A short story by Lydia
The guilt was more profound than Ben anticipated. Not that he made a habit of it, but he’d cheated on girlfriends before and had become somewhat desensitized to the shame. He never stopped to wonder, until now, why his relationships always ended in equal parts embarrassment and anger.
With Emma, though, the breakup had been intense, the betrayal more visceral. She’d trusted him and had invested in their future. Her heartbreak had been evident the moment he revealed the truth about Caitlin.
The crux – and, he supposed, the irony – of this whole situation was that he didn’t really like Caitlin that much. Sure, she was attractive and intelligent, like an American, redheaded version of Brigit Bardot, but she was also mean and cold, dismissive and malicious. She routinely fucked around on her husband. Ben was not the only one. He knew that.
Ben leaned back in his squeaky office chair, stared up at the pocked ceiling of his campus office in the basement of the sports facility. With no room left in the regular faculty space, he had been banished to the dungeon, where he now breathed the stale air of acidic sweat, a present from the steel maze of barbells and dumbbells down the hall.
He thought of Emma, wondered what she was doing. What is there to do in Iceland, anyhow? He pictured her walking down the street of an ancient Viking city buying pastries at a bakery. That girl has a sweet tooth that could rival the Cookie Monster, he thought fondly, enjoying the reverie. She’d go straight for the sweets. Even though he had no taste for the stuff, he used to buy Nutella at the grocery store just for her. Emma would spread it on her toast every morning, nice and thick, and suck the knife clean before throwing it into the dish water. She would try to be discrete, but rarely succeeded.
Ben sighed and tried to focus on his lap top, the words on the screen, but couldn’t. He had a meeting with Caitlin in an hour to discuss the next chapter of his dissertation, and the prospect of sitting across from those sharp green eyes put him off. She would be flirtatious, as usual, but tough. It wasn’t uncommon for her to scratch out entire pages and demand they be re-written. Their intimacy hadn’t softened her criticism, but given her free reign, as if Ben were being punished in some sort of sadomasochistic nightmare. He just wanted to be finished. One more chapter to go, then revisions and public defense. Eight months, maybe ten. He would push for eight, even if that meant no sleep. He ached to get out from under Caitlin’s unpredictable thumb.
He shifted in his seat, fished a pack of gum from his jeans pocket, unwrapped a piece and chewed thoughtfully, looking around the beige, windowless room. It truly was a dungeon. Cement slab walls, barely disguised by paint. Although Ben often joked about the inconvenient, subterranean location, the office had been a sore spot; his fellow colleagues, also graduate students, had been assigned space in the lush, renovated third floor of the Humanities building. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, he ended up here, and was now completely disconnected from the goings on of academic life. Everyone made plans without him, discussed their work together, and kept tabs on one another. Ben couldn’t care less about his popularity rating, but he was very aware that networking was an integral part of finding permanent employment. Being banished to the sports facility was the equivalent of professional suicide.
A few emails popped up on Outlook: one from Dennis, his research assistant; one from Abigail, a former student (begging for a reference letter); finally, one from Caitlin, who was cancelling their meeting. I’ll have to cancel our 2 o’clock. I have to go to my daughter’s school. Email me tomorrow to reschedule. Ben sighed with relief. His mood altered almost immediately. With an extra flourish, he wrote a letter for Abigail in under twenty minutes, and sent it off. There was plenty of other work to do, but the urge to be generous and celebrate is free afternoon was distracting.
Then, in the midst of responding to Dennis, the room went black. Ben couldn’t tell what shut down first, the overhead lights or the computer screen, but it was sudden darkness, with no time to prepare. An attempt to use his iPhone as a light was disturbingly unsuccessful. Even if the building lost power, would that affect cell phones, too? Despite his limited knowledge of technology, it seemed unlikely.
Ben touched the desk, to situate himself, then rolled backward in his chair, slowly, until he reached the door. He fumbled to locate the door knob, wrench it open. Frustratingly, it was just as dark in the hallway as it was in his office. “Hey! Anyone there?”
There was a muffled but discernible response: “The lights went out.” Talk about stating the obvious.
“Where are you?” Ben tried again.
“The Recovery Room.” The mysterious person was deep but friendly.
He tried to remember where that was, then turned right, trailing his hand along the wall for direction. The Recovery Room, where student athletes went to stretch out or get treated for injuries, was not far, maybe thirty steps away, but the impenetrable darkness made the distance difficult to navigate.
“Am I getting closer?” Ben called. “Say something so I can follow your voice.”
“Yes, you’re getting close. I’ll meet you in the hallway.” It was a male voice and, indeed, it sounded more tangible than a minute ago.
One step, two step, three. “What’s your name?” Ben asked, just to fill the silence.
“Kyle. I play basketball. My hamstring’s been acting up, so I had to stretch a little.” Then, probably to be polite, he asked, “You?”
Still probing the walls with tentative fingers, Ben tried to sound casual, less afraid. Truth be told, the dead iPhone worried him. “PoliSci grad student. This was the only space left for my office. Name’s Ben.”
“PoliSci’s cool. My sister’s in PoliSci.” Kyle was within reach now.
“Keep talking. I’m almost there.”
“What should I say?”
“It doesn’t matter. Anything. Marco.”
Kyle chuckled, and the empty, silent hallway amplified his vibrato. “Polo.”
“Marco.” Ben was smiling now, too.
The unmistakable scent of Mexican food, maybe some spicy cheese and dirty rice, filled the air. “Are you eating?”
“Got a bag of tacos around here somewhere,” Kyle said. “Didn’t get a chance to have lunch.”
And then they collided, shoulder to shoulder. There was laughter, and some awkward hand holding and blind groping, but Kyle didn’t present himself as the kind of person who got embarrassed easily. At least, not in the dark. Close up, his breath smelled of onions.
“So, where should we go?” Ben asked, trying to make out Kyle’s shadowy silhouette. The utter lack of light, even a minor stream of daylight, made him feel useless. The thought triggered his pulse to quicken.
“Uh, well, I think the stairwell is around here somewhere. We need to get out of the dark. I can’t see a thing. How long do you think the power’s been out so far? I wonder how long it will last.”
“Dunno. Where’s the stairwell?”
“I think it’s by the vending machine. Hold on to the back of my shirt.” Kyle began to walk, a few inches at a time. “Gonna turn left here.”
“How can you tell there’s a turn?”
“Instinct, I guess. I’ve been training here for two years. It’s familiar territory.”
Clutching the hem of Kyle’s jersey between finger and thumb, Ben remembered a Coldplay concert he attended in January with Emma. The tickets had been a Christmas present from her dad. After the final encore, the crowds had been so thick and impenetrable, that the couple had been forced to get creative so they wouldn’t be separated. Emma held on to the back of his jeans, finger hooked into a belt loop, and let him direct her through the labyrinth of drunk hipsters. He weaved, zigged, zagged, and eventually found the exit, the parking lot, and his ancient Toyota Corolla. The whole time, Emma giggled with every sudden turn, like a child without an ounce of self-consciousness, and the challenge of staying attached became more entertainment than necessity.
Kyle suddenly stopped, which caused Ben to crash into the stranger’s sweaty back. “Sorry,” he said. “You okay back there?”
Emma and her infectious giggle faded away, which somehow articulated the silence with a hint of gloom. “Yeah, I’m good.” Then, “At the risk of sounding like a five-year-old on a road trip, are we there yet?”
“Good question. I think-” The basketball player stopped, interrupted. Without warning or signal, lights popped and buzzed, filling the hallway with unexpected brilliance. Not one after the other, but all at once.
Dots and red streaks coloured Ben’s vision for several seconds. They squeezed their eyes shut and moaned with discomfort.
“Shit,” Kyle muttered, “what the hell is going on?”
Now that he could finally see, Ben realized that Kyle looked nothing like he expected. Indeed, the athlete was tall, at least six foot five, but he was quite wide and muscular, like a football player rather than a basketball player. Kyle’s skin was deeply tanned, almost bronze, and he wore an old blue jersey, baggy grey shorts and flip flops.
Ben finally adjusted to the light, looked ahead, and noticed that they were pretty close to the stairwell. He also realized that the atmosphere had weight again, an observation he wouldn’t have been able to articulate without having experienced the blackness to compare. There was an unsettling ringing in his ears, as if an earthquake had just shook the ground beneath his feet. When Ben fished his phone from his pocket, found that it worked again, as it should, his chest grew tight and heavy. The screen was bright and clear, a grid of colourful apps waiting to be tapped open.
“What’s that smell?” Kyle asked, when he finally stopped rubbing his eyes.
Ben sniffed. “Smoke?”
Up above, an ambulance siren blipped, stopped for a moment, as if catching its breath, then screamed to steady life.
Stay tuned for part 4…