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Fiction

Golden Apple

The Lowest Heaven

This story also appears this month in the anthology THE LOWEST HEAVEN, edited by Anne C. Perry & Jared Shurin.

“Mother, give me the sun.”

Ghosts, Henrik Ibsen

***

The process of transforming sunlight into a solid object had been complete about a month when we broke into the lab and stole as much as we could carry.

Carrying it was an issue, actually—obviously we were fairly sure it wouldn’t weigh much. But what do you carry sunlight in? Some sort of vacuum flask seemed appropriate. We didn’t want the sunlight to leak, or get contaminated. But would it die, somehow, if we shut it up in the dark?

In the end we used Tupperware and a rucksack.

For what it’s worth: We wouldn’t have stolen the solidified light if we’d had any other options or had not been at the very end of our rope. We would have paid for it if we could. We’ve become quite good at raising money, even while never having close to enough: We’ve raised almost two hundred thousand over the last few years for projects that had seemed saner but hadn’t done us any good in the end. We were up against the clock. We knew we weren’t thinking very clearly but we didn’t care, we knew we might be messing up (though not how badly) and we didn’t care about that either; in fact, by this point, we didn’t even really care about each other, despite the fact we were barely having full conversations with anyone else.

It’s quite liberating. The not caring.

It was a long drive to the lab but Jan and I had nothing to talk about in the car. We’d agreed beforehand that if it came to it, we’d both deny she knew anything about it; if at all possible we’d see to it I’d go to prison so there’d be someone to look after Daisy. I had no particular feelings about this other than mild guilt that my end of the bargain seemed easier.

Jan had bought us convincing replica guns, and by then it wasn’t so much that we objected to real ones as that we didn’t know how to get them and were afraid of getting caught before we could get hold of the sunlight. I am glad about that, now, we didn’t have real guns; things might have gone worse; people in our state of mind shouldn’t have guns. Not that we felt bad. In fact, I felt better than I had for years, and I say we weren’t thinking clearly but it felt clear, like all the horror and exhaustion and rage was washing out of me at last, and I was filling up with light, with light, with light.

To be doing something, you know?

To feel like it was going to be over?

***

It was a clear night, but it had been raining for days before, and as we broke clear of the trees and began our sprint across the field, the ground was like crude oil underfoot. I slipped right over once and Jan gave me a hand up in the kind of perfectly synchronised, perfectly impersonal way one assassin might help another. Didn’t look at my face, or at anything but the low white building ahead.

It shone worryingly bright; the moon was full, and that rhyme I used to sing Daisy came into my head: Girls and boys come out to play, the moon is shining as bright as day, and while I was giving Jan a leg-up over the wall, part of my brain got a little lost in how it’s really all sunlight, hurling through space, bouncing off cold stone, raining down on the wet grass, sunlight trapped for years and at last released in the lamps above the laboratory’s little car park, and it was sunlight powering my muscles to lift Jan and then myself, sunlight squeezing and releasing our lungs and hearts.

I’d been thinking so much about light recently, you see.

Jan spoke for the first time in hours: “We’re leaving footprints,” she whispered. “We’re going to track this mud all over the floors. They’ll be able to get a lot of information from that.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I said.

Jan only paused for a second. “No,” she agreed, “it doesn’t.”

“We’ll dump the shoes later,” I said, but she was already tramping on ahead through the mud, and didn’t answer, and I knew she wasn’t even thinking about it any more.

***

We weren’t particularly sophisticated about it. We just bashed in a window and of course alarms started screaming. We’d known that would happen but I couldn’t help getting a little jumpy, and this is why I say it’s just as well our guns weren’t real, because a security guard found us not long after that. And while Jan was aiming her fake pistol at him and shouting, I had trouble not breaking down in giggles because it was so easy, and I kept expecting it to be harder; I kept thinking he’d realise the guns weren’t real and we weren’t actually breaking into the lab and handcuffing a man to a chair, we weren’t the sort of people who do things like that.

Jan didn’t seem to have any trouble keeping a straight face though, as far as you could tell through the balaclava; she pressed her gun against the man’s temple and he shook, he was so scared of tiny Jan and used-up, middle-aged me, and I stopped finding it funny and thought good, he should be. And I stopped thinking we weren’t the sort of people who would do this; we were, and that was fine, perfect. “Where’s the light?” I barked in his ear. “You know what we want; where’s the light?”

So he told us, and where the key safe was, and he wasn’t lying about it (why should he? Why risk his life to protect an experiment?), so we stuffed a gag in his mouth and ran through the dark corridors, up a flight of stairs to the right room. Couldn’t get the keys to work for ages, metal turning slippery in our shaking hands with sweat. Opened the door.

There in the dark was the sunlight.

Jan had been the one to do most of the research; I think the scientists wanted the solid light for some kind of new fuel, (which was what we wanted it for too, of course) but I don’t know. They’d coaxed it into being on microscopic lattices under funnels of mirrors, I remember that. It was about persuading photons to act like electrons, to repel each other.

 Maybe it was actually a weapon? Maybe all this would’ve happened anyway.

***

Each globe of light was gold and white and perfect, like a tiny sun or a huge pearl. Each about the size of my two fists they hung suspended within columns of glass, held in place, I think, by magnetic fields. I pulled open the port at the top of the nearest tube and the light sank slowly to the bottom like a wax in a lava-lamp. It quivered and warped a bit as it settled down, already a little ruined, but still there.

“Quick, get it out,” said Jan, voice jagged with desperation. I reached down into the tube and grasped the light.

What did it feel like? Spongy, slippery, without being wet; hot but not burning through my glove. Bits of it fizzed away as I touched it, escaped into little streaks of almost-normal light in the air, and we got worried it would dissipate completely, so we set to grabbing the light out of the tubes and loading it into our Tupperware.

We didn’t take it all but we did take most of it.

“I am sorry about this,” said Jan almost gently to the guard back in the office we’d broken into. “We had to.”

***

When we got home we didn’t so much as take off our coats, just ripped off the balaclavas and ran straight up the stairs. We didn’t like to charge into the room in the middle of the night, normally we tiptoed around it, but we were too scared to wait until morning, in case the police came before then or in case the sunlight wouldn’t last that long, before we’d tried.

We didn’t turn on the lights. The captured sunlight lit the room enough. And yet you could barely see there was anyone lying in the bed. The duvets piled over her erased all trace of her body, as surely as clay. Just the little skull on the pillow, raw within the taut casing of skin, the tangle of limp, dry hair. As always, I held my breath until I could see the faint, faint movement of hers.

Sometimes I’d look at Daisy and all the ready-made words they use for dead girls would nearly choke me. Bubbly. Special. Princess. Awful, awful words, that get you the exact opposite of what they’re begging the walled-off world for: please don’t just think of a corpse, please don’t think of this one photograph, please think of a person.

She never used to feel the cold at all. She used to like to stay outside as long as it was light and was baffled by the idea she ought to have anything on her arms. When she was seven she showed a slightly worrying interest in wounds and dead animals, but grew out of it. She was good at algebra. She could run fast but was hopeless at any sport involving catching or throwing. When she was eleven she found it essential to know her own exact favourite colour, considering that an answer as imprecise as “blue” showed a lack of spirit and self-knowledge. She collected colour cards from a paint shop, studied them solemnly for days, and informed us at last that the chosen shade was Majorelle Blue. She began to lecture us on environmentalism but she never remembered to turn off the bathroom light. At fourteen she was still planning to live in a house with every room painted Majorelle blue, with a wooden bed painted lemon yellow. That same year she redesigned her own signature into an artfully elaborate logo for when she was famous. When she was fifteen her best friend gave her a silver necklace shaped like a daisy chain and Daisy never took it off if she could help it (it couldn’t have been cheap, that necklace, but that was the year Daisy’s illness became something more than an inconvenience). She made frequent mention of a redheaded boy in the year ahead of her while denying she liked him. She had, in my view as I had in hers, appalling taste in music.

She’d celebrated her sixteenth birthday in the bed she now lay in, weakly puffing out a single candle we’d stuck into a bar of cinnamon scented soap, cake being out of the question. The last week before we stole the light, she’d barely opened her eyes.

Jan dodged around the IV stand and sat down on the bed. Daisy moaned quietly and turned her head away from the light. Jan got one arm under her head and propped her up—she wasn’t hard to lift. The blankets slipped down her corrugated chest, resting on her tender, slightly swollen stomach, and releasing a drift of her sweet ammonia scent.

I opened the first tub and handed it to Jan. The light scoured the poor remnants of Daisy’s face, the red chapped skin around her lips and nostrils, the flint-edged shadows under cheekbones and eyebrows. Within the pitiless caverns of her skull, her eyes winced open.

“Daisy,” I said.

I got round to the other side of the bed, and picked up my daughter’s hand. It felt like a little pile of kindling in mine. Her skin was papery-dry and cold, always so cold.

“Daisy,” whispered Jan, “open your mouth, there’s a good girl.”

Daisy blinked up at us emptily. Her forehead creased a little in pain, and her eyes sank closed again. I knew her bones hurt constantly, the bed was never soft enough to cushion them from their own small weight. But she didn’t protest.

Obediently, she parted her lips and Jan slipped the first sliver of sunlight inside.

I suppose, if I could, I’d have to change what I’ve done. It’s useless to say that now, and doubly so because I can’t really imagine doing it differently. I know we did wrong, and I should feel worse about it, but I can’t do anything about that.

But I do feel guilty when I think of her swallowing the light. We should have told her what we were doing. We should have asked. She wouldn’t, before, have been so docile, so vacantly trusting. She would have wanted to know what on earth we were putting in her mouth.

The first word she ever said was “no.”

The sunlight shone scarlet through her lips and cheeks, illuminating the lacework of veins like bare trees against a sunset. Her throat glowed a softer rose as the sunlight slid down, fading to a faint ember gleaming through the wall of her chest, then vanishing.

Jan stroked her hair and crooned to her and reached for the next morsel of light.

***

The police came at dawn three days later. They leaned on the doorbell rather than knocking the door in, which I suppose we should have been grateful for, and piled into our kitchen in what seemed to us unreasonably large numbers. They looked faintly awkward, full of energy for pushing people around and turning over furniture, but not quite sure if that was allowed.

“Jan didn’t have anything to do with it,” I said, stupidly.

“It was some other five-foot-two female in possession of a firearm, was it?” asked the Inspector sourly. “Listen, you can both make it easier on yourselves by telling us what you’ve done with that light.”

There wasn’t any left. We’d fed Daisy all of it. We didn’t say anything.

“I know you’ve got a sick daughter,” said the Inspector, “so I’d like to do this nicely. It’d be nice if you’d get dressed and come down to the station without making a lot of fuss.”

“I can’t,” said Jan. “Someone’s got to look after our daughter.”

“You can ring a neighbour from the station.”

“No, no, they won’t know what to do, what if she gets worse while I’m gone . . .”

One of the policewomen looked past me at something and caught a breath; the others followed her gaze and everyone went quiet. Daisy, soundless on bare, emaciated feet, had come down the stairs into the kitchen doorway. I felt a spasm of ridiculous rage. They had the nerve to wince at the sight of her, they dared to think she looked bad now? She was walking, she wasn’t in pain.

Daisy beamed at everyone. “It’s all right,” she said. “I don’t need looking after.”

Her skin was warm to the touch when I hugged her goodbye. Her eyes shone.

I left her blithely making the police officers a cup of tea.

***

“She couldn’t absorb anything from food,” I told them. I found it wasn’t at all hard to explain; it was as if I’d been rehearsing for ages. Distantly, I imagined Jan in some other interview room, saying the same words, in perfect unison. “It’s a very extreme and very intractable form of Coeliac; at least, that’s the closest anyone’s been able to get to a name for it. Whatever it is, she’s the youngest case, the worst case. At first it was just . . . she couldn’t have bread. If she did, she’d be sick for ages. Fine. We cut everything out. We were so careful. But it didn’t work. The villi—the little things like hairs in your gut—hers are all wrecked. There was nothing we could feed her that didn’t make it worse. She was losing her sight. She was starving to death, in front of us. The most basic thing you’re supposed to do for your child, feed them, and we couldn’t.”

“You’re in a horrible situation,” said the inspector. “But you’re going to have to explain how that led to armed robbery. You’re not disputing it did, at this point, I take it?”

“I’m very sorry about the security guard. Please tell him we’re sorry we frightened him. But what would you do if it was your daughter?”

They boggled at me and sucked their teeth. “But your idea was to feed her this stuff?”

“Yes.”

“But for God’s sake, Mr. Whitton, you had no way of knowing it wasn’t toxic.”

“She was dying. She was in pain. There was nothing else, surely you can understand that—nothing else we could even try. We couldn’t bear not even trying.”

They both pulled faces. The sergeant said: “Your daughter can’t . . . photosynthesise.”

“She’s better.” Tears spilled suddenly down my cheeks; I didn’t try to stop them. “You saw her. She’s so much better, you didn’t see how bad she was before. The difference—you wouldn’t believe it.”

“Do you know how we got the idea?” I said, “Jan came downstairs and said ‘Oh God, I can see through her.’ She’d been getting Daisy out of bed and the light was pouring in through the window across her foot, and her foot was glowing, like a lamp. The light was in her blood. And we thought, all the energy in food comes from sunlight, so, maybe if it would stay . . .”

I could hear the anguish in my own voice. It was all completely real of course—but we were also very good at working sympathy by now, from all that fundraising. When desperation is the only resource, you make the most of it.

It didn’t get us out of being charged or having to spend a night in the cells. It did get me a cup of tea and a phone-call.

It rang for a long time and I began to panic the way I hadn’t when they’d told me how serious replica firearms offences were.

Then at last she answered. “Daisy—Daisy, how are you feeling?”

There was an odd little pause before she answered, not as if she was hesitating but as if the call was. “I’m fine, Dad.” God, her voice was so strong, so normal, so cheerful.

“It looks like we’re stuck in here overnight, love, but we’ll get it sorted out tomorrow. I promise it’ll be all right.”

“I know,” she said, airily. “I’ve already told Mum.”

“What have you been doing?”

“Standing,” said Daisy.

“Standing?” I was briefly baffled but, when I thought about it, delighted. “It’s so good to have you on your feet.”

“I’ve been standing in the garden,” said Daisy.

***

Our tragic situation and haunted articulacy served us well with the judge and we were bailed the next afternoon. The lawyer thought we’d probably get off pretty lightly so long as we could keep it up and didn’t get into any more trouble.

I didn’t really know how to think about any of this. We weren’t used to thinking in the future tense.

We drove home without speaking, nothing to say to each other, no need for it. It was taking everything I had not to go over the speed limit, in any case.

The house was unlit and felt so quiet as we entered that my heart cramped again in terror.

Jan called up the stairs, “Daisy?”

Then we saw that there was a light on in the house after all; a dim, amber-pink glow, like a child’s night-light, or a Jack-o’-Lantern.

Daisy was standing in the living room. She was still wearing the nightdress we’d last seen her in. For a moment I began to be angry—what the hell was Emma from next door thinking, leaving her alone, not even getting her dressed?

Beside me, Jan gasped.

The light was coming from under Daisy’s skin. Light padded the cruel spaces between her ribs, limned the bones of her limbs, glowed softly from between her vertebrae.

She was looking out of the window. She was so still she might have been there for hours. She didn’t, for several long seconds, seem to notice we were there. Then she looked at us. The light was a faint warm shimmer in the sparse flesh of her cheeks, the hollows of her throat. She smiled.

***

The light was noticeably brighter by the time we got her to hospital. Her fingers were like filaments. Her skull was a hot coal.

One of the physicists from the lab we’d robbed came to see what we’d done. Jan glowered defensively at her as if she was somehow the one to wrong us. The woman was too fascinated by Daisy to notice. She didn’t have, or didn’t feel the need to exercise, the capacity for masking astonishment that the doctors had. She clapped a hand to her mouth at the sight of our daughter and whispered “God.”

Daisy didn’t mind. Daisy, who used to whine heartily about being poked and prodded by doctors, who always used to look away when they stuck her with needles, didn’t so much as wince as they drew vial after vial of glowing blood; just sat and smiled gently into space as if she didn’t feel it.

Or stood and smiled, rather. She’d sit down when asked to, but with an air of faint puzzlement, and when left alone she’d quietly rise again like a helium balloon that had been briefly held down. She’d stand, motionless, silent unless spoken to. (Sometimes unless spoken to several times.) Sometimes she’d raise a hand in front of her face and stare at it, enraptured.

Blood tests were about all that was even possible. The light inside her blinded x-rays, MRIs, endoscopes.

“The light seems to be treating her cellular structure as a lattice,” said the scientist from the institute, somehow almost reverent and a little sour at the same time. “It goes without saying this wasn’t an anticipated effect.”

All of which only served to confirm what you could see with your eyes; Daisy’s flesh was turning into solidified light.

“But can you stop it?” Jan asked, breathless.

Daisy looked away from the square of blue sky outside the window for the first time in an hour. She asked, “Why would you want to stop it?”

***

We agreed to leave her in hospital overnight. We drove home; not speaking, and it occurred to me that for once I didn’t know what Jan was thinking.

The hospital rang at three in the morning in an apologetic panic. Daisy was gone. She’d had to be coaxed back into bed several times after being found standing motionless at the foot of her bed. Then when the nurses’ backs were turned, she’d wandered out.

“For God’s sake, how hard can she be to find?” I demanded, terrified at the thought of our horribly frail sixteen-year-old wandering the streets in nothing but a hospital gown. “She glows.”

But it wasn’t until eight in the morning that the police did find her; Daisy had walked out of the fields onto a motorway eighteen miles from the hospital. She had caused a car crash in which thankfully no one was seriously hurt.

The police wrapped her in blankets, which Daisy unobtrusively pushed off, and drove her back to us.

“What on earth were you thinking?” Jan shouted at her. “Don’t you know how worried we were?”

Daisy stood serene as architecture.

“Say something, for Christ’s sake! The nerve of it, just standing there!”

“I didn’t need to be there,” said Daisy. “I’m not ill any more.”

“Where were you going, Daisy?” I asked.

Daisy smiled, the brightness of it self-contained and private. “Home.”

***

But she’d been walking east and we lived in the opposite direction.

***

The light began to exude from our daughter’s skin, leaking like sweat from her pores. When she was at home she left smudged fingerprints glowing on walls and banisters. Light soaked from her skin into her bedclothes and wouldn’t wash out.

There were even streaks of light in the toilet bowl, for God’s sake.

Her hair fell out. She didn’t care. The light poured from her naked scalp.

She stopped wearing clothes. You could see her body through them anyway and she never felt cold.

(Jan found the daisy-chain necklace, stained with light, discarded in a corner.)

It was no longer possible to see her expression. She didn’t—of course—cast any shadow.

***

It was the brightest day of the summer so far. Daisy was, as she said she had been that first day, standing in the garden. Between her and the sun I could barely see a thing. The concrete tiles blazed white. Squinting, I could make out that Daisy’s arms were still raised above her head; she’d been holding them like that for impossibly long, utterly still, without even a tremor.

“What are you doing?” I asked, but she didn’t seem to notice I’d spoken.

I rubbed my eyes and tried to look at her again.

Her face was upturned, her lips parted in that secret rapture. Her eyes open.

“Daisy!” I grabbed for her. “You’ll blind yourself—!” I tried to clap my hand over her eyes, but her skin was so hot I let go.

“I’m not blind,” said Daisy, dreamily. “I can see everything.”

I went back into the house. Black spots danced in front of my eyes, after all that light.

***

I heard screaming. Jan, yelling my name, and Daisy—

“No. No, you can’t. No!” Daisy sounded—almost—like her old self in a tantrum, screaming, stamping, slamming doors. Though actually, the one who was acting like that was Jan, who as I ran into the room was in the act of elbowing Daisy out of the way so as to slam the French doors shut, before trying to wrestle her onto the sofa and contain her in the duvet from her bed.

“Close the curtains!” she roared at me.

“What?”

“Close them!”

I did. I knew, really, what she was thinking, felt the same surge of furious hope that perhaps it would work.

Daisy wailed.

“The more you’re out in the light the more you change!” Jan shouted. ”What’s going to happen when there’s nothing left of you but light? You need darkness.”

“You can’t!”

“Help me get her upstairs,” said Jan grimly. “We’ll have to fit shutters on the window.”

“You can’t,” sobbed Daisy, although it wasn’t exactly sobbing, I don’t think she could cry by now. “I’ll get out! You know I’ll always get out!”

I looked at her, her face invisible in the light, her body glowing dangerously through the duvet.

I thought of the mud she tracked through the house when she was ten, twelve; the diaries she bought and didn’t write in, how small she looked when she first caught a bus by herself.

I didn’t let go of her but I loosened my hold a bit. “Daisy” I asked. “Would you go back to the way you were before—not when you were ill, of course, but before that?”

“I can’t.”

“But if you could?”

Daisy stopped struggling and didn’t answer for a while. But I don’t think she was hesitating, so much as trying to remember what “before” even meant.

“No,” she said in the end, as I knew she would.

I closed my eyes. But I could still see her shining through my eyelids.

“What’s it like?” I asked. “It doesn’t hurt?”

Daisy relaxed, softening like white-hot metal or molten glass. “No,” she said. “No, it’s wonderful. I can see where the light comes from. I can see where it goes. I can feel everything inside it, inside me. Colours.”

“Can you?” I said, hearing my voice tear around the words. “Majorelle Blue?”

“Majorelle Blue,” agreed Daisy, no longer sounding anguished; no longer sounding like a girl. The light pouring out of her. “A lemon-yellow bed. Majorelle blue . . .”

“Right then,” I said. And I let her go. Jan tried to hang onto her but I held her back.

“Leave her alone,” I said.

Daisy got up. She crossed the room. Parted the living room curtains. The sun poured in through the windows and melded with hers until it was impossible not to look away.

Then she wasn’t there, and there was nothing but sunlight in the garden.

It was midsummer’s day.

Jan searched for her for hours, days. Called the police. Called me a murderer, pushed me away. Ran into Daisy’s room and sobbed on her bed.

I sat in the living room and stared at Daisy’s silhouette, imprinted on the glass she’d walked through in solid light.

***

The phone rang and rang today. It might have been the lawyers, the police. The court case—I keep forgetting about it; it doesn’t seem very important. Nor did answering the phone. Though we’ll have to decide, at some point, what we’re going to do. If any kind of damage-limitation is even possible.

If this is even a matter of damage.

Today Jan came downstairs and found me on the sofa where I’ve been sleeping (though lately, I’m feeling less need for sleep). I’ve been leaving the curtains open; she shut them.

“Alan,” she said, and held out her hands.

The light was still a soft, dawn-like tint to her wrists, climbing up under her sleeves and rising from under her collar into her cheeks.

I laughed, because there seemed nothing else to do, and showed her mine.

I noticed the light in the flesh of my fingertips first, then found it was everywhere; lining the contours of my body, glimmering around blood vessels of my throat. It’s still dim enough that the bathroom light will cancel it out.

We should have thought of it. We should have seen that of course, exposure to all that light she shed around the place would do exactly the same to us as it did to her. And all the people who touched her at the hospital, and that we’ve touched since . . .

Maybe it’s preventable. Maybe it takes more of it than that. It might be limited to us.

“Well, now what’ll we do?” said Jan, almost sheepishly. Whether because the light’s already getting into my eyes and brain, because of the soft glow of her skin or because of something else, it seemed I could see the details of her face more clearly than I had for a long time.

“Come here,” I said, and pulled her into my arms. The familiar warmth of her was still all hers, not the heat of the light.

We kissed. We hadn’t done that it in I don’t know long. It hadn’t seemed necessary, but now it did.

“Tell me your favourite colour,” I said.

© 2013 by Sophia McDougall.
Originally published in Pandemonium: The Lowest Heaven,
edited by Anne C. Perry & Jared Shurin.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Sophia McDougall

Sophia McDougallSophia McDougall was supposed to be an Oxford English literature academic before running away in 2002 to write fiction. She is the author of the bestselling Romanitas trilogy (published by Orion/Gollancz and twice shortlisted for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History), set in a contemporary world where the Roman Empire never fell. Her short stories have been published by Jurassic Fiction, Solaris and NewCon. Her first novel for children, Mars Evacuees, will be published by Egmont and Harper Collins US in 2014. She also creates digital art and mentors aspiring writers.