A Short Story by Melissa F. Kaelin
Work in progress; Formerly titled “Dark Pollution”
Magical Realism Sneak Peek
♠ ♠ ♠
Under the moonlight over the Lake Street Bridge,
With a wooly swoosh and four skittering paws,
Those eyes as dark as an onyx bead…
He reaches out to grasp a notch in the sky, and
~ The split opening with the pull of a zipper ~
Disappears into an Elysian night.
♠ ♠ ♠
One of the lights on the bridge went out, long before dawn.
The scent of young flowers drifted on the breeze, after a cold spring rain. But for the stale glow of city lights, the sky was dark above Minneapolis and Saint Paul. So, too, was the Mississippi River that flowed beneath the Lake Street Bridge connecting the two cities.
Zach placed one hand over the brown messenger bag hanging at his side and turned to check behind him. There was no one there, and with a second glance at the sidewalk ahead, he realized he was alone. The bulb in the streetlamp must have burnt out.
He walked across the bridge, the same way he did every morning after his ungodly early shift. It was chilly, as usual, and the wind blew across the bridge in gusts of damp air. Another light post on the same side of the street went dark. Zach was a tall man, but he was skinny and frail. He’d rather be safe than sorry. Instead of wandering unaware into what waited ahead, Zach stopped on the sidewalk. He listened. The city was quiet. There wasn’t even the buzz of rush hour traffic. Not a hum. Then he heard it.
Shhhhhh … pop.
It was a small sound. But it was audible.
Zach thought he heard a swoosh, too. Maybe it was the spring breeze rustling through the flower buds, hanging in the baskets over the bridge. He realized another light had burnt out, right behind the other one.
“Huh.” Zach glanced at his cell phone, curious about the time.
It wasn’t event 3 a.m. If the streetlamps were run by censors, there was no way they could mistake this hour for daylight. Or even dawn. The night sky above Saint Paul was as clear as highway sludge – not a single natural light source in sight.
That didn’t exactly mean it was dark.
Artificial lights adorned every street corner, some more appealing than others. A few car headlights crawled through the city regardless of the hour, casting reflections onto the blue rivers that flowed beneath the roadways. On the skyscrapers downtown, hundreds of windows were lit in random spots on each floor. At the top, fluorescent signs and purple lights shone like a beacon, competing for the highest swatch of the night sky.
Zach was intrigued by the way people in the cities constantly needed so much light. Maybe it was because he often finished his shift as a Metro Transit signals technician at odd hours in the morning, when darkness was welcome. He’d never once been afraid of the dark. Not even as a young boy. He understood the use of light for traffic and security purposes. Right here in the Longfellow Neighborhood, there’d been a demand for new light fixtures at transit stops. But that would lead to more light pollution. He would just as soon navigate darker city streets, and let his neighbors in the inner city get some sleep.
Maybe there was a damaged wire on the bridge. Something had caused a short circuit. Or the filaments in the bulbs had simply cracked.
It had to be something commonplace. There’s no way his feet on the sidewalk could cue the lights to go out.
Eager to get home and hit the sack before the sun came up, Zach continued on his walk. He made a mental note to contact the city about the streetlamps, and he hummed a low tune. As he crossed the arched bridge, he admired the way the streetlamps looked before him – like golden lanterns contained in gothic frames. Only, these lanterns relied on ordinary bulbs as they curved toward Saint Paul, shining above the sidewalk in a neat row.
He admired the way the lights leapt onto the river below the bridge, and cast a cool reflection back at the city. There was something to be said for working the graveyard shift, especially if it meant you could see a different side of the Twin Cities on the way home.
Zach was more than halfway across the bridge, when he saw another streetlamp go dark. A second bulb went dark behind this one. Then a third.
One by one, the lights on his side of the street went dark. Baffled, Zach slowed his footsteps as he approached the riverside road. He stopped in his tracks, just in time to watch the last bulb on the east side of the bridge go out.
Shhhhhh … pop.
Zach looked behind him. He swung his bag and turned a full circle, wondering what could have possibly made the sound. It sounded just like the noise he had heard before. With the light pollution from the cities, he could still see just fine. But he realized something had changed at that spot on the bridge. The breeze grew still. The air temperature dropped. A flicker of light blinked in the dark, seemingly growing smaller in size until it vanished. Then everything returned to normal.
A haggard-looking man carrying a brown paper bag was crossing the bridge behind him, but the man was at least 20 feet away. The flower baskets that hung along the sidewalk began to blow again in the wind. But what did any of this have to do with the city lights?
Giving up on his curiosity, Zach turned onto the street that would take him to his small studio apartment. When he reached the riverbank, a woolly lock of fur brushed across his neck, and he called out in surprise.
He fought the impulse to run. His studio apartment was just a few blocks away, down a lit path that reflected in the Mississippi River. But Zach realized he stood right by the garbage cans near a pocket park. The haggard-looking man had turned back toward downtown, and the wind had died down. The only thing of note was a scruffy raccoon that stopped for a second to study his shoes.
“Not edible,” he muttered.
The nocturnal creature had a black mask for a face, and a spot on his tail was burnt to match. It flicked its tail, and scurried off into the darkening night.
. . .
Switches. Track circuits. Controllers. Grade crossings.
From installation to emergency repair, Zach monitored the light rail stations day in and day out. With more than 56 stops in one week, Zach had his work cut out for him as a signal technician. He liked to focus on the Lake Street station. That was one of the busier stops, smack in the center of what he dubbed the Midtown mess.
That night on third shift at the light rail had been especially taxing, after the traffic light and crosswalk signals had gone out at the worst possible intersection. Zach had nearly lost his nerve as he rushed to return the signals by the Hiawatha Avenue stop to their former functionality. A pedestrian took up a complaint with him, while he worked on an emergency repair by the traffic signal. It wasn’t his job to handle customer relations, but he was caught in the crossfire.
“What’s so hard about running public transit?” The woman had dark features, and a hint of an accent that he couldn’t place. “If I’m trying to walk through here, the signal should come on and show there’s a train coming. Why is that so difficult to understand?”
“Could you just –” Zach had his hands full. He had opened up the box on the traffic signal and was knuckle deep in tools and censors.
She sighed with exaggerated sound, and folded her arms across her chest.
“There,” Zach said. “It’s fixed.”
“Oh, sure,” she said. “Now, it’s fixed. The whole neighborhood already passed through here.”
Zach apologized and referred her to the customer service hotline, but she left in an angry huff.
The whole snafu happened early in his shift, at about 9:30 p.m., and he was eager to get on with his night. Several light signals had gone out on this side of town, but based on the connections, there was no rhyme or reason to the outage. Whatever a good shift at work might look like, this wasn’t it.
With the influx of residents moving to the Twin Cities, the light rail transit system was getting busier. More stops, more departure times, and more riders were being added all the time. That didn’t affect Zach too much, because he rarely had to board a light rail train in order to do his job. Though, it might’ve increased the odds of encountering customers on the transit wayside. The last thing he needed at 2 a.m., or whatever, was a disgruntled customer slowing down an emergency electrical repair.
An expansive transit system ran between the two cities. It was a wonder the signal technicians could keep the trains on track.
On a night like this, all Zach could think about was his leisurely walk home. Though the walk was always dark, he found it enjoyable to travel the distance – 28 blocks or so – on foot. At about the same time every night, he would leave the transit station in Minneapolis to head east on Lake Street, crossing the Lake Street Bridge on the way to his apartment in Saint Paul. It may seem strange to some, but this was Zach’s comfortable routine. The route was reliably calm, and when wild things did happen, they never ceased to entertain.
The closer Zach got to the river, the more alive the city seemed on the Minneapolis side. The street beamed with the signs of trendy dining spots, and even if the bars were closed, they sometimes leaked late-night staff or stowaways into the street.
Among the city slickers, his favorite was Mindy. He didn’t know if she was the owner of the bar, the last to close the bar, or if maybe she was a rowdy regular they couldn’t get rid of. But sometimes he would run into her under the streetlights at 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning.
As Zach made the journey home, he admired the neon signs for restaurants and bars, some of them still lit even though the establishments had been closed for hours. He welcomed that chill-out feeling when the end of Lake Street came into view. By day, it was a hangout for hipsters and city types, with coffee, beer and patio concerts packed into a small swatch of road nestled against the river. By night, it was just plain soothing, a warm sight even on cold evenings that harkened back to a simpler time.
“Off early tonight, huh?” Mindy appeared out of the blue. She came walking around the corner of one of the buildings, and she joined Zach in stride on the sidewalk.
“Check again,” Zach said. “I think you’re off late.”
She glanced at the time, and laughed, shaking her short blonde curls in the damp air. She wore a deep red leather jacket that gleamed under the yellow city lights. Her boots, though they came up to her knees, barely made a sound on the ground below. “It’s been a weird night.”
“You said it,” he said. Zach’s puffy black coat was a remnant of the long winter that had finally melted away, and his clothes were drab underneath. By comparison, Mindy was a sight to behold. She also looked annoyed. “That bad, huh?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I was trying to leave, but then I got a stage five clinger. Some washed up musician. He thought we had a real connection.” She emphasized the word ‘real.’
“Sounds like the status quo for you,” Zach said. He’d run into Mindy so many times on the street that nothing surprised him anymore. Not her feisty attitude. Not her fanatic stories. This didn’t seem like anything new. “Why a stage five?”
“Oh, you should’ve seen this guy,” Mindy said. “I finally get the words ‘last call’ through his head, and then when he finishes his beer, he insists I come outside. Won’t leave until I do. So, I go outside, right?”
“Okay.” Zach never worried about her, but he wondered if maybe he should. She wasn’t from around here, after all. “What did he want?”
“First thing he does is show me this decaying, cringe-worthy, excuse for a beat-up, old car.”
Zach breathed a sigh of relief. Up until that moment, he was sure she was going to say he did something else.
“He’s got a souped up ‘73 Hornet in the parking lot, and he proceeds to tell me the entire history of the car,” she said. “I didn’t even know that car existed. Guess it’s American-made or some nonsense.”
“Was he nice to you, at least?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. Then she punched Zach’s arm. “You’re worrying about me. That’s sweet. No, I was fine. Until that stupid sign went out.”
“What?” Zach shook his head at the coincidence, just a bad day in the electrical world. “Which sign?”
“It’s the main one there, on the front of the building,” she said. “It turned off tonight before we were ready to close, and we’ve been trying to get it to flicker back on all night.”
“Oh, it just seems to be the theme of the night,” he said. “Technical problems.”
She laughed. “Well, look,” she said, as she gestured down a side street. “I’m that way. It’s been a long slog, so I might…”
“Yeah,” he said. He wished she was traveling the same direction as him, not just for the companionship, but so he could show her what he’d seen. “Right. Of course.”
They parted ways, and Zach continued on his path – the peaceful walk that took him home every night. Crossing over the Lake Street Bridge was his favorite part. That’s where trendy Minneapolis met sleepy Saint Paul. Distinctly different from one other, the cities touched on the bridge, like a couple of hipsters holding hands over the Mississippi River.
The view over the bridge was brilliant, especially late in the evening as the sun sank low, or at night, when those lantern-like lights cast a warm glow over the sidewalk. The streetlamps lined both sides of the street, providing a kind of symmetry.
Because Zach didn’t have to worry about their inspection or repair, it made his enjoyment of the lamps that much higher. About 24 blocks into his nightly stroll, the lights over the bridge also meant he was nearly home. They welcomed him from the station in Minneapolis, where he spent most of his time, to the streets that led to a modest studio apartment in Saint Paul. Tonight, he was particularly eager to be transported to a simpler time, by moseying across the bridge under those street-lit lanterns.
He finally reached the Lake Street Bridge, only to find out the streetlamps were still out on the northern side of the bridge.
“Slackers,” Zach muttered. He’d called the city, and they still hadn’t replaced the lights.
Eager to walk under the lantern-like glow, he crossed the street to the southern side, and started crossing the bridge there, where the lamps were lit. He looked up in gratitude at the first set of streetlamps, two of those gothic-caged lanterns sharing the same pole. Mentally, he basked in the warmth of the light and looked ahead, to take in that satisfying sight of the lamps lining up over the arched bridge.
Shhhhhh … pop.
“What was that?” There was no one to hear him, at least not that he’d seen, but this night just wouldn’t quit. Zach turned a full circle, peering closely at his surroundings in every direction. “Imagining things. I’ve got to stop working nights.”
Zach looked ahead, where the bridge had become a little bit darker. One of the streetlamps had burnt out. Before his eyes, the second lamp in the set burned out. This time, without a sound.
“Weird,” he said. He kept walking forward, even though he thought he heard something flutter near the bridge railing. He turned to look down the bike path, but there was no one there.
Shhhhhh … pop.
It happened again. This time, Zach was watching. The next streetlamp in the row burnt out, and the second lamp in the set burnt out right after it. He didn’t see anything. There was no one there. Nothing that he could see.
Essentially a diagnostic electrician, Zach felt like he was going crazy. He should be able to figure this out. It was probably something simple and obvious, especially if the electricity failure was connected to the signals and signs that were going out around town. Maybe there was a malfunction in the electrical grid.
If he knew what was good for him, he should break into a sprint and make a run for his apartment. There was no rhyme or reason to the outages, and a paranormal force could be at work. But he wasn’t exactly what they’d call ‘athletic,’ and he didn’t buy into that supernatural stuff anyway. Instead, he took a deep breath, and he continued to walk over the bridge.
Zach walked at a steady pace. A part of him still thought he could diagnose the problem. A part of him wanted to be ready when disaster struck. Besides, he didn’t want to install new light fixtures along the light rail, until the lights in the city stopped going out. He continued across the Lake Street Bridge, and he watched in awe.
Shhhhhh … pop.
As if cued by the approach of his footsteps, the lanterns burnt out at 20-second intervals. The second set of lamps puffed out, followed by the third, then the fourth, then the fifth. Over the entire arched bridge, they burnt out one by one. By the time Zach reached the Saint Paul side, every lamp on the bridge was dark.
His shoulders shivered in the brisk April breeze. Down the street, he spotted the haggard man carrying another brown bag. Then, to his amusement, that damn raccoon darted by his legs again.
Zach heard a subtle swoosh of a noise. Then a loud clank sounded from the side of the bridge.
Maybe it was some sort of electrical feedback. The noise didn’t sound electrical, but from his years making emergency service repairs, Zach had heard a few sounds that just didn’t make any sense.
He eyed the haggard man suspiciously, even though he still stood a good 20 feet away, then he turned to look at the bridge. Now dark, it looked like an eerie sci-fi portal, which led to the cheery Longfellow neighborhood on the other side. Only, more of the signs on Lake Street were out than he realized. Every restaurant on the first three blocks was suddenly dark, in the spots where neon signs usually glared all through the night. Even the public parking sign was dark. Whatever was going on here, the electrical failure was scattering like a rogue hazard down the street.
Zach walked up to the last set of lantern-style lamps on the bridge. He couldn’t reach them, the lights standing at least six feet taller than the average pedestrian. But he peered at the streetlamp from a few different angles. If he could just identify the root of the problem – a burnt out bulb or a crack in the glass – maybe he could mend the lights.
The spreading darkness made it hard to see anything, really. On the bright side, his eyes were beginning to adjust to the dark. It was oddly soothing. But even with his newfound night vision, he didn’t see anything wrong. He climbed onto a concrete ledge on the bridge, and peered up at the lanterns, but he didn’t see that standard shape inside. The bulbs were missing. They simply disappeared, without a trace.
Zach struggled with a sense of alarm. Nothing bad had happened, but then again, the traffic signals on the streets were still in working order. Maybe this would amount to an isolated incident. Or two. Or three. But no human could reach that high, to steal light bulbs, at least not without some serious equipment. He wondered if Mindy had noticed anything strange. But then, she had turned south on one of those lovely Longfellow streets. Maybe she never walked over the arched bridge.
Zach turned around to finish the last few blocks on the way to his Saint Paul studio. Then he gasped.
“What the?” Zach blinked a few times. He rubbed his eyes, and he put his hands on the side of his head.
Facing east, the whole city was dark. Not a light in sight.
. . .
Zach was still bleary-eyed when he lumbered out into the city streets. He’d set his alarm for before noon, way earlier than he normally awoke. He was intent on catching Mindy long before his shift on the light rail, eager to make sense of the light outages. Two brains were better than one.
The Lake Street Bridge looked different in the glaring sunlight, forcing Zach to squint as he looked east. He crossed the bridge as quickly as his tired legs could carry him, and paused only when he reached the other side. The neon signs, which were still lit during the day, dotted the businesses along the street. But one adorning the coffee shop on the corner suddenly fizzled out.
‘Open’ lost its color and went black, implying the coffee shop had instantly closed. The sign made a whisper as it faded, followed by a strange pop.
Bewildered, Zach turned to look at the opposite side of the road, but that corner along West River Parkway was mostly residential. When he turned back around, the electric sign on the eclectic paper store had gone black too. He started to walk again, hastening his step, and running through crossroad intersections to get to the bar where Mindy worked. She may be eccentric, but at least she was observant. If they compared notes, maybe they could get to the bottom of the electrical problems.
After he crossed 45th Avenue, Zach glanced up into the unrelenting sunlight.
A small white cloud disappeared, leaving the impression of a black spot on his eyes. He shook his head and kept moving. He must’ve looked right at the sun. He passed a streetlamp on his way, half expecting to see someone climb up the lamppost and steal the bulb, but the streetlamp was fine. It wasn’t turned on, of course, being set to shine at night. But he could see the shape of the bulb from the sidewalk.
To the left of the lamp, the tree branches shook. The leaves rustled, even though the air was still.
Shhhhhh … pop.
The branch went black. No, that couldn’t be right… Zach rubbed his eyes. Maybe the leaves were already dark in color, and he just hadn’t noticed before. But they appeared to be extremely dark. Now, he was definitely imagining things. That’d teach him to get out of bed before noon.
Awkward on his lanky legs, Zach broke into a run, and hurried down the street. He approached the bar where Mindy worked and slowed.
She would only be starting her shift, sure, but she was already standing outside. And she was surrounded by people. Seven adults gathered around the front of the establishment, looking up and studying the windows. Their voices combined in confusion, and they were moving in half circles and pointing different directions.
“Zach,” Mindy shouted. “You’re an electrician, right?”
Zach walked up and stood to face her. “That’s one way to put it,” he said. “I troubleshoot signals on the Metro Transit.”
“It’s just a normal short circuit or something, right?” she said. “You know how to fix this.”
He followed a gesture of her hand to the neon signs in the windows. From the ‘Open’ sign, to the many varieties of craft beer that were advertised beside it, the signs had all gone black. Pure black. The neon hues weren’t really needed in the sunlight, but these signs were so dark, it was hard to imagine how they got their color. They could have been charcoal or lava rock, or stone extracted from a mine somewhere in northern Minnesota.
“Nothing about this is normal,” Zach said, his voice sinking.
Every single sign on the bar had gone black.
“I’ve lived here for forty years,” said an elderly man with salt and pepper hair and a brimmed black hat. “In all that time, I haven’t seen anything like it.”
“Excuse me, sir.” Zach walked up to the signs and examined them closely. Only to turn back around.
Gasps rose from the group. Together, they faced Lake Street, and stared into the sky.
Suspended twelve feet above the curb, a swatch of the sky went dark.
“By George,” the elderly man said.
“What in the name of…” Mindy started hollering in a pitchy voice. “Get back! Get back! Zach, what is it? What’s going on?”
It was an emergency outage. A high priority repair. Zach’s light rail mind kicked into gear, and he started moving in between people and working as a technician.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please step back,” he said. He held his arms out to his sides at full length, as if to set the bar off with the caution tape. He felt a wooly sensation swipe his arm, and dismissed it, picturing for a second the floating seeds that came each spring. “I’m going to need everyone to cross to the other side of the street. If you’re not an employee, please cross calmly to the other side of the road.”
In a confused shuffle, the group gradually started to take his advice. They meandered to the other side of Lake Street, barely checking traffic as they moved into the road. A car swerved and squealed its tires, trying to stop before hitting a young man. Then, when the vehicle was stopped, diagonally blocking off the street, the driver got out of the car and stared at the suspended darkness. Other drivers followed suit, and soon, the entire side of Lake Street was gawking up into the sky.
“Mindy, where is the owner of the store?” Zach asked. “We need to shut this place down and run some diagnostics.”
“You’re looking at her,” she said, with a snarky smirk. “Come on, Zach!”
“I… uh…” Zach stuttered. “Right. Can you show me around the back?”
“What about them?”
Wishing the sun would slide down in the sky at least, Zach looked around. His gaze switched from the business to the gathering crowd, and back again. He was at a total loss.
Another swatch of the sky went dark, about a half a block down. Then another.
If Zach strained his ears, he could almost hear the same sound he had heard before.
Shhhhhh … pop.
. . .
TO BE CONTINUED
© Copyright 2018 by Melissa F. Kaelin