Darkout

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by E. Lily Yu

E. Lily Yu is a John W. Campbell Award-winning writer and narrative designer whose fiction has appeared in places such as McSweeney’s, Boston Review, Clarkesworld, F&SF, and The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year. “Darkout” first appeared along with other prescient and diverse stories such as “Visible Damage” by Stephen Graham Jones in Cyber World, edited by Joshua Viola and Jason Heller.

~~~

In all of Northchester, Pennsylvania there was hardly forty square feet that was not continuously exposed to public view, on glass walls if you had money or on tablets if you were poor. This meant that Brandon spent most nights after his shift at the sports store watching Emma, his latest ex and the prettiest, as she chopped garlic, buttered toast, poured herself a gin and tonic, propped her furry-slippered feet on the coffee table with ska pulsing from her speakers, or took a date to bed. The counter at the upper right corner of the wall shifted between four and seven total viewers when Emma was eating dinner or clipping her fingernails. It shot up as high as fifty-five if Emma was mussing her lipstick and her zebra-print sheets with a fresh conquest. One hundred viewers was when ads floated up, loud and flashing, for limpness, smallness, underperformance.

Sometimes Brandon was disappointed in his relative unpopularity, his counter’s slow tick of zero, one, zero, one, two, one, but then, white men tended to attract fewer eyeballs. The Indian family on Decker and Main, with two toddlers, boring as paint but only one of two nonwhite households on the east side of the tracks, attracted a dependable twenty every night. You needed pizzazz, or mystery, or difference to become a peripheral home-cam star. You needed nothing but a screen and a billed connection to lurk on others’ cam streams.

These days he could hardly remember life without the cameras, although they had only been installed ten years ago, after the passage of the Blue Eye Act. As Little England and China had demonstrated, where there was universal surveillance, crime rates plummeted. Russia, Zambia, Egypt, and Japan adopted similar systems roughly at the same time as the States, and most other wealthy countries were testing a limited rollout in their ghettos and shantytowns.

Brandon hadn’t glanced at the newscast for more than a few seconds. “Eyes once were said to be the windows to a man’s soul,” the Attorney General thundered from her podium, beside the glum chief of Central. “With the passage of this Act, windows shall look into every person’s soul. Not one potential criminal or terrorist will live unwatched.”

Bored, and oblivious to history’s apparition on his screen, Brandon flipped to an episode of Snowballers III.

There were restrictions and concessions to privacy lobbies, of course. Only badges could check logs or monitor, and only then with a warrant. The software was written to prevent remote modification. Two years after deployment, however, Croatian hackers cracked encryptions and began charging for views of the American of your choice. Actresses, usually. A mild fuss was made. Some feminists penned screeds and circulated petitions.

With the rafts of necessary legislation already in force, thirteen of the thirty original contractors and subcontractors out of business, and the budget long since buried beneath truckloads of additional appropriation bills, a complete overhaul of the hardware and individual installation of security patches were as politically feasible as open borders. After long debate, the white-hat community reached a general consensus to open-source the Croatian exploit, so that everyone and everything could be seen at all times. A bright and egalitarian future had arrived, they argued, superseding the dark days of cold cases, unreliable eyewitnesses, and domestic terrorism. Most citizens had become accustomed to the idea of being watched, anyway. Polls suggested a solid seventy-nine percent enjoyed the constant access to celebrities’ meals and wardrobes.

A front-row seat to hours of Emma’s smooth shoulders was an unexpected personal consequence of that legislation. After darkening his wall and pressing his palms against his tired eyes, Brandon considered, not for the first time, taking two weeks off from work and a hike along the West Coast. Emma was a drug, the perfect drug, and after a six-month hit of her, he was clawing through withdrawal. The pillow forts she used to build, the shape of her feet, her high, delighted laughter when he landed the perfect joke: the memories burned like poison, and he could not stop drinking them in.

Sweat, grit, sunlight, distance, and mai tais might cure him. He had done the budget. He had saved enough for a short vacation. The customers at the sports store who swiped kayaks and paddleboards onto silver credit cards, with their freckled shoulders, bronzed cheeks, and bleached hair, always seemed to him an alien species, possessed of a thousand-and-one adventures and the insulation provided by ready cash. He could join them, however briefly.

Brandon powered down his screen and stared out the glass wall at the dead light and gray grass of winter, imagining hot white sand between his toes and the cool spray of the Pacific on his face. He was learning to surf from a wise old instructor. He carried the board under his arm like a knight riding into battle and rode the smooth roaring waves hour after hour, day after day, until the water pounded his thoughts into nothingness. His chalky skin darkened. He ate six swordfish steaks for dinner, bought a drink for every pretty brunette in the bar, and forgot about Emma.

But then the flickering stream of panoptic views into kitchens and bedrooms, kitten-crammed commercials, and staged cop shows, all the cheap and irresistible glitter of secondhand life, sang to him again. Depressing a button, Brandon turned the wall opaque and went back to watching Emma curl and uncurl her toes, his heart in his mouth.

He was waiting for her to collapse into tears. He was waiting for her to scribble on a poster with a squeaking marker and hold it up to her bedroom camera: I LOVE YOU BRANDON. IT WAS A MISTAKE. COME BACK.

When he saw that, when he and the ten strangers on her stream saw he was victorious at last, Brandon would hop into his sneakers and sprint the six miles across town to her apartment, pumping his arms, dodging cars, the Internet cheering unheard in the background. He would hammer on her door. In his imagination, she was pacing the room in her black lace bra and matching panties, a loose robe around her shoulders. Her audience had swelled to two thousand during his dramatic run. She flung open the door and pressed her unblotched and tastefully rouged face to his shoulder. He put his arms around her, and they sank onto the zebra sheets, to the unheard sighs of thousands of spectators. It wasn’t impossible. These things were known to happen.

Once in a while Brandon heard the squeak of a marker in a dream, catapulted out of bed, and yanked on socks and shoes before he was entirely awake. But his morning wall only ever showed him commercials for insurance and whole-wheat cereal, tiled four by four.

Tonight, though, he did not linger on Emma’s stream. It was the night of the Fitz-Ramen Bowl. He had swapped shifts with Mandy to watch it. Mark Thompson was coming with two twelve-packs of craft beer.

“I need to get out of the house. You need to get out of your head,” Mark had said. “You’ve got the subscription. I’ll get the drinks.”

Their friendship began four years ago, when Mark, observing Brandon’s painful attempt to charm an out-of-town marketing rep in the bar, sent along a pint of porter and a napkin penned with ratings: Confidence 2, Slickness 0, Desperation 17. An electrician, Mark was a good fifteen years older than Brandon and married to a sweet talker of a woman who never found fault with him.

He was not at all someone Brandon would have expected as a friend. Brandon did not have many friends.

But Mark’s taste in beers was excellent, and over the latest microbrew he confided to Brandon that listening to him brought back the rush and risk of youth, the gambits and heartbreaks and exuberant successes. So did football, which he had to watch out of the house, because his wife slept early, and lightly, and not well.

“A bad back,” he said, shaking his head. “Like her father.”

So when Mark buzzed the door, and the camera floated his face over the screen, Brandon felt his spirits lift. The two of them popped their beers, propped their feet on the table, and cheered the Pittsburgh College Lynxes. During the commercials they flipped to live cop cams outside the stadium, betting on whether the nastiest officers would be reprimanded. Mark set up a private pool on his phone, floating fives and tens, and they passed it back and forth.

“Do you or don’t you understand English? You come to this country, you better learn English—” The driver stared down at his lap. His hands gripped the wheel.

“Five bucks no one remembers.” Brandon emptied his can.

“Nope, not taking it. He’s Bangladeshi.”

“They’re all brown to me.”

“The accent.”

“So?”

“They don’t get big Internet mobs. Not like the Indians. Polite complaint from the Association of Bangladeshi Cabdrivers, that’s all. Sir it has come to our attention that, and would you pretty please.

“Why do they still do traffic stops? You can ID the plates in two cameras, calculate speed, deliver ticket. Wham.”

“Maybe they’re bored on patrol. Maybe they don’t want people watching them sit on their hands. Makes the taxpayer think about payroll.”

After Mark’s wagers hit a hundred dollars and change, he pocketed the phone . “Personal limit,” he said, smiling. “Lizzie’s been on my case.”

Humming, he appropriated the remote and browsed a DV forecaster. Past emergency call records, crunched for patterns, allowed you to time future incidents so accurately that the popcorn you put in the microwave reached its last thuck, thuck as the boyfriend kicked open the door. A few predictive statistics blogs published regular watching guides. Politicians and athletes attracted the most attention, but the smart ones paid for darkspace: for a million per square foot hour, the ten most popular hosts stopped streaming your cams.

Logs remained available to the police, and a determined viewer, with some finagling, could connect directly to the right camera, but for the most part darkspace worked. A cheaper option was to smash the camera outright. That was a felony, but so was everything that followed.

At 1818 Maple Drive, the microphone still functioned. Brandon grimaced at the screaming and smack of fist against flesh and switched the whole wall back to the game.

“Why do you watch this shit?”

“Third and a long thirteen, Stallions on the Lynxes’ twenty-six, Washington is back to pass, Rodriguez is open—it’s intercepted by Jones!”

“That’s my man!” Mark said.“How long can you go in a shit job in a shit economy before snapping? The game’s rigged against white men, you know that. Sometimes it’s relaxing to see someone hit his breaking point.”

“How do you know that guy was white?”

“The way she was hollering. Black women holler differently.”

“Don’t tell me you hit Lizzie.”

“Never. Cams, though. Used to think there was something they knew that we didn’t, so I watched sixteen families at a time. But no. They do holler different when the men beat them, though. They’re used to violence. They’re violent people. Not like us.”

“The Lynxes are putting this game out of reach early, up twenty-four points with four minutes left in the first quarter.”

Mark made a noise of satisfaction and grinned.

“Football’s not relaxing enough?”

“It’s fine. But it’s tame. Ever since the concussion lawsuits. The old stuff was better.”

Brandon cut to a channel forum and scrolled down the top-ranked links.

MUKWA, WISCONSIN PUPPYCAMS 1-6

$$$WANK TOKYO NEIGHBORHOOD ON FIRE

HIGH COURT TIZZY, CUTE AUSSIE ACCENTS

BLONDE BITCH PAID SEX W/ MY HUSBAND

RIOT POLICE CIRCLING US CAPITAL

SEX SEX SEX WICHITA XXX

CATFIGHT BETWEEN OFFICE, BLACK WOMAN IN FIVE INCH HEELS

SEE: PROTESTER ARRESTS NEAR US SUPREME COURT

TURTLE FEEDING TIME: GRAPES

“How about them puppies,” Mark said.

“I thought you’d be all over SEX SEX SEX WICHITA.”

“It’s always some hag pushing seventy,” Mark said. “Floppy in all the interesting places. Thought you knew that.”

“That’s bottom feeding. I don’t trawl. The professional stuff’s better.”

“Sure, or you’re interested in one person and no one else.” Mark grinned wide enough for Brandon to see his silver fillings and tossed back the rest of his beer. He was in an expansive mood, as if he had both money and holy water on tap. “Seriously, start dating again. Lay some ladies. You’ll feel better.”

“What does Lizzie say when you talk to her about black people and how much you’re suffering?”

“I don’t. Because I’m a smart man. I mean, I’m lucky, I’ll always have a job. But this Korean woman at the pharmacy yesterday, listen to this, she came up to me and said, I don’t like the way you’re looking at me. That’s the world we live in today. Christ. Maybe I’ll see her on the DV watch someday. Don’t you dream about smacking whatshername a good one?”

Brandon did, but he wasn’t about to admit it.

“I’ll sign you up on a few sites,” Mark said. “Write you an A plus profile. I’m good at them.”

“You’re married.”

“That supposed to stop me? She’s black, it’s different. You wouldn’t understand. Go ahead, run me over with a moral locomotive.”

“Don’t be an idiot.”

“So what’s the problem? You swipe up full of STDs?”

“I don’t like them looking at medical. Full access for a week, no guaranteed sex. I’m sequenced and everything. Who says they won’t copy and sell?”

“Hey, you have to give to get.”

Brandon pitched his voice higher. “‘Oh, you make twenty-four thousand a year?’ ‘You had appendicitis at sixteen? Wow.’”

“So you watch home cams. For the human contact. Is that it?”

Mark pinched the controller, quartered the screen, and flashed through a rapid succession of cams. A teenager doodling in his textbook. A woman working on a tablet, her face furrowed. An aged brown woman dumping chilies into a pot. A snoring cat. A man typing at a table. Two cats batting each other. An infant banging a rattle on the bars of her crib. Two men lifting free weights, mouths scrunched with the effort. A poodle peeing against a tree.

“Amazing.” He smirked.

“It’s culture,” Brandon said. “Walking in other people’s shoes. Makes me a better person. Lay off.”

“You want culture, fuck a brown woman. I’m unbelievably cultured. I’m just saying, as your friend, you should get out more.”

“What is this, an intervention?”

“If you give me your phone—”

“Go to the game, it’s back on.”

Four minutes into the fourth quarter, Mark’s good mood was gone.

“What happened to our lead?”

“Oof,” Brandon said.

“What kind of shit play was that?” Mark punched the table so hard his beer rocked over.

“Easy there.”

“The coach is a scab-assed cockcrab. How do you burn a lead like that? How?”

Brandon mopped at the frothy mess of beer and sodden chips. “Every damn year.”

“We’re doomed.” A flask appeared in Mark’s hand.

“Put that down, you’re drunk.”

“I’m sober as a fucking duck. Me and Lizzie are screwed.”

“What are you talking about?”

Mark reclaimed the controller and input a numerical camera address Brandon did not recognize it, but from the first few digits guessed it was located somewhere in Pittsburgh’s swankiest district. On his screen, now, a bald white woman sipped a salted glass while watching the game. She had a cottonmouth tattooed around her neck, red and black heels like ice picks, and six spikes in each ear. Noticing the uptick in her viewer count, she turned and flashed the camera a thumbs-up and a smile that crawled under Brandon’s skin and itched.

“Who’s that?” Brandon said, very slowly.

“My bookie. Ruth. Name’s a joke, not for real. Short for—”

“You have the cash. Right?”

“This was supposed to be a straight-to-the-bank payday. Like the last one.”

“The last one.”

“I won a thousand betting a three-team parlay last year. She shook my hand and told me I looked like a lucky man. ‘When you want to make a real bet,’ she said, ‘with real money, think of me.’”

Ruth stared at the camera as if she could see them, her mouth still hooked in that crowbar of a smile.

Brandon flipped the whole wall back to the game, as if the scrum of blue, red, orange, and white could scrub the prickling off the back of his neck. The scene that greeted him wasn’t much more cheerful. The Stallions were down by a single touchdown, and the whole tableau had the velvet air of a Shakespearean tragedy.

Here came the touchdown. Here the conversion.

Mark’s head fell into his hands. The last thirty seconds slipped off the clock. Brandon held his beer to his lips with nerveless fingers.

The Stallions won, thirty-two to thirty-one. They flooded the field with blue and red, dancing, howling, cracking their helmets together.

“What do you do now?” Brandon said.

“Fuck if I know.” Mark groaned. “She knows my address. Home and work. She has my contacts, too. Runs a background check for big wagers. So she’d know to look at you—”

As if in quiet confirmation, the little zero on the counter flicked to one. Brandon swallowed and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“How much?”

“Ten thousand. It was one to two, I don’t know why, Lynxes were favorite. I was gonna triple that—”

Brandon kneaded his temples. “Bonehead.”

“Did you pick that up from Lizzie?”

“What were you going to do with thirty thousand?” That wasn’t two weeks’ vacation and surfing lessons. That was a year of rent on a ranch house somewhere in wine country and a wine tour every month. That was a plane ticket to a dark and disconnected country of grapevines and beautiful women, perhaps even kind women, and bedrooms and breakups without cameras.

“Don’t lecture me.”

“What were you going to blow it on? Weed? Speed? Cars?”

“Old lady needs spinal fusion, if you have to know.”

“But insurance—”

“We don’t have any.”

“You need brain surgery.”

Mark scowled. “I was trying to do right by her.”

“Mortgage? Second mortgage? Sell the van?”

“Double mortgage already, from the doctors and pills. Need the van for work. We’re up to our eyeballs.” Mark took a deep breath. “Now you know how fucked we are. I hate doing this, Brandon, but—”

“You couldn’t go with a Chinese bookie, could you? You had to get a local.”

“Ruth gives better odds than the congloms. Plus she let me bet on credit.”

Brandon flung the controller. It clattered satisfyingly against the wall and dropped out of sight. “Of course she let you, bumfuck. She knows where you live. Where Lizzie lives.”

“I get it, I get it. So—”

“She can’t do anything to you, right? Not with—” He gestured to the cameras.

“I’ve heard Ruth doesn’t like dirtying her nails.”

“That’s a relief.”

“So she contracts disposal and retrieval.”

“Would I have heard of her?”

“Nothing splashy since six, seven years ago.”

“Six—”

“The Burnetts.” Mark shifted his weight. “The, uh, two girls, one boy, parents, grandfather, Dalmatian, and hamster. And one goldfish. Though maybe not the goldfish, those things die if you sneeze at them…”

“That was her?”

“Unofficially.”

“Shit.”

“Anyway, if she wants it quiet, she buys black.”

“You’re fucked.”

“Royally.” Mark blinked and grinned in terror. “So what I was going to ask—”

“Why mix me up in this? Why sit on my sofa and scarf my chips, with thirty grand riding on the game?”

“Lizzie’s asleep. I wanted a friend—if I was going to celebrate—”

“Bullshit. You wanted me here in case you lost. So you could dun me for cash.”

“You’re angry, I get it. You’re angry but I’m fucked.”

Whether because the controller landed on a button or whether because the paid sportstream sensed their drifting attention, the postgame analysis switched to news. Thousands of masked protestors milled in the National Mall, waving single yellow roses splattered with black paint. GIVE US DARKNESS, their placards read. PRIVACY IS FREEDOM. The cameras faded from night to day, gliding from D.C. to San Francisco to Tokyo to Moscow. Every cosmopolis was boiling with protests. DARKOUT! DARKOUT!

“Motherfucking Luddites,” Mark said.

“Don’t change the subject. You dragged me into this. She’s probably auditing me right now. What do you think she’ll see? Do you think I have ten grand in my sock drawer?”

“I have two thousand in emergency funds,” Mark said. “Lizzie made me. I only need eight.”

“Great. Pick a star, click your heels, wish really, really hard—”

“Are you going to help me?” Mark pressed an empty can between his palms until it gave. “The way I helped you, when you totaled your car? When Nina dumped you and your shit on the curb?” It had been raining, and the cardboard boxes melted like sugar. When Brandon called, Mark laughed his ass off, but showed up five minutes later with his van. He had even dug up a dolly somewhere.

“You piece of gooseshit.” Brandon knuckled his eye sockets. Then he pulled out a phone and scrawled a passpattern with his fingertip. “Look at that balance, you fucking moron. Two thousand six hundred and I don’t get paid until next Friday. Look at it!” He thrust the phone into Mark’s face and watched Mark’s pupils cross.

“I was going to California with this,” Brandon said bitterly. He dragged two fingers over the phone and signed with his index finger. “There. Two thousand four hundred in your account tomorrow.” He waved his phone at the camera. “See that, Ruth? He’s got almost half of it. Charge him stupid interest and don’t break his leg. Now get out, dickbrain.”

“I’ll pay you back.”

“You’re still short five thousand and change.”

“Yeah.”

“And Lizzie still needs a new back.”

“That can wait.”

“Like hell it can. My uncle slipped a disc once. Couldn’t look at his face, or I started hurting too. Put her first for once.”

Sudden motions and shouts pulled Brandon’s eye back to the screen. A wave of protestors swelled and broke over a police barricade in Beijing. The air went blue and blurry with tear gas. The synchrony of their movements suggested careful rehearsal, which could only be coordinated online. In China, public spaces were off limits. The police would have noticed the preparations. Every security apparatus would have known.

Hopeless, all of them.

In the meantime, his own counter reached five, a personal record. Casual browsers attracted by the shouting? DISAPPOINTED LYNX BROS YELLING. Or black-jacketed, detached men with freshly fingerprinted contracts?

“You’re a real friend, you know that?” Mark said. “I’m not going to forget this.”

“Door’s there. Get out.”

“Going, I’m going.” Mark slung his coat over his shoulders and banged open the screen door. Cold air swirled in. Brandon dimmed his wall to transparency and peered into the darkness, shivering, until Mark peeled out of the neighborhood in his anchovy can.

Asshole.

He brought his screen back up and stared at masks, placards, yellow roses. A svelte, lipsticked newscaster would have relieved the oppressiveness, but any newscaster was a rarity these days, when free and instant footage flowed everywhere. Who could keep up with that?

“Give us darkness! Darkout! Darkout!”

The news stream wasn’t helping his nerves. Brandon retrieved the controller from behind an armchair and returned to his usual forum, cracking open a seventh beer.

CRAZY GUY SCALING BROADCAST STATION PERIMETER: SHOOT OR NOT?

DUCKLINGS HATCHING!!!

TRESPASSERS AT ISP HQ?

SEXY BROWN SUGAR MMM

STALLION FANS RIOT IN HOUSTON, VIEW FROM GRAY’S BAR

As if of their own volition, his fingers tapped their way back to Emma’s stream.

Kitchen: dark.

Living room: dark.

Bedroom: dark, too, but a slice of orange light from the street slipped under the blinds and threw a soft glow on her bare arms, a long loose curl, the gentle hills of her body under the comforters.

She was asleep. Her chest was rising and falling, rising and falling, and her breath made a fluttering, feathery sound through her lips that the microphone picked up and whispered to him. He remembered the sound from the seventeen times she fell asleep in his bed and the ten times he had slept in hers.

“I am a pathetic creep,” he said aloud to his own five watchers. The whole world was his confessional, tonight. But as the words left his mouth, his own counter flickered: four—three—one—zero. No one wanted to hear him grovel.

“You still love me,” he told Emma. She was just as lonely as he was. She was auditioning an endless river of men to fill a Brandon-sized hole inside her. And she never looked at his cam stream. Not once.

Not casually.

Not for a second.

Not as one of four or eight or sixteen streams split on her screen.

As if she didn’t miss him at all.

The rhythm of her breath was soothing and soporific. He could listen to it forever.

His seventh beer half empty, feeling infinitely sorry for himself, Brandon slept.

~~~

He dreamed he was in California. It was a nice dream, with plenty of sunlight and blue sky and puffy clouds. The trees were spiny and crumpled with drought. He had never been to California, but this looked exactly like what he had seen in movies. Maybe California was more a collective cinematic fantasy than an actual place. Maybe, like an elaborate movie set, it never existed.

He stood in a desert studded with cactuses and hunched pines. Invisible birds cried and piped, and he could hear waves crashing unseen against an invisible shore.

Mirages shimmered everywhere. Mostly they were water mirages, but here was the quivering image of an ice cream cart, and there, on the horizon, stood one of Emma’s perfect white breasts, large as a mountain. Why not two? he asked his subconscious. Give me the other one, come on. But the snowy peak shivered and vanished as he approached.

He had been hiking for hours, and his arms and legs were furry with dust. The mountains rising around him muffled the sound of the distant ocean.

One by one, the sharp, croaking bird calls ceased. All around him was a heavy and peculiar silence.

~~~

Brandon was accustomed to hearing the babble of strangers on his screen while he slept: any channel, anybody, anything to feel less alone. The absence of sound rang loud as cymbals in his ears. Startled awake, he poured out of bed and puddled on the floor. For several painful minutes he lay still, trying not to move. Someone was using his skull as blender and trashcan and bongos all at once.

The screen had entered standby sometime during the night. It did not show Emma’s room, nor his front yard, but rather the illusion of a flat white wall with a window in the center. Brandon pressed the power button. The operating light winked orange, but nothing changed.

“Damn,” he said. Mark’s beer must have shorted a circuit. But where? And what had he fried? Brandon picked up his phone to troubleshoot and found no signal. He could snap photos, he could play games, and that was all.

Brandon flicked and pushed and plugged and unplugged his watch, his Weatherboy, his scale, his library, his two tablets. All were functional. All were offline. What worried him most were the lights on his three cameras, which had gone from red to yellow. He had no way of placing a support call.

“Fuckity fuck fuck,” he said.

He would have to walk downtown to Moby’s. No appointment meant fighting through crowds clutching bricked devices and crying for miracles. That would make him at least an hour late for his shift. So he would have to stop at the sports store first, to explain.

His manager could confirm for himself that Brandon’s cameras were dead. The law required busted cameras to be fixed within one day. Police arrived, demanding answers, if you didn’t. Occasional darkness was only for the very rich, and Brandon did not feel rich at all. Someone like him was not allowed to be offline for long.

His stomach shrank at the thought of eggs and bacon. No breakfast, then. He gave himself a critical once-over in the bathroom mirror: Two bloodshot eyes, a greenish pallor, hair flattened in some places and rucked up in others. He pushed a wet hand over the hair that stuck out, but it bounced straight back.

“Mark, you fucker,” he growled. “You dickshot. You douche.”

When he went onto the front stoop of the divided house, the morning sun jabbed him in the eye. His breath smoked white from his mouth and nose. Around him the yellow grass glittered and crisped with frost.

The building’s palm scan wasn’t working. It ignored his hand and did not respond to his slap, but the maintenance light flashed. Swearing under his breath, Brandon dug in his pockets for his analog keys.

His upstairs neighbor, Alice Rosenbaum, crunched over the lawn in scarf and boots. She was in her sixties, with deep wrinkles and snowy hair, and appeared to fall somewhere between the kind of grandmother who invited lonely neighbors in for pie and the kind of grandmother who filed noise complaints punctually at ten each night. She grinned at him.

“That game, huh?” she said. Brandon, patting himself, realized he was still wearing his beer-sticky gear. “I lost fifty dollars on that last play. To my son-in-law. He’ll never let me hear the end of it.”

“My friend put ten thousand on the Lynxes.”

She winced. “You have rich friends.”

“He’s broke.”

“Online?”

“Local.”

“Will he be all right?”

“I don’t know. I can’t call him.”

“Right, right. The whole street’s down.”

“What?”

“I knocked at the Washburns’ and asked.”

“The Washburns?”

She pointed. “Number eighteen. Two of the cutest little girls.”

Brandon couldn’t remember ever seeing the family that lived in the yellow house. He felt slow and stupid, like a blind thing in a cave. “What’s going on?”

“It’s a darkout. Like a blackout. You know what a—no. We haven’t had a blackout in twenty-one years. You would have been a kid.”

“Someone digging up wires?”

“I don’t know. Our phones are dead, too, and the tower’s two miles from here. I think it’s pretty big. But we won’t know until everything’s back up.”

Mark had caught a break. Brandon hoped the bastard was okay. “How long do you think that’ll take?”

“Who knows?” Alice glanced down the street. “I was going to pick up breakfast from the bakery. See if anyone knows. Used to do that when I was younger. You look like a bagel kind of guy. Want to come?”

Brandon hesitated. Someone should check on Mark and Lizzie. Especially Lizzie, who had a raucous belly laugh and mothered him. He hadn’t known about her back. But they were ten miles across town, and with lines dead, and no car, what could he do if there was trouble?

Maybe Mark had hocked everything and paid up.

Or maybe, if all cams were dark, his bookie had bigger fish than Mark.

Of course there were bigger fish than Mark.

Mark would be fine.

Emma, though. He felt a pang almost as sharp as the first loss: the cool, cold look, the quick credit swipe for both lunches, as if she pitied him, and the impression of being tossed out along with the sandwich wrappers. He couldn’t watch her now. He didn’t know where she was or what she was doing, or if she had taken out poster paper and was chewing the end of a marker, thinking about him.

“I could do with a bagel,” he said.

And they walked together through the unfamiliar morning, waiting, as the whole world was waiting, for the light to return.

“Darkout” by E. Lily Yu originally appeared in Cyber World, September 2016.

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