For the third time, Ellen Machin asked for permission to turn on the light. She said she could no longer stand the dark. Before that, she had complained about a lot of things—her prickly blanket, her two-day-old canker sore, and Poochi, the family dog, burying his head inside her pillow no matter how many times Ellen shooed him away. But Jack knew that his five-year-old daughter’s tantrums boiled down to one thing: the dark.
“Just a spark, Daddy,” she pleaded.
“Keep your hands away from the switch, young lady,” he said. He only called her “young lady” when he was irritated.
Like other middle-class families, the Machins conserved energy and resorted to their meager light sources only when necessary. The last time they decided to use the lone five-watt overhead lighting fixture was three days ago. That was when they needed to adjust the thermostat to the lowest bearable temperature setting and to strategically position their foodstuff and utensils so they could easily eat in the dark. They had to make the energy last to provide heat for their small underground basement and for the occasional cooking.
As much as possible, Jack Machin insisted on bundling several layers of thick wool blankets to counteract the cold.
It was the eighty-second day of the longest night. Every 42 years, the planet was blanketed in darkness for nineteen months and three days.
“What do we do tomorrow, Dad?” Ellen asked
“We sleep, honey. We sleep. Then we wait for morning.”
Morning was not meant to comfort Ellen, because they knew it remained dark throughout. But it felt good to say the word once in a while. Besides, conjuring the image of sunrise would not hurt. Sunrise would spell hope, would dispel the foreboding of a long season of rambling what-ifs. What if the planet’s elliptical orbit stretches further, expanding its circumference and lengthening the nineteen-month darkness? This had been observed in a similar-sized planet in NGC 1300. What if nobody survives afterward? What if everyone succumbs to loneliness, the eventual bouts of depression brought about by hormonal imbalance? What then?
When they sat down in the dark, they usually talked about the bouts of vivid dreams. Jack and Anita took turns explaining to their daughter that the strange dreams resulted from the long period of uninterrupted darkness. It increased the rate of melatonin production in the pineal gland, leading to vivid dreams. Anita said that she had dreamt in sequence, and she was confident that she could sustain the sequence. For four days, she had the same dream: preparations for Thanksgiving dinner. In the dream, she made cranberry sauce. The only thing that changed was the kitchen. This time, it was a country kitchen. Anita said that she was surprised she was able to manage working on a brick oven when she had never seen or worked in one before. Jack was able to control the timing of his dreams, too. In his dream, he was a famous golf pro. He liked having that dream and had “programmed” it to replay the same triumphant scene near the waterhole. The only thing he willed to change was the intensity and duration of the applause from his dream-audience.
The Machin family had just eaten—biscuits and sardines in olive oil. They ate in the dark, scratched the bottom of the tin cans with their forks. Poochi slurped his meal from his doggie bowl.
Anita ran out of ways to entertain her family. She played the guitar in the dark yesterday. Ellen sang along with her mother. Jack, who pretended to like the tune and was grateful for the darkness that concealed his reaction, appreciated his wife’s doggedness to keep the family up and about.
Two hours each day, he switched on the small transistor radio. The government broadcasts always ended on the same note: an emphasis on exercising and staving off the eventual depression that came with the long period of darkness.
A siren wailed outside. It was probably another suicide. Jack told another joke, which made Ellen laugh.