The Darkening by Rhys Timson

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

The darkening started small, like turning down the brightness on your phone screen a notch. Nate thought he was imagining it. It was summer, the sun was high and bright, but the grass of Victoria Park was not as green as it should have been, the sky above Hackney not as blue, the glass from London’s skyscrapers no longer reflecting the sunlight with the same brutal punch.

‘I think something is wrong with my eyes,’ he said to his girlfriend, Millie, as they lay in bed one night. ‘Everything seems darker than usual. I don’t know, like the sun is in battery-saving mode.’

‘That’s weird,’ she said, looking up from her phone. Her face was washed out by the light –corpse-white in the glow. ‘I’ve kind of been feeling the same, but I thought it was just OCD. Maybe we should see the doc.’

‘You’re not the first,’ the optician said, as the computer examined Nate’s eyes. ‘In fact, you’re the tenth person we’ve had this week.’ 

‘Am I going blind?’ Nate said. 

The optician shook his head. ‘There is nothing wrong with your eyes.’ 

Millie was fine too. Not 20/20, but good. They walked home. Millie was already Whatsapping her mum to let her know the news. Nate tweeted: Maybe we are all blind, but we just don’t realise it. He didn’t know what he meant by that, but it sounded deep, gnomic. He read it back to himself a few times before cycling through the rest of his feed. It was only three, but the afternoon felt spent.

When Nate looked out of the window the next morning, there was a dark smudge in the sky, as if somebody had tried to remove the sun with a pencil eraser. He blinked several times, but it didn’t clear. He tweeted: Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning. Dark sky in morning, WTF? He took a photograph of the sky and uploaded it to Instagram. 

Things seemed normal on the tube – everyone was staring at their screens and swiping. Maybe it was a little darker than usual, but it was light enough to see the way. The train delivered him to King’s Cross and he climbed the escalators, eyes still on his phone. Several people had replied to his tweet; some had used the hashtag #thedarkening. There were pictures of sites across London: Sloane Square, Dalston Junction, Islington Green. All of them looked like their creators had applied the wrong filter: hue and contrast were all wrong. It was as if the light itself were tired.

At lunchtime, Millie Whatsapped him a hyperlink – no words, just a link. He tapped through to a subreddit for conspiracy theorists. People were saying there were countries in Africa now that saw daylight for only an hour or two a day. There was a blanket ban on reporting it because the government knew the panic it would cause. It wasn’t lack of oil or water scarcity that would destroy civilisation: the world had hit peak light. The West was stealing light from the Global South and piping it home. The US had invaded Iraq for its sunlight, not its oil. 

Nate put down his sandwich and was about to message Millie a confused face, but then he looked out of the window at the fountains pluming water into Granary Square, and the scaremongering was harder to dismiss. The children playing there looked as if they were from a Lowry painting – dark scribbles on a dirty canvas. Further out, the crane-filled skyline faded into invisibility.

‘They’re calling it photon exhaustion,’ Millie said as they watched the news one night. ‘They’re saying we’re overstretching the earth’s light resources. We need to cut back.’

‘It’ll be OK,’ Nate said, pushing his phone into the pocket of his jeans. ‘Just like the ozone layer. We fixed that, right?’

For a while, they did their part. They donated money to light charities and complied with the government’s ‘Lights out Sundays’ campaign. They started wearing more white and Millie sewed reflective patches onto her sweaters. It felt good to be doing something, but the situation didn’t improve.

‘I can’t see to the end of the street,’ Nate said, a few months after it started. ‘Even when the streetlamps are on.’

‘Yesterday, I had to use my phone’s torch function to make sure I bought the right kind of soy milk,’ Millie said. ‘I almost bought the sweet stuff.’

‘So what do we do?’ Nate said.

Millie picked up her phone. ‘Let me Google it,’ she said, but Nate was already on it. They kept Googling until they found the answers they wanted. 

‘Photon rejuvenation,’ Nate said, triumphantly. ‘The US government is working on it.’

‘Good ol’ Uncle Sam,’ Millie said, and they cracked open some beers and went to sit on the balcony.

Nate had a flat in Haggerston with amazing views of the city: the Gherkin, the Shard, the Cheesegrater, the Vibrator – all the big skyscrapers ranged across the capital’s wide horizon. But now they were like nubs of coal jabbing into a patina of smog. He could hardly see the ground from his balcony at midday. There were protests outside Parliament, and a week later there was a million-candle march. But the candles didn’t make much of a statement – they burned with heat but little light. 

The situation worsened. Midday became the new dawn. The price of food went up as harvest yields collapsed. There were several ineffectual riots where the rioters couldn’t find the things they wanted to loot and the police couldn’t find the rioters to arrest them. The two sides crept around with their phones aloft, edging past fires they could hardly see, dark flames that spread without anyone noticing.

‘This is bad,’ Nate said, but Millie didn’t reply. She was at the other end of the sofa, a blurry grey mass lacking in detail. They had all the lights on in the flat, but it was no good anymore. ‘THIS IS BAD,’ he messaged her. ‘AT LEAST THE PHONES STILL WORK,’ she messaged back.

The government shut off all the streetlamps and turned off all the lights in state buildings. Light was to be restricted to key sectors: hospitals, airports, shipping. The working week was reduced to two days. A leaflet came through the letterbox, but Nate couldn’t read it. It was something about light and something about phone screens.

‘They’re the worst kind of light,’ Millie said as he squinted at the paper. ‘That’s what the message boards say. It’s not the streetlamps, it’s the phones. There’s too many of them, and the photons can’t cope anymore.’

Nate’s company told everyone to work from home, and Millie stopped coming over, no longer confident she could find her way to his flat. He placed a mini-fridge and a kettle by his desk so he didn’t have to keep getting up and fumble his way to the kitchen. He considered a chamber pot, but it seemed too much. He and Millie sat in their respective apartments and messaged each other, exposing themselves in front of their webcams, bloodshot eyes roving over HD nakedness.

The company delivered food packages by drone. Once a week, a buzzing sound would alert Nate to the machine’s presence, and a package would drop onto his balcony. He didn’t know what other people did to survive. There wasn’t much news around, just cries in the dark becoming less frequent as the weeks wore on. The message boards said the government had a plan, that the light would come back, but Nate didn’t believe it. He could see nothing beyond the glowing square of his monitor screen, the sepulchral light seeping only inches either side. He missed seeing his flat – the wall of photographs of drunken friends, his Gibson SG and his Stratocaster fixed to the wall, the pencil portrait Millie had drawn of him that he kept in a drawer on his bedside table. And he missed Millie, missed seeing her with his own eyes, missed feeling her with his own hands and her hands feeling him.

‘I’m coming over,’ he messaged her.

She sent back a confused smiley. She seldom used words anymore. He picked up his phone and turned it towards the black, fumbling through the hallway for his shoes. He needed her close, to try and see her face again without the intermediary of a screen.

He edged his way out of his flat and down the corridor, finding his way by the glow of the LCD display that controlled the lift. He couldn’t see his feet and couldn’t see his hands unless he held them in front of his phone. He walked slowly. He heard television and music noises streaming from under doors.

Outside, the situation was grave. The streetlamps were faint orange smudges, but they were his only real-world indicators of where he was. He typed Millie’s address into his navigation software and followed the path, rotating as the little blue arrow directed him, walking with giant, overstated steps like an astronaut. He was five miles away and he could smell several varieties of rotting things. There were points on his journey where he saw blue dots bobbing around in the dark, always too far away to try and contact. Not that he wanted to. They could be anyone. They could be dangerous.

It took him several hours, but finally his phone pinged to tell him he’d arrived. He messaged Millie. ‘I’m outside,’ he said. Another shocked face. He found his way to the stairs and climbed to the third floor. He knocked, but the door was open.

‘Hello?’ he called out as he stepped into the hallway. He could smell Millie’s green tea and watermelon diffuser to his right. Reaching out he touched the coats on her coat pegs; reaching down he grazed his hands over her many pairs of shoes. He called out again and edged over to where he expected the living room door to be.

There was a blue glow at the far end of the room, right where the sofa would be. He could see the tips of painted fingernails gripping a device. He called out again. ‘I’m here,’ he said, but the only reply was a winking emoticon. 

He sank into the sofa. ‘It’s crazy out there,’ he said. He could hear her breathing, feel her body heat, smell the fabric conditioner she used to soften her clothes. He opened a picture he had of her on his phone, to remind himself of what she looked like. She was at Camber Sands, smiling in the sun, hair blowing in the wind. He posted it to her Facebook page: ‘Remember this?’ 

She replied with a like and a picture of him paddling in the sea with his jeans rolled up to his knees. Everything was dark now, and even the strident blue of the smartphone light seemed dimmer. ‘It will get better,’ Nate said, scrolling through his Twitter feed. ‘And at least we’re together.’ Millie didn’t respond, but he imagined her nodding. He saw a hashtag called #lightdeath, but he decided not to look at it. He continued scrolling until he found a video of a puppy and a young owl that looked as if they were kissing. He clicked like and retweeted it, then posted it to Millie’s Facebook page.

‘You seen this?’ he said, and he turned to where he presumed her to be, edging down the sofa towards the light. He peered through the gloom, holding his smartphone up to her smartphone, mingling the blue diffusions together and attempting to see her face. He could make out a narrow chin, the ends of straight, shoulder-length hair, but something about her seemed different. Had she lost weight?  

‘Millie?’ he said. She didn’t respond, but he felt her weight shift on the sofa, saw her face turning towards him. She came in close; he could feel her breath on his face. The light from his phone was not enough to see any detail; her features remained obscured. Her hand grazed his cheek, but her once-soft fingertips were now rough calluses. 

He could no longer be sure he was in the right place.

About The Author

Rhys Timson has had stories published in 3:AM, Litro, Popshot and other journals as well as Retreat West’s 2019 and 2020 competition anthologies. His work has also been performed at Liars’ League.

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