This story is by Sean K. Harline and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Aurora woke in the wee hours from a nightmare. She rubbed her eye with a knuckle as she felt her way down the hall to her parents’ bedroom. She was a step away from the door when it opened from inside. She stepped back startled and flinched at the sudden shift from near total darkness to the comparatively bright light of the bedroom.
“Oh, sorry Rora!” Her father was dressed in stained coveralls, dirty sneakers, and had a tote bag around his shoulder with a few books and tools in it. “I didn’t expect you there. Hope I didn’t scare you badly.” He put down the tote and bent down to pick up his daughter. She could see part of the word “morrow” on his undershirt through the open zipper of his coveralls. “You okay, Sprout?”
“Nightmare,” Aurora responded sleepily, her father was bringing her to her mother.
Her arms were already outstretched, ready to catch her beloved daughter. She looked about as tired as Aurora felt, but she never let Aurora see her in the morning without a smile, no matter how early it was.
“Aw, well, it was scary then, but it’s not scary anymore, huh?” Her father wasn’t the best with little-kid-talk, but Aurora felt his love whenever he tried.
“Mhm…” Aurora hummed despite not understanding him.
He put her into the warm embrace of her mother, a very comforting transition since she was still wrapped in a blanket and in her pajamas while her father was in rougher clothes that were colder on the outside, but warmer on the inside. Her father had shown her once; the inside felt like a bed. She wondered again how he kept from falling asleep standing up.
Aurora’s father bent down and kissed his daughter’s forehead. His beard slightly tickled her. When he noticed, he playfully dug in a little harder. She let out a tired laugh.
“Lucas, don’t wake her up any more,” Aurora’s mother said, lightly pushing her husband’s face away from their daughter. “I’ll take her back to bed. I hope you have a great day at work, sweetie,” and the two doting parents kissed as he left down the stairs and she turned down the hall to Aurora’s room.
Aurora watched her father as he walked down the stairs. The word “morrow” was stitched on the back of his coveralls as well. Only, it was shaped funny: it definitely spelled out “morrow”, but the “row” was a “mor” that was flipped and had the two r’s almost touching. An image of a sun was in between the r’s and somehow looked to be shining in the dark of the stairway.
“Mommy?” Aurora said as the father and daughter waved before they left each other’s sight.
“What’s up, Aurora?” her mother pressed their heads against each other with her answer.
“What does Daddy do at work?”
Her mother closed her bedroom door and put both of them into Aurora’s bed, keeping her daughter in her arm as she pulled the covers over them. Once they were securely cozy, Aurora rolled over and looked to her mother. They saw themselves reflected in each other’s eyes. Her mother’s smile was almost warmer than the blankets.
“Your dad works at a place called ‘Morrow Multinational’,” her mother said after a pause. “He and his coworkers make the sun rise every day.”
Aurora’s mother saw more of her reflection as her daughter’s eyes widened in interest.
“That’s why he has to leave so early in the mornings: he has to make sure the first lights of dawn don’t fall behind schedule. The factory he works at gives him a special bus pass for a line that travels so fast to the east that you wouldn’t even see it until it was already gone,” and she shot her hand through the air above them and gave a short whoosh.
“Once he gets there, he puts his work boots on from his locker and hops in a cart.”
“Like a go cart?” Aurora asked.
“Yeah, except this one rides on winds and lets him fly across the sky.”
Aurora excitedly readjusted and her mother thought back to what she had told her husband just a few minutes ago and laughed to herself for it.
“He and his coworkers take turns on what they do each morning, but everything they do has to be done together otherwise the sun won’t rise right. Little mishaps every now and then are why the sunrise is a little more light-blue than it is orange or why some stars take longer to fade out.
“When he drives a cart, he has to go around the sky and put out the Lanterns of the Constellations one at a time starting from the east on this side,” and she waved her hand in the air over her daughter, “and finishing on this side of the sky in the west,” and she waved her hand in the air behind herself. “Sometimes he has to double back because some lanterns are cooler than others and he has to wait for the sun to warm them up.”
“Starlights are cold?” Aurora’s excitement was turning into sleepiness as her mother continued.
“Yes, that’s why nighttime is so cold,” Aurora’s mother faked a shiver and a brr and pulled her daughter closer in a game to get warmer. “While he drives around with his star snuffer, his coworkers begin refueling the sky furnace which burns a bright blue color when it starts, then grows into a warm orange. The light from the furnace makes a path for the sun so that it can move easily from the east to the west. You know how the sun looks bigger when it sets?” she brushed the hair out of Aurora’s face and watched her daughter nod sleepily.
“That’s because it’s slowly coming back down to a big net that’s just below the west horizon. That’s where Morrow’s Sunset Team catches it and puts it on a big trailer. Two of your dad’s coworkers hop into a jeep and tow the trailer through the Terrestrial Tunnels underground. The roads in the tunnels get really slippery during winter, so they have to drive slower which makes winter nights longer than summer nights. While they get the sun ready to be shipped, another guy goes around and lights the star lanterns starting from-”
“The east and moving west,” Aurora said while fighting to keep her eyelids up.
Her mother laughed softly and continued, “That’s right, just like when your dad puts them out, they have to be lit back up in the same order, otherwise they’ll burn through their oil too quickly. Every day when the sun flies through the sky, it refills those lanterns with its own kind of oil. But they can’t be lit on their own, so your dad and the people he works with have to light them manually.”
“How does the sun get in the sky though?” Aurora yawned.
“Well, just below the east horizon is a giant slingshot,” Aurora’s mother knew she shouldn’t be trying to keep her young daughter awake this early in the morning, but she didn’t want to lose the grasp she had over Aurora’s attention (and substituting ‘highly complex rope-and-pulley and conveyor belt system’ with ‘slingshot’ was just enough to keep it). “The sun is actually pretty light, and the slingshot is so strong that it always shoots straight and true. While waiting for the people in the jeep to deliver the sun, five people set up the slingshot by making sure the ropes are ok to be pulled again and setting up the sling. Then they bolt it into place.
“When the people with the jeep arrive, they back the trailer up right against the sling. This is a very scary job because if they back up too far, they could trigger the slingshot and get shot across the sky with the sun.”
At the sound of the word ‘scary’, Aurora’s mother felt her daughter’s hand grip ever so slightly tighter onto her shirt sleeve. She patted her daughter’s head to assuage any fear. “But everyone is very careful; they have been doing this for thousands of years after all so they know what they’re doing. When the sun is in place, they detach it from the trailer and drive the jeep slowly forward and back through the Terrestrial Tunnels to the west horizon.
“Once the boss says, they fire the slingshot and shoot the sun up past the horizon so that it can light your world again for another day.” She paused and looked at her daughter.
Aurora was fully asleep. Her mother slowly climbed out of the bed and tiptoed for the hallway. She turned around to get another look at Aurora’s sleeping face. Outside the window of the bedroom, the top of the sun was just peeking through the trees past the family’s yard.
“Good work, sweetie,” she whispered and quietly closed the door.