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When the Lights Go Out
Author:Mary Kubica

When the Lights Go Out

Mary Kubica



prologue

The city surrounds me. A panorama. With arms outstretched, I can’t help but spin, taking it all in. Enjoying the view, knowing fully well this may be the last thing my eyes ever see.

I stare at the four metal steps before me, aware of how frail and broken-down they look. They’re orange with rust, paint flaking, some of the slats loose so that when I press my foot to the first step, it buckles beneath me and I fall.

Still, I have no choice but to climb.

I pull myself back up, set my hands on the rails and scale the steps. The sweat bleeds from my palms so that the metal beneath them is slippery, slick. I can’t hold tight. I slip from the second step, try again. I call out, voice cracking, a voice that doesn’t sound like mine.

As I reach the roof’s ledge, my knees give. It takes everything I have not to topple over the edge of the building and onto the street below. Seventeen floors.

I’m so high I could touch the clouds, I think. The sense of vertigo is overpowering. The ground whooshes up and at me, the skyscrapers, the trees starting to sway until I no longer know what’s moving: them or me. Little yellow matchbooks soar up and down the city streets. Cabs.

If I was standing at street level, the ledge would feel plenty wide. But up here it’s not. Up here it’s a thread and on it, I’m trying to balance my two wobbly feet.

I’m scared. But I’ve come this far. I can’t go back.

There’s a moment of calm that comes and goes so quickly I almost don’t notice it. For one split second the world is still. I’m at peace. The sun moves higher and higher into the sky, yellow-orange glaring at me through the buildings, making me peaceful and warm. My hands rise beside me as a bird goes soaring by. As if my hands are wings, I think in that moment what it would be like to fly.

And then it comes rushing back to me.

I’m hopelessly alone. Everything hurts. I can no longer think straight; I can no longer see straight; I can no longer speak. I don’t know who I am anymore. If I am anyone.

And I know in that moment for certain: I am no one.

I think what it would feel like to fall. The weightlessness of the plunge, of gravity taking over, of relinquishing control. Giving up, surrendering to the universe.

There’s a flicker of movement beneath me. A flash of brown, and I know that if I wait any longer, it will be too late. The decision will no longer be mine. I cry out one more time.

And then I go.





jessie

I don’t have to see myself to know what I look like.

My eyes are fat and bloated, so bloodshot the sclera is bereft of white. The skin around them is red and raw from rubbing. They’ve been like this for days. Ever since Mom’s body began shutting down, her hands and feet cold, blood no longer circulating there. Since she began to drift in and out of consciousness, refusing to eat. Since she became delirious, speaking of things that aren’t real.

Over the last few days, her breathing has changed too, becoming noisier and unstable, developing what the doctor called Cheyne-Stokes respiration where, for many seconds at a time, she didn’t breathe. Short, shallow breaths followed by no breaths at all. When she didn’t breathe, I didn’t breathe. Her nails are blue now, the skin of her arms and legs blotchy and gray. “It’s a sign of imminent death,” the doctor said only yesterday as he set a firm hand on my shoulder and asked if there was someone they could call, someone who could come sit with me until she passed.

“It won’t be long now,” he’d said.

I had shaken my head, refusing to cry. It wasn’t like me to cry. I’ve sat in the same armchair for nearly a week now, in the same rumpled clothes, leaving only to collect coffee from the hospital cafeteria. “There’s no one,” I said to the doctor. “It’s only Mom and me.”

Only Mom and me as it’s always been. If I have a father somewhere out there in the world, I don’t know a thing about him. Mom didn’t want me to know anything about him.

And now this evening, Mom’s doctor stands before me again, taking in my bloated eyes, staring at me in concern. This time offering up a pill. He tells me to take it, to go lie down in the empty bed beside Mom’s and sleep.

“When’s the last time you’ve slept, Jessie?” he asks, standing there in his starch white smock, tacking on, “I mean, really slept,” before I can lie. Before I can claim that I slept last night. Because I did, for a whole thirty minutes, at best.

He tells me the longest anyone has gone without sleep. He tells me that people can die without sleep. He says to me, “Sleep deprivation is a serious matter. You need to sleep,” though he’s not my doctor but Mom’s. I don’t know why he cares.

But for whatever reason, he goes on to list for me the consequences of not sleeping. Emotional instability. Crying and laughing for no sound reason at all. Behaving erratically. Losing concept of time. Seeing things. Hallucinating. Losing the ability to speak.

And then there are the physical effects of insomnia: heart attack, hypothermia, stroke.

“Sleeping pills don’t work for me,” I tell him, but he shakes his head, tells me that it’s not a sleeping pill. Rather a tranquilizer of some sort, used for anxiety and seizures. “It has a sedative effect,” he says. “Calming. It will help you sleep without all the ugly side effects of a sleeping pill.”

But I don’t need to sleep. What I need instead is to stay awake, to be with Mom until she makes the decision to leave.

I push myself from my chair, strut past the doctor standing in the doorway. “Jessie,” he says, a hand falling gently to my arm to try and stop me before I can go. His smile is fake.

“I don’t need a pill,” I tell him briskly, plucking my arm away. My eyes catch sight of the nurse standing in the hallway beside the nurses’ station, her eyes conveying only one thing: pity. “What I need is coffee,” I say, not meeting her eye as I slog down the hallway, feet heavy with fatigue.

*

There’s a guy I see in the cafeteria every now and then, a little bit like me. A weak frame lost inside crumpled-up clothes; tired, red eyes but doped up on caffeine. Like me, he’s twitchy. On edge. He has a square face; dark, shaggy hair; and thick eyebrows that are sometimes hidden behind a pair of sunglasses so that the rest of us can’t see he’s been crying. He sits in the cafeteria with his feet perched on a plastic chair, a red sweatshirt hood pulled over his head, sipping his coffee.

I’ve never talked to him before. I’m not the kind of girl that cute guys talk to.

But tonight, for whatever reason, after I get my cup of coffee, I drop down into the chair beside him, knowing that under any other circumstance, I wouldn’t have the nerve to do it. To talk to him. But tonight I do, mostly, I think, to delay going back to Mom’s room, to give the doctor his chance to examine her and leave.

“Want to talk about it?” I ask, and at first his look is surprised. Incredulous, even. His gaze rises up from his own coffee cup and he stares at me, his eyes as blue as a blue morpho butterfly’s wings.

“The coffee,” he says after some time, pushing his cup away. “It tastes like shit,” he tells me, as though that’s the thing that’s bothering him. The only thing. Though I see well enough inside the cup to know that he drank it down to the dregs, so it couldn’t have been that bad.

“What’s wrong with it?” I ask, sipping from my cup. It’s hot and so I peel back the plastic lid and blow on it. Steam rises to greet me as I try again and take another sip. This time, I don’t burn my mouth.

There’s nothing wrong with the hospital’s coffee. It’s just the way I like it. Nothing fancy. Just plain old coffee. But still, I dump four packets of Equal in and swirl it around because I don’t have a stir stick or spoon.