Friday, December 21, 2018

The Light Bill

     [A short story for you today. Copyright (C) 2018 by Francis W. Porretto – FWP]

     She looked up as he seated himself at the dinette table. The gloom in his face nearly shocked her out of her own seat.
     “What’s the matter, love?” She caressed the back of his hand. “You look like you just ate a whole lemon.”
     “I wish that were all I had on my mind,” he muttered. He picked up his fork and started to address his meatloaf, dropped it and sat back with his arms crossed against his chest.
     I know that look. It’s money.
     Presently he said “We can’t stay here.”
     “Sweetie,” she said, “if we have to cut back on something—”
     “There no way we can cut back any further,” he said. “Not enough to matter, anyway.”
     She waited.
     “The light bill arrived today,” he said.
     Her anxiety surged. “Bad?”
     “Crippling. Over a thousand.”
     It shocked the breath out of her. “For two months?”
     He nodded.
     “What was the previous one?”
     “Seven hundred and some.”
     That was bad enough. I couldn’t get a word out of him for days.
     She looked down at her plate. A scoop of mashed potatoes, a tablespoonful of peas, and a very modest slice of meatloaf. It was the most indulgent meal she’d prepared all month...and with light bills on that order, she wouldn’t be serving it for the foreseeable future.
     He’s right. We can’t stay here. Unless—
     “Sweetie,” she murmured, “why don’t we have a look around after we’ve finished our dinners? There might still be some ways we could bring it down, and once we’re fed—”
     He was shaking his head.
     “You did another sweep already?”
     He nodded. “We’ve done everything we can do, love. There’s nowhere we can tighten up any further, and I’m not willing to live in the dark. It’s not us, it’s the rates. They’ve skyrocketed.”
     She sought her own resolve, found it, and brought it forth.
     “Then we’ll move to Broadville.”
     He looked up sharply. “You’d be willing?”
     She nodded. “If we must, we must.”
     “I remember how thrilled you were to move here,” he said. “A beautiful neighborhood, peaceful and green. Clean streets. Nice neighbors. Everything you wanted for our children to come.”
     “Everything,” she said, “except affordable. The light bill was extortionate even at the outset. Now it’s insupportable. So we move. Besides,” she said, “Broadville isn’t so bad. Pam and I were over there to shop just a few days ago. The community has cleaned itself up pretty well.”
     His gaze was steady. He seemed to be in the process of decision.
     Trying to figure out whether I’m sincere about moving, probably.
     “You sure you’re okay with it?” he said.
     She nodded once, firmly.
     “Then I’ll put this dump on the market tomorrow.”

     They got an entirely satisfactory offer almost at once. The buyers were a young married couple with no children. They were obviously very well off. He told them frankly about the light bills they could expect. That didn’t seem to matter to them. The man immediately wrote a check for half the stipulated down payment and suggested a closing that very week. They left smiling.
     She retreated to her little home office, pulled her crocheting project out of the wicker basket beside her armchair, settled herself and set the needles to clicking.
     I can’t believe it was that easy. There has to be a catch.
     But there wasn’t. When he came home he assured her of it.
     “The check cashed with no questions,” he said. “We’ve got twenty-five thousand dollars in the bank, with another twenty-five coming on Friday.” He crouched before her and took her hands. “We’re going to move, and we’re going to be okay!”
     She smiled broadly. For the first time in months she felt her anxieties lift. An impish thought took her.
     “Let’s celebrate,” she said. “Let’s splurge.
     He cocked an eyebrow. “What do you have in mind?”
     She rose. “Come with me.”
     She pulled him to the living room and gestured at the windows. All were tightly covered with blackout shades, just as they had been from the day they’d moved in.
     “Open them all,” she proclaimed. “All the way to the ceiling.”
     His mouth fell open. “The university—”
     “Damn the university. Damn the astronomers! Let’s have ourselves a revel. Just for tonight, sweetie!”
     Her wildness seemed to infect him. A wolfish grin formed on his features.
     “As you wish, my love.” He bared his teeth at the instrument of retribution. “We’ll just ignore them!”
     They went from window to window, raising the shades to their highest stops, often with a jerk nearly strong enough to rip them down. For the first time in months, light streamed freely through those windows, illuminating the otherwise pitch-black neighborhood they would soon leave behind.
     The phone began to ring almost at once. They let it ring.

     They found a suitable home in Broadville after a very brief search. They noticed at once that the windows were covered by venetian blinds, rather than the heavy blackout shades they’d endured for so long. They paid the entire down payment at once and demanded an immediate closing. The owners were happy to oblige them.
     The moving van had departed only minutes before, and they were in the process of unpacking, when the doorbell rang. She went to answer it.
     The man at the door was nattily attired. He carried the sort of briefcase one might see dangling from the hand of a lawyer. His smile was polished and impersonal.
     “I see that you’re new to Broadville,” he said with a gesture at the piles of half-unpacked boxes, “so you might not be aware of some of the most recent developments. May I have a few minutes of your time?”
     She glanced back at her husband. He nodded. She stepped aside to admit him. The three sat around their coffee table. Their guest set his briefcase on the table and popped the catches.
     “You’re in a tightly restricted zone,” he said, “so your application will be more demanding than most other Broadville residents.” From the briefcase he drew a segment of thick foam rubber. “This is the filling used in our wall hangings. Guaranteed to establish a twenty-eight decibel attenuation of secondary sound emissions. A number of attractive cover designs are available. Our products come with a five year warranty, with no pro rata and no return shipping charges. We also offer a liberal payment plan, thirty-six monthly payments at only three percent annually.”
     There was a brief silence. The salesman smiled calmly, as if their reaction were no more than he’d expected.
     “Anti-sound hangings?” she murmured.
     The salesman nodded. “You should get them up as fast as possible, Ma’am. The local seismographic institute will be on your case at once if you don’t. Fortunately, we have a crew working the neighborhood already, so I can pencil you in for the day after tomorrow.” He reached into his briefcase again and pulled out a clipboard loaded with blank order forms. “What credit card would you like to use? We accept all the major ones.”
     She turned to her husband. He stared open-mouthed, clearly in shock.
     He must not have known.
     “I think,” she said at last, “we should take some time over this.”
     “I understand,” the salesman said. He returned his sample and clipboard to his briefcase, fastened it closed, and rose. “But I’d advise you not to take too long. You don’t want to leave your house un-attenuated. Even for a properly shielded house, the sound bills in this district can be murder.”



Kye said...

Oy. Frying pan, meet fire. Someday it will be "carbon debits" in zones.

Dystopic said...

There's always something...