It must have caught her just right, that forking bolt that found Vanessa jogging in a sun shower. She’d been darkly aware of something following, not unlike the occasional male jogger whose foot-strikes made her heart skitter until he passed. As the shadow of that solitary cloud had spread, she’d twisted her head to look behind. Seeing no joggers, she’d felt nevertheless a target. And then she was. The storm had spun up just enough to fire a single shot. A clear blue sky was backdrop to the paramedics when she’d come to. And hardly a hint of rain, outside of her sopping clothes.
Physical and psych evaluations came back normal, but Vanessa knew something was wrong. She felt guilty, mournful for the loss of something she couldn’t name. Online she found a survivors’ group that called themselves Struck. With her malaise deepening, she gave it a try. They’d all experienced the typical aftereffects—the illusion of lights brightening as they passed, ceiling fans speeding up. Premonitions of thunderstorms days in advance.
“Did you feel,” Vanessa asked of them, “like the lightning was meant for you? That you were supposed to die?”Their blank stares answered the question.Just curious, she mumbled, frustrated at managing to further isolate herself. At the end of the session, she closed the laptop and reached for Fisticuffs, her cat. His fur drew up toward her palm. He hissed and disappeared.
Vanessa had survived, but the world had changed. The air in her studio crackled. Inanimate objects seemed alive, even menacing. Power cables coiled, pre-strike. Socks crouched, ready to leap across the room to mate with her delicious charge. Outlets beckoned.
A spark of apprehension arced down her backbone. Another storm on its way.
Across town, a woman who was Vanessa’s mirror image sat on a couch in an otherwise unfurnished apartment. She too felt loss, the knowledge of past contentment: a job she’d gotten right after graduating, a cat—though his name escaped her. She sat a few more minutes. No, no, she thought, that was all wrong. She was new to the world, freshly manifested onto the couch. The life she’d reminisced belonged not to her, but to someone close to her. In the kitchenette she found a length of wire for hanging pictures and headed out, drawn eastward toward the waterfront. Someone—a friend?—lived there.
After work, Vanessa donned her raincoat and walked home. She clomped up the stairs to the top floor and into her studio at the end of the hall. Fisticuffs slithered underneath the couch. She refreshed his water and tossed a freezer-burned plank of something with peas into the microwave. A knock at the door.
Through the peep-hole Vanessa saw a clone of herself, soaked by rain. “Can I come in?” asked the woman.
Reflexively, Vanessa opened the door, a thousand unformed questions on her lips.
The clone entered and stood awkwardly.A glint from her hand. A knife?
“Why?” Vanessa asked.
The clone shrugged, then lunged. Vanessa dodged the strike and scrambled for the kitchen. She grabbed a chef’s knife from the cutting board and spun toward the attacker, whose momentum carried her onto the blade. Slumping against the fridge, hands woven across her wound, the clone slipped to the floor and groaned a quiet lament.
The door swung open. Another identical copy, this time with a screwdriver. Adrenaline surged and Vanessa leapt, punching the blade through the woman’s throat. The copy made no attempt to defend herself and dropped to the baseboard. Vanessa howled an inhalation and keened in anguish over the sudden violence, at this waking nightmare of chiral reflections. She stepped over the corpse to shut the door. A fresh new her had already arrived.
Back-pedaling, Vanessa tripped and crashed backward. The copy entered and gestured to the dead women with a gleaming scalpel. “You’re good.”
“What’s happening?” Vanessa asked.
“Here,” said the copy, kneeling, “I’ll show you.” She placed the scalpel between her teeth and took Vanessa’s hand in her own. The touch was tender and reassuring. She traced a finger down Vanessa’s wrist and stopped, taking the scalpel from her mouth. “Right here, I think.” Vanessa watched, docile and mesmerized, as the woman pressed her blade into the delicate skin.
“Wait,” Vanessa mumbled, “Wait!” She burst from the ground, toppling the woman and straddling her chest. “Why are you trying to kill me?”
The copy arched her back and slashed. Vanessa blocked the attack and hammered the big knife home.
With each death came another copy. None displayed malice or hate, only purpose. It did not matter that they put up little defense, for there was always another. An inexorable stream of murderous selves.
Outside, a grumble of thunder.
A new copy clambered through the morgue that had become the entryway, a lariat of wire in her grasp. She paused to look at a photo on the wall. “What’s our cat’s name?”
Vanessa, head spinning, croaked, “Fisticuffs.”
“That’s a good name.”
Something about the tiny metal lasso jarred a thought in Vanessa’s mind. The lightning had been fate coming to claim her, and her aberrant survival had unraveled it. The visitors were instruments of destiny, single-minded threads reaching out to cinch the cord back tight. Vanessa spoke, as much to herself as to the copy, “It was the lightning that sent you.”
The copy smiled and offered up the wire. Vanessa took it. The woman nodded and left, teetering through the corpses in their pooling black.
Vanessa draped the loop over her fingers so that it hung below her palm. She rounded the counter and into the kitchen, where she pressed down the toaster, then dangled the wire over its narrow mouth. The frayed ends teased the metal walls. I can stop if I want to, she said aloud. The wire went deeper. I can stop—and the lightning came.
Chris’s short fiction has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, Ghost Parachute, Trembling with Fear and others. As an artist, he draws album covers for tiny metal bands. He lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife, daughter, and a herd of dog-like freeloaders.