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

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