When the Light Goes Out

By Madeleine Richey

Everything is hot and sticky on a night like tonight. Everything reeks of earth, and grass, of summer air, car exhaust, and wet pavement after a rain. Everything seems to have despaired. The stars are dimmed, veiled by smog and city lights, their brightness just a memory of a childhood spent staring up at the night sky in search of constellations and shooting stars to wish upon.

Smoke furls up from the glowing ember of a cigarette, clutched loosely between the long, slender fingers of a young man whose face is concealed by shadows. He exhales into the night air, spewing out a ghastly gray breath that forms phantoms in the air, the dancing smoke quickly fading away on the breeze, its scent lingering on his clothes. He closes his eyes, sweat adding a glistening sheen to his skin. Stubble clings to his cheeks, dark hairs that sprout unevenly on his young face like weeds springing up in a freshly planted flowerbed. As the streetlamp a few paces away flickers, the garish yellow light wavering in the darkness and casting odd shadows upon the sidewalks and the dark pavement of the street, his lips part to accept the burning weed and drawing in the smoke that coats his lungs in a dark substance, choking him; stealing his breath. He can almost see it, the darkness running away with his imagination: the dark, black tar covering the pink flesh of his lungs, creeping down his throat and wrapping around his insides, squeezing them, and blocking off his throat so he cannot breathe. But still he draws breath, savoring the heat as he sucks it into his lungs greedily like a starving man would consume a hot meal.

The lids of his eyes sink down over the smoldering black flames in his eyes that seem to die a little more each minute, their bright fire smothered by lack of air as a dark cloud of despair closes in around them, suffocating them. Dark lashes meet pale skin, and tears leak out from beneath them, coating the long, dark hairs with shimmering drops, and sliding down the soft skin of face and neck like raindrops down a windowpane.

Down the street the last light goes out, wavering for an instant before flickering once and giving out, surrendering the rule of the night to the darkness. The cigarette, still hot and bright, dangled once again from his finger, giving the only light besides that of the distant and dim stars. As he moves his hand the brilliant red light of the ember passes over a beer can that lies empty at his feet, the amber liquid setting uneasily in his stomach, blurring his thoughts and slurring his words so that they sounded like the words of the neighborhood drunk down the street.

The scent of hops promised to lure him into sleep, but he could not sleep when it smelled so heavily of shame. He knew, somewhere in the subconscious part of his mind that wasn’t affected by the alcohol that hours before had filled the aluminum cans scattered around him in the darkness, that when he finally found the strength to stagger across the lawn and into the house besieged by the summer heat and with no air conditioner, that his father’s car would still be absent from the driveway, and his mother’s door would still be closed. But he also knew, like an ache in his heart, that a sweet little face with red cheeks and dark eyes framed by tangled golden hair, would be staring out at him from the faded wooden bars of her crib, red lips in a tired pout, her crying long since stopped by lack of attention, waiting for her big brother to feed her the meal he was sure his mother had neglected to in her grief.

But he didn’t have the strength to rise and stagger over the sparse grass to the house. The beer dragged him down like a lead weight in his stomach, whispering strange things in his head. He took another drag on the cigarette, watching as the small pinprick of firelight danced over the aluminum cans with a dying man’s gaze.

Now his yard looked like the lawn of the drunk down the street, run down and dirty with trampled grass, a dilapidated house, cracked pavement, and beer cans spilling down from the curb where he sat onto the faded gray pavement of the street, drained to the last drop. There should have been a difference between him and that man, but there wasn’t. If there was, perhaps it would be that he was only sixteen, and the man was forty-eight, but otherwise they were just the same; slobbering drunks who know they are wrong, but lack the strength to stop. The amber liquid rolled down his throat with ease, blurring the recollections of ugly fights, bruises, empty cash jars, and empty looking plates at the dinner table. The heat of the cigarette soothed him, warm and comforting, the nicotine satisfying the craving he had battled for two years. But still, sitting on the curb, unable to bear the taste and smell of his own breath, his shrank into himself, ashamed of what he had done and who he had become, and unwilling to face that sweet, darling little girl who he knew was waiting for him in her crib, small hands clutching at the bars like a prisoner desperate for release.

A man staggered by in the darkness, passing so close that he could smell the greasy scent of the man’s body odor and the whisky on his breath. The man’s grizzled shape was hidden in the shroud of black night air, but his ragged breathing could be heard like a dying man’s gasping, filling the night with the painful sound. His feet shuffled over the pavement, creating a scraping noise that masked the heavy breathing. A foot struck one of the cans and it rolled away, clinking sharply until it faded to nothing.

“I didn’t drink those,” the young man gasped, finally coming to life, shame burning his cheeks in the darkness, desperate to deny that he had been the one to empty those cans, drowning his unhappiness in the amber liquid that reeked heavily upon his breath.

“Sure ya didn’t, boy,” the man laughed, drunkenly, continuing his shuffled down the darkened street and to his own home, lurching towards the empty cans and bottles in his own front yard. “Sure ya didn’t…” the muttering ceased, replaced by a soft chuckle of laughter  that at last faded away.

The young man still sat on the curb, watching the burning ember of his cigarette, the only light in the darkness, like hope shining in a shadowed world.

The cigarette butt fell from his hand, a single burning coal, grew dim and lay smoldering on the pavement, and went out.

Author Byline: If I’m not telling stories I’m rocking out to Def Leppard (my all-time favorite band), playing my electric guitar, or drawing pictures, especially when they’re of my favorite rockstars or the characters in my stories so I can see their faces on the page. I like to hang out with my friends and my four siblings, and just enjoy the life I have with all the personality God gave me! I guess you could say I’m a bit like Sodapop Curtis–I have the ability to get drunk on life without touching a drop! -Madeleine

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