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Authors: Karen Thompson Walker

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The Age of Miracles (9 page)

BOOK: The Age of Miracles
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Certain people had been sounding alarms for decades, since the earliest drops of acid rain fell, since the subtlest thinning of the ozone layer, since Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and the oil crisis of the 1970s. The glaciers were melting and the rain forests were burning. Cancer rates were on the rise. Immense flotillas of trash had been roaming our oceans for years. Antidepressants were swimming in the rivers, and our bloodstreams were as polluted as the waterways. That the slowing could not yet be explained was beside the point. Enough was enough. They were taking a stand.

These were the individuals who were refusing to abide by clock time.

They were naturalists and herbalists and holistic-health enthusiasts. They were healers and hippies and vegans, Wiccans and gurus and New Age philosophers. They were libertarians and anarchists and radical environmentalists. Or else they were fundamentalists, or survivalists, or back-to-the-landers already living in the wilderness off the grid. They were hostile to corporations. They were skeptical of the government. They were contrarians by nature or by creed.

You didn’t always know who they were, not at first, anyway. Some kept it quiet for as long as they could. Others announced it.

At the end of my piano lesson one week, Sylvia handed me a slim white envelope. “Give this to your mother,” she said.

Seth Moreno was in the room with us, waiting for his lesson to start. He’d been staring out the window, but I could feel him glance in our direction when Sylvia mentioned the envelope.

“What is it?” I asked.

Both her finches were dead. The birdcage stood empty. The only sounds were the wind chimes clattering on her front porch.

“I can’t do this,” she said. “It feels like a lie.”

In the letter, Sylvia explained that she was giving up clock time.

“We’ll find you a new teacher,” said my mother when she saw the note.

“I don’t want a new teacher,” I said.

“Why can’t she keep going to Sylvia?” said my father, who was sorting the mail beside us, dropping most of it straight into the trash.

In the letter, Sylvia had explained that she would do her best to accommodate the schedules of her clock time students.

“I’ve never liked her lifestyle,” said my mother.

She was pouring tomato sauce on a prebaked pizza crust. This was one of those rare clock nights that really was dark. I could see our reflections in the French doors.

“What lifestyle?” said my father.

He was wearing his work clothes, a white dress shirt and a loosened yellow tie, but he’d rolled up his sleeves to his elbows. I could smell the hospital soap on his hands.

“You know what I mean,” said my mother. “All that New Age crap.”

“What do you think, Julia?” said my father. His medical badge clung to his front pocket: An out-of-date photo dangled behind the plastic; a young man with thick hair stared down at me, right below the older man, who was staring down, too. “Don’t you like Sylvia?”

“I don’t want a new teacher,” I said.

“Wait a minute, Joel,” said my mother. “Hold on. You’re the one who said this whole clock thing was the best of bad options and we would adapt to it and blah blah blah.”

“It’s not our business how she chooses to live her life,” said my father.

“I’m getting you another teacher,” said my mother. “End of discussion.”

Not everyone quit taking lessons from Sylvia. Seth, for example, continued going each week for a while. I never knew exactly when he’d arrive, but I could sometimes detect from my bedroom the sound of his skateboard grinding the pavement as he rode up to her house. On those days, I’d make sure I was walking out to our mailbox as he was leaving, or I’d casually water the lawn in a pair sunglasses, my hair freshly braided. Sometimes Seth nodded at me as he passed. Sometimes he didn’t.

Tom and Carlotta, our neighbors down the street, went public as real-timers right away. I guess it was no surprise that they would resist clock time—their roof sparkled with a dozen solar panels, and they drove two worn-out trucks, freckled with peeling peace signs and ancient, sun-bleached bumper stickers that proclaimed, among other optimistic dreams, make love not war. Tom was a retired art teacher who wore a hemp necklace and ragged jeans stained with stray paint. Carlotta’s long gray hair swung near her waist, a ghost, I suspected, of its younger and sexier self.

A few days after the return of clock time, a new sign appeared in the corner of their front lawn. The sign was small and white and similar in style to the one in Mr. Valencia’s yard, which alerted passersby to the fact that the Valencia home was protected by a Safelux security system. Tom and Carlotta’s new sign carried a different message: this household lives on real time.

“My mom thinks they’re drug dealers,” said Gabby, whose house was right next door to theirs. Her mother, a lawyer, clicked around in high heels and navy blue suits. “She thinks they’re growing shitloads of pot in their house.”

“You think?” I said. I had stopped by her house that Saturday, having nothing else to do. We were sitting around in her bedroom.

“It’s total bullshit, of course,” said Gabby. “My mom thinks that anyone who’s different is some kind of criminal.”

Two scabs had formed on the inside of Gabby’s right wrist in the shape of a sun and a perfect crescent moon. Her parents, when they saw the scabs, had sent her to a psychiatrist whom she now met with every week.

“Guess what,” she continued. “I met this guy online, and he thinks there’s going to be some kind a revolution.”

“What do you mean?”

“He thinks millions of people are going to fight the government over clock time.”

While the rest of us purchased sunlamps and installed blackout curtains for sleeping through the white nights, several thousand Americans attempted to remain in tune with daylight. The human body could adapt, they claimed, right alongside the earth. Already their circadian rhythms were adjusting, they reported, gradually stretching like elastic. They simply slept longer, stayed awake for more hours, ate a fourth meal in the late afternoon.

I used to hear Tom and Carlotta outside sometimes in the middle of our night. On sunny evenings, they would work in their yard while the rest of the street tried to sleep. I recall the metallic ring of gardening shears, the shuffle of sandals on the sidewalk, the voices moving through the quiet air. It was like a haunting: two dimensions of time occupying a single space.

In science that week, our butterflies wiggled out of their cocoons. It happened in fifth period, the last class of the day, but the sun was just beginning to rise. We had learned that butterflies almost always emerge in the morning.

“See?” said Mr. Jensen, a mug of coffee in his hand. “You can’t fool them. They know it’s morning.”

We all watched the butterflies hop and flutter, then flicker off into the sky. We knew, of course, what those butterflies did not: how short and hard their lives would be.

I remember that Mr. Jensen’s eyes looked red and watery that day. He seemed exhausted, his ponytail shaggier than usual, his beard a little wilder.

On the following Monday, we arrived in science to find sitting behind Mr. Jensen’s metal desk a young woman in a gray pantsuit. She’d written her name on the board: Miss Mosely. A substitute. “For a while,” she said. “Probably for the rest of the year.”

That’s the way it happened sometimes—people just disappeared.

Some of Mr. Jensen’s things stayed in the lab with us for the rest of the year: his silver thermos, a mud-splattered pair of hiking boots, a blue windbreaker wadded up on a shelf. Some of our sundials would sit in the windowsill until June, forever reporting fantastical times. One butterfly cocoon remained smoothly sealed in the terrarium, its inhabitant never to emerge and instead, weeks later, to be scraped off the ceiling by Miss Mosely’s scalpel and tossed into the trash with the shards of a broken beaker.

We were not told the reason for Mr. Jensen’s departure, a rumor spread that he had gone off the clock, and unlike the earlier reports, which had contended that Mr. Jensen spent his nights in a sleeping bag under his desk, I sensed that this new rumor was true.

We never saw Mr. Jensen again, but I continued to see Sylvia sometimes on our street.

She soon lost most of her students, and I worried for her. She looked cheerful enough from a distance, though, always waving to me from her driveway as she unloaded her car of canvas bags from the health food store or set out for a run, her red hair flying in the breeze behind her.

I knew that her life during that time must have been complicated. After all, most everything ran on the clock. It wasn’t just the schools but the doctors and the dentists and the mechanics, the grocery stores and the gyms, the restaurants and the movie theaters and the malls. Inevitably, Sylvia and the other real-timers must have arranged certain aspects of their lives around ours, or else they simply went without.

It must have grown harder with each passing week as the earth continued to slow and the days continued to expand.


In the first few weeks on clock time, sales of prescription sleeping pills spiked. The manufacturers of blackout curtains could not keep up with demand. Sleep masks went on backorder for months. There were runs on valerian root and other herbal sleep remedies. Some grocery stores sold out of chamomile tea.

Sales of alcohol and cigarettes also increased, and there is some evidence that clock time spelled big business for the harder drugs, too. Urban police departments reported steep rises in the price per ounce of anything capable of knocking a person out.

In some parts of the country, people took to sleeping in basements on the brightest of the white nights, but most houses in California were built without roots, leaving us trapped aboveground with the light.

Certain clock nights still coincided with the dark, but perfect alignment was rare. Whenever a lightless night did roll around, we slept as much as we could. But it was never enough. We were like wanderers in a desert, blessed with a rare downpour but unable to store the rain.

Sleep had never come easily to my mother. Insomnia ran in her blood. On clock time, she could rest only when it was truly dark. I used to hear her in the kitchen, late on luminous nights, the teakettle whistling, the muffled music of the television on low. Sometimes she scrubbed the bathrooms all night, and the smell of pine and bleach would seep under the door of my bedroom. I lay awake, too, on some of those evenings. A thin square of light glowed around the edges of the quilts we’d tacked over my bedroom windows. You could always tell when it was daylight outside. You just knew.

My father, on the other hand, slept fine. He bought my mother all kinds of gadgets for her troubles. A special device, part sunlamp, part alarm clock, was supposed to mimic the effect of sunset with the slow fade of its bulb. A brand-new sound machine on her bedside table emitted the soothing sounds of ocean waves and waterfalls, breezes rustling through trees.

Nothing worked for my mother.

I don’t know how she stayed awake to teach her classes or lead the rehearsals of her students’ production of

The skin beneath her eyes turned a shadowy gray. She cried over the tiniest things. “I don’t know why I’m crying,” she’d say as she mopped up a broken wineglass or nursed a stubbed toe. She would wipe her eyes with the backs of her wrists. “I’m not really this upset.”

I caught her sobbing once in her bathroom, crouched over a bottle of liquid makeup that had cracked open on the white tile, its contents slowly bleeding across the floor. Her spine arched and shook as she wept. It was the twentieth hour of light.

Meanwhile, the birds continued to suffer. I never thought about how many had lived among us until they started dropping from the sky. Once, an entire flock of starlings lay down together to die in the street near our school. Traffic was rerouted while a special crew cleared the bodies away. The flies lingered for hours.

As we stepped off the school bus one dusky afternoon, we found a tiny sparrow, half dead, in the middle of the sidewalk. A few of us crouched around it as the bus pulled away. The bird was breathing but otherwise motionless.

I reached down and touched it on its back. I gave it the gentlest stroke. I could feel the shadows of the other kids standing near me, watching.

“Maybe it needs water,” said someone behind me. I was surprised to hear Seth Moreno’s voice. He usually rode away on his skateboard as soon as he got off the bus. “Does anyone have any water?” he asked.

“I do,” I said. I pulled from my bag a half-empty bottle. I was glad that I could supply in that moment the one thing that Seth wanted. Our fingers brushed as I handed him the bottle. He didn’t seem to notice.

Trevor sacrificed his retainer case, and then Seth filled it with water for the bird.

We stared at the sparrow. We waited. It continued to breathe, a rapid irregular shudder, but it made no move for the water. It made no move at all. The sun was setting behind us, and the orange light shone brightly on its feathers.

I watched Seth watching the bird. He was only a few feet away from me, but I sensed an enormous space between us. I could not guess what he was thinking.

Then Daryl suddenly rushed into the circle, the Ritalin in his veins perhaps unable to override his desires. He grabbed the little bird with his bare hands and spun away with it and ran.

“Daryl,” we all shouted. “Leave it alone!”

Seth took off after him, sprinting toward the edge of the canyon.

The next thing happened quickly: Before Seth could catch up to him, Daryl snapped his arm back like a pitcher and threw the bird up into the sky and over the lip of the canyon.

This was a time in my life when things were happening every day that would have seemed impossible only the day before, and here was one more. I still remember the bird’s long arc through the sky. I kept waiting for its wings to flap open and catch the wind. But it dropped to the floor of the canyon like a rock.

“Fuck you, Daryl,” shouted Seth.

“It was dying anyway,” said Daryl.

That’s when Seth pulled Daryl’s backpack right off of his shoulders and hurled it into the canyon in the same direction as the bird. We watched the backpack soar and then fall through the air, the straps flailing as it fell, just as we had watched the bird.

Daryl stood at the rim of the canyon, staring down.

I felt a swell of gratitude for Seth. I wanted to say something, but he jumped on his skateboard right away and zoomed off, leaning hard into the turn that took him out of sight.

Soon the rest of us scattered, too. We were growing more accustomed every day to the small terrors of life. There was nothing to do but go home.

Around that same time, we heard that the cancer had spread to Seth’s mother’s bones, and Seth stopped coming to school. I heard she died at home in the middle of a long white night.

I composed a letter of sympathy on the inside of one of my mother’s notecards, the front of which shimmered with van Gogh’s
Starry Night.
I wanted to communicate something important and right. But I quickly crossed out everything I’d written and pulled a fresh card from the stationery box. This time I wrote a single sentence, just two words:
I’m sorry.
I signed my name and dropped it in the mail.

BOOK: The Age of Miracles
8.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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