“What’s a night-girl like you doing with a pail like this?” I said to her that night, the first time I saw her on that filthy, rat infested, piss-stained block of concrete they called the West 4th Station.
It was 2 am, and we were both working, assigned to different Night creature teams attending to different tasks, sprucing up the station for the Day creatures. She was part of Operation CleanUp, which had to scour and scrub and mop to remove the filth of a million restless New Yorker feet, and I was part of Operation LocoMotive, fixing whatever bits and bobs had broken down in the subway cars worn out by their relentless pounding on the tracks. Girls cleaning and boys repairing, I guess some traditions had still persisted.
She laughed, throwing her head back. A blue uniform cap constrained her hair but I imagined the full hair toss, a thousand strands drawing arcs in the shadows.
“Is that the best ya got, engine repair man?” she said.
“It’s one of my winners,” I said hopefully. I wished I’d come up with something more original. But she was smiling.
“Want to get a drink later at the West 4th Underground?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. I liked this girl, she wore her sass all casual like an expensive scarf thrown around her carelessly. “6 am?”
It was a date.
* * *
The Undergrounds were where we hung out, us night-girls and night-boys, us night-women and night-men, us misfits who had been born allergic to the sun. In the beginning, when there were just a few of us aberrants, we’d gone to the Overground joints, what the Day kids just call their bars, restaurants and gin joints. But they’d spot us easily with our sun deprived paleness and our permanent raccoon eyes. And they’d shift uneasily in their skin. They were scared to date us, scared to breed with us and scared to talk to us, as one might lead to another.
Listen, I can’t blame them. No one, absolutely no one, wants their kid to be born allergic to the sun. It’s the worst type of curse. Scurrying home at sunrise, prisoners till sunset, us weirdo-Cinderellas.
So then the inevitable self-segregation began. A few of the more enterprising Night creatures started to build the Undergrounds, the places where we can hang out with others like ourselves and do all the things we like to do.
For besides the allergy, we’re pretty much the same underneath.
* * *
Later, I made my way to the West 4th Underground. I could see her sitting at the bar, her hair now free, cascading over sculpted shoulders.
“I’ll have whatever she’s having,” I said to the bartender.
“By the way, I’m Carl,” I said.
“By the way, I’m Alisha,” she replied.
“So. How was the shift?” I asked her.
She stirred her drink slowly. “Nothing much changes at Mop and Pail,” she said darkly.
“That’s true,” I agreed. “Pretty much all the same at engine repair.” I was resigned to my life.
“So what are you going to do about it?” she asked, swiveling her body towards me, and pushing her face closer to mine.
“Do? Nothing. Try to make the best of it,” I said hopelessly. But even to me, my words sounded hollow, like those of a coward.
We were stuck in the worst jobs. We did all the crap that got done at night. Don’t get me wrong, it was the most natural fit, for obvious reasons. It’s the time we could walk around without fear. Fear of being burned by the sun.
So we hunted the rats. We cleaned the sewers. We removed the garbage. We sanitized the subways. We repaired the trains. We drove the trucks.
But a whole bunch of careers were out of our reach. Tech jobs, healthcare, finance, these were all almost exclusively day jobs, no Night creatures wanted. Period. And energy? Don’t even go there. With everything all solar, they never bothered with us.
As if engineering for train repair is completely different from engineering for anything else.
“Well, I’m getting the fuck out,” she said, downing the rest of her drink, eyes flashing with anger. “I’m not mopping the West 4th subway for the rest of my life.”
“How’re you going to do it?” I asked. “Are you going to try for a night degree?” A few lucky Night creatures with nursing degrees had scored night shifts at the hospital.
“I’m figuring it out,” she said. “I’ve got a DARPA contact in my PCP’s office.” My jaw dropped in astonishment, but she had put a twenty down on the counter and was walking out.
* * *
That day I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned. I had my recurring nightmare, the nightmare that haunts every Night creature in some shape or form. How I’d forget to take my anti-allergy pill, and walk out into the sunshine. How I’d enjoy that warmth for a few minutes and then lose track of time. Fall asleep outside. A dream of sleep within sleep. And how I’d wake up from that dreamsleep screaming, about to be engulfed in flames. Flames from being in the sun too long.
I always woke up right before the moment of combustion.
We’d see this in the news every now and then. In fact, we’d seen a case just recently. They aired it on CNN. Night creature, Safiya Karla, spontaneously combusted after being out in the sun for over 60 minutes. Blood analysis showed that Safiya’s levels of antibodies were extremely low. A Dr. Henry Roos, pathologist had commented, “It looks like Safiya missed the last dose of her Noc-Daily. This is the sad reality of what happens to Nocturnes when a dose is missed.”
Then Pharma giant Zizer’s spokesman had said the company was working on an extended release version of the Noc-Daily to prevent such accidents in the future.
I’d rubbed my eyes wearily and sighed. Just take the pill every day Nocturnes. Was it that hard?
* * *
Alisha texted me the next week. “Same time, same face?” she asked.
“Funny girl,” I said. “Yes.”
When I got to the Underground, she was already on her second drink. Her eyes were glittering, and her body crackled with a nervous energy.
“I’ve found out something terrible,” she said.
I looked at her steadily, waiting. I wanted to hear more.
“Well, it’s both good and bad,” she said. “Good, because there’s hope for us weevils, and bad, because what’s going on, it’s a fucking crime,” she said.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“I’ve been talking to my doctor contact in the Day world,” she said.
Then she looked around and lowered her voice. “We’re not really allergic to the sun.”
“What?” I said. I must have shouted this out, because she put a hand out and covered my mouth. Her skin was warm against my lips and when she removed her hand, I licked my lips so I could taste her sweat.
“Shh,” she said. “We’ve got to be careful.”
She took my hand and led me out of the bar. We walked outside, the early morning air cool against our skin. We only had a little while before we had to be indoors.
“This doctor, he’s telling me we’re not allergic,” she said again.
“But we have to be,” I said, confused. My head was reeling. “We’ve all seen the clips. Every time one of us misses a pill and stays out too late, we incinerate. Combust. We’ve seen it on TV. I just saw it on TV. It’s horrifying.”
“I know,” she said. “But that’s the government, they’re doing that. They track us with a chip, so they know when we’re outside after hours. The chip picks up the sunlight.”
She traced a finger in the space between the bridge of her nose and her right eye. “He told me it’s right here,” she said, “right in the eye socket. Implanted at birth."
But I was not thinking about the chip. I was still processing her last words. “So they track us and then what? Why are we burning up when we’re in the sun?”
“They incinerate us. When we cross the boundary of light. It’s the way they control us, keep us in fear. Make us live in the dark. Literally.”
“The government is killing us? But they’ve been trying to find a cure for our affliction for years. Our allergy,” I said, looking at her desperately. “Haven’t they?”
She looked at me sadly. “There’s no allergy,” she said. “It’s a massive fraud, Carl. Remember back in 2021 they found a vaccine for COVID in 1 year? How come we’ve all had this sun allergy for the past thirty years? With no cure? In the year 2060?”
I shook my head in confusion and disbelief.
“Think about it,” she said. “What they get is a massive workforce, completely compliant. One that will sign up and willingly do the dirtiest jobs without complaint. One that is barred from seeking upward mobility due to an incurable disability. What could be more convenient?”
“And your Doctor, how does he know about this?”
“It’s in the medical literature. The classified literature. He works on projects for DARPA, so he knows.”
“And the pills we take?”
“They’re Vitamin D and anti-depressants. They don’t protect us from incineration. Hell, we don’t need protection from incineration. We’re only exploding because--”
“Yes, yes, I got it. The government is exploding us,” I finished awkwardly.
We looked at each other in silence.
“And why is he telling you all this?” I asked.
To this, she looked away, and wouldn’t meet my eyes.
“Ah, it’s because he’s in love with you. Right?” I asked.
“Maybe,” she said.
She looked at me. “It’s unrequited.”
“So what now? How is he going to save you?”
“I’m going to get him to take the chip out.” She put her hand on my arm. “Do you want to be free?”
Who hasn’t dreamt of freedom? Which Night creature hasn’t had that other dream, the un-nightmare, where they’re in the sunshine for a whole day, walking down a street with their lover hand-in-hand, soaking up the rays, no longer a slave to antibody pills and shadows?
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I want to be free.”
* * *
That day Alisha came back to my place with me. We made love in the daytime, as is our custom, not like the Day creatures who seek out the darkness for this most private of acts. Us Night creatures, we like to see each other clearly. And that day, Alisha and I did.
* * *
Alisha arranged things with Dr. Cohen that week. Contact between the Days and Nights was not forbidden and we relied on them for medical care, so it all seemed above board.
On Friday evening our paths crossed on the platform for the A train, and she told me where to be. 4 am Monday morning at 221 Lexington avenue, she said. Suite B. Monday-Tuesday was the weekend for us, so this was easy. I gave her a quick thumbs up sign.
* * *
On Monday, I reached there at the appointed time. A young woman let me in. Her white coat had the name Nurse Young embroidered on it.
When I went in, Alisha was already there. She ran up to me.
“I’m so glad you came,” she said.
“Me too,” I said.
The Doctor stood behind her, a few feet away. I turned to him.
“Is this safe?” I asked. “Is there a risk?”
“There are risks in every surgery,” he said, “but the risks in this case are low. This is really a very simple surgery.”
“This is what we’ll do," he explained. "Natasha will sedate you, and then I will perform the procedure. First I’ll operate on Carl, and then on Alisha."
Fair enough, I thought. He wants me to be the guinea pig. Probably hasn’t taken out a whole bunch of these chips.
Natasha inserted the needle in my vein, and the propofol started to flow.
Or maybe he’s the one who put them in in the first place, I mused, drifting into unconsciousness. Maybe that’s why he’s such an expert…
When I opened my eyes, Dr Cohen was operating on Alisha. Natasha motioned me to be still. I felt an ache in the inside of my eye. On the tray next to me lay a tiny chip.
From a distance I heard Dr. Cohen cursing out loud. “Gosh darn it!” he said. He was one of those poor souls who couldn’t bring himself to use an actual curse word, so he was stuck with the polite ones to get his frustration out.
I was out of my bed in a second.
“What's happened?” I shouted.
“Keep him out!” he yelled to Natasha.
I felt her plunge a needle in my arm, and then everything went black.
* * *
When I awoke, they had wheeled me next to Alisha’s bed. She sat propped up in bed and looked at me sadly. I stretched out my hand, and tooks hers in mine, entwining our fingers.
“Well, I have some bad news,” said Dr. Cohen, looking devastated. It felt like someone was applying a clamp to my stomach.
“When I was removing the chip from Alisha’s eye,” he said, “I accidentally nicked her optic nerve.”
Never operate on the people you love, I thought. The oldest instruction to doctors, and he’d flouted it. And my darling had paid the price.
“I’m afraid the vision in your left eye is gone,” he said to Alisha sadly. “But you will still see from your right.”
I could see Alisha had forgiven him immediately. She was focused on the bigger prize.
“What about the chip?” she asked. “That’s all I care about. I still have one eye and I can still see with it, perfectly.”
“The chips are out, both of yours. I suppose that is the good news,” he said, refocusing. “You’re no longer, as they say, allergic to the sun.”
I was suddenly filled with an unsuppressable joy. A smile broke out on Alisha’s face. We got out of our beds, and walked to the window, still holding hands. It was 7 am and the first rays of sunshine were just starting to pour in.
She put her face in the sun’s rays. “Hello, sunshine,” she said. I looked at her. “Hello, rest of my life,” I said.