On May 6th, 2017, at exactly 1:53 AM Central Standard Time, the sun turned off.
Around the time when the piercing rays of the sun would normally be peeking through the blinds, curtains, and tent flaps of the Western Hemisphere, hundreds of millions were shutting off their alarms and groaning, reluctantly dragging themselves out of bed for a day of work, school, or driving to visit Aunt JJ in El Paso. But there was no sunlight.
Manuel Hidalgo of Santiago, Chile didn’t notice. Neither did the Ross family of Lincoln, Nebraska, nor the entire city of Pittsburgh. However, Uh Yong-Sook in Seoul did, as did 80,347,568 Chinese farmers and 458 kangaroo ranchers. 3,434,847 people fell off their bikes after suddenly not being able to see where they were going. 84,568 people, in 189 different languages, asked someone near them, “Is there a solar eclipse happening?” 27,446 people replied “I don’t think so,” 14,871 said “No idea,” 4,104 said “Yes,” and 38,157 people pretended like they didn’t hear.
8,408,372 people screamed, 2,109,334 people pinched themselves, 843,145 laughed, and two drunk middle-aged men shouted at their wives to turn the lights back on, even though they were both outside.
As billions of electrons zoomed along cables stretching across the Earth, carrying with them messages, pictures, and cries for help, newscasters, used car salesmen, and gourmet chefs all asked the same question: Where did the sun go?
Whether it was through TV, radio, or looking outside, by 9:24am CST, nearly everyone on Earth knew that something was wrong. Everyone except 284,485,460 kids too young to know what the sun was, 45,278,994 elderly who refused to believe it, and 83,428 people in comas.
Katie Webster of Tuskegee, Alabama didn’t see it either.
On May 6th, 2017, at 9:24 AM Central Standard time, Katie Webster was where she normally was at this time: sleeping in her bed, where she would remain for another six hours or so. Her mother, Mary Webster, was downstairs in her kitchen, watching her TV in disbelief. Her twelve-year old brother Mac and fourteen year-old-sister Angie were sitting at the table, patiently coloring some pictures of dolphins and squirrels. And her father, Roy Webster, was currently in Alaska, getting drunk off four different types of liquor, although none of them knew that. After two years of having to deal with three kids on opposite sleep schedules, Roy had gone out for a pack of cigarettes and never come back.
Katie Webster was born August 16th, 2010, weighing in at seven pounds, five ounces. Her breathing was steady, appetite good, and she laughed and cried as much as any other baby.
One year later, her mom took her in to the doctor after she got a particularly bad sunburn. After hours in the ER, a team of a dozen or a hundred doctors broke the news. They called it Xeroderma Pigmentosum. It was rare, it was serious, and it wasn’t going anywhere. All Katie saw were a bunch of giants in white coats. Then she saw her mom start to cry, so she cried too.
After two days of no sun, the potent initial shock subsided and gave way to a more sustained, constant fear around the world. Hundreds came forward as the Messiah, the Second Coming, the Grand Wizard of Destiny, announcing that Judgement Day was upon them and God, Satan, or some fourth-dimensional shape-shifters were coming to save them or damn them. Millions believed it.
It was the golden age of TV news. They brought on agriculture experts claiming that plants need light to grow. They brought on thermodynamic physicists claiming that the sun provides heat to the Earth. They brought on clinical psychologists claiming that sunlight combats depression and fatigue. They brought on nutritionists and biologists, photographers and congressmen, astronomers and practitioners of sorcery and magic, all with the same doomed message. The more fear they produced, the higher their numbers climbed, as more and more sat in their homes, too afraid to go outside, to look out their windows, to confront the debilitating terror that what was going on in the world of their TV’s might be going on in their world as well.
Meanwhile, great plans were set in motion by the governments of the world.
China quickly pulled together a mission to the dark and lifeless sun – but it failed shortly after liftoff because an engineer working on the first stage decoupling had gotten distracted by a donut and input pi as 31.4159265.
Germany figured out how to extract nutrients from rocks and, with no time for preliminary trials, enlisted a few thousand brave souls to try out the diet. It wasn’t tasty, but it kept them alive. At least for a few days, until they all began experiencing diarrhea the likes of which has never been seen before on Earth. Their hair started to fall out, their nails grew at 1000x the normal rate, and their tongues turned blue. And then they died slow, painful deaths.
And the UN commissioned a great ship to be built, filled with great works of art, music, and literature, history books and science books, pictures, videos, machines, artifacts, and relics: things to capture the essence, the beauty, and hardship of humanity. They cast it away, on a course out of the solar system. They hoped that one day, somewhere deep in the future, something would find it and think about humans, about Earth, about the fact that humanity existed and, in some small way, mattered.
However, nothing seemed to work. No amount of funds, bureaucracy, or bipartisanship seemed to be able to overcome the brutal fact that the source of Earth’s heat, energy, and life for billions of years was now gone.
Katie Webster couldn’t quite grasp what was happening. Her world of darkness and artificial light now pervaded into the hours when she was usually locked away behind her protective curtains. “Hey, on the bright side, now you’ll never get a sunburn,” her mom had said through choked tears and bitter fear. Katie wasn’t quite sure what she meant.
Katie wasn’t quite sure of a lot of things. Like why her tutor Jody hadn’t been showing up. She missed her warm hugs and coffee breath. On the other hand, Mac and Angie seemed to be around a whole lot more. But when Katie asked them why they weren’t at school, all they did was stare back with wide eyes, before looking at the TV.
Whenever her mom would wake her up at these strange hours and she would ask why, all she would get is “don’t worry, Katie.” But she was worried. Her life had suddenly changed, and she had no idea why.
Word spread that they had a couple of weeks before it would get noticeably colder. A few more after that and the outer extremities of the Earth would be virtually uninhabitable. Two months in, they expected hypothermic deaths by the millions. Six months, and it was a different world.
Governments urged people back to work – food, water, and energy require working economies. They reopened schools to keep children busy, and poured billions into research, though whether to focus on astronomy or theology was anybody’s guess. They promised that they had the best and the brightest working overtime, though 87,431 of the best and 44,181 of the brightest had long since retreated to secret cabins far from civilization.
Out of the public eye, delicately hatched plans began to take shape as many vied for the heroic position of savior: savior of themself, savior of their family, and savior of humanity.
The last, and only, time Katie had been on anything like a school bus was when her mom had let her go with Angie on a stargazing field trip. She remembered the foreign world of chatter, gossip, hormones. Laughter rung in her ears as she lay on the mossy ground, drawing lines between stars. That was also the last time she heard laughter that wasn’t Jody’s. She wondered why everybody laughed differently, and why school buses were yellow.
She wondered why she was now on a school bus, surrounded by strangers. She wasn’t used to this many people; it was disorienting and destabilizing. She joked about it being a magic school bus to the girls behind her. They stared for a second before continuing to talk about their favorite youtubers. Years of being exposed Jody’s antiquated taste in TV let her down as attempt after attempt to relate ended in failure. She retreated into her seat, silently hoping that these were the popular girls and she would find company in a less highly-viewed, but less critical clique.
Her mom had said to take the bus back home after school. She wondered how long school was. She spent the day being told about numbers by sweaty grown-ups, even though Jody had already taught her all of it. She quickly learned to keep quiet and not answer every question, even though she knew the answers. However, the damage was done, as rumors and notes spread about the smart-alec new girl.
After a lonely lunch, she reluctantly rode a wave of children out to the blacktop. Katie watched as other kids ran around the huge floodlights, screaming and pushing. She had never seen so many kids. She didn’t even know places like this existed.
Like an astronaut emerging from a ship onto a hostile alien planet, she was cautious and scared. She noticed a patch of trees and ran to it, thinking of the woods behind her house, something familiar, something safe, something she knew more intimately than books and tv shows. She began exploring, stomping around when her teacher, Mrs. Fuller, came up to her.
“Hey sweetie, would you mind coming back to the blacktop?”
Katie didn’t want to and didn’t think she had to listen to Mrs. Fuller.
Mrs. Fuller persisted.
“Listen, honey, we want everybody on the blacktop so we can watch – ”
“Why were you crying in the bathroom this morning?”
Mrs. Fuller stared. Katie, curious and ignorant, didn’t stop.
“Is it because your stomach is so big, and it makes you look weird?”
Mrs. Fuller, five weeks away from giving birth to a son in a world with no light, cried the whole drive home, but not before telling the other teachers to deal with “that little devil child in the woods.”
It took four of them to finally manage to get Katie back on the blacktop. And there she stood, a lonely and confused astronaut taken prisoner on an alien planet.
After a few minutes she noticed a boy coming towards her.
She knew about boys. She had read 2,731 pages and watched 1,459 minutes of tv about boys. She wondered what kind of boy he would be.
He waved, so she waved back. Would he be a mean boy? He said “Hi,” and she said “Hi.” Would he pull her hair?
His name was Michael. Eventually he went up to her and tapped her arm.
She watched him run away, looking back over his shoulder. She stood there, bewildered and sad. A few minutes later he returned.
“Are you gonna tag me?” he asked.
After he explained, off they ran, and 30 minutes and 30 tags later, Katie and Michael stumbled inside, grinning from ear to ear.
The cold was steadily growing, the darkness relentless and infinite. Rationing began in Australia, Angola, and Amsterdam, after two months and eighteen days in the dark. Millions of farm animals had died, and farmers rushed to salvage any meat they could. But instead of selling it off, they decided to keep it, as they realized that they didn’t need money; what they needed was food. And just like that, thousands of years after its inception, the people of the world began to lose faith in the institution that had nurtured civilization, forged great armies, and dominated the lives of kings and peddlers alike. Farmers everywhere, embittered by the cold, sent shockwaves of doubt and fear all around the globe.
The hoarding came first, then the looting. Neighbors became enemies as they wondered how much gas, food, water they were hiding from each other. As communities slowly crumbled, so did common notions of civility, of manners, of patience, courtesy, and shared humanity.
A few places managed to band together, to cooperate and channel their common fear into productivity instead of hostility. The town of Doolin, Ireland, managed to pool all of their resources and restore faith in the local government, successfully doling out rations and making tough decisions to ensure their survival for as long as possible.
Addis Ababa pulled together like no other city could, with 90% of able adults going in to work, to keep the city functioning and producing, spurring the economy and keeping their supplies of food and energy steady.
And a small town in Australia decided to go out with a bang, gathering all of their food and alcohol and throwing a fifteen-day feast, filled with music, dancing, and debauchery, preferring to spend their last days in the hedonistic presence of friends and loved ones as opposed to slowly dying from the hunger, if not the cold.
As hope deteriorated, an idea, the inklings of a plan, were born in the mind of a prominent energy researcher, and a few weeks and phone calls later, Dr. Laura Butler announced her daring and heroic plan to save the Earth.
In front of reporters, cameras, and the world, Dr. Butler and her coalition of scientists described her pioneering new method of energy extraction, capable of producing sixteen times the energy from the same amount of fuel. This, coupled with a special form of lamp inspired by those used to treat babies with Jaundice, could save millions, if not billions, she said.
By producing not only light that mimics sunlight, but also vast amounts of heat, the lamps could not only provide the necessary conditions for humans to survive, but crops and animals, too. Everybody would have to gather in densely packed cities, leaving their homes, their lives, the memories behind them. Life would be unquestionably altered, but life would remain.
Billions donated, and research and development began. Countless scientists, engineers, urban planners, and designers offered their services, and for a select few, she graciously accepted and let them join her team. The world held its breath as its hope for survival was crafted in labs and factories, while food, water, and heat continued to decline.
At lunch the next day, Katie was sitting alone when Michael plopped his tray and himself down next to her.
They spent recess running, jumping, tagging, and laughing. As Katie rested against the wall after a particularly taxing but successful tag, a girl came up to her.
“Are you playing tag?”
Katie recognized her from lunch the day before. She didn’t let Katie sit next to her.
“Yes, but you can’t play!” Katie screamed, blind rage erupting, the painful memory of one of her first ever rejections reverberating in her head, the deep desire for revenge, for justice, for this girl, this witch to feel how she had felt-
But as Katie watched her walk away, she remembered the Golden Rule. Words she had read countless times, had heard countless characters speak.
“Sorry, you can join if you want.”
And like that, Amber entered her life and her games of tag.
Katie, Michael, and Amber spent every recess racing among the trees and the kids, feeling the soles of their shoes grind the asphalt, releasing the beautiful smell of rubber and rock that Katie was growing to love so much.
Soon, they were joined by a third. Then a fourth. After her first two weeks at school, Katie had acquired a small posse of recess-time adventure-seekers and tag-fanatics. They ran, carefree, under the floodlights, dodging each others’ hands, laughing, screaming, unaware of the stress, worry, and fear dominating the minds of the teachers who stood around them, silent and bleary-eyed. One day, she tripped and fell. She skinned her knee and cut her lip, but she didn’t care. She felt more alive than she ever had; her knee became a symbol for adventure, her lip a symbol for freedom.
The other kids were impressed by Katie’s agility and speed, skills nurtured and improved over countless empty nights running through the woods around her home, just her and a million crickets, all ignoring her mother’s cries to return home. Exploring was her love, an escape from the strange, dull world inside the house. The woods were her home; she felt warm and safe, even on those cold moonlit nights.
Never did she realize that there were others just like her out there, others wishing to feel the wind in their hair and sweat on their necks. She had always been so alone, assumed it would be that way forever. But as she played, she found warmth and safety in these people. She began smiling and laughing with them during class, talking about candy and cartoons on the bus, and feeling a bittersweet contentment as she left them, sad to leave but excited to laugh with them tomorrow.
Her mom, resigned to their new life of darkness, took down the blackout curtains in her room and Katie sat on her bed, looking up at the sunless sky filled with stars. Her dark prison cell became a waiting room with a view, a place to pass the hours until she could see her friends again.
Dr. Laura Butler and her team of world-savers worked tirelessly as the people of Earth watched. Men, women, and children put all of their faith in chemistry, in physics in thermodynamics and materials science and quantum mechanics. Updates came daily, and Dr. Butler spared them the jargon and complexity. She kept it simple and gratifying, enough to excite the public.
Hope became the new business of TV. As spirits lifted, communities started gathering to share food and watch the news together, the atmosphere contagious and electric with hope. Billionaires announced grand contributions, appearing on TV with Dr. Butler to accept them. Progress accelerated and the people of Earth began envisioning their future, one devoid of the light and heat of the sun but filled with the light and heat of chemical reactions, a cheap substitute but a substitute nonetheless.
The countdown began when Dr. Butler said they nearly had it; it was only a matter of days until they were ready for mass production. With all the manufacturing resources they had devoted, they could light the world in a few months.
Small celebrations were thrown, celebrations of human ingenuity and the sheer willpower to survive. Celebrations of that which had turned us from apes into kings in a cosmological second.
Then, one day, Dr. Laura Butler stopped showing up on TV. No longer did her voice assure everybody that the solution was close. The people of Earth remained incredulously glued to their screens, wondering what had happened. Bewilderment swept across the globe and remained until, a few days later, a weary looking man appeared on TV.
He apologized and apologized. Apologized he had taken part. Apologized he had been selfish. Apologized he had participated in the lies.
As he described the elaborate plan that had been born in the mind of Dr. Laura Butler and perpetuated by the hundreds brought in to legitimize it, people in all time zones felt like they were sinking to the depths of the deepest ocean trench. He said the guilt was eating him alive. He said it wasn’t fair, how he and the others had taken the world’s money and bought themselves tickets to survival. He said Dr. Laura Butler was so convincing, so trustworthy. She said it was for the survival of humanity, how only a few could survive, how they were pioneers, how they would go down in history as the saviors of the human race.
He described the elaborate underground structure being built; the true product of the world’s money. He described the systems of air filtration, water purification, and hydroponics he had worked on in exchange for a ticket to salvation and a closed mouth. He described how they would not only survive but thrive, a few thousand living in luxury and decadence while billions starved and froze above.
He had bought into it. He had believed Dr. Butler when she said that this was the only way. That without this humanity was doomed.
He apologized and apologized, and then he stepped out of view of the camera, never to be seen again.
Riots broke out, the worst the world has ever seen. Fires the size of cities lit up the globe, giving a brief respite from the eternity of cold that would follow. The collective outrage fueled a mass search for the underground safe haven the man was talking about. Within days it was found, deep in the Canadian wilderness. The infrastructure that remained of the internet was used to organize a mob hundreds of thousands strong, which descended on the location like a swarm. They burned the living quarters, ate the food, found those that had already moved in and mercilessly beat them, and promised the same for any yet to move in.
Dr. Laura Butler, Jesus turned Satan, was found fourteen miles away trying to escape. And the masses turned her into a horrifying example of the most brutal human capabilities, an example that was broadcast live on the internet for millions to watch.
Anger and mob mentality brought about the destruction of the underground Noah’s Ark, and just like that, humanity’s last hope for survival disappeared.
Katie’s mom sat her children down to explain what had happened. To explain that all hope was lost, that they didn’t have long. Katie didn’t pay much attention. Her mind was elsewhere, dreaming of what games they would play tomorrow. Content to go to school forever, as long as she could play with her friends.
She thought back to her world before, a world of artificial darkness and manufactured air inside her house, occasionally broken up when she was allowed to go outside. Now, the darkness was pure, deep, penetrating, the air crisp and smooth on the lungs. Her countless stuffed animals were replaced by real friends, friends who could laugh with her, get mad at her, talk to her.
Her mom spoke of the end of the world, but Katie was more worried about her friends: she thought of Michael, and Amber, and Michelle, and Drew and Ian. What would happen to them? Would they still be at school tomorrow?
On March 3rd, 2018, at exactly 12:17 PM Central Standard Time, the sun turned back on.
Manuel Hidalgo of Santiago, Chile, was temporarily blinded and dropped the makeshift club he was about to use to smash a grocery store window. The Ross family of Lincoln, Nebraska looked through the barricaded slats covering their window and screamed. The city of Pittsburgh, now a fraction of its population a few months earlier, felt the warm, comforting, life-affirming rays of the sun for the first time in two months, twenty-one days, fourteen hours and thirty-three minutes. They all stopped what they were doing and basked, like a city of a thousand lizards. They felt the warmth overtake them, reaching deep into their bones.
Uh Yong-Sook didn’t notice. Neither did 4,844,685 Chinese farmers or 47 kangaroo ranchers. But within minutes, electrons had zoomed across the Earth, informing them of the news. And they eagerly waited, waited, waited, for the most beautiful sunrise the world has ever seen.
At 12:17 PM, Katie Webster was outside, half a mile from her house, upset at her mom for not sending her to school, confused as to why her mom was saying school had stopped being organized.
So she had run away. She dashed through the woods, leapt over creeks, and stomped on all the dead plants. Then, suddenly, the sky opened up, and Katie Webster saw something she had only seen in the days before memory.
Panic gripped her, and she bolted out of the woods, emerging under the vast expanse of unfamiliar, starless blue sky. The rays of sunlight enveloped her, and she felt what everyone from British Columbia to Buenos Aires was feeling. She sat, stunned, for a minute that felt like a millennium. She wondered if Michael felt it too.
She heard her mom, crying her name. She ran back to the house, eager to share whatever this was with whoever was there. Nearing her back porch, she saw Mac and Angie dancing. As she rushed to join in, she saw her mom’s tear stained face emerge, stuck between what seemed like laughter and fear. She thought her mom was going in for a hug, so Katie opened her arms and embraced her.
Her mom held her tight and covered her with a blanket. Katie was confused while her mom dragged her inside, away from the warm, destructive, life-affirming and deadly rays of the sun. Katie flailed and fought in confusion and anger as she heard the door shut behind her.
While Mac and Angie Webster danced and sang, everywhere else friends hugged, families cried, and couples made so much love that nine months later hospitals around the world would suffer shortages of space and medical supplies. But no one thought of the future. All thought was on the present, and the sweet, simple joy of sunlight that came with it.
Huge celebrations kicked off, impromptu parades were thrown, and joy was spread on the rays of the sun.
Meanwhile, Mary Webster marched through her home, up her stairs, down the hall, and into the furthest bedroom, to hang up her daughter’s blackout curtains once more.
JIMMY BANTA studies Film and Math at NYU, and loves reading, watching, listening to, and consuming stories of all kinds. After spending time screenwriting, he recently decided to get into creative prose writing, which has been incredibly fun and rewarding. In his free time, he loves to enjoy nature, good music, good food, and good company.