Comfort in the Dark
She never admitted this to another human being, but every single morning since she was eight years old, Jeannette McNulty prayed for a power outage.
She wanted it to strike sometime during the late afternoon or early evening. She wanted the lights to be out for at least three or four hours, the entire night if possible. She wanted no explanation from the electric company except a simple, "A simple power failure."
Jeannette treasured the moment when television sets died, computers shut down, and refrigerators stopped refrigerating. She relished the very second cellphones and battery operated radios became the only links to the outside world. Best of all, she cherished the noble march from her fourth floor apartment to the street below, carefully descending the staircase one slow step at a time, clutching the railing with one hand and carrying a large flashlight in the other. This trek would never be a solo effort; one or more tenants would undoubtedly join her on the journey with lit candles and jumbo flashlights of their own.
Once she reached the street, Jeannette would mingle with her neighbors as crying toddlers clung to their mothers' torsos and curious canines wagged their tails with gusto. It was a remarkable, indelible scene: the residents of this Seattle suburb banding together in darkness to become a genuine community. There would be warm smiles, expressions of concern, and a colossal assortment of baked goods (muffins, cupcakes, cinnamon buns, pastries) courtesy of the town's most popular patisserie, Baking Love. A blackout would become a social gathering of immense proportion, a party in which every guest had something in common with every other. And Jeannette reveled in it.
As a child (with three older brothers who didn't pay much attention to her), Jeannette was exceedingly shy, and she didn't have many friends. In fact, she had precisely two, Brianna and Clementine, and Clementine moved to Miami six months after they met. Jeannette craved attention, so when she was eight and experienced her first blackout, she considered it the most important event of her childhood. Her lackluster street magically morphed into an intriguing playground where families huddled together and lit candles of all colors, sizes and scents. Complete strangers gave her hugs for doing absolutely nothing. "Don't be scared," her mother had told her. "The lights will be back on soon." But Jeannette wasn't the least bit scared. She hoped the darkness would last for days.
It was during her third and final childhood blackout (when she was fourteen) that Jeannette set her sights on becoming an electrical engineer. To be near an actual power grid, to be working with the very instruments that could cause an outage and then bring the lights back on, was a thrilling, almost mind-blowing prospect. Classmates thought Jeannette's aspirations were bizarre. While they rhapsodized about becoming doctors, fashion designers and diplomats, Jeannette proudly proclaimed, "One day I'll be employed at the electric company." She could think of no career more satisfying than one devoted to lighting the planet.
As a teenager, Jeannette's leisure activities belied her pleasant, reserved personality. After devouring every book about Thomas Edison she could find, she developed a voracious appetite for biographies of serial killers and mass murderers. She found it fascinating to study the needs and obsessions of these deranged creatures, the sporadic itches when they felt the unstoppable urge to kill. Only after committing a grisly murder did they feel alive and fulfilled.
Jeannette couldn't help seeing the similarity; she only felt alive and fulfilled during a power failure. It was as if the darkness was a fountain of euphoria from which she drank, and she was always thirsty. The day after a blackout she itched for another one, but unlike orchestrating some savage bloodbath the way a serial killer could, producing a power outage was out of her hands. It was an impossible, far-flung fantasy, a young girl's dream that could never be realized.
Having something in common with a crazed psychopath did little to enhance Jeannette's low self-esteem, but she accepted the reality of the situation like an adult. It was comforting to know that there seemed to be some anomaly in every family. Brianna's younger brother was a stutterer. Clementine's tall, bony mother was a prescription pill popper. Before his appendix burst during a ping pong tournament (causing his sudden death), a well-liked history teacher suffered with polydactylism; he had six fingers on each hand. So being the anomaly in the McNulty clan wasn't such an unnerving, embarrassing thing.
It was no surprise that Jeannette's major at the University of Washington, Tacoma, was electrical engineering. A student with a genuine passion for her chosen field, she graduated with top honors. At the age of twenty-three, she landed her dream job: Protection and Control Engineer for the electric company in Seattle. Responsibilities included maintaining power systems, expanding the company's electricity-distribution network, and taking part in preventive maintenance. Because the position required the occasional climbing of a utility pole, Jeannette needed to be in excellent physical condition, so she joined a local gym and worked out vigorously three nights a week.
On this particular September evening, a Tuesday, the electricity failed at seven fifty p.m. Jeannette wasn't on the emergency crew list, so she didn't need to rush back into the office to help restore power. She could fully indulge in the darkness, enjoy every second of the blackout in all its majestic splendor.
In clusters large and small, scores of people poured onto Hicks Avenue, the darkness punctured only by the dim light of candles and the glow of battery-operated flashlights. It was a dazzling, wondrous tableau that an artist might have created in a painting. As strangers brushed past one another with no particular destination, Jeannette strolled down the avenue with awe, her fingertips trailing along the waist-high, well-tended bushes that lined the street. If it weren't for the anxiety-ridden faces in the crowd, the gathering could have been mistaken for a strawberry festival without the strawberries. A music festival without the music. A farmers' market without the farmers or the market.
When she arrived at Thistle Grove Drive, Jeannette slowed to a complete halt as neighbors continued to trickle out of their homes, having left behind half-eaten dinners, bathtubs half-filled with water, homework only partially completed. The street was bustling with agitated people, some standing alone, some huddled in packs, spilling over the edges of the sidewalk. There was a true mixture of types - all ages, all races, every level of taste from high-class to hideous.
There were those who paced the pavement, others who stood perfectly still. Still others were perched on the curb as if passing the time in a pleasant, carefree manner, bouncing up every few minutes to stretch their legs. Jeannette believed the behavior of these people during a blackout spoke volumes about their true natures. For instance, she was convinced those who paced the pavement lived lives filled with angst and anxiety. Fearful of everything from bedbugs to Ebola to shark attacks in shallow water, they weren't shy about sharing their predictions of disaster and doom.
Those who sat on the curb like buoyant teenagers tended to be easy-going and congenial. They weren't necessarily extroverts, but they got along with just about everyone, everywhere.
The people who stood absolutely still were followers, eternally waiting for instructions from someone in charge. Introverts, some of them suffered from abandonment issues and occasional bouts of paranoia. With their feet firmly rooted to the sidewalk, they eerily resembled department store mannequins.
Those who overdressed for the occasion, having scrambled in candlelight for a provocative outfit and a few pieces of gaudy jewelry, were either exhibitionists or sexually undernourished single women prowling the darkness for an available partner.
Then there were the men (they were almost always men) who entertained small groups of neighbors with endless stories and jokes. Obnoxiously outgoing, they loved the sound of their voices and craved being the center of attention. Serious drinkers, these gregarious guys hit the sauce especially hard on holidays and made rambling, incoherent toasts at family gatherings.
Vanessa Penrose lived in the apartment building just north of Jeannette's. The closest of friends, they would always find each other in the crowd, and this night was no different. "Net," Jeannette heard from behind her.
"Nes," she responded to Vanessa.
"Shouldn't you be at work trying to get the lights back on?"
"I'm not on emergency duty, so I can have fun in the dark with you and all our neighbors."
"Swell," Vanessa said with her signature sarcasm. "Maybe we can play Tag or Pin the Tail on the Donkey."
"What were you doing?" Jeannette inquired.
"Eating a boring salad and watching the news. You?"
"Eating chop suey and watching the news."
"Wild Wok Tortilla?"
"Of course," Jeannette said.
"I love Wild Wok Tortilla," Vanessa gushed in her throaty, sexy voice. Even with no make-up and her hair in a ponytail, Vanessa was a goddess. When she entered a room, all eyes turned to her and remained on her until she darted off to her next destination (usually to escape the ogling of the guys). With her high cheekbones, emerald eyes and long-waisted body, she was spectacularly beautiful while Jeannette was simply girl-next-door cute. She had no trouble attracting men, but her past romances were plagued with drama and disaster. Jeannette's one serious romance had ended quietly three years earlier.
"I got the chop suey de puerco," Jeannette told her. "Have you had that?"
"Only ten or twelve times. It's to die for, be reincarnated, and die again," Vanessa said. "So how long do you think this damn blackout will last?"
"Hard to predict. It could go on for five minutes or five hours."
"You know what would make it tolerable? A buffet, a live band and an open bar. Then I wouldn't mind if it went all night."
"I'll give you plenty of notice for the next one so you can arrange all that," Jeannette told her.
Jeannette took a moment to survey the street, nodding to several people, smiling at others. Then her eyes locked on a particular man. "Oh God," she said, her voice suddenly shaky. "There he is."
Vanessa followed Jeannette's gaze. "The Stranger," she said.
The Stranger was a man of around thirty who lived in the apartment building just south of Jeannette's. She knew nothing about him except that the sight of him made her heart race. He wasn't particularly tall but neither was she. He seemed somewhat reserved but so was she. In Jeannette's eyes, he was her ideal match.
"Why don't you say hello once and for all?" Vanessa asked, being one who eschewed formality.
"Because that would seem pushy."
"Would you rather live your entire life wondering what he was like? Hoping to run into him when you're eighty?"
"You make it sound so sad."
"It's beyond sad, it's pathetic," Vanessa snapped. "He's standing there alone in the dark. I'd bet my meager savings account he'd like a little company."
Just as Jeannette was working up the courage to introduce herself, some brazen woman slid up next to the Stranger and grabbed his attention. Under a mess of tangled orange hair, she wore a muumuu with so many flecks of color that it looked like a regurgitated rainbow. "Who the heck is that?" Jeannette asked.
"Never saw her before," Vanessa said, studying the kooky gal with morbid curiosity the way a scientist might examine a strange new species. "But I can tell you one thing - she's guilty of committing a true crime of fashion."
"You got that right."
"Look at the mouth," Vanessa added. "It doesn't stop moving. Go over and rescue him! I'm sure he'd welcome being rescued from that shrew."
"Wait a minute. We're jumping to conclusions," Jeannette warned. "Maybe she's smarter than she appears to be and they're having a stimulating conversation."
"Does she look like a Rhodes Scholar to you?"
Just then, the garrulous shrew emitted a cackle so shrill that it could be heard two zip codes away.
"I'll tell you what she looks like," Jeannette said. "Divorced."
"You're so right," Vanessa agreed with enthusiasm. "Some poor guy married her when she was young and thin, maybe passably pretty, then she put on forty pounds, dyed her hair pumpkin, and the honeymoon was over."
"Over and completely out."
"I'll bet she's one of those people who feels compelled to broadcast the mundane minutiae of her life on Facebook."
"Every hour on the hour."
"Exactly. Now do you want me to drag you to him and make the introduction?"
"No dragging," Jeannette firmly stated. She was certain that if they both wandered over, the Stranger would be captivated by Vanessa to the exclusion of every other woman within a one-mile radius.
Just then, a small commotion down Thistle Grove Drive grabbed their attention. Jeannette and Vanessa rushed over to see an extremely pregnant woman about to go into labor. She appeared to be quite young, possibly in her late teens.
"Clear the way!" a man with a baritone voice shouted as he guided the wobbling mother-to-be to a Corvette convertible swooping in to pick her up. As the car zoomed off, the crowd burst into spontaneous applause.
"That tween is having a baby and I'm still looking for a boyfriend," Vanessa remarked.
"She was no tween," Jeannette said. "She was probably close to twenty. It would've been fun for her to deliver right here on the street."
"Fun for who?" Vanessa inquired. "Would you like to give birth in a public place with hundreds of nosy neighbors watching your every push? Maybe recording it on their cell phones?"
"When you put it that way, I guess not," Jeannette admitted. "Still, that was exciting, wasn't it?"
"Scintillating," Vanessa deadpanned as she and Jeannette headed back to Hicks Avenue. "I'll be sure to include it in my journal with a pink highlighter." A moment later, she caught sight of the Stranger. "The shrew is gone!" she said in a loud whisper. "March over there right now! Forward, march!"
Without hesitation, Jeannette forced herself to follow her friend's fierce command. As she approached the Stranger, in extremely slow motion, her body throbbed with adrenaline. This euphoric feeling lasted five or six steps. Then the euphoria vanished to make way for primal fear, absolute terror that they would have nothing at all to say to one another.
Barely ten seconds passed before their eyes met. She half expected the Stranger to look away, but he didn't. There was such a powerful, palpable connection that Jeannette's body temperature literally rose; she felt toasty from head to toe. Despite having a small waist, she sucked her stomach in.
"Hello," he said.
A meek, barely audible "Hello" emerged from Jeannette's mouth. Suddenly she was a timid girl of twelve.
"Are you all right?" he asked, taking a step toward her. His blue-gray eyes were like miniature moons illuminating the darkness with soft, celestial light.
"Yes, I'm fine," she said. "You?"
"Frankly I'll feel better when the lights go back on," he said affably. "Which building do you live in?"
"1204," she said, pointing to it, exceptionally pleased that he wanted to know where she lived.
"I'm 1206," he said, stepping closer to her. He smelled like fresh towels.
"Nice building," she said. As soon as the words emerged, Jeannette realized how asinine they were. Nice building? It was identical to the building in which she lived. Both structures, six stories tall, were part of a larger apartment complex: four buildings in total, all exactly alike. Sturdy, red brick quadruplets.
"I'm Conor," he said, offering his hand. "One n." He had thick, wavy brown hair and a boyishly handsome face.
"I'm Jeannette," she told him, taking his hand in hers. "Two ns."
"Two ns? I envy that," he said with a sly grin. "Sorry to meet under these circumstances."
"You mean the blackout?" she asked.
"Those are the circumstances," he said.
"You should look on the bright side!" she exclaimed a bit too cheerfully.
"There's a bright side in the dark?" he asked. "Where?"
"Well, it's not raining," Jeannette explained. "That's rare for a Seattle night in September."
"It's rare for any Seattle night."
"True. Also, it's not too chilly for this time of year."
"OK," he conceded.
"Plus, this is an opportunity to get to know your neighbors."
"Right," he acknowledged with a warm smile. "I'll take your advice and try to look on the bright side," Conor said. "But it might be hard. I've had some bad experiences in blackouts."
"Oh," Jeannette said, taken aback. "Sorry to hear that."
"I'll tell you about them sometime." Eager to change the subject, he asked, "What were you doing when the lights crashed?"
"Just eating dinner and watching the news," she said, still jittery with adrenaline. "I got take-out from Wild Wok Tortilla. Have you been there?"
"Of course," he said. "Whoever thought of combining Chinese and Mexican is a genius."
"Have you had their egg foo young de camarones?"
"Sure have. It's to die for," he said.
"To die for, be reincarnated, and die again," Jeannette said, stealing the words verbatim from Vanessa and feeling only slightly guilty. (She knew her friend wouldn't mind.) "Have you tried the lun fung kow de pollo? It's not cow. It's lobster and chicken with vegetables."
"No, but it sounds delicious."
"It's beyond delicious," she said, her heartbeat returning to its normal pace. Still, she felt intoxicated talking to him. "You want to hear something funny? I once ordered the egg drop soup and dropped it on the way home." Despite being an absolutely true story, she wished she hadn't told it. Conor didn't crack a smile.
"You probably have a suggestive mind," he said, analyzing the incident. He went on to ask her questions that didn't involve Chinese or Mexican cuisine, and Jeannette found herself answering in a concise, professional manner as if this was a job interview. She told Conor about her humdrum childhood, her love of books, and her exhilarating years at the University of Washington.
Conor reciprocated with stories about growing up in Atlanta with two lesbian mothers, playing the trumpet with prodigious expertise as a teenager, and currently working for one of the top accounting firms in the country.
"If you were so good at it, why aren't you a world famous trumpet player?" she boldly inquired.
"I didn't love it enough," he explained. "You have to live and breathe it, and I just didn't." He spoke matter-of-factly, without the slightest suggestion of regret. "Do you live and breathe anything?"
"Yes, I do," she hesitantly said. "But I'll tell you about that another time."
"Why don't you tell me at dinner one night when the lights are back on?" he asked.
"Sounds like a plan," she said, deliberately downplaying this magnificent moment, repressing a powerful urge to jump up and down with joy. The wheels in her head were already spinning; she would make an emergency appointment with her hairdresser Mauricio who was always booked two weeks in advance but would find a way to squeeze her in, and she would splurge for a mani-pedi with Toinette. Vanessa would volunteer to choose the ideal outfit. (She had a great eye for fashion.) If necessary, Jeannette would buy a new dress at the mall, something stylish and semi-expensive. "At least you won't hit any traffic when you pick me up," she lightheartedly said.
"Probably none at all," he replied with a chuckle.
"If you want, we can walk to Wild Wok Tortilla," she suggested.
"We can go there," he said, "but I'd rather take you someplace fancier."
"Really? I could be talked into fancier," she said, basking in the glow of Conor's good nature. Lunging in for a kiss was as tempting as scarfing down a rich tiramisu or reading a diary that was left open by accident, but Jeannette resisted. Instead, she focused on the fact that two perfect strangers met, spoke, and experienced genuine electricity during a power outage.
After exchanging phone numbers through their mobile devices, Conor searched Jeannette's face as if seeking permission to make some kind of confession.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
Conor hesitated. "I should probably tell you why I hate blackouts."
Jeannette didn't want anything to tarnish her warm and fuzzy feelings about power failures, especially the current one, but she knew she had to listen with the utmost empathy. "Tell me," she said, bracing herself.
"When I was twelve, there was a power failure," he somberly told her. "My mom was a doctor at Northside, a big hospital in Atlanta. When the electricity went out, one of the emergency back-up generators failed, so the machines stopped working. My mom lost two of her patients. One was just a kid, around five or six."
The information hit Jeannette like a thunderbolt. A profound wave of sorrow rippled through her blood, causing her to feel faint. "That's horrendous," she said. "Back-up systems are supposed to work. I've never heard of one that didn't function properly."
"Well, this one didn't." He took a long breath and looked pensively into the distance. "There's more," he said.
The last thing Jeannette wanted to hear was another nightmare blackout saga, but she was Conor's audience of one, and she had no choice. "I'm listening," she told him.
"While that was happening at the hospital, my other mom at home wanted to get candles from the basement, so she started walking down the long wooden staircase. It was pitch black and she lost her balance. Fell all the way down. Hit her head on the concrete floor," he said. "She died."
Jeannette and Conor were silent for a few moments, the horror of his message infiltrating the space around them like poison from a chemical weapon saturating the air; there was nothing left to breathe. Jeannette attempted to speak, to offer a few sympathetic words, but her mouth was momentarily disabled. It felt as if her face had collapsed.
"That was a long time ago," Conor said, "but whenever there's a power outage, I still worry that someone might get hurt."
Dumbfounded, Jeannette bobbed her head up and down like it was connected to her body by a coiled spring. That mass of harrowing, heartbreaking information echoed through eighteen years of her life, obliterating every bit of joy, demolishing every morsel of pleasure she ever felt about power failures. In a matter of seconds, the entire tapestry of Jeannette's life dramatically, immutably changed.
"Let's just hope the lights will be on soon," he said.
"The lights will be on before midnight," she announced, the professional part of her miraculously emerging from the shadows. "I guarantee."
"How can you guarantee that?" Conor asked.
"I work at the electric company," Jeannette said, trying her best to conceal the fact that her world had just fallen spectacularly to pieces. "We can always fix a malfunction within a few hours."
"You work at the electric company?" he asked, twisting his face into a question mark. He was genuinely surprised to hear this biographical tidbit.
"I've worked there for three years," she stated.
"Then you must take this power outage pretty seriously."
"I live and breathe it," she shared, feeling dizzy and sick, the way she felt when forced to sit in a backwards-facing seat on a train. She was afraid she might literally buckle at the knees and keel over in the crowd. "I'm sorry, but I need to find my friend Vanessa."
"Oh," Conor said, surprised and disappointed that she was leaving so abruptly. "Well, I'll call you tomorrow and we'll make a plan."
"OK, good," she muttered. In a semi-stupor, Jeannette stumbled away from her potential love interest, fully aware that she was interrupting their nascent history that was off to such a promising start.
As she trudged through the throngs, Jeannette felt like an enemy of the people. Because of the blackout, there was a possibility of fire due to a mishandled candle. There was a chance that some claustrophobic neighbor could be stuck in an elevator and suffer a heart attack from the fear and anxiety. And of course there was the risk that someone would lose his or her balance and tumble down a flight of stairs. Nothing like this had occurred to Jeannette previously. If she had thought of the potential danger, she wouldn't have engineered the outage, and she wouldn't have found herself in the eye of this emotional tornado. She found it strange and distressing to walk among the living when she might have caused someone's death that very night. She wiped tears from her cheeks and looked at each adult in a new light. She saw panicked faces, eyes of desperation. Some were leaning on one another to stay upright. She wanted to apologize to every person she passed.
The plan was so simple that it bordered on humorous, Jeannette had initially thought. So straightforward and uncomplicated. A surreptitious entry into a computer to program a power outage, and the lights went out on schedule. The power would be restored just before midnight, perhaps sooner if the technicians were savvy enough.
Not only was this action morally reprehensible, it went completely against company policy. When Jeannette first landed the job, she attended a series of meetings about the procedures, regulations and values of the electric company. There was a document she was required to sign promising she would uphold the company's strict, scrupulous standards to the best of her ability. If this blackout was ever traced to her, she knew she would be fired on the spot, but she wondered if the consequences could be even worse. She wondered if she had committed some unlawful act that could put her behind bars. She wondered if she would qualify for the witness protection program.
The air had turned cold. The din of the crowd was suddenly deafening. People were livid, cursing the electric company, yelling into cell phones demanding to speak to someone in charge, venting their frustrations on their fellow sufferers drowning in darkness. Fistfights seemed inevitable.
When Vanessa tugged her arm from behind, Jeannette was so startled that she reacted with a sharp full-body jerk. "Did I scare you?" Vanessa asked.
"Just a little," Jeannette replied.
"Sorry. So how did it go with the Stranger?"
"Conor," she quietly said. "His name is Conor."
"OK. How did it go with Conor?"
"He asked me out to dinner."
"Fantastic!" Vanessa gushed. "And who do you have to thank for it?"
"You," she muttered.
"And I'll never let you forget it," Vanessa joked. Then she sensed that something was wrong. "What's the matter?" she asked. "Is he an online porn star?"
"Wanted in another state?"
"I'm not feeling so good," Jeannette responded, her head throbbing. "I'm going home."
"To sit in your pitch black apartment?"
"I'll try to sleep," she said.
"Well, call if you need me," Vanessa said, concerned.
Jeannette nodded, and then she was off, mustering all the strength her exhausted body could provide. The chaos in her mind was out of control: Could she live with the guilt that consumed her? Did she botch her chance with Conor? Did someone suspect she was the culprit, the mischievous mind behind the evening's mayhem and disorder? Paranoia suddenly clouded the picture. The girl who always followed the rules, until now, needed to escape.
Instead of heading to the entrance of 1204, instinct guided her to the parking lot behind the building. She didn't plan, she didn't think. Her body just moved, and she followed.
Jeannette climbed into the driver's seat of her dark blue sedan, started the engine, and zoomed away.
There weren't many cars on the road, but failing stoplights caused frustrating delays. Dedicated police officers, standing in the middle of chaotic intersections, did their best to direct traffic.
Then it began to rain. Within minutes, a light drizzle turned into a deluge, and Jeannette's windshield wipers could barely keep up with the heavy downpour of drops that were big as flecks of ash from a forest fire. As the rain slapped hard against the roof and doors of the vehicle, Jeannette squeezed the steering wheel with both hands for safety. She pictured her neighbors on Hicks Avenue, hundreds of them, rushing indoors to fetch raincoats and umbrellas. She envisioned screaming, crying, pandemonium. She saw accidents happening. She wondered what her ultimate punishment might be.
For the very first time in her life, a blackout terrified her.
Driving as quickly as the traffic and weather allowed, Jeannette found her way to the electric company. She pulled into the parking lot and screeched to a halt, almost slamming into one of the two gigantic dumpsters that squatted near the entrance. Then she raced into the building, becoming drenched in the process. Even though she wasn't officially on duty, she would do whatever she could to restore power as promptly and efficiently as possible.