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Short Story Contest Third-Place Winner: Night

Lish Troha author of "Night"
Lish Troha author of “Night.” Photo by Becca Fay, Instagram handle @faybelphotography.

October 8th, 2019, 1:41 PM: The sun goes out. You didn’t know even this could happen.

Actually, no one did, and the event (particularly its previously assumed impossibility) rocks the scientific community. Within 24 hours, the big minds are in a tizzy, everyone coordinating departures for major cities to talk physics. What happened? How could it? Why didn’t anyone see it coming? What are our chances for survival? These things and more will be broadcast ad nauseam on every major news network, starting now and ending never.

Fascinatingly—or perhaps not at all—it happens in the same manner that any other light goes out. Like a candle being extinguished or a bedside lamp getting unplugged: One moment there’s yellow warmth and sight; the next, everything’s gone.

Except when the sun goes out you’re playing kickball in Phys Ed. Larry Schermer rolls the red, slightly deflated ball towards you, and you swing back your leg. As the ball approaches your foot, the change occurs. Now it’s night. Still you kick the ball way out to left field, but no one cares. Instead your classmates start looking up and around. They survey the sky, instantly marbled with billions of stars, and wait for normalcy to resume. It doesn’t. They sort of giggle, getting excited, like the power’s mysteriously gone out.

Must be an eclipse, right? If so, it was the universe’s fastest eclipse. And unlike an eclipse, there’s never a restoration of color and activity. This is nighttime for all time. You know within an hour that this is how life is going to be, but the adults have to consult the higher-ups. You sit in what should be art class watching various reporters discuss The Situation. DARKDAY 2019, the scrolling marquees say. #Goodbyesun starts trending. Your classmates frantically call their parents even though nothing’s really wrong; it’s just not light out anymore.

The only blessing at this moment is Lillian Bexter. She’s sitting right beside you. Like everyone else she’s intrigued by the news, but she isn’t overly terrified—not like some of the other drama queens (I’m including your teacher in this description) who are holding their stomachs and blinking back tears. They keep telling everyone to hush as they absorb the non-information being regurgitated on every channel. “Breaking news,” these people say, “It’s dark.”

You’ve been in love with Lillian Bexter for approximately 10,000 years. She’s smart; she’s cool; she’s got ringlets that slip from her blonde ponytail for God’s sake. Never have you been able to talk to Lillian, but today, there’s this omnipresent shadow for you try on. You are not the same boy as the one who lived in sunshine.

“Lil,” you say to her.

She glances over, the contours of her face cast in TV light.

“Let me walk you home after this.”

Your blushing cheeks are disguised in the dark and Lillian shrugs, smiling.

Class ends early; this thing is a classified as an emergency. You pick up Lillian’s bookbag and offer to carry it. She hesitates and you can tell she’s conflicted about how to feel: Insulted that you consider her incapable of carrying books, or smitten by the chivalrous display? Ultimately, though, she’s practical. She honestly doesn’t like carrying things. She lets you have both backpacks, one thrown over each shoulder. You’ve never felt so proud to strain your back.

On the walk to her house (the crickets have gotten their cue and started up, by the way), you talk about everything except the sunless Earth. All the things you want to know about her, you ask, finally: “Do you have any pets?” (A terrier, Bridget.) “What’s your favorite band?” (The Beatles.) “Have you ever kissed a boy?” (No, why?) This is when the lightlessness fails to embolden you. Falling silent, you give Lillian her books and let your gaze linger on her for a little while. Let it build. Give it time. In she goes and you head home, releasing a tight lungful of air.

Before you know it, every factory in the world’s a flashlight manufacturer. More lights are produced on planet Earth in the month after the sun’s extinction than in all of history combined. Your mother and father, no more panicked than you, fill a shopping cart with lights and bring them all home. They laugh as they scatter them across the floor. Soon your house becomes nothing but various light sources never beyond arm’s reach. Whatever those other trinkets were for, they’re not worth much now.

Much too soon, frost covers the ground, but it doesn’t twinkle without the aid of a lantern. If you look closely, you can see the corpse of the sun against the other stars, hanging in the sky like a formidable 8-ball. An even sharper eye can spot the moon on the other side where it cuts a nearly indiscernible black circle. The sky becomes everything; it replaces our love for landscapes. Whereas once we lived for the neon hues of dusk and dawn, now it’s the pale haze of our galaxy we drool over. We become a new species, heads constantly tilted back, mouths gaping. People’s neck muscles are always sore.

In the mornings (which feel odd to call “morning”), confusion is the default emotion. Fashion goes out of fashion. You pick up clothes to don, paying no mind to what they are, and go over to Lillian’s every day. She wants to sleep a lot (she is, after all, diurnal like the rest of us) but you remind her that if she does that she won’t get to see how everything goes down.

“There will never be another thing like this, Lil,” you say, handing her two flashlights and a headlamp. “Of course we’re all going to die. We were always all going to die. At least it’s interesting now.”

Lillian takes a breath. She tries to strike a few yoga poses to calm herself before she stops, saying, “Oh what the hell.”

You link arms with her as you peruse the town. The two of you peer inside a Best Buy aglow with enormous HDTVs where about 20 uniformed employees are watching CNN. Apparently, there were signs of this for years, but we were too focused on global warming to notice. Without the requisite cockiness to deflect and scapegoat someone else, the eggheads take the fall: They were so egocentric as to believe the Earth was the problem rather than the sun. This is why science can’t be trusted.

Reporters ask the stupidest questions: “Is there any way we can, you know, in some way, re-light the sun?” Asks a pretty news anchor. The bespectacled professor emeritus of something pretends not to think she’s an idiot. “No,” he says, “No, there isn’t.” Then he jokes, “It’s not like a tiki torch, you know.”

Some astrophysicists give us a hundred years (“The atmosphere will hold plenty of warmth as we figure this thing out”), others give us a thousand, and a few give us one. You are with Lillian so it doesn’t matter one bit.

And further into the void which is actually a road, you find a bench facing a man-made pond. You shine a light onto the collapsed cattails and catch the eyes of a muskrat in the beam. Even closer, an opossum scurries, its nude and pointed tail dragging across the ground. Lillian jumps (this is how you learn she’s got a fear of rats), gripping your t-shirt. Together you laugh.

The little kiss afterwards is so natural you can’t believe how afraid you were of it. Then the little kiss becomes long and wet. You’ve never explored anything so fully with your lips; what an amazing tool you’ve been missing out on! You’re astounded by the sensitivity of these instruments which work in tandem—one upper, one lower—and how fully they can explore the lithe space of neck Lillian bares to you. Later they detect the firmer nuances of her jawbone and temples. You learn a new skill: Not just kissing, but the exquisite exploration of the subtle. Textures that would’ve otherwise gone unnoticed are available to you now only because you dared to venture into this city bench makeout session.

After three weeks, people stop going to work. Fundamental collapse is inevitable. Upon seeing this, industry executives and politicians try to dismiss the incident, but it’s not like climate change: The darkness and cold are too fast. They’re here now. We can see it with our eyes and feel it with our skin. There’s no denying this, and there’s no way the people will cobble the machine back together this time around. With this revelation, a spirit of collective nihilism takes over.

Streets are overrun with children playing flashlight tag. In graveyards, ouija boards emanate the orange softness of tealights and witchy girls huddle up in wool shawls. Everyone has sex—lots and lots of sex. There’s cheerful drinking at all hours (and, too, mournful drinking, just like there always was). There are campfires and s’mores every day, open for all to enjoy. People turn on their Christmas lights way ahead of time, and they won’t ever turn them off.

Now it’s been two months since the sun gave out and you’re sitting with Lillian under a crocheted blanket in the garden behind your house. Inside, your parents are making love. You can’t hear it, but you’re sure it’s happening. If the sun was still working, the thought of this would disgust you. But, as evidenced by your snuggling with Lillian (and by the fact that you’ve become her first kiss), there’s some kind of magic in this chaos. It makes you brave and free. Daylight made everything seem one way and you were mostly asleep for the dark. Now things always feel ancient, ancestral. In this eternal pre-Genesis moment, your parents should be in their home making love.

Most of the insects have died off. It’s so silent you notice a ringing in your ears—you wonder, has that always been there?—and become fearful that Lillian will hear the uncontrolled processes of your body. Your stomach bubbles and your heart rate picks up.

In the quiet, you think a thought too sweet to say. It offends your burgeoning masculinity. But Lillian, as though the receptor of your thoughts (and caring not at all about being too sweet), has no problem getting it out: “Whatever happens, I think there will always be plenty of light.”

She rests her head on your shoulder and that is that.

 

Lish Troha is currently a traveling writer whose home base is in the Pacific Northwest.