Eight o’clock. I had n’ left work this late in months. All of the other purchasing agents had quit on me or were detailed to other tasks. It was just me right now, and I was exhausted. The monorail roared down the track running parallel to the road, the street flashing bright and dark as the windows rushed by. I didn’t pay it much heed, until it went dark, though. The streetlights went out, the house lights went out, and I could tell the train wasn’t powering down the rails anymore, only coasting.
I turned around, and looked down the mountainside – I could see so much of the city from here – and I was just in time to see the whole city go dark in patches. The train stopped with a squeal and hiss of hydraulic brakes, and then everything was quiet. I looked at the train and saw people in the glow of their phones, some pressing against the windows to see outside. A city-wide blackout. There was no moon, but after a few moments I went on by starlight. I couldn’t just stand there, I wanted to get home to my daughter, get out of these heels. The stove was gas, so I could reheat the leftovers. She got home from school so much earlier than me, I always worried for her safety.
I began to fantasize about the weekend. Just me and Amanda. And ice cream. If the blackout lasted, everything in the freezer would go bad, so we’d have to eat the ice cream. (I knew it was a pale excuse, but it had been a long week, and I wanted ice cream.) I’d get her new shoes tomorrow, and a haircut. Amanda would fuss over it, she always said the scissors pulled her hair, but she was always happy when she came home. She’d sleep over with her friends, and I’d have some time to myself to watch a movie. I found myself wishing her father were still alive to watch her grow up. She was getting so big.
I heard footsteps behind me — they must be right on top of me! — and I whirled to face an empty street. I heard them once more, running this time, too distant to possibly be the same person. I turned to continue home, but stopped again. Something pale in the distance drifted around, a pale blur over the road that seemed to swirl in the wind. In the faint starlight, it looked alive.
“Hello? Is somebody there?” At the sound of my voice, it froze, then swerved out of sight among the apartment buildings. “That’s . . . not creepy at all.” I sucked in a breath, steadying myself. It’s just some kid in a white t-shirt. Or a grocery bag in the wind. It’s dark. You’re too old to believe in campfire stories, and Amanda needs you to get home. Woman up.
I pressed on, shifting my thumb under the shoulder strap of my bag. It wasn’t much, but it was heavier than it looked, and any pretense of self-defense would steady my nerves. All that steadiness evaporated when I heard a pale, whimpering moan; it was like the noise I once heard a dog make after being hit by a car, but so much more human. I picked up my pace. Damn these heels. Why aren’t I carrying a flashlight? I should have a flashlight.
The off-pitch childish giggle following that sound of suffering is what broke me. A heel broke and I almost fell, but somehow I staggered on long enough to leave the shoes on the road behind me. I prayed as I ran that I wouldn’t step in glass or onto a nail. I didn’t even know what I was running from, but I was already in a spiral of panic, and rational thought wasn’t about to bring me back.
I came to my apartment building and fumbled with my keys, struggling with the front door, the keys scratching at the lock, trying to find the keyway. I heard a scuff nearby, like feet on pavement, and the key finally slid home. Then the door suddenly burst open and a terrifying wraith launched itself right at my face. My scream was a small, strangled thing, the shriek of a dying mouse.
“Boo! I’m a ghost, mama! Whoo-ooooo-oooo!”
“Amanda!” I wrapped her up tightly as a wave of relief swept over me, and for a moment I was overwhelmed, unable to do anything but to hold her and struggle to hold back my tears. Her costume had been cut out of the torn sheets I was going to throw out.
“Mama, too tight, too tight!” She squirmed in my arms, and I relented, loosening my grip.
“Amanda, it’s not nice to scare people like that! People can get really scared when the power’s out like this. You have to think about things.” My cheeks burned, though. Somewhere I knew I was just ashamed to have been so terrified over nothing, but it wasn’t something I knew how to give voice to.
“I’m sorry, Mama. But were you scared? You thought I was a real ghost!” I pulled the sheet off her head, looking into eyes that were shining with excitement, and I couldn’t help but smile. She wasn’t the least bit sorry, and it was beautiful.
“You were so scary, Amanda! Especially the spooky noises.”
“Nuh-uh. I didn’t make any noises. I just came out now for the first time.”
All the relief I’d been feeling began to ebb away. I looked over my shoulder down the dark streets, the stars shining brightly without city lights to compete with. Whatever I had run from was still out here. I saw a white shape down the street, then another, swirling like leaves in a whirlwind. “Come on, Amanda, let’s go in. We’ll have ice cream for dessert tonight.”
“Ice cream!”, Amanda cheered, and she ran up the stairs as if getting home sooner would speed up the ice cream. I pulled the door behind me, pausing to look at the indistinct shapes moving in the near-total darkness. Suddenly, I was sure they were looking at me. I pulled the door shut, and made sure it locked.