Witching Hour

witching hour, the sun riding the cal train, short story by will doenlen

Originally published on Medium.

The sun was on the Caltrain, reading a Wall Street Journal. Brilliant and luminous, it turned the paper below the fold and gazed intensely at the headline as I sat down.

GOD PARTICLE THOUGHT TO BE KEY TO SOLAR FUEL SOURCE

The train lurched forward as we left one of the tiny, anonymous Caltrain stops somewhere between nowhere and San Francisco. San Antonio? Belmont? It didn’t matter. I opened my laptop and cranked up the brightness as emails rolled in from the night before.

Ever since the sun went to work we began to lose track of time. Night blurred into day as total darkness enshrouded the earth. The electrical grid strained as power plants worked overtime to fill the new demand for electricity. News anchors waxed eloquently about the value of atomic clocks and the under-appreciated heroes that are physicists. Fields lay barren as scientists scrambled to invent a new synthetic source of food. It was always bone-chillingly cold.

Meanwhile, the sun was busy working at Central Systems Corp. I read in an article somewhere that it was working on a submodule in Grind, their proprietary Java IDE. It found the open job requisition from a series of rogue TCP/IP packets beamed, by mistake, directly towards the center of the solar system instead of back to earth. The sun happened to be the most qualified applicant for the job. Who knew that the sun knew Java? Or that it had been looking for a new gig at all?

This wasn’t the first time I had seen the sun on the Caltrain but was the first time I had sat next to it. You could always tell where it was on the train by the unearthly rays of light beaming from the surrounding windows. Seats next to the sun were always unoccupied, and not because of life-threatening solar radiation. The sun dimmed itself considerably in an effort to fit in on earth. Most people simply avoided being next to the sun. Either they were angry with it for giving up its critical, life-giving role on earth, or they felt a deep embarrassment that the next best thing for it to do was be a Java developer.

The sun put down the paper and looked at me. Its radiant gaze electrified the air and was impossible to ignore. It cast a suspicious, weary glance at my fingers as I began typing out a reply to an email. The dull heat from its radiation warmed me.

Hi Robert — I’m sorry for the late reply. I was up late taking care of my children. As you know Aiden is very ill. Of course, that’s not an excuse and…

“I don’t do interviews anymore,” the sun said brusquely. “If you’re going to write about your ‘less-than-stellar’ experience with the sun on the Caltrain I’d prefer it if you did it away from me.”

“Sorry?” I said.

“No interviews.” It focused back on the paper.

“Oh, no, that’s not what I was doing. I’m just writing an email.” I looked back down at my half-finished sentence and continued drafting.

…and I expect to have my portion of the ZoneOut data pipeline done by…

“Then why did you sit down next to me?” The air grew hotter as the sun held its gaze.

I stopped and thought about the question. I wasn’t really sure why I sat next to the sun that day. We had been doing the same commute for over a year and had definitely been on the same Caltrain a couple of times. Every other time, though, I briefly remarked the sun’s brilliance and moved on to the next car, my mind grinding on an alert for a botched job, automating data cleaning, or whatever else was set out for me that day.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It was just an easy place to sit.” That was true. The cars were mostly full for the rush hour commute. I had stood through several stops’ worth of back pain before deciding to finally sit down. The space around the sun remained, as always, empty.

The sun snorted in response and looked back down at the newspaper. The air thankfully began to cool. The sun waved away a wisp of smoke that curled off the corner of the paper as it begin to burn.

Uncomfortable, I returned to my email.

…done by today.

I stopped and stared at the word today. I erased it.

…by tomorrow.

I erased again.

…by Thursday.

Again.

…by late tonight.

I erased it again and again, trying out different time frames and opted instead to just keep it blank. I let out a quiet sigh and felt my body slump.

As you know Aiden is very ill.

I replaced very with seriously and reread the sentence.

As you know Aiden is seriously ill.

I paused.

Sometimes we feel like we’re hospitalized along with her.

I erased.

Of course, this isn’t an excuse…

“So, what do you do?” the sun asked.

I looked up from my email, mildly incredulous. Was the sun trying to network with me?

“What?”

The sun put the paper down. The major headline of the page read, SOLAR SIMULATOR LAMP SIMSOL LINKED TO BIRTH DEFECTS.

“What do you do? You know, for work.”

“I’m a data engineer. At Spiro,” I sputtered. The sun’s radiance filled my eyes. Everything felt warm again.

“Oh,” it said. “I know a few guys who do stuff like that. It’s not for me. I’m more of a pure Java engineering type.”

“Oh.” I started to sweat. I looked back down at my laptop.

“I haven’t heard of Spiro, though,” it said. “What do you guys do?”

“We…” I began, still, looking at my laptop, fingers on the keyboard.

As you know, Aiden is seriously ill.

I rewrote the sentence again.

As you know, my daughter Aiden does not have much time left.

I changed it back.

“We do…” I looked back up. “We’re a geoengineering consultancy.”

“Big business these days,” the sun said unamused. “Is that why you sat next to me? To convince me to work for you? I’m not going back to that.”

“No,” I said. I noticed an edge in my voice. “No, I just sat here. You asked me what I did and I answered.” I paused. “I know you know the effects of your decision.”

“Of course I do,” the sun said. “The Grind IDE has 3% fewer crashes since I started contributing at Central Systems. When you think about how many software engineers there are in the world… well, that’s a huge productivity gain.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No. Look. After billions of years of doing nothing I finally have a paid job. It was the right move for my career.”

“Doing nothing? You mean being the singular source of all light, warmth and life on earth?”

“Yeah. It wasn’t a career. I was just out there, on my own, doing nothing. When I got that Central Systems job requisition I realized that I needed to start taking life more seriously.”

“But it’s… I mean, you see what it did…” I said desperately, pointing out the window of the train. The sun’s light illuminated a barren, icy landscape pockmarked with street lights and trash fires. The sky was ink black.

“People used to worship you. That’s how important you were,” I said, my voice raising.

“I don’t know,” the sun said, dimming to a deep, brick red. “When I saw how admired these Silicon Valley leaders were and how fast technology is moving, I thought, well, why not give that a shot?”

“And now you’re a Java developer,” I said sarcastically. I felt my teeth clenching.

“You have to start somewhere,” the sun retorted. “Hey, my job is all right. Don’t take out your issues on me, okay?” The sun brightened again. “Sometimes you just have to play the cards you’re dealt.”

I sneered at the sun and returned to my email. There were only a few minutes left before the train would be at the downtown San Francisco stop.

Hi Robert — I’m sorry for the late reply. I was up late taking care of my children. As you know Aiden is seriously ill. Of course, that’s not an excuse and I expect to have my portion of the ZoneOut data pipeline done by…

I erased the entire email and started over.

Hi Robert — I won’t be in at work today. My daughter Aiden is dying. She doesn’t have much time left. I won’t be returning to the office. I’m sorry for any inconvenience that this causes. Thanks, Rick

I hit send as the Caltrain rolled into the station. The doors opened and a cutting blast of icy wind rushed through the car. I packed up and shuffled my way towards the door, the sun close behind me.

“Hey,” the sun said. I turned around. “You have a good one.” It flashed a grin.

I stepped out into the witching hour, the only hour left. The night sky absorbed everything around it as the sun walked away.

Leanne Luce