Dark Pollution

A Short Story by Melissa F. Kaelin
Magical Realism Sneak Peek; About 4,000 words so far

One of the lights on the bridge went out, long before twilight.

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 Marshall Avenue 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 way he did every morning after his ungodly early shift. Then another light post on the same side of the street went dark. He was a tall man, but he didn’t have much muscle to speak of. He would 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 even 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 wondered why people in the cities always needed so much light. Even on the Blue Line, the interior of the light rail train was illuminated every night.

He, for one, was comfortable in the dark. Maybe it was because he often finished his shift as a Metro Transit signals technician at odd hours in the morning. 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, but 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 cause 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.

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 were indeed blowing in the wind, but what did that 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.

.          .          .


A yawn. It was his fifth. His eyes bulged out of his masked, hairy head, each one dark as an onyx bead.

Jack preferred things dark. Wished they’d stay that way. He had no use for the light, since he lived for the nighttime anyway. He never left his comfy abode until the moon had risen high in the sky, and the lights were off.

Out. Dark. Black.

That’s what the night was meant to be. A period of darkness. The restful absence of invention.

Yet, there was always one. A poorly placed light gleamed within view. It was a yard light, planted alongside a walkway.

He’d become so obsessed with true darkness, like others from his horde, that he’d finally earned his name. Now, he was known as BlackJack. He jumped to his feet, and headed straight for the yard light, crushing it as he walked. Maybe it wouldn’t come back.

Just a year past his prime, the guy was a nocturnal ninja. When he moved, it was swift, and yet so smooth, he evaded traps with ease. He was a city slicker, not exactly by choice. Yet he refused to be caught in the chaos of the streets. He walked everywhere he went, when he wasn’t swinging around corners and leaping behind benches.

Still, he had an advantage. He’d found a better way. A rather short fellow, he moved through the streets of the Twin Cities on the fringes.

Under the cover of midnight, BlackJack made his rounds in Minneapolis. Like usual. He sulked at the way the city had changed, even in the last 200 years. These city streets, they weren’t anything like they used to be. It rubbed him the wrong way. He wanted to return them to their former glory. What more could he do?

He darted down the street, cast one last longing look toward the apex of the night sky, and turned away from the world.

Using his nails, he reached out and grasped a notch in front of him, then began to pull. To the sound of a zipper, a deeper darkness split open, beckoning him.

BlackJack slipped toward the nocturnal paradise, sliding inside.

.          .          .


Switches. Track circuits. Controllers. Grade crossings.

From installation to emergency repair, Zach monitored these things day in and day out. With more than 56 stops at each station during the week, Zach had his work cut out for him as a signal technician. He liked to focus in 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 really his job to handle customer relations, but he was caught in the crossfire.

“What’s so hard about 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 didn’t relent very easily.

The whole snafu happened early in his shift, at about 9:30 p.m., and he was eager to get on with his day. Several signs had gone out on this side of town, but based on the connections, there was no rhyme or reason to the outage. He didn’t exactly know what a good day on the job would look like, but 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. Usually, 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 it was always dark, he found it relaxing 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 Marshall Avenue 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.

Zach finally made the journey home, and 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 concerts packed into a relatively 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 supped 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 Motors 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 electronic 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.”


“Yeah, why?”

“Oh, it just seems to be the theme of the day,” 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 night, so I might…”

“Yeah,” he said. He wished she was traveling the same direction as him, not just for the company, 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 Marshall Avenue 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 Marshall Avenue Bridge, only to find out the streetlamps were still out on the northern side of the bridge.

“Slackers,” Zach muttered.

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 just 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 had burnt out, and the second lamp in the set had burnt out right after it. He didn’t see anything. There was no one there. Nothing that he could see. There wasn’t even a spark of a change in the filament 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 really simple and obvious, especially if the electricity failure was connected to the signals and signs that were going out around town.

Without a clue what was going on, it was creepy as all get out. If he knew what was good for him, he should probably break into a sprint and make a run for his apartment. But he wasn’t exactly what they’d call ‘athletic,’ and he was still several blocks away. 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. He continued across the Marshall Avenue 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 things he didn’t recognize at first.

He eyed the haggard man suspiciously, even though he still stood a good 20 feet away, then he turned to look at the Marshall Avenue 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 haphazardly 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. In fact, he wasn’t even sure if these lamps ran on standard bulbs. In two years of walking these streets, he’d never thought to look so closely, but he didn’t see that standard seed shape inside the lanterns.

Gas lamps? LED lights? Solar power? If only he had a drift of icy snow to stand on, he could get a closer look. It was possible spring came too soon. 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 sighed. Without a better view, he had no idea what the problem was. He 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.

.          .          .

The bridge was black.

BlackJack relished the victory, but this arched construct in the sky was only a glint of the problem. Across two cities, the midnight hour glowed with the pale interference of electricity. He swung around the vacant light pole on the east end. The bulb was no more. He’d seen to that. Now, he’d have to double down. Expand his efforts further into one of the cities. Or both.

BlackJack walked into the edge of Saint Paul, where Lake Street unwittingly turned into Marshall Avenue. He hit the streetlamp next to him, his claws clanging against the cold metal. His nights were meaningless, unless he could recover the darkness. But there was always so much work to do. He focused his onyx eyes – wearing that mask reminiscent of a ninja – and he kicked his tail into high gear.

For what he was about to do, he would need more than martial arts.

He would need to travel, fast and hard. He reached out to the air before him, grabbed the notch, and unzipped the night sky. In seconds, BlackJack was coursing through the streets in Highland Park. He slid up to a towering gothic gate, which stood on the south side of Randolph Avenue, and admired the blackness of it. A few women walked by, perhaps college-aged girls from the dormitories up the hill.

“Katie,” said one of them. “Look!”

“Is that?” Katie searched for words.

Hanging on the thin, vertical bars of the gate, BlackJack winked at her.

“Holy shit!” she said.

BlackJack reached out for the notch, opening the gateway to a darker world. He disappeared, but not empty-handed.

Shhhhh…. pop.

He stopped on the sidewalk at the intersection of Summit and Cleveland, and bared his teeth for a few college students passing by. One of the boys let out a yelp, and the other laughed. Then he snapped a picture on his smartphone. BlackJack groaned, and he turned his back to them.

Shhhhh… pop.

He disappeared behind the zipper, stealing something before the pupil’s eyes, and traveled toward downtown.

BlackJack swept through downtown Saint Paul, moving seamlessly around the city streets, blotting out the spots that offended his vision. He didn’t stop with the streetlamps, but swung upward, climbing buildings and zipping through skyscrapers, until he was satisfied. The sheer amount of the pollution was astounding. He alone would put a stop to it. Those day-dwellers would learn their lesson. Even if he had to put out the entire city first.

BlackJack swung around the vacant light pole on the east end.

It was not enough.

.          .          .

Convinced he was going crazy, Zach ventured out during daylight the next day.

He walked through the open streets of Saint Paul and wandered by the university, admiring the tendency toward large columns on buildings and the ornate décor on the front of the houses. On the other side of the river, the buildings were crowded together and the residences changed over to craftsman homes. It had an altogether different aesthetic, though both of the Twin Cities had a unique appeal.

Under the radiant sun, it was difficult to tell what lights were dysfunctional. At first glance, everything appeared to be operating as usual. Then again, there was not much to illuminate during the day.



About the Author »

© Copyright 2018 by Melissa F. Kaelin

For more updates about my writing, follow @mfkaelin on Twitter or Melissa F. Kaelin Art on Facebook.