Mia Price is a lightning addict. She’s survived countless strikes, but her craving to connect to the energy in storms endangers her life and the lives of those around her.
Los Angeles, where lightning rarely strikes, is one of the few places Mia feels safe from her addiction. But when an earthquake devastates the city, her haven is transformed into a minefield of chaos and danger. The beaches become massive tent cities. Downtown is a crumbling wasteland, where a traveling party moves to a different empty building each night, the revelers drawn to the destruction by a force they cannot deny. Two warring cults rise to power, and both see Mia as the key to their opposing doomsday prophecies. They believe she has a connection to the freak electrical storm that caused the quake, and to the far more devastating storm that is yet to come.
Mia wants to trust the enigmatic and alluring Jeremy when he promises to protect her, but she fears he isn’t who he claims to be. In the end, the passion and power that brought them together could be their downfall. When the final disaster strikes, Mia must risk unleashing the full horror of her strength to save the people she loves, or lose everything.
When you’ve been struck by lightning as many times as I have, you start to expect the worst pretty much all the time. You never know when that jagged scrawl of white fire, charged with a hundred million volts of electricity, might blaze down from the sky and find its mark on you; sear a hole like a bullet right through you, or turn your hair to ash; maybe leave your skin blackened to a crisp, or stop your heart; make you blind, or deaf, or both.
Sometimes lightning plays with you a little, lifts you into the air and drops you twenty yards away, blows your shoes off, or flash-fries the clothes from your body, leaving you naked and steaming in the rain. Lightning could wipe the last few hours or days from your memory, or overload your brain, short-circuiting your personality and rendering you a completely different person. I heard about a woman who was struck by lightning and cured of terminal cancer. A paraplegic who was given the ability to walk again.
Sometimes lightning strikes you, but it’s the person standing next to you who ends up in the hospital. Or the morgue.
Any of that could happen, or none of it, or something else no one’s ever heard of. The thing about lightning is you never know what it’s going to do to you. Lightning could turn you into some kind of freakish human battery, storing up energy, leaving you with the persistent feeling that any day now you’re going to spontaneously combust. Like a bomb is going to go off inside you and do, well . . . what bombs do best.
Or maybe that’s just me.
My name is Mia Price, and I am a human lightning rod. Do they make a support group for that? They should, and let me tell you why.
My name is Mia Price, and I am a lightning addict.
There. Now you know the truth. I want the lightning to find me. I crave it like lungs crave oxygen. There’s nothing that makes you feel more alive than being struck. Unless, of course, it kills you. It does that to me from time to time, which is why I moved to Los Angeles. As the song says, it never rains in Southern California. But the song also says when it pours, it pours.
The song is right.
My name is Mia Price, and it’s been one year since my last strike, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped expecting the worst. Lightning only strikes in L.A. a handful of times every year. The problem is, I traded thunderstorms for earthquakes, one earthquake in particular. The one that changed the city, and my life, forever.
That day, the day of the worst natural disaster to hit the United States, oh, pretty much ever . . . it rained.
Actually, it poured.
Lightning never strikes twice in the same place.
Three days until the storm . . .
I don’t sleep much. An hour here. Two hours there. Chronic insomnia, it’s one of my more tolerable lightning strike aftereffects. Not as bad as the veiny red scars that cover me from neck to toes, or the burning in my chest that flares hotter when I get a little emotional. Insomnia? Eh. It could be worse (and usually is). Most people wish they had more hours in the day. I keep almost the full twenty-four.
When I go to bed at night, it’s not with the intention to sleep. If sleep happens, great. If it doesn’t, well, that’s something I’ve gotten used to.
So when I opened my eyes and saw a guy standing over my bed, I had to assume I’d finally fallen asleep. And when I noticed the shiny silver knife gripped in his hand—the kind of pretty, decorative blade that has no practical application but murder—I decided this was not a dream I wanted to see through to the end. It would have been nice to stay asleep a bit longer, but now I was going to have to wake myself before Nightmare Boy used his knife to gut me.
“Wake up, Mia,” I told myself in a voice that came out hoarse and scratchy, like it would have if I’d actually awakened.
The guy startled back from my bed. He dropped the knife and it fell straight down and stuck in the wood floor with a thunk. Must be sharp. He scrambled to yank it free, but looked unsure what to do with it after that. His face was in shadow, but his wide, white eyes and jerky movements told me he was as scared as I was supposed to be. As far as nightmares went, he wasn’t too bad. I decided to stay asleep.
I closed my eyes, hoping I’d open them to a new dream.
But there were no more dreams that night, only Nightmare Boy’s soft, retreating footsteps.
When I opened my eyes again, feeling as though I hadn’t slept at all, it was the morning I’d been dreading. The morning when my brother, Parker, and I would return to school for the first time since the quake.
We had a dream dictionary kicking around the house somewhere. If I consulted it, I was pretty sure it would confirm my suspicion that a knife in your dream was a bad omen. Not that I needed an omen to give me the heads up that this day was going to suck.
As I dragged myself out of bed, I noticed a small split in the floor, right about where Nightmare Boy’s knife had lodged itself in the floorboards. Strange. Then again, there were plenty of other little cracks and splits on the old floor of my restored attic bedroom.
I put thoughts of the dream away. I had bigger problems— real problems—to worry about. I didn’t know what to expect back at school, but if the changes that had taken root throughout the rest of the city were any indication, I should probably give in and expect the worst, as usual.
Thanks for the warning, Nightmare Boy. Not that it’ll do me any good.
I stood outside Mom’s bedroom door and listened to Prophet’s muffled voice. I couldn’t make out what he said, but after a month of Mom obsessively watching his televised sermons, I could guess the subject matter.
The end of the world is at hand.
Those who surrender their souls to Prophet will be saved. Those who don’t will suffer and die and suffer some more.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We heard you the first time.
“Mom?” I tapped on the door before turning the knob. It was seven in the morning, and outside the sun was doing its job, but Mom’s bedroom was a cave. She sat at her window in the grungy bathrobe she hadn’t shed in days, peeking through the slats in the blinds. Her eyes traveled back and forth between the window and the TV, which was playing The Hour of Light, Rance Ridley Prophet’s morning broadcast. He did three shows a day: morning, midday, and evening. Ever since we brought her home from the hospital, Mom had been obsessed with Prophet. The only way she missed his broadcast was if the electricity or cable went out. I almost looked forward to those outages now.
“Brothers and sisters,” Prophet intoned, “God will soon make His final judgment. You must decide now on which side you will stand, on the side of heaven, or on the side of earth and its wicked, worldly pleasures. Will you be lifted up, raptured to paradise, or laid low by God’s terrible vengeance?”
Prophet’s voice drowned out my entrance into the bedroom. Sometimes I wondered if Mom’s hearing was somehow damaged during the quake. She seemed so oblivious to what went on around her. The doctor who attended to her for all of five minutes before he gave her bed away to someone more needy said she was fine. Malnourished and dehydrated, but she’d live. After three days trapped under a collapsed building, she had some bad bruises, a few cracked ribs, and a dozen lacerations on her face and arms— caused by the wall of glass that had exploded near her when the building started to buckle—most of which had nearly healed by now. Physically, she was as sound as could be expected. Mental health was another matter.
The Internet—along with our utilities and cable—had been in and out since the quake, but when our connection was working I’d researched Mom’s symptoms until I determined what was wrong with her: Acute Stress Disorder—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’s evil twin on steroids—caused by a traumatic event, which is reexperienced in flashbacks, anxiety, delusions, emotional detachment, even amnesia.
Mom had all the symptoms and then some. She should have been in a hospital, under the care of a psychiatrist and a team of nurses tending to her round the clock. But the hospitals were still full of patients with actual life threatening injuries, people with broken backs and crushed limbs and infected burns. People suffering from earthquake fever, an immunity disorder caused by mold released from the ground during the quake. People so malnourished and dehydrated from the lack of food and water in the city that the only way their bodies would accept nutrients was through a tube. There were no beds for those with functioning bodies but malfunctioning minds.
The upside was Acute Stress Disorder usually lasted a maximum of four weeks, and it had been four weeks to the day since the earthquake. Three weeks and four days since rescue workers pulled Mom’s unconscious, dehydrated body from beneath several tons of rubble. It was a miracle she’d still been breathing. The people who’d been found with her were not so lucky. Some were crushed instantly. Others suffocated, and it was their deaths that saved my mom’s life. There wasn’t enough oxygen in the small cavern beneath the wreckage to go around.
Four weeks since the quake . . . it seemed like four thousand.
“Mom?” I said again. I kept my voice low, gentle, as though my words might hurt her if they came out too hard. She stiffened and her shoulders hunched as she craned her head around. It had been so long since she’d washed her hair that it appeared wet with grease. The scars on her face stood out in waxy, salmon-colored lines against skin that hadn’t seen the sun in weeks. It was an effort not to flinch every time I looked at her. At least my face had been spared from the lightning scars that etched the rest of my body. Mom’s face, on the other hand . . . she would need plastic surgery to remove the scars if she didn’t want to be reminded of the quake every time she looked in a mirror.
“We have already begun to witness God’s wrath,” Prophet continued. “He whispered to me that He would strike Los Angeles only minutes before His fist came down. The end of all things is at hand, brothers and sisters, and it will commence right here, in Los Angeles. For this is not the city of angels, but a city where devils rule from their hillside mansions and immense studios, spreading their corruption like a plague through your television screens and movie theaters and the Internet. Is it any surprise, in a city so amoral, that our young people—the ones who call themselves ‘rovers’—dance and drink and cavort on the graves of the dead in the Waste?”
I turned the volume down, averting my gaze from the milky orbs of Prophet’s eyes. His snowy hair avalanched over his shoulders, thick and frosty as a polar bear’s pelt, though he couldn’t be older than thirty-five, with that peanut-butter-smooth, tanned face. That bleach white crescent of a smile. But mostly when I looked at him I saw the eyes, empty and opaque, filmed with cataracts.
“Mom, Parker and I have to go,” I said.
“What?” she finally responded. “Where . . . where are you going?” Her voice dragged, weighted with the antipsychotics and anti-anxiety medications I’d procured for her through less than legitimate means. Even if I could get Mom an appointment with one of the overburdened doctors in the city, they’d just give me prescriptions I couldn’t fill. Pharmacies had been looted within the first days after the quake. Supplies of food, water, and medications were trickling back into the city by air, but with most of the freeways shut down, and the trucks that did make it in being looted, there wasn’t enough to go around.
When the quake hit, there were nineteen million people living in the greater metropolitan area. The population had thinned since then. Those who could manage it had abandoned the city like the proverbial sinking ship. But there were still too many people to feed and medicate. Even counting the private jets celebrities loaned to aid organizations, there were only so many planes and helicopters available to import goods. Supplies were divided up for the area hospitals and clinics and consumed as soon they left the trucks. If the trucks made it from the airports to their drop-off destinations.
The only option I was left with for getting Mom’s meds was the black market. I knew I was buying the same pills that were being stolen, but I couldn’t afford to care. My moral compass didn’t point the same direction it used to.
“Mom,” I said again. I could tell she was having a hard time focusing on me. Half her attention was on the window and half on Prophet. “Parker and I have to go back to school today. But we’ll come straight home after. You’ll only be alone for a few hours.”
A look started to surface on Mom’s face. Terror at the prospect of being left alone in the house, with rioting and looting still going on throughout the city, water and power and cell service still unreliable.
Mom twisted her hands together in her lap, like she was trying to mold them into some new shape. “What if someone tries to get in while you’re gone?”
“I checked the doors and windows. Everything’s locked up tight. No one’s getting in.” It was a good thing I’d checked the windows again this morning. I’d found the one in the garage unlocked. It was a small window, but someone could squeeze through if he or she really wanted to.
Mom unraveled her fingers and parted the blinds again. “There was a boy watching the house earlier. A boy your age with glasses. I’ve seen him before. I can’t . . . can’t remember where. He saw me looking and he went away. I know him from somewhere, Mia. I know him, but I can’t remember.” She pounded both fists against her temples so hard I jumped. “I don’t understand why you both have to go. Can’t one of you stay here with me? I don’t want to be alone in this house with him out there watching.”
I didn’t want to tell her why it was so important that both Parker and I return to school, why it couldn’t wait another week. We were down to our last cans of food, and the few schools that had reopened not only offered free lunch, but the kids who started attending classes again got priority aid. Parker and I would each receive a ration of food to take home with us for every day we showed up.
This was not about education. It was about survival.
Mom’s fists were curled against her temples, her body hunched like she was bracing for impact. Was there really someone watching the house, or was she seeing things again?
“Mom . . . Mom, I need you to take your pills before we leave.” Xanax for anxiety. Thorazine for the hallucinations and flashbacks. Ambien at night to make her sleep.
She pulled her chin against her chest. “I already took them.”
“Are you sure?” I sounded patronizing, but Mom hardly ever remembered to take her pills. Most of the time she hardly seemed to remember her own name.
She gave me a sharp look. “I’m sure,” she said.
A soft knock at the open door. Parker poked his head in, his thick, straw-colored hair, still wet from the shower, hung in his eyes. The water was on today. That had been a relief. I hadn’t taken more than a handful of showers since the quake, and I didn’t want to return to school smelling like one of the Displaced.
Parker went to Mom, put his arms around her. “Love you,” he said. “We’ll be back before you know it, okay?”
Mom tensed at his touch. Parker released her, trying not to look hurt by her rejection, but I knew he was. Out of the two of us, Parker had always been the sensitive one. “Empathetic” was the word Mom used to describe him, but it was more than that. Parker didn’t just empathize. He was a “fixer.” When someone was hurting, he tried to find a way to make them better.
But Parker couldn’t crack the wall Mom had put up around herself, and it was killing him. Mom’s rejection wasn’t personal, though. At least, that was what I told myself. But she didn’t like people to get too close anymore. Every day she seemed to fold more tightly into herself, growing smaller and smaller, as though she were still being crushed under that fallen building.
“I’ll wait in the car.” Parker avoided my eyes as he walked past me, but I saw they were wet, and I felt emotion close my throat.
When he was gone, I went to Mom. I wanted to hug her, too, even though I knew she would be as rigid and unresponsive as a twist of wood. But more than that, I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her and demand she come back to us. We needed her.
My eyes strayed to the TV. On screen, the camera panned back, revealing the stage. Several identically dressed teenagers—the boys wearing crisp white shirts and white slacks, the girls in long white dresses—flanked Prophet on each side. Two of them were twins, a boy and a girl, with white-blond hair a shade more ivory than Prophet’s; both so tall and thin, they looked like they’d been stretched. Prophet’s entourage of adopted children. His Twelve Apostles, he called them, though I only counted eleven on stage with him.
Considering how Prophet had managed to brainwash millions of people into believing he was not just a man named Prophet, not just a prophet, but the prophet God had chosen to let us know the world was about over, I didn’t want to imagine the conditioning that went on in the privacy of the man’s home.
“He’s out there again . . . watching the house,” Mom said urgently. “The boy. Look.”
I bent to squint through the blinds into the bright sunlight. People passed by on the sidewalk, wandering aimlessly. The Displaced. Those whose homes had been destroyed by the earthquake. But I didn’t see any boy watching the house.
“What does he want?” Mom asked. Her hand fluttered to her face; fingers traced the knotted line of a jagged pink scar along her jaw.
“I don’t know,” I told her, hearing the despair in my voice, thick as an accent.
Her voice shook. “Everything is coming apart, and Prophet says things are only going to get worse. He knows what’s coming, Mia. God speaks to him.”
God. Oh, God, God, God. I was sick of hearing about God, maybe because I hadn’t heard much about him (or her, or it) since Mom’s mom—our fanatically God-fearing, Bible-thumping grandma—passed away a couple years ago. After that, Mom was free to stop pretending she bought into Grandma’s fire and brimstone theology. Grandma went to the grave thinking her daughter would someday join her in fluffy white-cloud heaven, instead of plummeting straight to hell, where my father was roasting on a spit with the rest of the unbelievers.
Mom always claimed she was firmly agnostic despite her extreme evangelical upbringing. She didn’t believe in anything in particular, and she was perfectly content to wait until she died to find out the real deal. I figured her obsession with Prophet was a phase born out of desperation, like people on an airplane who start praying when they go through a nasty bit of turbulence.
I touched Mom’s shoulder. It was a hard, protruding angle. She was nothing but bones under her bathrobe.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” I told her, even though the words had lost their meaning from too frequent use. I was always saying them to someone now, to Mom, to Parker, or to myself.
“Be careful out there,” Mom said, touching me briefly on my gloved hand before pulling away. “Take care of your brother.”
“I will.” I turned to go, and Prophet whispered over my shoulder, like he was standing right behind me. “And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood.”
“The time is coming,” Prophet said. “The end is coming.”
Struck © Jennifer Bosworth 2012