Stage 0, Utopiana
Papi, as always, sat in his broken-arm recliner as he focused second-hand binoculars on the river. He tried to ignore the familiar, repetitive songs that leaked out the bedroom door as his grandson Pablo rewound the tape of his favorite Disney movie once again. At least it kept the five-year-old occupied and out of trouble, for which Papi's aching hip was grateful.
Both of the boy's parents were doing five-to-ten in the Federal pen for stupid decisions, but in Papi's mind, they had only tried to provide for their familia, and Papi could not in his heart fault them for that.
It was a hard world, and you just had to get along as best you could. There were no other relatives, and there was no way Papi would let his grandson be raised by strangers, even if keeping up with the little guy sometimes nearly did him in.
Most people slowed down by age sixty, but Papi was slower than some due to cancer that had taken his left lung and a hip that needed replacing years before but for which disability did not provide enough resources. It also did not help that he lived on the top of a decrepit third-floor walkup apartment.
His corner unit did have a million-dollar view out the side window that looked over a train yard to the broad river beyond. The few broadcast T.V. stations they received held little interest for him. Instead, he tracked the seasonal migration of various birds and other wildlife as free entertainment, for which he was thankful.
Papi often felt guilty that he could not always navigate the stairs to walk Pablo to the school bus in the colder mornings, or some days even meet him at the curb in the afternoon. He did always stand on the top landing above the stairs so that the boy could see him and wave goodbye.
Summer vacation was only a few weeks away, and Papi was unsure how he would manage to keep an eye on the boy all day long. It would not be fair to keep him inside. The parking lot, which was his only other view from the apartment, was dangerous for an active but self-centered child.
Papi managed to navigate the stairs twice a month to take advantage of the community dial-a-ride to shop for groceries but had to limit his purchases to items light enough that Pablo could run up and down the stairs to retrieve them.
Thankfully Pablo was old enough that he had learned to unlock the mailbox, eternally expectant for a letter from one parent or the other even though those events were infrequent at best.
Papi watched three late-season snow geese circle and land among the rushes in the wetlands on the river's far side. He admired the grace and beauty of birds with such long necks and wingspans. His spirit always felt lightened as he imagined he soared effortlessly beside them and watched the world float by.
In his youth, Papi had put in endless miles on his pride and joy, a nineteen fifty-four Harley, but had to sell it long ago to meet the resource eligibility for assistance programs. Not that his hip would allow him to ride nowadays anyway. He at least had memories of good times, which is more than some.
The muffled, off-key duet behind the bedroom door suddenly cut off into silence, and Papi heard the click-click of the power knob as Pablo frantically tried to get the T.V. to come back on.
“Paaapi! It broke. Fix it pleeeeese?”
Papi laid the field glasses on the wooden fruit crate that served as an end-table and counted to ten. In his misspent youth, Papi had been known for his quick anger and had held a reputation as a fairly dangerous individual.
Six months previously, after Pablo had only been living with him for a week, he had lashed out and slapped the boy for what really was a minor offense, the details of which Papi could not even remember now. The devastated boy, sobbing and snot-nosed with pupils as big as his eyes, made Papi's heart break with remorse, and he had vowed never again to strike the boy or raise his voice in anger.
As he reached ten, he placed one hand on the chair's good arm and braced the other on his cheap dime-store walking cane. He could not help but let a groan escape from the pain but made it to his feet and hobbled towards the single bedroom.
"Coming, Mijo, just a minute."
It was only ten steps to the door, but the only time he was pain-free was with the hip and leg immobilized. After three straight hours of sitting, his joints and tendons protested at the sudden movement.
He was wheezing and gasping for air by the time he entered the bedroom, but all the discomfort retreated as his little moppet slammed into his thigh and gave him a trusting hug.
"Bring it back?"
"I'll try. Just let Papi go so I can fiddle with it."
Papi pushed the power button a few times just like his grandson had, but to no avail. He saw that the digital clock-face on the ancient VCR was blank, so he pulled the plug out of the wall and pushed it back in, but the T.V. remained dark even after he wiggled the cord in the loose socket.
"Chingas! Looks like a blown circuit, again."
He opened the fuse access panel inside the narrow closet and flicked the switch labeled Bed/Liv/Bath, and when that had no effect, he tried the remaining three switches. He frowned, which made Pablo back away. Papi might no longer hit him or even yell at him, but he would still yell at things that did not cooperate.
Papi tried a couple of light switches, then opened the fridge, but the whole apartment was without power. He made his way out the front door to the walkway that ran across twenty more apartments to his left and did not see any lights. It was still an hour until nightfall, so that did not prove anything. He stood still and tried to decide what felt out of place. Finally, he realized everything was just too quiet.
The neighborhood was solid working class, made up of a mixture of at least a dozen races and cultures, so there were usually competing music styles that stepped on each other's beats. Most of the parking spots that lined the buildings' fronts were empty, except for one young man who was just opening the hood on his twenty-year-old car then blankly looked at the contents. That was also not unusual since a brand-new car only belonged to visitors or drug dealers in this lot.
Papi went back inside to look out his favorite window and craned his neck sideways to peek down at the street in front of the building that ran parallel to the river. He saw several cars sitting in the middle of the single lanes in both directions, but nothing was moving.
He experienced a funny feeling deep in his gut. Something very much out of the ordinary was happening. Besides his grandson's arrival, Papi had preferred a life based on a comfortable routine ever since he retired.
"Pablo, can you be a big boy and go tell the manager that our electricity went out?"
"Our' lectricity went out? Where did it go?"
"Never mind, Mijo, just ask if they know about it. I'll be right up here watching."
The manager lived on-sight just across the parking lot in an office/apartment, but before Pablo reached the stairs, the manager had walked out his door and looked around with a puzzled expression.
"Never mind, boy. Hey, Mister Andrew, what's up with the power?"
"No idea, but it seems to be a general outage. Even the landline phone doesn't work, or my cell. Maybe I'll run downtown and see if I can find a cop or something."
The manager got in his old Chevy pickup, but it did not even try to turn over. He got back out and walked around the vehicle and frowned."
"Dammit! No lights. Must have drained the battery somehow. Oh well, Cheryl will be home from work in an hour or so, and we can take her car."
Except he never saw Cheryl again.
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