Lights Off

Art cover by Juss Lim. Follow her on Twitter (@JustinMLim) and Instagram (@jusslim_).



***




Like putting cattle to sleep.

This was what the higher-ups used to tell Angel Ariel when she was still beginning. She would hear them inside her head say it like a punctuation to every delivery she had ever done. It was meant to make the job easier for some – and it did get easier over time. However, she never liked the way they put it. She remembered how much she hated it when they incessantly inculcated that to her after her first few deliveries.

It was late afternoon and the traffic had begun to pile up. There were cars in her front and rear that barely budged and wedged her into a stop. She wanted to get to her next delivery before sunset but she knew that wasn’t going to happen. Not that she nor her clients cared for punctuality. She just absolutely despised being stuck in a helpless situation with no reprieve in sight.

She turned on the radio and fumbled through the channels. Loud incoherent pop tunes blared inside her car until she clicked next and a song from a slower, softer genre played until she clicked next again. She stopped by the news channel and tuned in for a little while. The news was the usual – corruption scandal, political drama, crimes that ranged from petty to horrendous, the newest trend with millennials, and the mundane lives of celebrities. Nothing particularly bizarre. So far, nothing that would have caught the imagination of the newsroom and the masses.

— which altogether was unsurprising to her. After all, her clients were too commonplace and their requests were far from deviant – at least from how it looked. Besides, people would rather turn a blind eye and continue as is than acknowledge their existence.

And her clients did not mind this. They knew they would not understand them anyway.

She arrived and parked her car on the side of the road. It was already dark – quarter after seven, her wristwatch noted. The only things that lit the neighborhood were lampposts and windows from seemingly lively houses. She made sure that the shadows camouflaged her car and nobody would remember seeing it there the next day.

Even without checking the exact address, she knew exactly where her next client was. His house was the only one that looked deserted – the rest looked well kept. The gates were rusty and half-opened. The paint of the walls was already flaking, peeled off, and smeared by dirt. The roof was discolored and dead leaves littered its gutters. Overall, it was an eyesore to an otherwise pleasing community. The only sign that someone was living there was the parked car inside the gates and a dim light pressed onto the window blinds. Her client obviously already gave up trying to make this house at least look habitable.

She surveyed the surroundings once more and made sure that no one would see her. Unlike her car, she knew she would easily standout – even easier to be remembered. Slender, fair-skinned woman wearing a dark trench coat and black-heeled boots entering a rundown house during the night – that would easily spark a rumor – or worse, an unwarranted interest directed to her or her client. Once she was certain, she got her purse and walked briskly toward the half-opened gate.

She knocked on the door and waited. There was no response – not even the slightest hint of movement inside. She checked if she was on the right address. She was certain her client was supposed to be here. Maybe he did not need her anymore, she wondered. She kept knocking until the door screeched open and a pair of eyes peered out the edge.

“I thought you’ve already gone through it without me,” she said. She reached out her hand but the man behind the door ignored her. “I’m your angel.”

The door closed and she heard chains fumbling behind. After a quick second, the knob turned and the door screeched open again. He left it half-open and walked away without saying a word. She followed him inside and was greeted by a rancid odor that could mask the smell of a rotting corpse. The further she went in, the stronger the staleness became.

His place was medium-sized and could fit a lot more stuff if he had more to furnish. All he had was a coffee table with a tattered couch and a boxy TV across both sides, a small folding table with unwashed plates, a refrigerator that did not seem to work, and three cabinets perched above kitchen counters. There were two doors on the back – one for his bedroom and the other for his toilet, she thought. The rest of the space was littered with dust, crumbs, receipts, take-out containers, and empty bottles of cheap whiskey. On top of his coffee table, he had an ashtray filled with mounds of cigarette butts and a glass of whiskey presumably coming from the empty bottles. She looked for picture frames, photographs, or any personal belonging that would shed light to what kind of person he was. But in that sense, this house was empty.

When she had a good look at him, she saw that he was a lanky man in his mid to late thirties – although his disheveled and unkempt look might have made him looked older. He had a stubbled jaw and bones pressed unto his skin. His eyes were heavy and empty at the same time. He was wearing a faded t-shirt and boxer shorts – based from the stains and the smell he had them on for a couple days already.

“I’ve come to deliver you,” she said. “Where’s your bag?”

The man did not respond but instead sat on his couch and continued watching television. She asked again and only then did he reach out behind his couch and got a paper bag. He handed it to her without saying a word.

She peeked into the bag and saw five wads of one thousand peso bills and a folded note. She didn’t bother counting the money to check if it was exact. Her history with past clients told her they had no reason to sell her short. It was his note that seemed peculiar to her. Other clients would have the page filled – some even use up more than one paper. This one only had a couple of lines scribbled onto it. She didn’t mind, of course. That was none of her business.

“Everything looks good,” she put down the paper bag beside the coffee table where she could see it. “Anything you might have forgotten?”

He remained unmoved.

“Anything you want to leave behind? A will, perhaps? Have you had that prepared?”

Nothing.

“Alright. Any other requests?”

“Will it hurt?” he asked, his gaze still fixed to the screen.

“It should be pain-free. That’s one of the perks of our deluxe package. I’d ask my clients to vouch for it but I don’t think I’m gonna hear back from them.” She chuckled under her breath but her client did not seem amused. He did not seem to be anything. “It’s going to feel like a long sleep,” she said.

“It sounds too easy.” He picked up his glass of whiskey and gave it a swivel.

“That’s the point. If you could do it easily by yourself, you wouldn’t have needed us.”

“If you don’t mind…” He got the remote beside him and turned the volume of the television a couple notches up. “I’d like to finish this episode before we start.”

She nodded and sat beside him. His stench was a lot stronger up close but she tried her best not to show any signs of outward repulsion. The show was already midway and it featured a rugged bearded man tied to a post and a cleaner-looking younger man. They were planning some sort of heist, about raking in big money, about both of them getting what they want. It was hard for her to keep up since she had never watched this series before or had any idea what the context behind the scene was. She wanted to ask him but he looked like he didn’t want to be interrupted. A few scenes later, she gave up and just waited for it to be over.

“It’s the season finale,” he said after the show went to commercials. “I’m sorry if you’re getting bored.” He slid his glass of whiskey toward her side. “It’s cheap and old. But it works. Maybe it will help make things interesting for you.”

“No thanks,” she said. “What’s your show about?”

“An immortal trying to find a way to die.”

“Sounds gruesome.”

“Not really.”

“I bet you can relate.”

“I’m not an immortal.” He grabbed his glass and took a sip. “Maybe in a level, I do. I think I have lived long enough. There’s nothing left I can offer this world and nothing left it could offer me.”

He sank to a deep silence – a solemn kind of silence that felt disrespectful for her to break. The show went back on air but the man was no longer watching. His eyes were fixed to his table and the dialogues did not seem to register with him.

“It’s too late for me,” he said under his breath, almost drowned out by the television noise. “Nobody chooses to be screwed-up but if you’re ruined from the ground up, you don’t have much of a choice.”

She moved closer to hear him better. His stench made her back away for a half-second but she powered through her senses and fought away the incoming nausea. “They say it’s never too late to become who you want to be,” she said. “I don’t know if you’re the type of person who believes that.”

“Maybe if I knew what I wanted to be, it would be easier for me to believe. I thought I did and every time I proved myself wrong – maybe not myself but the people who thought I could be more. I never really believed them. But I liked the idea that I could be this and that if only I tried hard enough.”

“Where are they now?”

“I don’t know. Far away, I suppose. Somewhere where they can’t see me.”

“They seem like good-meaning people. I’m sure they’ll be saddened.”

“For a second, maybe. Then, they’ll move on as they should. Once in a while they might commemorate my ‘wasted potential’.” He burst into laughter and it took him a while to get himself together. After few seconds, he said, “You should hear them when they talk about me. I remember our past conversations and the letters they sent, telling me how much of a great guy I am and how certain they are that I had a bright future ahead of me as this or that. One of these days, I’d really like to meet that person they’re talking about. Because I’m sure as hell it ain’t me.”

He took another sip and again, offered her a drink. She refused.

“I must be bumming you out,” he said.

“Do you want me to say something?”

“Oh, god. No. You’re not my psychiatrist.” He gulped his remaining whiskey and poured until the bottle was empty. The glass was only half-full and he checked if he had another bottle to open. Apparently, it was his last. His speech was becoming more slurry. “If I needed one, I would’ve called mine.”

“I won’t pretend to understand what you’re going through, if that’s what you like,” she said.

“Even if you try, you won’t understand anyway. There’s a language that only broken people can understand and I’m not sure if I speak it well.”

“You’re probably right. Besides, I don’t think me understanding your pain will do you any good. If there’s someone who needs to understand you enough to fix you —”

“Fix? Me?” He burst into another laughing fit, more drunken than before. “I wonder who that someone is? Anyone who would’ve cared enough to listen, I’ve already pushed away. Not because I wanted to be alone nor was it my way of rejecting their affection. I did it because I wanted to stretch our bond and see how far it can go before it snaps. Maybe that was my clumsy way of making them understand me – my pain, my brokenness. After all, only broken things can understand brokenness.” The more he spoke, the more volatile he became; his voice booming more loudly with every word he threw that it overpowered the noise from the television.

For a moment, he became catatonic. Then the next, a grimaced look swept across his face and it was hard to read what emotions he might have felt then. Pain, disgust, regret, or a concoction of all three and others, she guessed. Then back to being catatonic again. He buried his face to his palms and with a softer tone, said, “Or maybe it was my way of staying broken because I can’t imagine myself otherwise. The feeling of security is such a stranger to me that when it comes, I don’t like seeing myself with it.”

Apart from the television noise, the silence between the two hung heavily in the air and was left untouched for a while. She sat perfectly still with her eyes fixed on him while he remained as is with his head still sunk. He wasn’t shaking nor was he emitting any vibe of instability. Just like her, he was still. He looked like he was deep in contemplation and wasn’t about to snap out of it anytime soon.

When he lifted his head away from his hands, she said, “I’m surprised you made it this far.”

“I thought if I’m doomed to be broken, then I must have something to show for it.” He sank his head again and playfully swiveled his glass of whiskey. “You see, there’s a leak inside me and I don’t have the tools to fix it. It took some time but I’ve already accepted that as something that I can’t change. But I figured there should be more to me than this. More in existence than what I feel. Happiness, comfort, security, they’ll die with me. So will my misery. Maybe they’re not so different after all, I realized.” His voice kept dying down and had become so slurred that she had to lean closer to understand him. “In the universe of grander things, what I feel is irrelevant. What matters is what I can leave behind and hope it will stand the test of time.”

Then, he turned towards her and she realized this was the first time he ever looked at her in the eye. “And here I am with nothing,” he said under his breath. “I thought I could be more than broken. I went to med school – maybe I’ll fix people instead. I dropped out after three months. I thought I could be an artist and channel my pain to something beautiful – history had many of those types; maybe I could be one. But my poetry was clumsy and my novels were unfinished. I tried to be more in other ways – I really did – but I never realized how impossible it is to drag a living corpse and have leftover energy for anything else. It took years of struggle but the truth was inescapable. This is the extent of who I can be. There’s nothing more in store.”

Without them noticing, the television had already gone silent and the credits had begun rolling. “Look at that,” he said. “I missed my show.” He gulped down the last of his whiskey and for a second, she thought he was going to vomit. Then, more drunken than before, he said, “I think I’m ready now.”

“Are you sure?” she asked even though she already knew the answer. She got her purse and took out a syringe.

She looked at him and expected fear – death, after all, was terrifying. But what she saw was emptiness. A blank expression that had long resigned. She might not have understood his pain but as an angel, she only needed to understand that he wanted his pain to stop. A picture of her mother flashed in her mind but she was quick to ignore it.

“Will it hurt?” he asked again.

“I don’t know,” she answered. “There’s pain in emptiness; I can’t say the same for nothingness.”

She took his arm and pressed the needle to his skin. She instructed him to look up to the heavens and count down from ten aloud. Before he could reach eight, she pushed down the syringe and watched as his eyes widened and his pupils dilated.

He drew a long breath and gasped. His back arched and seconds later, his body was limp.

She checked her wristwatch and noted the time. 12:11AM.

She closed the television and turned his lights off.

 

***

 

Thank you for reading this short story! Feel free to leave your thoughts by leaving a comment down below  – I’d love to hear them! You can also drop me an e-mail at lcolmwrites@gmail.com

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For more short stories, you can visit https://lcolmwrites.wordpress.com/category/short-stories/.

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5 thoughts on “Lights Off

Add yours

  1. Ang ganda! The characters feel very familiar, almost seems like we’ve experienced being either of them at least once in our life. My favorite line would be “Or maybe it was my way of staying broken because I can’t imagine myself otherwise.” This really hit hard for me. Would love to read more stories from the author!

    Like

  2. I loved Lights Off! I can somehow relate to the guy in the story and usually, yung tumatatak na stories sa’yo are the stories that you can relate to. Also “There’s nothing left I can offer this world and nothing left it could offer me.” That’s what I feel sometimes whenever I think about the future.

    I also like the way you write! It seems like you have tons of experience in writing. I truly believe that you will hit it big someday with your stories 🙂

    Like

  3. The story is so heavy to the point that it made me contemplate about life 😦

    “There’s a language that only broken people can understand and I’m not sure if I speak it well.”

    Like

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