My novella, “A Plague Among Children,” will be available for download this December. In the meantime, please, um, “enjoy” the first chapter …
Stacy is in the kitchen, putting away the groceries she has just purchased, when she hears the panicked cry of her child in the room down the hall: “Mommy, what happened to the lights?”
It takes her a moment to process this. Matthew is playing in his room, which has a huge window facing the front yard. It is three in the afternoon and sunny. The lights aren’t on in his room. What is he talking about?
She thinks all of these things simultaneously, while some autopilot part of her is still wondering how better to stack the cans in the pantry to make them all fit. Seconds later, Matthew cries out again, this time louder and more fearful.
“Mommy! Everything is dark! Mommy!”
There is a tone in his voice that trips the panic switch that all mothers have, and she drops the cans she has been juggling and runs down the hall to his room. She finds him sitting on the floor, comic books spread around him, one of them open in his lap. He is looking around with eyes wide open, but there is a haziness to them. His right arm is extended and he is moving it slowly, trying to find something to touch.
Stacy collapses to the floor next to him and he grabs her, pulls himself tight to her chest and begins howling.
“Mommy, I can’t see anything … mommy, everything is dark …”
Matthew is five years old.
At the same time this is happening, the Whithers family of Indianapolis is leaving the ball park after an afternoon baseball game. Twelve-year-old Duncan’s uniform is filthy from his (not at all necessary but fun) slide into second base in the fifth inning. His team emerged victorious, 5-4, and a celebration was in order.
Dean Whithers is turning the family car into a parking spot at the family’s favorite chili restaurant when he hears a gasp from the back seat. It is so pronounced and so unexpected, he taps the brakes a little bit too hard and the car lurches.
“What is it?” he says, turning around to face Duncan and his little brother, eight-year-old Dean Jr. Duncan’s look is one of confusion; Dean Jr.’s is one of terror.
“Daddy,” he says quietly, eyes wide open but not quite right, “Daddy, I can’t see anything. My eyes aren’t working.”
Carol Whithers hastily unbuckles and climbs into the back seat, perching herself between her boys. She reaches out to Dean Jr. and strokes his face.
“What do you mean, your eyes aren’t working, sweetie?” she asks. “What are you seeing?”
“I’m not seeing anything, mom,” he says, in a tone of voice that is beginning to fill with terror. “Everything is dark, mommy,” and he starts to sob uncontrollably.
Carol pulls her little one tight and runs her fingers through his hair, offering what consolations her confused and startled mind can come up with. Dean shuts off the ignition of the car, turns around, stares, and considers what to do next.
Meanwhile it is noon in San Francisco, and Mark Davis is dropping Tricia, 9, and Hadley, 2, off at the house of their mother and his ex-wife Alicia. He has just spent two wonderful days with his girls, going to an amusement park and two movies and cooking on the grill at his apartment. But now it is Sunday and he must return them to their other home, the much bigger one, the one with the huge back yard and the big-screen television and the house where mommy lives with her new boyfriend.
It is never a pleasant transaction, this transition, this hand-off, for Alicia has not forgiven Mark for the indiscretion that led to their divorce, and she probably never will. She answers the door and frames her body squarely, making it clear that he is not welcome to come inside. Tricia walks from the car slowly, not wanting her daddy to leave – it is harder for her, because she knows what has happened and why it happened, but he is her daddy and she will always love him, no matter what he has done. She is old enough to feel, deeply, how profoundly unfair it is that she cannot have both of her parents all of the time. She hates this. She carries the sadness of someone much, much older, and there are days when she thinks she will explode from it.
Hadley, on the other hand, is just tickled that her daddy is carrying her, and she knows that she has had a lot of fun today and she is happy today and now she sees her mommy and now she is even happier. She reaches out for her mommy, who takes her, and she hugs her with all her might.
“They’ll be ready for you Friday at 6,” Alicia says coldly. “I’ll have their swim clothes packed.”
Mark nods. Each week it is the same: He hopes that this is the week her anger has cooled, that they could perhaps begin the work of being friends, being civil. This is clearly not the week.
He is about to turn and walk back to his truck when it happens: Tricia’s head jerks suddenly, eyes wide with panic. Hadley slumps in her mother’s arms, and is a moment later howling in fear.
The parents react instinctively: Alicia scoops Hadley up higher in her arms, looks at her, asks her what is wrong. Mark rushes to Tricia’s side just as she collapses, her face white with terror.
Alicia takes her baby inside to attend to her. The doorway now vacant, Mark takes his oldest girl inside to sit with her on the couch and ask her what is wrong.
This is happening all over the world. It is not happening to every child, but it is happening to most of them. In rich countries and in poor ones. In the crowded streets of Tokyo and New York, in mud huts in Africa and igloos in Alaska, in boarding schools and military bases and shopping malls and orphanages.
The eyes of children are going dark, everywhere. This is happening right now.