Outage – A Short Story

Inspired by a recent outage in the City of Possibility.

When Joan woke up from her nap, the light she had left on in the bathroom was out. Time to replace the bulb, was her first assumption. But when she shuffled to the kitchen for some water, she noticed that the digital time display on the oven was blank. Several steps across her studio apartment and she was at her desk, where the dead smartphone she had plugged in before her nap hadn’t recharged.

A power outage. Whether it was just in her apartment, the whole building, or many blocks beyond she didn’t yet know. She raised the window shade to find the sun setting on a summer evening and not a single light in any neighboring building. She heaved the window open, letting in hot, stale air. Nine floors up, she expected to hear people or cars, but the street was silent, and what she could see of it was empty.

With a gusty sigh, she yanked down the shade. She hoped this power outage, unlike the one a month ago, wouldn’t last a full day and spoil the contents of her fridge. She pulled off her striped pajamas, which were pasted with sweat to her body, and eased herself into jeans and a baggy brown t-shirt.

Her movements were stiff. Right after that last power outage, she had gotten into a car accident. Stiffness, tiredness, and headaches had slowed her down most days since. On top of these lingering problems, she continued to struggle with legal issues. Because she had zipped out of the building’s parking lot on her way to the supermarket for milk, eggs, meat, and everything else she had lost to her temporarily impotent fridge, she was being held at fault for the accident.

“As if you could call what happened a tragedy,” she muttered. Sliding her keys into her pocket, she opened the front door. Out in the corridor, only the emergency lighting was on. Every other ceiling lamp was dark, leaving most of the corridor in shadow, with deep pockets of darkness at each end. She listened for several moments but heard nothing.

She locked the door behind her and padded towards the stairs. The light in the stairwell was on, a strong yellow-white glow. She pushed at the exit door. The door shivered, but stayed shut. Repeated pushing only made her shoulder sore.

Joan stepped back from the door, panting, and peered up and down the corridor.

At one end, on the edge of the pocket of darkness, a woman stood, short and hunched.

Frowning, Joan made her way towards the woman, who remained still.

When Joan was several feet away, there really was no mistaking who it was. The pinched mouth, the piggish eyes, the hair a dull gray. “Helen,” she gasped.

Helen had been Joan’s neighbor. For decades, they had nurtured a mutual hatred that had made them notorious on the ninth floor.

They stared at each other, before Joan shoved her hand into the front pocket of her jeans. Her apartment keys were gone.

“Not a power outage,” Helen said. Though she had died a month earlier under Joan’s car, she stepped spryly now. Her hand closed around Joan’s wrist, and she drew her old neighbor into the darkness.