Lanterns: Day One

LANTERNS
by Stephen Couch

Fifth-grader or not, if Abby ever ran into Laycee Vandenberg again she was going to knock the little pigtailed bitch’s block off.

She guessed she was supposed to feel bad about that — wanting to coldcock a little kid — but right now Abby felt antsy and pissed-off in a way her half-smoked cigarette wasn’t fixing, and she wanted to hit something. And Laycee, the cause of Abby’s downfall, seemed as deserving as anyone.

So she stood, back against the chilly brick wall, ciggy in one hand while the other clenched and unclenched from open palm to fist, over and over. Abby looked out over the mostly blacked-out town of Caliche and wondered when the power was going to come back on.

The October wind was light and cool up here on the hill, and the solitude was nice but for the absence of anyone or anything to punch. She figured she could go back inside and find a Therapy Pillow to smack around, but it had gotten so stuffy inside so fast after the blackout, Abby preferred to remain out in the fresh air, regardless of being agitated.

She looked down on Caliche — literally, not her usual figuratively — and tried to pick out landmarks in the pile of lumpy shadows the town had become. There were still lights on here and there, so she knew up here on the hill wasn’t the only place with emergency lights. After the overhead fluorescents had packed it in, little red glowy dots flared up along the wainscoting of each hall and around all the doorframes.

Like all emergency lighting, it didn’t do much for visibility, but it sure did ramp up the creepiness factor.

Abby kept peering down at the town below. There was the post office — its lighting had come on to illuminate the flapping American and Texas flags, high on their aluminum pole. So just to the right of there would be the Masonic lodge, pitch dark. A couple of blocks from there was the police station, and next door to that she could see light pouring from the raised garage door of the fire station.

So a few blocks north of there would be the Qwik-Gulp (dark), and across the street from them, the school.

Abby’s fist clenched, and it took a while before it loosened again. In the meantime, she smoked her cigarette down to the filter, dropped it and ground it out with her sneaker.

Miss Abby, why are you so sleepy…?

Go do your math assignment, Laycee. I’m not feeling good.

“God, with that mother of hers, you’d think the brat would recognize a hangover,” Abby muttered into the night. She felt around in her hoodie pocket for another smoke, but only found the lighter. That must have been the last of her ration for the day. Two weeks here at Brightest Lantern Recovery Center, and she still hadn’t gotten used to the routine.

Maybe she could go back inside, find Dove, and beg her for one more cigarette. Out of the staff, Dove was the softest touch. Abby could pretend she was afraid of the dark or something to try to build sympathy.

Oh, who was she kidding? They didn’t have sympathy for you here at Brightest Lantern.

They had pity.

Miss Abby, I’m gonna go get the nurse.

Don’t you dare.

Something caught her eye at the base of the hill: three bobbing lights, slowly moving towards the road that led up to the recovery center.

Trick or Treaters? You’d think the parents would be gathering up their children and getting them home once the town went dark. Maybe these were some kids who got stranded in the blackout and thought Brightest Lantern was a safe haven.

Come to think of it, as Abby turned her attention back to Caliche, she didn’t see any headlights moving along the streets. She hadn’t seen any since fifteen minutes ago, when she’d propped open the emergency exit with a trash can and come outside.

One advantage to a blackout: not enough emergency power to trip the alarms. Normally, sneaking out involved jiggering a folded-up piece of foil in the doorjamb to (A) prevent the door from closing and (B) complete the alarm circuit so the siren wouldn’t go off.

She’d learned that trick from Claude. He’d been here longer than her and, as far as she knew, would be here long after she’d completed her court-mandated sentence. Claude actually liked it at Brightest Lantern, and as a voluntary committal, could stay here as long as his money held out.

The lights at the bottom of the hill had stopped, all three. Abby stared and tried to make out any details she could, but as far as she could tell, it was just a trio of indistinct figures, all holding lights up at shoulder height, like old-school lanterns.

“You’ve come to the right place,” she whispered, and as she spoke, the three lights shifted, all at the same time. It was as if the tiny people below had heard her and turned to look up at her. They couldn’t have heard her, of course they couldn’t have, but the thought made Abby shrink back against the brick wall as goose pimples flared up and down her arms.

Maybe it was time to go back inside. She could play Monopoly by candlelight, get some decaf hot chocolate from the cafeteria, and settle in for the night. Maybe go out in the fresh air again in the courtyard, where the ‘victory garden’ of pumpkins they’d been growing was just about ready to harvest. No jack-o-lanterns were going to get carved out of them — no sharp implements allowed here at Brightest Lantern — but they would at least get some tasty pies made from them, courtesy of the dietician and cafeteria crew.

Abby shivered inside her sweatshirt as the wind picked up. Yeah, going inside was the ticket. Nothing out here but the dark, and the weird lights, and the bad memories of snotty little narcs who called her —

“Hey, Miss Abby.”

Abby let out a shriek that they probably heard at the far side of Caliche, just as she recognized the voice.

Claude took a step back, big and looming in the shadows. “Whoa, sorry, sweetie. Didn’t mean to scare you.” He pulled out a lighter and flicked it. “Just taking a break.” His voice, honey and molasses, friendly and fatherly and responsible for a forty-year career in the TV weather business, calmed her even as she felt a flare of anger at him for startling her.

“Jeezus, Claude,” she said, but wasn’t really feeling it. The blackout had her on edge all this time, and it was nice to have her one friend here, even if he’d practically jumped out of the dark with a hockey mask on.

He fished two cigarettes from his cardigan and held one out to her. “Peace offering?” he asked, and she took it, stowing it away in her hoodie.

“Black as hell out here,” he said, lighting his smoke and taking a drag, after which he sighed with that contentment only smokers understood. “I don’t think I’ve seen the power go out through the whole town since…eighty-five, maybe? We were right in the middle of a broadcast, I remember that much. Rex Merton, God rest his soul, was reading the scores for the high school football games, and bang! Out go the lights.” He looked over at her. “You’re not smoking?”

“Already did.”

“Fast operator,” he said with a brown-sugar chuckle. “You gonna keep me company, at least?”

“Nah, I thought I’d go back inside and get creeped out by the emergency lighting.”

“I heard that,” said Claude, and took another drag. “Like the spaceship in Alien in there, or something.” He paused, letting the smoke leak from his mouth in a thready plume. “Now, what are those?”

“Hmm?”

“Lights,” Claude said, “three of them.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Abby. “At the base of the hill.”

“Nuh-uh,” Claude said. “They’re about halfway up it, now.”

Abby moved away from where she’d been leaning against the wall, and took a look.

Slowly but methodically, the three figures were making their way up the hill, lights held high.

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Today’s Words: 1380
Total Words: 1380

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Notes: Away we go! A few more characters (and their backstories) to introduce, but hopefully that can be folded in organically as the dookie hits the fan, plot-wise, very soon…

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I’m attempting to write a Halloween-themed horror novel in October! Visit Day Zero for more information, and check out Countdown to Halloween for more blogging that’s altogether ooky!

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