The day the world ended was the day Joseph’s life began.
The red light winked to life, bathing his room and entryway in its soft glow. Joseph blinked several times, his eyes struggling to adjust to the intrusion of even this, the most gentle of lights. While many of the Night Children complained about the red light, Joseph found himself at odds. For the red light signaled more than just the Day Children’s arrival with their offerings of food and drink. It signaled the promise of Amina.
Joseph stood, smoothing his shirt. Today; he was going to tell her today. He pressed his lips and swallowed hard. He could think of no reason why he should be nervous. Amina wouldn’t laugh or call him silly. Surely, she felt the same way.
The heavy metal door swung open, gliding across the concert floor. Just as softly, in stepped Amina, her skirt flowing about her legs in what Joseph liked to image the swells of water at the ocean’s edge looked like. She smiled at him and warmth rushed through his inner most core to the very tips of his fingers and toes.
“Hello, Amina.” He was smiling like a fool and knew it. Today, he didn’t care.
“Hello, Joseph.” She nodded her head in greeting, sitting down her offering on the table. The smell of fresh bread and strawberry jam wafted up; his favorite. “I hope your day has been well thus far.”
“It has.” He swallowed again, rubbing his hands on his pants. “I finished the book you loaned me.”
“Oh?…And what did you think?”
“I think the people of Earth were unusual creatures.”
“They…were a fanciful people,” she agreed, pushing a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
Joseph watched entranced by her movements, the line of her neck. “Amina-“
“Today is the big day, Joseph.”
He frowned. “Today?”
“Today,” she echoed. She took a slow, steadying breathe. “You can already see it happening Outside.”
Outside; the one place he had never been. He knew about it. He knew because of his books, his lessons, and from Day Children like Amina. But never had his feet crossed the threshold between his home and there. Night Children were not able tread in that place; not yet. Outside belonged to those such as Amina. The care of Outside was theirs to tend until the Day of the Sleeping Sun.
How it could be today? Yes, he knew it would come during his lifetime. It was why he had been born; why he was a Night Child. The Day of the Sleeping Sun was the day the Night Children would be able to walk openly in the Outside. But for the Day Children, for Amina, it would mean… He shook his head, cutting off the thought.
“Outside is yours now,” Amina said.
Joseph could only look at her. How could she even think that, say that? Did she really think that was what his thoughts would turn towards? That he could be so shallow, so narrow minded?
She turned to him and he couldn’t help but note how her arms wrapped around herself. “You get to leave the Underground today. It is a good day.”
“Not for the Day Children,” he said.
“We always knew this would come. It’s how it’s always been on this world since time began. Day Children keeping the Outside during the Long Day and the Night Children keeping all well during the Long Night. You know this. All the preparations have been made and all stands ready. Once you go Outside, you’ll see. I even brought goggles for you. The sun is still too bright yet…but in a couple hours.” She smiled, but Joesph thought he saw a strain at the edges. “You’ll see.”
“I love you,” he blurted.
Amina’s smile reversed into a pronounced frown. “What? No, Joseph. You can’t.”
“But I do.”
“You have been Awake for barely two weeks. That is hardly enough time to know what love is.”
He blinked. His mouth opened to protest; to seek understanding, to reaffirm his devotion. All these things he wanted to say and more, but nothing came. The words were gone, unreachable and foreign; just like Outside.
“Joseph, come now. Eat your meal. There isn’t much time.” Amina motioned to the food. “You’re needed to help us to our Rest. Others have already begun.”
“You gave me your books.”
“I let you borrow my books.”
“You remember my favorite foods.”
“It’s the common meal.”
“But you do love me?”
“Joesph,” Amina shook her head, “Day Children and Night Children cannot be together. I cannot survive the darkness of the Night. Just as you cannot the survive the light of the Day. We live in two different worlds.”
He looked down at the floor.”We don’t know that. No one knows that.”
“You’ve avoided the history lessons?” It wasn’t so much a question as a statement.
He rubbed his hands along his legs.
Amina looked at him, head tilted to the left. She shook her head, tsking softly behind her teeth. “We left the old Earth thousands of years ago. Those few who survived landed here. Turned Espera into our new home. Then they learned about the Long Day and the Long Night. How the moon and the sun exchange places, creating such extremes that the only chance to survive here was to become two different types of people.”
“Day Children and Night Children.”
She nodded. “And we trade places just like the sun and moon, always passing and never joining.”
“I love you.”
Amina sighed and looked away. “Eat your meal.” She placed a pair of goggles on the table. “I’ll wait Outside for you.”
She turned to go.
“No!” The thought of her going to into Rest was unacceptable. He could not let her go. He could not be parted from her. He would not. His hands grabbed at her shoulders, fingers digging into her flesh like hooks and pulling her back. He thought she cried out, but he could not hear it over the hammering of his own panic. He threw her bodily as far away from the door as possible. “You’ll stay here! I’ll take care of you and you’ll be just fine. You’ll be the one to see!” Though he knew he spoke the words, they sounded distant, like another’s voice.
He scrambled to the table, grasped the goggles, and flung himself out into Outside.
The light burned.
Joseph’s eyes watered and he shut them tight against the searing pain. Working through touch alone, he fumbled with the goggles, trying to put them on. Sounds and smells assaulted his senses in an cacophony of stimulus. It was too much. It was too big. It was too overwhelming. If this was Outside, he wanted nothing to do with it. He turned to find a way back into his home.
“Joseph?” A familiar voice cut through the noise.
“Here. Let me.”
Joseph felt Henry, a Night Child like himself, grab hold of the goggles and adjust them.
“There. You can open your eyes now.”
Joseph swallowed hard. He didn’t want to feel the pain again. But he couldn’t just stand here with his eyes closed either. Henry had not lied to him before. If Henry said it was okay and safe, then there must be some truth to it. Slowly, Joseph opened his eyes.
“Welcome to the Outside.”
Even with the dark lenses, it was still almost too bright for Joseph’s eyes. He blinked several times.
Slowly, his vision cleared. He saw Outside. It was huge.
His brain began matching images with names that he had learned in his lessons; rocks, grass, buildings, birds, clouds, and sun.
“Don’t look directly up,” Henry advised, “unless you wish to be well and truly blind. These goggles apparently aren’t light proof. Just enough to give our eyes protection while the transition takes place. From what I hear, this started some weeks ago. Today is the last of it, though. Darkness will overtake, and us Night Children will walk the Outside for the next hundred years or so.” He laughed, nodding his head. “Yes, indeed. All of this will be ours.”
“The Day Children?”
Henry shrugged, “Do their thing in their Rest like we did in ours, I guess. Come on,” he nodded away across an open expanse towards a squat building on the other side. “That’s where the Day Children will be staying and they need our help to tuck them in.”
It looked a long way and there was so little between here and there. “It won’t fall on us?”
“What won’t fall?”
Joseph pointed upward to the sky.
“Oh. No. The sky stays up there just like our ceilings. Had one of them tell me just to pretend it was a big, painted ceiling. It’s worked well enough so far.” Henry shrugged again and started off without a glance back.
Having no choice that he could see which did not involve him being alone, Joseph followed. He kept looking back to the door of his room, but Amina never showed. What had she said once? That it locked from Outside to prevent the Night Children from accidently entering the Day and being burned by the sun? Unless he or another opened the door, there was no way she would get out.
Amina could have her Rest there. He would take care of her. Bring her food and drink and more, just like she had done for him. She would not die. She would be fine and they could be together. He would love her and she would realize that not only did he speak truth to her, but that she loved him back. Joseph nodded to himself. Yes. That was how things would go and how they would be. Everything would be just fine.
All around, he saw Day Children converging on the building that he and Henry were headed towards. Some of them he knew, others not. Day Children of all ages, all moving to escape the Long Night through an artificial sleep known as cryosleep. For the next several hours, Joseph aided the Day Children, following the instructions in his books. Each one thanked him as they closed their eyes and drifted off to sleep.
Through it all, his thoughts kept returning to Amina.
“Why can’t you stay awake during the Night?” he asked of one man.
“Why couldn’t you stay awake during the Day?” the man replied with a laugh, settling himself into the sleep pod.
“The sun would burn us. Make us to go blind. Our bodies cannot live under the Day.” Joesph attached the sticky pads to the man which would monitor his vitals. Lights on a nearby panel started to pulse, affirming everything was set in place.
“Exactly. And we cannot survive the lack of Day.” He clasped his hand on Joseph’s forearm, an blotch of inky darkness to the near translucence of his own skin. “So, thank you. Mine and all my fellow brothers’ and sisters’ lives are in your hands until the Day dawns again.” He smiled at Joseph, rested his hands across his chest, and closed his eyes.
The Day Children could not survive the lack of Day. Those words haunted him as did Amina’s stricken face. But it didn’t make sense. The Night would not burn her. It would not do any physical harm to her at all. Had she not spent hours with him in his home with only the faint red light to give her enough to see by? Never had she spoken of ill effects or shown any. There would be food and water for her. He had seen the crops on his way over here and heard a river in the distance.
With those things, she would surely be fine.
She would come to see that.
She would become the first Day Child to show that they could survive and stay awake during the Long Night. It would be a new era for this world. An era where he and Amina would be together.
That first night, she cried. She was scared. “Please, Joseph,” she whimpered, “I know you don’t think you’re doing wrong. But you’re killing me. Please. I need to enter the Rest.”
He merely shook his head. “Trust me, Amina. All will be well.”
The next day he brought her her books to read.
She refused to look at him.
Joseph comforted himself with the knowledge that this was all only passing. She would not avoid him like this forever. It was her fear that made her hostile and harsh against him. Once she saw that she would be fine, she would look and speak with him again.
In the meantime, he explored Outside. It was proving to be a place of wonder. Every day, Joseph and the other Night Children expanded and learned more and more about the world they had inherited from the Day Children and what was required of them to sustain that life. Joseph found that he particularly enjoyed working in the fields among the plants. Three quarters of the fields were thriving, their plants growing strong and well in the darkness which continued to grow as the moon finalized its replacement of the sun.
It was the remaining quarter that had him concerned. The plants there were starting to wilt and die. No matter how much he tended to them, how much water he gave them, how he moved and arranged them, they continued to grow increasingly weak and sick.
How like Amina who now never left the bed and barely touched the food he brought her.
Joseph knelt at the base of one of the sick plants. His fingers ran through the rich dirt. “I don’t understand. Why are you dying?”
“Lack of sun,” Henry’s voice answered him from behind.
Joseph turned and looked up.
Henry knelt beside him. “This plant? It’s a Day plant. Needs the sun to live. No sun, no life. Simple, see?”
“No. Why does it need the sun?”
The other man shrugged. “Just what the books say. Don’t bother wasting your time trying to get them to live.”
“There’s nothing that can be done?”
“Not that I know of. Seems to be the way of this divided world. Day or Night. Sun or moon. If you’re born under one, you can’t live under the other. Shame though.” Henry ran his hands over the delicate stalks. “Would have liked to really see this one. Pictures of it are so pretty.”
Like Amina was pretty.
Like Amina was dying.
Joseph swallowed, head bowed. He loved Amina. He couldn’t just let her leave and go to her Rest. He’d never see her, hear her, share with her again. He didn’t know if he could stand that. But by keeping her, he was killing her.
Either way, he lost her. The only question was how he was going to lose her.
“I have to go,” he said, standing.
“Sure. See you at dinner?”
Joseph nodded. His steps took him without having to look to his old home.
Amina was lying on the bed, curled into a tight ball. The food from yesterday still untouched. The books he had left her still right where he had left them. Not even a rumple of the sheet was different from when he had last come.
“Amina?” he asked.
If she heard him, she gave no acknowledgment.
“Amina!” he rushed across the space, nearly tripping over a chair in his haste. He threw himself beside her, hands seeking her skin, her pulse. “Amina!”
Her eyes blinked open, red rimmed from crying.
“Amina…I am….I love you.”
Her eyes looked at him for a moment, before sliding away to focus on some distant point beyond his shoulder.
Silence answered him.
“I’m sorry. I…I can’t lose you. I can’t…I don’t know what to do,” he confessed. His head dropped limp, brushing his cheek against hers. Her breathe was faint, soft. He could hardly feel it.
He thought of the Day Child man. He thought of the Day plant. He thought of Amina.
He thought of himself. Alone and unloved in this strange Outside.
Was it better to be alone and unloved because Amina was safe in her Rest or because she had died in this room for lack of the sun?
Joseph sat there as the seconds slipped by one by one; unmarked and unheeded.
He heard himself say eventually, much to his own surprise, “I will take you to your Rest, Amina.”
She looked at him. Her lips pressed together and parted as if she wanted to speak. In the end, she only gave a small nod.
He picked her up, marveling at how light she was in his arms; no more than a heavy blanket. The journey to the Rest Hall as it was now named was swift and one in which he would later only remember her eyes, bright with unnamed emotions he couldn’t understand.
He found an empty pod for her and gently deposited her within. Joseph was quick to attach everything she would need for her Rest, hands moving almost of their own accord.
It was time.
All that was left was to touch the final button. The pod would close and Amina would enter her Rest which take her all the way through the long Night only to awaken again as Day dawned, years after his death, once more.
“I am sorry, Amina. I love you. Believe me, I do.” He leaned in to kiss her cheek.
As he moved to pull away, she whispered, “I know. Thank you.”
Joseph almost faltered in his resolve. He almost undid the wires. Almost picked her back up to take her back to the room. Almost.
Instead, Joseph pressed the button, watched the pod close, and bore witness as Amina, the last Day Child, drifted into dreamless slumber. He didn’t know what would become of himself in the time to come, but he would face the future and figure it out a day at a time.