Friday, August 10, 2018

Going Clearwater: The Illusory "Firewall" of the Writers of the Future Contest



There's been a lot of talk on social media recently about the Writers of the Future contest, a long-standing, oft-touted competition for emerging science fiction and fantasy authors.  Specifically, there's been some discussion about problematic aspects of its . . . well, its everything. A bunch of people, including former winners, have been speaking out about these issues. Jim Hines posted a nice roundup with links to many of these comments on his blog, including some angry tweets by Yours Truly. But I have more to say about the contest. Much more than can be covered by 280 characters. Here goes.

In 2016, I won Writers of the Future. At the time, I counted it as one of my proudest moments. A story I'd written, The Sun Falls Apart, took first place in a contest judged by some of the biggest names in the genre. I'm still proud of that part. Unfortunately, that sense of accomplishment was undermined by a negative experience which forced me to confront the actual nature of the contest: Writers of the Future is a Church of Scientology endeavor. I now believe its primary purpose is not to help emerging writers, but to further the aims of the church, primarily by promoting the name of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. I make no judgments on any individual's religious beliefs, but since I won the contest, I have come to believe it exploits writers in pursuit of this goal.

When I first heard of Writers of the Future, I had no idea of its link with Scientology. I only knew it as the contest Patrick Rothfuss won that led to his big break. Then again, I didn't know much about Scientology in general back then. I'd heard it described as a "Hollywood glitz cult, starring Tom Cruise." I hadn't heard of the serious allegations former members of the church had made. I hadn't seen documentaries like Going Clear, My Scientology Movie, or Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath. When I searched for info about Writers of the Future, what I found were statements from judges and former winners firmly extoling the existence of a so-called "Firewall" between the Church of Scientology and the contest.

The Firewall, many claim, exists to prevent the contest from becoming a platform for the church and to ensure there's no proselytizing of winners--though one of the first things you learn when you go asking about the Firewall, is that it seems to mean different things to different people. It's the Firewall that keeps the contest's panel of judges onboard. The judges of this contest include big names in the genre--names like Brandon Sanderson, Orson Scott Card, Robert J. Sawyer, Larry Niven, and many more. Hence, it's the Firewall that ultimately lends the contest legitimacy. In my opinion, the Firewall does not exist. Or at the very least, it doesn't exist for everyone.

It didn't exist for me.

Sit down, friends. I have a story to tell.











Going Clearwater


It's May of 2016.

It's been about a month since I returned home from the Writers of the Future workshop and gala in Los Angeles. I'm still coming down from the overwhelming affair. Still processing the positives, which include meeting a band of wonderful people (including my future fiancée), and the negatives, which include the exhaustion of a week spent almost entirely outside my comfort zone. The come down is a difficult one, not just because of the intensity of the experience, but because in many ways, it hasn't ended yet. The anthology has just launched. Galaxy Press, the publisher, is making a big promotional push to boost sales and make the bestseller lists. For my fellow winners and I, that comes with a great deal of pressure. Pressure to promote, pressure to signal boost on social media, even pressure to fulfill media obligations. I had interviews with radio shows, local newspapers, and more. No other market for short fiction that I'm aware of expects or asks for anything like this.

I should mention, by the way, that winners don't get royalties for anthology sales, so there is no vested interest on our part to perform unpaid promotional services beyond that vaporous perquisite some call "exposure." But part of the experience as a winner includes being made to feel as though you owe Writers of the Future and the people who run it. You're also told this will all be in service of your career somehow (even though most of the "exposure" is aimed squarely at the contest and anthology). For these reasons, at the time, I generally agree when asked to assist in the churning of the Writers of the Future publicity machine.

And so, I'm not that surprised one afternoon when I receive a text message from Kate*, one of the employees of Author Services Inc., the (Church of Scientology-owned) organization that runs the contest. They ask if I'd be willing to take part in an event they describe as a "massive Barnes & Noble book signing" in Clearwater, FL in a few days. The last minute nature of this invitation seems odd, but not out of step with the general disorganization that winners grow used to when dealing with ASI. At first, I turn down this request. At the time, I live in the West Palm Beach area, and I'm not willing to drive across the state on such short notice. They respond by offering to fly me out and put me up in a hotel. At that point, I say, "Sure. Why not?" I mean, it's just Barnes & Noble, right? Book signings are fun.

*Note: Her name wasn't really Kate. I've changed the names of all Scientology/WotF associates in this story, because I don't want to bring the wrath of the CoS down on someone as a result of this blog post, even if that someone was partly responsible for misleading me.

Over the next few days, aside from my flight ticket, I never receive any solid information about the logistics of my travel. They don't tell me where I'm staying, which Barnes & Noble will host the signing, how I'll get from the airport to the hotel, etc. Once more, I chock this up to the general disarray these folks always seem to work under. What I don't know at the time is that Clearwater, FL is home to the Flag Service Organization, which the Church of Scientology refers to as its "spiritual headquarters."

Finally, I get a phone call while sitting in the airport waiting to board my plane. Kate tells me that once I land in Clearwater, "the butler" from the hotel will pick me up. This is the first real moment where alarms start ringing in my head. The hotel has a butler? Who picks people up from the airport?

An awkward pause arises, after which Kate asks, "By the way, have you heard of the Church of Scientology?"

Thus the alarms become klaxons unending. I mumble something like, "Um…yes. Of course. Yes."

"Well, the hotel you'll be staying at is actually part of the Church. Just so you know." 

Just so I know. Just so I know . . . fifteen minutes before I get on the plane.

When this phone call ends, I take a deep breath and ask myself if I'm ready for the rollercoaster ride that seems impending. Multiple red flags just shot up in that single conversation, and now is my last chance to hit the eject button. My plane leaves in a matter of minutes. I've got to make a decision. Quickly.

I do not make a smart one. As the flight attendants call for boarding, I decide to get on the plane. Despite resenting this last-minute revelation, I've already agreed to do the book signing, and part of being a professional means keeping your word. While the prospect of staying at a Church of Scientology hotel is alarming, I don't think it's anything I can't handle. At the very least, I have family in the Clearwater area. If things become too WTFy for me, I can probably call them.

And despite everything . . . at this point, I still somehow believe in the Firewall. The actual winner's workshop a month prior to this had not been universally positive. On the contrary, there were some experiences that left me feeling very uncomfortable: the exhausting schedule, the ever-present photographers and videographers, the aforementioned pressure to promote. And I heard other things from my fellow winners that ranged from just as bad to much worse: Autumn Evelyn (one of the illustrator winners, who is now my fiancée) was pressured into putting on makeup before the gala and interview, despite telling them she didn't want it. Another winner was warned not to get into an elevator with a certain judge known to get "handsy" with women. All these things and more--especially when looked upon with hindsight, set apart from the many positives of the experience (which for me included meeting Autumn)--are huge red flags that I have since warned potential contest entrants about. But one thing that didn't occur during the workshop week, at least to me, was any proselytizing from the Scientologists who run the contest. So yes, at the time, as I'm getting on that plane . . . I still believe in the Firewall.

After landing in Clearwater, "the Butler," a man we'll call Buddy, picks me up as promised. We share a long, awkwardly silent car ride to the Fort Harrison Hotel, where Kate greets me. Almost immediately, I am treated like a celebrity. People open doors for me, people know who I am, and everyone seems very excited to meet me. They also tell me I'll have a "personal attendant" who will shadow me and see to my needs the day of the signing.

At the front desk, they ask me to fill out a strange medical form. It asks for my complete medical history, and when I say complete, I mean complete. One of the questions even asks if I've had a headache. As in . . . ever. When I ask what this is for, they give me some line about not having a doctor at the hotel, so they need this information in case of an emergency. It's late. I'm very tired. And I'm getting a feeling reminiscent of my time at the workshop in L.A.: the sensation that I am strapped to a parachute caught in a whirlwind. I can kind of see where it's pulling me over my shoulder, but not enough to work the steering lines with much accuracy. I fumble through the odd questionnaire, not bothering to be very forthcoming, wondering if I'll be given proper medical treatment if an emergency does occur.

Kate tells me my "attendant" will meet me for lunch at noon tomorrow, then Buddy the Butler leads me to my room. Along the way, I'm told room service will be free of charge during my stay. He also gives me his phone number and tells me to call or text if I need anything. "Anything you want, we'll take care of it." I resist the urge to ask for a pony and a jar of brown M&Ms, for fear my request may be seriously considered.

We enter the room, which appears, at first glance, like what you'd expect from a normal luxury hotel. There's a large bed, a desk, a flat-screen television. It's quite comfy, really. Then Buddy points to the nightstand. Next to the TV remote control sits a small plastic cup filled with clear liquid.




"First thing," Buddy says. "That's not water."

". . ." I say.

"That's a drink people in the church take before bed. It calms the mind and relaxes the muscles. Just so you know."

This is the part where you should picture a close up of my eyes, looking at that cup, with the Kill Bill sirens playing. For this is the point when I realize what the next 24 hours is really going to be like. This little plastic cup is the first gaping wound in the Firewall I'm forced to stare directly at.

Buddy the Butler leaves. I dump the liquid down the drain in the bathroom sink. It smells like vinegar. Next, I open the drawer on the nightstand, knowing full well what I'll find.





Upon closing the drawer, I notice the channel listing for the TV.





I switch the television on. Sure enough, it's tuned to the Scientology Channel, which seems to be a 24-hour church infomercial. It features interviews with Scientologists with inspirational music in the background and cheesily-acted "reenactments" of church members using Scientology techniques to "help people." The same videos repeat over and over.

There is also a lovely basket with fruits and snacks. They are delicious. And wholesome.











The Firewall Asunder


The next day, just before noon, I get a text from Kate telling me the tour will be at two o' clock now. I should get some lunch, she suggests. I do so. Room service is delivered by a young girl, who returns moments later because she forgot to bring utensils. "I'm so sorry," she says. "I forgot your silverware. I'm sorry. I'm so stupid."

"You're not stupid," I say. "It's fine! I hadn't started eating yet. I didn't even notice. You're fine."

She seems relieved.

Two o' clock rolls around, and I get another text asking if I'd rather go to the beach.  I tell Kate the hotel tour is fine. I say this for two reasons. First, I was born and raised in Florida; the beach isn't particularly special for me and genuinely sounds less interesting. I'm not much of a beach-goer. Second, I'm getting the feeling they regret offering me that tour, but they're not willing to say so. And despite everything, I'm still the morbidly curious writer type. Now that I've had some sleep and some food, I feel a bit more mentally equipped to handle any weirdness that comes my way.

I meet Kate outside my room, and they introduce me to my attendant, Tori--who is now being described as my "tour guide." Presumably this is because they realized "personal attendant" makes it sound like I'm a western journalist touring North Korea. Tori, it turns out, is one of the directors at the Flag Service Organization. I am left in her hands.

The tour begins with a rundown of the history of the hotel, which originally opened in 1926. Tori focuses on the Church of Scientology's efforts at restoring and renovating the building after they purchased it in 1975. This part of the tour doesn't take long and remains fairly uneventful. When it concludes, there's still plenty of time left to kill. The book signing isn't scheduled until the evening, and it's early in the afternoon. So at this point, Tori the Tour Guide asks me if I'd be interested in seeing the Flag Building, which is attached to the hotel by a raised walkway on the second floor.

The gears in my mind begin spinning at once. Here I am, an outsider at the spiritual headquarters of the Church of Scientology--a writer no less--and I'm being asked to tour their equivalent of the Vatican by someone who describes themselves as tantamount to a clergy member. The significance of this moment does not escape me. Nor does the fact that whatever was left of the Firewall is now a smoldering pile of ash. Just like that initial moment in the airport, I'm facing an on-the-spot decision that could have real and uncomfortable consequences.

I could say no, of course. The option is there. But it's an easier option to weigh with hindsight, with time to think it through. In that moment, with only a split-second to answer her question, I'm operating more on feeling and instinct than rational thought. I'm alone in this place, I'm overwhelmed by the outright peculiarity of the situation I'm in, and one way or another I'm stuck here for dozens more hours. Tori has been kind to me so far. I can tell she's made an effort to be friendly and put me at ease. I don't want to be difficult. And truth be told, there is a part of me that is genuinely intrigued at the prospect of peeking behind the veil. I've already got one foot across, after all.

"Alright," I say. "Sure."  And so, we cross over.

As soon as we enter the Flag Building, the security person at the desk begins talking Scientology lingo at me, asking about my "training." Tori interrupts and tells them I'm just getting a tour. The guard throws her an odd look and says, "Those usually begin downstairs."

Tori fires an equally strange look back and says, "I understand."

Before we head down, Tori makes a point to show me an exhibit here on the second floor. Along the wall, glass cases display every book of "written teachings" L. Ron Hubbard ever published. There are hundreds. I'm told they total more than 500,000 pages and over 65 million words. Looking at them all lined up next to each other like that, I can't help but ponder how anyone could do the same without wondering whether Hubbard had just managed to cultivate a very dedicated book club, then cranked out as many as he could to keep the dollars rolling in. I do not consider this aloud.

We move downstairs. I sign in at the front desk, and my tour of the first floor begins. The whole place is essentially a Scientology museum. Blue stained-glass windows overlook the main lobby. Giant, bronze statues stand against the walls, wrapping around the chasmal room. Tori explains that the metal figures represent the "Eight Dynamics to the Session." The session refers to auditing, a core Scientology practice. 

Tori walks me through each "Dynamic," explaining them in detail. She's very enthusiastic about Scientology, and she attempts to frame the talk in ways that would make the subject sound appealing to a writer/creative (or so it seems to me). I'm getting the full pitch, basically. The sudden, full-force acceleration into the doctrine is a bit dizzying, but there's no time for hesitation or regret, as we continue moving from one shiny object to another.

After each idol in the lobby is thoroughly explained and examined, we move deeper into the first floor of this enormous building, which includes further exhibits devoted to Scientology doctrine. There's a sprawling hallway devoted to L. Ron Hubbard's life, with video presentations playing on several large monitors along the way. There's one about Hubbard's days as a young eagle scout, one about his days in the Navy, and so on. Tori encourages me to "enjoy" any or all of them, as I see fit. I sit on one of the cushioned benches that line the room and watch a video about Hubbard's days as a golden age science fiction writer, which genuinely interests me. It includes interview clips and narrated letter passages from some of Hubbard's friends and contemporaries, all flattering him and his work. I don't bother watching anything else.

At the other end of the hallway is a room devoted to L. Ron Hubbard's seamanship. There are glass displays filled with such relics as Hubbard's personal belt knife. This area also features replicas of the ships in Hubbard's Sea Org fleet, and even a scale-recreation of the Commodore's office he worked in. I'm told that every Flag Service building on the planet contains one of these office replicas. I stop myself from asking if they maintain them for Hubbard. You know, in case he comes back.

Next, I'm led to a room Tori calls, "the chapel." At first, I wonder if that's a nickname or metaphor or something, but no, it's a literal chapel. It looks very much like the inside of a Christian church, with long rows of pew seating, stained glass windows brandishing LRH quotes, and a raised dais at the front of the room. She walks me right up to the top of the dais and opens the big book of sermons on the podium, explaining some of them to me. She shows the pages that detail a Church of Scientology wedding ceremony. Then she shows me what she calls "group audits." Some of these pages are filled with phrases that repeat over and over, presumably that the group is meant to repeat after the person leading the sermon. I don't remember in detail, but it was something like:

Who am I?
Who am I?
Who am I?
Who am I?
Who am I?

Where am I?
Where am I?
Where am I?
Where am I?
Where am I? 

Etc.

During this entire tour, Tori repeatedly asks me if I have any questions. I just keep mumbling vague, non-committal things like, "Oh, I'm just taking it all in," or, "It's all very interesting."

After the tour of the Flag building is over, Tori leads me outside and down the street to a row of buildings nearby. The Church of Scientology owns the whole block, it seems. She shows me the various headquarters of Scientology's "outreach and charity" programs. Things like their anti-drug program, their prison rehab program, their human rights program, etc. Some of these sound like potentially good programs with potentially good aims, albeit under the umbrella of the Church of Scientology. Some of them also clearly sound like Scientology recruitment and PR efforts. At every building, employees and directors of the various programs come out and greet me. Again, I'm getting the celebrity treatment. Some of them already know who I am, others light up when Tori says I'm a Writers of the Future winner. They shake my hand, they flatter me, they tell me it's an honor to meet me. The experience grows more surreal by the hour.

In the same row of buildings, Tori also shows me the "Scientology Information Center." It's a small facility open to the public, acting as a public face for the church. There are pamphlets, posters, and a television screen, which plays a Scientology vignette that I recognize from earlier. By now, however, I can't remember if I saw this particular video as part of a Flag Building exhibit or on the Scientology Channel back in my hotel room. As I mull this over, I think of the Firewall and almost laugh out loud.

Next, I visit a building devoted to a program that's all about furthering something called "the Way to Happiness," which is based on one of Hubbard's self-help books (seen above in the hotel nightstand). Then comes the grand finale: the CCHR building, which is essentially a museum dedicated to the evils of psychiatry. This is a smaller reproduction of the famous one in Los Angeles. We briefly tour the exhibits, which remind me of a cheesy haunted house you'd explore on Halloween. It's all very dark, with scary music, macabre displays, and creepy ambience straight out of a horror movie. I watch a short video about how psychiatry has roots in grisly medieval practices when the mentally ill were kept in cages and tortured, and how today's psychiatrists supposedly aren't that much different, really.

They hate psychiatry. Like . . . a lot.

I should mention, by the way, that throughout all of these tour stops, people keep handing me things. Everywhere we go, they thrust literature and materials into my hands. They give me books, pamphlets, DVDs. Check out my Scientology swag, you guys. This isn't even all of it:






The tour ends with dinner at one of the hotel restaurants. The food is good.  While dining, the chef comes out to greet me. He thanks me for visiting and says it's an honor to serve me.

After that, it's finally time for the book signing . . . which is not taking place at a Barnes & Noble. It turns out the "Barnes & Noble signing event" is actually taking place here at the Fort Harrison Hotel, during a Scientology ceremony called "Flag Graduation." Scientologists who underwent training at the Flag Building are having some kind of graduation ceremony. Part of the ceremonies will involve announcing my presence, then directing the congregation to my signing table for an autograph. After the day I've had, I am not shocked by this revelation. My belief in the Firewall has long since abandoned me. I am not happy about the bait and switch. But I'm not surprised, either.

I'm led into a huge conference room with a stage and hundreds of chairs. By the time we get there, it's already packed full of Scientologists finding their seats. Tori leads me straight to the front row. At this point, I become genuinely worried about the possible public repercussions of this little trip. Just like in L.A., there are photographers and videographers everywhere. The thought of photos and video of me at an actual Church of Scientology event floating around somewhere is (at the time) concerning. What happens next tempers this concern somewhat, if only because it grants me the conviction that this is not the first Scientology event I've been photographed at. Before their graduation ceremony, they play a video of the Writers of the Future gala. A Church of Scientology official talks it up beforehand, citing it as part of L. Ron Hubbard's legacy, with the underlying message that it's one of the many Good Things the CoS is doing in the world. In other words, Writers of the Future (and not just the name--the video of the gala, the anthology, the words and likenesses of the winners) is used as internal propaganda at an official Church of Scientology event. That's certainly how I interpreted it, anyway.

As the video plays, I honestly start to feel queasy. I remember the moments playing on that big screen, because I witnessed them. I took part in them. I lived them. When the gala was happening live, I remember feeling excited and happy for my new friends when I watched them step onto that stage and give their acceptance speeches. They were all amazing people, and I knew they felt the same for me when it was my turn. I remember the moment the judges announced that Matt Dovey's brilliant story Squalor & Sympathy had won the Golden Pen. One might be tempted to think, since my story had been competing with his, that I might feel competitive, disappointed, even jealous. But by then, Matt and I had become friends. He was my roommate at the hotel in Los Angeles. We went through that crazy ride together, along with everyone else. So when his name was called, I could feel nothing but happiness for him. I clapped and cheered with everyone else. These moments, as I remembered them, were happy ones. Watching those same moments again in that room, in that hotel, in that Scientology compound . . . they take on an entirely different meaning for me, one that will only become clearer as time passes. This video seems to serve the message that L. Ron Hubbard, and by extension the CoS, makes dreams come true. Every time someone on the video thanks Hubbard in their speech, certain people in the room cheer and whoop. Every winner's speech that doesn't include a thank you to LRH is cut out--including mine, and I'm the one doing the signing afterward. It feels like our proud, happy moments are being co-opted to steer Church of Scientology members further down a path of devotion. Regardless what you might think of Scientology, regardless what I think of Scientology . . . that's simply not what I signed up for when I entered the contest. It ain't what's written on the tin.

After the video is done, I am ushered out of the auditorium and propped up in the lobby with a big Writers of the Future backdrop behind me. After the ceremony, the Scientologists are herded my way to buy copies of the book and get them signed. Barnes & Noble employees are present ringing up the books, presumably in hopes the purchases will count on bookscan and push the anthology onto the bestseller lists. This, it seems, is Kate's justification for calling this a "Barnes & Noble" event despite the fact that it takes place on a Scientology compound. It also seems to be exactly the sort of thing that Jason Sanford's posts about Writers of the Future sales data indicate.

I should say, by the way, that everyone getting a book signed is very nice. Many of them seem genuinely enthusiastic about the book and about my being there to sign them. The signing itself has some genuinely fun moments. But I don't kid myself. I assumed the Church of Scientology pressured these people to buy the book, as I'd heard stories to that effect before. None the less, the people I encounter are mostly kind, and so I smile genuinely each time I hand one of them a signed book. According to a Publishers Weekly blurb released later that week (which also describes this as a "Barnes & Noble signing"), I do this more than 500 times.

Towards the end of the signing, when I think this experience cannot possibly grow any more surreal, a plate of cupcakes is suddenly dropped in front of me, and everyone starts singing Happy Birthday. I smile nervously and look around at this room full of strangers as they sing to me, trying to remember if I'd told anyone it's my birthday. At some point, after the song ends, they stand me up, drape me in steampunk props, and take my picture with some cosplay troupe that's been hanging out in the lobby looking even more out of place than me. Somewhere in the universe, those bizarre pictures must be floating around, too. I can't imagine I look very enthusiastic, standing there in my bowler hat and cheap oversized duster, holding up a copy of the anthology.

When the crowd thins out, I chat with Kate about my day. It's the first time I've seen her since she left me in Tori's hands. When I tell her I was given the "full tour," so to speak, her eyebrows shoot up, and she goes pale. "Oh," she says. "I thought she was just going to tour you around the hotel. I didn't know she'd show you...everything." 

I realize now that Kate is probably worried she's made a grave mistake. She works for Author Services, and is therefore intimately familiar with the concept of the Firewall and why it's (supposedly) maintained. She must now realize the potential consequences of leaving me in the hands of someone who clearly was not. A thousand things must be running through her head. I'd have preferred she come upon this realization before strapping me into this roller coaster, of course.

You know what? Strike that. I'd have preferred she be truthful from the get go about what this was really going to be. I'd have preferred she didn't bait and switch me with a "Barnes and Noble signing" that turned out to be bullshit. I'd have preferred to find out what I was actually getting into a lot sooner than as it was happening.

But despite all that, I am still an empathetic person, and I can see the discomfort she's in. So I try to put her at ease. I tell her it's fine. 

"It was all very interesting," I say. And oh, it was.

Eventually we run out of books, I say goodbye to Kate and Tori, and I head to bed. In the morning, I meet Buddy the Butler in the lobby for my ride back to the airport. As you can imagine, I'm relieved to be heading home. As we're pulling out of the compound, Buddy suddenly stops the car, looks up for a minute, then checks his watch. "Wait," he says. "We have to go back."

"We . . . do?" I say.

"Yes, I've forgotten something. It's very important."

"It . . . is?"

"Yes. I've forgotten your gift."

And so we head back. Waiting for me at the front desk is a token of appreciation from my new friend, Tori the Tour Guide. It's a beautiful, leatherbound edition of The Way to Happiness.



I've since read it cover to cover. On multiple occasions. Sometimes aloud.

Here's my favorite passage:












Closing Thoughts


I first started telling the story above in private circles within the SFF writing community. Over the past two years, I've told it to fellow WotF winners, to friends at conventions, and in private online discussion groups. Most recently, I posted about it on Codex after Nick Mamatas and Keffy R.M. Kehrli spurred the aforementioned conversation on social media about the questionable aspects of the contest back in April. I also posted a couple of twitter threads around that time, in which I voiced frustrations about the contest and rage-faced over the revelation that unattributed quotations from Dianetics were included in Writers of the Future workshop materials. Since the tweetstorm, I've also been in discussion with former winners and even a few contest judges who reached out to me about it.

Since all of that started happening, I've also had run-ins with supporters of the contest who have accused me (and others) of trying to destroy it. Let me make one thing clear: I'm not trying to destroy Writers of the Future. For one, I don't believe that is within my (or anyone's) power, so even if that were my goal, I wouldn't waste the effort. My goal is merely to inform emerging writers about the troublesome aspects of this contest, because I don't think they're talked about enough. That includes relating my own experience that bizarre weekend in Clearwater. If anyone sees that as an effort to delegitimize or destroy the contest, all I can say is this: if spreading the truth about something delegitimizes it, was it really legitimate in the first place?

One thing I didn't say in the account above that might bear stating now: at no point did I feel genuinely unsafe (though that medical form gives me the heebie jeebies). And as you read, I actually opted-in to some of the weirdest parts of the experience (though every time it was while being faced with an on-the-spot decision that came with some degree of social pressure). Judge of those things what you will. I still felt deceived, however, based on the initial "Barnes and Noble" pitch and what this thing actually turned out to be. If they'd told me what this event really was before I arrived, I would never have agreed to attend. I can say that without question. But I get the feeling they knew that. Why else would they leave it out until I was already on the way? 

It's taken me more than two years to work through my complicated feelings on all of this, which is why I never spoke publicly about it until now.  Since all this happened, I've not heard anything from anyone at ASI aside from the occasional promotional emails or the odd Facebook like (until I blocked them all some time ago). I don't expect to hear from them again, especially after this post goes up.

Writers of the Future is a strange machine. In a multitude of ways, it is unlike any other market for short fiction writers on the planet. Some of those differences are obvious: the money, the prestigious panel of judges that lend it legitimacy, the glitzy awards gala. You hear about those differences all the time. But there are others:

No other market I'm aware of expects the level of promotion WotF expects from writers, despite that it doesn't pay royalties on the sales you're helping to generate. They expect you to participate in all kinds of press, and if you say no, they pressure you to change your mind--or just give your contact info to the media without your permission.

No other market I'm aware of attempts to unethically game bestseller lists, an allegation that seems to be backed up by hard data, as Jason Sanford has pointed out in his market report. And backed by my own experience related above. I personally witnessed hundreds of Scientologists buying the anthology en masse, at an event in which Barnes and Noble employees were brought to an outside location to ring the purchases up. Those don't seem like "organic" sales to me.

No other market I'm aware of has so many supporters in the SFF community who display a willingness to downplay (or outright ignore) these allegations and more--allegations of unethical, dishonest, sexist, and bigoted practices by the organization that runs it. And . . . I really don't know why. I don't know why we, as a community, have decided to turn a blind eye to the troubling aspects of this contest. When I won, I was immediately contacted by former winners who congratulated me. And then warned me. They didn't warn me that anything like my Clearwater experience might happen, because even they couldn't see that coming (and were shocked when I related it to them). But they did warn me of a great many other negative things associated with the contest, as a means of preparing me for my trip to the workshop. There's an entire whisper network maintained by former winners that reaches out to each new crop of writers every year. Clearly that means we know something is wrong here, and we have for some time. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that whisper network exists. I just don't know why we're whispering.

And of course, no other market I'm aware of is owned, operated, and supports the Church of Scientology. As I said in the beginning of this post, I make no judgments on any individual's religious beliefs. But the entrants to this contest deserve to know the truth about the level of involvement the Church has before they enter, so that they can make their own minds up about what that means for them. This nonsense talk about a "Firewall" that is used to douse that conversation as soon as it begins needs to be put to rest. The Firewall does not exist. If it ever did (I have my doubts after reading Kyle Aisteach's account of attending a workshop in the 90s), it has since grown so porous that it may as well be non-existent.

When concerns are brought up in public or private discussion, invariably the defenders of Writers of the Future repeat a phrase that has become mantra in the community: the good outweighs the bad. Look, if anyone can say that, it's me. I met my fiancée because of Writers of the Future. If I had to do it all again, I would in a heartbeat for that reason alone. But I still have to ask myself . . .  at what point does, "the good outweighs the bad" become "I'm OK with the bad"?

After what happened to me, after the things I've heard that have happened to others, and after these last two years of ruminating on all of this, I've decided I don't want to whisper about these things anymore. Instead, I'm going to shout it from the hilltop:

I do not support the Writers of the Future contest, and I cannot recommend it to emerging writers.





Illustrations by Autumn Evelyn

#SFWApro

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Sun Falls Apart

After some deliberation, I've decided to do a thing. Here is the thing I decided to do:

You may now read the complete text of The Sun Falls Apart, the story of mine that won first place in Writers of the Future, right here on my website. I hope you enjoy it.


Illustration by Autumn Evelyn



The Sun Falls Apart

by J.W. Alden


The crack between the boards revealed a meager smattering of light, but Caleb took any glimpse of the sun he could get. Thick wood and rusty nails denied it everywhere else in this house. Here in the old guest room, it struggled through. The razor-thin sunbeam cut a swath through the darkness and landed on his chest. Stepping into the light felt like stepping out the front door.

“Wait until Dad hears,” Josh said.

“What?” Caleb put a hand over the crack. Too late this time.

His brother's silhouette loomed in the doorway. At fifteen, Josh was only a few minutes older, but half a foot taller. “You’re trying to look out that window.”

“So?”

“So that’s cheating. I’m getting outside first, so you’re trying to cheat. If you’d earn something for a change, maybe you wouldn’t be such a shit-stain.”

Josh took off, yelling for Dad before he’d even reached the stairwell. The one thing he loved more than getting Caleb in trouble was letting him know first. Caleb slunk out of the room and ran his fingers along the bronze picture frames lining the upstairs hall. Portraits of people he’d never met and would never know the names of glared like a jury with sentence in hand. Dad was already pounding up the stairs.

“Show me,” he said when he reached the top.

Caleb led him to the musty guest room and gestured at the window. Dad broke the stream of light, sending an array of dust motes into a wild dance. He approached the crack much the same way Caleb had—slow, deliberate, as though facing a holy relic. He traced it with his thumb, shaking his head.

“I’ll seal it after the next supply run.” His eyes left the boards and took a quick survey of the room, stopping on the attic hatch above the bed. “We’ll have to cover it until then. Don’t run off. I’m not done with you.”

Dad climbed onto the mattress and yanked the dangling cord. The hatch popped open, and a metal ladder descended with a high-pitched wail, its feet pressing dimples into the mattress. He stepped up into the dark, returning a moment later with a framed canvas tucked beneath one arm. When he held it up to the window, he revealed the blurry golds and greens of a glistening meadow, the type Caleb pictured when daydreaming about the outside. Dad hung the old oil painting from one of the crooked nails, stifling the only sunshine in the house with a two-dimensional imitation. He didn’t even hang it straight.

“Okay,” Dad said. “Talk.”

“I wanted to see the daylight,” Caleb said. “Why can’t—”

Dad seized Caleb’s chin between thumb and forefinger, squeezing hard. Caleb didn’t resist. “You know why. That privilege is earned. Have you tested today?”

It always came back to this. Work harder. Practice more. “Yes, sir.”

“And?”

It all felt so useless. “Failed again.”

“Then don’t talk to me about daylight.” He released Caleb with a jostle, then cocked a thumb toward the covered window. “That’s cheating. If you want to see the sun, follow your brother’s lead. He’s almost ready. In the meantime, you don’t set foot in this room until that crack is sealed. In fact, consider upstairs off limits until further notice.”

“The whole upstairs? What about the library?”

“Closed for business until you finish the maze.”

“But Dad—”

His father silenced him with a look. Not the look, but one that made it clear what pressing his luck would get him. “You’re not ready for what’s out there, Caleb. Hunting for shortcuts takes you further from the finish line. Until you’ve proven you have what it takes, your world ends where these walls begin.”

~

Caleb ground his knuckles into the dining room table, jaw tensing and relaxing in a steady rhythm. The chandelier above seemed like the closest thing in the house to daylight, which made this his favorite room to test in. He frowned at the wooden maze in front of him, trying to will the steel ball inside to move. Josh had beaten this test at thirteen.

“You’re trying too hard.” Mom leaned against the arched entryway. “You’re quivering like a leaf.”

“I wouldn’t know what that looks like.” Her looming presence made this harder.

“Don’t get smart, Caleb. I’m trying to help.”

“Why? I’m not like you and Dad. I’m not like Josh.”

“Nonsense. You have the same genes, kiddo. You just need to get out of your own way. You beat the last test in half the time you’ve spent on this one.”

“That was just knocking a domino over.”

“And this is just rolling a ball around.” She walked up to the table and rapped her knuckles against it. “Your perception of this table, this room—it’s a distraction. It’s all made of the same stuff. It’s all intertwined. The space between is an illusion. One little stir in the right place will get things moving. Don’t think about the maze. Don’t even think about the ball. Think about the goal.”

Caleb squinted, trying to puzzle out what she meant. The maze was the goal. Still, he pretended it didn’t exist. He let his focus blur and imagined the walls of the dining room dissolving away. He pictured the vivid beam of light upstairs. How wondrous its source must be, if such a small part of its brilliance could dispel the gloom that swallowed this house. A light like that would envelop him—free him. It would cover him in warmth and burn away cold moments like this, when he thought he might never leave the house.

The sun entered his mind now, suspended somewhere above, far from reach. The hairs on his arms stood on end, and he swore the temperature rose. But when he took in this phantom sun, its rays began to fade. A giant, spherical mass rolled in front, eclipsing its beauty and ushering the dark back into Caleb’s world. With an audible grunt, he reached for the enormous obstacle—not with his arms, but with his mind. When he did, he felt its cold, hard surface, as though he’d pressed naked flesh against it. He threw himself at it, yearning to push it aside and reclaim the light. The object yielded, tumbling away under sheer force of will. Daylight poured in, warm elation gripped him, and—

The ball moved.

The imaginary sun vanished and the wooden maze returned. The ball rolled along its corridor, heading straight for the first obstacle hole. But Caleb’s mind was back in the dining room now, and he couldn’t steer it. The ball refused to turn or slow. It just kept gliding toward another failure. Without thinking, he reached for the maze and gave it a jerk, sending the ball back toward the starting point.

Caleb sighed, expecting a reprimand for using his hands. But Mom didn’t yell or scold. She hadn’t even seen what happened. She stared above Caleb’s head, brow line frozen and distorted. He followed her gaze to the chandelier. It swayed to and fro in a violent arc, like a giant crystal pendulum.

“How long were you upstairs this morning?” Mom said.

“What?”

“You’d better head to your room for a while.” She bent forward to collect the maze from the table. It almost slipped from her trembling hands.

~

Mom and Dad beamed as Josh took his first step past the yellow line and into the front entry hall. Caleb glared down at it. He’d imagined himself claiming this privilege a thousand times. He’d even crept up to it when no one was looking, sliding a toe or two across the yellow paint to see if the floor felt different on the other side.

“Watch and learn,” Josh said under his breath as he passed. “Until you take things serious, this is as close as you’re getting.”

Mom squeezed Josh when he joined them in front of the door. Dad gave him a firm handshake, then reached into his back pocket. He pulled out a white, plastic keycard. Black marker spelled Josh’s name on one side. Josh grasped for it, but Dad yanked it out of the way.

“Nah-ah,” he said. “Don’t treat this frivolously. It’s part of your outdoor trials. Keep it on you at all times. The card lives in your hand. Your hand lives in your pocket. Lose your key, I lose my temper.”

“Yes, sir. I’m ready.”

“Then the world is yours.” Dad handed the card over. “Show me you’ve grown and you’ll get to keep it.”

Josh smirked at Caleb from across the hall, displaying the side with his name like a first-place trophy. He slid the card into the receiver next to the door. The indicator light changed from red to green.

“Caleb, congratulate your brother,” Mom said. “He worked hard for this.”

“Congratulations,” Caleb said, then left them.

Most days, he loved hearing the thud of the maglock retracting, watching the door swing open. Sun would spill into the entry hall, glorious and warm. But he couldn’t love those things today. He couldn’t bear to watch Josh step into the light.

~

Caleb rifled through the open drawer of the dining room hutch, running a hand from corner to corner. He slammed it shut and traced a slow path back to the table, scrutinizing the floor. Mom walked in as he turned the maze upside down again, shaking it.

“Thought I’d find you here,” she said.

“I can’t find the ball. It fell out somewhere.”

She pulled up a chair and sat. “Your father took it.”

“You’re kidding.” Caleb let the maze clatter on the table. “He’s the one telling me I’m not testing enough. He just lectured me the other day.”

“I’m sorry, kiddo. We had a long talk after your last attempt. He thought you should take a break. Just for a little while.” Her gaze flickered away, bouncing from the chandelier to the overturned maze.

“You don’t agree. You know he’s wrong.”

Mom smiled. “We both want what’s best for you, Caleb. Sometimes it’s tough to figure out what that is. Your dad gets tunnel vision. He finds a way that works and sticks to it. Me, I think it’s possible there’s more than one path to the finish line.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Neither did he.” She drummed her fingers on the table, silent for a moment. “He’ll be out with Josh for another couple hours. How bad do you want to test?”

“I’m tired of these walls. I’ll probably fail, but I want to try.”

“There’s a catch. The ball’s in your dad’s pocket, so the maze is still a no-go. You’ll have to skip to the next test.”

A wisp of heat crept up Caleb’s neck. He didn’t even know what the next test was. How could he tackle something new when the maze still gave him problems?

“If you don’t want to, say so,” Mom said. “We’ll pretend this talk never happened, and you can go back to the maze in a day or two.”

“Is it even worth trying?”

“It’s always worth trying, Caleb. If watching Josh walk out that door lit a fire in you, I say let it burn.” She stood and slid the maze away from the center of the table. “Wait here.”

Caleb eyed the unbeaten maze after she left. He knew what Dad would say about this. He knew what Josh would say. Another shortcut. Another cheat. When she returned, Mom held a petri dish with a black dot at its center. She slid it onto the table, and Caleb squinted. The dot twitched. It had legs, wings, and a pair of prismatic eyes.

“A fly?”

“This test is a little different,” Mom said. “You’re not knocking anything over or pushing anything around. This one’s about precise manipulation. You need to separate the fly’s wings from its body.”

“You mean spread them? Hold them out?”

“Pluck them. Pull them off. I know it sounds tough with only two hour’s practice, but give it your best shot.”

“Won’t that hurt it?” Caleb prodded the dish with a finger. The fly beat its wings in futility. “How long will it live without wings?”

“It’s a fly, Caleb.”

“If I had wings, I wouldn’t want them torn off.”

“What it may or may not want is irrelevant. It’s had a short, futile life, serving nothing but its own impulses. It’s vermin. Its wings are the only important thing about it. They’re between you and the goal. Remove them.”

He leaned into the table with a slow breath—in through the nose, out through the mouth, like they’d taught him. His mind cleared of all but a few lingering thoughts about the maze. Once he’d set his mind in the proper place, moving that ball had felt effortless. He’d failed in the end, but it had gone farther and faster than ever before. So Caleb tried to do now as he did then. He tried to melt the room away, to fill his mind with daylight. But it didn’t come easy this time. Every time he drew near, the fly twitched, shattering his concentration. Caleb spread his mind apart again and again for the better part of an hour. Each time, the fly wrenched him back into reality with a single beat of the wings he meant to deprive it of.

Just as he wanted to grab the petri dish and fling it across the room, Mom slid it away. Failure. Again.

“You said two hours.”

“I could let you stare at this thing all day, Caleb. You’re not going to pass. Not like this.” She tapped a thumb against the dish in her palm. “Why don’t we try something different?”

“Like what?”

Mom left the dining room, motioning for him to follow. She led him across the house to the foot of the stairwell. Caleb froze at the bottom.

“Dad says I’m not allowed upstairs,” he said.

Mom turned around, already halfway up, and gave him a crooked smile. “Well, Mom says time’s wasting.” 

Caleb complied, but couldn’t help glancing over his shoulder toward the entry hall, as though his father might emerge at any moment and catch him in the act. When he realized where Mom headed, a bevy of unplucked wings fluttered about his belly. Reluctance waned, and he followed her into the guest room, where she placed the petri dish on the floor. Above it hung the meadow painting Dad had used to cover the boarded window. She picked it up and tossed it onto the bed, letting Caleb’s stifled sunbeam burst into the room.

“Alright, kiddo,” she said. “Take your shirt off.”

“What?”

“This might be your last chance to have the sun on your skin before your Dad seals this. Do you want clothes in the way, or do you want to feel it?”

Caleb slid his t-shirt off, then stepped into the beam. He’d known the sun’s kiss on more than one occasion, but having it snatched away days before made the sensations all the more vivid. Warmth radiated outward from the bright spot on his chest where he and the sun joined. It spread across his flesh, one electric inch at a time. For a few blissful seconds, he forgot about this musty prison and the impossible tasks keeping him within. He forgot about Mom, about Dad, about Josh. The light was all there was.

Mom put a hand on his shoulder, reminding him she existed. “I know how that feels, Caleb. I know it’s intense. Put it to use.”

He examined the petri dish. The fly twitched at his feet, as though sensing the weight of his gaze. Caleb let the world crumble again, but this time the fly entered the void with him. He felt its presence now, like the steel ball. When it moved inside its glass prison, he sensed the tickle of its trembling legs somewhere in his mind.

The sun manifested again, a mass of brilliant flame suspended above. Caleb reached for it . . . and touched hairy, insectile flesh. A silhouette grew against the light, pulsing and swelling, almost as large as the sun itself. Either the fly had grown or the sun had withered. The revolting creature threatened to eclipse its warmth. The fly spread its wings, dimming what light remained into a sickly gray haze. Every bit of pity Caleb possessed for the thing left him. Mom was right. It was vermin. He had to overcome it. He had to conquer it, to cast it aside in pursuit of the sun. He had to—

A shower of glass exploded outward from the petri dish. Caleb covered his eyes, back in the real world again. Mom raised her arms as well. When they lowered, she gaped at the floor. A perfect circle of shards surrounded a spot of untouched carpet where the dish had been. A tiny, yellow smudge lay at its center—all that remained of the fly.

“Oh,” Caleb said.

Mom said nothing. He reached for her, and she jerked her arm away as if touched with a hot iron. The unease written across her face didn’t stay long. She washed it away, eyes apologetic.

“I messed up,” Caleb said.

“It’s okay.” Her eyes darted now, as though searching for anything to look at but Caleb. The sunbeam caught a piece of glass in her hair, one of many. She began to pluck them out. “I’ll clean up. Just head downstairs.”

“Uh-huh.”

He slipped his shirt back on and made his way toward the door. The brief expression on her face when he’d tried to touch her still burned. He'd grown accustomed to tests ending with disappointment in his mother's eyes, but this was different. This was something else. In that moment, however fleeting, she'd been afraid of him.

“Caleb,” she said.

He stopped in the doorway and faced her. Some of that fear slipped through again, whether she knew it or not.

“Don’t tell your father about this.”

Caleb’s stomach tightened. He nodded, then left his mother amid the ruins of his failure.

~

The next night, Caleb dreamed of a meadow. He’d never seen one except in the painting upstairs, but it felt as real as any room in the house. A halo of trees circled the clearing. Morning dew glistened over swaying blades of grass. Birdsong lilted in every direction, and flowers bloomed before his eyes—reds, yellows, everywhere. A white sun shot into the sky, hours passing like seconds. When he woke, he half expected to be lying in a mound of leaves.

He wasn’t.

Caleb rolled out of bed for a glass of water, mouth stale and parched. The clock on the nightstand said it was four in the morning, and the stillness of the house agreed. On the way back from the kitchen, he passed the winding stairwell his father forbade him to ascend. He stepped onto the bottom step and ran a hand along the cool, wrought-iron banister. Had Dad sealed the crack yet?

He took another creaking step, thinking about the painting, the room. There was something wrong with him. He’d seen it in Mom’s eyes as they followed the sway of the chandelier, again when they drifted up from those scattered shards of glass. Not only had he failed his tests, but he’d failed them wrong somehow. Now the testing had stopped, and his parents wouldn’t tell him why. Maybe they’d given up on him. Maybe these walls would hold him for the rest of his life. With his sunbeam shut away, he might never know daylight again. Caleb shivered.

Blackness enveloped him a step at a time, and a nervous tingle swelled within. Scaling the stairs felt like proving Josh right, yet again. What was this, if not cheating? But he had to look. He had to know. If the crack remained uncovered, he could wait out the night and savor the rising dawn while the others slept. If Dad found him in the morning, he’d be furious. But one last glimpse of the sun would be worth his wrath.

The grooves in the hallway picture frames guided him to the guest room. When the door closed behind him, he hit the switch for the corner lamp, and the uneven meadow came into view. When he’d first seen the painting, he thought little more of it than a cheap facsimile. Now that he’d walked those hills in his dreams, he breathed heavily when he took it in. He gripped the dusty canvas, inhaling. With an exhale, he yanked the painting from the boards like a stubborn Band-Aid. A white band of caulking stretched across the middle of the window where the boards had once parted. Caleb ran a fingertip across it.

Dry and hard.

His fingers threatened to pierce the meadow in his hands, but he forced them to unclench. He rehung the painting, doing his best to reproduce its crooked angle. Then he stared. He regarded the tiny trees, the grass, the flowers. He contemplated the imitation sun, no wider than the tip of his thumb. He reached out and covered it whole. The meadow refused to darken.

When his gaze left the painting, it found the attic hatch above the bed. Dad had climbed into that black hole and emerged with a meadow beneath his arm. What else waited up there? More paintings? If they’d condemned him to dreams alone, maybe there were more to be had. Caleb climbed onto the mattress and grasped the pull cord. He fumbled for the ladder as it slid from the hatch, but it still screeched on the way down, piercing the calm in the house. He scrambled for the lamp switch, then sprinted back to the stairs to see if anyone stirred. No one came to investigate the noise.

With persistent silence at his back, Caleb returned and made the climb.

~

Odorous dust and mildew confronted Caleb as he groped his way into the gloom. His arm brushed a hanging chain, and he gave it a yank. Yellow light poured from an exposed bulb, casting angular shadows about the hardwood floor. Boxes and bins lay scattered around the room, many ripped and taped, barely holding together. Against the pitched wall to his left, a row of metal filing cabinets gathered what looked like years of dust. Decaying newspaper clippings and magazine covers hung from exposed rafters. WAR, they said. MENACE PREVAILS, they said. DESPERATE ACCORD STRUCK. Caleb didn’t know what the headlines meant, but the images captured him at once: city skylines, towering skyscrapers, bustling crowds. None of the people looked happy. But even in the worst pictures, the sun was shining.

Caleb made his way to the file cabinets. Streaks and fingerprints broke the layers of dust surrounding one of the drawer handles. He opened it with a low rumble. A row of manila folders stared up at him. He drew one at random and flipped through the papers inside. Most of it was unreadable—unfamiliar terms, equations, strings of numbers. None of it meant anything. Then he found a page with words that screamed at him.

Assessment Log: Subject 19
See referenced video files under observ.index

Age 11
Dominoes: PASS
(19070817.avi)
Maze: PASS
(19072017.avi)

Age 13
Housefly: PASS
(19080317.avi)
Mouse: INCONCLUSIVE, subject refusal
(19081217.avi)
Mouse: PASS
(19081417.avi)

Age 14
Dog: INCONCLUSIVE, subject refusal
(19093017.avi)
Dog: INCONCLUSIVE, subject refusal
(19093117.avi)

Age 15
Dog: INCONCLUSIVE, subject refusal
(19100117.avi)
Controlled exposure
(19100217.avi)
Dog: FAIL, anomaly
(19100217.avi)

Procedures halted pending analysis

Age 17
Handler injured, see incident report
(19112417.avi)

SUBJECT TERMINATED
(19112517.avi)

Caleb flipped the page. More unfamiliar words and characters. Another flip, and there she was, staring at him. She had Dad’s gray eyes, Mom’s auburn hair. She could have been a sister. He glanced at the open drawer, stuffed with identical folders, each with a number on the tab. Did he have a folder in there? Did he have a number, like the girl?

He scanned the room again, eyes bouncing from newspaper to newspaper, box to box. They stopped on a chest-high, wooden crate set flush against the far wall. Nothing special amid a sea of browns and grays, but something about the wall behind it seemed odd. A raised section of wood peeked out on both sides, lighter than the rest. Caleb dropped the folder and raced across the room, dust stirring in his wake.

A window frame.

He curled his fingers around the crate’s edge and pulled. It didn’t move. He drove his shoulder into it, shoes sliding on the dusty floor. Finally, they found purchase, and the crate inched forward, revealing a vertical strip of window—no boards.

Caleb pressed his face against the glass, grinning. Dirt and grime caked its surface, but moonlight shone through. He dug into the crate again, hoping to uncover the rest. He grunted and strained, unveiling the world one blurry inch at a time. Then he backed away and gaped at the first bare window he’d ever seen, hair on his arms standing at attention. The ugly yellow bulb overpowered the moonlight pouring in. Caleb longed to see the silver rays he’d read about in the library, pure and undiminished. He spun back toward the hatch to shut the light off.

Josh stood in his way.

“What are you doing up here?” he said.

Caleb didn’t speak.

Josh peered over his shoulder at the window. “Wow. You don’t learn. I guess we’ll need to lock you in your room.”

“Leave me alone. This is none of your business.”

“Mom and Dad told me to keep an eye on you. That means everything you do is my business. I’m in charge of you. You do what I say when I say it.” Josh took a step forward. “Now get downstairs.”

Caleb planted his feet. “I’m not going anywhere until the sun rises.”

“You’ll never see the sun. Trust me. I’m a man now. I’ve been outside. I know how the world works. You don’t have what it takes.”

Josh shot forward and shoved Caleb to the floor. Caleb scrambled to his feet, but Josh wrestled him back down. Their limbs tangled together—tan skin against pale flesh—pushing, grasping, yanking at hair and shirt. Josh managed to get his hands around Caleb’s wrists and straddled his hips. He pinned Caleb’s arms to his chest, squeezing the wind out of him. Caleb tried to buck him off, but he was too strong.

Josh glanced up at the window with a smirk. “Too bad you couldn’t keep from snooping, shit-stain. When I’m done with you, I’m going to board that up.”

When Josh said it, Caleb saw it. He pictured his last door to daylight shuttered away, draping this dingy place in darkness again. It made him want to cry, to scream, though he couldn’t inhale deeply enough. Josh had stolen the sun. Again.

Josh pressed harder, forcing more air from Caleb’s lungs. The attic faded, and his mind came alive. A demonic parody of Josh with black eyes and fanged teeth loomed above, its hideous body as big as the sky. It pinned Caleb to the ground with a cloven hoof and wrapped its clawed fingers around the sun. The light disappeared into the palm of its hand, held out of reach forever.

“No.”

With a single word, Caleb thrust the might of his mind at the Josh-shaped phantom. It yelped and shrank away from his will, relieving a tremendous weight. When light swelled and he could breathe again, he realized the beast’s cries had not been imaginary.

Caleb’s eyelids snapped open. Josh groaned several feet above, pressed against the sloped roof by an unseen force. Droplets of blood leaked from his nostrils. Instead of dripping onto the floor, they rolled upward across his cheeks and splattered onto the ceiling. The shattered remains of the light bulb covered Josh in a silver luster.

Caleb screamed. Josh fell.

Caleb rose with a stagger and reached for his brother, whispering his name. Josh lay in a heap on his stomach, silent now. Caleb rolled him over, then yanked his hand away when slivers of glass speared his fingertips. He stuck two fingers in his mouth and watched his brother’s chest as he spit the shards out. Dim light made it hard to discern the rise and fall, but it was there, keeping time with the steady drip of blood from the ceiling. Josh was hurt, but breathing.

Cold relief washed over Caleb, but didn’t remain. His brother’s prophecy would come true now. His parents had to be stirring, and soon they’d find him. They’d condemn him to a life between these walls. Or worse. Two words echoed in the recesses of Caleb’s mind, in the whispered voice of a girl he’d never met.

SUBJECT TERMINATED.

Caleb looked down. A white rectangle lay at his feet, plastic sheen gleaming in the moonlight. The keycard with Josh’s name on it said hello.

~

The moon was not the sun, but it was still glorious. Its light danced upon Caleb’s flesh, and the shimmering expanse that carried it made his throat tighten. The night greeted him like a new friend; warm, humid air caressed every exposed inch. Countless competing scents beckoned on the breeze. His parents had carried a few of them into the house before, but most were as alien as the night sky. After taking in the heavens, his gaze drifted earthward. He dropped to his hands and knees to smell soil and grass for the first time in his life. When he found his feet again, he carried handfuls of it up with him, tossing it into the air like green confetti. If not for fear of being followed, he would have sprawled in the dirt and rolled in it.

Caleb strode across the lawn, tears welling, but stopped short of the street. Several black shapes surrounded the house, rectangular and massive. He’d seen pictures of these things before—cars, trucks, jeeps—but they were even bigger than he’d imagined. They had strange words emblazoned on their sides. POLICE, they said. NATIONAL GUARD, they said. U.S. ARMY. As he drew near, his shoe crunched on something hard and brittle. He stepped back to look, and almost lost his footing.

Bones.

Reeling away from the tawny remains, Caleb collided with the nearest vehicle. He peered inside. Tattered blue clothing lay in the driver’s seat, barely concealing more lumps of bone. A human skull smiled from the passenger's side.

 Caleb moved on, pace quickening. What had happened here? How long had corpses rotted outside his bedroom walls? He ducked and weaved between the derelict vehicles, stepping over more piles of human remains. Some of them still clutched the rusted weapons that had failed to save them. By the time it was all behind him, Caleb ran at full clip. The road bore him into the unknown, but he couldn’t turn back. Not after what he’d seen. Not after what he’d done.

Dilapidated houses on either side of the street gave way to woods and telephone wires, a sweet scent rising with them. Caleb slowed to a jog, then a walk, lungs heaving. He’d never run so far, so long. The trees whispered as a burst of cool air caressed him; the world seemed to breathe Caleb in as he did likewise. When the wind receded, an altogether different sound emerged. A low, mechanical rumble swelled somewhere on the road ahead, growing louder with each passing heartbeat. Caleb considered standing his ground. Part of him yearned to learn what this world was bringing him. But the remnants of death outside the house burned in his mind. He ducked between the trees, dropping down to wait for the thing to pass, whatever it was.

The rumbling grew louder, and a shape emerged beneath the starlight. Blinding light erupted from twin spots on its fore. Caleb covered his eyes, and the thing made a wild screech. Two loud thumps followed, then boots against blacktop. People.

When Caleb could see again, two men stood in the road, bathed in the headlights of a truck. They wore black jumpsuits with white emblems on the left breast. Each held a rifle. Each pointed it at Caleb.

“Out of the woods, vagrant,” one of them said. “Now.”

Caleb thought about running, slipping deeper into the trees. But something told him their weapons would outrun him. He complied.

“A kid?” the man said when Caleb emerged. “This far in? Are you shitting me, Tucker?”

“Don’t look at me,” the other said. He wore some kind of visor over one eye. “None of the infrareds further back caught him.”

The first man gestured with his weapon. “You’re in a lot of trouble. Who are you? What are you doing on this road?”

“My name is Caleb. I’m exploring.”

Tucker let out a snicker, and the men exchanged puzzled looks.

“Well, sorry to interrupt your expedition,” the first man said. “But I’d rather not have to answer for an idiot kid being reduced to a thin, red paste in my quadrant. How did you get past the checkpoints?”

“I don’t know what you mean. I walked.”

“From where?”

“From my house. Up the road.”

The man lowered his rifle with a cockeyed look.

“Sarge,” Tucker whispered. His rifle pointed somewhere behind Caleb. “There’s more out there. Reds missed it somehow, but I’m staring right at it.”

The first man, Sarge, gave Caleb a hard, combative look, as though he’d committed some great wrong. “Christ. One of them.”

“No way,” Tucker said. “We made tribute. They shouldn’t—”

“In the truck. Now.”

Without another word, they lowered their weapons and piled into the vehicle. The truck spun around, cutting across the road and bathing Caleb in fumes that made him cough. The tires screamed against the asphalt, kicking acrid smoke into the air. But the truck refused to move, as though held in place. Caleb knew why.

He faced the darkness behind him. His father gave it a voice. “Everything that happens now is your fault.”

“Don’t hurt them, Dad. Please.”

“You’ve condemned them, not me.” Caleb had never seen such a grim expression on his father’s face. “Now watch.”

Groaning metal punctuated his last sentence. The truck’s doors flew from their hinges, and the men inside spilled out. Tucker clung to the doorframe, but an invisible hand wrenched him away. They tried to right themselves, to raise their rifles and fire, but the guns ripped away from their hands, slings tearing like paper. They rose from the ground, tumbling and spinning in the air, grunting and moaning. Caleb looked away. He knew what he’d see if he didn’t.

“Nah-ah.” Dad seized his chin, steering it back in their direction. “You wanted the outside. You hurt your brother to get it. Well, here you are, son. Watch how we deal with vermin. Watch how this world works.”

Sarge drifted forward, hanging upside down. Their eyes met. For a second, Caleb thought Sarge might say something. His head drove into the concrete before he had the chance. Caleb slammed his eyes shut.

“No, no, no.”

Dad gripped his shoulder. “Open your eyes.”

“I can’t. I can’t watch this.”

“Tell you what. I won’t kill the other one. I just want you to look at him. Look at the life you’ve ruined.”

Caleb did as his father asked. Tucker no longer floated in the air. He knelt a few feet from them, shivering, staring at his unmoving partner.

“I’m sorry,” Caleb said, tears blurring his vision. He didn’t know if he meant the apology for Tucker, Sarge, or his father. “I’ve learned my lesson.”

“Not yet, you haven’t,” Dad said.

“You said you wouldn’t kill him.”

“I won’t.” Dad gave Caleb a shove toward Tucker. “You will.”

“What?” Caleb’s stomach lurched.

“This is what you wanted. You wanted to cross the yellow line, whether you’d earned it or not. You wanted a shortcut. Here it is. Forget dominoes. Forget mazes. We’ll skip you right to the final test. Your brother hasn’t even made it this far.”

“No.” Caleb tried to back away, but his father shoved again.

“This man is nothing, Caleb. He’s an insect—vermin. They all are. Remove him and the world is yours. The sun is yours.”

“I can’t.”

Tucker rose into the air again. He let out a frantic gasp, which became a pitched howl.

“What are you doing to him?” Caleb said.

“Just breaking a bone or two.”

“Please don’t!”

“Then put him out of his misery. I know you can. You showed Josh what you can do. Now show me. Otherwise, it’s going to take him a long time to die.”

Caleb tried to block the world out, to build the sun, as he’d done before. He doubled over, scrunching his eyes and covering his ears. He tried to ignore Tucker’s pain, to fade into a reality of his own making. But this time, he failed. His imaginary sun never came. All he saw was black. All he heard were screams.

He opened his eyes and aimed them at the night sky. They drifted straight to the brilliant orb that had so entranced him when he took his first steps outside. He’d spent his life chasing the sun, but he knew about the moon from books in the library. He knew why it beamed so bright amid this dark sky. The energy crawling across his exposed skin didn’t belong to the moon—it was sunlight. The moon was merely its vessel.

Caleb stood up straight and met his father’s eyes. He removed his shirt, letting the sun embrace him from somewhere over the horizon.

Dad smiled. “And I thought Josh was the quick learner. Do it, son.”

Caleb didn’t need to shut his eyes for what came next, though part of him wanted to. He didn’t need to block the world out. He didn’t need to visualize his obstacle. It stood right in front of him. Caleb knew what he needed to do, and for the first time in his life, he knew he had the power to do it. This time when he called on it, his mind leaped forward as easily as a hand swatting a fly. A loud popping noise halted Tucker’s screams. Save for a final, rasping cry, the night fell silent.

Tucker collapsed onto the ground. Caleb’s gaze drifted from him to the twisted mass that used to be his father. His back had inverted like a question mark. His head faced the wrong direction. Dad’s eyes—eyes that once held immense power over Caleb—had gone white and empty.

Caleb fell to his knees and sobbed.

“You helped me,” Tucker said, clutching one arm. “The others . . . you're not like them. You helped me.”

Caleb stood and wiped his face with his shirt. “I didn’t help your friend.”

Tucker shuffled to his feet and leaned against the truck. He limped toward the driver’s side, then turned back to Caleb. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

The sound of shoes pounding pavement echoed toward them. Caleb looked up. Against the night sky, which now faded to purple at its edge, a featureless silhouette bobbed along the road. Caleb heard his name, a long howl against the wind—Mom calling after him.

“Take me some place high,” Caleb said. “I want to watch the sun rise.”

THE END

#SFWApro