Prompt by Lauren Batterbee: write about the life of a lightbulb
Frail fingers extend toward the faded cardboard box resting on a shelf under the dim fluorescent lights. She lifts the box, surveying the small print before carrying it over to the checkout. A man in an apron raises an eyebrow at her—her fragile form sparks concern—but accepts her crumpled bills and utters a simple “good night” as she exits the shop.
A single street light flickers forebodingly on the sidewalk as she slowly climbs the steps to her apartment door. She fumbles for the key in her coat pocket. Her hands shake as she unlocks the door with a click. She leans against it as it shuts behind her, surveying the stairs with tired skepticism, before mounting the first step, committed to the task.
She reaches apartment number 17, light and wispy breaths escaping her thin lips. The lock on her door is broken—and maintenance hasn’t been around recently—so she pushes past the splintered wood and chipping green paint of the door with her shoulder.
Inside, she sets the box on the kitchen table and carefully drags a step stool under the single lightbulb that hangs over the whole one-room apartment. Shaking, she balances on the top step and meticulously unscrews the dead fixture. With creased and emaciated fingers, she removes the new lightbulb from its packaging. Once again, she perches atop the stool, a delicate ghost straining upward, long silvery strands of hair falling to her waist, clothes hanging off her gaunt form. The metal screeches, grinding against itself, and she gives the bulb a final twist before stepping down to survey her work.
She gazes upward for a moment, and she gently tugs the string hanging down, allowing the light to flicker on. It stutters for a moment, then settles into steady illumination. She revels in her accomplishment, but not for long, as the exertion is getting to her. She makes her way over to the bed, the metal frame tucked into a corner, holding her breath tightly.
As she comes up to the right side of the bed, she reaches out her hand, barely permitting herself to look down as her fingers brush cold, papery skin. Her heart skips a beat. She exhales a heavy breath, but when she inhales again, she nearly chokes on the smell—a smell she was able to avoid across the room but is now filling her nose beyond capacity. She pulls her hand slowly back, resisting the urge to jerk it away quickly. As she turns away, her eyes fall on the wrinkled note placed on his bedside table.
In barely legible handwriting, change the lightbulb.
She swipes the note off the table, but her hands are shaking too badly, tears prickling in her eyes. It falls from her grasp, drifting to the floor with the unhurried pace of a spring snowfall. She doesn’t bother to pick it up.
Her feet trace a path she’s walked many times before, around the foot of the bed, from his side to her side. The pounding of her heart seems to be quelling, now that the note rests alone on the worn floorboards. Her limbs still shake, but it’s nothing new. Old age hasn’t done her favors.
She pulls back the quilt, one that she’d spent hours crafting into existence. She remembers the twinkle in his eyes as he sat beside her, watching her practiced hands stitch piece after piece together. His crackling voice, telling her how much he loved it, how much he loved her.
She gasps again at the stench the quilt releases, and yet, she barely hesitates as she slips under the covers, sinking into the familiar spot in the mattress beside him. She turns her head, another motion she’s done a million times. Her voice is faint and croaky from disuse, but she manages the simple phrase anyway.
“I changed the lightbulb.”
Only silence echoes back at her. She presses a gentle, loving kiss to his cold and graying cheek. Then she settles back against the pillow. A weight seems to lift itself from her heart. Her eyes flutter closed. A heavy, haunting breath escapes her. A dense silence occupies the space.
The lightbulb continues to glow.