Short Story
                                             Black Screens
                                                                     By Niek Vink


     When I first noticed it, I didn’t think it was that weird. I also didn’t pay any attention, which is probably
another reason. Children do weird things all the time. If a person of around thirty years old would’ve done
the same thing I saw, I would’ve raised the alarm. I stood behind the counter of the pharmacy I was working
in. A corner of the room had been decorated by and for children. It was a colorful little space, its walls
finger-painted with all kinds of semi-distinguishable shapes. There were some tiny chairs and a table with
a few toys to complete the picture. In the wall, we’d set up a small television set, which continually played
films like Toy Story or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Thank God the volume of the TV wasn’t that
loud, or else the unending loop of those movies would’ve driven me insane.

     One day a small child came into the store. I didn’t even notice it coming in, even though the buzzer at
the door rang. I was in the backroom, tediously sorting out the boxes of medication that were delivered.
When I came back to the counter, I saw the kid sitting in the children’s corner. At the time I guessed his
guardian was somewhere around, but a quick look revealed no one.

     The kid, a boy around four years old with chestnut brown hair, was looking at the TV-screen, which
wasn’t turned on. The old piece of junk had been broken for a few days now. My manager Jorge had made
a lot of hollow promises to call someone to get it fixed. The child sat there staring into the black screen,
motionless. At my age, I didn’t know a lot about kids, nor did I care about them. Therefore I continued
focusing on the only thing that mattered to me that day; earning my paycheck.

     On my way home nothing seemed out of the ordinary. People passed me on the streets, some of them
were looking at their phones or were listening to music. Clearly I should’ve seen that something was
wrong, maybe in that case I could’ve avoided all the horribleness that was coming.

     I arrived at my apartment and looked into the mirror next to my front door. I looked tired, but not
physically. The crushing routine of the job had started to drain me emotionally, I yearned for the day where I
saved enough money to go back to college. I gathered that sense of freedom and carelessness there
could surely keep me happy for a few more years. My old couch and TV were my companions for the rest
of the evening.

     When I came in the next day, there was no more mention of that kid. Maybe he’d been a relative of
Jorge and he forgot to tell me about it. My workday continued, boring me out of my mind. When I’d spend
an hour and a half placing packages into a filing cabinet, the buzzer at the door rang again.

     I saw two little kids walking in this time, who weren’t even paying attention to the young woman behind
the counter. It wasn’t the little boy from yesterday, but a boy and girl I didn’t recognize. They were a little bit
older, I’d guess around seven or eight. Without acknowledging anything, they sat down on the colorful
plastic chairs in the corner. They placed their hands neatly on their knees and looked up at the black
screen. There wasn’t even an attempt to turn the device on, no search for a remote or ask for help.

     I stood there for a few moments, observing the two. At the time, I hadn’t noticed my hand was still
hovering above a drawer of the cabinet, a package still in it. Eventually I came to my senses and looked
outside through the shopping window. I expected some grownups to be standing outside the door. Maybe
they were talking or smoking and therefore waiting to enter. None of this appeared to be true though, these
children were on their own.

     I considered asking Jorge to take a look, but swiftly dismissed the idea. If there was something that
would make you seem incompetent, it would be the fact that you couldn’t handle two small children. I
walked up to them and kneeled beside their chairs. I asked them how they were doing and told them the
TV wasn’t working. They didn’t respond. Their eyes were glued to the screen. It was as if they didn’t even
know I was there.

     I stuck my head out of the front door, there was definitely nobody that seemed to be with these kids.
Maybe calling the police was the smarter option, there was clearly something wrong here. Maybe they’d
escaped from a school for children with special needs, not that there was one in the area at all. Then I
noticed that it weren’t merely the children that were behaving weirdly. The street that the pharmacy was on
by far the longest of the village. A row of logos were readable above the stores there, one of them was an
electronics shop.

     Three doors down that shopping window displayed all their products. Gaming consoles, mobile
devices, laptops and television sets. A group of people had gathered in front of the window, all staring
through the glass. I saw two more folks, a young couple I presumed, walking by the store and curiously
taking a look inside. They must’ve thought that that group standing there was strange as well. They
immediately stopped and released each other’s hands. Their stares became blank and they went quiet,
not moving anymore as well.

     The children in the pharmacy hadn’t moved either, not a muscle since they sat down. I reckoned they
would be fine on their own for a moment while I went outside. With every step I approached the people in
front of the electronics store, I recognized the look on their faces. I was the same thousand yard stare the
children had, some of them had their mouths hanging open slightly. I took the last few steps, but already
knew what they were looking at.

     Inside the shopping window were some of the latest models of flat screens. But the TV’s weren’t on,
their large black screens had drawn everyone’s attention. I still don’t know why I did it, but I averted my
gaze. I was sure that nothing good could come from looking into that blackness. A minute later, I reentered
the pharmacy and stepped into the backroom. I met Jorge there and explained the situation to him. He
responded by raising a single hairy eyebrow.

     Although he didn’t say it out loud, he thought I was talking nonsense. In order to calm me down, he
stepped out into the store. I didn’t follow him, I was too nervous. I told myself Jorge would sort everything
out somehow and I could just go back to my job. I yearned for a cigarette, the lack of nicotine was
tormenting me. Jorge was very liberal with the smoke breaks these days, mainly because there weren’t a
lot of customers during the summer season.

     I took my half empty packet of cigarettes out of my locker. A black lighter with a silver butterfly on it was
at the ready. I walked into the store again and noticed that the children were still there. I saw the backs of
their tiny heads, but they had been joined by a third larger head.

     Jorge was sitting next to the kids on the floor. He sat on his butt and had his legs stretched out in front
of him. The position seemed very relaxed and somehow a little childlike, or at least not normal for a fifty-
three year old man from Argentina. I was stunned, for I knew that whatever happened had spread to my
manager. The cigarette fell out of my mouth and onto the floor. The craving for nicotine made room for a
rush of adrenaline.

     Subconsciously my brain made a decision, an action was performed that I only noticed when I was
doing it. I started race walking out of the store and onto the street. I walked in the opposite direction, away
from the ever growing group of screen addicts. I didn’t bother looking around, I gathered such a look would
only reveal more bad news.

     I saw more people mesmerized by whatever was happening on their screens. A lot of them were
looking at their phones or tablets, apparently those could glue your eyes to them as well. As I came closer
to my apartment building, my mind raced towards the TV in my own living room. It was a pretty large one, I
bought it second hand from an acquaintance. As soon as I opened my front door and stepped in, that
screen would be turned right towards me.

     Because of this I briefly doubted whether to go home at all. I had to figure out what was going on
somehow. Surely there were other people who weren’t affected right? Someone else had to be wondering
what was happening. But how would I be able to find out? Watching the news wasn’t an option, neither was
looking on the internet from my desktop or phone. I also didn’t think newspapers would be able to convey
that information soon.

     I didn’t meet any people on the stairs in my apartment building. The place had always been pretty quiet,
especially this late in the morning, but it was quieter than usual. Only the faint buzzing sounds you hear in
old buildings could be heard, probably noises from the plumbing or something. Apartment 81 was my
destination, I looked away from the TV when I entered. Instead I looked out of the window. I saw more
people standing at random places in the street, looking at a screen of their choice. It wasn’t exactly
comforting.

     The next step I had to undertake wasn’t clear to me, a few minutes of thought might’ve given me some
answers. I went into my bathroom and sat on the edge of the tub, trying to wrap my head around the
situation. I could knock on doors in the building, hoping there would be other people that weren’t affected.
The chance of nobody responding would be pretty big though, which was a depressing thought. Calling
911 wasn’t an option either, that meant looking at the screen of my smartphone.

     While I was throwing away ideas left and right, the noises from the outside world were joined by a new
sound. It was low, loud and humming. Steadily it rose to higher and higher volumes, making it clearer with
every second. Slowly I stood up, my eyes were still able to successfully avoid the TV when I stepped out
and looked through the window again. The people I saw earlier hadn’t moved, except for one tiny
difference. Their mouths had opened and they were singing. That low humming sound came from them in
perfect unison.

     It was very uncanny, like they’d been given an invisible signal to start making this sound all at once. I felt
that whatever was gluing their eyes to the screens, was ordering them to make this sound. All the ideas I
came up with became irrelevant at an instant. I wasn’t deciding how to tackle this problem anymore, I just
wanted to be left alone. I wanted to go back into the bathroom, curl up in the corner and wait for all of this to
be over. Someone would surely come for me eventually, comfort me and tell me what the hell was going on.

     To make matters worse, the noise started to emerge from inside the building as well. Briefly I placed
the palms of my hands against my ears. I clearly heard Mrs. Jenkins from next door singing, her high pitch
penetrated the wall of low sounds. Her voice was haunting, especially the fact that she didn’t seem to take
any pauses for breath.

     As I was ready to find the safety of the bathtub again, Jorge flashed through my mind’s eye. He was
probably still sitting there, singing beside the two children, contributing to the noise. When I turned around
to go back the way I came, I made a fatal mistake. I’d forgotten the large vertical mirror that hung beside
my front door. I looked right into it, seeing my pale face between two curtains of brown hair. My gaze
glanced off of me, since it was frightening me, and hit the reflection of the TV.

     Before I knew it, it had been too late. I stared right into the black screen, albeit its reflection in the glass.
My body tensed up, I was now actually scared to death because of a TV that wasn’t turned on. I wanted to
look away immediately, but couldn’t. The black rectangle seemed to be looking right back at me,
whispering things to me I couldn’t understand. I approached the mirror, my eyes now fixed on the TV’s
reflection.

     The fear in my chest slowly decreased, making way for something more pleasurable. I couldn’t explain
the feeling, just that it was something I wanted to hang onto. Suddenly not being afraid of the black screen
seemed okay. I turned away from the mirror and watched directly at it. I felt lightheaded, but in a very
pleasant way. Drowsiness and euphoria came over me as I sat down on my couch and leaned forward.

     I could see it now, understand why people were so fascinated by the nothingness. I felt happy and
secure, more so than I’d ever felt in my life. I never wanted to look away from it, all the happiness I ever
experienced in my life shriveled away compared to this feeling. As I sat there, being the happiest person in
the world, slowly my mouth opened wide. My signing was high-pitched as well.




Bio:
About Niek Vink

Niek Vink is a designer
and lover of stories. He
has previously been
published in magazines
such as Under the Bed
and Nebula Rift.
To read other short stories,
click one of the titles below.