July Free Fiction: The Sunrise Project

July Free Fiction: The Sunrise Project

Thrust together on a school project, Drew and Sam have little in common—he the nerdy kid and she the rebel. And yet there is one bond that unites them, an unexpected kinship that grows in the light of dawn.



The assignment was simple enough. Mrs. Terrell wanted us to capture ten of the same “somethings” and document each one with a digital photograph complete with creative captioning. The class would assemble the collections into slide shows for two-thirds of our final grade. The project was due in two months. We could work in pairs or alone.

      I planned to work alone.

      “What will be your subject, Scott?” Mrs. Terrell walked between the rows of seats, jotting notes in her plan book.

      “My dog?”

      “Are you asking me or telling me?” Mrs. Terrell hated uncertainties.

      “Telling you. I’ll use my dog as my subject.”

      Mrs. Terrell eyed him and tapped her pen on the notebook. “There has to be a common theme through all the photos, Scott. I don’t want ten random pics of your pooch.” A couple of the girls snickered. Scott nodded and looked somewhat perturbed. Clearly, random pics was exactly what he’d had in mind.

      She made her way up Scott’s row. Some ideas were great, like the progression of a rose bud opening, a baby sibling’s attempts at walking, the progression of a new addition on Mark Taylor’s home. Others were bland, like Scott’s dumb dog and MiKayla’s hamster on its wheel.

      “How about you, Mr. Adams?” She looked down at me over the top rim of her neon green readers.

      This assignment was why I took this class. Since I was a freshman and saw the previous students’ portfolios on the school’s website, I’d known I would enroll in this class. I remembered hoping Mrs. Terrell didn’t die before I had the chance to learn from her. She didn’t die, and the only thing that changed was the amount of gray in her bun and the color of her readers.

      “Sunrises from my backyard. I’ll set up the tripod in the same location each morning, framed on one side by the branches of our neighbor’s pine tree.” I was sure she would be impressed because in three years I hadn’t seen any portfolios of sunsets or sunrises.

      The pen started tapping again and my heart sank a little. “Andrew Adams, you’re going to get up before dawn each morning for ten days and photograph the sunrise?”

      “It’ll actually take longer than ten days. Some mornings there may not be clouds.” Oh, please don’t shoot this down. Oh, please.

      “You’re making this way too complicated, Andrew.”

      I have a knack for making things too complicated. I hesitated to answer.

      “Your captions will be identical, will they not?”

      “No sunrise is like any other. So the captions shouldn’t be either.” I hadn’t thought as far as the captions. Now I was worried.

      “I’ll warn you now, there’s a student each year who tries this and fails. They come to me a week later to change their topic.”

      Samantha Robbins piped up from one seat behind mine. “I can help him. I’m good at captions, and all of my subject matter ideas have been taken already.”

      I was taken completely off guard. I always worked alone.  I spun around in my seat. She beamed. I did not.

      She leaned half way across her desk, her wavy blonde hair scattered over her shoulders. “Anyway, it’s my pine tree you’re planning to use in each of your frames, isn’t it?”

      I turned back to Mrs. Terrell, ready to protest, but the old gal smiled. “That’s a fabulous idea. I think, to keep the project on track, having a partner might be best.”

      A high-pitched “Sweet” came from behind me.

      “Mr. Adams?” My teacher waited with her pen poised above her plan book.

      I nodded in concession. “Wonderful.”

      Sam kicked the bottom of my seat. “See you bright and early, Drew.”



The next morning, I slapped the alarm off my nightstand and swung my feet over the edge of the bed. I should have been excited. Instead, I had to face Sam earlier than anyone should ever have to face Sam.

      Overnight, my driving desire had changed from one of purely accomplishing the sunrise theme—and hopefully doing it well enough to submit it with a photojournalism scholarship application—to beating out every other student who quit on the theme in years past.

      But now there was Sam.

      I got good grades, and the teachers knew I did all my assignments. Occasionally, I’d get partnered with someone who didn’t give a flip about anything and I ended up doing all the work anyway. Better than letting my grade suffer because the other half didn’t turn their part in.

      That’s why I worked alone.

      I grabbed my tripod and camera bag. I also tucked a notebook and a couple of pencils into my backpack so we could jot down ideas about captioning the shots as we waited for the clouds and sun angles to cooperate. I wanted to capture the sun at the same position every day and hope for a grand spray of clouds and light rays.

      I wasn’t sure what kind of grades Sam got overall, but she was unpredictable. Sometimes she’d go months without missing class. Sometimes she’d be gone three or four days out of the week for weeks in a row. It’s been that way since fifth grade when her family moved into the house cattycorner from us. The edge of my backyard faced due east. Hers faced due south. A monster pine tree stood at the corner of her lot.

      I grabbed a granola bar and a bottle of water and snuck out the back door so I wouldn’t wake up Dad. Dew blanketed the grass, and it soaked my shoes through before I got to the edge of the yard. The first dim light of dawn broke beyond the pine. In the distance, a county road stretched east/west, and beyond the road farmland rolled as far as you could see. The farmers had worked the fields for the last two weeks, so I knew I wouldn’t have to edit out tractors and combines.

      I set my tripod up and lowered the legs so that the frame would show the pine and the farmland. The angle was such that the road couldn’t be seen and no one would know unless a car happened to be passing.

      Mom used to stand at our kitchen window as she readied our lunches before school. Sometimes during the year, she’d stare out the window and get lost in the view. “If I ever have to leave this place, I’ll miss the sunrises the most.”

      I’d finally settled on the sunrise project last year when Mom left us because Dad couldn’t keep his junk in his pants. We talk online, but she won’t come home. Maybe for graduation, she said. I only stayed here to finish out my senior year.  Maybe if she saw the project…

      “Hey, dork!”

      Sam came bounding from behind the tree, backpack swung over her shoulder. She carried a square of plywood under her arm. Her hair was done up in a bun and she wore baggy sweats and a t-shirt. I’d never seen her wear anything but nice clothes. She must’ve slept in that stuff.

      I nodded to her and turned to the camera.

      “I thought we could use the board to steady the tripod.” She held it out for me.

      “Thanks.” I took the board and placed it under the tripod with instant success in stabilizing the three legs on the mole-infested yard. I swallowed my pride. “Good idea.”

      “You’re welcome. So what’s the plan?” She plopped down in the wet grass at my feet. The sky had lightened a bit, and I adjusted the exposure on the camera settings.

      I explained to her my vision for the project, but hadn’t thought of any captions yet.

      “Well, that’s nice.” Her voice fell flat as she watched me tinker with the camera.

      “Why, what?”

      “Well, I was just thinking…”

      My gratitude turned sour. “Thinking what? Mrs. Terrell pushed you into this with me to work on my idea.”

      “Jeez, it’s my butt on the line, too. If this doesn’t work out we’ll both be scraping the bottom of the idea barrel for new topics.”

      “Okay, what is it?” I face her with hands on hips—like a sissy, now that I think about it.

      “Well, if we captured the sun at its lowest today, then tomorrow we captured it a bit higher, and a bit higher the next day…” She stood up, framing the progression the sun would take as it rose higher in the sky with her arms extended, using her thumbs and forefingers as a guide. “You’d still capture ten sunrises, just a progression of sunrises. Much more interesting than showing the sun in a stationary position.”

      “That’s gonna be really complicated.”

      But it was an excellent idea. My fears started to subside about the quality of work she’d put into the project. But when she spoke again, I got all flustered.

      She grinned. “I hear you like to complicate things.”

      I shuffled my feet, kicking up dew drops onto the tops of my tennis shoes. “Well, at least we have that in common.”


The first seven mornings were successes. We got some great shots of the sun at the right progressions. Sam came up with some killer captions that captured the essence of the clouds and colors. Her captions gave our photos personality and were as good as the ones you see under photos displayed in an art gallery. I completed the edits on the “winning” shots from those days. I even sent a couple to Mom, but didn’t hear anything back from her.

      And not once had I woken up Dad.

      We’d get the shots, retreat to our houses without saying much, and pass the day at school in silence. It was strictly a working relationship, which was the best thing to have if I couldn’t work alone.

      Then Sam didn’t show up on the eighth morning.

      I texted her several times, but there was no answer. The sun crept higher above the horizon, and it was almost time to start shooting. I was afraid to call because of her parents being asleep. 

      I did the best I could and packed up the gear. At least we’d decided to leave the board where it lay to make things easier.

      At school, the seat behind me in photojournalism was empty. I texted her again from class, but got nothing.

      Mrs. Terrell wanted updates. I told her everything was going fine. She looked over those green glasses at the seat behind me and I knew she doubted what I said.

      “Do you need to change subject matter? It’s not too late now, but it will be in a couple of days.”

      “No, not at all. We’re all good.” We’d worked so hard on this up until now and only had a couple of mornings left to go.

      After school, I showed up on Samantha’s front porch. After two rings of the doorbell and a knock, her mom answered the door. I barely recognized her.

      The lady had been pretty, or at least I thought she had been. I didn’t really see Sam’s parents out in the neighborhood much. Then again, we also aren’t exactly Mister Rogers’ neighborhood either. Everyone pretty much always keeps to themselves.

      “Mrs. Robbins, I’m sorry to bother you. Is Sam here? I missed her at school today.” I was almost afraid to ask. She looked much thinner than I remembered. She had the same blonde hair and green eyes as Sam, but she was a mess, and she looked like she’d been crying.

      “Sam!” Mrs. Robbins turned away from the door without a word to me, but she left it open. I didn’t know whether to step in or to wait on the porch. So I waited on the porch. Cigarette smoke and something else I couldn’t quite name wafted out of the open door. I waited as long for Sam to come to the door as I had for Mrs. Robbins.

      Sam’s appearance startled me more than her mother’s did. She wore the same baggy clothes as she had that first morning in the back yard, but today she kept her arms crossed in front of her and her head down. Her hair hadn’t been combed and she wouldn’t look me in the eye.

      “Hey, is everything okay? I tried to text you, but…”

      “Yeah, I’m fine. I couldn’t make it today. My mom needed me.”

      “Oh. I was just making sure…”

      “I’ll be there in the morning, okay? Sorry I missed today’s shot.”

      “Yeah, that’s okay. I got it done okay, but the angle may be a little off. We may want to try that one again.” I glanced behind her to see her dad standing further in the living room, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. “Get in here, Sam.”

      “Okay. In the morning. I promise.” She backed away, head down, and slowly closed the door.

      I stood there on the porch for a moment, trying to figure out what had happened. Maybe her mom was having a medical emergency. That would account for all the missed school in the past.

      And then it hit me.

      And I hoped I was wrong.


The next morning, I headed out a few minutes before dawn. Sam was already sitting next to the board in the grass. Her hair was pulled up in a bun and she had on different sweats and t-shirt.

      “Hey.” I started setting up the gear.

      “Hey, Drew.” She didn’t look up. “I can help with this now, but I won’t be at school today.”

      “Why not? Part of your grade depends on attendance.”

      “I know that. I just can’t.”

      I took a couple of test shots and adjusted the settings. Sam stood and bumped me from behind the camera to frame in a few shots of her own.

      I moved between her and the sunrise, which ticked her off enough that she finally looked up at me. Her left eye was a swirl of red and purple and a tiny cut split her eyebrow in the middle.

      She realized I had seen her injury, even in the low light of the morning, and quickly ducked her head behind the camera again.

      “Move, Drew. Or I’ll send the whole school a picture of your crotch with pretty pink clouds all between your legs.”

      I moved to the side. She took a few more pictures, then retreated to her spot in the grass.

      I had no idea what to say. My gut turned inside out and my hands started to sweat. 

      I should have worked alone.

      And as soon as I thought that, I felt like a jerk.

      “Are you okay?”

      “Do I look okay?”

      “Who did that to you?”

      “Who do you think?”

      “What can I do?” I stood there, knowing I was missing the perfect angle, but too afraid to care.

      She pointed to the sky. “Just take the picture so I can go home.”

      I complied. I snapped off a few frames, and she stood to leave.

      My feet moved my body in front of her without my head’s permission. Then my mouth followed suit. “I don’t think you should go home.”

      “Where do you think I should go?” Tears swelled, blurring the green in her eyes. “Back to your place? With your cheating dad?”

      I took a step away from her. “You know about that?”

      “Everyone knows about that, Drew. Email me the shot and I’ll send you the caption.”

      I watched her stomp off until she disappeared through her back door.

      I went home and threw up.


I understood now why she missed so much. I tried talking to Dad before I left for school, but he didn’t listen, his nose a few inches from his cell phone as always. I was ashamed of what he did to Mom, and even more so now that everyone knew. I guess everyone had probably known for a long time.

      I thought about telling Mrs. Terrell, but I didn’t want to be a snitch. I even came so close as to ask to see her after class, and then I had to make something up on the spot about the project that I already knew the answer to cover.

       I really wished I’d worked alone. And I knew I was an insensitive freak.

      I texted her again. She told me not to worry that she’d be there for the last photo in the morning.

      But now I didn’t care about the project nearly as much as I cared about what happened to Sam. And about how to stop it.


Day ten started like most of the rest of them. Sam beat me again.

I set up the camera.

      She took a few shots.

      I corrected the settings.

      She took a few more.

      Her eye was a different swirl of colors, like the sunrises were different from minute to minute.

      “I’m really sorry, Sam. I want to help. What can I do?”

      “Nothing. There’s nothing to do.” She pointed to the sky. “It’s time.”

      “I think we should call someone. Or talk to Mrs. Terrell.”

      She turned and shoved me from the camera and took the shot herself. When she finished, she faced me and said, “The last time someone called the police on my dad, I was put in foster care because my mom was a basket case. Please, Drew. Please don’t do that.”

      I ran my hands through my hair and stifled a curse. I sat down in her spot in the grass. She sat next to me and put her hand on my knee.

      “I’ll be fine. I’ll be eighteen soon. After graduation I’m moving away. I’ll survive until then.”

      “I’m just so sorry. I feel so helpless.”

      She faced the wisps of purple and orange. In the growing light, her injury seemed to glow, and I tried not to stare. “The project’s almost done. I’ll get you the last caption this afternoon. But I won’t be in class.”

      “They’ll suspend you. Your grades won’t count. You won’t be able to graduate, and then…”

      “I’ll be fine, Drew.”

      And we finished watching the sunrise until the clouds burned off and time came for school.


Sam made good on her promise to finish the captions. When I got home the afternoon of the tenth day, a moving van pulled away from her drive, turned onto the county road we’d been so careful not to allow into the frame of our photos, and drove east. I never saw her again.

      She didn’t reply to my texts, and by the time graduation rolled around, the texts went undelivered.

      Mom decided it was too painful to attend my graduation. I decided it was too painful to care whether she attended graduation. She had no comments, good or bad, about the photos Sam and I had worked so hard on. She must not have missed the view much; she certainly didn’t miss me.

      Dad came to the ceremony but was on his phone the entire time.

      I kept Sam’s secret. Maybe I shouldn’t have. It kept me up at night and knotted my stomach inside out.

      A week later, I received an email. In the subject line it read “Alternate captions.”

      Sam had attached a photo slide show, and I opened it. She’d chosen days one, nine and ten and reworked the captions.

      Day One: The morning I may have found a friend.

      Day Nine: The morning everything changed.

      Day Ten:  The morning I didn’t say goodbye to my best friend.

      I think about Sam a lot. I still take the camera out. The board is still in the grass. I take the shots and email them to her. Sometimes she sends back a caption.

      Today, she sent a shot of a beach, the sun directly overhead, and a sign in the frame that read: Sand Dollar Beach, Big Sur.

      I smile.

      It’s time for a sunset project.


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