Past midnight, and the sky is dark but the city is still alive with sound and lights. Cars honk their way down the streets, finding traffic jams even at this hour. On the 3rd Street Promenade, the restaurants are still open, catering to the after-show crowds. A few streets away, different tastes are being catered to, on the sidewalks and in the alleys.
A few lost souls disregard the warning signs and fall asleep beside the pier, just above the tideline. Huddled in the remains of their blankets, they draw their only comfort from the closeness of others, the rhythm of the waves crashing endlessly next to them, and the transistor radio one of them plays softly.
"The rumor on the river is
"And on that cheerful note, the clock moves on towards 1 a.m., ticking its way towards morning. It's actually morning already, if you think about it; the night can't live forever, not even one second past twelve. Once midnight chimes, sunrise is already on its way. So you can roll over this morning and let my music send you back to sleep, and wait for that sun to start shining down and spread its warmth over you. Like everything else in this world, it's just a matter of time."
The police came for him that night, dragging him out of their tiny apartment; she doesn't know where they took him. She knows she should be glad he's gone, she can feel that last set of bruises he left. But all she can feel is alone, except for the sound of the radio.
She knows he loved her once, but all she can remember seeing is the anger, and his fist raised to hit her. She wasn't strong enough to fight back, or to run. Standing in her window, looking out at the lights of the Ferris Wheel a block away, she doesn't know if she's even strong enough to live without him.
"If I ran away I'd never have the strength to go very far
"Right now, though, my friends, it's still dark, and getting darker, as the lights start going out over the city. I can see over the ocean from here, over the beach. There's enough light left to block out the stars, but not enough to see by, not enough to hide in. Have you ever noticed how we stick together at night, thinking, I guess, that without light our only safety lies in numbers?
"Who knows, maybe it does. Maybe we really are safer together than alone, safer with each other than apart. Safer with what we know than with the monsters and boogeymen and Freddy Kreugers that may be hiding in the dark.
"But like the lady in the song says, you can always turn the light back on -- just reach out a bit and your fingers will find it, right where you left it last night. If you can't find it -- well, I'm here 'til two and you know I'll help you all I can."
He roams around his room quietly, his untied robe drooping open over his pajamas. It's an old robe, tired and faded, but it's comfortable, and there's no one he cares about to see it, anyway. The drapes that look out on the street are closed and the radio fills the room with the only company he really wants, or needs. Young folks' music, but he likes it better than the Laurence Welk they expect him to listen to. Music doesn't care how old he is.
He's supposed to be asleep, but he doesn't need much sleep anymore. He settles down in his chair by the window -- his old rocker, the only furniture he'd been able to bring when they put him into the home. On the small table beside him is a black and white picture; he doesn't have to look it it to see every line and curve, as the music flows around him.
"Didn't we touch the fire above
"1:30 now, and there're more lights going off outside my window. Lights on, lights off. Sunrise, sunset. Nothing lasts, as near as I can tell; the song ends, the moon wanes, everything changes, from minute to minute and day to day. You can make yourself crazy wondering what's going to change on you between the time you close your eyes and the time you open them, to sleep, or rest, or even blink. I even wonder sometimes if the sun will rise in the morning, or the moon will shine at night. How's that for crazy, huh?
"Eventually, maybe you can stop caring either way, when you've seen so many of both that you carry them with you no matter what time it is. Is that crazier than worrying or saner? Easier or harder? Seems to me that if you carry your light with you, you never have to worry about it going out. Better yet, maybe you can share the load, combine lights with someone else. You guard their light, they keep an eye on yours and you both shine twice as bright. They say that kind of light lasts past sunset and into the night, until the sun comes up again. Is that really true? Well, I'd kinda like to believe it."
He sits in front of the 3rd Street Mall, braced against the back of his chair, feeling the twinges the night air always brings in his legs -- legs that haven't been there since he lost them in a jungle, more than twenty years ago. He adjusts the radio, coaxing sound out of the broken antenna, wanting to make a little noise. Not enough to give the police an excuse to kick him off the Promenade, but enough to get some attention.
He knows what he looks like, what the people swirling around him see -- that's the point. A very rare few actually look for the hat or the cup, to drop a coin or two. Even fewer actually look for his eyes, but that's all he wants. Everything else, he can deal with just fine.
"I will try not to burden you I can hold these inside
"The only problem, people, is that when you carry your light with you, it's harder for everyone else to see it. Let's face it, most of the time we're too busy worrying about our own electric bills to worry too much about our neighbors'. It takes more than a steady glow to get our attention; it takes a flash of lightning, or a burst of fireworks, or a set of headlights glaring right in our eyes, saying 'Look at me or get out of the way, because I'm about to run you over!'
"But we have to let each other have it, sometimes; bash each other over the head with a burning bush until it sinks in that we're not the only ones around; that we were so busy checking the lightbulb that we didn't notice we were about to run right over someone else.
"I wonder how many lights go out, all of their energy wasted trying to get someone else to see."
She lays awake in bed, staring wide-eyes at the glowing numbers on the radio, lending a little bit of light to her room. She knows they mean something, but she's not quite sure what, yet. All she knows is that someone is talking to her from behind the numbers and playing pretty music, soothing her when the shadows look a little too much like they're moving, keeping her company while the rest of the house sleeps.
Her mother says she's not supposed to play the radio this late, but her mother is asleep. So she turns the knob that makes the voice quieter and snuggles deeper into her blankets, hugging her teddy bear and waiting for the Sandman to make his visit.
"As I lay me down to sleep
"One more light just went out over by the pier, but one came on at about the same time, like someone had planned the whole thing. Seems like there's always a light on somewhere; as soon as one goes dark, another takes its place. So there'll always be someone next to us, lending a little glow to keep us from tripping over our own feet.
"It's enough to make you believe that maybe, just maybe, there is a little music out there in the madness.
"It's 2 o'clock and I think everyone's heard me talking for long enough, so I'm wrapping up another night on KTSM, 96.7 on your FM dial. But you know I'll be back tomorrow night at straight-up ten o'clock -- do me a favor and leave a couple lights on for me out there."
She slips in a commercial cart and jumps when a hand touches her shoulder. It takes her a second to realize that the 2-6 jock is real, not one of her visions. The mike is off; no one outside the station can hear her anymore; once more, the flickering images of other places, other faces begin to fade from her mind. They come only when she speaks, only when others hear her voice. She's grateful for small blessings.
"Great show," the relief jock tosses over his shoulder, checking his playlist as the commercial winds to a finish.
Her only answer is a wave as she leaves the booth; she maintains her silence, so she won't be treated to a vision of whatever is running through his mind. She doesn't think she wants to know.
One quick trip to her office to pick up her purse and make sure the door is locked, then she turns to leave, her hand automatically going to flip the light switch.
Then she pauses. With a smile, she leaves the light alone, and closes the door behind her as the station speakers start playing the relief jock's first song. She sings along, so softly she can barely hear herself.
"Is it getting better or do you feel the same..."
The Common People started out as a story challenge issued by David J. Warner, if I recall correctly. It was to tell stories set in the Marvel Universe, but which did not involve superheros, megavillains or Spandex in any way, shape or form. Just the ordinary lives of people who live in an extraordinary world. I contributed three stories to this challange, one of which is not longer up because I intend to try to sell the sucker!< g >
Nightlight was seriously experimental, and I don't think it succeeds as well as I'd hoped -- maybe one day I'll figure out how to fix it. I wanted to convey a DJ who can read the minds of everyone who hears her voice -- so chooses not to talk except on the radio, where she can use it to help. As I said, I don't think I succeeded well. :P
Dedicated to all those Djs who know just what to play, and when to play it. You know who you are.