It’s 10:00 pm. Quitting time.
The workers lay their heads down on pillows, for the next shift begins any minute now. Their charges rest, arms above heads, surrendering to sleep.
Eleven PM. A truck roars by, proudly boasting its lack of a muffler. The child roars back through tears. A lullaby is sung.
Midnight. They pace up and down the hallway, astutely stepping over the board that creaks, sleepily humming the song to which they cannot remember the words. A tooth bursts through bone, a body is slowly soothed.
One AM. A monster is hiding under a bed and must be captured then returned to its rightful place, buried in the back of imaginations. The rescuer rubs the freed captive’s back, until soft snoring is heard.
Two AM. Slippers are tossed aside for shoes, blankets are grabbed, coats thrown over pajamas and the trip to the emergency room is swift. “It sounded like she couldn’t breathe,” they explain with hurried breath.
Three AM. Two warm bodies are tangled together in a rocking chair. A blue screen shines on them as one attempts to stay awake by reading tomorrow’s news. They listen to the sounds of the night, the whirr of helicopters, the rush of sirens, the squeals of cats who parole the neighborhoods at this ungodly hour.
Four AM. A cough. A sneeze. A sniffle. A retch. Pajamas are changed, sheets are tossed aside for the morning’s labor. Faces and hands are wiped, and the rocking commences again. The night shift is stationary, yet long are the miles traversed in that wooden chair.
Five AM. They press their hands against the wall, breathing slow and deep, wondering if this time it is real. As the pain grows, the sound wakes their partners. They closely watch the clock, the seconds of the shift counting down. One post is ending, another about to begin.
Six AM. Night folds into day. The work does not end.
They kiss curly heads good-bye, and head off to their second jobs. They sit at home, sipping lukewarm coffee to the din of cartoons and stare at the day ahead. They count down the hours till they may return to the soft warmth of the bed, wondering if this time they will.
This is the night shift. Eventually, so the rumor goes, they will be allowed to sleep on the job. But the work, the true work, remains the same. Their allegiance to their post never waivers. They breathe in the daylight, they breathe in the star shine. On every shift, they stoke the fires, and the light that burns never goes out.
Always, always, they carry the torch.