Jessicabell delved beneath her blankets. Her night goggles clung tightly, pinching her eyelids. The windows were sealed. It must be nearly morning. She wished it could remain night forever. Just for once she prayed the blinds wouldn’t rise. Her brother had taught her how to jam them shut once and stay in the dark all day. He’d explained what shadows were, how grey was a colour.
Enormous trucks rattled outside, wheels grating, tails gaping open to be filled until they bulged and those thick rubber tires buckled under the weight. They were designed to be packed but even still, moving a family and house regularly took planning, timing, sheer guts.
Jessicabell’s father could move up to twenty homes in just a few days, store households in enormous panting truck bellies, move out and race from sunlight to sunlight without being touched by the dark. Every year, the same routine, identical rush. Their own home first, get it out-of-the-way; then take care of the others before the darkness rolled in on its yearly raid, blinked out the light, covered their landscape in a blanket of fear, where hopes were prey to darkening shadows, nightmares constantly retold from the safety of the light.
Jessicabell liked the way the dark bit into their lives and created shadows through the glaring sunlight. Jessicabell was in no hurry to move. Her father was. Always had been since he’d killed her brother. They were the last to leave that year, bringing up the tail end as the dark curled in and hid their tracks, muffled the headlights until no one realized the bump under the hard rubber tyre was a heaving son.
They had to be the first, so that others had time to pack. “Business,” her father said when her mother complained. Jessicabell could see her mother’s need to argue and the decision to keep quiet. Jessicabell stayed silent too. Her father had a temper. Spent too much time out in that light Mum would grumble when left alone. “Jobs to be done,” were father’s only excuse.
Nobody wanted to pack too early. Everybody ached for a couple of proper night’s sleep when genuine darkness tingled their toenails, twinkled up their spines and they could leave the strong dark curtains slightly open for once in their lives and savor a real night, when no sun shone, only the moon hung there lifelessly, numbing in the cold, frozen air of darkness.
“What we don’t want is to sleep all day,” is what her father always said: “We need to work and get on with lives.” And he led them all to believe you could only do that in the light. “If you want to sleep what’s wrong with night out glasses and the blinds fully pulled?” he would ask defiantly. Maybe he was right: they’d been doing it for centuries, changing once a year to the other side to avoid a season’s blackout. Maybe he was right but Jessicabell didn’t think so. Didn’t want to believe it. She wanted to sense it for herself. The dark. All day long.
Jessicabell would see endless night building up like a sheet over the horizon, a deep black blanket she wouldn’t mind hiding under. It hung over the sky like a silvery promise, a distant lure, approaching steadily, regularly. And every year she felt that pang in her stomach, the familiar desire to rebel, stay behind and savor inky emptiness. When she was young she could never see the problem: sleep away for a year without drawing curtains, just wait for her parents to return, as they did over and over, to the same old house, the same routines. But her parents would never let her go, never go without her. The planet turned and it was time to move with the light, cross the border, stare back at that fringe of black that hardly lasted seconds as the trucks trundled across the bridge, until they were home again on the other side, identical everything. They unpacked, pulled down the shutters, slept behind the shielded blindness then woke and carried on with life as normal, sunshields carefully in place, sunblock coating their skin, schools hissing with the heat of a new year, another round.
“Are you sure I’m a Hallahaw?” Jessicabell asked Mum.
“I like the night. I don’t want to move over every year and avoid it. I want to stay behind and search for a moon.”
“Children don’t like the dark.” Her mother twisted Jessicabell’s hair around her fingers, long golden brown, over her long tanned neck; it tangled her knuckles, refusing to let go. “You know the stories,” she said. “What happens when there is no day. The ghosts, the monsters.” She’d hold Jessicabell close to her knees and whisper a song, mutter a prayer, stories of blood and ghouls, kids kidnapped, deprived of their inheritance, the love of a solid parent.
Jessicabell couldn’t admit that what made her sleep were the thoughts of being devoured, ravished by any imaginable threat rising from the black.
Dad was rushing them. His burly walk and clatter of a walking stick urging the trailers into line, the trucks to puff smoke, the animals to bellow and head for the sun.
Sometimes Jessicabell stared at her mother’s pale skin..
“Am I really Hallahaw?”
The question seemed to break the rules. Her mother was always too quick to respond, just like when she asked what happened to her brother. “How could your father see with the night falling in? We were in a rush.” She paused. “He jumped.”
Jessicabell hadn’t even asked.
Trucks roared outside, rumbling, shaking under the weight, about to close hind doors. Drivers were taking seats, packers banging ramps shut in readiness.
And what if just for once she stayed in this house, no school, no light, no sleeping? Jessicabell smiled for the first time in weeks. Good, thought her mother, she’s growing up. Damn, thought her father when no one was looking: he knew what she was thinking. Like mother like daughter. He kicked the back tire as if it were a horse; the engine stirred, the enormous belly of that whale-like transporter began to move across the dirt, their house on wheels for the next three days until they were far enough over the border not to have to worry about the encroaching night.
“What do you mean?” His wife knew.
“I can see it in her eyes. Genes.”
Jessicabell’s mother went silent. Genes. She was always to blame. “They weren’t a problem at the time.”
He said nothing.
“When I chose the light.”
He said nothing.
“To be with you.”
Jessicabell’s mother knew all those years of happiness had been unfolded into a slit of pain the night they let the darkness return and their son roll under a truck in the dark. Maybe it was her fault after all. They should never have been tempted. Night and day weren’t for the blending.
“She’s just a teenager.”
He looked at her. Straight. Like he hadn’t done for years. “So were you.” He paused, and she loved him for that. “So was I.”
They held hands briefly.
“We can’t afford more teenagers.”
She’d been training for weeks, hiding whenever she could in her bedroom, making day night, all dark out blinds firmly in place, sun shields locked down, fumbling around avoiding the light. She could sense her skin return to a pale blank coat which began to feel normal. Her parents seemed too busy to notice. “You eating?” was all her mother said. Her father pretended not to hear but he had a way of feigning innocence when he knew everything. Jessicabell was more careful when he was around. He noticed things she could slip by her mother, like her ex-boyfriend and his smoking, his stay over that weekend when they were all supposed to be out camping. The dog just slept. Put on weight, puked.
She made sure they were seen up there in the truck, stored away on the seats between their furniture. Her mother waved and hauled herself up further behind, where the kitchen was. She’d be cooking all trip. Dad was shouting orders but Jessicabell knew he’d marked her present, loaded, strapped in for the journey. She remembered her brother. She wouldn’t leave it too late. She waited for the dust to rise as the rattle grew unbearable. She slid out the door, jumping to the ground, knees jarring, ankles twisting, before the next set of wheels rolled close. She ran through the haze back to the home she were leaving behind. Family and friends trundled on regardless, into the light, while Jessicabell and her dog huddled down and shivered as she realized she might never see the sun again.
Jessicabell had kept a key and opened the door carefully. All the night shields were in place. Soon they wouldn’t be necessary. She’d have to get used to the dark, for a year at least. She refused the temptation to raise them and watch the sun disappear over their horizon. She’d wait and stare out at the moon instead.
There would still be power in the dark she presumed, food in the freezers. In the distance Jessicabell imagined she heard the border shut. They must miss her. Miss her, but the rules were no going back. When the earth turned and light spilled into dark, night to-day, there was no return: you stuck to the half you knew how to survive on.
Jessicabell finally had the courage to raise the blinds and stare out into the night. Lying back on her bed she wondered if this is what her brother had imagined. Darkness all around, all the time, all her hopes, all her promises.
Lying there, breathing heavily, blankets smothering her breath, Jessicabell suddenly heard the distant rumble of the trucks returning. They were breaking the rules, coming to get her.
Jessicabell gathered up courage and sneaked a glimpse out the window. Through the slats, heavy vehicles loomed out of the light and into he dark that was her new home. Jessicabell began to understand why her mother was so pale, why their father lived in fear of change. It had given him a wife, taken his children. Those were difficult odds to play with.
Just as their families fled on their yearly path to stay in the light, there were tribes crossing the other way, parallel, neat lines lumbering the other way, to stay in the dark.
Slowly, Jessicabell began to understand how their world revolved. All over the house lights suddenly came on, blaring, preventing her sleep. There was no turning them off. The blinds came down automatically to keep the day in, the night out. Her world spun on its axis, flipped upside down. She squinted. Her brother was wrong. Everything was black and white. There was no grey. She’d just swapped day for night. She hoped her father knew she’d be waiting when he got back. It was going to be a long dark wait. Jessicabell trembled.
E. F. S. Byrne has recently found more time to devote to his writing, while being a father and working in education, and is currently working on everything from very short flash to full-length novels. Samples can be read on his blog or follow him on Twitter here.