Max first heard about Sunburst when he was trying to score some smack. Templeton had always been his best source for heroin, even in college, but he couldn't help this time.
"Sorry, Max," he'd said over the crackling phoneline. "I haven't touched that stuff in ages. Haven't got any left."
"You've gone clean?" Max asked, astounded. The concept was a bit too radical for him to grasp.
"No, no," Templeton replied, an odd, almost airy tone in his voice. "I've just been trying to score some Sunburst these days. It's taken longer than I thought it would."
"Dammit," Max fumed. It hadn't been that long since his last fix, but he was already feeling the faint pangs of withdrawal. "Okay, I'll ask somebody else," he said, and hung up. It wasn't until the next day that he thought to wonder what Sunburst was.
Tony knew. Max didn't like the street dealer and didn't trust him and his prices were too high and the neighborhood where he lived was just too damn dangerous, but Tony knew where to find stuff. If you could afford the price he was asking, Tony could get it for you.
Usually. This time, Tony was cagey.
"Burst is kinda hard to get, Max. I been tryin' but nobody'll sell me any."
"What's the stuff like, though?" Max said. "A... buddy of mine seemed to think it was pretty good."
"Good, hell!" Tony swore. "Yeah, it's good. I hear it kind of blisses you out... everything's bright and wonderful, and it lasts for freakin' weeks. Weeks, man!" An odd look had crept into the dealer's eyes, as though he was enthralled at the very idea of it.
"Can you get me some?"
The question seemed to bring Tony back down to earth. He spat. "I done told you once already, Max. Nobody's got any. I'm lookin'. But I can't find a supplier. Believe me, I find one, I'll let you know. I'd have more buyers than I could shake a stick at."
"Huh," Max muttered, musing silently. "I've got a couple of old contacts I could hit up..."
Tony pointed a finger at him warningly. "You find a source, you let me know. I'll cut you finder's fee, even. But if you find one, you tell me, y'hear?"
"I hear ya, I hear ya," Max replied, putting up his hands in a placating manner. "You'll be the first to know."
But none of Max's old contacts panned out, either. The ones who had heard of Sunburst were just as desperate to score some as Tony had been, and were having just as much luck. Rumor had it that it was a golden liquid and that the high was better than anything else on the street. It wasn't addictive, either, they said, which Max understood meant that it wasn't physically addictive. But the mind, of course, the mind could get addicted to anything it liked, anything at all.
Max's day job was restacking the shelves in the local library after hours. The pay was crappy, but it could cover his habit and a tiny apartment in the city and they never asked him to take a drug test.
Now he decided to actually make use of the library himself. He started doing a bit of research on the side, going through their old newspapers.
As far as he could tell, Sunburst had been the hottest thing on the street for awhile, but the cops hadn't managed to bust any dealers. There had been some O.D.s, so the drug was more than just a rumor, but other than the occasional editorial, there wasn't much info about it.
He spent awhile looking through the police beat columns, trying to see if anybody had been caught with the stuff. But no one had. In fact, the only time that the drug was mentioned was when some poor stiff died of it.
That was how he found out that Templeton had apparently managed to score some, after all.
He let himself into Templeton's apartment with a little prybar that he kept in his car for "emergencies." It wasn't the first time that Max had gone into a friend's place to rifle their stash, but it was the first time that the friend had been dead beforehand. He had wanted to get there fast, before the landlord tossed all of Templeton's stuff.
The apartment wasn't the same. Oh, it was still the same squalid, dingy hovel that he remembered, it was just that the place had been redecorated by a man with Sunburst on his mind. There were dozens of news articles cut out and pinned to the walls. Max recognized several of them, because he'd read them himself back at the library. Templeton had been doing research on Sunburst, too.
But it was the drawings that really surprised him. They were everywhere. Templeton had drawn a lot of pictures, mostly in yellow crayon or old highlighter. They were little kid drawings of the sun, with golden rays coming off of it. Some of them had rays going everywhere, some of them were shining one single beam like a flashlight, sometimes there were crude stick people standing there smiling and sometimes there weren't, but the sun was in all of them. Most of them were on sheets of paper that had been pinned to the wall, but some of them were just drawn on the walls. It should have been spooky, but to Max it was more like a shrine. He wondered if the pictures had been drawn before or after his old college buddy had actually managed to lay hands on the stuff.
There hadn't been much else of use there, though. Max emptied out a change jar and took Templeton's old stash-box; he had known where it was hidden from way back, and that hadn't changed. The box had some weed that was so ancient that it had started to go moldy and some tiny bags of uncut heroin. But no golden liquid. Once, that would have been a score that would have set him up for weeks, but now it was just a disappointment. He sold the smack to Tony and spent some of the cash on some car repairs for the old jalopy that he used to get around and saved the rest to buy his first dose of Sunburst, if only he could find some to buy.
He'd been clean for nearly a month when he stumbled across a street dealer who claimed to have the stuff. Somehow his regular cravings just hadn't seemed that important anymore. He'd been hunting for Sunburst for so long it had taken on a kind of mythic quality in his mind. He'd always been one of those types who would try anything once, and if Sunburst really was the best high on the planet, he was damned well going to find some.
The dealer was a squirrelly little hispanic who smelled of alcohol and urine but Max didn't care... all that mattered was his quest. When the fellow finally pulled out the little vial of yellow fluid, it was all that Max could do to avoid beating his head in.
"That's fake, you bastard! You trying to sell me piss or what?" Max roared.
Max wasn't a big man, in fact he had the skinny and unathletic looks of someone whose body spent way too much time strung out, but the guy was scared anyway. There was something about Max's manner that made it clear to the fellow that going for the piece he kept hidden nearby wouldn't be a good idea.
"It's gen-u-ine stuff, man!" he protested, shaking the little vial, but he sounded kind of shaken himself.
Max just got up, and walked away in disgust. "It's fake, you idiot," he said as he went. "Everyone knows that Sunburst glows. That's just yellow."
The weeks stretched into months. Max's health would probably have improved more, from being off his usual stuff, but his search ate up most of his time and he kept forgetting to eat. He followed up every rumor and called every possible lead. He even talked to the cops, pretending he was a reporter and all he found out was that they were desperate to find the source, too. The mayor had called Sunburst "the scourge of the city," and it looked bad that the cops hadn't managed to bust anyone over it yet.
At night he'd dream about finding a cup full of glowing yellow liquid, but it was always behind a glass wall or inside a metal cage. He'd wake up feeling restless and unsatisfied and spend the morning going over the day's paper looking for leads.
He doodled some little yellow drawings himself, like Templeton had. It helped with the frustration. Sometimes it felt like he was addicted to the stuff already, and he hadn't even had a dose yet. He hung some of the pictures on the walls and put his favorite on the ceiling over his bed. At night, when he was lying awake in bed with the lights out, it sometimes seemed as though the yellow sun in the drawing really was glowing a little. But that was just his imagination.
In the dream, he was walking along a deserted road in a desolate landscape. The old, cobblestone road was in poor repair and the grass around it was sparse and turning brown. There were little derelict houses scattered alongside the road, but none of them looked like they had been inhabited for years. He would find a broken window and peer into each one, but he never saw anything more than cobwebbed furniture and little black spiders crawling around them. The spiders had emerald eyes.
The sky was always overcast in the dream. Every day was grim and dreary. He would stare into the sky, sometimes, looking for a gap in the clouds, but he never saw one.
He couldn't have said how long he walked. He had the feeling that he had dreamt this dream many times before, and that he had been walking down this same path for ages. But while the landscape grew grayer and drearier and the houses fewer and in worse repair, he never questioned the direction that he was travelling. Somehow he felt that it was the right way. Or perhaps, since he had already checked everything in the other direction, this was the only way that he had left to go.
The cathedral was very tall, like the old European ones that Max had only ever seen in old magazine photos. But it was decrepit and abandoned too, like everything else in this forsaken land. He could see that the central spire had broken off and one of the great walls had fallen in entirely. The remaining stonework was dark gray and mouldering and any brightness or glory that it had once possessed was long gone. It didn't really look safe to explore. But the road ended at it, so what choice did he have?
He approached the crumbling structure apprehensively. The great double doors were still shut (for some reason Max was sure that they were still sealed from the inside) so he climbed up over the pile of shattered masonry and entered through the gap where the wall had fallen away.
The peddler was waiting for him, just inside.
The man was swarthy and asian in appearance. His clothes were old fashioned, but they were worn and raggedy, like their wearer had been travelling in them for a long time. Max couldn't have said how he knew that the man was a peddler; he just did, the way that you sometimes do in dreams.
Max wanted to tell the man what he was looking for, but he had no voice in the dream. The peddler raised a hand to silence him. He already knew.
The man's smile was an oily and unpleasant one, and Max thought about turning around and leaving. But before he could, the peddler reached into a pack at his feet and pulled out an empty glass bottle. It looked like an empty wine bottle without a cork. The glass was criss-crossed with little scratches. It looked old.
The man raised it meaningfully and gestured for Max to follow him. Max did so, all reluctance forgotten.
He led Max through the dim and cobweb-strewn interior of the cathedral, heading towards the central chamber. Max felt excited; his heart was beating wildly. Somehow he felt that he had to be on the brink of something fabulous. There was something here, something that he had been searching for, all his life. It was close now.
The pulpit was a shattered ruin. The altar had rotted and collapsed into itself and most of the pews in the chamber had fallen apart. There were ancient cloth banners on the walls, but they were covered in grime and had rotted apart so badly that Max could only guess at the images they had originally been decorated with. Behind the pulpit was a crude, carven wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, weeping. It was in just as poor of condition as the rest of the cathedral.
The roof in there had partly collapsed and there was an area where some pews had been crushed by falling timbers. Above that spot, a small section of cloudy sky was visible.
The peddler smiled like a magician about to reveal his best trick, and walked over towards the hole in the roof. He looked up.
Far above, Max could see that the clouds had parted slightly. There was a brief moment of blindness as the sun became visible. When his eyes cleared, he could see that there was a sunbeam coming through the hole now. The golden outline ended with a little circle of light on the debris-strewn floor.
Max looked at the peddler curiously, and the man smiled that same oily smile. He raised up the empty glass bottle and held it in the sunbeam, with the open top pointed towards the sky.
Somehow it seemed like the bottle wasn't just refracting the light, it was collecting it. It slowly filled with a golden radiance too bright to look at directly. Finally, the man pulled the bottle out of the beam and showed it to Max. It was filled almost to the brim with brilliant yellow light, but when he moved it, the light sloshed around inside like water.
Max reached for his wallet, but in the dream he couldn't find it. He began to search his pockets desperately, looking for something, anything that he could trade for the bottle of light. The peddler stopped him with a wave of his hand. He held out the bottle like a gift.
Max took it from him with trembling fingers. The glass gave off a gentle warmth to the touch. It felt soothing. The liquid light inside sloshed about as he turned it in his hands. Max didn't even notice that he had begun to cry tears of joy. He had finally found it.
Ignoring the peddler's oily grin of self-satisfaction, Max raised the bottle to his lips and finally tasted the light.
The two cops regarded Max's body lying on the cot with a mixture of distaste and professional detachment. The younger cop was scribbling notes onto his little writing pad.
"Landlady says he didn't pay his rent last week, so she broke out the master key and came in to check on him today. Found him like this."
The older cop nodded. "He hasn't been dead for very long. We'd need the coroner to say for sure, but I'd say three days at most."
"We'll need him for cause of death, too," the rookie added. "He's awful young for a heart attack."
"He O.D.'d," his partner replied, flatly.
"You can tell that?" the younger man asked, impressed.
He gestured at the body. "Take a look."
The rookie leaned in and looked at the body more closely.
"Look at his eyes," the older man instructed.
The younger cop knelt and peered at them closely. Max's eyes were open and staring. His pupils were shrunk to tiny dots, like he'd been staring at the heart of the sun.
"Damn," he swore, shaking his head. "Sunburst again."
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