It was starting to get dark as we all huddled around my neighbour Jim’s coffee table surrounded by candles talking about the unbelievable events of the day. There were seven of us; two couples, a teenager, Mary and myself. Jim had ventured out two hours earlier to try to get some gas and was telling us about his experience on the road.
“None of the traffic lights are working for miles” he said
“Strangely nobody is out on the street either. There were barely any cars around. I stopped at five gas stations and couldn’t get fucking gas from any one of em’. I guess because they are all electronically controlled or something. Only two of the gas stations had employees. The other ones were just ghost towns. People must be really freaked out.”
We all stared at Jim in disbelief. It was hard to imagine not being able to get gas. Things like electronically controlled pumps aren’t things we imagined failing a few days earlier. Like everything, we just took it for granted and didn’t think about what “could” happen.
It is one thing having your Internet go down or even losing power for a few hours, it is another to lose all communications and power at the same time. You feel a sense of hopelessness… lost. You truly don’t appreciate how dependent we are on technology until you spend a day without it. No television to check the weather or news; no radio in the car to keep us informed; no phone (mobile or landline) to call friends and family, and no Internet to turn to. The entire day had been one sobering display of reality, quickly reminding us just how vulnerable we really are. We’ve just been very lucky up until now.
Jim and Susan (the woman that had been on the street with Mary and I earlier) had a lovely little bungalow. The house had a traditional fireplace. There weren’t many of those in this area anymore; most had been replaced with fancy wall mounts or gas fireplaces. Theirs was the real deal. Jim came in from the garage holding an armful of wood.
“Here let’s start a fire. That’ll help keep us warm. You guys are all welcome to stay here with Susan and I for the night if you’d like. It’s cold out there. At least you’ll have heat. We can cook on the fire too. We have some old camping cookware we used to bring to the trailer with us, we can boil the kettle for tea and make some steaks.”
“Thanks Jim” I said “You really seem prepared for this kind of thing. I am like a fish out of water. I don’t know what to do with myself without my iPhone.”
Jim and Susan’s teenager (Sarah) looked over at me and smiled nervously “me too” she said.
I thought about how strange it must be for her. She was 18 years younger than me and I was a tech nerd. She didn’t know life without WiFi or texting! At least I was a Gen Xer and remembered what life was like BG (before Google). She was born with the internet. She didn’t know life without mobile or internet.
No wonder she was so quiet.
I felt strangely comforted with these 6 relatively unknown people who lived on my street. I felt connected to them through this experience and knew that we would continue to support each other and be friends even after the lights came on.
The other couple in our group (Kristin and Mark) decided to go home and sleep for the night. “Hopefully we’ll wake up to the power being back on” joked Mark “because this sucks balls.” We all laughed and wished them a good night as they headed back to their house.
Mary and I sat on the couch sipping wine while Susan ran around putting stuff in coolers and Jim brought wood in from the garage. Sarah sat beside a candle quietly reading a book. She was in complete emotional turmoil. I could tell by looking at her that she was freaking out inside but just trying to play it cool. None of us really talked about the “what if” factor. We pretty much went on the assumption that the lights would come back on, our internet would be restored, and our phones would work again. Not having those things didn’t seem plausible.
Mary was getting a little hammered by about midnight, she began telling me about how her marriage ended.
“Oh he was a real jerk” she giggled “He was unemployed for five years while I struggled working two jobs. Just used to sit around watching TV all day collecting disability and getting drunk. I was miserable and trying to pay the bills by myself because his money just went on booze. I am so thankful that I got out of that relationship when I did. He died last year of a heart attack. Only 52 years old.”
“Wow, I am so sorry to hear that Mary. You are an incredibly strong woman. How have you managed all these years on your own?”
She smiled and got teary “My son” she said “He is an absolute godsend. His name is Jared. He is in Africa working to introduce education to a small village that was hit hard by AIDS. He helped to build a school, shape the curriculum and works to encourage parents to allow their kids to attend school.”
“Wow. He sounds like an amazing guy.”
“He really is. He is so inspiring. He keeps me going. The reason why I got so upset earlier is that I was expecting an email from him this evening. He goes into one of the larger cities once per week to email me from an internet café. Today was the day.”
We both sat there in silence listening to the crackle of the fire sipping our wine, while Sarah was curled up in a chair across the room occasionally raising her gaze from the book she was reading.
Jim excitedly came running into the living room with a giant box “I found it” he shouted “I found it”.
“Found what?” asked Susan
“My old telescope” he said. “It’s been years since I used this thing. I thought we could check out the sky tonight and see what’s going on up there.”
Jim set the telescope in the front living room window. There were no street lamps on, no lights from surrounding houses, or other sources of light pollution; just the glow of the moon and the stars, which we could actually see. The pink and purple sky that we had seen earlier was now replaced with a dark night sky, which on any other day would be quite beautiful. But now, it just seemed sort of scary and primal. There was just something about it that didn’t seem quite right.
We all gathered around the giant telescope sitting on the floor around it on couch cushions holding our wine. Jim ‘s telescope was on a mount facing upwards. He opened one of the windows so that we could view the sky without the glass.
Jim went silent for a few moments until he said “Wow… This is… I mean. Wow.”
“What are you seeing?” asked Mary
“I don’t even know how to explain it” he said “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Here come and take a look.”
Mary went and looked through the scope and also fell silent as she moved it around observing the same incredible sky that had rendered Jim so speechless. She backed away slowly from the telescope with her fingers resting on her mouth. “Here Jane. You go look. It’s… Beautiful, but unbelievable.”
I set my wine down and peered through the telescope observing the night sky like I had never seen it before. There were huge streaks of colour, now Green and blue. They cascaded through the sky, just barely visible to the naked eye if you were looking for it but obvious and bold with the telescope. The colours moved and changed and occasionally a streak of Purple or Red would be seen. It was like the Auroura Borealis on steroids.
I had witnessed the Auroura Borealis once in my life when I was a kid. I remember I had been suffering from the stomach flu, which, for a ten year old, was the worst thing ever. My brother excitedly grabbed my arm and ran out the back door with me. There was a hill at the back of the house. We ran all the way to the top. I had no idea why we were running or what we would see, but we ran to the top of the hill and collapsed. We looked up and saw the most beautiful lights in the sky. We sat there in silence for a half hour just looking at the sky.
I backed away from the telescope and sighed thinking about my family, wishing I could just talk to one of them on the phone to see how they were handling this whole thing. I missed them terribly.