Days of Night
2011 7th-8th Grade Prose Winner
The little girl shifted her stack of schoolbooks to the other side of her weary arms, lagging behind her older brother as they trudged home. It had been a tiring day, one of monotonous arithmetic and brief playground chaos; the only highlight being the consumption of a slightly soggy cheese and pickle sandwich at noon, which was not much of a triumph. This dreariness was the underlying theme for most all of the schooldays of the little girl, and she had concluded that fourth grade was neither exciting nor essential.
"Hurry up, will you?" called her brother, hurrying back to lead her away from the tantalizing displays of mince pies in the bakery window.
They continued down the chilly, damp London street: the brother striding with amateur author≠ity, his sister jumping over cracks and warily heeding other sidewalk superstitions. The fog hung low and long in the sky, casting a mysterious grey blur above the avenues, settling amiably on church steeples and amongst the nestled birds. It dominated the air as ice monopolizes a lake: quietly, with a sense of expected presence, a defining characteristic of England, of winter. Crooked chimneys sent up loose columns of smoke from the fireplaces below, and they dangled in the air, curved, like ques≠tion marks. The sky was heaving with lines and punctuation, but the words were trapped in warm homes and on the tips of commuters' tongues.
The two children hastened across the cobblestone road to their house, and let themselves in quickly, slamming the red door behind them. They stripped off their bulky winter garments and hurried into the kitchen for tea, where Mother was preparing a beef stew for supper.
After their toast and jam, the little girl took a couple half-hearted stabs at her homework, while her brother simply skimmed his textbook and pronounced his work complete. Neither child was particularly rigorous when it came to schoolwork: they preferred daydreaming much more than di≠viding. They ran outside to find their playmates, after assuring an exasperated Mother that they had the weekend to conquer their schoolwork, for it was, in fact, a Friday.
As they raced into the street, breathless with victory, the sudden darkness made them falter: surely there were a couple more hours until eveningÖ? The sifting, dreamy fog had been dyed an ominous black: sooty, heavy, and almost impenetrable to the naked eye. The curly-cues of smoke and the familiar layering of fog had disappeared altogether: what remained was a great mix of smoke and sky and air, a dense block of blackness which was sinking towards the ground. In confused awe, the children raced down the pavement, their eyes stinging from the raw smoke, trying to make sense of the brittle, dark air around them. Turning the corner, they peered down the avenue, shivering as the menacing darkness inched down the cobblestones, slithered over the gutters, and pressed itself with empty black force against the brick houses straddling the road. The steady progression of automobiles slowed to a tentative crawl, the rounded barrels of yellow glow emitting from their headlights only just penetrating the smog. Drivers swung out of their cars, pedestrians evaporated into the dark air, and silence descended on the hastily deserted streets.
Disoriented and fearful, the little girl pulled at her brother's sleeve; they stumbled down the street and reached their door by means of memory, since sight was, at this point, absolutely inef≠fective. Upon arrival, they were greeted with a jumbled mix of gratitude and chastising by Mother. After but ten minutes in the smog, their white socks had been stained black; they could taste the particles of smoke in their mouths, feel the catch of sooty dust in the backs of their throats.
Waiting for Father was a tense, interminable couple of hours: the family watched apprehensive≠ly as a wisp of smoke entered into the still room from a crack in the doorframe. The trail of dusty air hung limp by the window, a taunting cat's tail, stirring the hushed breath and teasing the fearful eyes which watched its faint development.
At long last, the door knob turned tentatively, Father hastened in and slammed the door tri≠umphantly. The children ran to meet him, content for but a minute: his hat was smeared with a darker substance than the black fabric, his wool scarf pulled up around his mouth, the tears from his watering eyes stained with soot.
As the family sank down to supper, Father flicked the radio on:
"Good evening, this is the BBC news. A great smog has descended on London. Already there are at least a hundred reported dead. Seventeen automobile accidents have occurred, due to extremely poor visibility. The Home Secretary and the Secretary for Public Health have issued a joint statement concerning this highly toxic and dangerous smog. The public is advised to remain indoors, but if going outside is necessary, to cover their mouths in order to avoid inhalation of the poisonous air. While the exact causes are unknown, a spokesperson for the Royal Society for the Environmental Sciences has confirmed that the smog is a result of the mixture of coal smoke and fog, a fatal pollutant for which there are no defenses. Mr. Geoffrey Huxtable of the National Weather Service predicts that winds from the Northeast should blow the smog away within 48 hours. The newly elected President of Mexico, Adolfo Ruiz CortinesÖ"
Father slowly switched the radio off.
With worry cracked across their faces, the family retired to bed, creeping up the stairs as if they too were wisps of smokeódispersing under covers and behind tightly closed doors. The little girl pressed her face to her pillow, finding not comfort but a film of soot on her sheets which had seeped in mysteriously: and still the smog engulfed the night streets.