**Content Warning: Themes of mental illness**
The thing about this city is that wealth pours from every crevice. It’s the kind of place with boxy steel buildings that my Mom says look like salt shakers, and roads that are paved and repaved just to be sure people can roll on down 4th avenue in their white Cadillacs without hitting a single bump. There aren’t any cracked sidewalks or people sitting on street corners holding up greasy signs that read “God Bless.”
It’s not the kind of place with crummy Chinese restaurants or rubbery lines of graffiti on the sides of buildings. A new, shiny feeling hangs in the air, stretching from the concrete corners of skyscrapers like cobwebs. But the thing about this city is it’s got no soul.
I moved to this place about four months back with my mom and kid brother Eric. For us, it was just another stop on the road. We probably won’t be here long. You ever know. That’s the way our family works. We bounce from place to place. I don’t mind it much, but I think Eric probably does. He’s a real sensitive type. Quiet. He’s got this real red hair and these big brown eyes. I think he comes off as a little out there, cause he’s always twisting his little bits of wire and stuff. But he’s great. It’s kind of my job to take care of him.
Mom’s pretty great too. We get along well enough. Sometimes she doesn’t always come home on time, and sometimes she forgets to grab us food on her way home from work and gets kinda worked up about demons, but for the most part, we do okay.
Our apartment is pretty nice compared to our last one. I figure Mom has a real good job this time because our place has two big bedrooms, a little living room with a tv, and a fancy kitchenette. The paint isn’t peeling, and the carpets are clean and nice and fluffy on our feet, and Mom comes home smiling at the end of the day. When we got there with all our boxes and stuff, Eric took off his shoes and ran around the big empty flat. I’d seen him that happy before. He always is when we move into a new place. He hangs up his science posters right away, like they can anchor him down and make it officially our place.
I don’t bother with that stuff. Most of my things are still in boxes. Makes it easier to pack up when Mom comes home looking all wild and tells us we’ve gotta go. That’s the way it is. You can’t get attached to any place, ‘cause you know you aren’t staying long. I guess when you’re all little like Eric, you want every place to be the one where you can finally put down roots. He always cries when we leave.
But so far, we’re fine right here. My school isn’t bad, even if they’re kind of particular about grammar and stuff. I’ve got a buddy named Grayson that I eat lunch with. And even though he’s kind of obnoxious and calls me Corndog, he’s fun to hang out with. We’re not best buds or anything like that, because I know I can’t get too friendly with folks. But we might wait for each other after class and goof off in the hallways.
Tonight, Mom came home early from work, and we watched Singing in the Rain while we ate chicken fingers and buttered popcorn. It was a pretty good movie, actually. There was this movie star named Don and a blonde actress named Lina Lamont who had a baby voice, and there was lots of singing and tap dancing, and even a little romance, but not between Don and Lina. Eric fell asleep on the carpet right around the part when everybody found out that it wasn’t Lina who sang in the picture; it was Don’s friend Kathy. He was drooling all over the carpet and everything, dead to the world. ( Eric I mean, not Don.) So I went to tuck him in, and I had to pry this little ball of twisted wire out of his hands. Eric’s always fooling around with little bits of metal. Mostly bent paper clips and junk like that. Keeps him calm, I guess.
Mom was all into the movie when I got back, tears running down her cheeks and everything as Don hugged Kathy. I don’t go for that kind of thing, especially not in movies. Some guys in my grade pretend-flirt with girls, and others have ‘girlfriends.’ But when you’re my age, having a girlfriend doesn’t really mean much.
Mom and I were sitting there in the living room on the couch, and she was saying something about how handsome Don was, and I gotta be honest, I had kind of tuned out. I was thinking about a geography test I had the next day and trying to remember whether Little Rock was the capital of Alabama or Arkansas.
When the power went out, there wasn’t much warning. The glow of the TV flickered, and died, leaving Don and Kathy standing in a field in front of some big billboard.
It was a pretty clear night; no wind or anything. The first thing I thought was that maybe Mom forgot to pay the electric bill or something. “ Mom?” I asked into the dark, kinda quiet.
“ Hang on, baby,” she said, “ I’ll grab some matches.” I sat there on the couch, listening to her rummage around in the kitchen. It was pretty dark, for real. Even though it wasn’t super cloudy out, the moon was this helpless little sliver and didn’t give off much light. I think it’s called Waxing Crescent or something like that. They’ve been teaching us some junk about moon phases in school.
Mom came back with an orange candle from last thanksgiving and a little battery-operated radio that I didn’t even know we still had. Looking out our window, I realized that all the streetlights were dead, and the city looked dark and cold. It gave me a weird feeling, seeing the entire place black like that.
“ Looks like the whole city’s out,” Mom said as she lit the candle. “ Must be a fault of some kind,” she muttered to herself. I stayed pretty quiet. Usually, Mom doesn’t do too well in the dark, which is why she sleeps with all her lights on. Don’t ask me why she doesn’t like the dark. One time, the lights went out while we were staying in a hotel, and she got kind of frantic and started talking a lot about demons and spirits and crap like that. Eric and I work real hard to make sure that something like that doesn’t happen again. Eric’s always checking the weather to see if a storm is coming or something that might damage the power lines. I remember thinking that at least Eric’s asleep this time. If Mom starts not feeling good, I can deal with it by myself.
Mom sat cross-legged on the floor and started fiddling with the radio, trying to get the news on what was going on. A real annoying garbled fuzz filled the room, and I hoped it wouldn’t wake Eric up. “ This damn thing,” Mom muttered, adjusting the dial. I watched her face carefully, searching for any sign that she wasn’t doing well. She seemed okay. I tried to relax. Maybe she would be fine.
The radio crackled and finally, we could hear a man’s voice giving the report. It sounded like he was whispering through a tin can, though. We leaned in close, straining to hear him.
“ Unexplained... citywide power outage...we think it has something to do with a circuit breaker failure… and… possibility of... hopefully it will be fixed soon… hang on to your flashlights, folks!... practical... let’s go to Tim with the weather.”
“ What’s going on?” Eric opened his bedroom door, rubbing his eyes and looking all sleepy. I glanced at Mom, who was staring at the radio with a sort of funny look on her face that didn’t make me feel too good.
“ Nothing bud,” I said, standing up to tuck him back in, “ The lights in the city just went out.”
“ They gonna be back soon?”
“ Yeah, yeah real soon. It’s just a little thing. Don’t worry about it.”
He climbed into bed and I pulled his covers over him again. “ Go back to sleep,” I said.
Just as I was leaving, he asked me one more thing. “ Jack?”
“ Is Mom okay?”
“ Yeah, Mom’s alright. Don’t worry about it. Go back to sleep.”
I don’t lie much. But I did then.
When I went back into the living room, Ted on the radio was still going on about the weather and how it was going to be in the 50’s tomorrow.
Mom was up, pacing across the floor and tapping her fingers on the side of her leg. I was getting kinda worried, I’m not gonna lie. Mom had this real wild look in her eye, and she looked kind of like a demon herself next to the glow of the stupid Pumpkin Spice candle.
She didn’t answer me, just kept muttering to herself.
“ Hey. Mom.” I touched her shoulder, trying to get her to snap out of it. She looked real lost, like some kind of child.
She looked at me, and she seemed totally panicked. Her eyes didn’t quite meet mine, and she kept looking all around the room. When she spoke, her voice was high and real pitchy.
“ Jack, baby. We’ve got to go. We’ve got to go. It’s not safe here; we’ve got to go.”
My heart felt like it had dropped down to my shoes and settled there for good. “Mom, c’mon, nothing’s wrong,” I said, trying to get her to sit down. It was getting worse, whatever it was. She still wouldn’t look at me. Her hands were shaking, and these little gasps were coming out of her throat, like she couldn’t breathe too well.
“ They’re coming, Jack. We’ve got to go,” Mom said, her voice getting louder.
“ Mom, calm down. No one’s coming. Please, let’s go to bed. It’s late.” I was tugging on her arm, but it was like I wasn’t there. I wished I could rip her from her own head, tell her that whatever she was thinking wasn’t real.
“ They’re here. They’re outside the door. They turned off the power…” Mom started shivering, her eyes blinking and blinking. I grabbed her shoulders, trying to get her attention. It was stupid, but I thought if I shook her hard enough, she would see herself the way I was seeing her. I didn’t know what the hell to do.
She was pulling on her jacket, scrabbling at the counter for keys and anything else her hands could reach.
“ They’re here, Jack. We have to go. We can get out through the balcony. Get Eric.” Her voice was wild and harsh. God, I was scared. Not scared the way she was, of voices and demons, but scared of her dark places.
Suddenly I was real angry. I could feel it when I looked at her and the tears streaming down her face. “ Mom, what the hell? Look at me, no, Mom, look at me.” I knew I was yelling; I couldn’t help it. It wasn’t fair. I knew real well Eric was curled up in his bed, listening to everything. He knew Mom wasn’t herself and he knew I couldn’t stop it or make it better. It just isn’t fair that he’s got to deal with this. That either one of us does. It’s not fair. She can’t do this. Why the hell can’t she be strong?
I watched as she crumbled to the floor in this little ball, the keys falling out of her hands. She got real quiet. Just lay there, her tears bleeding into our soft carpet. Her lips were moving as she talked to people that weren’t there.
The bedroom door creaked behind me, and Eric curled up under Mom’s arm and gripped her hand so hard his knuckles turned white. I felt so damn hopeless, watching him try and pull her out of her own head. Moms are supposed to be the strong ones, but I guess I’ve gotta be this time. I watched as Eric rubbed her back, kissing her shaking hands.
I looked out at the dark wash of the city and waited for dawn.