The change in pressure, the prickle on skin. These heightened senses come with the territory, and some of us believe we have powers—our presence drains power from cell phones, streetlights go dark when we walk beneath them, we can fuck all night. I’m not a believer. As a scientist, I can’t get on board without proof. But I see the appeal. It’s a comfort to think we’re in control. But also, it’s madness.
Butterfly, a thirty-something in a wheelchair, tells us at the opening mixer she’s got no sense of hot and cold ever since that day, three years ago, a bolt threw her thirty feet into a ditch. “Watch this.” She plunges her fist into a bucket of ice on the bar and pulls out a handful of cubes. We watch her squeeze this ice in her palm for 5, 10, 15 seconds. “I can stay like this,” she says, eyes wide. “All. Night. Long.”
“So?” we say.
“It’s my power,” she says. “Withstanding extreme temperatures.” She shakes her red-cold dripping fist in our faces. “Maybe I could walk into a burning house, you know, to save people. Or swim in the arctic sea.”
Maybe, we say, our collective eyebrow raised.
Here at the Lightning Strike and Electric Shock Survivors International World Conference, we have trouble making friends. It’s ironic, seeing as most of us—ninety staying here at the Mainstay Suites Hotel in Pigeon Forge—come for the camaraderie. But it’s a fine line. We want to connect, but not too much. We are easily agitated. A sideways glance can devolve into a fist fight in seconds. It’s the gift of having been a conductor for some 500 megajoules. But it’s okay. Lots of us won’t remember being here, let alone whom we met and why they bugged the shit out of us. We want to be understood. And yet, we hardly know ourselves.
I come for the food. It’s good and it’s free. All I have to do is show up, which, these days, is one of a few things I don’t suck at. Since I was struck by lightning—not really an accident, not a disease—I can’t work. I can’t get disability. I live with my parents who, at seventy-five and seventy-eight, are on the way to needing their own care. And I’m no help. “Christie,” they say, “it’s no good for you here. Get out of the house and do something!”
So here I am.
Day one we tell stories. We sit in a circle of uncomfortable chairs in the air-conditioned second floor conference room of this eighties-era hotel. No windows, lots of crimson and grey. The carpet smells like wet dog. We clutch the conference program on our laps—churchy cover sporting sunbeam-backlit clouds—like it’s a grounding wire.
Tina, a former transcriptionist from Chattanooga, was withdrawing money from an ATM. “I woke up on a stretcher, back of the ambulance,” she says. “Sirens blasting my eardrums.”
Glen was shutting off electric. He’s been through war, but says this is worse.
“Hiking in a thunderstorm,” reports Clara, an impish waif with smoky blue eyes the color of a Martian sunset—same color as the sky on my day, four years ago, the last day I was in control of anything. I was a professor of space physics then, my head situated firmly in the magnetosphere. But it was the troposphere that got me.
I was running. It was overcast—not stormy—unsure whether to clear up or set in. My lungs were heavy with the work when I crested the hill. My body like a pot on fire, blood thrumming in my ears. There was sweat in my eyes, clouding my vision, but I could still see beauty in the scene before me. Across a field of wild grass, puffs of cotton hung in the air like clumps of snow. Nothing outside this image of stillness in the midst of work. I got this rush of gratefulness. I thought it was adrenaline, this feeling of invincibility, of awe. And then blindness. Not darkness but its opposite, like being blinded by light. I woke up in the hospital thirty-two days later.
“My day was clear,” Butterfly interjects, digging a finger in one of the acne-scar craters on her face. “That’s why no one believes me.” A communal nod surfs the crowd. “One minute I’m picking strawberries,” she says, “the next I’m face-down in an irrigation ditch with my clothes all shredded.”
“Thank you, Butterfly,” says Mark, the conference co-founder and chair (beach volleyball during a thunderstorm, twenty-five years ago), who is good at keeping us on track. Butterfly’s got a knack for hogging the stage, finding ways, however unrelated, to circle any topic back to her. “Let’s hear from Paul,” Mark says, pointing to a thirty-something man in a wife beater and cargo shorts. Paul Montrose, from Cedar Falls, is not only the newest conferee, he’s also the most recently struck—six weeks ago. He’s got the Lichtenbergs to prove it. The marks show up on some people right after a strike, and he’s got ’em, the beautiful, henna-colored fractals flowering his biceps. None of us will say that Paul is hands-down the hottest guy at this conference. But we think it. With his survivor’s glow, the quiet, unagitated calm before the storm, his kind of electricity is intoxicating. Maybe that’s his power.
“I was on the phone,” Paul stumbles. His gaze falls to his lap. “In my kitchen. I didn’t know you could get hit inside.”
“A lot of people don’t.” Mark takes the lead. “That’s one reason we’re here. To raise awareness. And together, we can get the information out there so others are protected.”
Lighting safety is Mark’s directive, and we all agree in principle, but for now our attention is laser-focused on Paul. We sit on the edge of our seats. We stare, salivating like a bunch of cannibals. Yes, because he’s gorgeous. But also, because he’s got proof.
“We can’t change what happened to us, but we can get our message of safety out there,” Mark says. “We can help keep people like Paul from being harmed.” Paul looks at Mark like his words usher salvation. And we all glom onto this possibility in Paul’s face, so that we might ride it awhile, too.
At lunch we crowd to get a photo with Paul. “Can we touch?” we say. Our hands reach out for his biceps. “Does it burn?”
“A little,” he says, flinching slightly.
“It’ll fade,” Velma Solomon says about Paul’s Lichtenbergs, later, when he’s out of earshot. Two years ago Velma got herself scar tattooed with the path she thinks the bolt took through her body—down her right side from her eye to her arm and leg, along the top of her foot. This, her kind of therapy. Or proof. Or maybe just something to do. “Pretty soon, he’ll be just like the rest of us,” she says.
A lot of us have exes. Thirty-two days I was in a coma, my boyfriend was at my bedside nearly the whole time. I don’t remember any of it. Not his words or his touch. Not his absolute commitment to my recovery, what he said brought me back.
“I talked about my love for you,” he said after I woke up. “And your finger moved. Then your whole hand. You heard me!”
“I must have,” I said. He needed it to be true.
“You love me,” he said.
He didn’t answer. He cried.
The more time goes by, the more normal we look. But our mood swings give us away. A manifestation of migrating pain and foggy thoughts and an overwhelming uncertainty. We’re not the people we were, and no one likes waking up to a stranger in their bed. When things fall apart, we seek out people like us, the only people we’ve got. For a day at this conference we can relate. But that’s about it. Inevitably, we run out of things to say.
After lunch, we start with the awards.
“Who’s your vote for Survivor of the Year?” asks Rick Allen—electrical burns over 45% of his body—crunching pork rinds from the machine. We look at him blankly. Shouldn’t we all be rewarded for making it through another day? But somebody’s got to win. This year it’s Bradley Loundsjacket, Striker turned entrepreneur. He’s gone and invented a wearable Faraday cage, a full body suit of chainmail with a helmet like from an antique diving suit. Demonstrating, he puts his feet and then legs into the chainmail suit, sliding it up his torso and onto his arms, which is no small feat. “I’m calling it…” He takes a superhero stance, hands on hips and feet spread wide. “Faraday Wear!” he yells out in a big statement. A few of us clap, some others whisper, and more sit and gawk. This development is amazing, but also a little sad, and none of us can decide which to be, ecstatic or embarrassed. “There’s a market,” Brad adds, hoping for more. He stretches his arms out like wings. “And it’s HUGE!”
It’s ridiculous, of course, and definitely we all want a suit, because once you’ve been unlucky enough to get hit, you don’t go outside the way you used to. Always waiting for nature to creep up on you, like some skeevy stalker. But you can only hole up in an interior room for so long. You have to step outside eventually. I’ve had more than one panic attack walking from the front door to my car, from my car to the mall. The fear, the body memory, even now, every time it storms, every time I walk outside, it’s there. The strongest feeling I know.
It was years ago, our loved ones and friends say. Adapt, move on. Live! But there’s no erasing a strike, no filling it with something else. There’s only shouldering it. We devise our own well-meaning, ultimately insufficient ways to deal. I sell stuff on Craig’s List to make money. Graduate students and new faculty come to my parents’ house to make the deal. “What a nice desk,” they say. “What beautiful bookshelves.”
“Retired,” I say when they ask if I’m at the University. Sometimes they want to know more. “Space physics,” I tell them. I watch their faces shift to impressed and I feel momentarily validated. “Check or cash only,” I say.
In the middle of Doctor Jolene McAllister’s talk on “Getting it Together,” a storm comes through and everybody loses it. Rain pounds the building, white noise fills our ears. We squirm, sink into our shoulders like turtles trying to recede into ourselves. […]
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