Make way for the winner! Today we so excited to share “Burning” by Adeline Lovell, the winner of our 2020 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers, selected by Kali Fajardo-Anstine.”This story had me from the first sentence—the promise of dramatic potential, the ultimate question, the end of the world. I was moved to tears by Henry and Leo, and I gasped with delight in these richly cinematic scenes (what euphoria in a Target). ‘Burning’ is a particular kind of American story, a road trip tale announcing itself with a reference to The Road on the first page. I love watching these characters form a close bond out of the most difficult circumstances. ‘Do you think it will hurt?’ Henry whispers, and Leo tightening his hand says, ‘No, it’ll be quick.’ I was with these characters in that moment, feeling their emotions, the deep sadness between them but also such beauty and hope. Simply lovely. I will think about this story for a long time to come.” – Kali Fajardo-Anstine
In front of them, thick gray clouds fog the sky like a shield against the sun. The sun breaks through the horizon in a white band, bright light, the pale color of disease. In the flat, grim glare, Henry notices, Leo’s eyelashes cast sloping shadows down his cheeks. The trees, silhouetted against the light, already look blackened and burnt.
They announce the end of the world on a Saturday in April through a news article that quotes a whistleblower from the White House. In eight days, a solar flare is going to detach itself from the sun and hurtle towards the earth and burn it to particles. They’ve known for a week, and they weren’t going to say anything.
Henry reads the story in his bedroom as the sun is going down, its dying gasps throwing creamy light over everything: psychology books for exams he will never take, empty coffee cups that are piling up because he hasn’t had the chance to recycle them, a copy of The Road that he borrowed from a friend and never started, a calendar full of appointments that will never happen. He tries to react but feels nothing but hollow. He scans the page again and almost laughs.
Someone at CNN typed out the words “approximately 197 hours until the solar flare makes contact,” with the same formality with which one might report a political scandal. His limbs are heavy, as though someone has cut him open, poured in cement, and sewn him shut again.
He is still reading the two-paragraph article—according to the whistleblower, experts were consulted experts by world leaders on ways to prevent it… say nothing can be done… his phone buzzes beside him on the desk. He blinks and answers his mother.
“Baby,” she whispers.
“Hey,” Henry says, and finds his throat is very dry.
“I don’t even know what to say,” she says. “Oh, Henry. Oh, baby, I’m so sorry.”
His laptop is still open, and texts from his friends are popping up in the corner so fast he can’t even read the names, a blur of black and green. He closes his eyes.
“Come home, Hen,” she says. “Please, babe, your dad and I want you home.”
“Yeah,” Henry says vaguely. “Yeah, of course.”