At midnight, the power goes off. Around the country, refrigerators are packed with blocks of ice to keep the leftover turkey from spoiling. Families huddle around fireplaces, gas stoves, pine-scented candles. A flashlight would probably be safe, but it’s best not to risk it. In a few houses, cautious mothers have long since taken all the batteries out of not just the flashlights but also the alarm clocks, the cell phones, the smoke detectors.
They will survive the night. Others won’t be quite so lucky.
It starts quietly, as it always does. A phone, forgotten by a careless 20-something, starts flashing messages across its AMOLED screen.
LOWEST PRICES OF THE YEAR
The phones aren’t so bad. Annoying but harmless, as long as no one touches them.
In a child’s bedroom, a Tickle Me Elmo comes alive. It starts to shuffle toward the exit, only to have its progress obstructed by a door. Locked, and Elmo isn’t tall enough to reach the handle. Not without help.
On the stairs, a plastic robot dog starts to light up, legs waving in the air—it’s on its side, but not for long. A few hearty kicks and it’s up, moving toward the living room where the family is gathered. Its tinny barks don’t sound like much, but from downstairs the family knows what it’s trying to say. Door busters. First 300 guests.
A sharp smack with a broom sends it crashing into the wall, gears and springs flying everywhere. Its owner—a young girl, maybe four years old—starts to cry into her father’s side. It’ll be fine, he whispers. We can get a new one.
The hospitals fare the worst. Everyone who can survive without monitors, without respirators, does so. As for the rest, they are shuffled, rolled, and wheeled into a special wing. While the rest of the hospital goes about its business, somewhat quieter than usual, the doctors and nurses of the C-wing gather outside the doors, whispering as if silence could possibly hold off what was to come. Volunteers came first—those without family, without dependents, without people who would miss them. The rest were chosen randomly, though the best surgeons and the least-replaceable specialists were exempted, and anyone with young children was quietly erased from the list of possibilities.
The first incident comes at 4:31 a.m. They can hear the frantic beeping from down the hall. The two nurses closest to the door look at each other and nod. As one, they run toward the sound. One prepares the defibrillator while the other keeps watch. Clear. A burst of electricity and the patient stabilizes, but the monitor bumps forward just enough to knock the nurse to her feet, the paddles falling onto her. As the shock comes and the world fades to black, she sees the display no longer shows a simple heart rate. Now the green lines beat a different rhythm. As the other nurse, knowing she can save herself or neither of them, backs out of the room, she sees the message scroll across the screen. B-U-Y-1-G-E-T-1.
The streets remain still as the sun rises. No buses run, no streetcars or trains. Stoplights sit dark. No planes fly—god no, why would you even consider it—which puts a damper on holiday travel, but it’s for the best. Hardly anyone goes in to work. Today, the world is populated by firefighters and security guards. They’ll get a bonus, as long as they make it through. Police patrol on bicycles, carrying guns—always guns—but no radios. No Tasers today. Too dangerous.
All the malls closed at 6:00 last night, just to be safe. Inside Best Buy, must-have gadgets whir within their clamshell packaging. Everything has been unplugged, but the laptops still have some battery power left. Their lids rise of their own accord. They clack open and shut, open and shut, Technicolor ads on the screens lighting up the darkened store. Radio dials spin, flipping through station after station. Flash sale, they hum. Get them before they’re gone.
The chatter of the Toys“R”Us can be heard from outside the doors—or it could be, were there anyone around to hear it. Barbies start to speak, their pre-programmed phrases suddenly forgotten. Handheld video games emit beeps in what sounds like Morse code. Stuffed Elsa and Anna dolls sing scraps of marketing copy back and forth: Do you want to build a blow-out? Somewhere, an educational talking picnic basket begins to laugh, its comrades joining it moments after. Their hollow cackles echo through the darkness and bounce off the tile floors.
With no way to contact the authorities in case of an emergency, worried parents triple-check their locks. There are always break-ins on Cyber Monday, but fewer in recent years. After all, this is not the day to try to steal electronics.
The day passes, as it always does. Older children play board games to distract themselves. To keep from wondering if all of their friends will be at school tomorrow, or if some will just never show up. Their younger siblings play with safe, non-electronic toys, asking why everyone is so quiet but getting no sufficient answer. Travelers who returned home on Sunday wish they had stayed with their families. Better to sit out the day together than to suffer alone, not knowing if everyone is all right. College students drink no more than usual, but with greater intent.
The sun goes down, and for the first time since the days started getting shorter, the darkness is a relief. It’s the home stretch now. Candles are re-lit, blankets wrapped around droopy-eyed toddlers. Those with clocks watch the hour hand slowly move toward vertical; everyone else simply waits for the lights to come back on.
At midnight, the streetlights flicker to life and the entire time zone breathes a sigh of relief. Not everything will come back at once—in commercial districts, especially, only emergency power will be allowed for another few hours, just in case. Still, the worst is in the past.
Tuesday will be a day of damage control. Lawyers and accountants will go to the office and hope that all of their colleagues do the same. Doctors will be working double-time, treating smartwatch burns and broken limbs from cars that managed to find their way through garage walls—more every year, they’ll think. Police will go door to door, counting the dead, helping those who can no longer help themselves. Retail workers will deal with the aftermath, cleaning up shattered televisions and aisles of toys that couldn’t, that wouldn’t stay on their shelves. They’ll pick up the stuffed animals, the talking robots, the movie tie-in merchandise, and look into their smiling faces. Tap the glossy plastic eyes, searching for signs of life.
A few will think they hear something but will ignore it, will say they must be imagining it. They won’t ask about it in the break room, won’t want to know if anyone else heard the same thing.
One day only. Cyber Monday.
Inspired, loosely, by Ryan Q. North on Twitter.