Blackout: A Thriller by Erin Flanagan
Maris covered the boneless chicken thighs with plastic wrap and whacked them with a kitchen mallet.
“Gross,” Cody said over the sound of smacked flesh as she grabbed a cutting board from under the stove. “Are you sure we shouldn’t become vegetarians?”
Maris grinned at her daughter as she cracked salt and pepper over the thighs. “No pepperoni pizza? No hamburgers?” She slid the thighs into the preheated oven. “What would you even eat?”
“Flamin’ Hot Cheetos?” Cody suggested as she sliced quick, even zucchini disks like they’d learned in the knife skills class they’d taken together at Savory’s, their local upscale market. Fountains of Wayne warbled through the speakers from Cody’s playlist, a band her dad had turned her on to.
“Ah, yes. A Cheetotarian. I forgot about that nutritional option.”
“Good thing you’re not coming to career day as a dietitian,” Cody quipped, a not-so-subtle reminder to her mother about the school event next month.
“Nothing quite so glamorous,” Maris agreed as she shuffled through the junk drawer for a Sharpie to write a reminder for the fridge. She marveled that in the last seven months, the corkscrew had worked its way behind the shamrock-shaped plastic sunglasses, the magnetic notepad decorated with beach balls, and a free back-to-school pen from Glenn State (what counted as swag for professors). She wrote Fri Oct 8 2:00!!! on the summer notepad and stuck it next to the smiley face magnet.
For most of her adult life, when Maris had come into the kitchen to make dinner, her first two stops were always the fridge and the cupboard next to it for a wineglass. She’d drink that first midwestern pour as she scanned the recipe and clicked on the oven to preheat, doing a mental inventory of what she had to throw together in a salad. With a few drops left, she’d top it off and start the first real glass, telling herself the other was just the splash they used at restaurants to make sure you liked the vintage.
And for the record, she always liked the vintage. A vintage didn’t exist on earth she wouldn’t suck down and pour again.
But that was behind her now, seven months in the rearview mirror. Now she made dinner with her daughter as they talked about their days, a scene so wholesome she wanted to rub it in her own parents’ faces.
“What about your dad?” Maris asked. “Is he going to find a way to Zoom in for career day?” He still lived in Nebraska, where Cody was born, and while lawyers were just as prevalent in Ohio, Maris thought it was sweet Cody had been so insistent he be included.
“The teacher said she could connect her phone to the overhead. He’ll go on before Noel.” Noel Hiser was Maris’s husband and Cody’s stepdad. His ER schedule of 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. Thursday night through Sunday morning meant he was usually snoring away in their bedroom with the blackout curtains drawn during most of Cody’s school days, but he would always sacrifice sleep if Cody asked him to.
“Are you the only kid with three parents presenting?” Maris asked, and Cody snorted.
“Please. There’s a kid in my class with five. Three doesn’t even make the leaderboard.”
It felt good to be joking in the kitchen after weathering the past seven months. Cody was back from summer with her dad in Nebraska, and they were both two weeks into the new school year, a time that Maris had always thought of as brimming with promise. Today had been the first cool day of September, with temperatures in the seventies, and Maris lit a cider doughnut candle on the breakfast bar as she tried to remember where she’d put the papier-mâché pumpkins for the mantel. Probably in the basement behind the enormous spider that Cody and Noel had insisted they buy for the roof last year for Halloween.
Already the chicken was sizzling in the back of the hot oven, olive oil popping in the pan.
She and Cody had fallen into a comfortable routine when school started up where Maris would pick Code up at Horace Valley STEM at the end of the workday and they’d stop at Savory’s to pick out a meal for dinner. In the olden days, Maris was sure to go on her own so she could stop for a quick two glasses at the balcony bar.
As Maris sorted the junk mail into the recycling, she asked Cody about her day—who she sat with at lunch, how Ms. Martin liked her Little Library idea for honors ELA—and Cody chatted along, volleying back questions about Maris’s most recent article on Vox and her fall classes. Since February, Maris had done damage control on her relationship with her daughter, not wanting to bother Code with her problems, so she smiled brightly and didn’t mention the devastating meeting with her department chair, the less than stellar results of her tenure vote. She remembered how her own parents would fight in front of her when she was a child, their problems public fodder. She didn’t want to be that person to her daughter.
Her phone dinged with a text from Noel as she was plucking the silverware from the clean dishwasher for dinner. Swinging by Yanni’s then home xo. Maris felt a spike of irritation. He’d picked up an extra shift at the hospital, an ever-weary eye toward their student loan balances, but she’d hoped he’d be home for dinner. She wanted to tell him about her department’s tenure vote—get the bad news off her back—but this was what she got for marrying a saint. He worked in the ER with Yanni, a nurse whose husband was in Afghanistan. She and Kareem were expecting their first baby in a few months, and Noel had been helping with the nursery while Kareem was deployed: painting the walls, assembling the crib. He’d even helped her put together a custom closet from the Container Store, specially sized to baby hangers. He’d shaken his head in wonder as he held his hands six inches apart to demonstrate to Maris how tiny a baby’s shoulders would be.
At the time she’d mimicked the width of his hands and held it down to her crotch, saying, “Try telling that to Yanni.”
Tonight, she figured his delay would at least give her another hour or so to work, and she texted back the red-heart emoji and the face-blowing-a-kiss emoji, then continued the neat rows of alternating squash, zucchini, eggplant, red peppers, and potatoes as she and Cody stacked the veggies for ratatouille. First on her list was to start her rebuttal letter for her tenure vote, but Maris pushed it from her mind before she could get angry or tear up, wanting instead to concentrate on Cody, the upcoming career day. Right now her advice would be: don’t become an academic.
When the timer dinged, Cody reached for the plates in the cupboard, and Maris told her just two. “No Noel?” Cody asked.
“Helping Yanni,” she said, and Cody set two Fiesta plates, turquoise and lemongrass, on the table as her mom brought in the chicken. “Cheers,” Maris said, and they clinked wineglasses full of fizzy water—she hadn’t been able to give up the ritual. Maris took a big drink of LaCroix, the bubbles like small bites in her sinuses. She set her glass back on the table, the bubbles still in her nose, the oregano overpowering from the ratatouille—had she thrown in too much?—and took a
her hands rubbing circles over her cheeks, as if the world had gone from complete black to light. At the sight of herself in the mirror, she gasped, her pulse jacking up to double time. What the hell?
She was in her bathroom upstairs now, out of her work slacks and blouse and wearing an old pair of Noel’s boxers and a ratty gray Huskers T-shirt: her usual pajamas.
Whatever had happened, it wasn’t like waking up, not exactly, because her eyes hadn’t been closed. She stared at her startled reflection.
Not here, and now here.
Her hands shook, and she held them in front of her, palms up. Her fingers were greasy. The plastic bottle of Olay, which she’d put on her face every night since her early twenties (except nights she was too drunk to wash her face), sat cap off on the counter, and a swipe of white lotion was still visible on her face. What the hell had happened?
She looked around the bathroom for other clues. The hand towel was damp, so she’d washed her face. She felt the bristles on her toothbrush: wet.
Jesus Christ, what?
She turned toward the bedroom as Noel appeared in the doorway, and she was so startled she screamed, doubling over, a fist to her mouth.
“Shit!” She collapsed with her hands on her knees, her heart hammering in her chest. “You scared the shit out of me.”
“I can see that.” She looked at his face; he was trying not to laugh. Her startle response was a long-running joke. No matter that she knew he was home, or even on the same floor, or even likely to come talk to her, if he said her name and she hadn’t heard him walk into the room, she yelped. Their favorite was the time she didn’t realize he was in the bathroom downstairs, opened it to find him peeing, and she screamed.
“Jesus,” she said, trying to laugh at herself as she stood up. “I didn’t realize you were home.”
Noel’s expression changed from one of amusement to bafflement. “What do you mean?”
A thread of dread unspooled in her stomach. It was that feeling she used to have on a somewhat regular basis. Back when she was drinking, someone would tell her something she’d done or said the night before but no memory would surface, and she would have to laugh it off like she knew what they were talking about. But that hadn’t happened for seven months, and as much as she missed the drinking itself, since then, her life had been easier, calmer, like a tight muscle finally unclenched.
She used her favorite rhetorical move when teaching: answer a question with a question. “What do you mean what do I mean?”
“I got home a half an hour ago. We talked in the kitchen?”
“Oh, right,” she said instinctively, a smile wavering.
He stared at her for a long beat. “You okay?”
She rolled her eyes at herself. “Yeah. Sorry. I’m a little out of it tonight.” She turned back to the mirror and washed her hands for lack of anything better to do. “I met with Tammy today about tenure,” she said as she dried her hands on the damp towel. She felt a flash of panic like she used to feel: What if she’d already told him downstairs? It used to irritate Noel, all the conversations he had to replay for her the next morning, as she fumbled along like she’d only momentarily forgotten.
“What’d she have to say?” Noel asked. Tammy was her chair and head of the Sociology Department’s promotion and tenure committee. Maris felt her shoulders relax that Noel had taken the bait to change the subject. But wait, she reminded herself: she had nothing to hide.
“That I should have been writing recognizable academic articles the past five years.”
“Oh, Mare,” he said sympathetically as she climbed into bed. “And the vote?”
“Twelve-four.” She picked up her novel from the nightstand and set it on her lap, hands shaking. Every night when she came to bed, she brought up her phone, a glass of water, and her current novel, and there they all were on the stand, dutifully waiting for her. She had no recollection she’d done such a thing. It was so eerily like a night of drinking, for a moment she wondered, Did I drink? Did I? But no. There was no booze in the house. She was sure she was sober. She rolled her tongue around her mouth and tasted only mint.
Noel emerged from the closet, his scrubs replaced with sweats. “You’re taking it better than I would have expected,” he said, and lay down next to her on top of the covers, an arm tucked behind his head so she could see his armpit hair sneaking out of the sleeve of his gray T-shirt. She rolled toward him and rested her head in the welcoming crevice. “You sure you’re okay?” he asked.
“I just need a good night’s sleep.” She worked a demanding job, was hounded by trolls online for her articles on rape culture and masculinity, was raising a teenager, and was in her forties. Of course she needed a good night’s sleep. Had it really been as bad as she thought, or had her mind just been distracted? Sometimes when a migraine hit, she could lose hours of the day to the pain, but she didn’t have a migraine now. Did she? Her head certainly hurt as adrenaline leaked slowly from her body, her fight-or-flight response activated.
Noel was quiet for a moment, and it reminded her of the first few months after she quit: if she worked late in her office or had to stop at the library on the way home, she could feel his eyes on her when she came in the door, watching her silently, speculating. The way she hung her coat on the hook, set her purse on the bench. At those times, she’d kept her head erect as if there were a book on top of her skull as she walked—right foot, left foot—into the kitchen, knowing she was being not only observed but tested. It was difficult to speak at your regular speed with your normal enunciation when you knew someone was listening for an error.
But this was different, she reminded herself. She hadn’t mispronounced a word; she’d forgotten a chunk of the night sober.
Noel ran a hand over his hair. “Long day for me too,” he conceded as he stood up, and she let out a breath of relief. “It’s hard going from the night shift to day.”
“We both probably need a good night’s sleep.”
He came over to her side of the bed, leaned over, and kissed her. Had he sniffed her breath first? As he closed the bedroom door behind him, Maris rolled over, her heart still racing. Did he believe her? she wondered.
Plus, the real question: Just what the hell had happened?
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|Epub||July 28, 2022|