The Sunbathers

By Lindz McLeod

From CHM #43 January 2024

As usual, we’re forced to retreat into the burrow just before dawn. I linger at the edge of the rough-hewn hole, desperate to see a single glimpse of the first pink finger of the sun slithering over the horizon, but Eilidh tugs me in after her. “Careful, Soph,” she hisses. “You know we can’t take risks now that Beltane has passed.”

She has a point, but I still resent the cold fingers wrapped around my wrist. Our bare feet thump on twelve compacted earthen stairs before the floor slopes steeply into darkness and safety. The burrow has become more like a warren over the past three years; we dug tunnels to connect chambers and ventricles, forming a great, unbeating heart. Often, we lost people to collapses, to unsafe structures with unseen fractures. Not as often as we lost people to the Sunbathers above, but even so, the death toll is both high and unavoidable. Cave-ins, disease, madness—all rife down here, where the blackness is absolute. We dare not risk a single light, not even in our deepest caverns.

Christ, how I miss the sunrise.

I follow Eilidh down the lefthand tunnel which leads to our den, where we’d left Old Jeff, Cygnet, and Maya last night. It had been our turn to venture out, to gather what fruit we could from the trees, what stores we could scavenge from what the Sunbathers had left amongst their still-smoldering campsites. It had been a good haul, too; I’d found a still-spitted roast chicken while Eilidh had picked an armful of ripe peaches from the trees overhead. Ahead of me, Eilidh hums softly. True silence is rare here—we’re encouraged to communicate our presence to avoid collisions, and every scuff and scuttle is clearly audible. Without sight to guide us, we’ve made use of our other senses as best we can. Eilidh hums again, upticking at the end. Fighting back a sigh, I hum to let her know I’m still here—though, where else would I be?

She reached back and gropes for my hand. I allow her a single, brief squeeze, before I pull away. In another few seconds we reach the den, where three voices rise to meet us. I kneel. A hand touches my shoulder, the fingers scuttling cancrine down to my wrist.

“Chicken?” Old Jeff’s voice is more gravelly than usual, the distinct slug of phlegm coating each word. “Been a long time since I ‘ad chicken.”

I hand over our harvest. I already ate above ground: a single leg, accompanied by three sticky-sweet peaches, washed down with tepid water still warm from the sun. We hide full bottles in various places at night, so that the sun can purify it during the day. This reduces the number of bacteria, since without the ability to boil water underground, we’re stuck using rudimentary methods. We can’t light a fire in the deepest parts of the burrow because of the smoke inhalation, to say nothing of the signals to Sunbathers. They’ve been known to root people out or cave in the tunnels from above, then pull bodies from the rubble afterwards. We can’t light a fire near the entrance for the same reasons, plus there is always the possibility, no matter how unlikely, that a Sunbather might find a way to protect themselves. If they could ever figure out a way to reach us, we’d be sitting ducks.

“Amazing,” Cygnet mumbles through a mouthful.

I can’t stand the sounds of other people eating, the sickly washing-machine squelching of roiling, syncopated mastication. Even in the old days, I preferred to eat alone. I retreat into the tunnel while they chomp away on our bounty, and listen to the faint hums coming from further up, where the tunnels diverge. The right-hand fork leads to another community, a larger one. A splinter group which cleaved from a much bigger crowd a year ago, though none of them will say why. One of them used to screw me occasionally, above and below. Rose or Roz or something. Freckles, seen by moonlight, look like a hundred decimal points, separating wholes from fractions. Everything is so delineated these days: day and night, us and them, living and dying. I took every opportunity I could to blur the lines. She’s dead now, whatever her name was. After a cave-in, somewhere shallow, I found a freckled foot spitted over a campfire. I’m never sure whether Eilidh didn’t guess about my little tryst or just chose to turn a deaf ear. She either thinks about things too much or too little; I’ve never been able to figure out which it is.

Eilidh has no freckles. Not a single mole adorns her pale curves. When she kisses me I taste pure navy. She’s no Indigo, tainted with the barest hint of a passionate red, nor the dulled sea-glass palate of an Aegean blue. She’s an empty night sky, or an ocean trench under my dangling feet. A bowl curving over the world, or a slow licking tide, devouring it inch by inch. Never something as complicated as a horizon, as a boundary between one place and the next. She’s too much for me and also somehow not enough.

Sometimes I think I hate her. Sometimes I think I hate myself.

“Darling,” she murmurs after a few minutes. “We’re finished.” I slide back into the den, into the smoggy clouds of other people’s breath and belches and worse. She winds her arms around me. “Are you okay?”

The wool of her sweater rasps against my own scavenged garment. “Yeah.”

They’re all asleep in minutes while I lie awake, wondering how hot it might be above ground right now. I picture the sun caressing green summer leaves, the buzz of a bee flirting with each individual bright flower. The smell of fresh grass, of smoke and fire, of the salted sea, which I know to be not far from here, but which in the three years I’ve been living here I’ve never been able to witness. What I wouldn’t give to stand barefoot on scorching sand, to feel the snarl of hot metal against my tender flesh.

Surrounded by steady, sour breath, I compare our lives down here. The endless cold. The crumble of damp earth and pebbles under my back. The smell of lingering memories, like the underside of mushrooms. The dark steals more than sight; it steals our very selves. I wriggle out from Eilidh’s embrace and creep back up the tunnel. Even thirty feet away, the brightness of the day stings my eyes. Outside, lavender bushes obscure the entrance, which provides us with some protection, but if they happened to step a certain way—

Two voices, nearby. I halt, my heart hammering, and press a hand over my chest as if that will stifle the noise. One laughs. They are often laughing, and why not? The Sunbathers are tanned and tall and beautiful. Their eyesight in daylight is better than perfect. Their strength is unparalleled. They are walking gods, illuminated by the eye of the paternal loving sun, while we scuttle around in the dirt and dark like vermin.

I creep a little closer. “They say they are close to finishing a great lamp like the one in Las Vegas, only better,” one drawls. His voice reminds me of sunlight on snow—cold, crystalline, dangerous. “That was 42.3 billion candela and one could have gone blind just looking at it too long. This new lamp will be more powerful than the Sun itself. Think of it, Cecily. Think how strong we shall be.”

The second voice puts me in mind of a satisfied cat. Sleek. A single claw, currently sheathed. “And they say it will last?”

“They do.”

I frown, not sure what they mean. I can’t imagine something that bright—stronger than any stadium floodlight, more powerful than the sun. A desperate urge rises like bile; I want to stand in that light, stripped down to my bare skin, and let it take me. Their voices grow distant as they stroll away. The wind soughs in the trees, sliding between branches like a great invisible serpent, catching the cocked ear of every leaf, whispering ethereal temptations. I creep an inch closer, almost to the base of the steps. I want so badly to stick my head out, to taste the breeze, to win a single golden moment.

Instead, I retreat into the darkness like the lumbricine monster I am.

When the solar flares had worsened, turning into frequently and deadly bursts of intense radiation, most ordinary people had simply cowered, quaking, in their houses. When the star was brightest we tacked reflective foil over our windows to keep the worst of it out, and when it became clear that the flares were happening every few days, it seemed more sensible to leave it up permanently. We grew used to living in reduced light, gaining a little relief from the shade of our homes. Of course we did. We had no idea what was coming.

When the first of the sunbathers had turned, it had made the news. A crowd of twenty or so had ignored the weather warnings and stood outside in a tree-lined plaza during a particularly bad flare. To begin with, they’d made a game of it, tunelessly belting a selection of appropriate songs including Here Comes The Sun and This Little Light of Mine and Walking On Sunshine. As their mostly-naked bodies changed—reddened, blackened, tanned, according to skin type, but all bubbling like cheese under a grill—they’d fallen silent. Several had deserted early on, fleeing for the safety of the shade. One had tried to withstand the pressure and had fallen, unable to drag himself to safety; he subsequently burst into agonized flames and died wailing.

A photojournalist lying in wait in a first-floor office had captured the range of expressions on those of the still-living. A victorious snarl here, unfathomable grief there. Unusual countenances for people being burned alive, or so we thought. Most of them had cried, the tears steaming off their faces in hissing spurts. By the end, every single one was supine, their bodies lit with a faint golden glow. One of them had leapt to her feet, had strutted across to a nearby lamppost. Had experimentally tugged. The lamppost had erupted from the ground in a shower of dirt and crumbled concrete, and the woman had held it uncertainly for a moment before raising it aloft like a trophy.

Afterwards, during a live interview, one of the group had grinned into a waiting camera. “We met on a forum for people sick of living in fear,” they said. “An anonymous source told us we’d been lied to about the danger. Glory in our sufferings!” they added, and the crowd chanted the words back in unison.

Behind them, the smoking corpse still hissed and sputtered like a guttering candle. “How did you know you wouldn’t die?” the interviewer asked. Her thick makeup and glossy blonde curls couldn’t cover the fact that her hands were shaking and pale-knuckled around the offered mic.

“We didn’t. We just accepted what the sun has to offer.”

“Those who accept the sun will never die,” another announced, standing side by side with the first. Their glow was ethereal, making the interviewer look washed out and haggard. A scruffy bird, surrounded by glittering specimens.

The interviewer cast a single glance towards the corpse before the mask of professional composure slipped back into place. “What makes you different from those of us inside?” she prompted.

Another cut in, “I don’t think you should be asking what makes us different. I think you should be looking at what makes us the same. This could be you too,” a glowing thumb, jabbed towards their heart, “if you do the work.”

“Is it not…” the interviewer stumbled over her words, “uh, a dangerous procedure? What kind of work do you recommend they do?”

As one, the crowd had stared at her; a great, golden Argus, many-limbed and hundred-eyed. “The sun’s light shines on everyone. To hide in the darkness is to turn away the power and glory of the sun, who gives its warmth to aid us,” the first person said decisively. “Why would you reject such a bountiful gift?”

“Some people are sensitive to the—” the interviewer began, but they interrupted her once more.

“Darkness is weakness. It’s a sin. Aren’t you tired of living in the shadows?” They turned to the camera, looking straight into the lens. “Step out and be seen.”

After that, more than a thousand people braved the next flare. Most of them survived it, and the idea grew roots. The sun will burn away your frailties and leave you strong, they insisted. If you don’t survive the process, it is your fault, not the sun’s. Those who had turned claimed they no longer indulged in vices, were no longer enticed by bodily temptations. No more worrying and doubting and ruminating and deciding and discovering. The sun told them who they were, then burned the sins right out of their bodies and minds. They argued this was the apex of the human condition, adapted to our changing world instead of hiding from it in fear like animals.

Individual choice wasn’t enough for the Sunbathers, though. We should have known that they wouldn’t settle for notoriety. Spreading the message was only the start. They escalated gradually—recruitment evolved into pressurized solicitations, then into outright kidnappings. It wasn’t enough that they had changed, that they were saved. They insisted on saving all of us too. If we resisted, that was merely proof that the darkness held us in sway. If we protested, then it was their obligation to perform their parts more aggressively, to rescue us from our own failings. They demanded loyalty and deference to the center of our universe above all else; a homage to the life-giving, vitalizing powers of the sun. Despite these tactics, many went willingly. Desperate to be cleansed, to be pure.

Growth happens in the dark too, Soph, Eilidh often reminds me. Plenty of seeds require shade and cool conditions to thrive. The moon moves the tides. We need darkness as well as light for a circadian rhythm. Neither better than the other. We simply are.

Eidlidh never asks if I am happy simply being. Maybe it never occurs to her to question it; maybe she knows she wouldn’t like the answer.

Prior to our world changing, Eilidh claims she read a study which concluded that Roque de los Muchachos Observatory—located in the Canary Islands—is the darkest place on Earth. Eilidh insists that we’ll go together someday. We’ll be safe there, she’d said. We’ll be able to sleep under the stars, Soph. Won’t that be wonderful? When she nibbles her way down my neck, the tenderness turns my stomach. When her tongue tastes flesh, I’m dreaming of sunlight lapping on my skin. When I climax, it’s the red glare of a summer afternoon I see behind my eyes.

“I love you,” she whispers, and for once I’m glad of the darkness. It hides the truth. She doesn’t say it often. She knows I don’t like it. I haven’t said it back. I was in danger of doing it, once, but the fling I had with what’s-her-name helped put a necessary barrier between me and the words. Real love isn’t grubbing around in the darkness, taking whatever scraps you can, no matter how my stomach flips when she kisses me.

I volunteer to go out to harvest that night with Cygnet and Maya, even though it isn’t my turn. The night is dark, a tiny sliver of moon peeking between curtains of cloud, and the breeze is blissfully warm against my face. In the gloaming, the stars are bloodspeckles spattered around the single raw orange wound of the sky. In the distance, a Sunbather camp lights up the night sky like a rave. Strobe lights flicker and flash in a rainbow of whites and creams. I’ve heard they sleep cocooned inside individual tanning beds, swaddled in light. A single shadow won’t kill them, while a dim room would simply inflict a high degree of pain. They have the advantage of us in this respect. It’s much easier to drag a body out of a hole than it is to drag them in. We tried, once, and lost four members of our community in the struggle.

We walk for a couple of miles through the grove of trees, to where Eidlidh and I discovered a new campsite the night before. “They get close now,” Cygnet says, their accent clipped.

Maya bends, touches the ashes with a single digit. “Still warm.”

Cygnet frowns. “We move? Move house?”

I bite back a bitter laugh. The burrow is as far from a house as its possible to be. I can still vividly picture my old home, with all the luxuries I treasured—a stove-top cafetière, the latest gaming console, abstract artwork hanging on every wall—and my laugh threatens to turn into a sob. These days I’d happily settle for the most basic amenities: a flushing toilet, a working oven, a hot shower.

We gather up whatever we can find—more peaches, a couple of forgotten roast eggs rolled in ash, and something spitted that looks suspiciously like a handless arm. We avoid each others’ eyes as I unhook the arm and carry it over my shoulder. The scent of the meat, fatty and rich, wafts towards me. I grit my teeth as my mouth waters. I’ve done plenty ugly things in order to survive. Consuming other people isn’t even in the top ten. A familiar thought drifts across my mind, a solo cloud in an otherwise baleful grey sky: maybe if I was a Sunbather, I wouldn’t hate myself quite so much.

On the way back, Maya disappears into a clump of trees and returns empty-handed and anguished. “They found our water,” she wails, eyes bright with unshed tears. “How did they—it’s all gone.”

I push past her and find the ground littered with empty plastic bottles. The lids have been unscrewed, the precious contents dumped onto the thirsty ground. I stand up and swear, aiming a kick at the nearest tree. We have three more supply spots but even so, my stomach clenches with sudden certainty. If they found this one, they probably went looking for the others too. Without a safe place to purify water, we’re screwed. I’d scoffed at Cygnet’s question of whether we should move, whether the Sunbathers were too close, but maybe they’d been right. By discovering this cache, the Sunbathers would know for sure there was a skulk of us nearby. It wouldn’t be long before they decided to root us out.

Back in the burrow, the news is met with horrified silence. Old Jeff shifts, and I can tell by the way air whistles through his nose that his sinuses are swelling, that he’s on the verge of tears, if not crying already. If we have to travel, he’s the least likely to make it. His once-broken leg never healed properly and walking is a chore. He makes up for being unable to harvest by doing what he can in the den, but he hasn’t been pulling his weight for some time. I don’t even know how old he is. I try to picture the last time I saw him by faint starlight but there’s only a vague impression of wrinkled jowls and a shiny, bald head.

“Don’t worry,” Cygnet says, also rustling. Patting him, probably, like a dog scared of a thunderstorm. “We’re all in this together, okay? It’s what sets us apart from them. We have community.”

I roll my eyes.

“Maybe this is a sign,“ Eilidh chimes in. “Maybe we should head for the Canary Islands.”

She can’t help herself. She knows it means making sacrifices, but she wants it so badly she’s entertaining the notion of breaking the group bonds, maybe even leaving the others behind if it means reaching her goal. An unexpected wave of sympathy twangs in my chest. Maybe we’re a little more alike than I thought.

“And what happens,” Maya asks, “when we get to a place where no one has dug burrows? Where will we sleep then?”

“There are cave systems,” Eilidh insists. “Abandoned mines. Probably boats too, if we can get to the coast. Ferries and stuff. My dad used to have a boat so I know how—”

“You’re delusional,” Maya says. The smallest sound of teeth, scraping over cracked lips. She’s trying not to add something else, trying not to cross a line by making accusations she can’t rescind. I’m tired of listening to them fret and whine. I scramble out into the tunnel, ignoring the whiny way Eilidh calls my name. “Leave her be,” Maya murmurs, irritation finally spilling into her voice. “For God’s sake, Eilidh, get a grip.”

The instruction evidently has an effect, since no one follows me into the tunnel. Dawn is only just breaking—I can see pale light dribbling down through the entrance—and I can’t help myself. I scuttle closer. A cool morning breeze billows down, stroking my skin with a thousand tiny feathers. Closer. The scent of lavender wafts towards me. Closer. No one is around to stop me. Why shouldn’t I indulge everything I desire for a single shining moment? Anyway, if we left the burrow we’d have to risk being in the open air sometimes and therefore it’s actually good to test it out now, and now my foot is on the bottom earthen stair and I am raising myself up, up, until my head is above ground, my eyes stinging with the delicious pain of overwhelming light and I want to wail as if I’ve just been birthed into a strange new world, bloody and new, and—

A Sunbather grabs me by the throat, raises me into the air. I splutter, clawing at her fingers, but she takes no more notice than if I were an alighting butterfly. Her dark hair is streaked with grey, her skin a luminous tan. Her eyes are a dazzling, vulpine amber. “Look, a worm,” she says calmly.

A flicker in my peripheral vision. Her companion approaches, frowning. His eyes are a pale, bleached blue, a violent, beautiful contrast to his dark skin. “You have such a talent for the hunt, sister.”

“Don’t hurt me. I want to be one of you,” I choke. It’s the first thing I thought of, but even as I say the words, I feel the truth in them.

“We love to hear those words, don’t we brother?” Her hand doesn’t waver. My feet dangle inches from the ground, my vision turning red at the edges. The Sunbathers exchange looks; his hands flash rapidly in a complicated pattern I can’t parse. “Hmm.” She turns back to me. “Some would rather die than join us.” She lowers me until my tiptoes touch solid earth, then lets go and steps back.

“I wouldn’t.” I massage my aching throat. I could hurl myself back into the burrow, run and warn the others, but that would only put them in danger too. At least, that’s how I justify remaining still. Sweat dribbles down my spine.

“The ritual kills as many as it saves, these days. You’ve left it rather late, worm.” He studies me. Takes in the appalling state of my clothing, my pale skin, the way I can hardly bear to open my eyes even in this dull light. The flickering flame dances along his cheekbone. “Still, even trying should absolve you somewhat. We never turn a soul away who begs to be saved.”

I nod vigorously. So magnanimous. They’re right, of course; I’m nothing but a worm, compared to them. Another bout of hand-waving follows. He tells me that the induction needs blood for the ritual. I kneel in front of them and bow my head, ready to obey their next order. “Not yours,” she says. “A sacrifice. To show your devotion.”

“To you?” I ask, uncertain.

“To yourself. To the Path.” She pronounces it oddly, emphasizing the word. “You have to renounce the darkness. Cast off your sins. Sear away the taint of your old ways.”

What’s my alternative, really—becoming another spitted limb strung across a campfire? Screw that. I nod again. They make me tell them where the burrow is, how it whorls under the pockmarked land, how far it extends. How deep. They tell me I have to pick someone. That life requires death, that godhood requires giving up one’s humanity. Not mortality, I notice, but humanity. It’s a trolley problem, then—either I choose one person to die, or we all do. Simple, really. I make a half-hearted plan to talk Old Jeff into coming with me; who’d miss him, after all? The idea fizzles out before I get more than a couple of steps in. The truth is that there is only one person connecting me to the darkness, who’d ever made me feel even remotely okay about being there.

They watch my face keenly, watch the realization dawning. Pleasure ripens in their eyes, blooms on their lips. “We’ll wait here. Hurry. Bring your lamb.”

I descend back into the burrow. My vision dances with sunspots, floating like pale amoeba against the petri dish of the darkness. Nausea simmers in my stomach; I bite down hard on my hand, until my canines break the skin. The pain grounds me. If I don’t do this, they’ll root the rest of us out anyway. This way, I can at least save myself.

Eilidh is waiting for me at the entrance to the den. “What the hell are you doing?” she whispers.

The words slide out, easier than they should. “I found something topside. Come and see.”

“Soph, you know it’s not safe,” she protests.

I lean into her, rest my temple against the groove of her neck, press my nose into the hollow there and feel her pulse skitter. “Please,” I say. “Please just do this one thing for me.”

She hesitates.

“I love you,” I add.

It’s enough. Her fingers slide into mine.

The Sunbathers catch her on the outskirts of the grove. “Soph!” she screams. “Soph, run!” The third time, the word is halved by suspicion.

I turn away from my betrayal, not wanting to see her last moments. A quick cut, they said. A sharp knife, they said. The wound would heal soon enough; for me, anyway. A faint gurgle behind me informs me that the deed is done. I lift my face to the sky—oh, the blue sky!—and position myself like a flower, arms outstretched. I want to throw up, to purge myself inside as well as out, but I swallow it down. The sound of dragging—a heavy, leaden slither—could be anything. Not necessarily a body. Not necessarily my fault.

The Sunbathers order me to lie down and spread my limbs like a star. The sun overhead is almost at its zenith. I remember heat from my childhood as a pleasant warmth, from my teenage years as a baking roast, from my twenties as an ever-present scald. I’d thought my memories were relatively intact, but I don’t remember anything as bad as this. I howl as the sun’s rays sear my skin. The smell of my sizzling flesh, pork-rich and crackling deliciously, is sickening. I turn my head to vomit but there’s no time—the red glare becomes a white-hot scald over my whole body, interspersed with the pop-pop-pop of tiny blisters bursting along my bare stomach like simmering water, and I open my mouth as the sunshine coats me, covers me, fills me up, and I scream as if by emptying my lungs I might drown myself all the faster, and—

My world is full of crackling, ferocious pain. Time roars by in a torrent, washing my senses away, boiling them clean. When it finally ends, I lie dazed and whimpering.

“She’ll need a second bath. Maybe even a third,” he says.

My cracked eyelids flicker. Please, no more. The other Sunbather shrugs. “We endure the heat to stand in the light, do we not?”

“Of course, sister.”

I am dying. I am more alive than I have ever been. I reach out, desperate for any touch, any reassurance. They instantly retreat out of reach.

“Every soul stands alone,” the Sunbather says. His voice is a mirrored lake, but a muscle jumps in his jaw, belying his displeasure. “Touching is a vice we do not indulge in.”

Stung, I let my hand flop onto the dirt. Their footsteps fade as they leave me alone. My skin ripples and sheds flake after flake, huge red blisters knitting together into a golden pool of purity. Nearby, I hear their voices raised in choral song. By the time I have recovered enough to flip myself onto my side, they’re in full flow. A crowd of hundreds, each an island, joined only by a sea of sound and movement. They smell of nothing; a grey absence where scent should be, making the hairs on the back of my neck prickle.

When the song is over, they disperse in twos and threes without speaking. I crawl to kneel by the place where Eilidh died and dig my hands into the mottled patch of brown-red earth, my fingers spidering down as if there might be something to catch, to grasp, something that might be retrieved and relit. Growth happens in the dark too, Soph, she used to say.

You lied, I think, my fists clenching, clawing great mounds of dirt into compact balls in my hands. You lied.

End.

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Lindz McLeod is a queer, working-class, Scottish writer and editor who dabbles in the surreal. Her prose has been published by Apex, Catapult, Pseudopod, The Razor, and many more. Her work includes the novelette LOVE, HAPPINESS, AND ALL THE THINGS YOU MAY NOT BE DESTINED FOR (Assemble, 2022), her short story collection TURDUCKEN (Spaceboy, 2023), her novels BEAST (Hear Us Scream, 2023) and SUNBATHERS (Hedone Books, 2024). She is a full member of the SFWA, the club president of the Edinburgh Writers’ Club, and is represented by Laura Zats at Headwater Literary Management.

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