Distracted: A Short Story

Miranda waited impatiently at the stop light, blowing a breath of air through her bangs to try to cut the heat. If she could just get into traffic, the breeze would help mitigate her broken air conditioner situation, but there seemed to be a lot more traffic than normal. The car in front of her edged out and she took first position at the intersection. Traffic crawled in both directions as far as she could see, so when the nearest light changed, stopping traffic entirely, she took the chance to edge the nose of her car into the small space between two cars in the line. It hardly counted as cutting anybody off, since all she really wanted to do was cross traffic to the left turn lane, which only had one car waiting to turn.
The car stopped far enough back to let Miranda cross and once in the left turn lane she found a break in the oncoming traffic to steal her turn. She breathed a sigh of relief, but was still confused as to what the heck was going on. Half these people seemed to be texting while they drove. More than half.
The rest of the drive downtown didn't improve matters. As she approached the city center pedestrians joined the cars in their inexplicable swarming.
“Geez, was there a parade or something nobody told me about? A celebrity in town? What is this shit.”
There was nobody there to answer, but since she was used to that. Nobody responded to her regular directing of other drivers, either.
It was a ridiculous amount of traffic. All she needed to do was get to the bank and return a pair of library books, but clusters of people were stopped in the stupidest of places, all agog at their phones.
She spun the radio dial for some explanation, but she wasn't even sure which stations were local. Normally she listened to a CD or NPR, which was great for national and international news, but didn't cover much locally. When she found a station that sounded like news she stopped turning.

...Pokemon Go has people across the country exercising...

She turned the dial again.

...craze. more than fifteen million people have downloaded the app and are searching for their Pokemon...

“What the...” She turned on her phone. “Siri, what is Pokemon Go?”
Siri's explanation cleared up everything... except how this had taken over the world overnight when there were so many larger issues.
Miranda parked across from the library and dropped her books into the library return, then proceeded to the credit union. More people. Ogling a small tree in front of some campus co-op, phones between their glowing faces and the tree.
She shook her head and stepped up to the ATM, but as she pressed “deposit” she heard the first shout. It was to the north, toward the courthouse or the post office. Had one of these idiots stepped into traffic and caused an accident? But this sounded more like a fight, reminding her of the country's unrest.
She finished her deposit, then got a little cash, trying to convince herself it wasn't safe to be too curious. But what could happen to her in her car? Could it hurt to just drive by?
The unrest She’d thought of had been a closer guess than a Pokemon fiasco. She could see that from a block away: six or more police cars and a thick group of people cornered between them. She turned the other way. MLive would have to catch her up to speed later from the safety of home.
She drove up Liberty, headed for home, but something on the horizon gave her pause. At first it looked cloudish—a gray spot through the haze, but it was too regular. A blimp? But for a blimp to be so large, it should also be close enough to be clearly defined. And nowhere else was hazy. The morning humidity had been visible, but that had burned off to blue sky before she’d finished her second cup of coffee.
Her gawking almost caused her to hit another group of idiots whose eyes were on their phones rather than the road. Then again, she hadn't been watching either. The group focused on the far side of Liberty and crossed in front of her.
“Careful!” she shouted. She may have been jointly at fault this time, but these idiots were going to get themselves killed.
They just laughed, throwing her an apologetic wave.
The hazy cloud blimp seemed to be coming closer.
“Hey, excuse me!” she called to the group.
“We said sorry,” a girl called.
“No, I mean... Do you see that?” Miranda pointed.
She had pulled into the bike lane, thinking she should get a second opinion. A car honked as it passed her. The girl gave an irritated shrug to her friends and then approached Miranda’s car, following Miranda's finger with her eyes.
Confusion scrunched her face. “What?”
“That blob.”
“They aren't up that high.” She started to walk away.
“But what is that?”
“Look, I don't see anything. Maybe you are a few levels above us.”
“I'm not playing. I see something.”
A horn blared.
“Well I don't.” The girl turned and continued her walk back to her friends.
Miranda pulled away from the curb and turned into the Lutheran Church parking lot, driving around behind the building. She wasn't feeling religious. It was just the closest place she could park to the Eberwhite Woods. Something fishy was going on. She'd read too many apocalypse tales to think she wanted to be in the middle of a group of people. Or visible to that blimp. Better to wait in the woods and see if she could find any news about what was happening on her phone.
The three minutes of news she managed to find was useless, and then she heard a loud clunk followed by silence. It took a minute to understand it was the lack of air conditioners. Something had knocked out the power. Depending on how widespread it was, it potentially meant her wi-fi was no longer updating, so she shut off her phone and listened.
Not silence. Still squeals, laughter. Just at a distance. The game went on.
She crossed the woods to see if the blob still sat in the sky. It did, but was nearly directly overhead, crossing above the woods, so she ran back to where she had entered the woods. It wasn't so much a solid object over her head as some odd light absorption—like a shadow blocking the sun. But she reached the other side to see it passing across anyway, material object or not. People seemed to be heading in the same direction. Home was also that direction so she headed back to her car. She'd break off as inconspicuously as possible when she got close.
Traffic crept. So many people for side streets on a Tuesday. No football game. No political rally. What the hell was going on? The image of the crowd downtown, surrounded by police, came unbidden to her brain.
She just needed to get. Once she got home she could figure it out.
All traffic was headed the same direction, but when she reached a through-road, she turned to head to her house. She wasn't the only one. It really was like a game day—people were looking for parking, meaning whatever was going on was happening nearby.
When she turned onto her street, cars lined either side, just like football days. Thankfully she had her driveway available. She laughed as the idea of charging people to park in her yard passed through, but she didn't really think she wanted to be out in the open for this. Whatever it was.
No power meant her garage door wouldn't open, so she parked in the driveway and went in the side door. She gave a glance over her shoulder as she went in. The blur had stopped over the football stadium. Right where everybody was heading.
She scuttled inside, feeling watched. The bolt clicking shut seemed too little, yet she wasn't even sure why she was afraid. There had to be a good explanation. She hurried through her house pulling shades then made her way to her meager pile of camping supplies: a sleeping bag, a small propane grill, a plastic tarp that had seen more paint jobs than camping trips, and her wind-up radio. That was what she was looking for.
She cranked the radio handle as she climbed the stairs again, deciding to survey her neighborhood as she searched for news. She turned one of the louvers sideways so she could glimpse through it without being too obvious and then began slowly turning the radio dial as she watched. Fuzz.
The exodus from her neighborhood was regular. Not her immediate neighbors. Were they gone already? Strangers, mostly—probably parkers rather than residents—walked up her street. Their faces were all lit by their phone screens as they followed whatever entranced message she was not getting. Was afraid to try getting. Because clearly it turned off some center of reason in the brain.
A question came to her as she watched and failed to find a station: how brave was she?
Was she brave enough to investigate? How could she stay safe if she did?
She watched a while longer, ate a large piece of chocolate for courage, and decided at first her best bet would be to blend in.Walk with the crowd, listen, staring at her phone, then break off at the Pioneer Woods. That was as close as she dared get to the stadium. The closest where she might hide without trespassing, though most of what surrounded the stadium was open space or university buildings. Not so much trespassing as unsure access or the risk of visibility.
She filled the cat's dish and checked the radio again, stalling, but found nothing helpful so she stood, almost without decision. Autopilot guided her. She grabbed a small purse and her phone, then went back out the side door, locking it as she went.
She was glad the neighbors she fell into line with were already mid-conversation. They smiled, waved, and let her join, but they seemed to assume Miranda already knew what she was doing.
The three of them rounded the corner toward the stadium, joining the swarm of chattering gnats. Less than half a block up though, Miranda ducked from behind her neighbors into the woods. It was barely a path, but she didn't want to risk taking the bigger path and find herself moving against traffic, drawing unwanted attention.
She wove into the oaks, avoiding the thorny bushes that dotted the underbrush. She was less successful avoiding spider webs, but that was good. It meant this was the path less traveled.
When she got far enough from the street for the foliage to muffle the chatter of the crowd, she turned to cross the woods. She would have to cross the main path, but only once. It was much harder going off a main trail, and her path meant she had to work her way around tangles of bushes and one fairly convincing fort.
She heard a car roll down the street she would hit if she kept going and she decided she'd gone far enough. It was time to look up.
She skirted the edge of the woods a ways before finding what she was looking for. It wasn't an oak. The branches of the oaks all began too high to reach. This was a tall pine, close enough to the edge that it got the sunlight to nurture lower branches, and thick enough around to hold her weight, even in the higher branches.
Voices from the woods told her she wasn't alone, but she couldn't actually see anyone, so she trusted they could not see her, either. She wove into the branches and began to climb.
Two branches up she wished she'd changed into long pants for this adventure, despite the heat. Another six feet up and her mind wandered to what would remove the pitch that would cover her hands before she was done. The climb required more agility than she had needed in at least a decade, but she managed to climb above the maple that was the only tree between her pine and the stadium. By holding one branch down a bit, she had a good view so she settled in to watch.
The blur above the stadium looked closer. Larger and more menacing, though no better defined. Like it carried its own fog. Yet still people walked toward it, drawn into the stadium, either not afraid or maybe not even seeing. Was that possible? She didn’t see anybody looking up.
A metallic crash jerked her attention, followed by shouting, but had to reposition to see. Behind the high school a pair of cars had gotten into a battle over a parking spot. It only merited a short look however, as in the front of the high school cars began to drive onto the grass as if it were actually a football Saturday.
Miranda began doubting this was just some dumb game. Maybe there was a political event after all. She shifted so she was sitting comfortably in the branches and got her phone from the little purse she'd slung over her shoulder and around her neck. Her search led to nothing. No event was formally being held at the stadium, nor at the arena next door. Whatever this was, it was spontaneous.
The voices from inside the stadium had risen to audible from her tree suggesting seats were filling up, the stadium nearing capacity.
The buzz started low. Miranda thought maybe the power had kicked back on, but that would have come from behind her—the direction of the houses that would be running their air conditioners. This felt like it was coming from all around her.
The thing over the stadium seemed to solidify. Its borders became more distinct and somehow the gray became brighter: graphite rather than smoke.
The buzz grew until the air pulsed with it. The people within the stadium went silent. The steady stream to the stadium had thinned, most of the people headed there were already inside, but those Miranda could see stopped walking and were staring up at the blob as if it had just appeared.
Miranda's stomach tightened. She wished she'd had the presence of mind to scream at them as they headed to the stadium in the first place. The price of her cowardice clawed at her and tears stung her eyes as a sort of door appeared to open at the bottom of the blob.
Then she heard the delighted “ahhhh” as the crowd collectively spotted something. Laughter followed and a thirty foot hologram began to descend from the orb.
It looked like a cross between a giant turtle and a dragon, cartoony and adorable.
“What?” she said, pushing the branch further out of her way.
The excited chatter in the stadium increased in volume.
Miranda leaned back against the branches trying to reconcile her fear with what she was seeing. Apparently there was no alien invasion. No nefarious plot. Just some enormous twist on this game craze. Was that possible?
She took a deep breath and began her descent from the tree. The pitch was more annoying now, since it had been for nothing and all. The scratches on her legs hurt more, too, since the adrenaline was quickly draining away. But she made it to the bottom and debated what next. Seventh Street was closest, but she was feeling a little stupid, so she moved the other direction into the woods instead. When she hit the path  it seemed stupid not to take it, to go the hard way instead. She headed south, so she could come out on the lower part of the path that hit her own street, rather than coming out on Stadium where the masses would soon be exiting. She didn't want to explain herself to anyone.
When she reached her street she began the walk up the hill. She was right about people heading home after what she'd seen. They were much more subdued than they had been heading the other direction.
“Cassie?” She had spotted a neighbor she sometimes jogged with. She looked dreamy.
“Yeah? Oh, hi.”
“Are you okay?” Miranda asked.
“More than okay. That was amazing.”
Miranda frowned. Cassie was a perky, excitable woman. If something was amazing, she would normally be chattering a hundred miles an hour.
“You look like you had a religious experience.”
A smile spread across her face. “Yeah. Sort of.” And then she wandered off toward her house without saying good-bye. No questions about their next jog or a glass of wine. She just left.
Miranda thought about calling her back but another neighbor couple walked toward her, the woman's head on her husband's shoulder. This was also out of character. The two got along well, but it had always been a relationship of laughter and quips, rather than oozing sentiment.
“Hey,” she said.
They stopped and Morgan took her husband's hand. “Did you go?” she asked Miranda.
“Sort of,” she lied. “I didn't quite make it inside.”
“Yeah, too bad they were so full. Maybe they will do it again soon.” She hugged her husband's arm and the two walked on.

A string of tumblers seemed to fall into place in her head. “Virtual Valium.” But who would want them all dopey and complacent?