Neon Sign

Aashi Dhaniya
13 min readJun 24, 2019


I hack away at the street console that the RA has sanctioned me to fix. This one is old and rickety and wouldn’t budge. I’ve been at it for three hours now and running the calculation in my head over and over again, I’m certain this gig has already cost me five days worth of breakfast. When food is on the line and not on the plate, that’s when it gets tough to enjoy a challenge. I step back from the console a little and sweep pouring sweat from my brow as I assess the situation. I’ve run all the basic checks and then some but still haven’t placed the bug, what could I be missing?

A caravan of children spectates as I struggle with the wires and the ancient circuit board of the console which appears to be older than I am. Every now and then, the children jest and disseminate suggestions at me on what I could do next. Like should that piece be sticking out like that? Or that looks broken. The ideas aren’t exactly comprehensive but in a night as thick as this one, while the air isn’t moving an inch and sweat is trickling down my back like a waterfall, I’m glad to have some company.

“Hey, orange snapback lady,” a kid, not older than six, calls out to me.

“You can call me, Rez,” I say to the crowd in general, flicking the screwdriver in my hand.

I don’t mind the audience as long as they don’t get in my way.

“How about you put that wire over there,” the kid says and brings his finger in a little too close to the naked wire. I gently pat his hand away with the screwdriver.

“Watch it,” I say. “And that wire over there can give you an electric shock bad enough to fry your intestines.”

I make another sweep over my forehead with my white shock proof gloves that are covered in grease, and I’ve done this job for long enough to know that all that grease is now on my nose and forehead.

I lodge myself further into place, cramping myself in the cavity of the console. Crouching down in the dim street light as the panel of the console is sprawled open in front of me oddly makes me feel like I’m in my element. This is my kind of fun. I retreat a little, pulling my left leg out that I had stuck deep into the cavity of the three feet tall console. I wrinkle my nose and stare at the old, rickety machine in front of me. Still crouching, I balance myself on one leg and place an arm on my knee then take a long hard look.

“I’m clearly missing something,” I say out loud.

“Like whu — rk experience?” says one of the girls standing behind me.

I turn around pivoting on one leg and raise an eyebrow at the kids.

“Who’s side are you on?”

Then it hits me. The side panel!

“Good job, kids,” I say and step to the side of the console still squatting.

I stick my hand underneath its side and detach the side cover. I immediately see the destroyed wire causing the problem.

My neck is lodged under the side panel of the console as I fix the problematic circuitry when a looming shadow in the corner of my vision makes me jerk free from under the metal hood. I raise my head to see who it is. A giant, in all sense of the word, man is towering over me. He is clad in more chain than clothes and his Hawaiian shorts and floral pattern t-shirt does not take away the edge to his gaze.

“Girl, you really think you can do this?” He places one hand on his waist and eyes me with contempt.

“Who is asking?” I say in a nasally voice pointing at the man with the screwdriver. I crinkle my nose. I can smell the grease at its bridge.

“Me,” the man’s voice rumbles. “Now show me your ID before I hand you to the cops for vandalism.”

I shoot daggers at the man for a second, but he seemed resistant to them. I produce my citizen ID from the back pocket of my cargo shorts. It gets some good grease loving, too.

“Been doing this a long time, old man,” I say as he narrows his eyes at my ID then at my face.

“You don’t look like you’ve been doing anything for a long time,” the man hurls the ID in my face and I nearly drop it, barely catching it in time.

Ass. I scream inwardly. And sweep my foot in a circle causing the man to stumble as he walks away.

“Oops, didn’t see you there,” I mouth and busy myself with the console again. I hear the man’s growl as he curses under his breath but walks away.

I get the job done in a matter of minutes after I figure out the exact problem. Then I check the status of the console on the grip, and it lights up blue. Operating!

I brush my shoulder in front of the kids who seem to have lost all interest in my work once I actually knew what I was doing. They scatter away in disinterest.

I grab my pouch of tools and pull it over my head, it rests at my waist. Then I walk back to my beloved Anastasia.

“Ah, nothing like the taste of accomplishment,” I say as I rev up the engine on my gorgeous Black Kaizer 120.

I’m cruising down the streets of Verne. I can feel the cold wind at the base of my neck where my helmet doesn’t reach. Good day, I think to myself, when my phone buzzes. I pull over to the side and check the notification. It’s another gig on the network and I’m invited to accept. My eyes pop at the payment. “Didn’t know that number went that high,” I squeak. I could eat for a week for 250 quids.

I check the description of the work but there is hardly any, it makes my suspicions rise. It doesn’t happen often that fake gigs manage to go past the screening bots, but it does happen. I scrutinize the proposal for a while, it says ‘urgent’. My eyes roll in my head at the thought of 250 quids and I hit accept and don’t think twice.

The location is a few kilometers away. I let the GPS guide me and enjoy the evening drive.

When I arrive, the front of the rundown building is facing the canal so I have to park Anastasia in the back alley and make my way in on foot. I activate the security sequence on my darling. Despite having nearly 0% success rates with thefts, thugs still try to sweep in goods.

I knock at the back door of the house instead of ringing the intercom up front. A lanky old man comes out of the darkness of the house and opens the door.

“What century was the house built in,” I say as I see him unlatch the door. “You might want to get some security installed up in here.”

He stares at me dead-panned for a moment then leads me to the problem without speaking a word. I see an old electrical panel and a new one right next to it. The two share a communion of some kind that is unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s the second gig of the day that I’m dealing with age-old equipment.

“This is for the billboard up on the roof,” the man points at the right panel, “this one is the one you need to fix,” he pauses and looks at me, “try not to put everything on fire.”

He just walks away leaving me alone in the damp, dark space. I take the white glowstick out of my pouch and place it on edge of a counter I see on the left.

I’m at a loss of ideas after an hour of scrounging around the two panels trying to understand how they connect. I run the basic checks and fix about half a dozen other issues than the one causing the blackout. I insulate the naked circuitry, grease the rusty nuts, and clear the pane of muck in the process. At least I have a clean playground to work with.

I hear footsteps and reach for the glow stick and position it in the direction of the sound. It’s the old man again. I place the hand on my chest to soothe my pounding heart, hoping the man won’t notice.

“You scared me,” I say in a whisper.

He doesn’t say anything in return. He squints with his eyes, wrinkling his forehead more than usual, first at me then at the electric panel behind me. I step in between the panel and him, “can I get some privacy?”

“You might want to try — ”

“Let me worry about it,” I say. “You did hire me to do this.”

“But the Billboard panel — ”

I raise my hand to shush the man as sweat pours down my back. “I got this,” hoping that a cordial smile would be reassuring, I flash my pearly whites but the man frowns with his jaw still hanging open from what he had been trying to say moments ago. I gesture for him to leave, impatience sitting at the tip of my fingers, crackling in the humidity of the night.

The man turns around, his pace slower than a 20th-century vintage Buick, he doesn’t look happy as he walks away. He has a dissatisfied gait to his walk, an observation that kept distracting me from the problem at hand. But I can’t seem to find any answers, the panels are unnecessarily tangled even though they seem to be functioning mostly independently. Remembering the old man’s warning, I set the Billboard panel to the side and decide to work only on the building’s. There’s a mess of wires under which sits a chip that looks rusted, I take one wire at a time and slide them to the side but it becomes increasingly difficult with every next wire, they are too tangled and too old and too jammed. My plight makes me think of a cat struggling with a tangled web of yarns, only I’m not having any fun.

I jam my screwdriver between two wires since I need to pull the third one from between them, and I grab my Swiss knife from my bag because it’s the first thing I find and roughly jam it between the new wires that I just pulled from between the older two but it makes electric sparks go off, and the stench of burning wires follows next. I hear a momentary electric buzz from somewhere upstairs and that’s when I know I’ve messed up. I drop the panel in annoyance, throwing the swiss knife on top of the bag and run upstairs to check if I’ve actually done what I’m thinking.

I climb the ancient looking metal staircase to the terrace of the house and see the side of the giant Billboard. My heart sinks in my chest to find that it’s not glowing. The wind is heavy with moisture and the drop of sweat that had been sitting at the corner of my brow finally gives. A silent scream leaves my mouth as I curl inward, dropping to my knees, holding my head in my hands. I can hear the ticking of the smartwatch on my wrist, the sound added to the device to give an illusion of a clockwork, there’s nothing mechanical in it. I find comfort in seconds passing by, every moment that the sky doesn’t fall on my head, I find it hard to stay upset, frustrated, angry, whatever I felt with whatever I had.

I raise my head to look up at the dusty orange night sky, pollution masking the stars but I can still see the brightest one right over my head. Wiping the tears from my eyes, I make my way to the Billboard. There’s a ledge on which the giant metal hunk of a frame sits like a watchman. I can imagine how it would illuminate the waters down in the canal if it were lit which it isn’t, thanks to me. I remove my gloves and sit on the ledge with my legs dangling in the air as all of Verne stretches in front of me. The dispersing neons in the streams of water, sounds of which make their way to my ears, as gondolas cut through the city.

Someone coughs to my left and when I turn I find the old man making his way towards me.

“You — ”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it. I messed, I’m just here for a little break. I won’t charge you by the hour, I’ll fix it even if it takes all night,” I say before the man has a chance to speak. I don’t want to deal with his derision now, I’m already feeling pretty lousy about the gig. Getting an earful from him will be the death of me.

“That’s not — ”

“Can you please spare me the lecture? I said I’ll fix it.”

“I just wanted to ask if you want a glass of lemonade,” the man says and sits beside me with a careful distance away as if he’s afraid I’ll throw him off the building.

“This is a good spot,” the man says in a foreign accent, rounding his vowels. It sounds funny but I still feel bad for cutting him off for no reason.

I feel the wind through my hair, it dries the sweat on my skin, leaving it bristling from the salt. I scratch my temples in annoyance, I could really use a shower right now.

“Lemonade would be good, thanks,” I say to the man and he wheezes in response. “In case the offer is still valid.”

“All the green wires are for this,” he replies, pointing at the billboard with his thumb.

“Why didn’t you tell me that before,” I screech like an MD Alcatraz 1200 coming to a halt.

“I tried,” the man says so calmly that it makes my temper flare.

It takes me thirty seconds to cool off as the last of the cold breeze dissipates while the air thickens with moisture. Can’t wait to get back to that dungeon again.

I swallow my pride and finally apologize to the man for cutting him off.

“I remember when I was young,” he says and I immediately regret my decision. Now we’re going to talk. “I was worse than all of them. Every day, my mother scream at me because I come home with scraped knees and elbows, bleeding and crying.”

“How old do you think I am,” I ask him incredulously. He’s making me sound like a seven-year-old.

“Eleven?” he asks and I spit out of laughter.

“I am sixteen,” I tell him straight.

“Oh my,” he sniggers. “So much older.”

“It is a lot older,” I scream at the top of my lungs like a maniac. “Sure, I haven’t had my height spurt yet but I look nothing like an eleven-year-old. Eleven-year-olds are babies.”

“You look like a baby,” the man says in his weird accent. “Are you sure you can do this work legally? Are your parents making you do this?”

“I am sixteen,” I scream again in the night of Verne. “A legal adult.”

“If you insist,” says the man.

“I’m sorry I made a mess down there but I don’t need any more judgment for the day.”

“Life is a lot about what you make with what you get and sometimes all you’ll make is a mess, but there’s always an opportunity to come to the other side of that mess with grace,” the man replies in a voice of wisdom. It makes me roll my eyes at him. “That’s what my mother taught me.”

“Good for you,” I tell him. “Mine didn’t.”

“Well, what did yours tell you?”

“I don’t know? Normal things,” I keep my temper in check but it flares like a rocket every time the man asks me a question. “Duck your head when things are coming at you, cut your nails, and don’t speak to strangers,” I say eyeing the man and in a diction more suited to my Mum.

We sit in wafting silence as the neon lights leave skid marks on the surface of the canal. The air is so thick with moisture that I can smell it, damp and greasy. The old man gets up and leave.

“One lemonade coming right up,” he says, but I spring into action, brushing the dust off my denim shorts.

“I’ll light the sign,” I say, pointing at the Billboard with my thumb.

When I go back to the mess of wires, I light up my flashlight so I can see the colors of the wire better, in the dim light of the glowstick, I hadn’t noticed if the wires were green or black. Under bright light, I clearly see the green wires running from one board to the other, all of which belong to the Billboard upstairs. It takes thirty seconds to fix the damaged coil on the panel that I had accidentally vandalized with my swiss knife, I already cut the main power off because I knew I’d be dealing with some serious Voltage here.

Once the Billboard panel is fixed, my focus shifts to the second panel and there’s only a handful of wires that aren’t green or aren’t running from one circuit board to the other. There’s about half a dozen MCB’s in front of the panel to control the power in the house which makes the lightbulb in my head go off. It’s not necessary that the problem is with the secondary board.

I go back to the main power switches. There are two, one for the Billboard and the other one for the house. There’s black soot on the second one which means the fuse went off. Aha!

After successfully identifying the problem, it takes me two minutes to replace the damaged wire, put the panels back into their places, and screw the switchboards and the mains back up. I cross my finger and flip both of the main switches.

The dungeon lights up and I can see white light filtering through the corridor inside. I rush upstairs to see if I’ll be making any money on this gig or I’ll be paying up from my pocket for messing up the neon sign.

Even before I have stepped on the final stair, I see the fluorescent pink glow on the terrace floor. I breathe a sigh of relief but my heart is still pounding at 120 bpm like a hip-hop song amping up to the drop.

“The lights are on,” comes the voice from behind me. It’s the old man with a glass of lemonade that I snatch from his hand and gulp down. My thirst dissipating as the cold liquid finds its way down my throat. The drink is so refreshing that I breathe out in satisfaction once I reach the bottom of the cup.

“You can cut this from my payment,” I say, handing the glass back to the man.

“That won’t be necessary.”

“I’m off then,” I say and skip down the stairs in glee.

That was a close call.