The stars are made in the Cave. Every few months, on Flying Day, glowing cubes the size of refrigerators rise from the mouth of the Cave. They’re blinding white, electric blue, and tangerine orange. People from the Surface gather in picnics to watch the cubes rise until the boxes become little more than pinpoint lights in the night sky. Then they go home and forget about the stars until Flying Day comes again.
Gumby used to be one of the picnickers. Before illness swept them away, his parents took him to watch the birth of the stars every Flying Day. Now, a lady in a black-and-white suit is telling him that she will take him to the Cave. She explains that she called all of Gumby’s relatives, but nobody would take him. Gumby asks if he can gather his things. The lady says no because that’ll only make it harder from him to move on. Then, taking his hand, she leads him into a white car.
As she drives, she assures him, “Don’t worry. There’s always a place for you.”
The lady leads Gumby below the Surface, winding down stairs of black rock. The flashlight in the lady’s hand is the only light they have. After walking for an hour, the lady announces that they have arrived at Gumby’s room. She pushes open the metal door. Inside, there is a mattress rolled out on the floor with a blanket on top of it. A stack of new clothes sits in the corner along with a flickering oil lamp. Gumby is exhausted, but the lady has a broad smile on her face. She hands him a stack of pamphlets. A few of the titles read For a Brighter Day: Exercises for Forgetting the Past, The Wonders of the Sky, and Why the Stars are a Better Place than the Surface. Gumby promises that he will read them. The lady’s smile widens. She says that she hasn’t seen him cry yet; he’s such a strong boy. Then she walks out of Gumby’s room, heels clattering on the wet rock.
A different lady wakes Gumby up the next morning. She gives him his schedule and another stack of pamphlets. There are so many classes he needs to attend: astronomy classes, cosmology classes, getting-over-your-fear-of-heights classes, planetary science classes, universe appreciation classes, horrors-of-the-Surface classes, loving-father-sky classes and accepting-your-fate classes. He even has to attend a mandatory “Moving on from Tragedy” seminar, where he and the other children go through exercises to help them forget about the past. In one of the exercises, they are asked to imagine a time when they were upset and they ran to their parents. Except, instead of comforting them, their parents ignored them and continued going about their business.
A few days into his stay at the Cave, Gumby meets his counselor. She shakes his hand and asks him if he feels like he’s begun moving on. Gumby tells her that he thinks there’s something wrong with him. All the other new children he’d seen broke down in tears at least once a day, but he didn’t. Ever since the lady told him that his parents died, he felt a sort of numbness. It never occurred him that the classes he takes are supposed to be hard; some days, his parents feel like little more than a distant dream. The counselor assures him that this is normal. It can happen in cases of extreme shock. She advises him to grasp on to this detachment because that will help him move on faster. Not every child is lucky enough to have this chance.
Gumby begins making friends with the other children. He likes the children here better than the ones on the Surface. They are nice to him and interesting. One of the children, Lily, is nearly sixteen years old, far older than he is. She can see fairies in the Caves. They whisper in her ear, telling her all the dark secrets of the Surface. Gumby asks her how long she’s been here. She answers that she’s been here for ten years. Her parents sent her to the Cave when they found out that she could hear things that they couldn’t.
“No worries,” she says, “they never understood me, but the sky does.”
Every day, Gumby asks the other children to tell him their stories. What were their parents like? How do they like the Cave? What do they think the sky is like? Some are still too broken to speak. Others are like Lily, going on and on for hours about how they want to see the sky, how badly they want to leave the Surface. He is often asked if he didn’t like his parents because he hasn’t cried yet. When they find out that his parents loved him, they tell him that he is strong. They wish they were like him.
Two months later, Gumby experiences his first Flying Day in the Cave. All the children are gathered under the mouth of the Cave. In front of them, there is a towering stack of white, blue, and orange cubes. The children whisper and point at the height of the stack. A lot of them will be picked today. A man and two women stand in front of them. The man is holding a piece of paper in her hands. He clears his throat and informs the children that the names on the list are the ones that have been chosen.
He begins to read off the list. With each name he says, a child steps forward. The two women help them into a cube, and the cube begins to glow. Halfway through the list, Lily is called. As she walks through the crowd, Gumby tries to catch her eye, but her gaze is locked on the blue cube in front of her. She doesn’t look back as she disappears into the box. There are a few children who burst into tears when they hear their name. They beg that they aren’t ready; they still love the Surface. The man reading the list tells them that they were all picked for a reason. It was decided that they would move on better this way. When he is done, all the cubes are glowing. The women lift each cube up towards the Cave’s mouth. When they let go, the cubes float up. The remaining children watch as each cube shrinks into dots against the black fabric of the night sky. Then they are told to go back to their rooms and prepare for next day’s classes.
That night, the alarm bells ring. They ring when someone tries to run. Gumby sits up in his bed. At first, he thinks that the alarms will stop soon. Nobody ever makes it far. But it keeps going. He opens the door and peers into the hallway. People are shouting, wielding blinding flashlights and clutching leashes of barking dogs. As Gumby watches, he wonders why the child is running. What do they love about the Surface so much? On the Surface, it is cold. Children in the Cave don’t have a place on the Surface. Yet there are always children that try. They must be desperate. When the flashlights and dogs disappear down the hallway, deciding that the runaway isn’t here, Gumby finds himself rooting for the child. He imagines them finding a new home on the surface, with a mother and father that love them with all the heart of the world.
When the alarm quiets and the people turn off their flashlights, Gumby feels something squeezing his chest. He returns to his room and feels something inside him boil over. Before he reaches his bed, he is crying.
The next morning, Gumby finds out that his counselor is gone. His planetary science teacher tells him that the girl who tried to run away was under Gumby’s counselor, giving the counselor one too many runaways. Gumby asks what happened to the girl. The teacher says that she was immediately put into a cube and sent to the sky. Nobody noticed the lone star making its way to the sky. He insists that it was for the best; it was the only way to help the girl move on.
When he sees the fallen look on Gumby’s face, he says, “Don’t linger on this. She’s in a better place now. Now, let’s learn about the wonders of Jupiter!”
Later that day, Gumby is introduced to a young woman with strawberry blonde hair. Her name is Alice. He asks if she is his new counselor, but she isn’t. She’s a volunteer from the Surface, and she will be gone once a new counselor is found. Her smile is bright, like sunshine. She isn’t weighed down by things that trouble the children of the Cave. When Gumby tells her about the girl that tried to run and about how he wished that she made it, Alice doesn’t reprimand him or tell him to forget about it. Instead, she folds him into her arms and tells him that she knows it hurts. While his tears soak her shirt, she says that while she is in the Cave, she’ll always be there for him.
For the next few weeks, between his classes, Gumby visits Alice. She tells him stories about the Surface. Stories about sunlight and birds and spring grass. He knows that he’s supposed to forget, but he keeps coming back. She asks about his life on the Surface and listens when he talks about the arithmetic classes at school and the oak tree in front of his house. Sometimes he falls silent during his visits because he remembers how blue the sky is in the daylight and how gold the trees are during autumn. Each time Alice takes his hand into hers, letting him know that he is not alone.
One night, Gumby can’t sleep because he’s thinking about the Surface. He wants to see the sparkling blankets of snow again and listen to the whispers of the wind. So he writes a letter to Alice. In his letter, he tells her all the things he’s been thinking about, how the Cave air is always stale, the moonlight never reaches underground, and the oil lamps in the hallways look like ghosts. When he’s done, he folds the letter into his pocket so that Alice can see it tomorrow.
After breakfast, Gumby takes out his letter and heads to Alice’s room. When he enters, she isn’t there. Instead, there is a man with gray-streaked brown hair. He introduces himself as Gumby’s new counselor.
“What can I do for you?” he says. Gumby shakes his head and tries to back out of the doorway, but the counselor spots the paper in his hands and asks to see it. As the counselor reads it, his face is expressionless.
When he’s done, all he says is, “Read it yourself.”
Gumby reads the letter and wants to disappear into a corner. In the letter, he is begging. He is delusional. He pleads Alice to take him with her when she returns to the Surface. He says that he can’t go another day without seeing the sun. He wants to stay with her. He asks her to take care of him. He promises that he’ll be a good boy. He’ll do his homework first thing after school and clean the dishes for her. When he grows up, he’ll think of her every day. When she’s sick, he’ll be the one to bring her water and food. Despite anything the world might say about them, they’ll love each other. He’ll cook for her when she’s too old to take care of herself. For as long as she lives, they’ll never feel alone because they have each other, and that is more than enough.
When Gumby looks up, he’s sobbing. The counselor pats his shoulder and looks pityingly at him.
The letter, of course, isn’t for Alice. It’s for his parents.
For next two weeks, Gumby doesn’t leave his room. When the children bring his food to his door, he only eats enough to stay alive, letting his shirts become too big. He lies in his bed all day, staring at the flickering oil lamp. When his legs begin to wobble when he tries to stand, his counselor intervenes. He tells Gumby that he’s doing himself no favors by starving himself and pushes a plate of food in front of Gumby.
“You can grieve now,” the counselor says, “But at some point, life must go on.”
During the following weeks, the alarm sounds again. Every time, Gumby secretly hopes that the child made it. When he sleeps, he still dreams of the Surface. But they are only dreams. He knows that his parents are gone. The Surface that he wants is gone. His future is with the stars, cradled in the arms of the sky.
On the next Flying Day, Gumby is chosen. He knows he’s not ready, but he doesn’t try to hide when he hears his name. Only when the box is closed above him, and the cube is lit a fiery orange, does he let his hands tremble. Even though the other children can’t see him, he can see them. He tries to remember their faces, watches as children he knows and doesn’t know get called. Before he’s done trying to remember, the cubes are all filled, and they begin ascending.
Two men lift up Gumby’s cube, and he is floating. When he leaves the mouth, the Surface opens up before him. His breath catches. There are the picnickers that choose not to remember why their stars glow. Children are running around, laughing and pointing at the cubes. Gumby waves at them, knowing that they can’t see him. For a brief moment, he sees himself among them from what seems like a long time ago. In the distance, there are city lights. They form an ocean, dotting the black canvas of the buildings. They are the stars of the Surface.
In a few minutes this view of the Surface will be snatched away from him, and all he will be able to see is the stars and the sky. They are not the home he would’ve chosen for himself, but as his counselor tells him, it’s the only home he will have, and he will always have a place in this world.
Jieyan Wang is a high school junior in Moscow, Idaho. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Canvas Literary Journal, The Blue Nib, Lilun Magazine, and elsewhere. She is also a First Reader for Polyphony Lit.