Authors: Karen Thompson Walker
“If we’re ever going to have dinner,” said my mother from behind us, “we should eat.”
My father didn’t answer, but I was eager to calm her. “We’ll be ready soon,” I said.
I liked the idea, how the past could be preserved, fossilized, in the stars. I wanted to think that somewhere on the other end of time, a hundred light years from then, someone else, some distant future creature, might be looking back at a preserved image of me and my father at that very moment in my bedroom.
“Couldn’t that be true?” I said to my father. “Like a hundred light-years from now?”
“Could be,” he said.
But I wasn’t sure he was listening.
I would spend a lot of hours watching the stars that year, but I used my telescope to spy on nearer bodies, too. I soon realized I could see into the other houses on the street. I could see the Kaplans, all seven of them, sitting down to dinner. I could see Carlotta at the end of our cul-de-sac, drinking tea on her porch, her long braid dangling like macramé, its every strand apparent through the lens of my telescopep; and there was Tom behind her, dumping a bucket of slop onto their compost pile.
My clearest view was of Sylvia’s house. Hers faced ours like a mirror image, and I could see right into her living room—to the keys of her piano, to the wood boards of her floor, right to the pages of the newspaper that still lined the birdcage, now empty.
That night we slept in sunlight, or we didn’t sleep at all. For weeks, I’d been climbing into bed before dark—those early days were endless, those first evenings everlasting; I fell asleep most nights before the stars came out. But this night was different, the gap wider than ever. This was the first of the white nights. We would later learn to shield ourselves, to carve out small patches of darkness amid the light, but that first clock night was radiant, as if the sun had never shone so brilliantly or bright.
On my bedroom ceiling was a scattering of glow-in-the-dark star stickers that I had recently tried to remove. My mother had stopped me—“There’s asbestos in that ceiling, leave it alone.” But my ceiling stars were invisible on this night anyway, just like the real ones were, every one of them washed out by our nearest, dearest star.
“Try to sleep,” said my father. “It’s going to be hard to wake up for school in the dark.” He sat at the foot of my bed, staring at the window, at the blazing blue sky before pulling the blinds shut. “These are amazing times,” he said. “We’re living in some amazing times.”
The sun finally set sometime after two.
The next day our school returned to its clock time start of nine o’clock. That meant we stood in darkness at the bus stop, our faces lit yellow by a distant streetlight, which, like all the streetlights in our region, had been specially designed for dimness—bright lights spoiled the view for the enormous thirty-year-old university telescope that sat on a hill out east.
they called it. But what were those astronomers staring at anymore, now that the real action was happening down here?
My mother waited in the car at the curb until the bus arrived, convinced that danger, like potatoes, breeds in the dark. To me, the bus stop seemed just as hazardous as in daylight, and no more so in the dark.
I’d been staying away from Daryl, but he ignored me and acted as if he hadn’t done anything wrong. Somewhere in that dark dirt, I thought, my gold-nugget necklace probably still lay. Seth continued to keep to himself, like a lonesome survivor, blowing on his hands in an attractive, self-sufficient way, one foot on his skateboard, the other on the curb.
Hanna’s house was just visible in the distance down the street, and I thought I saw a small light glowing near the front door that morning. I felt a flash of hope that she’d come home. But it was only the porch light, probably left on by accident when they fled, the light unnoticed in the daylight.
We were all quieter than usual on that dark morning. We were sleepy and slouchy and dazed. Even Michaela seemed subdued, having slept too late to wash her hair or do her eyes. No one teased or talked. No one said anything. We stood together in the dark, the hoods of our sweatshirts high on our heads, our fingers curled inside our sleeves.
It was cold, maybe the coldest part of the night, but my watch read 8:40
The moon was a sliver, glowing low on the horizon. The stars were sparklingly clear.
It’s hard to believe that there was a time in this country—not so long ago—when thick almanacs were printed every year and listed, among other facts, the precise clock time of every single sunrise and every single sunset a year in advance. I think we lost something else when we lost that crisp rhythm, some general shared belief that we could count on certain things.
All around us that morning, the noise of the crickets was astounding, the squeak and whine of so many new bodies in the dark—they’d been multiplying since the slowing. All the bugs had. More and more birds were dying, and with so few of them left, everything smaller was thriving. More and more spiders were crawling on our ceilings too. Beetles emerged from bathroom drains. Worms slithered over the cement of our patios. One soccer practice was canceled when a million ladybugs descended on the field at once. Even beauty, in abundance, turns creepy.
When the bus pulled up at school, we discovered that workmen were installing stadium lights all over campus. Under the floodlights, the faded green walls—painted, rumor had it, with surplus paint from the marine base up the coast—looked like those of a prison. That’s one lesson I learned from clock time: So much that seems harmless in daylight turns imposing in the dark. What else, you had to wonder, was only a trick of light?
It was lunchtime when the sun finally appeared, the darkness lifting like fog. Sunrise: 12:34
. We were all outside when it happened. This was California—we ate outside in every season. As the eastern sky turned a pale and promising pink, Michaela went right on teasing the boys around us while I performed the opposite maneuver: keeping quiet and trying not to stand out.
Slowly, the soccer fields began to glitter in the distance. I squinted toward the sunrise. That was when I noticed, on the far edge of the quad, the outline of a girl who looked remarkably like Hanna, except she couldn’t be Hanna, because I would have known if Hanna had come back to town. This girl was sitting alone at a table near the science labs, her head resting on one skinny arm, sulking in the pale light.
When I got close to the girl, I could see that it was true. It was Hanna, all right. She was sitting at a lunch table, all alone, with no lunch.
“You’re back,” I said.
“Hey,” she said in a casual way. She looked stylish and cute in dark jeans and a pink tank top. Silver hoops hung in her ears. Her hair was pulled back in a loose French braid. “We had to come home for my dad’s job.”
I waited for her to say something more. She didn’t. A girl’s giddy scream rang out from the lunch lines behind us.
“I’m so glad you’re back,” I said finally. I dropped my backpack on the ground and sat down at the table. “I was starting to hate coming to school.”
“In Utah we didn’t have to go to school,” she said. Her blue eyes were watching something behind me. “Everyone was kind of waiting around for, you know, the end. But my dad got tired of waiting.”
We’d been friends for years, but a new shyness had flowered between us. I felt as if she were some second cousin, the two of us stranded at a family reunion, connected in some loose way but with no idea what to say to one another. She’d only been gone for three weeks.
All around us, the roar of kids ebbed and flowed like an invisible tide. Hanna looked down at the table. She began to pick at a bit of peeling paint.
I caved: “Why didn’t you tell me you were back?”
“We only just got back yesterday,” she said. She bit down on the flimsy tip of her thumbnail. “Or maybe the day before.”
A few stars persisted on the horizon, but the day was turning brighter by the minute. I had to squint to see Hanna’s eyes.
“Why weren’t you at the bus stop this morning?” I asked.
“I slept over at Tracey’s.”
She pointed to another Mormon girl I vaguely recognized from classes but did not know. This girl was walking toward us now, her figure hazy in the dawn light. She carried two burritos wrapped in plastic and two bottles of water. As she got closer, it became clear that she was wearing the same outfit as Hanna, same pink tank top and same silver hoops, same French braid dangling down her back.
I felt suddenly tense.
“You’re twins,” I said.
“We didn’t even plan it,” said Hanna. “Isn’t that funny?”
“Hi,” said Tracey, turning to me. She had giant brown eyes that seemed never to blink. I guessed from her careful stride and the calluses on her hands that she was some kind of gymnast.
“Tracey was in Utah for a while, too,” said Hanna.
“Hi,” I said.
Tracey spit out her gum and sat down. She slid one burrito across the table to Hanna.
“See?” said Hanna, pointing at the crowd of kids across the quad. “Now do you see what I mean?”
“Totally,” said Tracey. She leaned her head back in extreme agreement. “Totally.”
“What?” I said.
“Nothing,” said Hanna.
As the sun made its way up into the sky, Hanna told me a little bit about Utah. Her life there was not nearly as bleak as I had pictured. She told a complicated story involving a Mormon boy who lived next door to her aunt. One night this boy had popped the screen on Hanna’s window and climbed into her bedroom. They’d kissed while her sisters slept.
“Wow,” I said. I could think of nothing else to say.
“I still cannot believe that,” said Tracey. “How did nobody wake up?”
“I know,” said Hanna, her cheeks a sudden red. She was smiling but trying not to smile. “And we were on the top bunk.”
At last she asked how I had been.
There was a lot to tell. Nothing was going well. But on that day, Hanna didn’t feel like Hanna to me, and Tracey kept cracking her knuckles.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve been okay.”
Tracey’s fat shiny eyes were watching me closely. Every few seconds came the sound of her small joints popping.
“I’m double-jointed,” she said as she started on her left hand.
“Actually,” I said, “things have been great here. Really great.”
Tracey and Hanna exchanged a quick glance.
The bell rang, and Hanna groaned. “Man, I wish I was still in Utah, don’t you?”
“Totally,” said Tracey. “Totally.”
We stood and heaved our backpacks onto our shoulders. The two of them began to drift away from the table.
“See you later,” I said, but they didn’t hear me, or they didn’t seem to. They were already walking toward the science labs together, their strides in sync. I was walking in that direction, too, but I took the long way and walked alone.
At soccer practice that afternoon, Hanna showed up late and barely spoke to me. This was the same field where once we had gossiped nonstop between drills, but on this day, she spoke my name just once, and only as a forward addressing a midfielder during the scrimmage: “Julia,” she called out as the ball spun at my feet. “Over here. I’m open.”
Afterward, while we waited, sweaty and red-faced, to be picked up by our mothers, Hanna played with her phone.
“Want to come over this weekend?” I asked.
“I can’t,” she said.
I didn’t like the way she didn’t look up from her phone while she talked. I was sure she was sending messages to Tracey, who, no doubt, was sending similar communiqués right back.
“Why are you being like this?” I said.
“What do you mean?” she said. She smiled a little and bit her lower lip. Her long blond braid dangled on her shoulder. She wouldn’t look me in the eye. “I’m not doing anything.”
Something about the coyness in her face felt familiar. In that moment I recalled a pale redhead named Alison who had been Hanna’s best friend before me. This was years earlier, fourth grade, but I remembered the way Alison used to float toward us on the playground sometimes, how Hanna would ignore her while we practiced our tricks on the bars where there was room for only two. “I’m so sick of her,” Hanna would say to me whenever she saw Alison approaching, and then she would look at Alison with the same fake smile that she was now using on me.
That night I was too upset to fall sleep. I remember getting up at some late hour and cutting apart the bracelet I’d been making for Hanna. Then I dropped the scraps along with the charm bracelet she’d given me into a shoe box and shoved it into the back of my closet. Afterward, I felt no better at all.
The days passed. Clock mornings, clock nights. Darkness and light drifted overhead like passing storms, no longer tethered to our days or our nights. Dusk sometimes descended at noon; the sun sometimes didn’t rise until evening and then reached its highest point in the middle of the clock night. Sleeping was difficult. Waking was harder. Insomniacs walked the streets. And still the earth turned, slower and slower by the day. While my mother stockpiled candles and survivalist handbooks, I developed survival skills of a different sort: I was learning to spend time alone.
“Why don’t you go over to Hanna’s?” my mother would say in the afternoons. “I’m sure she’d love to see you.”
But Hanna was always with Tracey these days.
“Clock time won’t last,” said Sylvia at my weekly piano lesson. Her living room glowed against the dark. It was three in the afternoon and pitch-black outside. Seth didn’t show up for his lesson that day. I didn’t know why, and Sylvia didn’t say.
“You’ll see,” said Sylvia. “We’ll go back to real time eventually. Trust me.”
But I was not convinced that we
go back. Instead, I sensed that someday, if we survived, we’d be telling stories of how it once was on Earth.
One thing that strikes me when I recall that period of time is how rapidly we adjusted. What had been familiar once became less and less so. How extraordinary it would seem to us eventually that our sun once set as predictably as clockwork. And how miraculous it would soon seem that I was once a happier girl, less lonely and less shy.
But I guess every bygone era takes on a shade of myth.
With a little persuasion, any familiar thing can turn abnormal in the mind. Here’s a thought experiment. Consider this brutal bit of magic: A human grows a second human in a space inside her belly; she grows a second heart and a second brain, second eyes and second limbs, a complete set of second body parts as if for use as spares, and then, after almost a year, she expels that second screaming being out of her belly and into the world, alive.
Bizarre, isn’t it?
This is just to say that as strange as the new days seemed to us at first, the old days would come to feel very quickly the stranger.