Year of the Rabbit

Tell me about the streetlamps.

It used to be that the sun would go down and the streetlamps would come on and make pools of this wet, yellow light. No matter where you stood, you could see the lights on somewhere. You could run from streetlamp to streetlamp and you could look down the streets and you'd never drown in the dark.

After the Curfew but before the lights started dying, Sara and I used to go to the city's edge –we'd watch the line where the city lights dropped off, but sitting in our park on the outskirts we still felt that illusion of safety. Maybe it wasn't safety but the thrill of walking so close to real night. We could see the lights of Omaha to the north-east, but between them and us was just dark, dark, a swarming ocean of black. Behind us, too, were all the lights of the city, but we were on the edge.

Sara grew up far from here. When she was a kid, she told me, she ignored her parents' warnings and snuck out of her house to dangle her feet in the lapping Mediterranean. That was before Curfews. Here of course we had no sea, but that was what we were doing. Dangling our feet.

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Tell me about the Curfew.

My mother went out on the cusp of my twentieth year and didn't come home. After a while my father went out to look for her and didn't come home either. It was that way for a lot of people, until the people who were left didn't go out. It used to be that you could lie awake at night and listen to the cars, their tires shush-shushing like a river going by. Can you remember that? You could hear sirens, sometimes, too. Then the cars petered out.

You should know what the curfew is. You should already understand.

We knew growing up that we humans were the masters of our world: we who'd tamed the sky, who'd cured disease, who'd built roads and rail lines. When my parents disappeared, when all those people were disappearing, we felt that slip. People railed and demanded explanations, they prayed to God and went out with rifles, and they never came home. Carefully, the world broke us. We who were left, learned not to try. We called that the Curfew.

When the nights got longer and the daylight got thinner and fewer and fewer people could be found in the city we abandoned certain comforts, personal rooms and living rooms and all, and moved in with each other. That winter after the heat went out, you'd come home to find five people in the bedroom and ten in the living room and three more in the kitchen boiling rice on sterno. When the door opened everyone would look up at once, afraid of darkness coming in.

Night never came into the houses. It was the same way that kids' monsters never crawled under their blankets and never reached over the side of their beds. Sometimes we'd hear something move outside, no footsteps, no breathing, just moving down the street, and we'd huddle close together. I'd hold Sara's hand. By January we slept in piles, limbs and bodies and blankets and cushions, one mass of breath and troubled dreams. I had trouble sleeping, but Sara would stay up with me and whisper. I miss hearing Sara whisper. We'd peek outside through tears in the paper that covered the windows, and we'd try to make sense of the lights and the darkness.

I remember that during the middle months of winter, with no heat, no power, no radio, the streetlamps never went out. I still think of those months fondly.

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Tell me about the sterno.

When the power went out we had no way to cook. The stores didn't have any way to freeze things, either, but once it got to be winter they just gave up and put it all outside to let nature freeze it down. We went out when the sun was up and it was safer and got frozen things, as many as we could carry, but we were also clever and brought home rice and lentils and tea and flour and anything dry we found. When the water shut off we started hauling bottled water from the stores even though a lot of it froze and burst. When it snowed that was better because we could just collect that and melt it.

You're wondering, aren't you? How we never noticed that there was always food at the stores when none of us worked, when no trucks came in. After the first months we never saw the people staffing those stores, but we found bags of flour and pasta, we found crabapples in crates once, we found salt and pepper and oil. We had to eat.

Even when we had sterno we kept our house with its fireplace because you could make a fire out of anything. When we had sterno we used that; we'd have seven or eight cans set up under the fireplace grill, set up on rocks to be right under it, and we'd put stock pots on it and boil our couscous, our raisins, our bouillon, our dry milk, whatever we had. We'd split the pot into smaller pots and crowd around and eat with what was on hand. I had a wooden ladle. Sara had a set of measuring spoons. We never made enough but we knew that meant we'd scrape the pots clean.

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But how did you keep clean?

My grandfather grew up on a farm, and my uncle lived on a farm. My mother and grandfather and I went to visit my uncle when I was younger, but I'd always lived in the city. We walked out to where they kept the cows and it stank. You could still drive through parts of Nebraska and smell manure. I couldn't stand it but my grandfather took a deep breath and said it smelled like home.

So we worked with rubbing alcohol and deodorants and baby powder and sanitary gel but mostly we got used to it smelling like home.

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Tell me about the houses.

When we couldn't go out during Curfew we started to be afraid of outside all the time. People would be suspicious when you passed them on the street. People would get their business done earlier and earlier until by the first months of winter no business was done at all. We tried to go out, to stay on top as the masters of our city, but it got easier to stay inside, inside, creeping back to the safety of our rooms where everything stayed where we put it and never never changed.

When the power went out the houses were still safe, and when the wind was the only thing that talked outside the houses were still safe, and soon the houses were the only thing we all agreed on that were still safe and we tried not to stray far from them, like rabbits staying in bolting distance of their dens.

I stayed in Sara's house. It was big enough for all of us. She'd been renting a room but everyone else was gone, the landlord was gone, gone out with a pistol and never came back, and the house was well-constructed and warm. Sometimes, when there were enough of us and we had batteries for lamps or candles for light, we could pretend we were normal people and happy.

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And what about Sara?

After a while Sara started to wonder why we all hid indoors as though the fight had gone out of us. She and I made some tea and took a flashlight or two and snuck out to the park after Curfew. It wasn't so dark; the streetlamps were on then. We decided that as long as we stood in the streetlamps nothing could get us, because night never comes into the streetlamps, like night never comes into the houses. We'd lay down paths of light with the flashlights and run from streetlamp to streetlamp.

You'll tell me that's foolish, won't you? Even when we stood there, we thought the night was swarming at the edge of our cast light. I was always afraid it would come into my shadow and make it an enemy to me.

I don't want to talk about Sara right now.

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Tell me about the park.

The park is on top of a hill at the edge of the city, and it must still be there. It has a jungle gym and a woody area and a gazebo and what I think is supposed to be a statue of a bear. It looks like someone started carving a bear out of a log and got tired halfway through. Or they went out and didn't come back and someone put the half-log bear up anyway.

The park is only a few blocks from our house and the lights on those blocks usually stay on. There's one, though, that blinks in and out like it's trying to catch you. When it's out that entire block is dark and it's like there was never any streetlamp at all. But when it's on it soaks into your idea of the world and it's hard to believe that it might not have been there once, or that it might not be there again. The edges of that light were so sharp, like a loop of your wire on the ground.

We liked the park because it was full of lights. You walked into it and you were in this charcoal-yellow-blue world. It wasn't like sunlight because all the colors were wrong, but you could see the whole playground and the gazebo enclosure and even the shadows looked friendly.

Sara and I would sit on the gazebo table shoulder to shoulder and we would talk about things. Then we would sneak back home in the middle of the night and slip inside so that no one would notice we were gone.

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Tell me about the streets to the park.

We would sit shoulder to shoulder. Her left. My left. We'd watch over each others' backs, but we weren't good at it. We kept slipping into comfort, the warmth of our bodies together, the weight of being two human women under a lamp in the middle of all that night. Sometimes we'd forget about the Curfew and laugh louder than we should have.

Sometimes we'd look at the city and see lights going out, or maybe they were falling down into that thick thick night. Our lights would never go out. We'd laugh the way you sometimes do when a danger has passed and you think it was silly to be afraid of it.

While we were sitting we noticed that all the telephone poles had little red lights on top of them, and Sara said they were put there for airplanes. Airplanes used to land on a strip across the highway before the Curfew. Now no one uses that field for anything.

The lights were cherry-red and festive and didn't cast any light down to the streets. I imagined that if I reached up I could pinch them and they would go out.

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Will you tell me about Sara?

We tried to keep an eye out for anything unusual while we sat in the gazebo and drank our tea, but I didn't know what was usual any more. Sometimes we thought that the bear statue might pull itself out of the ground and stump across at us and we would have to run and scream. Sometimes we told each other ghost stories but we had to stop because we'd get afraid of the night again, and sometimes the streetlamp would flicker and we'd turn on our flashlights and stay very still like hares in a field. We'd watch the space outside the dying city lights and wouldn't know what we were watching for.

I do not want to tell you about Sara.

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Then tell me about the city.

It was a big city, for the Midwest. But after the Curfews started it rattled empty. Jobs stopped. Libraries and movie theaters and parks started going empty. Gas stations went dry, and stores started leaving everything out on the streetcorners as their grocers disappeared. There was always food left out for us.

A lot of people left, but more vanished. The police were taken first. The National Guard, the Army Reserves. One of our sheriffs was a long-haired woman who lived near me. She checked on me every day when it started. I wish she hadn't. I noticed when she stopped.

I never thought of leaving. I didn't want to be caught on the road in the dark. Some people said that the roads were blocked anyway, with fences or wires. No one believed them, but no one argued. Who were we to argue with wires?

For the first months the phones weren't dead but no one called, and no one wanted to call anyone. Sara called it malaise and tried to call her mother every day, but her mother never answered and Sara stopped calling. A few months in, the phones went dead anyway.

We thought the Curfew might stretch across the world. Does it? Do you know?

The city started eating itself. When the heat went off we tore apart the wooden garages for fuel, even when the smoke was sharp and made us choke. We cut down a few small trees but the old treated wood of garages caught better, and it was easier work. We broke down doors, anywhere there weren't people living, we took blankets and soap and food. We filled our lawns with flags and signs to let people know we were alive inside, and then threw them over the fences when we thought they might attract the wrong sort of attention. Was it your attention? In the beginning people made bonfires. Signal fires. They were bright and valiant against the Curfew, and they all went out, and the people who made them, too.

We taped paper up over all the windows. Layers and layers and layers. No one wanted to risk the night getting in. We put all the cats outside, wouldn't let them back, because they'd paw aside the curtains and tear the paper we'd put up. At night you could hear them yowling, fewer and fewer, until there were none.

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What about the dogs?

Sara had a dog, a big golden retriever. He was old when the Curfew came. He'd been old for a long time. Sometimes Sara would lean over and hug him close to know he was still breathing. He'd sit with big placid eyes when the dogs howled outside.

One night we came home, and it was only four or five of us then, and we had our arms full of flour and sugar and oil and yeast, our shoulders aching. There was always food left out for us. The dog was sleeping on the couch, but when Sara went to hug him he wasn't just sleeping, and she chased us out of the room.

We were trying to make bread. Trying to burn wood that wouldn't fill the bread with soot, trying to understand how on earth people had done this in what we'd called simpler times. We left Sara alone for a while and when we came back the dog was gone and Sara sat on the couch with her fingers knotted against each other.

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Tell me about Sara.

Sara took a slice of bread. It was doughy on the inside and a bit charred, but we had to get used to making do. We had to take what we were given. She tore it into little pieces. She suggested we make rolls instead of loaves, or maybe sticks, because they'd take less time to cook through. That was how she was. Practical. And she was right, of course, and the sticks were easier to make.

I don't want to talk about Sara.

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But tell me about Sara.

Sara was smarter than me and more of a daredevil. That was okay because she got out of things okay. She started taking things from the stores when they still called it looting. She drove her car when everyone else had stopped, and when the streetlamp flickered out above us on our walks to the park she'd take my hand and run to the next one and she would start laughing. It was her idea to start going to the park. She loved ideas. Once, she thought up a play we could all put on, when it was cold outside and inside and there were too many of us in that house and we were getting crabby with each other. It was hard to keep that many people happy, all packed in like that.

You know what happened to Sara.

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But tell me.

We brought tea out every night we went to the park, running from streetlamp to streetlamp like children sneaking out. We held hands, because it was silly or because we didn't care. We ran from streetlamp to streetlamp and there was one that'd always blink off and on like it was trying to catch you, but we didn't care.

We were running, like we always had, and we hit that streetlamp and it went out. And all the other ones did too, all down the street as far as we could see, all through the city like someone'd spilled a jar of ink and it was covering everything, and we froze, and Sara tugged my hand toward the park and I tugged her hand toward the house and we came apart. Sara said something. I didn't listen. I wish I'd listened.

You know what happened to Sara.

I ran.

I cut across someone's backyard, with its untouched snow too white in the moonlight. I hadn't noticed before but it wasn't so dark, not with the moon and all this white, but it was dark enough and I could hear something moving. My coat was flapping like a signal to anything watching. A shadow fell over me and I screamed, I closed my eyes, I threw my arms up over my face, I–

When I fell I felt as though I was flying up into the air, caught by the ankles, but I only hit the ground. Then I was down in the dry snow with the grass underneath scratching my face and then it was dark; I got to my hands and knees and then my feet and I ran and slipped and caught myself, kept running, and I scrabbled at the door to our house but the door was open and the house was empty. Night was everywhere. I could feel it on the back of the couches; I tried to beat it off like dust. I swallowed and I could taste it in my throat. I kept stepping in the night. It made the carpet cold. I was breathing it, couldn't stop breathing it and it made my lungs dark. It was darker than outside. The night had gotten in.

I called and called but no one heard me. All that silence for months had made my voice small. I didn't care if something outside might hear, I wanted someone to hear me, to come find me to tell me things could still be okay, and no one came.

No one but you came. Didn't you come? Or were you already there, sitting in the carpet and across the couches, slipping around my ankles like a snare?

I tried to make something of it. I tried to wait for morning. I tried to wrap myself up in a blanket, but the night got into the blankets no matter how I shook them out and beat them against the walls it wouldn't get out. I tried to close my eyes but it was too dark behind my eyelids. At last I tried to go outside, but the untouched snow was too cold and too alien.

So I stayed here.

I went through the drawers where the candles used to be. I went to the corner where Sara used to sleep with her shoulder to the wall. I listened to my footsteps talking and talking like questions I didn't know how to answer. I started talking and talking so I could hear a voice inside that night. Where am I, I asked, and what happened to the world?

I am always here.

What's to become of me? And Sara, what's become of Sara, out somewhere in the world? – did she make it home?– is she waiting for me?

In scraps of noise and cold air coming through the walls, when my voice is too raw from speaking, you see me, don't you? I stay still and listen for her voice.

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