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'I am an addict,' he said and his voice broke.
The man was tall, he was thin and his eyes were terrible to see. There were worlds in those eyes, worlds laid waste. As he spoke in a voice pained with emotion, he gazed into limbo, at some far flung internal image. And it pleased him and it cursed him and it seared his soul.
He stood in front of a simple chair, one of a number laid out in a circle. His legs were firm and strong but it was something else, some unseen force, that kept him upright. Around him were others like him, husks failing to obscure souls in torment. They were mere vessels, some almost empty, some more noticeably alive. Most were men, or at least vestiges of men; but there were women there too; there were white and black, old and young. Pain is an uncaring mistress, she discriminates not against those whom she enslaves. Some looked at the floor, averting their eyes; others looked back at those haunted orbs, as if willing themselves not to break the connection. But each carried some invisible scar that forever marked him apart.
Of them all, only one showed any outward signs of interest. No downturned eyes he, no fumbling fingers, no shuffling feet. His worn visage, free of scar or frown, shone with a radiance that touched all who beheld it. His posture was that of an animal, loose and fluid. He was a man who most would value as a friend and the name he used was Job.
He looked up at the tall, wasted man and smiled with a smile that held knowledge and understanding in its curves.
'Tell us your story,' he said, with a voice friendly with the concern that comes only from shared experience. 'Everyone here has a story to tell. Tell us yours.' And the man's eyes unglazed and slowly followed the words back to their origin, to focus on their speaker.
'I am an addict,' he said again and paused, as if unsure of where to go next.
Before the man could lose the force in him that enabled him to stand, Job spoke and his words wound their inexorable way to all present. 'We are all friends here. We have nothing to hide from each other. Each of us has been through something that most people would not survive. But we are alive and we are confronting that which tortures us. We tell our stories and we share our pain. We would hear your story, if you will, and we will listen.' And with that the man found his voice and the words flowed like water...
'My name is David and I am an addict and a madman and a murderer.
'I have reached the heights of pleasure and I have plumbed the depths of pain. The two are not so easy to distinguish as you might imagine. Until they affect someone else, someone close, someone you love.
'I used to call myself a lightning chaser. It was what I lived for, my every waking moment dreamt of the next time. I was an addict and I was hopeless in my addiction.
'It began on holiday. I was 24 with no ties, nothing to bind me to any one place. So I drifted, I went from place to place taking what work I could find. But always moving on. Maybe I was looking for that something that would make me whole. Everyone searches, even those who don't believe that there's anything left to find. But I found what I was looking for and then I destroyed it.
'I was on the moors; it was a beautiful day and my heart ached with the beauty of it. I could look out at the vast wilderness and see God's hand in its design. There were no pipelines, no pylons, no signs of man's perennial battle with nature. Here nature did as she would and man did not interfere.
'Then, as I walked, the sky grew dark, the clouds began to race, and darkness fell. A storm was brewing and I was as far from shelter that moment as I could imagine. Any creatures about had already found cover, leaving me alone in the open as the rain began to sheet and the wind began to howl. The sky boiled that day and hurled its anger at the world beneath. It was awe-inspiring to see and drenched and buffeted as I was, I was glad to see it.
'My blood boiled with the sky and my nerves tingled and I was alive. I was one with creation and I revelled in it. And then, laughing at my arrogance, the storm whipped back its arm and took its best shot. And I, a simple man, standing arms outstretched against the maelstrom of infinity, was crushed instantly. Maybe I felt the electricity, but by the time the zigzag of light hurtled up from my fingers to the heavens at a speed and with a power untouchable by imagination it had already gripped me in the firmest embrace and pummelled me into instant oblivion.
'When I awoke I found my senses stripped. I was more naked to the world than a newborn child. I looked at the sky and saw nothing. The rain could still have been pounding but I felt nothing. I could not hear the wind or the birds or my lungs shrieking. I could not taste the air or smell the pure sweetness that fills the gap left by the violence of nature unleashed. I had stood erect and arrogant against the full power of God's will and I had been destroyed utterly.
'Gradually as I lay there in nothingness, the senses returned to me. I saw the birds, heard their song, felt a oneness with the landscape. And my nerves were on fire. I rolled in the agony and pleasured in it. I was alive as no man had ever been alive and I realised that I could die and not care. I had reached the ultimate.
'They say that lightning never strikes twice. Now I'd felt it once I knew that I would forever burn for the time I could feel it again. I began to follow storms, tune in permanently to weather bulletins, forecasts and data pools. I made my way to the places where the incidence of storms is higher than anywhere else. Eventually I found my way to the United States and took up residence in Lightning Alley.
'And I'd do everything that people advised against. I'd stand in the open with my arms outstretched, making myself the largest target around, the highest point in the surrounding area. I'd hold up metal implements to bias the electric current towards me. And I'd get hit. Again and again and again. I'd stand naked, stripped of my clothes, my inhibitions and my humanity. I would become a human lightning conductor. And my body revelled in it.
'No drug could offer such a high, no orgasm could reach such a peak. I lived for the lightning. And, as if by mutual consent, it never harmed me. I read the literature, saw the documentaries. People are felled by lightning, instantly and totally. They don't even have to be hit - even a near miss can create a huge magnetic pulse that can wipe out a life without noticing. Some people are left outwardly unharmed yet inwardly their organs are seared into one unrecognisable mass. People are scarred for life and maimed and mentally destroyed. But I was the lightning chaser and it never harmed me.
'Admittedly what I was doing was strange behaviour by any standards. But there were others chasing lightning for different reasons. Scientists, meteorologists, students - all needed to study the phenomena which unleashes so much raw power. Photographers fought the storms to reward themselves with pictures of stunning beauty. And everyday people gazed through their car windows in openmouthed admiration at the awesome streaks that seemed to stab again and again at the earth.
'Of course I met some of these people. I talked with them, I shared stories with them, I even got close to some of them. And eventually I loved one of them. She was a student studying for her degree in meteorology. She was working with strike survivors, investigating the �tip-toe signs', tiny burnholes around the feet. She was in love with the weather patterns that alternately feed and pummel our ecosystems. She was in love with the storms and she was in love with me.
'So she came out with me on storm nights. She had her instruments and her notepads - even though her own research needed none of that - but soon she left them in the car and joined me in reaching for the ultimate. She trusted me, she believed in me. But while she was there we never got hit.
'It took months, and she never lost faith. But sometimes we thought it was over. Now I had her, maybe the lightning had left. Perhaps the heavens evened the balance, tilted the lightning away because I had something else in my heart to nurture. And perhaps we both began to believe it too. We were becoming one. The lightning was there for both of us, even though it never chose us to channel through. It was a constant for us, but our lives outside of the storms grew and flourished.
'And then it happened. It was a Tuesday, and the storms were fierce. The winds were wild, the rain was incessant and we were alive with the thrill of nature unleashed. We were naked, hand in hand, our arms stretched as high above our heads as we could manage, our toes biting into the mud. And we watched the lightning flash, the clouds blur and race and light up with the intensity of the strikes.
'And then we were hit. The first hit together. We didn't see it but we felt it. For one nanosecond in the ocean of infinite time we became the same. Our nerves blazed together, current surged in a frantic frenzy through our veins, our arteries; plunged its way through our organs and out into the sky to flicker and dart and illuminate the heavens. And we were oh so alive. Then nothing.
'It had been so long but I had never forgotten the ultimate afterglow. I could never forget. Waking and basking in the shadow of the force that gives our planet life and death, I knew true elation.
'But this time there was something different. Something that I'd never felt before. As my senses spasmodically returned I began to send out feelers, probes to investigate this new feeling. And gradually I began to see the horror of what I had done.
'For in that single nanosecond, that pulse in time, we had indeed become one. Mentally, psychically and physically. And we were still one. I could feel her body against mine, not resting, not leaning but attached; melted against me in the white heat of unknown power. Her flesh was now my flesh, her hands mine, her chest, her thighs mine, mine, mine. And she was dead.
'I couldn't stand, I couldn't think. My mind withdrew in stark horror at the reality of it; gibbered in shock. At that moment I was tinkering with insanity, lurching on the ridge of madness. And I only just brought myself back.
'I lay there for four days, eventually discovered by hikers in a state of mental and physical exhaustion. I was so close to comatose as makes no odds. But the doctors brought me back. They separated us, they grafted my skin and repaired my nerves. As best they could. The psychiatrists slowly patched my mind, brought my soul back from the unholy limbo to which I'd withdrawn.
'Look at me! Look at the scars! Oh, the scars!
'I killed her, I killed her as surely as if I had taken a knife to her throat. And in doing so I killed myself.
'I dream about the lightning. It is never out of my mind, never out of my thoughts. And it kills me slowly, every second of every day. For she's gone. The lightning is all I have left. It burns in the sky and it burns in my blood. I don't even have to see it, I can feel the changes in the atmosphere like a human barometer. I know when the storms are coming, I know how strong they'll be, and I know how I want to feel. I want to feel that incredible mindkilling rush of power that nothing can ever come close to.
'And I know I can't.
'Because it will only bring her back for me. The horror of it, the torture of it. And it will deny me the one thing I truly now desire. To join her.
'For I am the lightning chaser. And it torments me, it destroys me and it curses me. It won't give me the one thing it gives everyone else it touches.
'It won't kill me.'
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