“Trust me, you won’t die from touching the darkness, but if you reach out for the light, you might get burned to death,” a quote scribbled in a notebook on Julio’s desk next to a bag of mushrooms.
“I’m awake,” he didn’t put much effort into speaking loud enough for his roommate to hear him. A woman he’d never seen before moaned on top of his roommate, exposed and sweaty. “I’m awake,” he said again, now directing his voice towards the woman.
“Hey, did you hear that?” she said between breaths, her black hair covering her face.
“It’s nothing. You’re perfect,” the roommate keeping his voice as low as possible.
Julio focused on the blinking lights of the un-set alarm clock, perpetually showing the wrong time. He could only really see the silhouettes of the couple. After a few minutes, he heard a subdued gasp, and the girl whispered “seriously.”
A melodic boom startled all them out of bed. The woman practically leaped out of bed towards the door.
“Hold up,” said the roommate, holding her back.
“Carlos, what the fuck was that sound,” she swatted his hand away and, in one motion, put on a bra and dress. She turned on the lights, but they didn’t last long. After a brief symphony of powering down engines, the blackout started.
“Lavi, it’s just a blackout,” Carlos sat back on the bed, searching for his phone in the dark.
“You told me your roommate was out,” she held on to the frame of the door and made an effort to look towards Julio.
“I said a few times that I was awake,” Julio felt compelled to look out the window. At a distance, he spotted two blinking red lights. He could feel them, like red embers in a raging fire.
“You could have tried a bit harder, maybe harder than your friend Carlos over here,” despite the total darkness, her bright white dress seemed to dimly glow as she used her feet to find her purse and sandals.
“C’mon,” Carlos slammed his phone several times, trying to force it to turn on.
“This isn’t a regular blackout,” Julio found his phone, still hooked up to the charger in his desk. He couldn’t get it to turn on. “Phones don’t just go out during a blackout, look outside the window, the only light is from the stars. No headlights, emergency lights, nothing. Except for those red lights.”
“What the fuck are you talking about Julio, it’s just a blackout, and our phones suck.”
“Mine doesn’t work either,” something about her voice changed. Her mischievous tone from before vanished. From her purse, she dug out a lighter. “This should work, if it’s an EMP, this is probably the only thing that would work.” Flick, flick, the light briefly illuminated Lavinia’s face, flick, flick, the flame billowed, and died in seconds. Using her nail, she pried off the guard from the sparkwheel. Flick, flick, and the flame stabilized enough for her to use. “Don’t you boys have any candles here?”
“It’s a fucking dorm, no,” Carlos refused to accept that his phone was dead and continued to fiddle with it.
“I do,” Julio searched his desk until he found a small box with four tea candles. In her eyes, the reflection of the flame appeared completely red, neon red. He stared at her for a second, and before he could say another word, the power came crashing back. With the power also came a distinctive whirr. All three of them waited for the sound to stop, but it never did.
She let go of the lighter and checked her phone right away. All of the smartphones worked, and after a minute, they regained cellular service. As they checked their social media, texted family, or researched what happened, the whirr continued. They didn’t say a word for fifteen minutes, but it felt like hours.
“Are we not going to talk about how weird this was?” Julio couldn’t hold it anymore. Carlos didn’t look up from his phone at all, but Lavi expressed her distress by glancing at him for so long it made him uncomfortable.
Carlos left first. He kissed Lavy in the cheek, left silently, and she ignored him. The scene in the hallway sounded chaotic. College kids frantically trying to reach their parents for help or comfort. Lavi put down her phone and started to write a list of items she needed to get.
“Can I have some of those these candles?” she didn’t look at him when she asked, but since Julio wasn’t talking, she glared at him. He nodded his response, and she tossed them in her purse. “Be careful. Whatever this was, I don’t think it’s done.” She seemed so sure of herself but deeply distressed. Julio could only nod again and started making a list of his own.
He watched her leave, startled, but composed. Julio abandoned his list, grabbed his phone, and stood at the frame of the door leading to the hallway. The whirr never stopped, but now he felt it buzzing, a vibration all over his body. He couldn’t understand what he was feeling.
“It was Johnny, this is some sort of sabotage attack, I know it. It was Johnny,” said a pajama-clad blonde coed to her friend in party attire.
“It was demons. I’m telling you the end is coming,” her friend replied.
“No, I’m fucking telling you, the Russians,” the epitome of college bro said to the two girls while gesturing them to shut up.
“They’re idiots, it’s aliens. It’s always aliens, with their beady reddish eyes,” said his neighbor from across the hall, a man who’s style can be best described as half goth, half grudge, wrapped in gangster rap aesthetic.
“Don’t panic, people. Please go back to your rooms,” the RA, with a campus security guard behind him, tried to wrangle as many students as he could, but nobody took him seriously. “Our instructions are to stay in the dorms for fuck sakes,” he screamed to the top of his lungs while beating two small pots.
“You go do that. I’m getting the fuck out of here,” said the campus security guard, tossing the radio to the RA. “I don’t get paid enough to die for all you privileged fucks.”
Julio took in the scene with fascination until he felt an unbearable heat behind him. He turned, trying to find the source, fearing it was a fire started by the lighter. Something looked wrong, but he couldn’t pinpoint it. The only clear lights were a pair of red digits from the alarm clock. As he walked closer, the heat felt disarming, almost comforting.
“Your RA is losing his shit out there,” said Lavy storming into the room.
“Why did you come back?”
“I couldn’t leave my valiant lover behind,” she didn’t bother to wait for a response. After moving Julio aside, she grabbed a set of keys from the bed. “Kidding, I’m here for my fucking keys, you perv.”
After she pushed him aside, the whirr got louder, and her eyes began to water. She screamed, a blood-curdling scream of pain. A patch of her shoulder bubbled like lava.
“Julio! I need some money,” Carlos barged into the room and didn’t see her suffering until it was too late. His eyes burned first, and the bubbling burning flesh radiated from the eyes until it covered his entire body. His clothes burned, the ground burned, and he eventually turned into a burning pile of ash.
“C’mon, Lavi, we need to get out of here,” Julio offered his hand, and she swatted it away.
“I’m getting out of here. I just needed my car keys,” she said, a little too blasé after suffering what appeared like unbearable pain.
“I don’t know what’s here, but it’s something violent and dangerous. It almost killed you,” Julio’s chest felt heavy, and for a moment, he wondered if he had a heart attack.
“What the hell are you talking about? I’m alright,” she didn’t seem to feel the visible burn in her shoulder.
“How about Carlos,” he pointed at the pile of ash, without losing sight of the red lights.
“He’s fine, he probably went to get some food, but I’m out,” she walked by Julio, and she touched her burn as if it was just a minor bug bite. “Everything is gonna be fine.”
Julio followed her outside and closed the door behind them. He was sweating, his eyes wide open, but she walked as if nothing happened. His eyes didn’t wander from the door, expecting a monster to blow the door wide open any minute. Then he smelled the burning flesh. The red lights were beady little red eyes after all. He could see each pair of eyes swaying slowly above their victims, distorting the light around him like the bottom of a clear bottle.
“Lavi, wait. Do you see what’s happening?”
“Yeah, people are going crazy,” she didn’t really look around; she seemed hypnotized by her phone.
“Don’t you smell it? Feel it? Fucking see it?” he grabbed her arm and tried to take her phone.
“Who the fuck do you think you are, let me go,” she sounded genuinely angry, surprised.
The door across the hall from them opened, and the student walked out dazed.
“I told you, beady reddish eyes,” his back was bubbling, and bits of his flesh peeled off, turning into dust before they reached the floor.
“Can you see them?” Julio tried to talk to the student, but he stumbled and turned into dust in front of him.
“Juli-“ Lavi tried to reach for him, but her black hair began to burn. They looked more like a red chemical burning a piece of paper than a fire. He didn’t see any actual flames, but when he tried to grab her, the dust burned him. He dusted it off, and the pain went away. In seconds, Lavi was a pile of fine cinder in front of him.
The girl that lived down the hall, the one in party attire, walked down the corridor as if she was completely drunk. Her makeup was smeared, and tears still flowed down her cheeks.
“Are you ok? Mari? That’s your name, right?” he didn’t want to move, trying to avoid all the burning ash. With every minute, more and more red eyes appeared in the hallway.
“We’re fucked, and you probably don’t even know it. You don’t remember any of these people burning, do you?”
“Do you? I mean, do you remember? I remember. Can you see the eyes?”
“Fuck, yeah, the red eyes, they’re everywhere,” she tumbled and fell on the wall next to him, but she just reclined against the wall as if that’s what she wanted to do all along.
“Why don’t they burn us?” he said, sitting next to her.
“I don’t know, but if all these people burned, what’s in stored for us?” she opened her purse, took a swig from a handle of gin, and passed it to Julio. “I’m a horrible person, you know, that’s how I know they’re not demons or whatever. They would’ve burned me too.”
“Can you see them?”
“I just see a bunch of eyes hovering around us like bats in a cave,” she took the bottle back from Julio and drank another big gulp.
“Can you hear them?”
“The buzzing? Yeah,” she closed her eyes and tried to hand him the bottle again. “Goddammit, don’t make me drink alone in the apocalypse.”
“I took some mushrooms earlier, and I’m waiting for the effects to wear off,” even though the effects of the mushrooms were long trumped by the insanity of reality.
“If I wasn’t so defeated, I would get up and take the rest of your mushrooms,” her eyes watered, and tears ran down her face again. “Why can’t they just kill us already?”
The electricity started to fade, and another blackout finally made the red eyes go away.
“Oh shit, are they gone?” Mari got up, cackling as she sipped more gin. “We can’t be the only ones, we gotta get out of here.”
“Do you have a lighter?”
“Yeah, here,” the butane lighter kept a steady flame that illuminated their part of the hallway. In the darkness, the piles of ash appeared a bright grey.
“Ok, maybe we can get out now,” as Julio started to walk towards the exit, two disembodied and illuminated white eyes appeared in front of them. Mari grabbed his hand, causing him to drop the lighter. When they look around, all the red eyes they thought had disappeared were still there, they’d just turn white.
“Leave it,” she held his hand back, preventing him from picking up the lighter. “It’s so close; look, it feels so close I can touch it.” Her other hand extended as if in a trance towards the nearest pair of white lights. When the finger made contact, she felt a bolt of electricity travel all over her body.
“Wait, don’t,” he tried to hold her back, but the bolts traveled fast throughout her body, and she exploded like a flash grenade, leaving behind nothing but a plume of smoke. Then as he felt the tingle of electricity in his forearm, he saw some kind of light in front of him. He didn’t touch it, but nonetheless, his body also blew up in a flash of light, turning into a puff of smoke in a dark hallway full of ashes.