Matt stood at the corner of Wacker and Wells, waiting for the light to turn so he could continue on his way to the Merchandise Mart El stop. He pulled his wool cap off and scratched his head, looking around. It was December and the Earth’s tilt had left Chicago cold and dark for his evening commute.
Matt wasn’t a fan of the cold, but the view at this hour was spectacular. The Chicago River shone bright with the reflections of the massive buildings that lined its shores. The avant-garde design of Marina City to the East mocked the squat, utilitarian building that housed the Chicago Sun-Times to the West. The newest addition, the Trump Tower, filled in the sky line silver and shining. And straight ahead was the massive commercial center of Chicago, the Merchandise Mart.
Thousands of windows, lit up as the workers within pressed on towards quitting time, were reflected in the black of the river like stars on a clear night. Matt could have picked up the train at the Washington and Wells stop right outside his work, but instead he chose to walk the extra half mile to pick up the train at the river. He did this every night in the winter and had yet to regret his choice.
Matt blinked against the icy northern breeze, the dry air causing his eyes to water. With each blink, a light went out in the Merchandise Mart.
Matt chuckled to himself. “That was awesome,” he said to no one in particular. The light turned and he crossed the street onto the Wells Bridge, the passing cars causing it to rumble under his feet. As he crossed over to the North bank, he noticed a twinkling out of the corner of his eye, like fireflies dancing just out of sight. He paused briefly and stood at the rail, gazing out over the water, trying to figure out what had been tickling his peripheral. He blinked and – wait. Had another light gone out when he blinked?
He stared at the Sun-Times building, deliberately forcing himself not to blink. There were definitely plenty of lights out in the building, but that’s hardly anything unusual. Given the state the Sun-Times was in – and the newspaper industry in general – Matt was surprised there weren’t more empty offices. Still, he resisted blinking. After almost a minute, though, his eyes began to water and then sting. His lids fluttered against his efforts to force them open. After a few more seconds, evolution’s effort to protect one of man’s most valuable assets took over and he blinked. And when his eyes reopened, the window he’d been staring at was dark.
Matt’s stomach tightened and he grabbed the railing of the bridge to steady himself. He looked at the Merchandise Mart and blinked several times in rapid succession. And when he had finished, a block of eight windows in the center of the building was now unlit.
Matt haled a cab and gave his address, not up for standing on a crowded train after his adventure on the bridge. He kept his eyes closed for the whole ride home, afraid of what might happen if he peeked.
That night Matt fell asleep in darkness, his one bedroom apartment emptied of light by an evening of blinking.
. . .
The next morning Matt went to a doctor. Examination was tricky. Each light the doctor pulled out to examine his retina was rendered useless with an accidental blink of the eyes. But even had it gone off without a hitch, nothing would have been found. There was nothing wrong with Matt’s retinas. Out of his depth and out of ideas, the doctor called Northwestern Hospital for an MRI and a consultation.
It’s a tricky business, entering a hospital when your eyes serve as a light switch. The last thing Matt wanted to do was leave a building full of sick in the dark. The doctor had them send an ambulance (he may not have been a hundred percent forthright with the reason the ambulance was needed; explaining a light-extinguishing blink is not something to attempt over the phone).
Matt’s eyes were carefully taped open with white medical tape. They were a film strip away from re-enacting A Clockwork Orange when Matt was strapped to a gurney and rolled into the ambulance, his eyes peeled open, an attendant feeding a steady diet of saline into Matt’s eyes. The man’s hand lurched with every bump, dribbling water on Matt’s cheek with each movement. The man didn’t notice, though. He just stared into Matt’s dark, brown eyes.
. . .
The MRI was clean; the doctors baffled. It took less than a week for the scientific community to gather at Matt’s bedside. Who could resist seeing “The Man Who Blinked”? Matt stared up at them as they hovered over his bed, their faces illuminated by the flickering light of the candles that lined his room. Each wore the same expression: eyes intent, lips pursed, brow furrowed.
Taking turns, the doctors produced a light source of their choosing. My eyes now free to close as my room had been cleared of all potential blinking victims, I snuffed out each source as it was presented. Fluorescent or incandescent, sodium or argon; they all went out. But, and this revelation came as no surprise to Matt but set his gaggle of doctors all a twitter, only one light would go out at a time. And interestingly enough, a wink wouldn’t do the trick. The closing of a single eye had no effect other than to lend Matt a rakish charm.
But the brightest minds in the medical and scientific community had nothing to offer but hypotheses – certainly not solutions. And after months in his solitary hospital chambers, his only companion the dancing shadows on the wall, the doctors all surrendered. And exactly thirty days after that, the Northwestern attending in change of his case entered Matt’s room, clipboard clutched to his chest.
“Matt,” he said with a sigh. They had long ago established a first name basis. “I’m afraid we haven’t gotten any closer to figuring out what’s wrong with you. We’re getting to the point where the best we can hope for is to control the situation.”
“Alright Dr. Brinkley, that’ll be enough,” said a man in a dark blue suit as he bustled into Matt’s room, brushing aside Dr. Brinkley. The man had a long, thin face and delicate features that matched his slight frame. “Matt, I’m Dr. James Hoffman with the Department of Health and Human Services. How are you doing?”
“Um,” Matt said. “Okay, I guess.”
“That’s great. Matt, I’m afraid we’re in a bit of a pickle here. You see, you have a very unique condition.”
“A unique and potentially dangerous condition, wouldn’t you agree?”
Well,” Matt said, twisting in his hospital bed as he struggled to sit up. “I wouldn’t say – “
“Yes, well, we would say. It’s our responsibility to the American people to ensure that we do what’s best for all of our citizens. I’m sure you’ve heard of the plague?”
“There are over thirty cases of the plague in America right now. Did you know that?”
The man smirked. “Oh course you didn’t. It’s our job to make sure that you don’t know it and that you don’t get the plague. Containment is the key. Do you see where I’m going with this, Matt?”
“I think I do. I don’t have the plague,” Matt said, his voice rising slightly.
“No, you don’t. If you did, we’d know what to do. In fact, we have no idea what you have. And we don’t know if you represent a hazard to the public health.”
“Now wait a minute,” Matt said, his response now a full shout. “What’s your fucking point.”
“My fucking point, as you put it, is this: men,” he said, calling over his shoulder. At his summons, two fully armed soldiers entered the room and stood at either side of the door. “These men will be escorting you out of here to a place where you’ll be safe. And where we’ll all be safe.”
Matt slumped back into his bed and closed his eyes. “Jesus Christ,” he groaned.
Three months later, the door to Matt’s “recovery suite” opened and a man walked in wearing military fatigues decorated with an array of stars and bars. In three months, Matt’s life had ceased to be what he once knew. The rumors had propagated back to him that he’d been declared dead, whereabouts unknown. Actual news was lost to him, though, as he had been confined to a small apartment since the Department of Health and Human Services had declared him a hazard to mankind.
Hanging in each corner of every room of his apartment was a kerosene lap and Matt spent most hours of the day reading by their dim glow. He was doing just that when the military man entered.
“Matthew,” he said, walking into Matt’s apartment without waiting for an invitation and taking a seat in a tall, wooden chair across from the leather reading chair in which Matt sat. “I’m General Casey of the United States Armed Forces. It’s nice to finally meet you after all this time.”
“I’m sorry?” Matt said, closing his book and setting it in his lap
“You’ve been the talk of the military since we heard about your little condition. I would have been here sooner if it wasn’t for that pencil-dick doctor of yours.” The general nodded back towards the doorway where Doctor Hoffman, the man responsible for Matt’s confinement, stood half-in-half-out of the room, hugging the door jam. Matt smiled in spite of himself.
“Do you know how valuable you could be to an operation like ours?” the general continued, leaning in towards Matt who instinctively eased back away from his gaze. The general had a weathered, leathery face that was in sharp contrast to the bright, blue eyes that now held Matt’s; a look of casual command that caused both Matt’s mouth and sphincter to tighten. Matt just stared back at him, waiting for the general to continue. “You can steal the light, Matt. That’s something we can’t do. The military can’t just throw the enemy into darkness, Matt. Not yet. Not without you.”
“You. Have you ever read a comic book, Matt?”
“Do you want to become a real-life super hero Matt? Do you want to become ‘The Blinking Man’? Or do you want to be considered some sort of disease-ridden freak by this government-run asshole factory?”
“‘The Blinking Man’,” Matt said, staring over the general’s shoulder at the glow of the kerosene lantern, rolling the name over in his mind. Suddenly his eyes snapped back to the generals. “Would I get to wear a costume?”