The blackout started at eight thirty-nine exactly and the knock on the door came around one hour later. Jess had been streaming My Fair Lady, watching it with her nine-year-old son, Paul.
Before the film had started Jess had looked out of the window of her tiny two-bedroom apartment, in Jackson Heights, New York. It was a wintery, moonless late January evening and Jess and Paul had been mostly inside since Thursday. Only venturing out to the corner store to get milk and what supplies she could afford.
Now, with no wind and no cloud cover the temperature had plummeted, transforming the huge snow drifts into tiny ice glaciers and making the now glistening sidewalks into impossible hazards of slipperiness. The hustle and bustle of New York’s busy streets had subsided from a cacophony of engines revving, horns blasting and sporadic sirens to the unnerving silence of near-empty streets, while the sparse pedestrians, wrapped up like Michelin Men, were treading gingerly along the mirrorlike sidewalks.
The ferocious storm had hit, in earnest, early Friday morning, only abating on Saturday night. Then, all day Sunday it had just gotten colder and colder with the outside temperature now well below zero at around seventeen degrees while Jess’s one electric heater struggled to keep their little apartment above fifty-eight. They were both wearing coats, scarves and woollen beanies.
Paul and Jess were close together on the settee, spooning up hot canned tomato soup, enjoying the film for, maybe the twentieth time, when the lights went off. Ironically, just as Eliza Doolittle had said in a perfectly feigned English accent. “Bit the bowl right off the spoon she did.” And then it was pitch black.
“Stay still Paul or you’ll spill your soup.” Jess fumbled for her phone and lit the flashlight. Paul said. What’s happened, mum?”
“It’s just a blackout. What with the storm and cold I doubt the power company has been able to cope with everyone staying home watching TV with their heating turned up high. I expect it will come back on soon.” Jess placed her soup on the coffee table, went over to the nearby kitchen and found the stick gas lighter in the bottom drawer and a scented candle in a glass jar-like holder on the countertop. Coming back, she placed the candle on the coffee table and said “I’ll just light this and we can finish our soup. It will be nice to eat by candlelight. A change from the TV.”
“It’s a good job I know how it ends then” Paul said. “Did you know it’s called ‘My Fair’ Lady because that’s how Eliza pronounced Mayfair before her lessons?” His mother smiled.
Paul didn’t say anything more, he was a thoughtful and kind boy. He continued eating his soup. He understood that his mother couldn’t do anything about the blackout or his favourite film so he finished his soup and snuggled contentedly up against his mother’s side. Which was his favourite place in all the world. As his eyes began to droop Jess said. “Come on then Pauly boy. Let’s get you off to bed.”
Twenty minutes later Paul was fast asleep under a mountain of blankets and Jess was back on the settee with her first glass of merlot, from an Oak Leaf box.
After using her phone to see if there was a blackout update, there was still 5G but no update, her mind wandered to Pauly and the familiar photos just about visible in the flickering light from the candle. They were on the bookshelf across the room. A smiling bouncing baby, a toddler with more ice cream on its face and clothes than in the cone, and a proud young mom next to a happy boy struggling to hold up his large silver-coloured dance trophy.
Jess had a shit job and lived in an average neighborhood in a small apartment. But Paul, her world, was a bright boy and doing well at school. She loved that he seemed to like films like My Fair Lady rather than war or sci-fi hit ‘em and shoot ‘em movies. And that he enjoyed art and dancing at school. He was even in the choir. She got by. She loved Paul and he seemed contented and loved her. But, after he had gone to bed, she would usually drink several large glasses of cheap wine so that the nightmare that haunted her sleep every night might not seem so vivid.
Jess was shaken from her introspection by a knock on the door. Strange? She stood up. “Who is it?” A muffled reply permeated through the locked door. “I’m from The New York Power Authority. We think that this building may be the cause of the blackout and I need to check your supply.”
Jess wondered how her building could be the cause of a city-wide blackout. But, without a second thought, she opened the door, knowing the chain lock was on, to tell the man just that. In that instant, a huge force knocked her back almost off her feet as the chain lock splintered around its less-than-adequate screws. The large dark shape in the doorway shined a powerful flashlight into her squinting eyes, blinding her from seeing the intruder.
Quietly and confidently the shape said. “Hello, Jess. It’s good to see you again after all this time. Did you miss me?” Jess knew that silky, smug voice, and the color drained from her face. Her insides went weak and she nearly peed herself. He strolled in, shutting and locking the door behind him. “Do you mind if I come in?”
Jess wanted to scream at him, but she couldn’t risk waking Paul. She said. “You putrid piece of shit. What the fuck do you want? Get the fuck out now or I’ll call the police”
“Shining his flashlight around the room he said. “Come on now Jess. Don’t be like that. I’ve missed you all these years and I’m sure you’ve been thinking of me.” Jess moved towards the coffee table but he was closer to it by now and casually picked up the refilled glass of wine and her phone, which he dropped into his pants pocket. Looking at her he took a drink of the wine and wrinkled his nose. Oh Jess, you shouldn’t be giving this dreadful wine to your guests”. He tossed it carelessly onto the floor.
She stared at the man she had known for only one evening long ago. The monster that stood before her had ruined her life. He was ruggedly handsome and still dressed in the best that Hugo Boss had to offer, but now under an unbuttoned, stylish cashmere winter coat. “You got twenty years. What happened? Why the fuck did they let you out?” She was almost crying.
In no hurry, the man used the flashlight as he looked around the room landing on the bookshelf. He said. “Time off for good behavior. You know my Dad, Johnny Appleton, he spoke to a few people and pulled a few strings. He helped me find you too. That was the easiest part. And now here I am after eight years.” Previously, I had just gotten off with a slap on the wrists after Dad had worked his magic but, as you know so well, a media focus at that time on rape victims.” He glanced at her briefly, his thin lips turned into a leer, “But I like to call you a willing participant.” He returned to studying the bookshelf. “Together with a new Mayor, elected on clamping down on so-called violence, I was needlessly incarcerated.” He turned away from the shelf, where he had been paying close attention to the photographs of Paul and looked straight at Jess. “I have spent the last eight years rotting in a wretched shit hole with nothing to think about but you and the present I left you. My son.”
“You fucker. You dim-witted, narcissistic psycho. You dare to call me a willing participant? You drugged me, abducted me, beat me, raped me beat me again, and left me for dead. They should have thrown away the key and left you at the bottom of that shit hole. Paul will never be your son. He isn’t now and he never will be. You will never have anything to do with him.”
Unmoved by her vitriol he continued. “You don’t know. I’ve been living close by for five weeks now. Nice place by the river” His easy tone took on an ugly edge. “And I’ve been watching you and watching Paul.” He brightened again. “The boy looks like me you know. You were pretty once but you’ve let yourself go now. You should get some better clothes, drink better booze and get out to those clubs again. I’ll take you.” A pause. “Anyway, this blackout was an opportunity too good to miss." He put the flashlight down, opened the palms of his hands took a step closer in the half-light, and said. "And here we are."
“Stay away from me you cruel sadistic fuck. Get out. Get the fuck out”
He took another step closer. She shrunk back but was stopped by the coffee table on the back of her legs. He was close now and there was menace in his voice as he quietly said. “I like your photos. They make me think of the life I could have had with my son if you had not taken him from me. You deprived him of his father. I would have taken him camping, and taught him to shoot. Even visits to our house in The Hamptons. I think that he would have been happier with me than in this hovel with a cheap lush for a mother. He could have grown up just like his loving father. But you, you bitch, you took all that and eight years from me.”
Finding her courage, she said. What kind of deluded world do you live in? The only love you know is for yourself. You are incapable of love. You only know hate and cruelty. Paul is nothing like you. He’s kind, thoughtful, and sensitive. And he’s clever, too clever to ever want to spend even a minute with you. You will never know him.’ And now she did shout. “You will never be his father, you stupid arrogant prick because Paul is in a different league.”
Boom! It felt like her head had exploded as he punched her hard in the face. As her woolen beanie flew off, she tumbled back across the coffee table, just missing the candle, and crashed onto the settee. As the fuzziness cleared, she felt her throbbing nose, probably broken, and looked at the blood on her blurry hand. Her sight came back into focus just as she was bathed in white light. The electricity had come back on and, through teary eyes, she saw him, standing, smiling, looking down at her.
She would not let him see her fear. “Is that your best shot? You hit me a lot harder last time.”
His eyes blazed with furious enjoyment as he said. Oh, Jess. “I’m only just getting started.” He straddled her on the settee, hit her again on the nose, placed his strong hands slowly around her neck, and slowly but surely increased the pressure on her throat.
He was taking his time. Jess, kicked and fought but it was useless. He was too strong. She could see that he wanted to savor everything. Wanted to. Needed to, enjoy the moment the life was extinguished from her body.
Finally, just about to subside into unconsciousness, she heard Eliza Doolittle shouting “Come on Dover. Move your bloomin’ arse”. He loosened his grip momentarily looking towards the TV, now back on, as Audrey Hepburn fist pumped at a Victorian English racecourse. Jesse’s right hand, flailing, caught hold of the glass-scented candle on the table. It was still burning brightly and full of hot wax. She smashed weakly it into his head expelling the wax over his face and into his eyes. He screamed loudly clutching at his face and scolded eyes but did not fall off her.
With his face now a blistering mess of pink candle wax and blood he screamed again: You bitch, you fucking, fucking bitch. You’ve blinded me. I’m going fucking kill you and your fucking son too.” He rained punches at where he thought she was. Too many of them landed and Jess knew that, just like last time, this was it. That she was going to die. She gave up, waiting for the peaceful release of death.
Suddenly the pummelling stopped and he slowly toppled off her, across the coffee table, and sank to the floor.
Henry Higgins had started singing something but there was another sound. A kind of dull pounding noise. Jess squinted through only one of her two swollen bruised eyes to see her son kneeling over the unmoving body of Holden Appleton repeatedly smashing the stone base of a large silver dance trophy into his bloody face.
Did she wait just a little too long before she spoke gently to him? “Paul, Pauly darling. Stop now. It’s over. Come here to me” Shaking, and with splashes of blood on his Disney pyjamas and face, he slowly put the trophy on the floor and came over to her. The look on his tear-streaked young face portrayed only fear, sorrow, and concern for his mother. They hugged one another and sobbed uncontrollably for an eternity. Eventually, Jess broke the embrace, kissed Paul tenderly on his brow, and reached down into the inert body’s pocket to retrieve her phone.
She dialed 911.