The setting sun’s light streaked across the Plains under a dark wall of roiling clouds, to shine on curtains of rain and make a triple rainbow. Lightning scorched the clouds, the electric streaks like something out of a monster movie.
His camera captured the moment perfectly. The gigapixel sensor recorded every photon of the stunning scene through the costly wide-angle lens. He took two more shots for insurance, but he knew he’d gotten it on the first exposure. This was it! This was the photo he’d spent a lifetime hunting, the one that would put all his earlier storm-sunset pictures to shame. This shot would guarantee immortality in the art world. Perhaps it would even make him a superstar, known at last to the world beyond the narrow province of artists.
He could imagine the work emblazoned on magazine covers and Websites and on the slick pages of costly photo books, giant full-size prints adorning the walls of the rich. He could see himself at the gallery opening, standing proudly next to his original oil painting based on the coveted photo. As his fame skyrocketed, so would his wealth. This was the shot that would make all the struggle worthwhile. All that youthful poverty as he labored in darkrooms … all the marriages and divorces and alimonies … all the little larcenies against his gallery and agency (and, yes, he prided himself on being the rare artist who could rip off his representatives faster than they could screw him) … every trauma and tribulation was made suddenly worthwhile because of this one shot.
Of all the loves in his life, the sky was the greatest. Sure, the women were wonderful, when they weren’t suing him. And all the adventures — to distant lands, to meetings with important people, to drug-addled swinger parties — were certainly thrilling. But the sky, the unfathomably beautiful sky — where troubles were swallowed up instantly, where life’s meaning took flight to become infinite — that was what really mattered. The sky was his true lover, the one he could always come back to for sustenance. The sky was a woman, the ultimate woman, and with his camera he made love over and over to that great, tumultuous, ever-changing vault above him.
The sun dipped below the horizon; the evening darkened. A weird green-gray color suffused the air, and he knew the thunderstorm would soon be directly overhead. He had his equipment protected with an umbrella, but the wind had picked up. It was time to get back to the car.
Hailstones pattered the umbrella. He stuck out a hand to collect a few: they were the size of rice. Still, it could get worse, so he opened up the cases and began quickly to break down the equipment.
Suddenly the hailstorm was much heavier. He reached out a hand; now the hail — ow! — was the size of golf balls. The umbrella, battered, began to cave inward under the assault. Quickly he folded up the tripod, detaching the camera.
Now the ice was the size of tennis balls. The umbrella collapsed entirely. Heavy stones assaulted his bare head and shoulders. The car was parked alongside the highway more than a hundred yards distant. Panicked, he tucked the camera under his coat and began a mad dash for the vehicle.
Now the stones pelted him like baseballs from a pitching machine gone mad. It was relentless, brutal. He tried to cover his head with his arms, but the camera — with its precious photographic cargo — dangled loosely, vulnerable to the icy assault. He tried running curled up but made slow progress.
The stones struck him continuously about the head. Dizzy, stunned, he tripped on something and collapsed atop his camera. He heard a heartbreaking crunch as it disintegrated. The stones roared down, beating him mercilessly.
The picture was probably ruined. His creditors, already baying, would soon devour the rest of him. How horribly ironic that the best picture of his life should be destroyed by the very sky that begat it.
Blood trickled from his nose and ears; his vision had blurred. In a final effort to protect his head, he tried to raise his hands, but they wouldn’t move. Maybe some of the biggest hail had damaged his vertebrae.
He felt oddly detached, now merely curious about what was happening to him. Was this some sort of punishment for a life of misdeeds? He wanted to shrug, but he couldn’t move.
As consciousness faded, he had one last thought:
How strange that the thing I love the most is stoning me to death.