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Summer Stories at the River: ‘All Signs Dark’ by Shawn Vestal

When the power went out, Francis had no one to ask for help. No friendly basement to sleep in. No calls came in checking to see if he and the kids were all right. The soccer league had been their lives – they were a Shark family, and being a Shark family had defined their hours and friendships and identities, had filled sleepovers and weekends and vacations. But they were, decidedly, no longer a Shark family, so Francis got a motel room for the kids, and he spent the cold nights at the house with the dogs piled all around him.

It was November, the week of Thanksgiving. He left the water dripping in the basement bathroom overnight so the pipes wouldn’t burst. He emptied the fridge, put the cheese and meat and mayonnaise on the porch, where it froze. He shuttled between the house and Room 137, and being at each place made him nervous about the other: What if something happened to the kids while he was at the house? What if something happened to the dogs while he was at the hotel? He knew the dogs would be fine, but he found himself worrying more about them than about his children, somehow. It was a simpler equation: Food in the bowl, water in the bowl, done.

The first night, as the winds howled, they’d all stayed home, Francis and 13-year-old Maisie and 8-year-old Lambert, eating pizza by candlelight and watching shows on Francis’ cellphone, expecting the lights to blaze back on at any moment. They could hear trees cracking and crashing around them. Maisie kept looking at her phone, but nothing was there for her – no texts, no likes, no funny photos with the dog-face filter.

“This sucks,” Maisie said.

“It’s an adventure,” Francis said.

“It’s a super sucky adventure,” Maisie said.

Lambert said, “Can we have a fire?”

“Flue’s busted,” Francis said.

When they bought the house, he and his wife had talked of replacing the flue, or installing a gas unit. They dreamed of cozy nights in their quaint, 100-year-old Spokane home, but they never fixed the fireplace, or any of the other unseen, unfixed things lurking inside their lives.

“So no fire?” Lambert said, and Francis nodded.

“See?” Maisie asked. “Super sucky.”

They wore long underwear and winter hats inside their sleeping bags on top of their beds. Francis lay awake late, wondering if Maisie would be this way for forever – sharp, angry, spiteful – and whether it was something he could prevent from happening to Lambert. He blamed his wife, now. He was full of anger toward her, but there was a relief in it: Everything was her fault.

By the second night, the word was out that the power wasn’t coming back soon, and Francis got the room downtown, made sure Maisie’s cellphone was charged and drove back home. Between the hotel and the house, the streets were washed in eerie darkness and full of debris: tree limbs, leaves and branches, garbage cans on their sides, a scrim of filth blown over everything, all framed by the lush, velvet night. He came upon a tree lying across the street, and the upturned root ball of an evergreen, a wormy Medusa of roots bursting into his car lights. Such wonders amid the lightlessness. He drove slowly, in awe.

At home, it was 29 degrees inside. He put on his camping headlight, and he could see his breath enter and leave the beam in little vanishing puffs. The dogs breathed them out, too, like short-lived thought bubbles from a comic. He piled food into their bowl, freshened their water, and slept with them, fully dressed under piles of blankets on the bed.

In the morning, he went to the hotel and woke up the kids with doughnuts and hot chocolate.

“Ugh,” Maisie said. “Doughnuts.”

“I’ll have yours,” Lambert said, but Maisie said, “Naw, give it.”

Francis thought about taking a shower, but he felt pleasantly safe in the layers of clothing: His thin long underwear, fleece skiing underwear, jeans, T-shirt, flannel shirt, vest and jacket and hat. The dogs had licked him awake, and he could feel their saliva, dry on his cheeks. On TV, a local newscaster was interviewing people who’d had their roofs crushed by falling trees.

“Does Mom have power?” Lambert asked.

“Yes, Mom has power,” Francis said.

He’d checked. The outages didn’t reach the jail, and even if they had, the county had a backup generator. The kids got ready and he drove them to school, dropping Lambert first and then Maisie. Before she climbed out, Francis said, “I’m taking Lambert to see Mom on Thursday. For Thanksgiving.”

“Well, you two have a wonderful time,” Maisie said.

Francis went to the trucking company, where he was preparing the quarterly reports. He had an interview with the detective again that afternoon. He could tell the detective was trying to figure out whether Francis had been a part of it, or whether Francis’ wife had done it on her own, and he could tell the detective tended to think that Francis must have been a part of it. Francis hated both possibilities: He was either a thief, an embezzler who stole money from a children’s soccer league, or a husband blind to the dark tumor inside his own marriage.

The truth was, he hadn’t known a thing about it, and he hated that the most – more than the fact that his wife had been skimming the Shark accounts. If you had asked him what kind of person he was married to, he would have said: careful, prepared, clean, honest. Honest. A little uptight in her devotion to rules-following. He had often hidden minor indiscretions from her – parking tickets, a third drink – because he always had felt like the screw-up in the marriage.

So the news had struck him like a windstorm. She told him on a Thursday, they arrested her on a Friday, and it was in the newspaper on a Saturday. No one from the Sharks – none of the other parents, none of the kids on either Maisie or Lambert’s teams – had spoken to any of them since. Everyone must have assumed he was involved. He was the money man, after all. The one who kept books for a living. They had lived on together through the aftermath, doing it for the family, they both said, but they grew more and more distant, divorced in spirit, and now that she was serving her 90-day sentence, Francis had begun for the first time to allow himself to wish she wasn’t coming back.

The third night, as he said goodnight to the kids at the hotel, Maisie asked, “Why do you even need to spend the night there? Isn’t it freezing?”

Francis said, “To keep an eye on the dogs. Check out the pipes and stuff. Make sure no one breaks in.”

None of these was the reason. He was drunk on the darkness. The beauty of it. The security. After he fed the dogs, he sat in the living room and read Elmore Leonard by headlamp, his breath passing in front of the words like ghosts, and the surrounding night seemed strong enough to hold off another day.

The power was slowly coming back on around town, but not in their neighborhood. He spent another night at the house. On the bed, sleeping, the dogs molded themselves to him. He wasn’t showering or changing clothes – he couldn’t imagine what he smelled like, but it seemed like a consideration from a bygone time, back before the end of electricity.

On Thanksgiving, he took the kids to their favorite restaurant, and he and Lambert ordered a Thanksgiving-y dinner of turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing, and Maisie ordered a seitan stir-fry. She refused to go with them to the jail, and Francis knew not to push. Her humiliation had been sharp and deep, and she had not forgiven her mother.

In the jail’s cold, bright visiting room, Lambert faced his mom through the glass wall, and Francis sat to the side, tried not to notice how hard she was trying to catch his eye. A cloud descended on his mind when he thought about what had happened, a vaporous pushing-away in which his thoughts went distant and vague and unattached, and that was happening now as he listened to her tell Lambert that he mustn’t pay attention to what everyone else said about Mommy, that Mommy had reasons for doing what she did, that Mommy would never do anything to hurt him.

Driving home, he could see across the river and up the hill to where their neighborhood lay dark, like a void in the city. He could see the river chasm ahead, a band of blackness between the lighted banks, and knew that as he passed over it, lights would appear below, shimmering on the river. They would emerge only when he was in the right position to see them.

Back at the motel, the kids watched a Christmas movie, while Francis considered all that he did not understand about what he should do now. He felt that there was almost nothing he could do for his children, apart from keeping them alive until they left him. He thought about what it would be like to be free of the responsibility of them.

Maisie said, “You should take advantage of the excellent shower we have here, Dad.”

He answered, as if it made sense, “I’m just trying to stay prepared for the cold house, honey.”

“Stay here tonight,” she said, and Lambert said, “Yeah, Dad.”

He could smell the dogs on himself. It was bad, but he kind of liked it. He thought, There’s nothing my children really need that I can provide.

The movie ended, and it was bedtime but the kids wanted to stay up because it was a holiday. Francis thought he should probably stay with them, and was getting ready to say that when he said this instead: “Let’s go drive around in the dark. It’s really cool.”

He could show them a night. That he could do. A true night, deep and dark, which would be like showing them a wolf or a grizzly bear, unexpected and unbidden and wild, right there in the parking lot at Rosauers.

Maisie gave her brother a look of exaggerated patience. Lambert shrugged.

“OK, I guess,” she said.

On the way up the hill, they passed a readerboard announcing: “Lights out. All Signs Dark.”

“You guys are going to love this,” Francis said. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

He drove up and down the neighborhood streets slowly. He showed them homes with their roofs caved in, power lines draped across asphalt. The headlights made a tunnel, bleached everything they touched. Francis was sad knowing the power would come back on eventually and all this would disappear. He stopped on the side of a street and turned off the car and let the night put its arms all the way around them. He loved it. He loved being inside of it, as if his eyes were blissfully closed.

“Dad?” Maisie asked.

Francis realized that his eyes actually were blissfully closed. When he opened them, he saw there was a difference in this darkness, the outer one as compared to the one behind his eyes, a difference he could have examined for hours if he had the time. But he didn’t.

“Yeah, sweetie?” he asked.

“Can we go now?”

Enough. He started the car. He hoped the dogs would be OK alone at home.


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