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The alarm blares and plucks me out of dreamland. It’s mid-winter, still dark, and my feet are twin blocks of ice, hanging off my bed in the chilly apartment. I pick up my device and silence the alarm. The screen flashes a wash of electric color; I blink and roll onto my side, tucking my feet under the blanket. The room comes to me in shapes and bruised colors. Then I remember.

It’s the first conscious thought I have in the morning, routine as black coffee. I roll back to my device, click it awake, and watch the thin flex-screen rise from its base. My device knows I want to check the app before I issue the command.

The app. The one that’s consumed my time, my focus for the past six or seven months. It pops onto the screen.

OUTLAST

Blocky letters fill the green back-lit screen; the app loads. My heart thrums. Hands and feet prickle, turn liquid. My frosty skin now blazes under the heat of those seven white letters.

I wipe a sweaty hand across the blanket. I could never be a spy. My body betrays my nerves, my anxious thoughts, with an instant soak of sweat. It’s a flaw that struck during puberty and, unlike my acne, decided to hang around into adulthood.

A chorus of trumpets blast a victory tune and I read the familiar message scrolling up the screen.

CONGRATULATIONS! YOU ARE STILL IN THE GAME.

A pause. The app gathers data from across the world. I scratch at my wrist, knowing my microchip is sending data to the global cloud, knowing its harvesting information about me in real time—my location, health, vital signs. I don’t think about it much anymore. You get used to being watched after a dozen years of surveillance.

It takes a while for Outlast to compile the information it needs. The status bar crawls forward, sluglike. I like it that way. The anticipation ignites my curiosity, makes me wonder about today’s number.

The app stops churning and the screen changes. Another scrolling message.

133 MILLION 926 THOUSAND 129 PEOPLE WERE BORN IN THE YEAR 2004. YOU HAVE OUTLASTED…

A counter box spins numbers.

…30,581,020 OF THEM.

My heart seizes. So many more than yesterday…

The number always astounds me. Tens of millions of people born in the same year as me, gone. Kaput. Dead before their thirtieth birthday.

The counter box ticks up. Every few seconds, a fresh body piles onto the death toll.

This is the part I never get used to, watching death in real time. Human lives boiled down to a fleeting number on a screen. It coats my mouth with a grimy film.

And yet, I can’t deny my vague pleasure when I see the number climbing. I’m winning the game.

I pull myself out of bed and into my apartment’s chill. It wouldn’t cost much to heat the cramped space, but not much is a lot when you have next to nothing. I rely on the heat from my downstairs neighbor to permeate through the floor and provide enough warmth to keep my studio hovering above freezing. My thick, hooded sweatshirt does the rest.

I make coffee. It’s cheap, but iron-strong. I boil water for oatmeal and check the app again. The trumpets give me goosebumps.

CONGRATULATIONS! YOU ARE STILL IN THE GAME.

I wait to see how many people I’ve outlasted. The counter box slows to a stop.

42,007,831

I stare at the screen. Over ten million 2004 babies perished in the past ten minutes? Not possible. Usually it’s a million in an entire year. About 2,500 each day. Two per minute. Two deaths, not millions.

I gaze, bug-eyed. The counter spins upward. Fast. Too fast.

I slam the app to one side of my screen and pull up the news. My fingertips, palms, armpits trickle sweat. I scan headlines, frantic. No super volcanoes, no earthquakes. No alien invasions. No bombs dropped on Tokyo or Bombay.

Mind spinning, I close Outlast and reload it. The app greets me with ever-cheery brass and a new death toll:

47,852,203.

No.

It’s a glitch. Has to be.

My coffee has turned tepid and I have to catch the commuter train soon, but my feet won’t move. I’m tethered to my device and the dizzying numbers surging through the counter box.

I have to call Hailey. She’ll talk me down from my mania. Always does.

My voice is a bark when I command my device to dial. Hailey picks up instantly.

“Lee? Hey. Don’t you have to get to work?”

“Yeah, but listen, Hail. Something strange is happening, something with—” I pause, force out the word. “Outlast.”

I see her cringe. We never talk about the app, even though we’re close, even though I know she uses it too. Most users keep their obsession to themselves. The game has a dirty reputation. It’s meant to be played alone, enjoyed in sinful bites.

“What about it?” Her voice slow, a creaking train.

“The toll for 2004 skyrocketed in the past ten minutes. We’re talking a million people every minute. Is…is yours doing the same thing?”

“Lee,” Hailey protests, “you’re acting crazy. Why don’t you just—”

“Come on, Hail. Please. Could you check yours too?”

“Fine.”

Hailey mutters a few commands to her device. The screen splits in two, the left side showing Hailey’s dimpled chin and chicory skin, the other side loading Outlast. I hold my breath, body slippery with sweat.

The trumpets, the greeting.

The death toll.

YOU HAVE OUTLASTED…

…54,030,901 OF THEM.

The numbers surge.

“Holy shit, that’s almost half our year.”

“I told you, Hailey.” I shove my hands inside my kangaroo pocket and hug my torso. My shoulders rock away from my device, then back. Away, back. “Something crazy is happening.”

“Did you check the other years? Is it just 2004?”

Without waiting for my response, Hailey navigates to the app’s settings and changes her birth year to 2020. We wait for the numbers to load.

14,600,223.

Then, 14,600,224.

A slow tick. Normal.

A handful of dead pre-teens.

Hailey’s eyes deaden. Her cheeks pale to ash. “I—” she stutters, shakes her head like a clogged salt shaker. “I don’t know, Lee. Must be a glitch. Why don’t you go to work and forget about it?”

“Are you kidding me? Even if it is a glitch, there’s no way I can work today. I’m a total wreck. Can you come over? Please? I don’t want to be alone right now.”

Hailey sniffs. “Unlike some people, I care about paying my bills. Sorry. I’m going to head to work and try to forget about this whole thing.”

A knock. Coming from Hailey’s end.

“Someone’s at the door. Gotta run.”

“What? Hailey, no! Are you crazy? People from our birth year are dropping like dominoes and you’re answering the door? Please—”

“You’ve come unhinged, Lee. Maybe lay off Outlast for the day, okay? Let’s grab a beer at the Bassett tonight. My treat.”

“Hailey, dammit! Listen to me. Don’t open that door!”

“Bye, Lee.”

The call disconnects and Hailey’s image evaporates.

I slump into my kitchen chair and knock the coffee cup with my elbow. It hits the floor and I watch it through a fog, like it’s happening in a room on the other side of the world. The liquid slides across the linoleum and my eyes flick back to the device.

Numbers roll and I wonder if one of them represents Hailey.

I pull my hoodie closer. My skin is clammy; it reminds me of a dead fish. I sit, rock, mutter to myself like the crackheads who live in the elbows of Dixon Bridge. I wait.

For what? Time to pass? Everyone in 2004 to die?

A voice floats into my head. You wanted to win the game, right?

“Yes,” I say out loud to the air, to my bleeding coffee, to the device sitting in front of me. “Yes, I wanted to win. But not like this. Not until I reached one-hundred and four. Not until old age claimed my organs and shut me down. Peacefully. In bed. Surrounded by doting friends and family.”

“Not like this. Ruler of the blood bath.”

My brain’s a circus, spinning and twisting, a riot of color. I’ll leave town, I decide. I’ll take the next bus out west and lose myself in the canyons and scrub brush. Details later. I have to pack.

I jump to my feet. My left sock has absorbed some of the coffee, but there’s no time to change it. I have to move.

I start cramming belongings into my backpack. Some clothes, a couple granola bars, all the cash I had stowed inside an empty soup can in my cupboard. I zip the bag and glance at my device.

Over 70 million now.

Damn.

I coax the screen back in its shell and slide the device in my pocket. I reach for the doorknob at the same time a knock sounds on the other side.

 

End

Kate Bitters is the author of Elmer Left and Ten Thousand Lines.

Bitters writes in the style of magic realism, influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, and Neil Gaiman. Her short story was picked by the MPR program, Wits, to be read aloud by Mr. Gaiman during one of their shows in winter, 2015.

Kate Bitters is the pen name of Kate Leibfried, a freelance writer, book coach, and founder of Click Clack Writing, LLC. 

Her forthcoming novel is Ellie Half-Shadow and the Mayan Prophecy.

 

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