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A Note from the Author: This story was written in early 2001 and is assumed to be set during that same time. Therefore it makes extensive references to the 2000 presidential election and the Supreme Court case that stopped the vote count.

What Do You Do When the Lights Go Out?

by Erin Thead

The forecasters were predicting a storm for the warm February evening in central Florida. After hearing the forecast on television, Penelope Costlett scurried around the two-bedroom apartment she shared with her two friends, locking every window and moving potential fire hazards away from electrical appliances.

“Candace, do you mind if I close the window in here?” Penelope asked Candace Rainer, who was sitting at her computer desk in the bedroom that she and Penelope shared. She wore her headphones, listening to a song while downloading about ten more from the Napster service.

“Candace?” Penelope said loudly. Candace paused her music, took off the headset, and turned to Penelope. “Yeah?” she said.

“Do you mind if I close this window?”

“I don’t suppose… but how come?” Candace asked.

“The weatherman is predicting a thunderstorm.”

“Well, close it, by all means, but turn on the A/C if you do. It’s stuffy in here. That’s why I had it open to begin with. I love this warm weather, but I don’t like it getting so stuffy.”

Penelope walked over to the window, closed and locked it, and turned on the air conditioner. Candace had started her song again and was moving to the beat while sitting in her computer chair, her eyes shut, oblivious to everything save her music. Penelope sighed and left, looking for her other roommate Becky Langston.

Becky had the other, smaller bedroom to herself. The door to the room was locked. Penelope knocked.

“Who is it?” Becky asked.

“It’s Penelope,” Penelope said. “Can I come in?”

“Sure,” Becky said. Penelope could hear her friend shuffling across the carpeted floor. She unlocked the door and let Penelope in.

“What’s up?” Becky asked.

Penelope glanced around quickly. Becky’s single bed was unmade—she had probably taken another late-afternoon nap—and her curtains were down. Penelope went to Becky’s windows, opened the curtains, and checked the windows. They were all closed and locked.

“What are you up to now?” Becky asked, yawning. She sat on her bed and leaned against the wall on the left side, which had a huge poster printed with “On Behalf of Florida, I Apologize to the U.S.A.”

“I’m checking the windows. The forecasters are saying there’ll be a thunderstorm tonight.”

“I’m not surprised,” Becky said. “Florida deserves it.”

Penelope groaned. “What have you been doing all afternoon?” she asked. “Were you asleep again?”

“No, I was just in bed.”

“Sulking, no doubt.”

“If you must know, yes. I have reason to be a sullen, grudge-holding, resentful jerk.” A strange squeak escaped her mouth, and she sank under her covers.

“Get out of bed,” Penelope said. “You can be sullen all you want, but it’s not good for your health to just sit in bed and sulk all day about something that happened two months ago.”

“There’s something to be said for remembering wrongs,” Becky said, but she did stand up. She wandered to her dresser and brushed her hair. After about ten seconds, she hurled the brush at her bed.

“I’d better cook something for dinner,” Penelope said quickly, leaving Becky to her rage.

Penelope went into the kitchen, moved the portable color TV to the countertop, and turned it to a weather station. She took a jar of tomato sauce and a box of spaghetti noodles from the pantry and set them on the counter. Then she took a chunk of hamburger meat from the freezer and started to cook it over the stove. While she made the spaghetti, she looked for signs of movement from the bedrooms. Eventually Becky came out of her room, slammed the door, and slumped onto a chair in the living room. She stared blankly at the large TV there. Penelope sighed again.

“What’s for supper?” Becky asked.

“Spaghetti,” Penelope said. “You going to watch the news?”

“I don’t partake of propaganda,” Becky said.

Penelope groaned. “Becky, you can’t stay uninformed. It can’t help your… cause, if you still claim one.”

“I have a cause,” Becky snapped. She got up, went back into her room, and slammed the door.

“But you can’t tell me about it,” Penelope said under her breath. She finished cooking the spaghetti, transferred it to a bowl, and moved it to the small table in the kitchen. She knocked on Candace’s door.

“Candace? It’s time to eat.”

No answer.

Penelope opened the door, which was unlocked, and went in. Candace was still at her computer, listening to music.

“By the way, how many songs do you have?” Penelope asked. Candace was leaning back in her desk chair with her eyes closed, still oblivious to the world. Penelope tapped her on the shoulder, and Candace jumped.

“What?” she said. “Has your storm come?”

“Not yet,” Penelope said. “I was just asking how many songs you’ve downloaded.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Candace said. “A lot…. Let me check…. Ten thousand?”

“Geez, you’ve ripped off most song artists, haven’t you? The songs have to take up a lot of disk space.”

“Oh, they do—about half my hard drive.”

“You ought to buy a CD burner and copy them onto CD’s. That would free up some disk space.”

“Oh, who cares? It’s just computer space. I’m not going to worry about it until there is a problem, and I’d have to get a lot more before it becomes a problem.”

“I still say that you ought to copy some of them onto CD’s.”

“Look,” Candace said, “it’s my computer, and I’ll put what I want on it. Did you come here just to inquire about my downloading habits?”

“No, I came here to tell you that dinner is finished.”

“I’ll be out once my song is over, in about two minutes.”

“All right.” Penelope went to Becky’s room, right next to Candace’s, and knocked on the door.

“What now?” Becky asked. Penelope heard bedsprings creaking, so Becky had been lying on her bed again. Becky unlocked the door.

“You don’t have to get snippy with me,” Penelope said.

Becky cracked a smile. “You quote the right folks, at least,” she said. “But what’s the problem now? Has your tornado shown up?”

“NO! Why are you and Candace so sarcastic about my preparedness for storms? It’s time to eat.”

Candace opened her door. “Hey, Becky,” she said, passing by Becky’s door. “What’ve you been up to?”

“The usual,” Becky said. “Sullen sulking, as Penelope says.”

The girls went to the table and started eating. No one said much. Candace was humming country songs, Becky was glaring at the wall, and Penelope was trying to keep her eyes off her roommates.

Near the end of the meal, Penelope slammed her palms on the table. Becky and Candace looked at her.

“What is wrong with us?” she asked. “We’re almost uncivil to each other. We never do anything together except eat. We all stay holed up in rooms.”

“We have our own interests,” Becky said tightly.

“I know how political you are,” Penelope said, “but are you doing activist stuff in the room, or are you just—”

“I’m just sulking,” Becky said nastily. “I’m not doing ‘activist stuff.’”

“See?” Penelope said. “You’re not doing anything useful back there. Besides, we were great friends in high school, and now we hardly ever talk to each other. We haven’t had a meaningful conversation since—”

“Since December,” Becky interrupted. “But that’s not my fault. I’m willing to discuss different topics, but I do have a favorite, and nobody else wants to discuss it with me.”

“Look, if you want me to, I’ll just play the music aloud instead of listening to it myself,” Candace said, “if you want to talk to me that badly. But I like music.”

“You like listening to music,” Becky pointed out. “You don’t play an instrument. You don’t sing. You don’t even buy most of your music now.”

“Well, you are the building’s political, but you don’t do anything but grumble and make cynical comments,” Candace shot back.

“Peace!” Penelope said. “Geez, when I said that we didn’t do anything together, I didn’t mean for us to fight together.”

“If all we’re going to do is criticize how the others spend their own time, then we can’t help but fight,” Becky said. “Nobody likes to be told how to spend his or her time. You're a damned busybody; that's what you are.” At that, Becky left, shoved her chair under the table, went into her room, and slammed the door again. Candace picked up her dishes and put them in the dishwasher, and Penelope moved the leftover spaghetti into the refrigerator. Candace went back into her and Penelope’s room but didn’t close the door, so Penelope could see her put her headphones on again and start downloading some more music.

Crack! A thunderclap sounded. The lights flickered, then went off.

“I lost my download!” Candace burst out. “And this song was hard to find!”

“Oh, be quiet,” Becky called through the wall. “You might actually have to buy it, for once. There are sites on the Internet where you can pay a minimal fee for a single.”

Then the rain started.

“Great,” Candace complained, fumbling her way out of the bedroom into the living room, where Penelope was sitting with a flashlight. “Just great. Now that it’s raining, the power probably won’t come back on until it’s stopped.”

“I sort of agree with Becky,” Penelope said unsympathetically. “Don’t complain. We knew it was coming. You could have gotten this song earlier today. I warned you about the storm.”

“Yeah, like you’re the only one prepared for a rainstorm,” Candace said.

“I was the only one who bothered to close the windows.”

“Quit this immature bickering,” Becky said. She unlocked her door and flung herself onto her favorite chair. "Well, now what?” she asked. “I mean, what are we going to do? It’s a Friday night, and the power is off. There’s nothing for us to do.”

“We might have a meaningful conversation,” Penelope said.

“Your self-righteousness can get real old,” Becky said testily.

“I’m not self-righteous,” Penelope protested. “What’s self-righteous about wanting to talk with one’s friends? Let me get a candle. I want to save the batteries.”

“She acts as though it’s our fault that we haven’t had many talks,” Candace said to Becky. “But she avoids us too. She slaves away in the kitchen, always cooking the food herself. She’s obsessive about preparation for a drizzle. She—”

“Why don’t you talk to me, instead of behind my back?” Penelope snapped, coming back with a lighted candle.

“She does have a point,” Becky said. “I agree that we need to discuss the… situation here, if we can civilly.”

“The only thing we do together now is fight,” Becky said as Penelope sat down.

“We got along fine in high school,” Candace said, “and we had the same interests and habits. Becky was the campus activist, always organizing protests. I was a big music fan. And, by the way, I do have a collection of purchased music too. I have probably twice as many songs when you count what I’ve downloaded and what I’ve bought. And Penelope—”

“I was always in the position of domestic responsibility, almost the householder state.”

“Whatever went wrong? We haven’t changed since we moved in.”

“We’re compatible,” Candace said. “We got along fine for the first months. No arguments at all. It was just since Election Day that things went downhill.”

“Of course, blame it on me,” Becky said. “How convenient. Have you ever considered, Candace Rainer, that you spend a third of your time asleep, a third in class or eating, and a third listening to music? There’s no time left to be with your high school friends, even the one who shares your room.”

“You don’t want to take responsibility for your problem,” Candace countered. “I mean, get a grip, Becky! It’s much healthier to have a real hobby, like listening to music, than to brood about something. Have you considered that ever since your politician lost, you’ve become impossible? Get over it!”

“He didn’t lose!” Becky cried.

“Enough!” Penelope said. “Arguing about blame doesn’t help anything.”

“I agree,” Becky said.

“I mean, this is the ideal time,” Penelope continued. “Nothing else to do, since the power is off. We might as well use this time to talk about the situation here.”

“I don’t know what can be done,” Candace said. “We haven’t changed since high school; it’s just that our eccentricities are more pronounced now.”

“I’m not going to become a nonpolitical citizen,” Becky said. “I’m a political science major; I’d just about have to change that to be less of an activist.”

“I’ve already downloaded and bought so much music that I might as well enjoy it,” Candace said. “You know how much time I’ve spent getting it.”

“I’m not asking either of you to change your personalities,” Penelope said. “Besides, I actually like being put in the position of a householder. I like to cook, and it’s just natural for me to prepare for things—even to overprepare.”

“Then what can be done?” Candace said.

“I don’t know what Penelope’s point is, but I would suggest that we each try to be more tolerant of each other’s activities,” Becky said.

“That wasn’t exactly what I was getting at,” Penelope said.

"I dare say it wasn't," Becky replied. "You seem to want to dictate to us how we should spend our time." But neither Penelope nor Candace listened, because right after Becky had finished talking, the electricity came back on.

“Good, now I can look for my song again,” Candace said. “Maybe somebody with a copy is still online.”

“And I can go back to the room,” Becky said. “I need to become an activist again instead of just lie around in bed. I’ve definitely lost my activist’s energy since I started college.”

Becky disappeared into her room and Penelope followed Candace into theirs. Candace sat down at her computer desk, powered her computer again, started the Napster service, and started searching for the song she had lost. She began the download, and when it had finished, she put on her headphones and listened to it over and over, sipping a soft drink. Penelope started to ask her to unplug the headset and play the song aloud, but she realized that Candace was in a music-induced trance.

She left the room and went to the kitchen to check the weather report when she noticed that, for the first time in over a month, Becky’s door was open and unlocked. Becky was at her computer, chuckling and clicking the mouse gleefully.

“You look like you’re actually having fun,” Penelope said upon entering the room.

“Oh, I am,” Becky said. “You wouldn’t believe what I downloaded. It’s so cool.” She was playing a game of some sort on the computer.

“This is so cool,” Becky repeated. “Some programmer is an utter genius. It’s a video game about the election. You pick your character from a group of believers in the rights of the people, and you’re trying to outwit a bunch of people from the election dispute last year who were trying to thwart justice. You can choose to be a real person, all the way up to Gore himself, but the best characters to be are the protesters. They are capable of the most interesting actions. Look—I’m a Palm Beach protester, and I just emptied a voting machine on Katherine Harris. She’s covered in chad! This is the best game. Through the game, you can alter the outcome.”

Penelope stiffened. Turning swiftly, she ran from the apartment into the tiny yard in front of the building. Even though it was raining she screamed and screamed. The tempest drowned out much of her volume, but it was apparently still audible.

"You all right?" a voice called out from the second story of the apartment building. "You hurt? Need an ambulance?"

"I'm fine," Penelope called up to the man.

Penelope could not hear it, but she saw him give her a snort. "Then why don't you just come back inside," he said.

"It's not hurting anyone," Penelope said over the weather. "You can barely hear it. It's not bothering you any."

The man rolled his eyes skyward and slammed the window shut.

This story ©2001-2008 by Erin Thead and may not be reproduced without permission.