Through the trees I can see the charred remains of the house. The blue light of morning glints cold off the frozen black icicles. A whole family burned. I don’t need to drive by to see the shrines, the mementos, the dried flowers shivering in remembrance. I won’t drive past. It’s too much.
On the flat-screen in the kitchen, the sun rises above a group of explorers preparing ropes to descend into a large terrestrial hole. The documentary cuts between shots of the void into the deep from above and their camp. The explorers adjust their gear and lay out ropes, they tie bright knots and laugh over steaming breakfast. They peer down into the darkness. I flip the channel. It will be on later.
I don’t turn on the prescribed therapy lamp; I enjoy the cold gray early morning light enter the kitchen. This is a light dimmed by a giant scrim that lowered itself across the sun, slowing time to a crawl. The still backyard is in monochrome in front of the burnt ruin. I don’t need the damn lamp. The glowering hole that most people had never felt before opened up inside of millions of people. That same hole that existed inside of me has been filled.
On the morning news, the lone reporter, Sunny McNamara, which is not her real name, brightly dictates the upbeat stories of the day. I don’t like her. Her positive disposition through amiable tales and weather overtops the uplifting music, images of tranquil nature all over soft fades and cross-dissolves. I eat my breakfast bar and pour the coffee brewed from reverse-osmosis filtered water to remove the medicines. These are simple things I could never do before––small triumphs that have now become routines I try not to take for granted. With every success of a new routine, I prove to myself that I am a part of this new grim waking world, a world completely changed, even though there still remains the recognition of the echo of who I was, where for entire weeks I did not exist save for a prone body wrapped in a linen comforter upstairs steeped in the shadows, sunken in sleep. Or worse, at the hospital, sunken in another stupor.
The news transitions to the same documentary from earlier of mountain climbers braving walls of ice, snow beards frozen to their faces.
A majority of the world tumbled blindly into this tumult borne on a black bile that had never existed within them before. A lightness is within me now, brightening my inner world even as this shade has been drawn over the rest of the world. I can taste my coffee, the ambient music in the commercials calms me, I can actually hear it, my skin doesn’t ache, I wake up, I like my clothes, I sleep untroubled. I wake up. While time stretches, and the world grows darker, a bright calm has emerged within me. Though I often find myself dwelling on a cure, I wonder will it all go back to the way it was? And, will I be content to know what it felt like, right now? Will I even remember?
“Jim?” I call out, leaving the house and waving to my neighbor. He looks up slowly floating down his drive, displaying his wan face. A wave evaporates from his pale hand.
“Jim, do you need help?” I walk across my dead winter lawn to him. I know my brightness irritates him. It used to irritate me when people did this. He recoils and turns toward his opened garage, then shuffles back into the yawning dark.
“Jim, are you okay?” I hold my phone out, ready to call. But he retreats further into the cluttered garage. He opens the door to the kitchen and Nate, his partner, stands there.
“Jim, get inside,” Nate says.
“Nate, hey, sorry,” I say.
“It’s okay Beth, thanks,” he says to me. “Get in,” he says to Jim, placing his arm around him.
I walk back to my Volkswagen, get in, watch the garage door close. Seven in the morning and most of the faces of the homes are dark and silent; nothing stirs.
This gravitational depression was predicted but its effects were not anticipated. We didn’t know what it would do and no one, especially those who had never been visited by this gray pall, could have predicted the effects of this reversal. In fact, for those of us who had fought with meds, ECT, rehabilitation, homeopathic remedies, institutionalization, therapy, or other treatments discovered that under this shadow we were free. We were awake and clear. On the other hand, everyone else found themselves cast into an unfamiliar blight, unsure of its duration, when it would be lifted, or if they’d remain to see the other side. Even those who predicted it were unable to return to predict when it would lift.
Sugar rush. The morning radio is full of upbeat numbers, pounding bass and surging synthesizers, soaring voices about sunshine, all back-to-back with weather. It’s almost too much. I turn it down and watch the sleeping buildings, empty streets, and vacant shops boasting new hours, or temporarily closed, pass my windows. Until I get to the Memorial Bridge where, before I can cross, a station is set up with a large mobile bus, a last resort for those in a walk of despair.
A giant flag lilts THERE IS HOPE outside of the mobile station. Littering the sides of the bridge are humble memorials made of weather-faded dead flowers, plastic crosses, plastic blooms, crumpled photos, rotted meals, and expired candles. This morning no one is on the bridge. No one glares over the side down to the highway below contemplating an end. This has become a regional destination. A pin on a giant map of despair.
It’s always a challenge to confront these wanderers drawn by some interior force to this place. When confronted, the protocol is to contact emergency services and report, then approach them, but sometimes they don’t listen. My voice would just be lost in a slew of other internal voices. Even though I know I am an expert, it doesn’t matter. Just like I was unable to listen, they are unable to hear. I can sympathize. That was my life, too.
I park near the entrance to Mneme Analytics, a glass compound off of the highway. The large parking lot is only a quarter full. Scanning my badge, I enter the large atrium; soft music plays continuously. Avoiding silence. There isn’t a secretary, just an interface where I scan my badge again. A door opens for me next to the station and I walk down the soft white hall.
“Hey, Beth,” Richard says, coming towards me, his footsteps echoing off of the tile. Even with just a few of us working here he still wears a suit: brown, but no tie. Just an open collar on his pale blue shirt.
“Richard,” I acknowledge, walking to my office and firing up the old PC on my desk. The screen comes to life, turning my room a cool blue.
“We have a few petabytes coming through today,” I hear Richard shout down the hall.
“Thanks,” I say, tossing my bag on the birch veneer desk. The datascript uploads on the screen; new cases and open cases display themselves across the handsome data management system. Clean lines, full or needing to be filled, adjust on the interface.
“Did you hear me?” Richard says, now in my doorway, gripping a clear glass coffee cup fashioned into a beaker with white printed milliliters on the side.
“Yep. Can’t believe we got those accounts.”
“Your work,” he says, taking a sip and looking past me at the screen.
“Yep. It’s a lot of memories.” I pause. “How’s Melissa?”
Richard sighs, eyes around my office, back outside the large window to the green space between the arms of the architecture. “She’s fine. It’s just sleep, so hopefully when this thing ends I can wake her up. I’ll have her back.”
“It’s what she wanted. Turn your lights on,” he says and flicks my UV balanced light switch, the lights filling the room with false brightness. He takes a swig and raises both of his eyebrows, proud of himself. “You need the light.”
“Thanks. Well, I hope she wakes up soon.”
"Me too, kind of,” he says and takes a sip. I look at him. “Here’s the thing. When she wakes up, if she does, she’ll never know this version of myself.”
I nod along with him. Mirroring my own fear of the future.
“But when she wakes up, she’ll know you took care of her,” I concede.
“Yeah, you’re right.” He turns back to the hall and walks to his office. I return to the screen and sift through the mountains of memory we recently acquired: images, voice-mail, videos, blog posts, timelines, slices and fragments of frozen memories purchased in bulk.
Over the flat-ironed tablecloth at lunch, I sip the wet glass of heavily filtered water and watch the vacant street. Some airy music with an angelic soprano fills the space up to the recently renovated iron rafters. Tara enters and points her pale hand at me in front of the host. I wave back and awkwardly half-stand, and she walks towards me across the sparsely populated restaurant and places her silver clutch on the table.
“Sorry I’m late.”
“It’s fine,” I say, and she sits, looks around.
“It’s nice here,” she says.
“It’s the light,” I say and point up at the ring of minimalist phototherapy lights beaming down.
“It’s always the light. Hey, do you wanna do something this weekend?”
“There’s that music festival,” she says, and I frown. I don’t mean to frown.
“Or maybe not.”
“No, no, it’s okay,” I say, and Tara cocks a trimmed eyebrow at me and smiles.
“I know you don’t like the music.”
“It’s just everywhere.”
“Well, hey, it’s free, and my office put it on.”
“Then I’ll be your guest.”
The server places two white bowls of bisque in front of us with small salads to the side.
“They look good. Did you serve last night?” Tara asks me.
“No. Tonight’s my shift. Will you be there?”
“No, not tonight,” she says, pushing around the lettuce on her small plate.
“Tomorrow?” I ask and take a drink.
“No, I decided to pay the fine. I don’t care,” she says and I give her a look. “You’re a better person than me. I don’t care. I just can’t.” Her tone saddens me, but I nod and watch the cold smoke of the afternoon outside our window play on her pale wide face.
“Sorry, it sounds–” I try to say.
“Selfish. Fine,” she says and leans into me. She lowers her voice. “I hope this never ends, I don’t want it to end. If it ends, I want to end. So, I don’t care, they can all go be put into induced comas or the institutions. I love my life now and nothing can change that, not the guilt or the empathy or anything. If you ask me to choose, I choose this. This is my life, that was…” she drifts off, looking out the window at the street where a gray SUV pulls onto the sidewalk across the street.
"What?” I ask, watching her dark brown eyes tracing something in the street. I look out the window and see the emergency vehicles flashing frigid blue sirens at the residential building across the street. “Oh, no.”
Tara straightens up in her seat and brushes her dark hair from her face, flashing a bold pink scar across her forearm only slightly hidden beneath the loose sleeve of her woven sweater. She looks me in the eye. “I’ll pick you up on Saturday, okay?”
“So sorry about this.” The server lowers a beige scrim over the window, obstructing the emergency scene outside.
“It’s okay,” I say because I want the server to leave. But I also know that because of who I am now the ember of empathy inside of me has only grown brighter. I don’t mind my service. I don’t mind caring, because it’s better than the alternative. I find myself capable of it.
After work, I pull into the volunteer station’s well-lit parking lot and follow a few others into the main conference room. I pick a desk in the middle of the room and touch the screen, place the wireless earpiece on my head, and scroll through the various scripts before the switchboard is turned on. The leader tonight is a volunteer, one who can medicate, unlike me. She drinks the normal tap water and has this incredible focus when she directs calls.
My first call comes in. It begins with the interminable hiss of silence.
“Hello?” I wait to let them speak first. I want the caller to initiate the conversation.
“Are you there?” the woman’s voice asks.
“Yep. I’m here.”
“Today was a tough one,” she says, her voice metallic in its compression.
“Do you want to talk about it?” I ask.
“Yeah. I just feel empty inside. It’s hard at night to look out at the dark. It’s so dark.”
“You know the sun will come up soon.”
“Like nine hours. I slept all day,” she offers in a deadly calm voice.
"Are there other people in the house?” She doesn’t answer.
“I think about it all of the time.” I scroll through the script on the screen.
“Have you felt this way before?”
“Not before the event.”
“Are you alone?”
“I just look out the window and think that would be a nice way to feel. Like the night. Dark. Just gone.”
“I’m glad you called,” I say and lean back in the chair. “Do you have any pets?”
“I have a dog?”
“I didn’t want one, but it came after I was let out.”
“What’s your dog’s name?”
“Pat. He’s an idiot.” She chuckles. I laugh along.
“I don’t have a dog,” I say.
“Oh, you don’t need one, eh?” she asks and sniffles, knowing my place and the gulf between us.
“Do you still feel like taking your life?”
“I guess not. Yes. I don’t know.”
“Will you call me if you feel that way again?”
She pauses a long time when I ask about this. I can hear a dog panting in the background.
“Yeah. I just want this to be over. I want my old life back. Zoloft makes me so tired. Parnate just makes me restless. I shouldn’t have taken some so late.”
“You should speak with your primary care, okay?”
“I know. I know. Listen, thank you,” she says.
“I’m glad you called,” I say. She hangs up, and the sound is taken out of my ear. I yearn for her to call back.
I answer calls, walk through the script of concerns, set up resolutions, listen, forward calls to responders. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t taxing. I feel drained as I step out into the ink black parking lot, get in my car, and head home. It feels like driving a spaceship through a starless space. Streets are steeped in aphotic black. My headlamps cut through dense nothing. The Bluetooth buzzes. I press the soft blue button on the wheel.
“Beth? It’s Tara.”
“Hey, Tara,” I say and turn by my neighborhood where, set back, a small glimmering vignette of blue sirens shine by a row of townhomes.
“I’m sorry.” Her voice is echoing in the phone, must be in her kitchen or bathroom.
“I was a bitch at lunch. I didn’t mean to be.”
“I never thought being well would make me feel so isolated.” I turn onto my dark street away from the cobalt strobes of the responder’s sirens. “How do you stay so calm?”
“I just take today as today.”
“Makes sense. That’s all you can do.” There’s some silence. I pass the old closed down shopping center. The dead silhouette of an unpopulated baseball diamond.
“You got something else on your mind?”
“No. Thanks for talking. See you Saturday.” There’s a pause as if we should say something more endearing, something more intimate.
“Yep.” Then thumb off the button.
When I sleep, I see my new self on the outside, but the old self before everything changed on the inside. I am now the one left behind after the world was cast into the warped darkness. At first the stain sneaks into the dream, this weight washes at the back of my head, pressing down, and then there I am captured and subservient to its torpor as everything goes dim. I may meander through the empty streets of now, but it is there inside of me from then, even though the grand institutions stretch across city blocks, I am in this new world as a dream, mouth dry, chalked from pills, but I am not new anymore. I too have returned, burdened by this dark mass. I try and run, but I can’t, I know I am now someone who I am not supposed to be. Some imposter who should be free and I fight inside until I can’t.
I snap awake and search for the prescriptions by the side of the couch. It’s still a habit. There’s nothing but an empty glass of water and some magazines.
Opening the blinds, I look outside. The alien abyss of my street looks back through me. I had left the flat-screen on playing late night reruns of Jerry Lewis in the Nutty Professor, but it now plays images of the earth.
I start the coffee and turn on the phototherapy lights even though I dislike them. Out the back window I cannot see the burnt home of the family in the night. I am thankful for the darkness that obscures its brutal ruin, even though in my memory I can still see it smoldering. I flip through a travel magazine, gaze at blue beach water, white sands, scenic vistas and pause over a waterfall. It might be artificial. I put the magazine down and shut off the lamps, letting the cool blue of the flatscreen take over the living room. I go to switch the screen off but the image has now changed to the documentary from this morning, of a group of explorers descending into a large cave. Above them is the sunlit world they know, while below them, a vertical shaft drifts into a darkness they don’t know. The documentary displays them adjusting their gear and descending from above, slipping down on heavy bright ropes and vanishing from view. There is a close-up of a bearded man: he is the last one left up top in the light. Alone. But he smiles. He looks down and through his frozen scraggly brown beard, he bravely shouts at the yawning void beneath him that his companions have already conquered. He smiles before releasing a rope and plunging himself into the darkness.
Standing in the night of my home, I am who I am today. Even though I can feel who I was before pressing on me like a second skin. I know it is there. Always waiting to return me to that perfect dark.
Dedicated to Denise Shields
about the writer
Terence Hannum is a Baltimore, MD based visual artist, musician and writer. He has published the novellas "Beneath the Remains" (Anathemata Editions), "All Internal" (Dynatox Ministries), and his novelette "The Final Days" will be published in 2019 by Unnerving. His short stories have appeared in Burrow Press, Terraform, Queen Mob's Tea House, Lamplight, Turn to Ash, SickLit and the SciPhi Journal.