City Dark: A Thriller by Roger A. Canaff
Wednesday, July 13, 1977
Henry Hudson Parkway
New York City
When the lights went out, their mom, Lois, was driving, and Joe and Robbie were in the back seat arguing. That was normal, as Robbie was fifteen and Joe ten. And it was the last normal thing any of them would ever know.
Daylight had melted from the sky over New Jersey, fading from a dirty, yellow haze to a smoky blue. The air rushing in the open windows of their LTD station wagon gave little relief. For one, it smelled. As both boys frequently announced, pretty much the whole city smelled. The Hudson River smelled, too, as it slid by them to the right looking soupy and brown.
They were on the Henry Hudson Parkway, just north of where the map started calling it the West Side Highway. Up front, Lois had her elbow out the window. A cigarette deteriorated rapidly between two fingers, and from time to time she tapped on the butt with her thumb. It was a nervous habit; Joe knew it gave her a smelly, yellow-stained thumb. Lois didn’t go in for feminine cigarettes like Eve or Virginia Slims. She smoked like a man and favored Winston Reds. It was a habit she’d picked up from the man who had given her the boys in the back seat, along with multiple black eyes and fat lips.
The song on the radio was “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” by Andy Gibb, who Robbie swore was queer. Robbie had run electrical tape down the “center” of the back seat to mark off his and Joe’s respective territories, but Joe was convinced that Robbie had taken at least 60 percent, and Joe had just learned about percentages. It didn’t matter much anyway. The heat was so bad, the tape had long since sweated off the vinyl bench seat, and in its place was a nasty, sticky trail of adhesive. Robbie scooped up a fingertip full of it, then reached over and stuck his finger in Joe’s hair.
“Stop it! Gross!”
“Chill, crybaby. It’s Fabergé Organics Shampoo. With wheat germ and honey. So now you’ve got wheat germs.”
“Guys, please,” she said. There was exhaustion and a panicky edge in her voice, something Joe had started to notice with growing disquiet. “Both of you.”
“Let me see that,” Robbie said. He was looking at Joe’s most prized possession, a Hostess baseball card of Reggie Jackson that Joe had found in a Ho Hos box. Joe had it cupped in his left hand. It seemed impossible for him not to gaze at it every few seconds.
“Give it. You’re gonna ruin it anyway; it’s getting all smudged.”
“Leave me alone.”
“Whatever. It’s just a Hostess card. Sucks anyways.”
“You suck,” Joe said.
Then Robbie pulled a trick and pointed to his right, shouting “Whoa!” as he did so. When Joe turned to follow his gaze, Robbie snatched the card out of his hand. Then he held it out the window, grasping it by a tiny piece of a corner between his thumb and forefinger as it fluttered in the wind.
“Robbie, no!” Joe cried.
Robbie smiled—a mean, toothless grin. Then the grin faded. Actually, everything faded in that moment. It got dark. Really dark.
“What the—” Lois started.
“Robbie, give it back!” Joe yelled, not yet noticing the change in the lights. Robbie, mesmerized, let the card slip from his fingers. “Noooo!” Joe was screaming now. “Mom! Pull over!”
His mother was pulling over, but not because Joe had asked her to. She was pulling over because everything to the left of them, the whole scene on the city side, was suddenly black. She eased the LTD off the highway and into a little pull-off area between the pavement and the river, a drop-off spot that allowed people access to Riverside Park up by 116th Street. By dark in the summer of 1977, that wasn’t many people at all.
“Let me out!” Joe screeched. “Let me out. My card!” The car came to a slow stop.
“Joe, come back here!” he heard his mother yell, but he was already bolting up the side of the highway, dashing over broken glass, trash, and the occasional hubcap. He was desperately scanning the mess beneath his sneakers as he ran north, trying to see in the wash of headlights. But then, when the cars passed, there was no light above him, just the last weak glow in the sky.
“Joey, come back,” Robbie called, catching up to him. “It was an accident!” Darkness threatened to swallow them completely in between the wash of headlights.
“Get back here!” their mother called.
“Help me find it—” Joe started. Another terrible minute or two passed, and then Joe’s heart leaped. There it was, lying flat among some debris and cigarette butts. He held the card up, waving it triumphantly. His sense of relief was palpable, but then he caught sight of his mother. In her face, even from that distance, he saw worry and something like gnawing fear. Traffic was light, but cars were slowing down as the fact of the darkness set in, headlights glowing eerily down the highway like they were purposely moving in slow motion. Like for a funeral procession.
“Move it, you two!” Lois shouted. “Something’s going on with the power. Get back here!”
“Mom, I found it!” Joe said as they reached the car. He waved the card in one hand, and Robbie made a swipe for it.
“Give me that thing,” Lois said. She glared at Robbie. “You stand still.” Then to Joe she said, “Give it here. I’ll hang on to it until you two can get along. Give it, Joe. Now.” With an air of defeat, Joe handed over the treasured card, and Lois stuffed it into the back pocket of her blue jeans. From inside the car, the radio was no longer playing “I Just Want to Be Your Everything.” Gibb’s high whine had been replaced by static.
“What’s up with the lights?” Robbie asked. Joe looked toward the city through some trees. Some distance away, where the buildings were, he could see headlights shooting through the darkness, illuminating people on the street.
“I don’t know,” Lois said. But to Joe she looked like she definitely did know, and he felt dread spreading through him as he studied her face. They had driven through frightening electrical storms about an hour earlier in Westchester. Now there was darkness around them, and dead static on the radio. It was like a scary movie.
Lois looked down at the two of them. “Get back in the car.”
|October 1, 2022
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