One morning, everyone wakes to find that the days are getting shorter. It is a peaceful day. No one notices the difference, really.
A father goes to work and comes home early to teach his son basketball. “It’s all about timing,” he says. “Timing and rotation.”
Two friends are caught up in an argument. One says that she was taken for granted. The other doesn’t see it that way.
A bookworm purchases twenty-four used paperbacks and excitedly brings them home. He vows to read one a day for the next twenty-four days.
And two lovers spend the day in bed, oblivious to the time lost, the hour that was taken from them.
The next day, the lost hour is all over the news. Astronomers think the Earth’s rotation is speeding up. Environmentalists think we are the cause of this fluke in nature. Politicians think it’s all a hoax. Everyone else does not know what to think at all. They wait.
The father, Jon, continues to teach his son, Eric. They do not discuss the news. Jon shows him how to perform a jump shot, and then they work on his layup. The sun sets early, and they head in for dinner.
The two friends, Beth and Lorraine, are not speaking to each other. Beth hears the phone ring, but it is only her landlord. She is going to be kicked out of her apartment. Why is money the source of all problems? she wonders. Beth eats a bowl of noodles and waits for her favorite TV show to come on. It doesn’t.
The bookworm, Harold, spends the evening finishing up another paperback. Curled up in his blanket, basking in the lamplight, he turns the last page of a book as the morning light filters into the room. Harold yawns, shuts the book, and picks up another.
The two lovers, Shawn and Lindsay, wonder if time really is slipping away. “What if it’s true?” Shawn asks over breakfast.
Lindsay shrugs and takes a bite of cereal. “If the days are gone,” she says, “if we really are losing time,” and she gives him a seductive look, “then we’ll just have to make the most of the nights, won’t we?”
Six more days pass, and with them, six more hours of the day. The nights remain the same, and everyone is grateful for this constancy, but still they feel time draining. Some sleep less and try to make the most of the day. Others wake up at their usual time, go about their business, but sense that something is missing. The night begins, with no time given back, no minutes and seconds returned to their proper owners.
Jon continues to teach his son, but he knows that if the rumors are true, soon there will be no daylight left, and they will play no more. But Jon is stubborn, and he loves his son, so they use the time they have left, and Eric makes a foul shot with his eyes closed. He looks at his father, smiling as if he knew the shot would go in the whole time, and Jon smiles back.
Beth and Lorraine decide to meet and try to be friends again. They go to the park, between their childhood homes, and Lorraine swings on the swing. She gives Beth the money, even if it is too late, and they each look away, distracted. “Do you think it’s true?” Lorraine asks. “Do you think it’s really gone for good?”
Beth doesn’t know what to say. She wonders if she and Lorraine would have made up this soon, had the world not been ending. And even now, with the daylight receding, and time unwinding, and existence itself threatened to the core, still there was something between them, and they could never go back, never rewind and start over.
“It’s true,” Beth says.
Harold stays in his room all day and night, only leaving to eat and go to the bathroom. He is aware that the days are leaving him, but this only motivates Harold to read faster. Even though he sleeps less, it becomes harder for Harold to meet his goal, to finish a book a day. He begins to skim the boring parts, wishing to reach the end in time. He sits down to read a novel called The Waves, and when he looks up the light is almost gone, and he can barely see the words. But he drudges on, holding the book closer to his eyes, refusing to place it down even for a moment to turn on the lamp. The hours are so precious now.
Shawn and Lindsay spend more time together, even as each day robs them of another hour. They receive phone calls from employers, friends, relatives, but they ignore them all. On the dawn of the eleventh day since this all began, Shawn and Lindsay wake up knowing that they only have an hour left. Twelve days have passed and soon the twelfth hour will be stolen. But what next? Lindsay is scared, and so is Shawn. They listen to their favorite band, and a song plays: The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older / Shorter of breath and one day closer to death. They take a walk outside, and somehow the sun is bigger and brighter for that brief moment it is in the sky, but then they head home, hand in hand, with dark thoughts in their heads.
As the sun sets, the days end for good. Everyone wonders if they will ever see natural light again. The night goes on, and though they have no way of knowing, it is happening again. They make the calculations, and they realize that for every twelve hours, they will lose another hour. Within twelve nights, or seventy-eight hours, they will be down to their last hour. A simple permutation. What will happen next? Will the process reverse, or will the world end? Will time restart, or will it cease to exist? The astronomers are silent. The environmentalists are silent. The politicians are silent. Nobody knows the answer.
Jon and Eric realize it is now too dark to play basketball. They keep the porch light on, but it isn’t enough. Eric asks if everything will be okay, and Jon lies and says yes.
“We can still play,” Eric says. “I know it’s dark, but the basket’s still there, and we can still play.”
Eric doesn’t hear a response, so he goes back inside.
Beth and Lorraine are friends again, but it can never be the same. They can barely recall what their fight was about, only that it involved money. If it had occurred earlier, maybe they would have had time to apologize and be friends again. If it had occurred later, maybe they would have let go of their trivial concerns and forgiven each other before it was too late. But it didn’t happen this way, and it felt strange talking to each other, knowing what brought them together again.
“I’ve never missed the sun this much,” Beth says.
Lorraine nods, looking out into the endless, eternal night. “Me either.”
Harold is speed reading. He knows he will never have time to finish all twenty-four books, but he is going to try. Volume after volume, he turns the pages, letting his eyes decide which lines to read. He picks out a section he likes from an author named Calvino. It is about the beginning of the universe: “Nobody knew then that there could be space. Or time either: what use did we have for time, packed in there like sardines?” Harold is envious. He’d much prefer if the universe were at its beginning than at its end. Time wouldn’t have begun yet, and he wouldn’t be sitting here, cramming all this knowledge in the few moments he had left. Harold laughs at himself cruelly, and for just a moment he stops reading. Soon he will be gone, and these books and everything he’s learned with him. Why read, when there may be no tomorrow? Why learn, when there is no longer any today?
Shawn and Lindsay watch the clock and count the nights as they pass. There is no indication of when one fades into the next. They remove an hour each night, following the system the universe has set in place. They hardly do anything now but look at the clock. They don’t even hold hands anymore, they are so afraid. Neither says anything for a long time, and they sit in the darkness, alone.
“How many?” Lindsay asks, quieter than a whisper. “How many nights left?”
“Two,” Shawn responds, and this means they only have three hours. Two for this night, one for the last night, and an eternity of nothingness for whatever comes next. Lindsay thinks that maybe, when it is over, time will restart, and they will gain the hours back, and eventually the day will return, and everything will go back to normal. Shawn does not entertain such hopes. Everything must have an end, and time is no exception. They count their final moments.
It is the last night, the final hour, and everyone is waiting for the end of time. They go outside, bringing flashlights and lanterns and candles. They hold hands, they pray, they watch the stars, they gather together in the night. No one tries to guess what will happen next. There is no time for guessing. Either they will wake up tomorrow, a new day will begin, and they will retrieve their lost hours, or they will be gone, and nobody will be around to question anything anymore. So they wait, and they watch.
The father calls back to his son, and they find each other in the darkness. “It’s your shot,” he says, and hands him the ball.
The two friends meet for the last time. “I’m sorry,” one says to the other, and this will have to be enough.
The bookworm returns to his books. He doubted himself before, but he picks up the last one, Einstein’s Dreams, and gets lost in the pages.
And the two lovers gather their families together, and they hold each other, deathly afraid, but not alone.
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