When The Lights Went Out

I was asleep when the lights went out. I’d been sitting on an old couch under the back veranda, looking over the valley. The vast spread of dark bush and the rolling grassland shimmered in the moonlight and a crazy swirl of colour brightened the valley’s furthest edge. Summer was at its peak and it was hot and stuffy in the house, and Will’s snoring was getting to me—it was always worse in the heat and he sounded like he was roaring. And so I’d taken myself out to get some fresh air and some peace and quiet.

Actually, it wasn’t really that quiet out there.

A couple of days earlier, all those city kids had made their annual trek to the abandoned farm across the valley for an outdoor techno-party. They called it a “bush doof,” and they’d been doing it for years. I’d practically grown up with it and pretty much knew the routine by heart. All through January, more and more people would turn up at the abandoned farm and start turning it into a party site. Organisers, installation artists, electricians, lighting experts, sound engineers, carpenters and tradies; they spent weeks erecting massive stages and laying sprawling dance floors, assembling gargantuan sound systems and constructing towering installations and stringing up all manner of colourful lighting. If it flashed or blinked or swirled or spun, it was there. Then, on the Friday of the Australia Day long weekend, hordes of city kids would descend on it and the music would start and it was party time.

At least, it was party time for them.

When I was a kid, I’d only been able to watch them transform the abandoned farm either before school or after school, and only if I’d finished my chores and my homework. As a teen, I’d snuck out a couple of times when the old man was passed out drunk, and me and some of my girlfriends had tried to talk our way into the party, always unsuccessfully. But after I finished high school, just before the lights went out, I’d started hanging out at the farm a bit—whenever the old man let me knock off early. I’d talk shit with some of the guys and girls getting the place ready for a party—they weren’t bad people, no matter what some of the locals said.

But then I’d have to go home to the old man and Will and to the thought of another day of drudgery. Even though Will and I were no longer children, the old man still liked to crack the whip on our backs. He’d tell us that what we were doing was for the good of the country; that the troops still needed to eat; that we should be thankful for having a job; that we should be hardworking and upstanding, unlike “that lot,” and that if we didn’t like how he did things, then we were welcome to hit the road.

And then he’d open another bottle.

All the while, “that lot”—the guys and girls getting the place ready for a party—stayed there at the abandoned farm, laughing it up,hanging out and having a great time.

At least some people were still able to enjoy themselves.

***

Anyway, so there I was, sitting under the back veranda and looking over the valley. The old man was out somewhere on another bender, and like I said, it was too hot in the house and Will was snoring loud enough to shake the foundations. I liked it out there, too. I liked how the dark bush and the shimmering grassland made the awful state of the world and all the horror and war seem somehow insignificant.

When I sat there all alone and looked at it properly, I felt like everything would be okay.

Truth be told, that night I wasn’t really looking at it. I was actually asleep. For an hour or so I’d been entertained by the coloured spotlights shining up into the trees, the projected laser-patterns that danced over the ramshackle tent village and the strings of blinking bulbs wound through the immense industrial sculptures and the towering Eucalypts dotted around the party site. But it had been a long day, and at some point I’d drifted off without really knowing it.

I woke with a start, convinced that something was just wrong.

I looked back and forth and saw nothing but dark bush and shimmering grassland, same as it ever was. I lay my head back and looked at the stars. It slowly dawned on me just how quiet it was, quiet enough that I could hear the wind moaning and branches creaking and mozzies buzzing and night-birds calling. And then it hit me – the doof-doof-doof beat that had been endlessly thumping in the background had finally stopped.

The party was over.

And then I remembered that it was only Saturday night and that the party still had days to run. I looked over the land again, and saw that the crazy swirl of bright colour that had been at the valley’s furthest edge had vanished, that the lights of the party had gone dark, that the swirling rainbow mess had disappeared.

Muffled words rode on the wind, the party-people’s cries reduced to faintly whispered and rather bizarre non-sequitors:

“…happened?”

“What’s going…”

“…out the lights…”

“…on…”

“Don’t touch…”

“…me the torch…”

I looked up at the darkened floodlight attached to the veranda wall, and I couldn’t remember whether or not I’d turned it on before settling in for the night. I got to my feet and flicked the switch. Nothing. I flicked the switch a few more times. Still nothing. It could have just been dead, knowing the state of the place, but I had to be sure.

I fumbled my way into the house, my hands outstretched and grasping, and tried every light in the kitchen. Nothing. I found a torch under the sink and flicked it on. Nothing.

I drifted from room to room, carefully and slowly, feeling my way through the darkness. I tried every light in the dining room, in the lounge room, in the hallway, in the laundry and the toilet and in my bedroom. Nothing happened. I drifted some more; I threw open the fridge, tried boiling the kettle, played with the remote controls hoping the television would come on, tried to boot up the computer, and flicked lamps on and off. Once again, nothing happened.

I felt my way to the kitchen and fumbled beneath the sink, finally pulling out a hand-wound portable radio. I turned it on. Nothing, not even static. I cranked the handle a half dozen times. Still nothing. Something was definitely wrong – the power might have been out in town, but it was a bit weird if it was out across the whole country. That couldn’t happen.

The dead radio in my hand told me otherwise. Even so, I cranked it again. Nothing.

I stopped outside Will’s door and banged on it.

“Wake up, bro. Something’s going on.”

No reply. All I could hear was his vicious snore, and so I banged again.

“Come on, bro.”

Still no reply. I gave up on being polite, threw the door open and strode in. I could just make him out, the moonlight streaming in through the curtain-less window. Up close, his snore was horrible, like the grinding of some run-down organic machine.

“Bro!” I yelled through cupped hands.

He still didn’t wake up; it was almost unbelievable. And so I grabbed him by the shoulder and gave him a good shove.

“Ugh… Wha? What is it? What do you want?”

I laughed at his sleep-thickened surprise, and then met his eye. I must have looked worried, because he snapped-to straight away.

“What is it, sis? What’s wrong? Is the old man home?”

I smiled at his concern, and then shook my head.

“No, I reckon he’s still out there somewhere with all the other old drunks. The power’s out, that’s all. And the party’s gone dead, too.”

He raised his eyebrows and smiled widely, unaware that he was doing so.

“Really? I thought those freaks had generators and shit, so that the party would never stop. I wonder what they’ll do now that the lights are out? How are they going to cut up their drugs or paint their faces or put together an awfully-fucking-ugly costume?”

“Ha ha, dickhead. They’re people too, you should feel a bit sorry for them – they’ve probably no idea what’s going on or what to do, stuck out there with no power.”

He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, playing the world’s smallest violin.

“Yeah, yeah, little sister, you keep telling yourself that. They’re freaks, and that’s all there is to it.”

“Whatever…”

Our code-word for agreeing to disagree.

“What should we do about the power?” I asked, somewhat stupidly.

“Well, there’s nothing we really can do.”

He reached over to the bedside table and started fumbling for his glasses. He slipped them on, and then looked down his nose at me, which was quite an achievement, considering that he was lying in bed while I was standing over him.

“You see, out there are these things that people call coal mines,” he said, taking the piss. “And that’s where other people dig up this hard, black stuff called coal…”

“Yeah, right-oh, give it a rest.”

“And there you go, you’ve answered your own question.”

I turned to walk out on him, and then I remembered the torch.

“The torch wasn’t working either,” I said, turning back. “Don’t you think that’s weird?”

“Not really. One of us probably forgot to replace the batteries, that’s all.”

“But…”

“Look, Sis – I’m not about to go traipsing around in the dark at…”

He looked back and forth, as if trying to find a clock that wasn’t there.

“What time is it, anyway?” he asked.

I looked at my wrist, at the cheap digital piece-of-shit that passed as my watch, and saw that it had stopped. I felt a chill run through me – I’d only replaced the battery a couple of days earlier.

“I don’t know, my watch isn’t working either.”

I really started to worry then. Will must have seen a twinge of panic in me, because he did his best to smile and reassure me.

“It’s probably nothing, Sis. You know how it goes – we’re always getting by on the rag, the old man’s either too pissed or too hungover to fix anything properly or replace anything that falls apart, and we both work too much to bother thinking about what else needs doing. I mean, everything’s fucking held together with spit, string and barbed wire. And as for the power going out, well, it wouldn’t be the first time that the old man forgot to pay the bill. We’ve had blackouts before, let’s just hope they don’t keep on or start rolling again.”

Some reassurance.

“Anyway, it’s the middle of the night. Whatever’s happened won’t turn into hell-on-earth if you wait til sunup before checking it out.”

“Yeah, alright.”

“Okay then. Well, I’m going back to sleep.”

“No worries,” I said.

He looked me in the eye.

“So, um, you can leave.”

“Oh, right, right.”

***

Will hadn’t completely convinced me, but he still made a certain amount of sense. Although how I was going to get to sleep was beyond me, keyed up as I was. And so I drifted around the house some more, futilely trying those few appliances I’d overlooked.

After a while, I remembered that we had some candles stashed in the kitchen cupboard.

I dragged them out and placed a couple around the kitchen and the dining room and set them alight, and then carried one to my bedroom. I threw the door open; it was pitch black in there, the curtains drawn tight. I hurried over and opened them, balanced the candle on my bedside table, and started hunting for my phone. It wasn’t something that I always carried with me – we lived so deep in the bush that a good signal was as rare as tits on a bull – and so it took me a while to find it.

I flicked it on but nothing happened.

Without power, I had no way of knowing if it wasn’t working or if it had just run out of charge. I looked at it dumbly, as if I could bring it to life by sheer willpower. And then I threw it on my bed, picked up the candle, stomped out of the room and headed back out to the veranda.

I took my usual seat on the old couch and once again looked out at the vast spread of dark bush and the rolling grassland that shimmered in the moonlight.

I tried to think about what Will had said. He was right – even if something had gone wrong, there was nothing I could really do about it until morning. I didn’t fancy taking a night-time walk to our nearest neighbour, especially seeing as they were almost forty-five minutes away, and I really didn’t fancy riding my pushie into town. Not in the dark on our bumpy dirt road, no way. If I didn’t stack going over a pothole or corrugation then I’d surely hit an unseen roo that had decided then and there was a great time to bound in front of me. I don’t know how the old man managed to drive home drunk.

And so I just looked at the great patch of darkness where the crazy swirl of bright colour given off by the party had been.

More muffled words rode on the wind, the cries of the party-people once again reduced to faintly whispered and rather bizarre non-sequitors. It’s funny, but I’d expected to see headlights cutting through the darkness. Considering how many people had made their way to the party by car, surely some of them had thought to drive out and see what was what. But even though I was out there a long time, I didn’t see a single one.

There was nothing but those random words floating on the slight breeze, the only evidence that the party had ever been there.

“…won’t start…”

“Help…

“…just plain dead.”

“I charged it this morning, it can’t be…”

“…even the solar is out.”

“Please, won’t someone…”

“…stop, stop doing that.”

“Bullshit…”

“…useless, just bloody…”

“Sis, the cars are dead too.”

I must have fallen asleep again, because the next thing I remember is Will yelling that at me. No “wakey wakey,” or “hey Sis, sorry, but something else is wrong,” or anything polite like that, just a loud voice in my ear.

A really loud voice.

“Yeah, good morning, dickhead,” I said.

He ignored my insult and got straight to it.

“So, like I said, the cars aren’t working.”

“I heard you, I heard you. Just give me a sec, alright?”

“Yeah, alright.”

“And put some coffee on.”

He looked at me and smiled.

“No power, remember?”

“Do you need power to light a fire? I mean, that’s why we’ve got the pot-belly.”

“Okay, okay. Jeez…”

He walked away, muttering to himself, snide remarks that were intentionally just loud enough for me to hear. Isn’t brotherly love a wonderful thing?

I stretched and yawned, popped my shoulders and cracked my back. Sleeping on the couch always fucked me up a bit. I got to my feet and stretched some more, trying to work the soreness out of my body. I looked at the party site. Even though it was only early, some people had already left on foot. Their paths across the rolling grassland in the distance were just faint black lines, the people themselves rendered tiny and insignificant in comparison to the land.

They were like columns of ants crossing a dirt road…

I headed inside and went to the toilet, and then stopped in the kitchen and drank some water. Will had had some success with the fire – the smell of coffee was starting to fill the house. I dropped my empty glass in the sink and then joined him by the pot-belly stove. He was already spooning sugar into my cup, and I almost snatched it off him.

“Thanks, bro.”

“Yeah, no worries.”

I took a sip, burning my tongue. I blew on the coffee, cooling it down, and then took another sip, and then another and then another.

I slowly started to wake up.

“What’s the plan?” I asked, breaking the silence.

Will was always an early bird; I wasn’t surprised that he’d checked the cars while I’d been snoozing away, so I figured that he’d already worked out what to do next.

“I’ll probably ride over to the Johnson’s place and see if they know anything. If they aren’t home, then I’ll head into town, maybe see if I can find the old man.”

“Right-oh.”

“How about you?”

“I guess I’ll knock off my chores, and check on the stock and let them out and all that. But I don’t know how I’ll feed them if the ute’s dead. ”

“You’ll figure something out. Or you could just walk them down to the bottom paddock, it’s still pretty grassy there.”

“Good one.”

“You could disconnect the water pump too, so we can use the taps on the tanks once we’ve drained the pipes.”

“Okay.”

I was still pretty sleepy, and monosyllables were all I could manage.

“I’ll leave you to it, then.”

“Good luck out there.”

“You bet, see you in a few…”

He stomped out of the kitchen – he used to stomp everywhere – and I watched through the window as he strapped on his helmet, hopped on his bike and rode off, a tiny cloud of dust billowing behind him.

I finished my coffee, ate a couple of slices of bread with vegemite, made a second coffee and then headed back out to the veranda. The world was quiet and calm, but the party site was busy with movement, busier than it had been earlier, teeming with people bustling about and rushing back and forth.

I sipped at my coffee and watched them bustle and rush.

As confused as they may have been, at least they didn’t have to spend the day working on a farm that had suddenly become a nineteenth-century version of itself. I groaned aloud, knowing that chores and jobs that were already boring and taxing were about to grow even more mind-numbing and back-breaking.

But still, once I’d finished my coffee I got to it.

***

I came back from fixing a hole in the rabbit-proof fence to find Will and three party-people arguing outside the house. Will still had his helmet on; I assumed that he’d turned up to find them waiting on our doorstep. And there was still no sign of the old man. I was grateful for that – he hated “their type,” and there’s nothing like the threat of violence to ruin your day.

“Mate, I’m not asking for much,” said one of the party-people, a tall guy with a great pile of dreadlocks wound into a bunch on top of his head.

They must have been so heavy and hot…

“All we need is a little help,” another of the party-people said, a short and stocky girl with about a million piercings.

“Yeah, man,” said another.

His eyes were glazed and he sounded very far away and he occasionally twitched and sometimes hugged himself and shivered, despite the heat. I figured that he was just another space cadet, and that he probably thought this was all a drug-heightened adventure rather than a half-baked standoff.

“Why should I help you freaks?” Will asked, almost shouting the words. “What have you ever done for us?”

I looked on in disbelief.

“William!” I yelled. “Cut it out.”

“But…”

“Don’t give me that. What’s with you, bro? Look at them. They need help, for fuck’s sake. Why can’t you hear them out?”

“But…”

“Just shut it, alright?”

He deflated, all his bluster draining away. I turned to the party-people and looked them up and down. I didn’t recognise them, but I tried to smile warmly.

“G’day. Are you guys okay?”

“Yeah, we’ve lost power down at the party,” the short and stocky girl said. “Hell, someone with an old ham radio couldn’t even get a signal from overseas. And the cars are dead, too. ”

“Same here, it’s weird. So, what’s up?”

“It’s our friend back at camp,” the girl continued. “She’s got asthma and she’s lost her puffer. With all the dust everyone’s kicking up, she’s, you know, she’s having a hard time. And with the cars out of action, well…”

I looked over at Will. He’d had asthma as a kid but he’d grown out of it, and he really was feeling for them, a sudden look of concern on his face.

“I get it, I get it,” I said, looking back at the girl. “You’ve probably passed this place dozens of times, we’re your nearest neighbour after all. But, sorry, none of us have asthma. Well, not anymore.”

“Oh,” the girl said, her half-smile collapsing.

“The Alexander’s youngest daughter has got it, though,” I said, pointing to a house halfway across the valley.

I knew it was there, but I guess all they could see was a speck.

“Far-out,” the space cadet said.

He looked at me, his eyes so puffy and hooded that I was surprised he could see anything at all.

And then he winked.

“Knock it off, you idiot,” the girl said to him.

“Alright, alright,” he said, his voice sulky and whiney.

And then he looked at me again.

“Got a toilet?” he asked. “I need to take a piss.”

I sighed, and then pointed to a row of trees at the edge of the house block, just next to the old man’s shed. I watched him stagger away, and then turned back to the other two party-people.

“Look, come inside and I’ll draw a map,” I said.

I turned and they started following, when Will grabbed my arm.

“Sis, I need to talk to you about what I saw in town,” he said.

“That can wait, bro. This is more important.”

“But…”

“We’ll talk about it later, alright?”

I shook him off and walked inside. Will and the two party-people sat at the dining

table, while I hunted around for some paper and a pen. Will didn’t speak to them while they tried to make small talk, and the atmosphere was suddenly horribly awkward.

I finally found what I was looking for.

I sat down next to the party-people and quickly drew a rough map and talked them through it. I offered them some water, and they topped up their bottles. I offered them a cuppa, but they declined.

“We’d better get a move on,” the girl said. “Our mate’s pretty sick.”

“Fair enough.”

Suddenly, the front door slammed open and the space cadet strode in carrying the old man’s shotgun. I froze, and somewhat stupidly wondered where he’d found it. I guess the old man had once again forgotten to lock the gun-safe out in the shed after going out spotlighting with his barfly mates.

But there it was and there the space cadet stood.

He was still swaying a little and looked lost behind his eyes, but he had a firm grip on the shotgun.

“Look what I found,” he said.

He held the gun up, striking a pose. I quickly got to my feet, and Will and other two party-people followed. We stood there in a bunch, watching the space cadet in confusion and fear. He smiled slyly, and then held the shotgun properly and took aim. I hoped to Christ that the old man hadn’t left it loaded – if the space cadet even twitched, he’d hit us all for sure. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Will tense up, and the other two party-people freeze, overcome with fear and not knowing what to do.

“Bang,” the space cadet said.

And that’s when Will jumped in front of us.

(Originally published in Beginnings: An Australian Speculative Fiction Anthology, November 2018)

 

 

 

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