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This is the last of the shortlisted stories for the 2012 Litro & IGGY International Short Story Award for Young Writers, which we’ve showcased throughout the week. The winner will be announced on 15 October.
The boy sits, hunched over, his head in his hands, on the stone floor outside of the jail cell. He doesn’t want to leave his parents, not yet. But he can’t bear to look at them either. So he sits, hunched over, too stunned to cry, as the minutes crawl by. They are the minutes of the week he most looks forward to, and those he most dreads.
He gets up and walks to the door.
“Someday,” he vows to himself, “I will live in a place where no one is locked up. Everyone will be free. Completely free.” A triangle of sunlight enters the dark prison as he opens the door, then is quickly banished by the hungry shadows as he leaves.
Aurora is a town smothered in smog thicker than anywhere else in the world. The inhabitants struggling through it are joyless, lifeless, purposeless people, numb and free of desire. It is said that this town was built from a young man’s dream of freedom. When he was a child, his parents were imprisoned, and he had vowed to make a place where everyone was free.
The youth had sought out the oppressed. He had promised them freedom, and had led them, drunk on inspiring words, into the lost barren depths of the desert. They had called their town Aurora, after the rising sun of their hopes and aspirations.
Time went by. Intent on preserving his people’s liberty, the young man began to make decisions. Small ones at first. But then, he started going insane. He started to be consumed by his dream. A dream can do that sometimes.
He began to see everyone and everything as an enemy of freedom. And one of his greatest enemies was nature. Nature with all its unbreakable laws, was preventing his people from achieving their dreams—
The thought followed him everywhere, becoming an obsession. He lusted after it. Flight. So long as his people could not fly, they were not free.
Did he ever think, deep down in the part of the mind given to thoughts one cannot allow oneself to think, that perhaps not even flight could set his people free?
The air had been filled with heavy, horrible smog, in the hopes that, if he made it thick enough, his people could soar through it. They pumped more and more of it into the once-clear desert sky, until the air was almost unbreathable and he was forced to stop. The birds and dragonflies had all fled the toxic atmosphere, but still the people could not fly.
In a cold, damp basement, a woman taught her children to read by the light of a flickering fluorescent bulb. The woman’s name is Mira. The children are nameless. They had been born after it was decided that names were a way of deciding what your children would become, which should be the child’s decision. A child named Faith might not want to be faithful. A child named Freedom might not want to be free. So naming a child became illegal. Under penalty of death.
As was educating a child. From schooling, they learned one view of the world, that might be wrong, and that oppressed their creative minds. All the schools had been closed down. Children lived in a perpetual, miserable summerland.
Mira chose her battles: her kids could live without names, but not without an education.
Mira’s husband, Tom, entered the room, carrying a mug of tea for his wife, who had a sore throat. He put it on the floor next to her, embraced her, burried his head in her hair.
“Sweetheart, I fear for your life,” he murmured.
“I fear for our children’s future,” she replied, staring straight ahead.
Then the radio turned on.
Every household was required to keep a radio in every room of their house. They were used to announce when new enemies of freedom were discovered.
Their great leader had figured out, the radio informed them, that anything that made them do something they wouldn’t have done otherwise was an oppressor. And what causes all of our actions? Emotions. Emotions must therefore be obliterated.
Scientists, the radio announced, had already created a shot that, if taken monthly, would destroy all emotions. Everyone was expected to go to his or her doctor at 3:00 that day to receive his or her injection. Skipping an injection, or deliberately inspiring emotions in others (by means of music, poetry, art, theater, etc.) was punishable by death.
No expression crossed Mira’s face as she heard the news. She continued to stare intently at the blank wall in front of her. Anyone would have thought that she had already received her injection.
Tom was terrified of the depression and cynicism that had consumed his once vibrant wife.
A nameless child whimpered.
“This is madness,” Tom spluttered, in a desperate attempt to break the frightening silence.
“We must leave here at once,” Mira said in the soft, firm, steady voice of someone stating the only thing there is to be done. “All this time, we’ve lived in fear. As soon as we receive those injections, even that will be gone. We won’t even be able to tell what is so wrong with this system. We will lose any reason for wanting to escape or rebel, and then we’ll truly be trapped. We must escape!” In those last few words, her voice rose, becoming the cry of a trapped animal.
“If we’re caught trying to escape, we’ll be killed.”
“If we stay everything that makes us who we are will be killed. We’ll be dehumanized! Our beings will be torn from us, and we’ll become hollow shells! If we stay here, we’ll never dream or hope or love or cry again. We must leave.”
And they did. They walked until the sand wore through the soles of their shoes, and then kept walking. Miles of desert stretched out before them. Behind them, a desperate man watched from his window as his people—joyless, lifeless, purposeless—struggled through smog thicker than anywhere else in the world. The great, free people of Aurora.
Sophie Drukman-Feldstein, in her own words:
My name is Sophie Drukman-Feldstein and I’m from San Francisco. My favorite thing in the world is writing, and I want to be an author. Beyond that, I love to read, and I do several different crafts, such as sewing, carpentry, jewelry making and cooking. I do activism, mainly environmental conservation and gay rights. I also love street art, because I think that’s what art should be: not shut away in a museum or belonging to the wealthy. It’s for everyone, and it’s constantly changing.
I get inspiration from just about everything: poems, stories, articles, visual art, music, personal experiences, and sometimes writing prompts when I’m really stuck. In the case of "People of the Sunrise", I wasn’t inspired by anything specific. I just started with an abstract concept—the impossibility of absolute freedom—and turned it into a dystopian story.