Val practically fell out of the dusty yellow school bus, and padded sluggishly up the paved driveway that led to his family’s old but well- maintained Craftsman-style house. Despite the moderately remote location, all the houses in this neighborhood were designed to clearly demonstrate the decidedly ‘upper-class’ status of the families within them, often including a long, steep private drive that separated the lavish buildings from the common roads, and from each other.
After an unusually arduous day at school, during which Val had endured no less than three midterm exams and one extremely challenging physical health class (running the dreaded mile immediately after lunch left Val’s stomach cramped and sore, even all these hours later), the driveway was an unwelcome final lap. All Val wanted to do at the end of this day was to escape his stiff private school uniform, grab a bowl of cookie-dough ice cream from the freezer, and plop down in front of the 72-inch plasma screen television for an evening of mindless cartoons.
As soon as Val opened the front door, he was met with the flushed face of his little sister Gwen, who, upon seeing him, made an announcement.
“We’re going CAMPING!” before stumbling excitedly on her chubby toddler legs up the main staircase to the second floor and out of sight. Val stood frozen in the doorway, bleary-eyed and confused at this sudden exclamation, until his locked knees shook loose and he slowly approached the kitchen. He heard a cacophony of clanking and shuffling feet. As he turned the corner into the strangely dark kitchen, he was met with the presence of both his mother and father, the latter of whom was in the process of packing up what seemed like the entire contents of the refrigerator into a collection of coolers. Val’s mother stood hunched in the corner over a small portable radio that Val had never known they had. Her eyes were squeezed shut and her jaw was tightly clenched, judging by the tense bumps marring the back corners of her usually soft, slender cheeks.
Upon hearing the click of the light switch being flicked back and forth, in Val’s attempt to illuminate the gloomy room, his father swiftly straightened up and turned around. He held a bundle of carrots in one hand, and two small jars of grape and strawberry jelly squeezed between the meaty fingers of the other.
“Ah, sorry kiddo- lights have been out here for a little over an hour- apparently statewide.” His face had the same flush that had colored Gwen’s, but where hers was full of blissful excitement, his seemed full of rising heat. This was a man who has been running around for the better part of an hour trying to save the perishables from succumbing to the growing warmth of a non-functional refrigerator.
“Gotta get all this food into these coolers we had in the basement- and wouldn’t you know it when I was down there I found this handy little portable radio so we can listen in on the news to stay updated!” There was something panicky in his eyes that put Val on edge.
“Is it that bad, Dad? Even with a storm or something I thought this stuff usually was fixed up in a day or two.” Val’s eyes flicked doubtfully to the window, observing the clear, blue sky outside. No storm in sight.
His father seemed to not know what to say, and peered over at his mother who had, upon Val’s arrival, quickly switched off the little radio and had arranged her face with a soft smile.
“Don’t worry about it sweetie,” she said, walking over and pulling him into a tight welcome-home hug. “It might be a couple days but your dad’s just a little concerned because we just did all this grocery shopping yesterday and he doesn’t want the food to go to waste, that’s all. I’m sure it’s just a little… glitch, but we will be up and running soon.” As she said this, her eyes met her husbands, and she raised her eyebrows at him as if to encourage him to say something to their slightly bewildered son.
“Yeah kiddo, no worries at all-" his father said, finally snapping back into the moment. "But seeing as we have no power, we thought it could be fun for us to all go camp out in the yard tonight! Back to basics, no technology, no TV, just us and the stars and a big fire- and maybe we can try to get through some of this grub before it goes bad. A king's dinner, whaddaya think about THAT?”
With an expectant smile, he waited for a response from Val, who had just realized he was not going to be able to carry out his TV-and-ice-cream plans tonight. Val sighed, too tired to complain.
“Alright. I’ll go change and get my stuff.”
The two adults’ eyes followed the form of their barely-teenage son shuffling away in the direction of his room. As their smiles twitched out of existence, the shadows curtaining the unusually dark kitchen seemed to grow longer.
In his almost-fifteen years of life in this quiet, affluent neighborhood, Val could not recall a single time that he or his family had ever been camping. Sure, they frequently stayed in their lakeside cabin during the warm summer months, kayaking and swimming on their own private beach by day, playing games and accidentally burning marshmallows over melted chocolate by night, but that was as rough as they ever wanted to play it- they were an indulgent lot, used to pampering and comfort. Something like camping almost felt beneath them- did they even own a tent? Val was not sure.
Despite his exhaustion, Val felt a slight twinge of excitement at the thought of something that was, for him, new and adventurous. Who knew how long the power would be out? They might not have school for a couple days- that meant a few days of relaxing outside, no responsibilities, no homework. Ideally, he would spend this time playing video games or watching TV, but he had a natural affinity for the outdoors- albeit, the outdoor environments typically provided to him were always well curated and heavily connected to indoor power sources or lights and music-playing amenities. Despite a lack of those luxuries however, this could be fun, he decided- good-natured as he was. If his parents had provided him with anything, they had instilled in him a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness to new experiences, despite the lack of opportunities to experience them.
By the time Val had collected a sleeping bag, pillow, extra blanket, flashlight, a small stack of comics for late-night reading, and had brought them out to the backyard, Gwen and their father had already gotten a giant tent (apparently an impulse-buy from years ago, collecting dust in the attic until now) mostly set up. It even had a mesh roof, so they would be able to see the stars when laying down inside. It was tall enough to stand in- in fact, it looked big enough for at least eight people, if not more. Gwen excitedly ran up to Val, still at the same level of childish exhilaration as when she had greeted him barely thirty minutes earlier, and jumped into his arms, forcing him to drop all of his things in the moment to catch her small frame in a big bear hug.
“Val, Val, Val! We get to sleep outside today! Daddy got us a circus tent! We get to make s’mores and a big big fire!” She shrieked, hopping off of him and running back to the small pile of dry chopped lumber stacked neatly along the back wall of the standalone garage. Rousing all the strength her tiny arms could muster, she lifted up a log the size of her body, wavering slightly, and toddled over to the middle of the backyard, dropping it unceremoniously and immediately running back to grab another one to repeat the procedure.
Val chucked and rolled his eyes, and bent down to reassemble his dropped belongings. He was growing more excited too, and eagerly helped his father finish the tent, set up all the sleeping bags inside, and stack some kindling under the haphazard pile of wood that Gwen had laboriously collected.
“Go big or go home tonight, I guess.” smirked their father, as he allowed his youngest to stockpile as many logs as her heart desired. An odd, blank fog seemed to creep into his eyes just after he said this, and he stopped and stared off into the distance, suddenly hunching slightly as if struck with a stomach pain, losing himself in the darkening sky.
Disquieted by this sudden change in his father’s demeanor, Val awkwardly stood by the large tent, not knowing how to respond. Thankfully at that moment, his mother slid open the back door, her arms full of board-games, cards, candy, marshmallows, the works- everything a couple of kids needed for a fun family night under the stars.
“Honey, come help me with these!” she called, gesturing towards Val with her fancily pedicured toes. He obeyed, jogging over to her and catching some of the game boxes as they were about to slip from her grasp. He noticed she had the tiny radio hooked to the belt loop in her jeans, a thin pair of earbuds connected to the input jack.
Snapping out of his reverie, his father accompanied Val to and from the house, collecting more gear for the night, making tall, fully-loaded sandwiches by candlelight as the sun drooped over the horizon, collecting pillows for a plush fort inside their colossal tent. They ignited what turned out to be at least a 7-foot high bonfire in the middle of their perfectly manicured yard- Val wondered if his parents realized how badly burned the grass would be, come morning, as they had no fire pit to speak of. They didn’t seem to be interested in dwelling on that minor fact- both adults seemed intent on giving their children a night full of anything they wanted, leaving all responsibilities to be addressed in the morning.
The rest of the city seemed so far away from their bright patch of levity, as it had succumbed to an unusual inky blackness that extended out over the horizon.
All night, Val’s mother had one earbud lodged firmly in her left ear, connecting her to the little radio that stayed on at her hip. Every now and then, Val would look over to see her eyes grow wide, her lips tighten into a thin line, before she would consciously take a deep breath and re-enter whatever conversation was going on around her. He wanted to ask her what was wrong, but he didn’t want to ruin the evening- this was the best night he had ever had with his family. He was sure they would all talk about it in the morning. She seemed intent on not letting on whatever was being whispered in her ear, and Val didn’t want to push.
So, the night went on. The small family of four enjoyed their first authentic night together under the stars, playing round after round of immersive board games, trying their hands at cooking over the fire and eating to their heart’s content. In the early hours just after midnight, a heavy weight settled over young Gwen’s eyelids- she usually never stayed up past 9 pm. The quiet chirping of the crickets lulled Val to the edges of sleep as well. Though as a young teenager, and had often laid under the covers in his bed on school nights, a handheld video-game console lighting up his focused face until the wee hours of the morning, the night’s unprecedented activities truly exhausted him.
By 1:30 in the morning, the children had drifted off to sleep with their bellies full, their cheeks sore from smiling, their bodies warm and comfortable, not a care in the world. Knowing this, the two parents quietly tucked in their two children, kissed them both gently on their foreheads, zipped up the tent, and walked outside. Passing the last bright embers of their once-towering bonfire, arm-in arm to the far end of the yard, they made sure to be out of potential earshot of their sleeping brood. This corner of the yard happened to have sparser trees blocking their sight, and from the vantage point from their home on top of the hill, they had a mostly unobstructed view here from the outskirts, into the more developed part of the main city. Though it was a few miles away, they could vaguely see the dark shapes of the skyscrapers, and many small lights speckled throughout the gridded roadways and buildings. On any other night, these lights could be assumed to be streetlights, indoor lights shining out from apartment windows, or the headlights of cars. Tonight, however, with the power out in their city and beyond, the silent couple knew these lights had to be fires- not bonfires, as theirs had been, but uncontrolled, quickly spreading flames that were growing as they watched. From specks of light, they grew to rising, smoking columns. The blooming inferno was accompanied by faraway screams.
“How long do we have?” asked the father.
“I’d say less than thirty minutes.” responded the mother, quietly. “Every station that was still running said it’s coming fast… the ones that were still transmitting anyway. I heard at least three in the area go silent this last hour.”
They heard a loud boom echo somewhere off in the distance… and the sound of an alarm wailed along after it. It was accompanied by faraway screams. Still quiet, though- still far enough away not to wake the children.
“We gave them a good night,” said the father. “…and a good life.” His voice cracked.
The mother didn’t respond, but a tear trickled down her thin face, and she rested her head gently on her husband’s shoulder.
Knowing that their children were sleeping their remaining hours away without a care in the world, and had spent their last day on earth cared for, happy, fed, so well-loved, the two adults watched over the hill. They watched as the city they once knew, yet were separated from by money, property lines, and private roads, was consumed- slowly at first, then all at once.