By Jared Probert
There was a bright flash, and then the world went dark. The only sound was an irregular drumbeat pulsing, followed by a steady, repeating drip like soft rain, resounding through the black void. Everything was dark, quiet, empty.
I carefully reach for my towel, moving my outstretched hand in a circle until I can feel the cotton. As I start to dry myself off, messing my hair and smothering my face, I pull the heavy curtain back into place, thankful that my shower ended just before the lights went out. Having lived here for two years aided me from being completely lost in my own apartment. On the other hand, the night light also went out.
Wrapping the towel around my body, I open the bathroom door. All dark. Once outside, I turn toward where the kitchen is, walking carefully. There, as I remember, is my flashlight. Cold tile meets my bare feet. Water still drips. I bump into the counter with my knuckles, and I find the flashlight handle with my first try. I suppose it has a wide handle, though, since it’s more of an electric lantern than a flashlight, some birthday present my father bought from a sporting goods store, complete with a floral pattern on its round top. I remember seeing it on an advertisement on television. I’ve long since forgotten why I wanted it, at least until now. Pressing the on button to the lantern, my apartment fills with light, an eerie, moon’s reflection kind of light. I walk back toward the bathroom. The small puddles I left behind catch my eye, but a little water never hurt anyone.
It’s still warm when I step back in. Light shines across the bathroom counter and on the fogged-up mirror where I can only see a vague reflection of myself. I go one more round of drying my skin off, watching the last bit of steam roll off of my shoulders. At once, I close the door, partly to keep in the warmth, partly because I feel much more comfortable closed off from the rest of my apartment. I’m not sure why, exactly, but the feeling of being closed off usually brings me comfort.
On most days I’d spend time caring about my appearance, even if I have nowhere to go. Today, though, the power outage puts me in a weird mood, and I won’t bother to wipe away the mirror to critique my reflection. I put on some sweatpants and a sweatshirt. I don’t bother with a bra; I’m not going anywhere, and they’re nothing but a nuisance to me. After brushing my teeth and whipping my long, blonde hair in a ponytail, I wander out, in my fuzzy slippers this time. Outside, it’s already getting dark. Even just a few minutes in the shower, and a good chunk of my evening’s slipping away. Of course, by few minutes I mean half an hour, but nobody’s timing me.
My first instinct is to check my laptop on the desk. I press the on button, and I press it a second time. Nothing happens. Sighing, I scold myself for my bad habit of running technology until it runs completely out of battery. Since I had just started charging it before I got into the shower, it is still effectively dead.
Whatever. I have a laptop that fits in my pocket. I pull out my smartphone and press a side button. I look forward to seeing what my friends are up to tonight, but I get the icon for a text message. Robby. It’s from almost two hours ago, his third message in a row. Like every other guy I know, he doesn’t get that he’s being ignored. “No” means “Yes” in guy language. And he’s not even that attractive. Ok, fine, he’s cute, and him hanging around me all the time makes me get so used to him that I start to miss him: the relentless puppy-dog tactic. Right now, though, I want nothing more than to relax, and I always feel guilty using my phone when I’m purposefully ignoring someone. I put it away, deciding it was low on battery anyway.
I resort to the couch. I grab the remote and, oh, I’m a genius. Power outage, no television. I lay back, covering my face in one hand in embarrassment. At least no one was around to see that. With limited options, now is the perfect time to finish that book. I’d been procrastinating it for a while, some long, dry narrative my mother wants me to read so that I can, as she stated it, “be more cultured.” Whatever that means. Swiping it from the coffee table, I flip to the place I was at, marked by a preacher’s calling card. As I stare at the page, I realize I have no idea what’s going on. Might as well start from the beginning.
At times like these, I wish I could go over to a friend’s house and just stay the night. I know I’m supposed to be adult-ish and that nobody does that anymore, but after growing up with my parents, I hold the firm belief that adults are nothing more than overgrown children. Anyway, after getting an apartment to myself and not having the social circles I had in college, it feels like there aren’t many people around anymore.
I read the first line of the prologue, not hooked. I read the first paragraph and beyond, but I know at this point it won’t last. No long into the first chapter, I’m already daydreaming, following the words but not actually reading them. I stop pretending after a while and put the book down, pages closed. “I’ll never read this,” I say to myself. Sighing, I pick up my bookmark, the church card, twirling it around in my fingers. On one side, it has the church’s info; Northern Baptists, a cliché catchy phrase for people who actually read it. On the other side, the preacher’s name, number, and residence. Simple design, from a simple person.
I was walking out of the grocery store when the man approached me. He was a short, round man with graying hair, round glasses, and bulging, confessional eyes. I’m not sure what it was about me that he saw, maybe it was just chance, but he came up to me like Jehovah’s Witnesses come onto an Agnostic’s doorbell. The man’s lip trembled a little when he started to speak, almost blocking my shopping cart. “Good afternoon, ma’am. Do you have a moment to talk about your afterlife?”
I felt his eyes judge my cardigan and tights. “Not really. I have to go home to my kids,” I lied.
“It will only take a minute,” he said as though I hadn’t said anything.
“I can tell you how the Lord filled my life with purpose. He can fill you too! All you have to do is ask.”
“Thank you, but no thank you,” I say, turning my head and walking past him.
Bubble man’s face looked like it was about to pop. Priceless. “One minute,” he huffed, catching up to me. “One minute! You’re not ready yet, but when you are, you can come and meet Pastor Norman.” Out of nowhere, a card was held out to my face with pudgy fingers. “Conquering the world for Jesus,” he said, smiling.
Not wanting to have to tell him no, I figure it’s easier to go with it. I take the card without another word and start pushing my cart. “Jesus is watching over you!” He yelled after me.
The way he looked at me. Passionate, creepy, yes, but also desperate, looking to give someone else something he couldn’t find in himself. I held my purse out to put the card in with whatever else was in there. The way he was filled with “the spirit” made him seem so lonely. Lonely and empty.
Grrrrmmmm. The sound resonates through the dimly lit apartment. I grab the closest object and hold it tightly. After a few seconds, the groan repeats itself, longer this time. Muscles tense in preparation, breathing becomes fast. In this state, I wait.
After a long while, I realize how ridiculous I must look, holding the closest object there was: the book. What am I going to do to an invader, read them a page and bore them to death? I put the book back down, hopefully for the last time. As I silently laugh at myself, I see the formerly-bookmarking card. I didn’t even realize I had dropped the card. Sighing, I pick it up again and, instead of putting it back into the book, I get up to throw it away. Procrastination has enough of a grip on me. As I walk over and stand above the flipped-open garbage can, a strange guilt comes over me – would you really destroy your chance for eternal life? Don’t you know your soul is doomed?
“You’re annoying enough,” I say, finally letting the card drift down into the abyss.
Shadows dance around me when the deed is done. Light from the lantern can barely reach me all the way over here, in the next room. At the edges of its influence, I feel conflicted: I’m afraid of the encroaching darkness, but I’m squeamish to go back into the all-seeing light.
Instead of going back to the couch, out of boredom, I open the refrigerator. On the left side, I see and snatch the last cheese snack. Time to go to the grocery store tomorrow, if only for the cheese snacks. I stare at the other side of the room while satisfying my boredom cravings. Standing in the kitchen, staring at an awkward lantern. This is my life.
As I stand, thinking about what my day will be like tomorrow, I hear a loud thud, thud, thud. After being startled, it takes me a second to realize that someone’s knocking on the door. A confident knock. I swear, every noise gives me a start tonight. I just hope it isn’t another Jehovah’s Witness. Maybe it’s Rachel, she’s always in the middle of a breakdown. Or Robby found out where I lived. I wouldn’t be particularly thrilled if either of these people came over, but at least I wouldn’t be bored. For some reason, I forget all about the terror of the light and the dark, knowing that someone else is near, and I walk over to answer the door, a little closer to the light.
After brushing my hair behind my ears and straightening my sweatshirt, I open the door. At the threshold between my space and the outside world is a gaunt, sharp-featured man with thick veins and an earnest look on his face, somewhere around my age.
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” he says charismatically. He’s wearing a nice suit.
“I’m sorry, I’m not interested in bibles,” I say automatically.
He laughs. “I bet not. But I bet you’re interested in something that will help you clean up around the place better?”
Oh, because I’m a woman? Of course! I want to say, though something tells me that’s not his intention at all. “Not particularly,” I say instead as a cue for his big reveal.
“Well, I think everybody is to some extent. I’m here going door-to-door with one of the greatest vacuum cleaners I’ve ever laid hands on. It’s called the Clean Thief, with a price so low it’s a Stainless Steal! In fact, if you don’t believe me, and if you don’t mind me asking, I can come in and give you a show?” As appealing as he was, there was something worn out in his voice, though probably from what he had to do for a living.
“You have to say that at every door?” I ask.
Though trying hard not to show it, he was a bit perplexed at my question, whether he should keep face for his job or let his fake cover go. “Very Punny, I know,” he replies, after a pause. “I’ve tried it myself, though. About as decent as they get, I’d say.”
“Nice night, isn’t it?” I say, looking out and back at him. I can feel how uncomfortable he is.
Shuffling his feet a little, he takes a brief glance at the darkness. “Oh, yes, warm for this time of year.” He turns back, expecting me to say something else.
“I’m not interested in the Clean Thief,” I continue. “What I’m worried about is the power outage.”
“Oh yes, heard about that going door-to-door,” he says, brightening up again. “Talked to one old man who tried to convince me it was the terrorists.”
“Yeah, the whole Obama-the-Muslim planning Martial Law thing. Poor old man, it’s like he doesn’t have a life outside of that T.V., not even another person in the house. Didn’t know what to do without his news channel. Can’t think for himself anymore.” I see his charismatic face return. “Anyway,” he says, changing the tone of the conversation, “thank you for your time. Maybe next time I can get you a Stainless Steal,” he says, winking.
I realize the interaction is over. “Maybe,” I say, making myself smile. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” he replies, tipping an imaginary hat, re-masking himself from newly adult to happy salesman. I close the door slowly behind him.
When I know he’s gone, I sigh. I’m not exactly sure why, maybe it’s just a long, boring night. After that short conversation, there’s an odd feeling of words unsaid, another conversation that could have happened. Not anymore. Empty.
Is this what my life is about now? Follower of so many others’ big ideas, told what I need and want, until I’m like that old man without even my own mind left?
A bright flash. The Television snaps on. “… buy it now, now, now!” a pushy man says from the screen. Well, power’s back. Now I’ll have something to pull me out of this mood.
I rejoin the couch. Rather than looking at the channel guide, I start flipping, remote in hand. The first channel is some football team against another, then fading into a brand new commercial. I’m more entertained by the advertisements. I try the next one. Reality show. Reality. Next, a preacher in black with his five steps to heaven. Then some superhero movie in a well-known fast food restuarant. Fried crab. Political ad campaign. Not-so-subtly biased news. Click. For the first time, I realize something is wrong.
The television, the radio, laptop, phone, buzzing lights; everything is humming with artificial life. It surrounds me, suppresses me, the holographic light infiltrating my mind, images of faces, faces of priests and preachers converting me, politicians and bankers handing me speeches and money interchangeably, voices and images reaching for my body, hands forcing a chastity belt on me, battling with more hands forcing it off, bibles and brochures and dollar bills swarming me, choking and gagging my throat with superficiality until I can no longer tell how much of my own mind was genuinely me and how much was genuinely fake. The television then opens its mouth and laughs, heartily, at me. The radio squeals, the laptop claps open and closed, images, a charismatic face with an all too friendly voice–
I clicked the T.V. off. If that wasn’t the weirdest experience of my life, I don’t know what was. While convincing my heart to stop beating so rapidly, I turn off the radio, the laptop, the lights, and even my phone.
It’s all invasive. Am I allowed to live my own life, think my own thoughts? Or is it possible?
I’m in bed when I set the alarm clock. Thankfully, I have no fear of it; it’s not a radio alarm clock, so I won’t be hearing any propaganda tonight. Though I do have to admit, the red numbers leave me feeling uneasy. I make my usual “mmph” sound into my pillow, my customary goodnight ritual. I close my eyes.