Monday, August 13, 2012

Tabula Rasa


Friday, May 5th, 2000.  6:54 AM, Central Time.

Glory’s left arm twitches, once, twice.  She immediately leans left toward a chair at the dining table, falling roughly into it as her eyelids begin to flutter.  She knows what’s coming next.

Her legs hang crooked to her right, her arms splayed out across the table.  As she stares out at the world, mute and paralyzed, Glory is surprised to see that her few remaining party guests are having troubles of their own.  Clutching their heads and staggering, Len and Hannah lean on each other behind the island in the open kitchen; the lights flicker, and Keith takes a knee in the middle of the rug.  Someone on the couch, at the edge of Glory’s vision, has her head between her knees.

It passes.

Glory rubs a clammy palm over her forehead, absently straightens her hair.  That was short, thank the stars.  She sets her feet in front of her to stand, sets her hands on the table, and rises to her feet.  Her left arm trembles again, and it’s back – staring at the table now, she can’t see her surroundings.  The lights are suddenly much brighter to her, she hears the microwave running, the ceiling fan’s motor whum-whum-whums in a quickening crescendo.  Seconds go by, and it eases enough for her to sit in her chair, but does not pass.  The lights dim, everything’s quiet, someone gasps.  As Glory raises her head, it comes on again in a slow wave, brightening the lights once more.  She can definitely hear the microwave running.  That’s not right.  It’s never like this.  Alarms sound, the shrill beeps of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.  A dull thump as someone falls to the ground.  One by one, lights begin to pop and flare, her stereo screams a burst of static and dies, the detectors drop out, and Glory registers one brief moment of silence as she slips away.


Glory opens her eyes.

Her mind tumbles together in a pile of fragments.  Table.  Promotion.  Early weekend.  Party all night.  Her vision coheres as she orients herself in space.  She lifts her head from the table and cradles it in her hands.  What on Earth was that?!  She sits for some seconds in silence and stillness, concentrating on her breathing.

She leans back in her chair and takes in the scene.  Michelle’s still on the couch, head between her knees.  Jennie’s on the other end, in the fetal position.  Keith is passed out across the runner coming from the hallway.  Pile of broken glass in the corner, where her lamp’s bulbs burst.  The ceiling fan, thankfully, has a glass bowl, but the blades have fully stopped.  The television is visibly burnt out, but intact.  What time is it?  The clock on the wall says 12:45, its second hand still – Glory turns around and looks out her window at early morning over Lake Michigan.  That’s a battery-powered clock.  How long ago did I change the batteries, though?  Or how long was I out?

“Is – is everybody OK?”  Nobody stirs.

She stands to survey the damage.  Vitals first.  She goes to Michelle, lifts her by the shoulders into an upright position, and tucks her two fingertips into her neck to check her pulse.  Normal, she’s breathing fine.  Glory gives her a quick jostle.

“Hey, Michelle.  You all right?”  No response.  She stands up and goes to Jennie at the other end of the couch.  Normal pulse, breathing fine, unresponsive.  Same with Keith, and with Len and Hannah.  OK, at least nobody’s hurt in obvious ways.  She sets about checking all her stuff.

The microwave’s digital panel has literally burnt out, scorched plastic testifying its uselessness.  Refrigerator presumably dead, and best left shut.  Gas from the oven, water from the faucet.

In her bedroom, her laptop has fused with its power cord, the screen burnt out.

“Oh, no.  Oh, no no no no no –“ she says, calculating exactly how much of a pain in the ass it will be to replace.  And by Monday at the latest.  Glory heads back out to the living room and grabs her purse from the dining table, fishing out her phone.  Its screen is also burnt out.  “Shit!”  Wait.

What kind of power surge would blow out my cell phone?  And knock everybody out?  Was that an EMP?  Are we under attack?  Is that even how EMPs work?

Glory goes to the window, stares down nine floors over Lake Shore Drive and the golf course between her building and the lake.  Cars are on the street, but not moving.  A few are crashed, but most are just stopped cold on the road.  She checks her landline on the table nearby, just to be sure – nothing.  No beeps or tones or even white noise.  What is going on?

She heads back to her bedroom and sits down at her desk, head in her palms and thumbs circling her temples.  OK, think it out.  It was like a crazy electrical disturbance, but it seemed to knock everybody out and gave me a seizure.  Everybody else was drinking, but I only had two drinks four hours apart, thank-you-very-much, and – wait, what if I’m dreaming right now?  She stares at her hands, wills them to grow another finger, glow blue, waggle oddly.  Nothing.  OK.  I still haven’t slept.  Whatever it was, my building’s still locked, and I’ll be better at making decisions after I’ve had some sleep.  What time is it?

Her eyes land on her pocketwatch, beneath a picture of her and her friends in costume.  Right!  That’s the real spring-driven thing!  She raises it to her ear and hears the familiar ticking, then presses the button to release the cover’s catch.  Seven fifty-seven on the fifth of May.

Glory wakes up from a dreamless sleep, clear-headed and dry-mouthed.  She sits up in bed, yawns, and remembers her circumstances in a worrying flash.  She stands and goes to her desk, checks her pocketwatch:  quarter to one.

She steps out into the hallway in her shorts and T-shirt, sees Keith’s shoe on the floor.  I could put him… wait… on Jennie’s bed, or Michelle’s.  But then I ought to move Len and Hannah, too.  Or just wake them up.  Or just let them sleep it off.  She checks to make sure everyone’s still breathing, then gets herself a glass of water.  I’m not qualified to deal with this.  Sip.  But I should look around and see what’s going on.  Sip.  Sip.  Pause.  Gulp.  Pour.  Sip.  Yeah.  Just let yourself out the back way, walk around a few blocks, see what’s going on.  If it’s small, you’ll figure it out and things will get back to normal.  If it’s big, you’ll figure that out and things will take longer to get back to normal.  But first get the lay of the land, right?

She heads back to her bedroom, dresses,  grabs her purse and heads out her front door into the hallway.  Dark.  Wonderful.

Glory heads back to her hall closet and grabs a big yellow flashlight from up on the shelf.  She points it into her open hand and flips the switch – nothing.  She toggles it back and forth – twice nothing.  She walks back to her bedroom for the little red flashlight in her nightstand.  Also out.  But I have batteries for this one!  She goes to her desk and fishes a pair of AA cells out of a drawer, unscrews the back of the flashlight and replaces the duds.  Twists the front – nothing.  Double-checks – double nothing.  She grabs a candle from the corner of her nightstand and a lighter from its drawer, then heads back into the hallway.

Why do they not have windows in here, she wonders as she lights the candle after locking her door.  Probably because they depend on a backup grid or some other manner of emergency power.  She finds the stairwell next to the elevator and heads down.

With nothing but candlelight to walk by, she gets a bit of vertigo.  No sound but her sneakers on the concrete steps, a narrow column of darkness always to her right.  She reaches the bottom and heads out the hallway to the drive behind her building, then decides to walk to the Dunkin’ Donuts on Irving Park Road where she normally gets her morning coffee.

The stillness hits her first.  Nothing is moving.  There are no sounds, except for the occasional bird.  Glory walks steadily West, listening to the sound of her own footfalls.  She turns South at the end of the block and sees a few cars stalled out in their lanes, plus one run up on the sidewalk rather anticlimactically.  The few nearest her still have their drivers asleep at the wheel, but she can see a pair with open doors farther down the block, the drivers nowhere in sight.  She keeps heading South, and after a couple blocks spots a human silhouette farther on, standing stock still above the cars.  As she nears the next intersection, she sees that it’s a man with his back to her, about halfway down the next block.  She pauses at the crosswalk, watches him stand motionless for a long moment.  She can’t see anything obvious for him to be staring at.  Suddenly self-conscious, Glory turns about, checking for other people.  Nobody.  Just that one guy.  Weird.

She turns right, going a block out of her way, then heads down North Broadway to Irving Park Road.  She pauses across the street and stares into the windows of the Dunkin’ Donuts.  People just standing around.  One of them is eating donuts from the rack, the rest – wait, no.  The rest of them are sitting in the seats, it looks like.  She can’t get too good of a look with all the business in the windows, but it looks like one guy’s eating donuts while the rest of them are sitting down at the tables.  Weird.

After staring for another few long moments, periodically re-checking her surroundings, Glory finally crosses the street and walks in like she owns the place.  The bell chimes above her head, and she says, “Hi, how’s it – “

The man in the suit behind the counter whirls on her, donut crumbs clinging to blood stains.  His upraised right hand holds an apple fritter with scabby knuckles.  He shouts and bangs on the countertop, startling Glory into momentary paralysis.  But when he throws down the fritter and scrambles over the counter at her, she turns on her heel and runs all the way home.

1 comment:

Adam Lee said...

OK, I'm intrigued. :)