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The big dark, p.1
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       The Big Dark, p.1

           Rodman Philbrick
 
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The Big Dark


  With love to Jan Bamberger,

  who was there when the story began

  CONTENTS

  TITLE PAGE

  DEDICATION

  GEOMAGNETIC INTERFERENCE

  1 THE NIGHT THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING

  2 BEEP BEEP, THIS WASN’T A TEST

  3 THE FIRST DAY AFTER

  4 HEAR THE WHISTLE BLOW

  5 THOSE WHO NEED

  6 MIGHT, MIGHT, MIGHT

  7 WHAT SHE SMELLED

  8 GRONK HAS AN ANSWER

  9 PLEDGING ALLEGIANCE

  10 CONSIDER THIS YOUR GAVEL

  11 BAMBI IN THE HALL

  12 WHAT MRS. ADLER SAID

  13 THE RETURN OF BARF MAN

  14 NOT ANOTHER WORD

  15 THE JUMPED-UP JANITOR

  16 TRACKS IN THE SNOW

  17 VENISON JERKY

  18 A TERRIBLE SURPRISE

  19 MILES TO GO BEFORE I SLEEP

  20 HUNGRY YELLOW EYES

  21 TRAY BON, HE SAID

  22 PROMISE YOU ME

  23 BEGGARS NOT WELCOME

  24 ANYWHERE BUT THERE

  25 THE DOOR AT THE END OF THE HALL

  26 BUTS AND BEES AND HONEY TREES

  27 INVISIBLE TOYS

  28 REMEMBER THE INUIT

  29 BETTER THAN CHRISTMAS

  30 MIGHT, NOT RIGHT

  31 BECCA RISES

  32 KING MAN MAKES A PROMISE

  33 IT HAS BEEN AN HONOR

  34 LUCK OF THE DRAW

  35 REMEMBER THIS

  EPILOGUE, OR WHAT HAPPENED AFTER THE END

  FOR THOSE WHO ARE CURIOUS

  ABOUT RODMAN PHILBRICK

  ALSO BY RODMAN PHILBRICK

  COPYRIGHT

  Geomagnetic Interference (GMI):

  A massive disruption of the Earth’s magnetic field that affects electrical circuits. Such a disturbance may interrupt, obstruct, or otherwise degrade or limit the effective performance of the circuit. In an extreme case, electricity as we know it fails.

  “Conductive Phenomena Related to

  Massive Solar Events”

  Journal of Applied Physics

  Joseph D. Mangano, PhD

  Where were you when the lights went out?

  I was in Harmony, New Hampshire, on a night so cold you could sneeze icicles, watching the aurora borealis break-dance across the Milky Way. It was New Year’s Eve, of course, we all remember that, those of us who survived. Most of the folks in Harmony (population 857 at the time) were out on a snowy baseball field, in the night shadows of the White Mountains, watching the sky go nuts. Me and my mom and my sister and most of my friends, we all saw it. Our science teacher, Mr. Mangano, had set up his telescope, but really you didn’t need a telescope. All you needed to do was open your eyes and look up.

  My name is Charlie Cobb. Everybody has their own story about the event or the pulse or whatever you want to call it. Must be, what, seven billion stories? This is mine. What happened when the big dark came to our little town, and what King Man did in the crazy cold, and the long trek down the mountain, all of it.

  Like everybody else that night, we thought we knew what to expect. The so-called northern lights would be visible as far south as Cuba, on account of a wicked big sun storm. Something about the solar wind hitting Earth’s atmosphere and putting on a light show. Mr. Mangano explained how it was a stream of hot gases belched out by the sun, and something about charged particles, whatever they are. All we really needed to know, me and my friends, was that we had a great excuse to be out late on New Year’s Eve. Outside in the dark of night, and not having to watch the stupid ball drop on boring old TV while they droned on about the cute, sad things that happened over the past year.

  Except it wasn’t dark that night. Me and my best friend, Gronk, we planned to set off some cherry bombs at midnight, but the sky was so bright his mom caught us before we had the chance to take off our mittens. It was so bright there were shadows on the snow, like in the daytime. It was so bright it almost hurt to watch, except you couldn’t not watch because you might miss something spectacular.

  When I think about it now, looking back, it was, like, super spooky, but at the time we thought it was really cool. People were oohing and ahhing like at real fireworks. Oh did you see that one, and Wow that was amazing. And it was amazing. There were sheets of shimmering green and shivering purple, and weird little flashes of red along the horizon, and colors no one could quite describe because we’d never seen anything like it. Imagine a lightning bolt hitting a box of crayons and turning it into colored steam. Like that. Electric colors rippling and pulsing as if they were alive. Colors so insane you almost forgot how cold it was, or maybe the cold made it more intense somehow.

  Like I said, most of the folks in Harmony were out on the baseball field that night, watching the light show and trying to keep warm. Moms and dads and little kids in puffy snowsuits. Some of the cars and SUVs had been left running so the owners could duck in and get a blast from the heaters. Everybody seemed happy to be there, witnessing something strange and beautiful.

  When it got to be ten minutes to midnight, somebody started shouting out a countdown and we all joined in. Ten minutes to the New Year! Nine minutes to the New Year! Like that. We’d gotten to seven minutes or so when it happened. A flash. Okay, more than a flash. Way more. A burst of light that filled the entire sky and whited out the stars, like the universe was trying to take a picture of planet Earth.

  I heard Mr. Mangano shout, “Close your eyes!” but it was too late, and for a couple of awful seconds it was like I’d gone blind. But I wasn’t blind at all. The lights had gone out. The lights from the sky, the pulsing northern lights, they were gone. And the red taillights and the soft dashboard lights from the cars and SUVs, and the lights from every house and building in Harmony, all suddenly switched off.

  It happened so fast that everybody gasped in surprise. And then some little kid started crying, and we could all hear his mother saying not to worry, it was just a blackout, a power failure like happened during the last snowstorm.

  “They’ll fix it soon,” she promised.

  Just then someone tugged on my sleeve. My sister, Rebecca. Also known as Becca or sometimes the Beckster. She’s not quite a year younger than me, but we’re both in the same grade because Becca is wicked smart. I mean scary smart sometimes, like she can figure out what I’m thinking. Or let me know what she’s thinking without having to say so.

  It was too dark for me to see her face, but I could tell she was worried.

  “Charlie,” she said in her husky voice. “My flashlight doesn’t work. Something is wrong.”

  Boy was she right about that.

  The thing with Becca’s mini flashlight, the one she wears on a lanyard cord around her neck? It was a present from my dad when she was little, to make her feel safer when she woke up with night terrors. She hasn’t had that kind of nightmare in a long time, but she keeps the flashlight close. Probably it reminds her of Dad and all that.

  At the moment, though, her flashlight was the least of our problems. Because as everybody understands now, it wasn’t any normal blackout. It wasn’t just the electrical grid that had gone down. Cars, trucks, generators, batteries, flashlights, tablets, all the phones, all the planes in the air—everything that used electricity had failed at exactly the same moment.

  It was like the entire world had been switched off.

  Of course we didn’t know that up in Harmony, not right away. It came to us gradual. That night it was the cars and pickup trucks and SUVs. Those that were running quit, and the rest wouldn’t start. Turn the key and nothing happened. Every vehicle was dark and getting colder by the moment, and people didn’t know what was going on or how to get home. Some could walk home in the starl
ight, but others lived miles away. And like I said, it was cold enough to sneeze icicles.

  My family, we were lucky because our house was only a few blocks from the baseball field. First thing Mom said was “Give me your hands. We have to stick together. Understand?”

  All we really understood that night, me and Becca, was that the fun had stopped all of a sudden. One second it was party time under the northern lights, the next it was dark and cold and scary.

  Anyhow, Mom knew the way well enough to lead us home. Inside the house it was black as night. Mom told us to wait in the hall and then made her way into the kitchen. We could hear her stumbling a bit and opening and closing drawers. Next thing her worried face was glowing in the light of a candle. “At least this works,” she said. “Charlie, I’m putting you in charge of the woodstove. I’m going to place another candle on top of it so you can see, and you will load the stove and start a fire and keep it going.”

  I could do that, even though my hands were shaking, and not just from the cold that was already starting to creep into the house, which is normally heated by oil, like most of the houses in the north country.

  Mom? She went back to the ball field with her candle and gathered up a bunch of the folks who were stranded and brought them to our place, where we all sat around in the glow of the woodstove.

  It was really late but nobody wanted to fall asleep. Not without knowing what would happen next.

  “It’ll come back on,” someone said, voice cracking in the dark. “Might take a day or two. Until then we’ll get by with generators.”

  A lot of the folks in Harmony had generators. We did, too—a good one, supposed to come on automatically if the power failed. Except it hadn’t come on.

  Never did. Wouldn’t turn over, wouldn’t start.

  That’s mostly what I remember about the first night, sitting around in the warmth of the woodstove with folks I sort of knew, but who were strangers, really. All of us scared, even the grown-ups, and it was the grown-ups who did most of the talking.

  “It was the flash. It did something. Knocked the power out.”

  “Huh! That science teacher guy said something about a solar flare. That’s why the sky was so crazy. I lived here all my life, I never seen northern lights like that.”

  Someone else spoke up. “Power goes out, no big deal, right? Happens now and then. Usually when a storm puts trees down on the wires, or maybe a transformer blows. But this is different. Batteries all dead? Car batteries, phone batteries? Every kind of battery not functioning? It ain’t right.”

  “No, sir, it ain’t right. You know those annoying emergency alerts they do on TV and radio? Beep beep, this is a test? If this was a real emergency, you’d have been instructed to tune to a local station? Has anybody tried that, tuning to a local station?”

  Mom explained that we had an Emergency Alert System radio in the kitchen, but it wasn’t working. “I went through all the double As in my spare drawer. Either the batteries are dead or the radio is, or both.”

  Somebody cursed, I’m not sure who.

  Mom said, kind but firm, “Not in front of the children, please. You want to curse the situation, be my guest, but do it outside. So. Anybody want hot chocolate? I can heat some up on the woodstove. Can’t make the radio work, or fix your cars, or explain what happened, but I can make hot chocolate.”

  “Thank you, Mrs. Cobb. We’re a little stressed is all.”

  “Understood. And please call me Emma.”

  “Thank you, Emma. For coming out with that candle and finding us in the cold of night. Thank you for inviting us into your home. And thank you for the hot chocolate.”

  “But I haven’t made it yet!”

  “Thank you just the same.”

  Took forever for the sun to rise, and for a time I worried maybe it wouldn’t. Like maybe the sun had blinked out or blown itself up. But it came up normal enough, edging over the horizon, a hot blob too bright to look at directly, and soon we could feel the heat of it coming through the windows. So planet Earth was still turning, and the sun was still burning.

  Only thing missing was electricity.

  That sun made us all feel better. By ten o’clock it was warm enough to melt the top layer of snow, and folks were saying the power would be restored soon. Maybe not in the north country, but for sure down in Manchester and Nashua. Then the TV news would come back on and explain what had happened and how long it would take to fix.

  Like we were making up for being so scared that first night by acting hopeful today.

  “You know what? With the sun on the hood and the battery warmed, I bet that car will start,” said one of our overnight guests, and everybody pretty much agreed.

  Except everybody was wrong. Mom cleaned the terminals on our Ford Explorer and tightened down the battery connections, but it didn’t make any difference. It was dead. Same with our so-called automatic generator. Everything that depended on electricity was stone dead.

  Mom finally gave up fiddling with the generator. Nothing doing. “When Joe said the solar flare might disrupt power, he wasn’t kidding, was he?”

  Joe is Mr. Mangano, our science teacher. Mom teaches at the same school, the younger grades. Mr. Mangano has the middle-school kids, and that includes me and Becca.

  “This thing with all the batteries being dead, that’s worrisome,” Mom said. “Charlie, you’re still in charge of keeping the house warm. That means feeding the stove, stacking the wood, moving an adequate supply into the house. Don’t want to let those pipes freeze.”

  “Sure, Mom. No problem.” Normally we might have left a faucet dripping at night, so the pipes wouldn’t freeze, but no power meant no water pressure because the well pump wasn’t working.

  Amazing what depends on electricity.

  “Becca, you will gather up buckets of snow and melt them near the stove. Then pour the melt water into the downstairs tub. We’ll need it for washing and cooking. For drinking we have enough bottled water for a few days at least. After that we’ll need to bring the melt water to a boil.”

  “After that?” said Becca, her eyes big.

  “This could go on for a little while, honey. We have to be prepared. Plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

  “I hate this!”

  “Nobody likes it. But from this moment on, we will do our best not to complain, understood? And thank our lucky stars we don’t live way out in the woods or farther up the mountain. We can walk to the Superette and the school and visit our neighbors. So it could be worse.”

  “That’s what you always say.”

  Mom laughed. “Because it’s always true. Chin up, Becca.”

  Chin up. My dad used to say that. The Beckster was worried sick—she’s always been the family worrier—but she fetched buckets of snow like Mom asked, and after a while she got into it, estimating how many gallons were stored in the tub.

  “Five gallons! Know how much snow had to melt to make five measly gallons? Forty pails!”

  I’d pretty much caught up with the woodstove—the house was practically toasty—when Gronk pounded on our front door.

  “Sorry, the bell don’t ring.”

  “Doesn’t!” Mom called from the kitchen.

  “Yes, Mrs. Cobb.”

  Gronk’s real name is Gary Small. He used to make snorting dinosaur noises, gronk-gronk-gronk, when he was little, and the name stuck.

  Mom came out of the kitchen. “Are you hungry, Gary? How’s everything at your house?”

  “I’m always hungry. We’re okay. My dad sent me over to tell you there’s a meeting at the school.”

  * * *

  The meeting was held on the steps outside the school, because with the sun shining it was actually warmer outside than inside the building. No school that day because it was a holiday, remember, but Harmony Center School is right in the center of Harmony (big surprise) so it made sense to gather there and share information.

  Not that anyone had information. Not the selectmen, not the
school principal, nobody. Nobody knew nuthin’.

  Which didn’t stop them talking about it.

  “There was a flash and everything went dead, am I right? We all saw it.”

  “Yeah, okay, a solar flare knocks out the grid, we heard that could happen. But this? This is crazy.”

  “You know what’s crazy? I yanked on my snowblower for an hour. Nothing. And that sucker always starts on the first pull.”

  “Flooded her, maybe?”

  “Trouble is there’s no spark. Same with my truck. No spark!”

  “Don’t make sense!”

  The only one with any new information was Mr. Mangano, who arrived last, cupping something small in his hands. Everybody shut up because before he became a teacher, Joseph Mangano used to be an actual scientist, launching weather balloons and measuring the atmosphere and cool stuff like that.

  “Anybody else checked a compass? No? Strange thing. Not sure what it means, but there’s a faint chance it might lead to an explanation of the phenomena.”

  “Phenomena? What are you talking about, Joe?”

  “The electrical phenomena, or rather the lack of electrical conduction. See? The compass no longer points to magnetic north. It isn’t pointed anywhere. It wanders. And all the magnets on my refrigerator dropped off. Can’t find a magnet that still works.”

  “So? What’s that got to do with my truck won’t start?”

  Mr. Mangano sounded almost apologetic. “Just a theory, but whatever happened last night, maybe it kicked off a geomagnetic event.”

  “Pretend we’re kids in your class, Joe.”

  “Sure, of course.” He cleared his throat. “Earth generates a magnetic field. That’s part of what keeps the good stuff inside our atmosphere and the bad stuff out. That’s why the compass points to the magnetic north pole. But we know that the magnetic poles have shifted, or even switched completely, north for south, many times in the past. Last time was 780,000 years ago, which means we’re about 250,000 years overdue, going by averages. We don’t know what exactly happens during a geomagnetic event, or how long it takes. Last time around there wasn’t any power grid, or cars or batteries or cell phones. Or humans, for that matter.”

 
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