Excerpt for When the Light Goes Out by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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Copyright © 2017 Shawn Bartek, Bubby Dee Publishing

Cover Design © 2017 Shawn Bartek


All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.


Table of Contents:

 

Prologue

Chapter I

Chapter II

Chapter III

Chapter IV

Chapter V

Chapter VI

Chapter VII

Chapter VIII

Chapter IX

Chapter X

Chapter XI

Chapter XII

Chapter XIII

Chapter XIV

Chapter XV

Chapter XVI

Chapter XVII

Chapter XVIII

Chapter XIX

Note from the Author

 

 

 

fish·plate

n.

A metal or wooden plate bolted to the sides of two abutting rails or beams, used especially in the laying of railroad track.

 

 

 

INITIAL ISOLATION AND PROTECTIVE ACTION DISTANCES:

o  If a tank, rail car, or tank truck is involved in a fire, isolate it for 0.5 mi (800 m) in all directions; also consider initial evacuation for 0.5 mi (800 m) in all directions.

o  Large spills (involving quantities greater than 52.83 gallons (200 liters))

o  First isolate in all directions: 800 ft (240 m).

o  Then protect persons downwind during the day: 1.5 mi (2.4 km).

o  Then protect persons downwind during the night: 4.6 mi (7.4 km).

-From the Centers for Disease Control

 

 

Prologue

 

 

You see the train, buddy?” his father’s eyes said to him in the rearview mirror.

      Little Tommy was locked into his padded car seat, chewing on his index finger. He had dropped his Hot Wheels on the floor and the finger was all he had left. He straightened up and peered through a small vantage point between his father's seatbelt and the headrest.

      “Oh yeah!” he said, “Train! Like Thomas.”

      “That’s right, buddy,” his father said.

      “Toms, you’ll be able to tell your Grammy that you saw that train in thirteen minutes,” his mother said. She pointed to the dash clock, “That will be when this still says ‘one’, but over here this says ‘twenty’.”

      The toddler ignored the numbers lesson and kept his eyes fixed on the train that now paced their car. The train glided along as smoothly as they did; the background was of blur of jagged stone and pine trees. Tommy wondered if there were elephants on that train.

      The tracks began to veer away from the freeway and Tommy’s limited depth perception fooled him into thinking the train was shrinking. He let out a squeal. As the incredible shrinking locomotive approached a dark steel bridge, two black tanker cars near the center of the train bucked. A gap rose between them and one of them disappeared completely from Tommy’s sight. Tommy’s finger dropped out of his mouth.

      “Oh, shit,” his father said.

      “Rod, watch your mouth!” his mother said.

      “That train…shit…” his father said.

 

 

Chapter I

 

 

 

It was the Blue Oyster Cult again.

      Ami Gibb awoke on April 18th at quarter to seven in the morning to the tinny sound of rock music blaring from her clock radio.

      At this exact time of morning, there were only five different songs in the radio station’s rotation. If it wasn’t “Burnin’ for You”, it could be Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein”, or possibly Heart’s “Crazy on You”. And also ZZ Top’s “La Grange”. Tomorrow was Friday and Ami would be unfailingly face-slapped by the spacy synthesizer of the Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle”.

      The alarm clock was a hand-me-down from her father; an early digital model with faux wood paneling. It was a true junker; years of dust and dried Pledge lining its tiny nooks; its dial permanently stuck on her dad’s favorite station, K101.1FM–Classic Rock.

      Ami never understood this. Her dad clearly had a strong connection to the music, but it didn’t suit the man she only knew as a geek with a starched shirt and a trim haircut. Even the radio dial on her dad’s Durango was always set to this station.

      That was the enigma for her: how could her dad—a man that forced Raffi’s music upon her, know this music so well? It was the riddle that put a kink in Ami’s mission to label her dad a perfect square. Martin would sing along too perfectly to Lynyrd Skynyrd, whistling precisely along with guitar solos. No doubt that Skynyrd was stupid, but they had guitars, which are inherently cool, which meant that anything having to do with guitars should have nothing to do with her father. There was no way that her dad—an Ad Counsel volunteer, was ever eighteen years old with the interests of a young person.

      She now found herself wondering more about what her dad was like at eighteen. Without the permanent public record of social media, pictures from this period in his life were scarce. Ami had always seen the few shots that involved a mop-cut, tinted glasses, and jeans tight enough to make her want to throw up. Her mom would then mention what a hottie her Dad was, which would then prompt Ami to plug her fingers in her ears and ululate until she nearly passed out.

      Before now, her sense of history began with her own birth and her scope of mortality was that people she knew would die someday. Someday— way, way, way in the future.

      The radio continued to blare and—right on schedule, “Crazy on You” filled the air.

      Someday, if she could bring herself to do it, Ami vowed to conduct a morbid little experiment; to narrow down which song was playing on the radio when her dad’s accident happened. With the station’s predictable routine and knowing the exact time of the crash, there’d be a one-in-five chance she’d find out the correct answer.

      Anytime Ami drove now, she would wonder what will be the last song she’ll ever hear.

      She had no right to complain about waking up to K101.1 FM. Her new smartphone had thousands of alarm options. If she wanted music, she could have Interpol or Beach House. She could choose the geeky 8-bit noodling that scored Legend of Zelda. On her first attempt to switch full alarm duties to the phone, she set the ringtone to “Summer Love” from Grease and set it for quarter to seven.

      After one day of waking up to the phone, she went back to the classic rock radio.

      The clock face registered only as a deep blue haze. One more snooze press would mean nine more minutes, and that wouldn’t do anybody harm. This insight gave her a nice shot of dopamine. Her lights went out again.

      No big surprise: she was dreaming of Scott again. He was in the short-sleeved shirt and his triceps were poking out when he wrapped his arms around her. Thanks to the magic of the dream, they were at the video store on Burlington Ave—impossible, since it had closed when she was ten and they had never been there together. Nonetheless, there they were, giggling over the cover art for a cheesy B-movie. A clerk told them the store was closing and if they wanted to rent something they’d better have a membership.

      Then they were sitting on Mount Jumbo and watching fireworks bloom over the Missoula Valley. They were close together under the blanket. That one happened for real. That was before he had decided his future would move on without her.  

      Dreaming was a dicey proposition. Sometimes you get the goo-goo eyes and beautiful vistas. But sometimes you get the bad shit; the moment of heartbreak and the yelling and then, as a bonus, all of the dismal emotions follow you into consciousness.

      This one was turning for the worse. She uttered a whisper-shout, but couldn’t be sure if it had taken place in the dream or aloud against her sweaty pillow. It jostled her fully awake this time, working far better than the radio.

      It was pushing two-thirty in the morning when she stormed her bedroom last night. Ami left a few loose-ends along the way to her rush to comfort. When she slid off the bed, her unprotected feet came down on the car keys that had drizzled from her exhausted hands only four hours before. She squealed, snagged up the keys and slung them across the room. They fanned out across her dresser and tagged the edge of a family photo that would be fit for internet ridicule. Ami held her breath as she watched the glass frame teeter. It stayed up.

* * *

Ami finished a cold and unsatisfying shower. Her sister had a knack for stealing hot water. Goddamn Dana and Goddamn an inadequate water heater.

      She savored the warmth of the terry cloth towel. Looking into the mirror at the dark circles under her eyes, she recited her daily mantra. It went like this:

      I want to have a good day today. I will put on my happy-dog face. With my subterfuge, I will spare everyone the obligation of awkward solace. I will get over this shit and all will be sunshine and fucking rainbows from here on out.

      Ami intimately knew these words now; some days she’d repeat it in different accents. She’d even developed melodies for it—different genres, even. Some days it was slow jazz, some days it was marching band, some days it was death metal.

      It felt like it was working. She used to recite it three times to the mirror, but now once a morning would do it. It was becoming a reptilian function. The mantra had built a mech suit around her and the suit had become self-sustaining.

      As she passed her parents’ bedroom, she could hear the murmur of the water pipes and realized Dana was still in the shower. This was going to be the third time this month she was late for Geometry. She placed her head against the wall. There was a random patch of spackling arguably shaped like a Scottish Terrier, so she carved a nose on it with a fingernail.

      "Dana," Ami rose her voice towards the bathroom, “We have to go. Turn off the shower.”

      "I’m not ready yet,” she called back.

      “You will still stink after the shower, so just wrap it up now, please.”

      “Stop it, cow. I’m hurrying.”

      Ami kicked one of her mother’s shoes across the room and said, “You are the opposite of hurrying!”

      “Cow!” came back from beyond the bathroom door.

* * *

Ami plopped down at the kitchen table, unlocked her phone and read her mother’s latest email again. It said:

      Hi, Loves,

      Home on Saturday. I needed this. I promise I’ll be better when I get back. I love you two more than ice cream sandwiches.

      -Mom

      Household anarchy started last Sunday. Pam was in Toronto. Her therapist had told her that it would be an indispensable and cathartic adventure to take her best friends to where she and Martin honeymooned.

      The note followed her mother’s overall trend as of late: too glib for Ami.

      I hope you love us more than ice cream sandwiches, Ami thought.

      Too glib. And selfish. Why in the hell does she get to guzzle a dozen gallons of wine on a vacation, while she and Dana were stuck at home? And the way Pam said Ami would be Dana’s replacement mom for the week was so casual. Calling her “Replacement Mom”. The flippancy annoyed Ami; it made the circumstances sound like a lame sitcom on CBS.

      The reviews for Replacement Mom were averaging a C-plus.

      Ami reconsidered and downgraded her performance to a C-Minus. Replacement Mom probably shouldn’t have left her faux daughter home alone until 2AM so that she could hang out with her friends.

      Replacement Mom was only following the abandonment example set by Real Mom.

      Ami brushed her hair out of her eyes; hair that had recently been dyed black. She had enough of being a blonde. They don’t have more fun. Her life had proved this.

      Dana appeared from the hallway and darted for the Captain Crunch. Her arm disappeared into the box and reappeared with a handful of the glazed puffs. She crammed half of the handful into her mouth and spilled the other half on the woven rug below.

      “Now who’s the cow?” Ami asked.

      Dana chewed for an eternity and said, “Don’t judge me.”

      From the corner of her eye, Ami noticed something askew in the peripheral. Something in the living room was now conflicting with her memory. There was a gap in the hutch where Pam’s last birthday present to Martin used to sit. It was a crystal bottle, shaped like a ’59 Corvette. It usually sat on the top shelf, dimly lit by pen lights and locked behind semi-frosted glass doors amongst a variety of tchotchkes with a similar, but non-alcoholic, tackiness. But now, gone was the bottle, along with the brandy inside.

      “Dana!” Ami fired at her, “Where is Dad’s Corvette?”

      “What’s that?”

      “Dana, don’t even. Where is it?”

      “How could I get it? The door is locked.”

      “Bullshit. Mom hasn’t locked that door since Dad died.”

      “I don’t know, maybe you took it.”

      Ami now saw the opportunity to cover up her own small misdeed. Yes, Dana had taken it last night, but Ami had gotten to it two nights ago and had a few swigs. She’d even gone through the trouble of noting how full the bottle had been; that way she’d know where to refill with water.

      Dana didn’t need to know that part. Dana can learn what it means to be a hypocrite when she has to teach responsibility to a younger sister.

      “You’re in deep trouble, Dana. This is not cool. I’ll tell Mom.”

      “I’ll tell her you did it.”

      “Dana, do you understand forensics?”

      “What’s that?”

      “Right. You don’t. You see, Dana,” Ami lifted the cell phone to her ear, “I’ll call the police and have them dust for fingerprints and they’ll know it was you.”

      Dana lunged at the phone, “Don’t, Ami! It’s in my room, just don’t call the police.”

      “Why is it in your room?”

      “I wanted to try a drink.”

      Ami, about to become the pot to the respective kettle, said, “This is very bad, Dana. You do not drink that stuff, do you hear me? I’m very close to telling Mom.”

      “Please don’t,” Dana’s face distorted with desperation.

      Now that she was defeated, Ami relented. As annoying as Dana could be, Ami couldn’t stay mad at her little sister. She was just too darned cute, especially after the times Ami would destroy her. Ami scooted her chair next to Dana and nudged her shoulder.

      “Why’d you want a drink?” Ami asked.

      “I don’t know,” Dana’s glassy eyes looked back, “I wanted to know what it does. I wanted to know why it made Mom feel better.”

      Ami exhaled, “Dana, you just need to stay away from it.”

* * *

Slow down!” Dana said from the backseat of Ami’s Ford Festiva.

      “I wouldn’t have to drive so fast if I wasn’t a punishable amount of late right now,” Ami said.

      “You’re driving too close on that car up there.”

      “Dana, this person is going very slow. I need to make them aware of this fact. Otherwise, they will not learn anything and they will frustrate people for the rest of their lives.”

      “It’s not safe, stop it. Our dad died in a car accident, Ami.”

      Ami flinched, “That’s not funny, Dana.”

      “It wasn’t supposed to be,” Dana sulked at her shoes.

      “Sorry,” Ami said, forgetting that Dana occasionally said something earnest.

      “You just scare me at driving. Thank God I’m riding the bus home.”

      “Don’t rag on me, rag on mom. She sees one news show about how awesome charter schools are and you get stuck across town at G.W. They could have just sent you across the street to Prescott and you could have skipped your way to class every morning.”

      “I like G.W. I’m just telling you, you’re not a good driver and you could end up like just like Dad. Or kill us both.”

      Ami threw her sister steely eyes in the mirror, “I will be driving you for the rest of this week and that is the last time I want to hear you say that.”

      “I don’t care. Whatever you do to me, I’ll tell mom you left me at home alone until two last night.”

      “Did you forget about your binge drinking? That’s what I tell Mom.”

      “Fine,” Dana huffed with the appropriate amount of melodrama.

      Ami’s phone buzzed from the black cradle suctioned to her dash. Her mom’s picture appeared on the screen. Ami, taking a cue from her sister, swiped at it theatrically. Her mom greeted them through the car’s speakers.

      “Hello,” Ami said back.

      “How are my two sweeties getting along?” Pam asked.

      “Famously, Mom,” Ami said.

      “Good,” Pam said, “We’re doing good here. It’s been really good. Saw the old hotel where your father and I stayed on our honeymoon. Still looks the same.”

      “That’s good,” Ami said flatly.

      “I’ll have lots of pictures.”

      “Mom,” Dana raised her voice from the back seat, “When are you coming home?”

      Ami made an awkward hand gesture at Dana, one that was meant to imply shut up, but was a universal sign for nothing in particular.

      “Just a few more days, DeeBee,” Pam said, “Ami. I need you to pick up your Aunt Donna’s pills for her.”

      Ami’s mouth dropped open, “When am I supposed to do that?”

      “You can go at lunch. I already called it in to the Rite-Aid by your school.”

      “I can’t pick that up for her. Isn’t that illegal or something?”

      “No, it’s not illegal. Donna already let them know you’d be picking it up.”

      “Nice of everyone to tell me,” Ami said, “I had plans for lunch.”

      This now meant she had to drop by Donna’s after school and get stuck with an obligatory visit. An hour-long chat (minimum) giving Ami the pleasure of hearing about the work accident again. Donna’s living room was once the center of family parties; now it was a dark, smoky husk, dimly lit by the glow of cable news. She was partial to the channel dominated by the paranoid ramblings of old, rich white pundits.

      “Mom,” Ami said, “I have to get home to Dana right after school.”

      “She’ll already be alone for two hours until you get home, what’s another hour?” Pam said, “Dana, you’ll be okay, right, hon?”

      Dana was now as deceptively sweet as antifreeze, “Yes, momma.”

      Ami strained her eyes from the rolling, “Yeah, Dana will be great Mom. She’ll finish what she didn’t finish last night of Dad’s brandy.”

      Dana gasped.

      “What happened?” Pam said, genuinely confused.

      “Oh, Dana just had a taste,” Ami giddily blurted out, “Hey, pulling up to the school now, gotta go, Mom. Talk to you later.”

      “Mom!” Dana matched Ami’s blurt, “Ami was out ‘til—”

      Ami quickly swiped at the phone and cut her Mom off mid-goodbye. The heat from Dana’s anger was boring itself into the back of Ami’s head.

      “Sorry, runt,” Ami said, “I got pissed. I had to relieve stress.”

      “I hate you,” Dana said, and she meant it.

      Ami cringed. The guilt immediately washed over her and she reversed course.

      “Dana, I hate you too, but that’s no reason I can’t make you a kick-ass cheese sandwich tonight. Like, the kind with the thick toast—”

      “Texas toast,” Dana mumbled.

      “Right,” Ami chuckled, “And three layers of three different cheeses. We have the bacon-flavored cheese.”

      “Okay,” Dana said.

      “You’re home at two, right?”

      “Yeah.”

      “You have your bus pass?”

      “Yeah.”

      “You’re not going to talk to anybody, right? The bus-driver’s okay, but no one else.”

      “I know.”

      “When you get home, lock the doors, don’t answer the door, hit the couch and pop on those unboxing videos on YouTube that you love. I’ll try to get home by five. Cheese sandwiches will follow shortly thereafter.”

      “Do you promise?”

      “Yeah, I swear to the god of cheese sandwiches.”

      “There’s no god of cheese sandwiches,” Dana said.

      “See? Nothing gets by you. You’re so grown up.”

      “You better tell Mom you were kidding about the drinking.”

      “Let’s take this one day at a time, you souse,” Ami laughed at her.

      Dana got out of the car and she disappeared into the school building. Ami recalculated the severity of her lateness and knew she’d be walking into school thirty minutes late. She thought of a few scenarios that would be too awkward for anyone to ask follow up questions, most of them related to bodily functions.

      There was also the dead-dad card. It sat waiting for her to use it, but it was already reaching its expiration date with people. She never wanted to use it in the first place, but it was a card game that played itself.

 

 

Chapter II

 

 

 

Marc Nelson stared at the makeshift dust jacket encasing his latest Human Dignity reading assignment. It covered a (nonetheless frayed and worn) copy of the book Alive, the true story of the Chilean soccer team that survived a plane crash in the Andes; they stayed the titular alive by eating the bodies of the dead.

      On the dust cover—formerly a paper grocery bag, a poorly doodled face stared back at him. It wore a sombrero; its mouth gaped open in mid-devour of a dismembered leg. To the upper left, a voice bubble emitted from the caricature, exclaiming in bold print, “LEG TASTE GOOD!”

      As he began to finish the last gaucho ball on the sombrero, he heard Mr. Harris call out his name. He felt the familiar electricity run through his body.

      “I…unh. The snow?” he blurted, hoping the class had still been ruminating over the thematic concepts of the book, specifically “Man versus Nature”.

      “We’re on Man versus Technology now.”

      “Oh, I…sorry, I meant that the snow was messing with the airplane’s radar,” he said, unsure if this was true. The stars began to twinkle in Marc’s peripheral, but he continued to ramble, “But that’s just nature, again, isn’t it? Not the technology. Sorry.”

      There, he thought, I’ve put in my participation time for the day. Now don’t frickin’ call on me again.

      Marc’s temples began to feel saturated and he naturally assumed his sweaty brow was screaming to everyone in the room. He nonchalantly pretended he had an itch there so he could gauge the level of the damage. His index finger came back dry.

      Nonetheless, Mr. Harris picked up on Marc’s anxiety. He said, “I suppose so. No biggie. Nature is definitely the big bad villain in this one.”

      Two rows up, that dude Mitchell came to his rescue.

      “The high altitudes were also a factor,” Mitchell said.

      “Certainly,” Mr. Harris, moving back to the chalkboard, “I guess we weren’t finished with Man versus Nature, after all.”

      Marc would thank Mitchell if they ever spoke directly to each other. Human Dignity was a class sparse with friends. It was even sparse on casual acquaintances. It didn’t matter, Marc had a few friends at school and that was enough for him.

      The dissection of the book began to sound like white noise again and it faded into the walls. It was a crazy story, but he found little interest in it today. As if he’d ever be in a position to decide whether or not to eat another person. He wondered when they would just go ahead and watch the movie already.

      Marc stared back at the clock. His impending doom was about twenty-three minutes away. The hands of the clock moved as if it were running out of batteries, yet still keeping accurate time. His concentration on the clock was so deep that he could hear its gears scrape slightly while the second hand pulsed between the 9 and the 10.

      It was D-Day. The day he’d finally ask Ami Gibb to prom.

      He had been patient long enough about this whole thing. When his family moved to Montana his freshman year, he needed a supernatural excuse to give their move a more profound meaning. It was his first spotting of Ami that did it, her eyes arresting him and making a dubious concept like fate seem real.

      And after four years of waiting for some good luck with class scheduling, they finally ended up in the same class. Fate was trying to prove its existence to him again. Ami had been going through bad shit. And Marc figured that he had dealt with bad shit before; he could be the one to bring her out of it. It was as if the stars aligned to bring them together at the time where she would need the help of a friend that could help her cope.

      She was clearly doing better lately and Marc wanted to think their art-class shenanigans had something to do with it. They were less than two weeks away from the dance and he was sure that if she had been asked already, she’d have mentioned it to him.

      It was going to be a hard sell. Marc was not a bro’s bro. He didn’t look anything like her last boyfriend. Scott made Marc look like an emaciated albino.

      But Marc could make her laugh. And that’s where he thought he had his in. He had always made it a goal to snake one genuine laugh out of her per day and his daily average continually increased. He was still riding a small high from an incident that happened between them last Friday.

      In art class, a self-portrait (medium: chalk) was revealed by Kevin Traynor. A future frat pledge with a square jaw, his braggadocio strongly asserted the quality of his work. He was unaware that the drawing of his chin-dimple looked exactly like an asshole; there was no other way for the eye to interpret it. Marc and Ami got infected by the giggles. They squeezed each other’s hands under the table, the pain providing just enough distraction to keep it together. It was the most genuine laugh he had seen out of her since you-know-what.

      He built himself up. Why wouldn’t she want to go? At the very least, Marc felt confident they could officially be defined as buddies. That’s the angle he would take. Light and breezy would be the key. No money down, no obligation to buy.

      Seriously, how hard is it? Just say it: ‘Let’s go to the prom together. It’ll be good for you. We’ll have fun.’ She won’t say no.

      But he knew it wouldn’t happen like that. It would happen like one of these three possibilities:

      “I like you, Marc, but not in that way,” she would say.

      “Oh, okay, I didn’t really mean it to mean anything,” he would say.

      Or:

      “Marc, I’m just not ready yet for social events,” she would say.

      “I get that. I really do. You need time,” he would say.

      Or:

      “You are the lamest guy in school and when I talk to you, I think about killing myself,” she would say.

      “Right on, buddy. You are totally right,” he would say.

      And through all of those brutal exchanges, he would also be fighting with an array of potential physical symptoms: the rush of heat to his face, the hand tremors, the stars in the corners of his eyes, the faintness and the sweating.

      It was the misery that would arrive anytime he’d need confidence and instead his body would tell him to fuck off.

      A pharmaceutical ad on T.V. convinced him that he might have something called generalized anxiety disorder. If he ever actually went to the doctor, he’d make sure to ask about it, just as the ad suggested.

      His stomach turned as he continued to stare at the clock.

 

 

 

Chapter III

 

 

 

Ami peeked into the doorway of art class hoping not to be seen. This was the second tardiness today; this one due to her lunch obligation to pick up her aunt’s Xanax. She was ten minutes late this time and wasn’t sure if Ms. Ford had noticed. Her art teacher had buried herself in an art project of her own: a pen and ink drawing of the old Wilma Theater. Ami tried to flag Marc down to plan out an impromptu distraction, but he was also buried in his art project.

      Then inspiration struck. A gambit presented itself to her.

      “Ms. Ford, can I go to the bathroom?” Ami called out.

      Ms. Ford looked up, “Hey, where were you?”

      Ami looked perplexed, “What do you mean?”

      Ms. Ford picked up a clipboard and examined it, “That’s what I was thinking. You weren’t here for roll.”

      “I was here,” Ami said, “I heard you call my name and I answered.” Her face moved to pensive and she said, “I know what happened. I wasn’t very loud, so I don’t think you heard me when I answered.”

      Ms. Ford gave her the skeptic’s eye, “I was pretty sure I didn’t see you because I remember specifically wondering how your project was coming along.”

      The gambit was failing. “I don’t know what to tell you,” Ami began to say; her hair slightly damp at the temples.

      “She was here,” Marc spoke up, “She was here the whole time with me. She found this picture for me.” He held up a picture of a red and white flip-flop.

      Ami smiled at him and slunk down in her seat.

      Ms. Ford looked around the class and didn’t see any students caring enough about tardiness to sell Ami out. It wasn’t a secret that she lost her dad four months ago and people generally were treating her with kids’ gloves. Ms. Ford wasn’t going to press the issue.

      But she wasn’t going to play stupid, “Okay. Don’t you still need to go to the bathroom?”

      “I don’t have to go anymore,” Ami said.

      “Right,” their teacher said, “How convenient.”

      “Just like magic,” Ami shrugged and dug into a box of scrap magazines.

      Marc was biting his lip; pushing the laugh down into his chest. He was punching out holes in a magazine and pasting the matching colored dots to his picture of the sandal. It was his experiment in pointillism.

      Once Ms. Ford was safely into her pen-and-ink trance again, he decided it safe to whisper to Ami, “Where were you?”

      “My mother is an assface. Just a continuation of a shitty day.”

      “I don’t really think Ms. Ford is giving a shit right now,” he said, “Brendon asked if we can have the T.V. on and she didn’t even flinch.”

      “Sweet, I hope we see Days of Our Lives.”

      “It’s not on until three,” Marc punched another hole in the magazine.

      “How do you know that?” Ami said.

      “Doesn’t everybody know that?”

      “My aunt does,” Ami said, “How’s the masterpiece coming?”

      “It’s the perfect amount of tedious mindless work and treasure hunting. I need a magazine with lots of white, though.”

      “Here, I owe you,” Ami said, handing him a copy of the New Yorker, “This should be a gold mine. Lots of white in this magazine. White pages and white people. You’ll have the face of your flip-flop covered just with this one issue.”

      “You’re a genius,” Marc said, and nodded at her, “Favor returned. We’re even.”

      Marc was a rare occurrence in her life right now: a person in which Ami needed to make only a little effort to throw on the suit of armor. It was less necessary to wear the happy-dog face with him. She figured it was because he was the first friend she made after her dad died. They had met each other a few times before, but until a month ago she mostly considered him a background extra.

      With Marc, there was no such thing as acting in a way that an Ami Lee Gibb, daughter of Pam & Martin Gibb of Harrison Street was historically known to act. Marc hadn’t grown up with her since she was a kid like the rest of her friends and he wouldn’t be comparing a pre-tragedy Ami to a post-tragedy Ami.

      He would just treat her—normal; like nothing was different about her. He also didn’t seem to care if she was ready enough for jokes. She had nearly pissed herself last Friday during self-portrait presentations and it was mostly because of the mugging of her cohort. They held hands to stifle their rudeness and she had thought she would squeeze his hand off.

      “So why’s your mom an assface?” Marc asked her.

      “Ugh, I’m Replacement Mom now, don’t ‘cha know? Mom thought she deserved a vacation for herself to sort things out. In the meantime, I’ve had to take care of Dana all week, keep the house clean, and be an errand girl for my aunt.”

      “She’ll be back in time for prom though, right?”

      “I guess so,” Ami looked confused, “Why does that matter? You want to ask her to prom? You’re gross.”

      “No,” Marc laughed, a little too nervously, “Maybe it would just be good for her to see her daughter all dressed up and having a good time.”

      “I don’t even think I’m going,” Ami said.

      Marc shifted in his chair and put down the hole-punch. “It might not be that bad,” he said.

      “Who would I even go with at this point?” Ami said, “I just…I don’t know. I don’t think I’m-”

      She cut herself off when she saw Scott and Leslie strolling by the classroom. It derailed her train. He looked good today.

      “Sorry, I just saw, um…you know who,” Ami said.

      “Oh, that sucks,” Marc said, “Is he still ugly?”

      “Far from it,” she said.

      At the kick-off of what was the shittiest day of her life thus far, Scott had cut ties with Ami, citing a problem of “priority”. He was on the fast track to a pre-law program at the U of M and told her as gently has he could that he didn’t want her to be a secondary concern in his life.

      And yet, Ami had been seeing Scott with Leslie Knadler a lot lately. Leslie was a jealousy inducing, statistical anomaly: a young woman of poise; naturally attractive, inside and out, in a way reserved only for the most fortunate of human beings. Sweet and self-deprecating. Straight-A student. Star athlete. Hair straight out of a shampoo commercial. A smile rich in teeth that were impossibly white. Always generous with gratitude and flattery. She exuded charm and grace to everyone she came across.

      The phenomenon that Ami could not explain was that with all the pain she had been through this school year, seeing them together had the capacity to hurt her. She had been through the ringer. Her father died. Her mother had fallen apart. Her family was a now a broken centrifuge, scattering fragments into the universe. These were things that had hurt her until she eventually turned numb inside, and yet Scott and Leslie exchanging a knowing glance was like dagger into her eyes.

      Scott should have been there for her. He’d made a few attempts to console her over the last few months. For instance, he’d made an appearance at her dad’s funeral and he’d sent her flowers. But he’d not been the same friend that he’d been before their breakup. Ami knew the side of Scott that was genuinely nurturing and it would have made a big difference for her. Maybe the pain would have been more manageable if she hadn’t felt so alone.

      And maybe it was her that was pushing him away. When she spoke to him after December, there was a bitterness that would come out and it would conflict with her desire to have him back.

      Ami returned from her fugue when she heard Marc speak again. She said, “What?”

      “I said: is your mom coming home on Saturday?” he answered, slowly enunciating to her.

      “Sunday, actually. It’ll be nice handing back control of their little mid-life surprise.”

      “She’s been a real hassle for you?”

      “I don’t know. I suppose not. She’s a brat and all, but she has her moments. She’s lucky I knew her when she was a sweet innocent little baby. I guess I just haven’t felt up for the obligation of it. I feel bad, I didn’t get home until almost two last night.”

      “You left your sister alone until two in the morning?” he said.

      Ami threw a copy of National Geographic at him. With its hard-edged binding, it left a dent on Marc’s arm.

      “Ow,” Marc squinted at her.

      “I’m sorry,” Ami smiled, “I can get you a wowi-pop if it makes you feel better, little guy.”

      “You are a cold-blooded badass,” Marc said to her.

      Ami laughed as she glued the last ear on her project; a collage of facial features combined to make a creepy whole. It took ten minutes to finish, which was the most important part for her.

      Looking bored, she picked up a copy of Travel & Leisure. On the cover, a perfectly tanned, perfectly teethed, perfectly nuclear family walked through a perfectly phony luau. She held up the magazine to Marc.

      “Don’t they look peachy?”

      “Yeah,” Marc said. Ami watched him absorbing the picture.

      Then he said, “I bet the prom is going to be Hawaiian themed this year.”

      “Aren’t they all? Isn’t it Prom Law?” Ami said, “Why do you keep bringing up the prom?”

      “Nobody ever thinks of doing a Jamaican theme, do they?” Marc asked.

      “When the décor is tissue paper and shiny streamers, how would you be able to tell Hawaii and Jamaica apart?”

      “I guess if I smoked a joint beforehand, I could pretend it’s Jamaica.”

      “Remind me to go with you then,” she smiled.

      Marc swallowed and put his hands under the table, “Speaking of that—”

      In a blink, the room disappeared into darkness.

* * *

And then Ami reappeared again. The lights fluctuated in a staccato rhythm. Marc and Ami looked around the art room at other confused students.

      The room continued to vanish, appear, vanish, appear. In the appearances, Marc spotted Mr. Radley standing at the light switch. The assistant principal clicked the switches on/off: code for an important announcement ahead. The broadcast flowed from the intercom, but to Marc it sounded like it was underwater. None of the words registered to him. He was too distracted by the television.

      The clock had read 3:04 PM and Days of Our Lives had not started. Instead, yellow letters bannered across the screen of the old Zenith perched on a rolling steel rack. They said “Emergency Broadcasting System”. The duel-toned hum filled the air; it was a sound that always gave Marc the chills.

      Missing was the typical prefix: “This is a test of the…”

      The lulling tone sliced through the air and it masked Ami’s voice. This was the sort of incident that stops a conversation dead in its tracks. Marc could see no possible way to get back to the prom subject.

      "What?" he asked her for confirmation.

      Ami said, “We all need to meet at the quad by the parking lot.”

 

 

Chapter IV

 

 

 

They were nearly halfway out of the building when Ami stopped them in a panic. She’d forgotten her bag in art class. Most days, she didn’t keep anything severely valuable in it because she had already learned that lesson. Three months ago, she left her last bag at a Denny’s after pulling an all-nighter with her friends. The non-expendable stuff lost was a bracelet Scott had given her and the program from her dad’s funeral.

      So it was travel light from that point on. But thanks to her mom, Ami was carrying her aunt’s precious cargo today. If it went missing, she’d be in deep shit.

      “Shit, I don’t know if we are coming back,” Ami said, “I have to go back to get it.”

      “What?” Marc asked, “Why?”

      “My aunt’s pills,” Ami said, “I need to get them.”

      Students bumped into them from all directions; Marc and Ami creating a bottleneck in the hallway. Ami could see further down the hall that Scott and Leslie were still milling around the art class. The bitterness/desire took hold and she felt the need to interrupt them. She started pushing her way back through.

      “Can’t your aunt wait for the pills?” Marc followed her.

      “Probably,” Ami said, “But I can’t lose them, or risk having someone else take them. My mom will accuse me of having them conveniently disappear.”

      “She doesn’t trust you?” Marc said.

      “Last year when she had shoulder surgery, I kinda got curious about her Oxy,” Ami said, “It was just one, but I got caught. I’ve never really lived that one down.”

      They pushed through the stream of students until they got back. Ami hurried into the room and snagged her bag. On the way out, Scott actually approached her. Ami could see that Leslie was keeping her distance.

      “Hey, you,” Scott said, swooping behind and wrapping his arms around her, “How’s tricks?”

      Mantra time in C-minor: I will put on my happy-dog face. With my subterfuge, I will spare everyone the obligation of awkward solace.

      “I’m doing really well,” Ami said, “Like, so good. What have you been up to?”

      “You sound well,” Scott said, “Very alive. Full of verve. Can you believe this?”

      “No,” Ami said, “What do you think is going on?”

      “Emergency pep rally?” Scott said.

      “Maybe,” Ami said, “Wouldn’t your girlfriend, the soccer star, know about something like that?”

      “I’m not dating anybody, remember? But she’s my friend. You know, you could ask her that yourself, she doesn’t bite,” Scott said.

      “I don’t need to,” Ami said, “It’s not really something I think about.”

      Marc tried to push his way closer to Ami, “Uh, we should go.”

      “Hey, you guys should wait for us. Leslie is waiting for Jodi and we can all head out together.”

      “Nah, we gotta go,” Ami said. But just as she said this, Jodi appeared. She was sipping on a straw from a nearly finished Starbucks drink.

      "Screw trig, I was sick of that crap anyways," she said to them, "I heard we’ll be out tomorrow, too."

      “I think you’re enjoying this too much,” Leslie said.

      “I would rather drown and burn in a sea of napalm than listen to Mr. Biggs drone on about triangles,” Jodi said.

      “Maybe you’ll get your wish,” Scott said.

      Ami was now regretting coming back for the pills. She didn’t want to listen to the vapid back-and-forth of Scott’s new friends. She clung to Marc and began to use him as a bulldozer through the hallway. The rest of them trailed behind her like she was Moses.

      The stream of students rolled through the front doors of Big Sky High and into a sea of teens overflowing its courtyard. The quad was large enough to accommodate the entire graduating class for an aerial yearbook photo, but packing in the entire student body was a challenge.

      Their newly-grouped gang was part of the last stragglers out of the school and they were stuck at the back of the crowd. At the other end of the courtyard, there was an empty podium. Within the deep sea of faces pointed towards the podium, there were regions of joy mixed in amongst the concerned expressions.

      From the back of the crowd, it was difficult to see anything up front except for the thin silver microphone sparkling in the sun. The heads of a few faculty members appeared. They whispered into each other’s ears and nodded, and then Mr. Benson tapped on the microphone.

      “Students,” he said, “Although I want to first assure you that you will be safe and secure, it appears that we have an emergency on our hands.”

      Clearing his throat, he continued, “About two miles east of town, a train has experienced a derailment of cars carrying chemicals that are generally considered to be toxic. There are two cars that are causing the most concern to authorities. These two cars have derailed themselves in such a way that they are on the brink of falling off the bridge and into the Clark Fork River. These two cars are carrying chlorine gas. Should the cars fall into the ravine and the tanks rupture, this chlorine gas would quickly and catastrophically pollute the air and it would no longer be hospitable for residents to breathe. They do not know how long the cars can remain in their current position and they are sending emergency crews to East Missoula so that they can secure the tankers. As a result, the short version is, it’s been recommended by authorities that the town be evacuated as soon as possible.”

      Oh shit, Ami thought.

      “As I mentioned, crews are on their way to save the tankers from dropping off the bridge. It will take the delivery of the proper cranes and other equipment to secure them. It is unknown how long this will take and there is a probability of failure, so the authorities are not taking any chances by letting residents stay while the rescue effort is in progress. We are assisting in the coordination of the evacuation.”

      Oh shit, Oh shit. Dana.

      Are you fantastically fucking with me, Universe?

      “We insist that those of you with the ability to car-pool do so for this evacuation. Traffic to the stated rendezvous points is going to be unnaturally heavy and it is not necessary to travel one person per car. If you can, we insist that fill your car to capacity and choose the car with the most gas. Please, I stress this point: less cars, less traffic, the smoother things will go. Your cars will be here when you return. There is a citywide effort to get those without the ability to carpool onto buses out of town and meet at predestined locations.”

      See, it’s okay, somebody will get her. But how will they know she’s there? She’s a needle in a haystack.

      “Rendezvous points have been divided by our current location. The Red Cross has staged emergency shelters for temporary residency. We’re in the southwest section of town; our meeting point will be Hamilton. You are directed to go south on Reserve Street and connect to Highway 93 to get there. There will be instructions on the radio regarding how to find the advised meeting locations.”

      What would ‘Replacement Mom’ do? Gotta call the police, gotta call Real Mom.

      “There is unfortunately not enough time for you all to coordinate with your families. Do not panic about this. Do not attempt to return to your homes. This is why the effort is going to be tightly organized, so that everyone will be able to move out in an orderly fashion. You will be reunited with family once the tankers have been secured and the evacuation has been called off.”

      Take your ‘Do Not Panic’ and stuff it up your panic room.

      “We will get through this together and I can’t recommend enough that as you might need help, that you consider helping others whenever you can. I would advise all of you put your cell phones to good use for a change and tell your parents not to panic and that you will be safely on your way to Hamilton.”

      The strength in Ami’s legs left her; they felt like putty. When she saw the students begin to make their way to their cars, the situation began to feel very real. Gears were in motion and there was no button to stop the machine.

      Shit, this is all happening right now. They’re shipping us to Hamilton. I gotta tell someone or something.

      Just when she thought things were getting a little better. Her life had a scab that kept tearing off and each time it did, the wound worsened. Who knows how bad it’s going to be this time?

      Dana.

      I am responsible for my little sister and I am on the other side of town.

 

 

Chapter V

 

 

 

She took two deep breaths and dialed her mother’s cell phone. After suffering patiently through a terrible pop song, Ami got her mother’s voicemail.

      “Hi, Mom,” Ami said, “So…you should probably call me. I hope that you are having a great time. Have you seen the CN Tower, yet? Amazing. Okay. I’ll go ahead and cut to the chase now that that’s out of the way. There was a train derailment in East Missoula. You know, the East Missoula that’s like a mile from our house. That one. There’s toxic gas that could poison us all or something…they’re evacuating the town to different meeting places. We were directed to go to Hamilton, but Dana is still at home. I haven’t called her yet, but I’d sort of kind of like your input. Kind of like now!”

      If ever there was a time for Ami to lament her mother’s awkwardness with technology, it was now. Pam now owned two types of smartphones; hers was an Android and she kept Martin’s Blackberry for easier texting. It managed to come out of the wreck without a scratch.

      But it didn’t matter because Pam never answered either phone. They’d sit at the bottom of her purse (on silent, of course) until she was ready to play one of her word games. The sights of Toronto must have been cutting into her play time.

      Ami sent her Mom a text: Close down the fruit ninja game and call me ASAP…911!!!

      Then she attempted her home phone. There was no answer.

      “Dana,” she yelled into the phone, “Daaaaaaaaannnnnaaaaa. Look, maybe you’re parked in front of the TV, but call me, it’s a real emergency here and you have to try to call Mom or 9-1-1. See if any of the neighbors are home or if you see anyone outside. But call me when you get this message.”


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