Margaret meets her online friend for the first time. Something unexpected happens.
|Margaret stepped into the stadium. It seemed crowded, and loud. The audience for the women’s games was never this big. She checked the ticket in her hand again. Section 113, Row 2, Seat 5, just like it said the time before. She leaned against the concrete wall to wait for him to show up. He had bought the tickets; he could get them at a discount. She agreed to buy dinner.
She wondered what he looked like. They had met in a chat room a month before. Somehow they started discussing soccer. They hadn’t talked about where they lived. It came up, though, when he mentioned working at the Washington Freedom games, which she had been attending most of the summer.
She was staying at her aunt’s house while her parents went abroad. They didn’t want to leave her home alone; she had never liked being by herself for long, and she had no set plans for the summer. Aunt Candace didn’t pay much attention to her, which meant she never noticed when Margaret was out late, at the games or just riding the bus in circles, watching the city lights.
They arranged to meet at a D.C. United game. He would leave a ticket for her at will call, the seat next to his. They would talk and see how things went.
She was hoping he arrived soon, so she would have a chance to look him over and see if she really wanted to do this. When a breeze rushed by, she pushed away from the cold concrete and hurried down the steps to her seat. She had to show her ticket halfway down, but she made it to the seat before her courage ran out.
She didn’t even know his name. He went by goalieboy840 online, and he had reserved the ticket for her as Lani Clarkson, her pen name. In any case, he wasn’t there. He had left a cushion on the seat, and taped a reserved sign on the back. There was a matching cushion on Seat 6 along with a small blanket. But where was he? Who was he? Pre-game activities began to take over the field. Margaret tapped her feet anxiously, hugging her sweatshirt around her as she waited.
A few minutes later he showed up at the end of the row holding two full cups, a hot dog, and a pretzel. Smiling cautiously, he didn’t say anything at first. He seemed about her age, maybe a little older, with clear blue eyes. A mop of curly honey-brown hair settled itself on his shoulders. Someone pushed past him on their way down the stairs, nearly causing him to upset the drinks.
Once he had readjusted the things in his arms, he spoke up. “Lani?”
“What? Oh, sorry, that’s me. It’s just that I’m not used to hearing that.”
He sat down in his seat, handing her a drink and the hot dog. “Care to explain?”
“It’s a pseudonym. I like playing around with different names sometimes, but I could never remember it in person. I’m Margaret.”
“Michael. It’s nice to be meeting you finally. I was shocked when you told me you lived in the District. No one lives here!”
“Neither do I, unfortunately. I’m staying with my aunt for the summer. Normally I live in Pennsylvania.”
“What are you doing down here?”
“My parents are away for the summer and they didn’t trust me alone the whole time.”
“Mine wouldn’t either. They actually sent me to summer camp until I was about sixteen, then I had two years running errands at Dad’s office. I figure now that I’m out of high school, I don’t really have to do that any more.”
“What college are you going to?”
“Boston College. It’s close enough that I can get home when I need to, but far enough away that they won’t expect me for weekends.”
“Good idea.” Suddenly her attention was caught by the game. “C’mon, c’mon. Block, you idiot!”
They were both standing up, yelling toward the far end of the field. “NO!”
“Stupid defender,” Michael groaned. They sat back down, tucking the blanket over their laps. They watched intently as the ball flew across the field.
At half time the score was 2 - 1, with the Chicago Fire ahead. The peewee league demonstration could not keep her interest, so she looked up to check the stars. Her eyes suddenly focused just over the edge of the stadium. It took Michael a moment to locate it.
The sky was thick with planes, more than he had ever seen in the air. They were crowded like swarms of birds, all over the sky.
At first, most of the other fans didn’t seem to notice. The game continued. But soon cell phones began ringing all around the stadium. Michael and Margaret looked around curiously, but neither of them had one.
Twenty minutes before the game was supposed to end, the lights in the stadium went out. Someone started screaming which got someone else screaming, but it only lasted a few seconds. Michael heard the referees blowing their whistles down on the field. The announcer’s voice came and left after about three seconds of static. The phones stopped ringing, but the crowd was louder than they had been before.
A voice from a megaphone announced, “Attention! Ladies and gentlemen, the power has gone out. Our security guards have asked for you all to remain in your seats, as it isn’t safe to be driving outside. The gates are open, however, if you wish to leave; but we would ask that you do so carefully.”
Margaret turned in her seat to say something to Michael, but he wasn’t where he should have been. She stood up and smacked into him.
“Ow! Sorry, sorry, shouldn’t have stopped right in front of you, I just thought that I know where the fuse box is, and I’m pretty sure I remember how to turn on the emergency generator,” he muttered.
“No, look.” She pointed up, outside of the stadium. “The stars are clearer than I’ve ever seen them here. The lights must be out all over town. I have a flashlight in my purse. We could use it to find your car.”
“I think the exits to the stadium are probably pretty crowded right now. Besides, I don’t want to try it just yet in the dark, while it’s this crowded. Do you hear how many people are stuck in the aisle? We should probably save the batteries until we are sure of what we’re doing.”
She scooted back in her seat and leaned her head on his shoulder. “What do you think is happening?”
“Well, it could just be a power failure.” He moved a little bit then spread the blanket over the two of them.
“Michael, we both know better. It has something to do with all the planes; I just know it. And the ringing has mostly stopped, so I think maybe the phone lines are down too. I’m scared.”
“It’ll be okay. Do you want to stay here and just talk for a while, and see if the lights come back on? Or do you want me to go and see if anyone knows what’s going on?”
“Do you know what time it is?”
He moved his arm to push a button on the side of his watch. It lit up with a comforting green glow. “It’s a little after nine.”
“Let’s talk for a while, and if nothing has changed by nine thirty, you can go check.”
“All right. Hmm. Seen any good movies lately?”
“Not much new. I mostly do the second run theater and rentals here, since tickets are so expensive.”
“How much are they where you live?”
“Five dollar matinees, six fifty in the evening.”
“Sheesh. Here that’s not even enough to bribe your way far enough up the line to get tickets for the show you want.”
They both laughed. “Seriously, though,” he continued, “what kind do you like?”
“Would you laugh if I told you I was a hopeless romantic and I liked things that make me cry?”
“Good thing I’m not, then. I go mostly for comedy, with some action and the very occasional drama, usually because one of my friends thinks the lead actor is attractive. You?”
“Would it bother you if I told you I only watch horror movies?”
“Only in the theater.”
“Oh good. I’m scared to death of them, honestly. I’ve seen enough violence around here. You’d think I’d be immune to it by now, but I’ve just sort of become paranoid.”
They talked about their schools for a while, and their plans for the future. “It’s about nine forty-five now, do you want me to go check and see if anyone knows what’s going on?”
“Do you mind?”
“Not really.” He stood up. “Here’s the rest of the blanket, don’t fall asleep while I’m gone.”
“As if I could.”
She watched the sky silently after he left. The stars were even brighter now, and there were flashing lights interspersed, distinguishing the planes. She thought she could see most of the way across the stadium, but it was impossible to tell since there was nothing clear to focus on. She was relieved when she saw the watch glow, indicating Michael’s return.
“Margaret? Is that you?”
“Yeah. I’m right here. What’s going on?”
“Bad news. Earlier this evening, a hoard of armed fighters stormed the Capitol Building. They killed four guards, eight congressmen, some news people. There have been five car bombings around federal offices. President Blake is being held hostage, and they’ve got the entire city surrounded. Electric and power lines have been cut off, but water is still running normally as far as I know.”
She sat there for a minute, stunned. “That’s really not what I wanted to hear.”
“I know, kiddo. That’s not what anyone wanted to hear.”
“Do they have any idea who it is?”
“I’m not sure. No one really knows, but the popular guess seems to be this religious group who’s opposed to the Gen Projects.”
“The Gen Projects were started about three years ago, a while after the scientists finished mapping the human genome. Basically they’ve been experimenting with genetics in animals. Congress was supposed to vote today on whether to allow experiments on human fetuses.”
“What’s going to happen?”
“I really don’t know. People are going nuts, though. The stadium exits are blocked, all the power’s out, and no one’s really sure what is going on. A girl from across the stadium had a panic attack, I passed through one prayer group, and I think someone a few rows up is picking up Baltimore news on a pocket TV, if you’re interested.”
“I guess. I don’t know if it would be worse, though, to know for sure.”
“Let’s go. I’ll take the blanket. Grab the seat pads and your purse. I think it’s a little freer now, so if you just let me hold onto your arm, I’ll guide you.”
They located the man with the TV by the thick clump of people around him. They ended up listening from the aisle, ten feet away. Most of the rumors seemed to be true, and there wasn’t really any hopeful news. They fell asleep there, around midnight, curled up on the steps.
The power still wasn’t on the next morning when they woke up. It didn’t come back for another five days, until the president promised to veto the bill and was released. Michael discovered that two of his good friends from high school had been killed in the bombings, and his younger brother had been injured. Margaret tried to write back to him, after it was all over, but she couldn’t find anything to say. He called her, once, before she left, but there was nothing between them anymore, just awkward memories and silent pauses, regretting what might have been.