Before the Lights Went Out

Getty Images: NYC skyline, 7/13/77

A slightly amended (because I wasn’t limited to 1,000 words) version of my third round submission to the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. The assignment: historical fiction taking place at a book signing and mentioning a pumpkin. No prob, I got this. 

Twenty-two gritty blocks uptown then two more across. Walking from Penn Station in this suffocating heat was stupid. Now that Lori thought about it, so was her outfit – wedge sandals, cut-off denim shorts, black and gold tube top – and really, to be honest, this whole plan. Blisters lined her ankle, which she’d then twisted after tripping on a plastic pumpkin that had fallen off a homeless woman’s shopping cart by Herald Square. Somewhere between the squeegee guys and peep shows, the frosty blue eyeliner she’d expertly applied in New Jersey had melted off. Possibly worst of all, she couldn’t get the Bay City Rollers out of her head. But she deserved this fate, she reasoned, because she’d snuck into the city without telling her parents.

Next to her in walkable flat Dr. Scholls, her best friend sipped a can of Tab.

“This is it!” Carrie said as she pushed opened the door to Rizzoli Books. “We’re about to meet the hottest rock stars on the planet!”

Lori faked a smile, wishing she could feel excited. Lately, increasingly intrusive thoughts had plagued her and made it almost impossible to enjoy anything. That massive plane crash in Tenerife. A disturbing episode of “Emergency.” Those two girls Son of Sam shot in the Bronx last summer. And now, the epic disappointment she’d cause her parents. All fodder for a gnawing sense of imminent, undefined disaster.

A few weeks ago, she’d heard on the radio that Dr. Sartorius – a glam rock band she and Carrie adored – would be at Rizzoli signing copies of a new book documenting their 1976 world tour. Perhaps this would be the cure for her malaise. But the city – crumbling, graffiti-covered, and almost bankrupt – made her parents nervous. They had let Lori take the train in with Carrie before, but who knew if they’d go for it this time? It was too risky. Best to say nothing: an omission, not a lie. Normal kids did it all the time. But Lori wasn’t normal, she reminded herself. She was a big fat baby who obviously couldn’t handle teenage existence.

Under a notably ornate chandelier, a Rizzoli employee handed them copies of the book and directed them upstairs.

“There’s no way we’re making that 9:15 train,” Lori said when she saw the long line. Her chest tightened, and she envisioned them trapped in the steamy bowels of Penn Station, late at night, with a serial killer on the loose.

Carrie elbowed her. “So we’ll get the next one. Chill out, nut job!”

“Easy for you to say, Goldilocks. Son of Sam likes brunettes. And it is the 13th … ”

Always at ease, Carrie jumped right into conversation with the other girls on line. How many times had everyone seen the band live? Who was a bigger fox, the bass player or the drummer? Did anyone have tips for getting into Studio 54? A flask appeared. Copies of Tiger Beat and Rolling Stone circulated. One girl claimed she’d slept with the lead singer. Another girl said she’d heard he was gay. Someone pointed out a few zigzags of lightning in the sky above Fifth Avenue.

But all Lori could think about was her poor parents. Dinner would come and go, and the Wednesday night movie on channel 2. Eventually, fury and/or panic would set in. They’d sit up in the family room, heartbroken, waiting for the police to knock on the door with terrible news. God, she was a horrible daughter.

“I’ll be right back,” she said to Carrie. “Don’t run off with the band.”

Thunder rumbled in the distance as Lori found a payphone and called home. As it turned out, Wednesday was her mother’s encounter group night. Left to their own devices, her father and brother were off to the Ground Round and then a movie, completely unconcerned about Lori’s whereabouts.

Half insulted and half relieved, Lori headed back towards the line. Cheering broke out as Dr. Sartorius appeared on the scene, and she felt herself relax just the tiniest bit. This was a dream come true. Maybe they weren’t on the verge of a nightmare after all.

With each step closer to the front of the line, Lori’s heart beat faster. Finally, FINALLY, she and Carrie stood face to face with the rock stars who adorned their bedroom walls. They were gorgeous and smiling and felt like old friends.

“I’ve been practicing what I want to say for days,” Lori told the bass player. “And now all I can think of is, ‘HOLY. SHIT.’”

The bass player laughed and signed her book: To Lori. Much Love, JT

“Thanks for coming. Get home safe,” the keyboardist said in what the girls later called a devastating British accent.

Really, Lori thought, this was by far the best thing that had ever happened in her 16 years.

It was 8:45 and still beastly hot when the girls left Rizzoli.

Carrie rolled her eyes.

“Jesus, it’s not even a little bit cooler. I can’t do that walk again – let’s take a cab.”

“My blisters thank you,” Lori said. She stuck out her arm until a Checker taxi pulled up.

“We might still make the 9:15.”

“Traffic bad,” the driver told them as he started the meter. “I do best, but I no sure.”

The next train didn’t get them in until after 11, which was still well before her midnight curfew, but made Lori uneasy for no specific reason. Carrie rolled up the windows and locked the doors, like they’d always been told to do in the city. The cab creeped down Seventh Avenue, the radio tuned to the news: the Son of Sam investigation. Abe Beame, Ed Koch, Bella Abzug, the mayoral race. The Mets and Cubs at Shea. The impending heatwave.

Lori looked at her watch. “Forget it. There’s no rush now. We missed it.”

Carrie tried to reassure her. “We’ll be fine! We’ll get a Coke, we’ll buy some magazines. You’ll be in your own bed by midnight. Don’t ruin a great day.”

But Lori wasn’t listening.

“Shit! That whole building just flickered. You saw that, right? It’s happening again, look!”

All the skyscrapers in their line of vision seemed to blink for a second.

They exchanged a concerned look, but when they arrived back at Penn Station a few minutes later, in time for the 10:15 train, everything seemed in working order.

“Come with me to that newsstand before we go down,” Carrie said. “I need Juicy Fruit.”

And then the entire city went black.

Before the Lights Went Out