Palo Alto Weekly 34th Annual Short Story Contest
Adult Honorable Mention

Sunlight

by Simone Clements Leedeman

Author Bio

Simone Clements Leedeman is a 19 year old currently living in Mountain View. She graduated from Mountain View High School in 2019, and since has been studying online to receive her Associate of Science Degree in Music Production from the Los Angeles Recording School. She has a passion for music, and is looking to pursue a career as a film/game/tv composer after earning her degree. Stories are a driving force in her creative process, she loves both creating stories and helping in the storytelling process by creating music to immerse the audience in a visual story.

Inspiration

The short story I wrote was originally inspired by the song "Sunlight" by Hozier. The hopeful sound mixed with the minor key in this song moved me, and I knew I needed to express how this song made me feel through writing. Surprisingly, this story was written before COVID-19 began shutting down the country. Reflecting on this story now from the perspective of someone who has been in quarantine at home for 78 days, I can sympathize with my character on some levels.

He blinked slowly as he caught himself once again staring into the stale fluorescent lights, his artificial sense of day and night within this underground bunker. His vision filled with spots, and he waited for his eyes to adjust once again. He could hardly remember it. Listening to the faint buzzing of the lights, his mind drifted to one of the last times he saw the sun. He felt the memory become more faint with every time he recalled it, but he could still feel the heat, the warmth on his skin. When he looked up to the sky, he remembered seeing the brightest blue, illuminated by the brilliant white star millions of miles away. The need to see it once again ate away at him, his skin itching to feel the tingling warmth from the light.

He stood, shuffling toward the double burner they had to help prepare the military food rations that had been stored in this bunker. Located beneath the power plant of the city, he remembered being told that this was where everyone was supposed to go when disaster struck, this was the emergency shelter. He glanced at his mother and father, who spoke quietly on the worn down couch against the wall. Only the three of them had made it in time.

Turning the dial on the burner, he watched as each ring began to glow a blood orange color, the heat emanating from the dish. It began to warm the old remnants of food that was stuck to the surface of the plate, causing the smell of the burnt pieces of beef stew and spaghetti sauce to drift to his nose as he raised his hands, hovering them above the rings just high enough to feel the heat. Closing his eyes, he felt the warmth and imagined stretching his arms toward the sun, his fingers spread to catch its rays.

"Isaac? What are you doing?" His mother's voice called from across the room.

Instead of answering her question, he paused. Choosing, at that moment, to ask the question that had been gnawing at him every day: "Why haven't we tried to go outside? We haven't received a radio transmission in years, what if it's safe now?"

His father stood at this unusual statement, brows furrowed. "Go outside? Don't be stupid, there hasn't been a radio signal because everyone is probably dead by now!"

He felt his throat begin to tighten, "So are we just going to sit here until we die from starvation when our food runs out? Are we just gonna wait until we hear that it's safe?!"

His mother approached him, her slender spider-like fingers gripping his cheeks as she pulled his head down to meet her eyes, and he noticed how the once warm shade of honey was now dull and desaturated from the years underground. "What has gotten into you, my boy? Where is this coming from so suddenly?"

His vision blurred as tears stung his eyes, the desperation and hopelessness he felt beginning to consume him. With a shaky breath, he croaked, "Twenty years mom. Today marks twenty years inside this goddamn jail cell, I don't know how much longer I can stand it... I have to go out there, I have to see the sun or I swear I'm gonna lose it."

His father exhaled roughly, shaking his head. "So just because you feel a little upset and bored, you're willing to risk our lives to go out there? Even if you could leave, what's your plan? How could I have raised a man so selfish, so reckless! Twenty five years old, but you're acting like a fucking teenager! You are in no place to take such stupid risks, grow up!"

Isaac's hands began to shake, his jaw clenched as tears fell down his cheeks. "I would rather die out there knowing what it's like, than hide and rot in here and never find out what's outside these walls, never see the surface again! Please, you have to let me go! Please!" He screamed, his throat quickly becoming raw as he made an attempt to move toward the hatch that led outside.

Arms immediately restrained him, his cries filled with despair echoed in his ears as he fought against the hold of his father. Nails dug into skin, legs kicking and thrashing, hysteria fully overwhelming his senses as he did everything possible to escape. His father restrained him as he continued to struggle, eventually moving to a chair at the wood dining table and holding him. Isaac watched his mother rush to grab rope and belts to bind him, tears falling down her flushed cheeks. For a brief moment, he saw the pain and sorrow in the eyes of his mother as she tied his arms. It was a sight he would never forget.

Soon the fluorescent lights were turned off, and he was left to sleep in his restraints, a cloth gagging him to prevent him from screaming anymore. Enveloped in darkness, he felt suffocated. His head throbbed, the endless tears trickled down his cheeks like a faucet that was left running. He knew that the possibility of escaping was impossible. His body felt like lead, his muscles weak and heavy. The ropes dug into his skin and as the hours passed, his quiet sobs the only sound breaking the silence within the four walls. His burning, puffy eyes began to close from exhaustion when he heard the faintest rustling coming from the bed where his parents slept. He listened closely as the sound of light footsteps on the cool cement floor approached. A small lamp on the table next to him suddenly illuminated the darkness.

"My baby..." The soothing whisper of his mother tickled his ear, as she gently brushed a hair from his face. "Please don't be stupid, ok? You just need rest, go to bed and we can restart tomorrow."

She began undoing the ropes that restrained him, and he knew that this would be his only opportunity left for him to escape. If he didn't go now, he would die in this bunker. Once his mother's gentle hands untied his final restraint and cloth in his mouth, he quickly wrapped his arms around her smaller figure. He was grateful that no matter how many years passed, the comforting scent of his mother never changed. He recalled the day his family entered the bunker: he was only five years old, and at the time did not understand what was happening. His mother carried him and he buried his face in her shoulder, taking in her familiar scent. Because of her, this shelter became a home, a place that nurtured and protected him as he grew.

He pulled away from the embrace, the dim lighting allowing him to look into his mother's eyes as he whispered "I love you, I'm sorry."

He swiftly began to run toward the ladder to the hatch, barely registering his mother waking his father as he gripped the rungs and began to climb. His father was calling to him as he climbed closely beneath him. Adrenaline once again pumped through his veins, motivating his sore muscles. The sound of his laboured breathing and pounding heart filled his eardrums as he reached the hatch, struggling to open the lid as his father climbed closer. The lid was stuck, years of no use left it to rust over time, and eventually Isaac found himself pushing his shoulders into it, using his legs to press his upper body against it.

The hatch finally opened, and he dug his fingers into the dirt above, pulling himself out just as a hand reached his foot. Clambering out, he stood and ran, expecting his father to climb out and try to pull him inside. After putting some distance between him and the hatch, he took a moment to finally look around. His eyes immediately began searching the sky for the sun, for the glowing star that called to him every day within that bunker, but as he stood he began to realize: the sun was no longer visible. His breath caught in his throat as he frantically looked around, the sky was a blanket of ash and pollution, the grey and black clouds completely blocking all view of the sunlight. The air smelled of smoke making his throat and eyes burn.

Besides his breathing, it was quiet, and the sudden sound of the hatch slamming shut and locking caused his legs to give out beneath him.