It was the third week of August – a really slow, warm, heady August – when all the lights on St. Medard Street went out.
That happened sometimes, late in summer. Folks’d be using too much power, between their air conditioners and their swimming pool motors. It would all add up and pop.
The town called the power company on account of so many houses in one area of the grid going out. Then the power company called me. It was almost dinnertime so I said goodnight to the boys before heading to my truck. The initial report made it seem mighty routine and I didn’t think I’d be out long.
St. Medard Street only has seven houses – four on the left and three on the right. After that, it gives way to the big swamp that buffers the sound from the interstate. You can still hear the cars though; it’s a bit like the ocean. Whoosh, whoosh.
I checked the transformers up on the lines first, usual stuff. I scowled at a perfectly okay transformer, realizing I’d have to investigate a little closer before I could have dinner. Wife was making carbonara and I was looking to get home.
I knocked on a few doors and found mostly folks like my family. Nice people who’d normally be getting ready for dinner but were now trying to transfer everything to their backyard grills, and excavating their refrigerators before things went bad. They all said the power just clicked off, leaving behind a kind of humming sound that wove in and out like a pulse.
The last house was the only one that looked like it hadn’t been bulldozed in the seventies and replaced with a split level. It was a large farmhouse, tucked partway into the swamp. I knocked on the door. There was a funny series of sounds, bit like a firecracker. I raised my fist to knock again when I heard it. The buzzing I’d taken for cicadas was louder at this door. Instinctively, I glanced up at their lines to see if they’d blown something that had backfired up the entire street. That’s when I noticed they had an extra line, one the other houses didn’t have.
Now, not everyone would notice something like that, let me say. Kids don’t learn too much about electricity anymore and what they do learn they forget right after they get a passing grade on a test. Most houses have three lines that lead to and from the nearest transformer. This house had four.
A woman opened the door and I looked around at her. She was tall, taller than me, but hunched over. Her pale hair was ranged around her head like a dandelion. She looked like she’d been breathing hard but was trying to even it out. Was she buzzing?
“We’re trying to fix it!” she said immediately and started to slam the door.
Another hand, then another face, appeared, and stopped her.
“Luanne, back up and let me talk to him.” This woman was shorter, rounder and thank God, sounded friendlier.
“Hi ma’am. Can I ask if you heard any pops or saw anything strange when the power went out?”
The woman called Luanne backed up but didn’t turn and didn’t take her eyes off of me. She was rubbing her hands together. I tried not to take my focus from the second woman.
“We didn’t,” she smiled. “The company usually sends someone else for our house. We’re an… ah… special case.”
I tried not to look too offended but I was no actor.
“I can assure you I’m up to the task, if you just let me know what happened. Do you realize you’ve got an extra line? Do you know why that might be?”
Before she could answer there was a loud zap and a high-pitched shriek, like a little kid laughing. Light flared on in the house, noon-bright. The buzzing quieted.
The round woman smiled sheepishly but Luanne turned her head.
“Hannah! Don’t touch anything yet! I said I would fix it!”
A small child’s voice answered. “But aunty, I fixed it! I have so much energy – for the whole street!”
I turned around. Sure enough, there was power on the street again. Slowly, I looked back to the two women in the doorway. Luanne looked haughty. She was trying to push a little girl, whose movements seemed to crackle and spark, out of sight. The round woman still had a small smile.
“Strange thing, the air in August,” she said. “It almost has an electricity of its own, don’t you think?”
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