Jon Chaiim McConnell
There was a leak in the font and the floor of the hall was crackling over and flooded with current. I filled my bucket and dipped my phone in to my wrist until the screen glowed on and I couldn’t feel my fingers.
I said, “Well, it’s still pure.”
And then a bailing line formed behind me of all the kids from town since we’ve always been told to bring enough home but not too much, since too much can blow a house transformer. I’ve seen it—the arclights are purple. Your siding can melt.
So we tossed the excess just out onto the snow. Any other season we’d be careful—dry grass could catch, wet grass could hold a charge that would melt your shoelaces. We knew how it worked. But in the winter, with the snow crusted over like it was, our tosses of current hit the ground and shattered into a sea of hissing blue marbles that rode brilliantly down the hill to the street in an instant and then disappeared. We tossed our buckets all night. We tossed until the hall was safe and dark and patched the font with electrical tape.
“It won’t hold for long,” Dad said. “But good work. Good instincts.”
He’d skipped work and then so had most everyone in town in order to discuss what to do. There had never been a leak before, so far as anyone could remember. And the excess was slow and manageable as long as someone watched the patch, but it was still excess.
“Why don’t we just charge everything we have?” I asked.
But Dad said, “I think we can charge everything in town and still not fix the problem.”
Mom had brought the TV to bathe in the font and absorb maybe a full extra three months of power; she’d been thinking the same thing I had. And Dad said it still wasn’t enough.
Even so, everyone tried. They brought blenders and laptops and table saws and one guy even strung a long goldenthread rope from the hall down to his car but the leak kept on leaking, as steadily as ever. None of the kids were sent out with buckets after dinner though, and that was a nice little change. With such a surplus, why go out in the cold? Our transformers hummed full every night and all of our parents took turns keeping watch and we introduced them to the way the current broke on the snow but they said that tossing it was dangerous.
“How is it dangerous?” I asked.
But no one would say.
In school with the surplus we watched every single filmstrip and DVD and science video over and over, again and again. I’ve memorized how the earth was born. I could quote from the rain cycle. The principal asked one of the janitors who had a low soothing voice to whisper things over the intercom from 7 til 3 and he started wearing a tie in to work. He whispered nice things, mostly. Boring things. Phone books and cook books and his little daughter’s first grade essays about shapes. And I guess we got used to it, since no one complained, and the general hushed din of every room was more relaxing than it was anything else. Naps were freely taken by us and by the teachers too for the first time I could remember. We started using our bus rides for silence.
After a month a man from the Power Authority was finally called. He wore navy blue overalls and Dad let him sleep on our couch. To be nice, he said. It was to be a longer term assignment.
In the days, after breakfast, he walked to the font hall with nothing but a clipboard and a tan rubber glove that went all the way to his neck. In the nights, he dictated his findings into a palm recorder in some jargon that I couldn’t quite follow. On the weekends, I was allowed to go and see what he did.
His name was Declan. He set his clipboard against a far wall and then he got down on one knee and really leaned in, as far into the font as I’ve ever seen anyone go, way up the rubber sleeve, and he dug his hand into the crack in the stone where the leak had begun. He circled his arm around like he was cleaning inside. Bits of the stone began to fall away.
And I said, “Careful or the hole will get bigger.”
And he said, “Well that’s the idea. For now.”
It seemed he was trying to mostly get a good look inside the thing. See what was wrong. He stuck his head so near to the current that his scruff pulsed with blue. And then he pulled out a half brick of stone and set it on the floor with some others, and pulled a measuring tape from a pouch in his overalls and looked over at me.
“Here’s a way to help,” he said. “Take these numbers down, yeah?”
And I’ve never been a part of anything so boring in my life.
By the end of his week long stay he said there was nothing to be done but to make his report. He found it all a very interesting circumstance, but that we’d have to go on living in the ways that we had figured. For now. Help would come soon. Declan left without a single goodbye from any of us, even so nice as we were.
A town meeting was held.
Dad said, “We’ve all got microwaving for months; now we need something new.”
And everyone was free to give their ideas. My friend Matt shouted, “Nonstop carnival!” in a way like he wanted some laughs but everyone just nodded instead and then one of the borough men wrote in the ledger. There were ideas for stadium lighting all along the town and LCD panels to replace traffic signs that could update route information and someone wanted an array of lasers that could shoot messages and even crude video into the sky on overcast days. We could even project on the moon, he said, if we had to. Who knows? We could try.
But when the vote was held the carnival won by a large majority, and Matt took me aside to say, “Awesome.” And it was.
The first carnival needed to be disassembled and moved a few miles further from town, because of complaints. The Ferris wheel was so tall and so bright that anyone who had a west facing window was having trouble getting to sleep even with a few layers of curtains drawn. The second carnival was done right. Our parents all made an aqueduct out of insulated copper tubes that ran from the font in a wide sloping half-circle as far away from anyone’s property as they could manage without losing the flow, and from that steady drip the carnival was able to run nonstop with a full nine major rides. Plus a water gun booth. Plus souvenirs.
After school every day our teachers had us put on our coats and line up to go as a class. Riding the rides was mandatory. Dad said that was because all the energy needed to have somewhere to go. But this was just after Christmas and we didn’t have much cause to complain.
One day I watched Matt throw up his cotton candy onto the floor of his bumper car and then he rode up on my side and made me promise not to tell.
“What’s your plan when someone finds out?” I asked.
“It was here when I got in.”
“People check for throw up when they get in a car.”
“And if you tell,” he said, “I’ll say that you did it.”
“They’ll never believe you.”
And then he bumped away from me hard enough that I ended up backwards for the rest of the time. He was there ready to bump me again whenever I managed to circle around right to get back to the flow and he laughed so hard that, in my mind, he’d voided the promise. I planned to tell as soon as the ride was done.
But there must have been something in the under-wiring because, as the power switched off and we made towards the concourse, his car began to buzz and it lifted up in a slow angle like it was ready to fly away. And as soon as the conducting pole detached from the roof a jet of bright current pierced it in half from a burst through the floor and it sent me headfirst to the ground but with just a bruise and nothing worse. There was enough pressure that it punctured the roof and began to spray in a long crackling stream nearly the entire way to the perimeter fence. Everywhere was new wood. The souvenir shack ignited first, and immediately. By dusk the entire carnival had burnt to the ground. I sat with Matt wrapped in blankets as we watched the volunteer fire company go with their axes and begin to take down the aqueduct. I told him I wouldn’t say a word. He watched my forehead like it was about to pop. All of the parents arrived soon from work, saying, No one was hurt, no one was hurt, and when I got home we listened for hours to the snap of clanging metals from the woods.
What they’d figured was it wasn’t enough—even the carnival couldn’t output the energy needed.
So with the surplus pooling again, our lights over dinner were so bright that we could hear them cycling in a throb. Mom plugged her ears with two halves of a cotton ball. We talked about the dangers of trying to contain a natural force and I told my parents that we’d been learning in school that you can drown in a half inch puddle of current, that’s all it takes, because all of your muscles paralyze and you can’t bring yourself to roll away or even turn your head since from your cheeks to your neck to your toes won’t respond. And unless someone is there to turn you over, that’s it. And they might get caught up and drown too. And that if they were there that first night they’d have seen the way the lip of the font hall can hold a good four inches deep on its floor. Scary, right? And that that’s why we aren’t sent back up there, I guess.
We ate our dinner in a little more silence than usual, and Dad cleared the table right away.
Then Mom took the cotton out of her ears and just finally went to turn off the lights, and in the adjusting dark she said, “Let’s not imagine that’s true.”
By the time Declan from the Power Authority returned with a truck and a crew, only the parents from the town were allowed to collect from the font anymore. On account of the risk. I’d started to worry that the worst would happen and I’d never be allowed in the hall again, but Declan said it was a smart idea, and that hopefully we wouldn’t have to worry about these sorts of things for much longer. We had snuck over after the adult on watch had gone home, satisfied with the crew’s arrival. The crew tore the font down and replaced it with a four foot pump made of metal and glass, topped with a collection globe, with a long pointed spigot that reached low enough that you wouldn’t need to lift the buckets. About an inch total of current was spilled onto the floor in the process and I waited for some kind of warning to leave but they didn’t say much. It smelled like warm dimes and made my cheeks tingle. From the long open doorway I watched with my friends as the crew soaked up the last of the excess with a kind of thick rubber sponge. It glowed until saturate, and was then wrung into a bin. After about two hours the hall was clean and dark, the crew had shed their rubber sleeves and waders, and the globe began to line with blue along its bottom edge.
“Give it some time, kids,” Declan said, “and you’ll never need lights in this place again.”
It was long after they left that the thing finally filled itself. When the current reached the top it triggered a switch, which clicked very audibly, followed by a low mechanical scrape from somewhere deep beneath the floorboards and we waited for what would happen next. Nothing seemed to. I gently eased the spigot open and drizzled my phone to life. A minute passed and what little I’d used refilled itself in the globe, and there was another click and a low scrape and then silence. Equilibrium. I called Mom and Dad to lie about where I’d been.
It took another month before the back surplus was used up and, except for the burgeoning infrastructure of the town, things returned to normal. It was getting to be spring, and so much easier to sneak out to the font hall after dark. There was warm breeze and a grass scent and I liked having the break from my house.
Sometimes, when I don’t come across anyone else on the walk, and I get my chance alone in the hall with the glow of the pump and the muted hiss of the filling globe, I wonder what would happen if the flow was left to run again. I think that, at the least, it must be able to burn an eventual hole through the floor. I need to watch that risk spill into the margin beyond my control—how else could I find a real thing about myself? How else could I know how my energy feels? And, on a day in late April alone in the hall, I turned and left the spigot at full pour. To see what would happen.
I remember standing on the raised lip of the entrance and watching the current ripple blue along the floorboards. After four inches I would run. I remember the way the waves calmed with the growing volume and made a small noise like humming each time they lapped into a hinge or a nail. And when the current crested the high sill of the door I leapt and I ran as fast as I could and I remember laughing because of the sound of my blood. The feel of my firing nerves. I remember getting halfway down the hill and then feeling the muscles in my legs snap taut quickly to attention so that, falling, all I could manage to do was land on my back and slide prone for another few feet. The grass was young and new and wet and with mud. The charge had overtaken me. I could see the spilling hall, calm and unfired and brilliant in the night. And I could see the thin purpled arcs from my one eyelash to the next. And I remember thinking that the pain had left quickly, from the fall or the current or both, now that I had dug in so close to the earth, nestled until I was held.
Jon Chaiim McConnell (@JonMcConn) is a graduate of the Emerson College MFA program and the fiction editor of Redivider's Spring 2013 issue. He works as a filmmaker in the Boston area and his work has appeared previously in SmokeLong Quarterly.