I want her coat, her shoes, her dresses? I didn’t take her money or her stuff, but it wasn’t because it would have been wrong. It was because I could tell this girl didn’t have it in her to lie well, to lie blandly and in that small way lies need to be told in order to be believed. That she would panic and throw me under the bus, when her parents said, “Is that what really happened?” That she was still missing the slightly rotten thing I’d found in myself that keeps you calm and flat when you should be sorry.
In Midtown, a guy gets on wearing a checked shirt under a long, heavy coat. His thin legs poke out from shorts below the coat, sport socks yanked up above tennis shoes. It is a heartbreaking outfit, a clash of boy and man. He must be so hot. Also, he’s sort of goodlooking, despite the weird clothes, one of those dark honey blonds, sharp-nosed with the sort of finely veined skin that looks like it would bruise easily.
After the door closes behind him, just as the bus begins to pull away from the curb, he reaches into his jacket and takes out a gun, leans over the fare box, around the Plexiglas shield, and points it at the driver’s head. The gun is big and sort of rectangular, like a cell phone from the ’80s.
“Stop the bus,” he says.
I only see and hear this because I’m close to the front; I’m already looking at him. He couldn’t be more than thirty, if that, the same age as me. The driver slams on the brakes, the bus lurches to a halt, and my body goes forward and then back. I bump into the moustache man again, who says, “Don’t worry, don’t worry, I’m not made of glass,” even though I didn’t say anything this time. He’s behind me and hasn’t yet seen the man with the gun. But an older woman in front of me, sitting in the courtesy seats, has, and she is making small noises.
“Pull it right over to the curb,” says the man, “and put your hands on your head. Don’t speak on your radio. Please.” His voice is lower than you’d expect from his size, his looks. A baritone, a radio voice.
Some people behind me are grumbling and saying, “What the fuck?” because they don’t know why the bus has stopped. And all of this so far has taken only seconds. The driver puts the bus in gear and it trundles to the right. One wheel goes up on the curb, and more passengers yell. What the fuck. Is this idiot drunk? Jesus Christ. The driver puts his hands on his head, and I can just see a scrap of his elbow jutting out to the side.
“Put it back in park,” says the man, and the driver does so, the elbow dipping out of sight momentarily. I can hear him speaking now. He says, “Just walk off, just go home. You’re okay, man, you’re okay. It’s nothing, really, nothing at all.”
I’m not really thinking anything right now. In the morning, I’d been walking around in the Met feeling strangely disconnected, as if I’d gone deaf. I was still worrying, irrationally, that what happened to my ear in B.C. had damaged my hearing, though logically I knew that my zonked feeling was probably just a hangover from the bar night I’d just had for my birthday with Al and Marie. I got the Met tickets from the parents of a boy I’m tutoring who’s wonderfully rich and woefully stupid. Technically, you can go to the museum for free, but they ask you to buy a ticket–you can choose any price, or none at all. The idea of just ignoring the request and swanning in without paying was too intimidating, but paying for a free museum seemed wasteful on my limited budget. The pre-paid ticket was easy, anonymous. If I told Annie that, she’d make fun of me. Spineless. I know it.
On the bus, in this moment, it’s too quick. The whole thing seems like something that is happening but also not happening. I feel like I’m floating. I still have the little metal badge from the Met clipped to the neckline of my dress, a summer dress I’m wearing, because it is so oddly warm today. The only tiny working corner of my brain theorizes that this might be some sort of extreme ad campaign or maybe a movie shoot (how, somehow). Or something terribly strange
but legitimate, allowed. It can’t be real.
The gunman steps back a little, blinks a few times. He looks at the Plexiglas barrier that half-shields the driver’s seat. Then he shoots the driver in the head.
“Gripping, twisty novel! Killer ‘Peter Pan,’ hijacked bus, complex loves, more!” —@Margaret Atwood
“Grace O’Connell is a writer of fierce precision and her novel is enthralling. It captures the random traumas of living, and dying, in New York City with poetry and adrenalin.” —Emily Schultz, author of The Blondes
“Be Ready for the Lightning is gripping, tense and full of fear, but also generous, true and full of heart. By holding a crackling tension between the two, O’Connell takes us on a captivating exploration around the boundaries of family love.” —Claire Cameron, author of The Last Neanderthal
“A riveting story of an indelible life in all its vivid turmoil and everyday beauty. With wit, empathy, and wonder, Grace O’Connell has crafted a terrifically assured novel about how words can fail us and also how they can save us. I didn’t want it to end.” —Elan Mastai, author of All Our Wrong Todays
“Tense and razor-sharp, Grace O’Connell’s writing crackles. This book will stay with you long after the last page.” —Tanis Rideout, author of Above all Things
“Be Ready for the Lightning is both a gripping page-turner and a heartfelt examination of what it means to be compassionate, even in the most extreme situations. Cinematic and timely, it’s a book you will not be able to put down.” —Zoe Whittall, author of The Best Kind of People