Authors: Karen Thompson Walker
As I crossed the street, an ocean breeze washed through the eucalyptus and the pines. A single sparrow sailed across the sky. I picked a dandelion from the yard and shook it in the wind while our cat Tony slept, belly up, on the porch. The sidewalks shimmered in the sun. Somewhere a dog was barking. I wondered what Hanna was doing in Utah right then. This was one of the last real afternoons.
There had always been regions of the earth where the sun could not be trusted, where the days were never measured by the rising and setting of our star. At certain remote coordinates, the sun had always set in December and then failed to rise all season. There, every summer had always been one continuous loop of daylight, the sun relentless in the June night sky.
These were difficult places. Trees refused to grow. They were the ancient fishing settlements of northern Scandinavia, the icy slopes of Siberia, the Inuit villages of Canada and Alaska. For the inhabitants of these places,
had always been abstract. Morning did not necessarily bring with it the light. And not all nights were dark.
Those of us living in the lower latitudes were about to experience a lifestyle strange to us but long familiar in the land of the midnight sun.
The announcement was made at night, fourteen days after the start of the slowing. Broadcasts were interrupted. Newscasters broke in with a special message. I remember the blare of the trumpets—the network’s emergency intro music—slicing through the crowd noise of Game 7 of the World Series.
“Jesus,” sighed my mother. “What now?”
We’d been watching the game over dinner, plates of Bellisario’s cheese pizza steaming on our knees. It had been a good day: that afternoon I had finally heard from Hanna—she’d written me a cheerful postcard with a picture of the desert on the back. My mother had relaxed a little. My father was drinking a beer. A quart of cookies and cream was waiting in the freezer. A stranger passing our window that night could have detected our moods from the sounds: the clean crack of bat striking ball and the syncronized cheers of my parents. We felt happy.
But now my mother lifted her dinner plate from her lap and set it on the coffee table. She pulled her hair away from her face, as if to better hear the news. I was sure her roots were turning grayer every day. She’d skipped her monthly salon appointment—and the slowing of the planet had interfered not at all with the speed at which human hair grew.
My father sat on the couch beside her, his mouth tight. I could see him chewing the inside of his cheek. He took one slow sip of beer.
Outside, the sky was bright—the days had swelled beyond thirty hours, and the slowing was showing no signs of letting up.
“Maybe they figured out how to fix things,” I said from the floor, where I’d stretched out on my stomach with the cats.
No one said anything.
Rumors must have surged through certain circles before the official announcement was made. There must have been some early, unconfirmed reports. Doesn’t big news always leak before it’s meant to? Aren’t secrets usually spilled? Anonymous sources love to talk. But if there was any chatter about this development, we hadn’t heard it.
The network took us live to the White House, where the president was waiting behind an enormous polished desk, his hands folded stiffly on its surface. A large American flag hung in folds beside him.
A series of meetings between congressional leaders, White House officials, and the secretaries of Commerce, Agriculture, Transportation, and the Interior had produced a radically simple plan: in the face of massive global change, we, the American people, would be asked to carry on exactly as we always had.
In other words, we would remain on the twenty-four-hour clock.
My first response was disbelief. The cable box glowed a green 11 am, but it was the end of the day. We had learned, by then, to disregard the clocks.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “How can we?”
The Chinese government had taken the same sweeping step. The European Union was expected to follow suit. The alternative, we were told, would be disastrous.
“Markets need stability,” said the president. “We can’t continue this way.”
It requires a certain kind of bravery, I suppose, to choose the status quo. There’s a certain boldness to inaction.
But it seemed to me that we were being asked to perform the impossible, as unlikely a strategy as if they’d proposed strapping ropes to the sun and dragging it across the sky.
I waited for my mother to react, but she only sighed a loud sigh. I turned to look at her and saw her as she was: a woman on a couch, looking weary. There’s a limit to shock, I suppose, even for her.
“This is never going to work,” she said.
My father said nothing. That was one of his specialties, I was learning, the ability to remain silent at all the crucial junctures, to meet each crisis with a simple, stalwart quiet. I can see that I inherited a bit of that habit from him.
My father went back to his dinner. He ate his pizza with a knife and a fork, a paper napkin spread neatly across his knees.
The green of the infield snapped back onto the television screen.
As obvious as the implications would be later, the effects of the plan were not immediately clear to me. What would become apparent soon enough was this: We would fall out of sync with the sun almost immediately. Light would be unhooked from
darkness unchained from
And not everyone would go along with the plan.
It was voluntary, of course. We were not
to squeeze our days into twenty-four little hours. No new law was passed or put into place. This was America. The government could not dictate the way we lived our lives. But in the week following the president’s announcement, as the natural days swelled to a record thirty-two hours, officials of various levels and types of expertise went to work convincing us of the virtues of the plan—and the urgency with which we needed to launch it. Clock time, they called it, the only practical solution. It was a matter of economic stability, said the politicians, of competitive advantage, and even, some insisted, national security.
I know now that clock time ignited a complex national debate—with just as many dissenters shouting from the far left as from the far right—but in my memory, it happened all at once, a clean tidal shift, abrupt and complete.
The public schools jumped on board right away. Government offices, too. The television networks all decided to comply. The corporations were
doing it—they’d been losing millions every week in inefficiency and overtime pay.
But any American could choose to forgo clock time, to remain instead on daylight time, or what some were already referring to as real time. We were still free to arrange our lives around the sun’s comings and goings if we wished, but soon those who did risked losing their jobs or having to quit. Their children could no longer practically attend public school. They’d be perpetually out of time with society. To hesitate would have been like choosing to linger in some evacuated city where the buildings and the streets remain, but the city, let’s face it, has disappeared.
And so it was: We reclaimed the clocks. Wristwatches returned to wrists. Batteries were replaced. I cleared my nightstand of books so that I could once again see my alarm clock from my bed. I pulled my grandfather’s pocket watch out of a drawer and set it on my desk.
Clock time began at two
on a Saturday night, like daylight saving time. They’d chosen a day when the sun rose more or less in tune with the clocks. In that era, syncronized days like these rolled around every few weeks like full moons. The gap would widen as the day passed, but the idea was to transition us slowly.
The sun rose that morning at clock time 7:02
The Sunday paper landed in the driveway with a thud. My father ground the coffee early, toasted toast. The sun shone as usual on the eastern side of the house. We would feel the real differences only the next day, when we, like the clocks, would fall completely out of sync with the sun.
“This can’t be healthy,” said my mother, squinting in her green terry-cloth bathrobe. Her hair was wild from sleep.
I was sitting beside her in flannel pajamas, weaving a friendship bracelet for Hanna. Her birthday was a few weeks away, and I planned to send the bracelet as a gift.
“This is the best of bad options,” said my father from the table.
The cats paced at my feet, hungry for milk. Tony’s bony tail flicked my shins as he passed. The sun was shining in the kitchen, catching on the copper pots that dangled, sparkling, above the steel sink.
“What are the other bad options?” I asked.
My mother was filling a copper can with water for the two milky white orchids that lived in the kitchen window. Her attention to her plants had increased since the start of the slowing, as if our survival somehow hinged on theirs. Or maybe it was something else entirely. Beauty can be a very reassuring thing.
“You know what I think?” said my mother. “I think this whole clock thing is a crock of shit.”
Tony jumped on the counter, paws first. I swooped him up and set him down on the tile.
“We’ll survive,” said my father.
As a doctor, he was already a night worker, a day sleeper, a deliverer of babies in the middle of the night. He was a creature whose body had grown accustomed years ago to ignoring its circadian rhythms.
“What about the real problem?” said my mother. We’d gained more than thirty minutes the night before. “What is anyone doing about that?”
My father continued reading the paper, slowly shuffling the pages. Missing from that day’s paper were the details of an even more audacious plan, still top-secret at the time but being furiously plotted by scientists and engineers in the government labs of this country. We would soon learn the details—and the hubris—of the infamous, ill-fated Virginia Project. Absurd as it was, you have to admire the spirit of the endeavor, the wild sense of possibility, the cowboy optimism required to imagine that a bit of human ingenuity might actually control the turning of the earth.
“Wait a minute,” said my mother. She waved a jar of peanut butter in my father’s direction. “You opened this?” In her other hand, she held the evidence, the knife. Its sharper side glistened with a coat of extra-crunchy.
My father, at the table, took a giant bite of wheat toast.
“Goddammit, Joel,” she said. “Goddammit. I was saving this.”
I kept my eyes on the bracelet I was weaving and waited for the fight to pass. I focused on the complicated pattern I’d chosen, using Hanna’s favorite colors, and there was something calming about the tying of those knots, one after another, the way the design emerged from the tips of my fingers, so orderly and so slow.
My father chewed, swallowed, took a careful sip of coffee.
“Helen,” he said. “We have six jars in there.”
He was against my mother’s hoarding.
“Do you think this is a joke?” she said. “A guy on CNN said we might only have a few weeks left before everything falls apart.”
In her fury, my mother tripped over the blue ceramic water bowl we kept on the floor for the cats. “Shit,” she said. A miniature tide rolled across the tile.
“Until what falls apart?” I asked.
“I haven’t heard anything like
” said my father.
My mother’s voice took on a low, serious register: “Well, then, maybe you’re not listening.”
If my father responded, I didn’t hear it. I slipped upstairs. Most likely, he simply returned to the paper.
What went on in that head of his? I would soon come to understand that he gave voice to only a fraction of the thoughts that swam behind his eyes. It was not nearly so clean and smooth in there as it seemed. Other lives were housed in that mind, parallel worlds. Maybe we’re all built a little bit that way. But most of us drop hints. Most of us leave clues. My father was more careful.
When I think now of that moment in the kitchen, an almost unbelievable thought comes to my mind: There was a time when those two people—that man hunched at the table and that woman shouting in a bathrobe—were young. The proof was in the pictures that hung on the living room walls, a pretty girl and a bookish guy, a studio apartment in a crumbling Hollywood building overlooking a courtyard and a kidney-shaped pool. This was the mythical period before I was born, when my mother was not a mother and was instead an actress who might make it someday, any day, maybe soon, a serious girl with a lovely face. How much sweeter life would be if it all happened in reverse, if, after decades of disappointments, you finally arrived at an age when you had conceded nothing, when everything was possible. I like to think about how my parents’ lives once shimmered in front of them, half hidden, like buried gold. Back then the future was whatever they imagined—and they never imagined this.
But doesn’t every previous era feel like fiction once it’s gone? After a while, certain vestigial sayings are all that remain. Decades after the invention of the automobile, for instance, we continue to warn each other not to
put the cart before the horse.
So, too, we do still have
mares, and the early-morning clock hours are still known colloquially (if increasingly mysteriously) as
the crack of dawn.
Similarly, even as they grew apart, my parents never stopped calling each other
My parents avoided each other all afternoon. My mother graded papers in the guest bedroom. My father went to see my grandfather. He didn’t ask me to come along the way he usually did. And I didn’t offer. A muggy quiet settled over the house.
I’ll tell you one thing about that first Sunday on the clock: Time flew. We’d grown quite accustomed to those long, lazy days. But now the morning zoomed. Midday zipped by at an inhumane speed. The hours tumbled quickly after one another, as if sliding downhill—and there were suddenly so few!
On any other Sunday, I would have escaped to Hanna’s house.
Instead, I walked over to my old friend Gabby’s. Her house was three houses down from mine, and we’d grown up together, but I hadn’t seen her much since she started getting into trouble.
“I think clock time’s gonna be cool,” Gabby said once we were upstairs in her bedroom. She was sitting on her unmade bed, painting a second coat of black polish on her fingernails. She waved the bottle at me, but I shook my head. It was a glossy, grim black. A few drops had landed on the plush cream-colored carpet. “I like going out in the dark,” she said.
Her dyed black hair kept falling into her face. Charcoal eyeliner ringed her eyes. Silver studs shaped like human skulls glinted from her ears. I hardly recognized her anymore.
“I wish I still went to your school,” she said.
“You hated our school,” I said. When she started smoking and skipping classes, her parents had transferred her to a strict Catholic school.
“Yeah, but all the girls at my school are anorexic bitches,” she said.
We used to swim in her pool every summer and eat potato chips on lawn chairs while our ponytails drip-dried on our backs. But now Gabby never wore a swimsuit; she’d gained a lot of weight. She was always in trouble these days. Hanna hadn’t been allowed to come to her house.
“My mom’s afraid we’re all going to die,” I said.
The room smelled like nail-polish remover and vanilla; a fat white candle was burning on the desk. Two pleated plaid skirts, Gabby’s school uniform, hung over the edge of a chair.
going to die,” said Gabby. “Eventually.”
She was playing music I didn’t know: The thin crystal voice of a woman, enraged, shot through the room from two big black speakers.
“But she thinks we’re going to die from this,” I said. “And soon.”
Gabby blew on her fingernails and held up one hand for inspection. A can of diet soda popped and fizzed on the rug.
“Do you believe in past lives?” she said.
“I don’t think so.”
She’d draped a crimson scarf over the only lamp, and the room was dim and stuffy. She’d pulled the vertical blinds shut, but stripes of sunlight glowed through the cracks.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve lived past lives,” she said. “I have this feeling that in every one of them, I die young.”
Lately, I’d begun running out of things to say to other kids. I’d stopped knowing how to respond.
“Hey,” she said. “Want a tattoo? I learned how on the Internet.” She pointed to a sewing needle and a tiny jar of black ink laid out beside the candle on the floor like primitive surgical equipment. “You just run a needle through the flame, then scratch your skin in the shape you want and pour ink into the cut.”
Gabby’s house was the same model as ours but reversed. Her bedroom was the same bedroom as mine, the dimensions exactly equal. For twelve years, we’d slept between walls erected by the same construction crews and looked out on the same fading cul-de-sac through identically sized windows. Grown under similar conditions, we had become very different, two specimens of girlhood, now diverging.
“I’m going to do an outline of the sun and moon on my wrist,” she said. “I’ll do one on you, too, if you want.”
The album came to its end. Silence filled the room.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I should probably go home.”
Maybe it had begun to happen before the slowing, but it was only afterward that I realized it: My friendships were disintegrating. Everything was coming apart. It was a rough crossing, the one from childhood to the next life. As with any other harsh journey, not everything survived.
That night, while the sun continued to shine, my father came home with a telescope.
“It’s for you,” he said as he unpacked it in my bedroom, tissue paper crinkling. “I want you to learn a little more about science.”
The telescope came in a shiny mahogany box, inside of which lay a silver tube and a trio of titanium legs that glittered in the sunlight. The telescope looked expensive. He set it up in my bedroom and pointed it at the still-bright sky. My mother watched him from the doorway, arms crossed. She was often annoyed with my father these days, and it seemed that even this offering—in the encrypted language that traveled between them—was in some way an affront to her.
“There’s Mars,” said my father, squinting one eye while he aimed the other through the telescope. He motioned for me to look. “You’ll be able to see it even better when it gets dark.”
Mars had shown up in the news lately, after draft plans for something called the Pioneer Project had surfaced on the Internet. Privately funded by a group of secretive billionaires, it was a plan for a human settlement on Mars, complete with temperature-controlled biospheres and a self-cleaning water supply. The Pioneer Project was an evacuation plan from earth. If necessary, a cluster of humans could supposedly survive up there on Mars, the whole settlement like a time capsule, like a living, breathing souvenir of life as we once knew it on Earth.
Through the telescope, Mars didn’t look like much to me, a fat red dot, hazy at the edges.
“Some of the stars you’ll see out there don’t exist anymore,” said my father, gently turning the knobs of the telescope with his thumb. The gears squeaked softly. “Some of the stars you’ll see have been dead for thousands of years already.”
“Are you two going to be up here all night?” asked my mother.
My father wiped the lens with a black strip of felt that had come in the box.
“What you’ll see with this telescope are not the stars as they are today, but how they were thousands of years ago,” he went on. “That’s how far away they are; even light takes centuries to reach us.”