by Dave Weaver
Matthew lay on his bed enjoying the warm glow of the sun streaming through the apartment's glass roof. He had his homework spread out before him, but it was the yellowing pages of the old book he'd found in his father's room which held his attention. As he flipped through them for the hundredth time his eyes grew ever wider.
A sudden voice from the front door made him jump.
"Hey Mattie, you comin'?"
Matthew put down the book and went into the hall. He saw a finger poking open the letterbox lid and two round eyes staring through. His best friend, Bobby.
"Er, I gotta do my sums. See you guys there."
"OK. Hurry up!" The lid snapped shut.
He reluctantly closed the book and carefully put it back. Matthew was in no hurry to go to the school's Sports Day. He liked doing sums, and the other stuff everyone else hated. Everyone he knew preferred to spend all their time playing on their reality pads: 'Sportstar' and 'Warstrike' for the boys, 'Lover's Lane' and 'Princess Perfect' for the girls.
He sighed and pulled on his SC cap. His father had told him he'd try to watch him compete but as Chief of Production at the city's giant food processing plant he worked long hours. He was proud of his job though and Mathew looked up to him. His mother had died of a heart attack when he was small, like a lot of the other adults in Sunshine City.
School Sports Day was always held in the middle of the city on a beautifully tailored park beneath a large glass dome that flooded the whole area in bright sunlight. It was only a short walk away but by the time Matthew got there he'd worked up quite a sweat. The other kids were already excitedly queuing up for each event and Matthew spotted Bobby and some other kids he knew at the Superskittles, amongst them Jake and his pretty kid sister Sarah.
He high-fived them all accept Sarah, partly because she was a girl but mainly because Matthew had a secret crush on her.
"Hi Matty." she smiled shyly at him.
He nodded to her, feeling himself blush and turned to Bobby. "What's hap'nin?"
"We just done the skittles. Green Form won. Now we're all moving on to the darts."
He indicated a large round colourful target propped up between two trees. A selection of children with different coloured T-shirts were forming up behind a painted white line. The first had a dart the size of a model plane in his hands, with two more lying on the ground at his feet. He threw it and it glided gently forwards just missing the bullseye.
"Unlucky, Yellows!" Bobby guffawed loudly. "You're rubbish! Hey, where you goin' Matty?"
Matthew had backed away from the little group. He found himself staring at them as if for the first time ever. Suddenly they looked different, bloated alien creatures with tiny heads like something from his sci-fi comics. He started to shiver; he wanted to leave. He managed to stutter an excuse. "I guess I'm not feeling so well guys. I'm going home."
"You just got here, pussy!" Bobby's voice was scornful. "Red Form needs you!"
"What's up, Matty?" Sarah had joined him, frowning. She turned to Jake. "I'm gonna see he gets home ok. He looks real sick."
"Whatever." Jake gave a dismissive wave and joined the others.
Bobby shook his head at Matty and followed him. "Pussy!" he taunted.
Matthew sat down heavily on the lush turf. Sarah squatted beside him, swaying a bit to get her balance. She put a hand on his shoulder, both in concern and to steady herself.
"You look terrible, like you just seen a ghost."
He looked into her eyes. She seemed normal now, really beautiful up close. It was when she stood with the others, when they were all in a group. That's when it had happened, when something in his head told had him things weren't right. He struggled to explain the feeling to himself.
"I'm okay now. Thanks...Sarah."
"You've gone all white. Let's get you home, yeah?"
She helped him get up, the two of them breathing heavily in time together. Only Bobby had been back to his place after they'd hung out with the others at the burger bars and soda parlours that dotted the city. As he showed her the way she slipped her hand into his.
"You're really clever, aren't you Matty? I wish I could remember difficult stuff like you..."
Matthew felt both self-conscious and proud. He was about to reply when she kissed him. As she clung to him his hand found the folds of her waist beneath her T-shirt and squeezed. She gave a pant and moved away from him, her face flushed.
"S'okay, Matty, it was nice. Well, see ya later."
"See ya, Sarah." He waved at her and she grinned back. As she disappeared into the crowds Matthew realised what he'd actually been thinking about when he looked at Sarah and the others.
"What's the matter son, why you sitting there in the dark?"
He hadn't heard the click of the door when his father had returned home. How long had he been crouched on his bed staring at the wall, the homework disregarded beside him?
"Dark's only for nightsleep Matty, you know that." There was sudden intense white light. Matthew blinked. "I swung by the Sports Day but that Bobby kid said you'd gone home feeling ill."
"I'm okay now."
His father nodded and turned to go. Matthew studied his back filling the doorway.
"Why's that dad?"
"Why's what, son?"
"Why is dark only for nightsleep?"
Matthew saw his father's shoulders fall. "Always the questions, eh Matty? I guess maybe then its time." He turned to face him. "You've seen the book, haven't you?"
"I knew you'd find it when you were ready." He sat down on the bed and studied his son's face. "Did you enjoy the story?"
"And what did you think of the pictures, the drawings of the boys at the school?"
Matthew looked away from him. How could he explain what he felt about them? "They were weird. One of the kids, the main one, he was ok, normal. But the others...the others were...different. Kinda deformed I guess, yet they didn't know they were, and the normal kid didn't seem to know either. And they were so cruel to him, kept calling him those things."
"Do you know why?"
Matthew shrugged, embarrassed.
"The thing is those kids, the weird looking ones, they're just like the men and women who really run Sunshine City." He put up a hand at Matthew's reaction. "Hear me out, son. They never get seen by anyone but the most important people here, most folks don't even know they exist, or perhaps they don't want to."
"But why do they look like...that?"
His father put a heavy arm around his shoulders. "The truth is its us who are the odd ones out, Matty, everyone in Sunshine City..."
Matthew's head swam. He realised now he'd somehow known something was wrong, even before the book. He always had.
His father looked unsure how to continue. "Where do you imagine our food comes from Matty? The burgers and all the rest of the stuff we eat?"
"Outside I guess, from animals like the pictures in the schoolbooks."
His father gave a deep sigh. "They're a lie. There's nothing outside, Matty. Hasn't been for a very long time now, 'cause of the Sun -- the real Sun, that is..."
"The real Sun? What do you mean?"
Matthew's father pointed at the old book. "Did you notice how the Sun rises and sets in the book, Matty? It doesn't just stay in one place and shine on everything all the time the way our sun does. Well, we did something foolish -- or the Sun just changed, nobody's sure anymore. And everything outside died, dried up or gone all twisted with cancer. Our sun, the sun we see every day, is artificial, just a bigger, brighter version of the lights they turn on at night."
Matty blinked back tears. "But we learned about farms, big ones and little ones, where they grow vegetables for us --"
"All grown in the greenhouses and the fields around Sunshine City," Matthew's father said. "It's just us."
"That's why the lights are so bright at night time, the sun on us constantly throughout the day so we can't get away from it even if we tried. There's nothing anywhere else now so we have to grow our own food, and we need to grow it faster than only half a day's light could manage. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
But Matthew couldn't think straight. The images in the book danced before his mind, the stick-like people tormenting the poor kid calling him 'fat owl' and 'stupid great oaf" until he cried.
Were these the kind of people who were actually in charge of things?
"But you make the food for everyone, Dad!"
"I process the food, Matty, that's all. I do what I'm told. It's a good job, the best in Sunshine City. It's the job I want you to have some day. That's why I'm telling you all this now."
But Matthew couldn't look at his father anymore. As he turned away he caught a glimpse of the two of them in the bedroom mirror; bloated aliens with tiny heads.
He let his eyes fall to the floor. "Did he really exist?" He asked quietly.
"Who's that, Matty?"
"The boy in the book," Matthew said. "That Billy Bunter."
© 2010 Dave Weaver
Bio: Dave Weaver is a graphic designer living in St Albans. He is a member of the Verulam Writer's Circle. Dave's 'Finding Uncle' short story was published in Hert's University's 'Visions' anthology. His most recent Aphelion appearance was In The Icehouse, July 2010.
Editor's note: If you Google "Billy Bunter", you will find a Wikipedia article that begins
William George Bunter (a.k.a. Billy Bunter, the "Fat Owl of the Remove"), is a fictional character created by Charles Hamilton using the pen name Frank Richards. He featured originally in stories set at Greyfriars School in the boys weekly story paper The Magnet first published in 1908, and has since appeared in novels, on television, in stage plays, and in comic strips...
E-mail: Dave Weaver
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum
Return to Aphelion's Index page.