About the Writing Contest: This year, exactly 213 pieces of poetry and 65 pieces of fiction were submitted to our annual writing contest. All authors' names were removed before the entries were delivered to the judges. Each judge named his favorites, printed here, and two runners-up.
Seth left his drink on the table. He stepped outside to have a smoke and watch the sun set on his apartment across the street. Evening upon evening, his poor building was what diners contemplated while they idled or ate, drifting off during boring conversation, perhaps seeking refuge during a romantic argument. He remembered.
He heard his name called. Libby was cycling hard up the block, hunched over her handlebars, the lump of a messenger bag on her back. She was still panting as she cabled the bike to a No Parking sign. "How you been, Seth?" She smiled her skeptical smile.
She guffawed when he told her he was out of work for the fall semester. The laugh made him bitter, like he often felt toward her mother when she had done it, a bitterness that only made him upset with himself. Still, Libby went up on her toes and quickly kissed his cheek, her ease in it the best feeling he'd had in days, maybe the best in years. He was glad to be seeing her again. "It will be OK, Daddy. This is where we're eating?"
"Would you prefer someplace else?"
Couples were milling at the hostess's podium. Along the back wall, the wait staff twitched with their officious towels and trays, the menus in their waistbands.
She leaned toward the menu taped on the glass. "Maybe. But not until after we eat."
Three weeks in town and she had taken up with bike messengers, idlers who perched on the Rittenhouse gates, who burnt whole afternoons in the booths at McGlinchey's awaiting summons. Already she had made more acquaintances in the city than he had in 15 years. Aging youngsters hard-living above Fairmount, diving in South Philly, squatting four to a room in Fishtown. She talked about them as if they were old friends he should know already. She didn't talk about her mother. And she hadn't talked about the funeral, had she?
They went through the oysters quickly. Pasta. More seafood. She was back on the sidewalk before he had settled the tab.
"I didn't think you ate animals," he said.
"Just sea animals." She paused to stick her foot in the drain at the corner curb, measuring it. White hash marks were painted along her boot's outsole. "See, around here they're all too narrow. But there's so much access downtown it's sick."
"Train tunnels," he said.
"Sure. Even the concourses can get you in, if you find an unlocked door here and there."
He didn't ask.
He had forgotten, but he now remembered she had told him about it the other night, visiting on his couch, pulling her wet socks off and pitching them into his basket when he offered to do her laundry. Small hearts on the tops of her feet, blue dolphins on the arches. Rachel was gone, and here was their child running amok. Halfway through the bottle of bourbon, he asked about her new beau, Judge, and in a few minutes, she was showing him photos on these sites for urban explorers, so-called. They sat shoulder to shoulder looking at the laptop. Bedtime stories he had missed. But now, here, this whole community of infiltrators of sewers and train tunnels and condemned buildings. Daredevils, they posted pictures of their conquests. She was telling him again, now.
"Center City's kind of played out," she said, walking her bike. "A few of the big empty properties on Market maybe. None of us are that interested in them anymore."
"They changed." She shook her head and laughed. She tested him with a look. "We're going up to Port Richmond tonight. There's an abandoned powerhouse."
"Me and three guys. You want to go?"
"Judge?" he said. "OK. What three guys?"
"All right," he said. "What have I got to lose, right?"
She let loose with the laugh again. "How often have you said that?" She lit a cigarette and passed it to him for a drag. "When was the last time you had anything, anyway?"
What three guys. They were waiting for his daughter underground. Rocket, Skipper and Judge: inked roughs with fingerless gloves, wiry bodies, burnished canvas packs like hers, seated in a corner booth with the gravitas of revolutionaries. This rock dungeon, sticky with summer booze. Libby went right to them. He pressed himself forward, trailing. So much of her life was already going on outside his eye. Cigarettes, her own apartment, boyfriends. The tattoos. He was failing her all over again. She had reminded him she didn't drink. He stopped a waitress and bought the table a round before he was close enough to shake hands.
"Cranberry juice and a splash of 7-Up," Libby said, "with extra olives."
Judge — a Daniel — was the only one to make regular eye contact. Handsome and gaunt, given to expounding, Seth found his appeal to Libby too clear. When she told the boys her father, the professor, would be coming with them, they took to calling him Doc, and all pretense of manners dissipated. No one's students, there was no authority gained on them, anyway. He missed a cue once, and they knew he had come in drunk. They filled his glass. He ordered another round, another pitcher. Sporting father.
"Here it is, Doc."
A hand-lettered architect's print, photocopied on two sheets. Philadelphia Electric Company. Delaware Station. Train tracks flung around the centered box like the arcs of protons. Judge told them you've seen it, you could see it from the bridge. His daughter's boyfriend placed the two pages together on the table and moved his fingers carefully within the walls. He pointed to the street where they would park. Libby moved closer to him with her terrible drink. Their target was the turbine hall. They would be stoked at how vast it was, Judge said. He wanted to rappel in it. Seriously, he said. It was perfect. They were going to scale the inside of this power plant and photograph it. "Got daylight shots already," he said. "Just unbelievable light." He passed his phone around that they might view some of it saved, slats of sunbeams and rusted machinery. "I want to get the skyline through the glass near the roof."
"Seems like a lot for one night, Daniel. And starting so late."
"Daddy," Libby said. "Judge."
The boy looked at Seth, taking measure of him. "We're young, Doc. You just kind of do it all at once. In and out. No worries. Look, I don't like trespassing without a purpose. Without something to do, you just get bored. I don't believe in getting bored." He patted Libby's hand on his leg. "That's the realm of vandals, right?"
"Yeehaw," Rocket said. "Breaking windows, smoking pot. Having sex. I can do that stuff at home. I like to climb, bro." He bumped fists with Skipper, whose knit cap said SECURITY, but was pulled low to cover a forehead tattoo that read Antisocial.
Seth worked up a smile. "That why they call you Rocket?"
"No, Doc. That's not why they call me Rocket."
They drove a spray-painted van through Kensington, the exhaust nauseating him. The defunct power plant hulked below the Betsy Ross just as Judge had told them. Seth remembered it now, though he couldn't recall the last time he had passed over the bridge. He hadn't moved much at all since he had landed here after Texas, 15 years ago. He didn't even have a car. "I told you you'd seen it," Judge said to them. "I wouldn't say it's defunct, though, Doc. It's unoccupied, but it's semi-operational. What they call a peaking station. Kicks in when the others are overloaded. Save us from the wicked brownouts."
"Is that so, Daniel."
The young man paused before answering. "That's certainly what I heard, Seth. Though you got to wonder, with her roof all caving in."
Seth saluted him insolently. "Aye, aye, Captain Danny."
Judge glanced at Libby, toking up, in the rearview. "Aye, aye, old man. Aye fucking aye."
As they walked over the coal-car sidings toward the fence, the ground felt larger, more difficult to traverse. Seth checked the skyline in the south, lit up like Oz. He had all the while been worried about climbing a fence, of coming this far only to be humiliated at the gate, so he was relieved Judge had a spot to go under the chainlink. They scrambled across an expanse of concrete to the shadows beneath the walls, a prison-break reel in reverse.
A construction trailer and an aluminum building rested before the colossus, embarrassments to the plant's scale and architecture. He first thought these additions were to oversee the place's demolition, but then decided they were part of an upgrade, come in an era where aesthetic expenses could not be tolerated. The sides of the powerhouse were streaked with soot. Its windows were dark, some covered with plywood as if for a hurricane. A long conveyor sloped from the upper levels to a separate tower at the river.
"Is there a guard?" Seth asked.
"Not regularly," Judge said. "Or it wouldn't seem. These abandoned places get patrolled, especially if they're supposed to be kept operational." He waited for an argument. "But there was nobody stationed here last time. I walked right in, broad daylight."
"That was in daylight," Seth said. He saw the trailer was padlocked. "You have no idea, do you?"
Broken windows and loose doors, they were inside the powerhouse before he was ready to be. Dank, dark and warm. The boys stretched on their headlamps.
"Keep them off until we're farther in." Judge swept an arm up at the windows' cracked grids. He shot his penlight at the dirty floor and led them down a hallway lined with doors, their small rooms littered with rags, ruined furniture, fallen debris. These like glimpses into hovels of the insane. Ceilings hung in tatters, molded and flaking. Calcified beards like Spanish moss. Odors of rust and coal. Other fumes too noxious to be long tested.
They pushed onto a balcony. It took a moment to appreciate the magnitude of the turbine hall. Seth had seen smaller arenas. Moonlight lit the slab of the far wall, upon which was a rusted clock, high above. Midway below them, the half-barrel humps of dynamos arced like stegosaurs in the dark. Lower, stagnant water glistened, in which pulverizers, fireboxes, condensers and what all hunkered. Mosquitoes rose from that murk. Through the Chartres windows that arched to a vaulted ceiling — itself torn by weather, like some ghost ship's rotted mizzen — the tips of skyscrapers peeped. The balcony skirted the entire hall, was variously covered and uncovered as it passed behind walls and windows, jutted for observation decks and exposed stairways. It reminded Seth of the Escher print Rachel years ago had hung above their bed. Rocket and Skipper were fastening their lanyards to the wrought-iron fence, its handrail and spindles worthy of some golden-age department store.
So much left untouched, perhaps the place might jump back online, as Daniel had said, but Seth was skeptical at the abundant corrosion. The kid's claim about peak overloads had impressed the others, but sure words often impress the inarticulate. This place was a tomb.
"It's beautiful, Dad," Libby said. "It's unreal."
"Told you." Judge leaned in to kiss her once, modestly, but a display all the same.
"They won't build them like this anymore," Seth said. "Not worth it."
Judge loaded film. "That's why I want to get it now. They'll tear this down eventually. Historic registry or no." He adjusted the stop on the Sinar. "Want to expose at least 10 seconds, Tina. Maybe 20. Out there." He looked into the space.
"Tina?" Seth said.
They set up their ropes. Rocket flung one to Skipper, who crept, with testing steps, onto a catwalk. To photograph the skyline as Judge wanted required a vantage only attainable suspended. Seth wandered about the perimeter's rubble, looking for usable stairs, while they busied themselves. The windows afforded enough light to seduce him with the plant's grandeur and shadows, but he wished he were seeing it all in daylight, and not with them. He was starting to feel ridiculous. He certainly wasn't going to rappel. He uncapped his flask.
The harness slid out into the dark over the turbines. The devil writhed a bit at the middle, then stilled. "Lower me some!"
He peered into the void. That was his daughter's voice.
The shadows complied at either rail, ratcheting her some slack. She bobbed like a sailor overboard while Seth barely breathed. There were interminable seconds before the modulation ceased, then his daughter gently put her face to the camera. "OK," she said. "Don't mess with the rope."
They froze as she made the exposure. In this stillness, Seth could hear more pieces of the place coming down, ticks and splashes in the dark. He drank.
Judge's whisper carried. "That's probably good."
Seth closed his eyes.
The shutter snapped.
The young men lowered her to the wet floor as if into a volcano. He watched their small lamps slide down their lines to meet her and help her out of the rig. His heart racing, he entered a glassed room of the mezzanine, which looked not unlike his workspace at school, and peed in a corner. He sat in a moldy office chair to observe their further ascents and descents throughout the hall. The place was quickly their secret playground. Others had been here. Styrofoam cups and food wrappers about his feet. A trash barrel filled with stained dot-matrix printouts. The form of his daughter rose again, paused earnestly atop a boiler with the modest Olympus he had bought her. Judge was setting up some lightweight tripod in the ruins. Their sibilant queries as they picked through the farrago, steel scraps and chunks of concrete underfoot. Clatter of something dropped among the dynamos.
He rose and continued the circuit. Ahead he could see the control room. He paused. Fluorescent lights shone dimly there. He held the rail. "Libby?"
Flashes going off down in the pit, a strobing of the hall's leviathans, these ancient sepulchers lit longer by darting headlamps. Then back to blackness. He grew dizzy looking down. Across from him, more lines from tiers of catwalks. They were scaling for the ceiling.
It seemed rather without purpose to him. Despite their noble claims at the bar, it was a too-complicated thrill-seeking. He worried about her, fretted then about their efficiency in pot and sex Rocket had mentioned. On their ropes in this industrial cathedral, they were going up to the roof to view the city. Wakened pigeons took flight across the chasm.
More wheeled office chairs, early-'80s style, attended the board in the control room. The walls were lined with electronics panels, stuff of B pictures. A long arc of a switchboard. Dials, diodes, knobs. Levers of all sizes, shaped like tiny field-goal posts. Others like the stick shift in Libby's Toyota. Ribbons of yellow caution tape twisted across the floor. Some were knotted to the apparatus in bows, more gifts than warnings.
But these fluorescents on the drop ceiling were lit, as if someone had just run out for coffee and was about to be very surprised when he came back at how the place had gone to seed. Seth retreated a step.
Why lit? Perhaps some code decreed it safer. How lit? They made him wonder what the plant was running on. Somehow. He picked up a red lockout tag and brought it to the balcony. Rocket and Judge were silhouetted against the atrium, the night outside brighter than the dark inside. His daughter hung from a wall-mounted ladder 15 feet below them. He called her again, and she whistled to the others. She moved onto a rope that would bring her down.
"Jesus, Dad, don't panic."
Their lights stroked her like kliegs as she descended, even the black of her clothes somehow pale as she came to him twirling, beautiful spider, circus spectacle, child he had left in Texas.
How could he? He couldn't remember. He had.
Her leg hooked on the rail and she slid onto the perimeter balcony. "What is it?" She unfastened and came to him, her headlamp steady on the approach. "Oh, wow," she said, seeing the lights. She shut her own off. "Who's here?"
"I know," he said. "It's weird." He was trembling. "Libby."
She sat in one of the rolling chairs. "You freaked out a bit? Or the place got you sober? What is it, Seth?"
He wiped his eyes.
Before the bank of housed switches, she threw her head back and looked at the fluorescents that had his attention. "It's like Star Trek meets Stalker."
"Yeah? You watch Tarkovsky?"
"Why wouldn't I, Professor?"
"I just — I just wouldn't have expected you to."
"I saw it. Mom and I watched it. Every so often, before she met Trevor, we'd watch one of the videos you left behind. When we finished one, we wouldn't rewind it." She spun the chair in a circle, her combat boots out. "We'd just throw it out. Done."
He let out a long breath.
"Pull it together, Seth."
"I don't know about these guys." He felt himself shaking his head. "Tina," he said. "I don't really like them."
"Well, I didn't really ask. And I don't really give a fuck. Who do you think you are, anyway?"
He stopped her chair. "You came to town looking for me, didn't you?"
"Well, I wasn't looking for your advice. Do we have to talk about this now? Again, Seth? You don't even remember going through it the last time." She gave him an ugly face, a crime to her looks, her mother's. Idly, her arm stretched for a handle on the dusty board.
He didn't tell her not to.
He gripped her shoulder. He waited for whatever was coming.
Fiction Judge's Comments
I couldn't help but feel for Seth, the protagonist who's dragged back to the past in more ways than one in "Blackout" by Chad Willenborg. Menace, regret, love, oceans of booze, unrelenting tension and some truly great Philly settings — I've wondered about that semi-abandoned electric plant in the shadow of the Betsy Ross Bridge for a long time now — made this the standout for me. —Duane Swierczynski
ABOUT THE JUDGE: Duane Swierczynski is a proud resident of Northeast Philly and the author of several acclaimed crime novels, including The Blonde, Severance Package and Fun & Games. He's also a comic-books writer — his new monthly Godzilla series for IDW starts in the spring — and is the former editor-in-chief of City Paper. Keep up with him at secretdead.blogspot.com.