April McGowan

Short: Blackout

Black Out by April McGowan

‘Singleness is a state of mind’ the sign read.  Well, not only was Tracy single, she was also an orphan.  Could you call yourself an orphan if your parents died after you were eighteen?  It didn’t matter.  No matter how old you were when your parents died, you still felt like one.

In any case, she was alone on all counts and facing the day she’d dreaded most in her life.  The doctor said the news wasn’t good.  Wasn’t that just like a doctor?  It’s not good, but we won’t tell you how bad it’s going to be until you come in for an appointment.  Then you had to wait six weeks to for an appointment and pay exorbitant fees to be finally let in on the news.  What was that about?

The overhead lights flickered as the subway plowed along in the underground tunnel.  Tracy re-read the singles ad.  Flanking its left, an advertisement for Disneyland beckoned happy families to live out their perfect fantasy vacation.  On its right was an abuse hotline number.  And down below, a poster for depression, complete with check-off list.  Someone had checked them all off in shaky black scrawl.  They’d probably left their abusive relationship and were now single, not loving it, and unable to partake of the fantasy Disney getaway.

An itchy feeling built inside to take her pen out and check off all the boxes too.  Nothing like self-help on the subway.

Closing her eyes, she blocked out the signs and concentrated on the slight knock and rock of the speeding train.  The sound of a couple arguing over in-laws, the rustle of gum wrappers and crinkle of newsprint filtered through her thoughts.  She kept her eyes closed, playing the familiar game she’d begun as a child.  Picking out sounds and smells, concentrating on the little details around her, she memorized her surroundings.

The aroma of twenty different colognes and perfumes blended together with summer sweat, and her previous seating companion’s forgotten, half-eaten burrito.  Scuffling feet on metal floor tiles, whispers, and coughs mixed with the collage she built in her mind.  Then, the hollow sound of her own breathing filled her ears.  Darkness closed in, fear niggled and her eyes snapped open.

Take it all in; don’t forget a bit of it. The voice in her memory was as real as if her mother was sitting next to her reminding her to appreciate all she experienced every day.

The man across from her caressed his lover’s fingers, their glances locking as she whispered to him.  His smile, her shining eyes, spoke volumes.  To her left, an elderly man slid nearer his wife and spoke in gravely tones too deep to decipher.  She leaned closer, reached in her purse, and handed him a cough drop.  He squeezed her hand in thanks.

On her right, a man in a dark blue suit clutched his briefcase as he mechanically mumbled a sales pitch he would give moments from now.

A teenage boy sat next to him, dressed in the latest fashion of loose-fitting designer jeans and logo-laden, baggy t-shirt.  He tore tiny sheets of paper out of a small notebook, crumpled them into miniature projectiles and launched them expertly into the isle, bouncing them off the leg of the elderly man.  The old couple shot him annoyed looks, but his only response was a sarcastic grin.  His harried and oblivious mother shuffled through the multiple purchases stacked around their feet in oversized glossy sacks, verbally taking stock of the savings she made on each one.

The ride continued, shifting and jerking down the track.  The seams in the walls of the tunnels, dimly illuminated at times, rushed by at a dizzying speed.  Inside the lights flickered, retuned, and went out.  Blackness enveloped them like a fist.

Tracy held her breath, blinked rapidly, and gripped the seat as fear coursed through her like an electrical shock.  Was this it?

But then complaining voices rose in exclamation and dismay.  People around her cursed, packages dropped, feet shifted.  The train skated on, unstopping, unaware of the panic building in its cars.  Red emergency lights buzzed to life, casting a dim, dusty red glow over the throng.  A voice crackled over the loud speaker as way of apology for the inconvenience.

She relaxed, and her breathing returned to normal.  As her hands met in her lap, she rubbed the tension from her shaky fingers.  A second announcement thanked them for their patience, but it was premature.  All around her were sounds of protest.

“You’d think a city this size could afford better maintenance.”

“This happened last month, on this same route.  They should have fixed it by now.”

“I can’t read my paper in this light.”

“Where did my purse go?”

“Riding around in the dark, it’s just not safe these days.”

Then the mother saw the projectiles illuminated on the floor, glowing pink with guilt; she saw her son’s hands full of tiny wads, and more of the same gathering in the isle.  She smacked his hands and the miniature bombs flew into the air like New Year’s confetti.

“You’ll lose your computer for a week for that.”  She pushed her hair back and pulled her sacks in closer, wedging them between the two.

Darkness edged in, threatened, and stole their contentment.  The dark brought fear. She knew the fear—better than the rest.  A scream built in her chest.  She wanted to shout at them, to tell them this was only temporary, that they’d all see again.  Before the admonition could escape, the lights returned.

Everyone in the car winced under the brightness.  They appeared unharmed, but now a strange uneasiness swirled about them.  The lovers still held hands, but out of comfort—not passion.  The old woman laced her arm through her husband’s, her aged fingers clenched around his forearm.  The boy sat scowling at them, mourning his lost missiles, as if the old couple had caused all of his trouble.  The businessman still held his briefcase tight against his chest, but his mumbling ceased.

Their train pulled into the stop and the car emptied.  They had entered the car singly, contented, some even happy.  But they exited as an angry mass, their joy stolen by the dark, complaints and curses lacing their lips.

Tracy, last off, pulled her purse close and walked after them—a disgruntled mob made one in their bitterness.  Up the stairs, out into the bright sunlight, they dispersed before her.  The horns of autos, the shouts of food vendors, and the rush of people along the city streets all seemed to flow in slow motion.  Every detail captured in her mind, as if in a snapshot. She would never see any of those people again, but they and their reactions were glued into her scrapbook memory.

Her mother had known the darkness personally.  Blind from a genetic illness at the age of fourteen, she would often reminisce about the things she missed seeing, but also about the beauty all around that so many took for granted.

Tracy reached the tall office building and entered.  Inside, a vast, polished marble floor stretched before her.  She spied the elevator bays on the right and headed towards them, her tennis shoes squeaking with each step.  After calling the car, she waited only a moment for it to arrive.  Entering alone, she reached to push the button for the tenth floor.

Her fingers lingered on the smooth, golden-lit circle, then trailed over to the cool Braille bumps near it.  She closed her eyes and tried to memorize the pattern.  The elevator stopped to let on more passengers, and she pulled her hand away as if caught doing something wrong.  She backed into the corner, allowing the others to choose their destination.  When hers arrived, the computerized voice sang out her floor number, and she excused herself, squeezing between them.

A tall, blue directory met her as she left the elevator.  Listed on it were different medical offices, all edged in the same bumpy pattern.  She closed her eyes, reached out and traced her doctor’s name over and over.  Satisfied she knew it, she turned and walked down the long hall.  Wood edges lined the way, with breaks for guides.  Each door had a raised printed name.

She reached the office, entered and greeted the receptionist.  As she sat down, she picked up a magazine and noticed a variety of Braille booklets neatly stacked by each chair.  She had never noticed them before.  Maybe she hadn’t wanted to notice.  An involuntary shiver raced over her as she remembered her experience on the subway.

Really, she was blessed.  She’d had so much more time to prepare than her mother had.

“The doctor will see you now.”

Funny choice of words.

“Thank you.”

Copyright by April McGowan 2010

1 Comment

  1. Dad
    May 15, 2010

    Nice job. Kept me interested

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