The Sunrise Queen 

– Fiction by Alex DiFrancesco, “Color and Water” by Heather Crank –


for Britney


I moved to the shore to start over. I carried my antidepressants in a plastic bag, then. Sometimes, when I drank, I’d take a handful, just to see what happened. Nothing much happened. I woke up with a headache sometimes, but that might have been the malt liquor.

The move had started off as a vacation, a senior week with friends, a tradition where I grew up, in a landlocked town five hours away. When I told my mother of my plans, she had been so excited—finally, I was doing something the right way. I was doing something normal. I was hanging out with kids my age. I was engaging in a rite of passage. I had spent all four years of high school in and out of rehab instead of going to football games and dances. My boyfriends were older, drove shitty cars with bad breaks and loud mufflers, had fully grown-in moustaches and beards. They had dangled drugs at me like a treat for good behavior, and I’d chased them like a puppy who was eager to please. Cocaine and heroin, mostly, and back in those days, it wasn’t the heroin that might kill you, 50/50 chance, every time you took it. It was pure, flecked brown, no Fentanyl in it. Before long, I was behind in school, my friends my age seemed so young, and I was fully obedient to the wishes of these men.

I got caught, of course, I always got caught every time: nodding out in first period, burning cigarette holes in my mattress, crashing my mom’s car. My mother cared but didn’t know what to do. She’d been a cheerleader, a beauty queen, a Key Club member, all the good things you could be when she was my age. I was her wreck of a daughter for whom she had no frame of reference. If I could only be sober, if I could only be normal, everything would have been fine. Nothing was ever fine.

The last time I went to rehab, before I moved to the shore, I had almost died. My boyfriend and I had been high and fucking while my mom was at work. Afterwards, still naked, I shot some more heroin up, and went out immediately. Back in those days, there were still the laws that prosecuted if you brought someone OD’ing into the ER and you were high yourself. I didn’t blame him for leaving me there. He knew my mom would be home soon. I woke up in the hospital with her hovering over my bed. 

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“But you keep doing it anyway,” she said.

There had been something different that time at rehab. The OD cracked something in me open, for a little while, light spilling around a heavy curtain pushed to the side. I thought a lot about my mom, how hard she was trying to love me, how I kept pushing that away. I thought about my old friends, who I’d stopped speaking to, who had started whispering about me when I walked by them in the hallways on the days I showed up for school—I even called some of them. Every bit of kindness I received, I let it trickle in. I felt the hole inside, the one that I usually jammed full of drugs or dick or drinks, fill up just a little. That kindness, that love, it sloshed around me like water at the bottom of a well. For a little while, it was enough.

It went away. I started drinking again with the old friends, the ones who didn’t like my heroin use, but were pretty normal in their teenage attitudes towards drinking on the weekends. I didn’t really take my antidepressants. I saved them up and sometimes took them all at once, just to see. I couldn’t smoke pot because that would show up on my drug tests. When someone had acid, we took that. All the dreams these other kids had seemed so sweet as they talked about them when we got drunk. College and work and sometimes the military. Concerts and road trips and visits to cousins in other states. A lot of it never happened. But the shore—that plan came through.

We left at 2 am on a Sunday night, three cars full of us, one huge half of a duplex waiting for us for a week’s rental. Someone’s mom had put down her credit card for it, and we had all handed that friend cash. We didn’t have cell phones then, only pagers, so we marked a few spots along the way we would stop and meet up on Rand McNally road maps. We piled out of the cars at these stops, peed at gas stations, got refused beer and bought iced teas instead when we couldn’t prove anything with our IDs. By the time the morning sun was not-yet-hot through the car windows, we were there.

Everyone piled into the house and unpacked their suitcases. They put the Ramen noodles, Kraft mac and cheese, and potato chips they’d brought with them into the pantries. While they bustled around, I walked down the steps, toward the ocean. The day was sunny, but it was early. The beach wasn’t crowded yet. I walked along the sand, getting lost, thinking about the last few years of my life. When I turned to the ocean was the first time I saw her.

She was walking on the water. She wore long robes that shimmered and shone blue and green, reflecting the waves. The robes might’ve been made from the waves. The sun reflected off of them, off of her shining pale skin. Her eyes were blue, green, grey, changing. She glided more than walked, really. The sun seemed to be rising from the crown of her head. 

I blinked and she was gone. I thought: maybe I am losing my mind. I thought: maybe all the drinking and antidepressants do something after all. I thought: I have had some sort of vision, and I don’t know what it means. I don’t know what anything means.

I walked back to the house. Everyone was getting ready for the beach, swimsuits, towels, bottles of water, coconut-scented sunblock. I got ready, too.


Now I know where all the sadness came from. I know what made that big hole inside me. I won’t tell you, here, though, because this is a story about then. Then I knew nothing, just that I couldn’t do anything right. I always made the choice towards chaos. It didn’t even feel like a choice, then. I’ve since learned to catch the tail end of the bad feelings, to pull them back, to look them in the eye and demand to know where they came from so I can close off the entrance. But that wasn’t how it was then.

On the beach that day, I met some older guys. They wore old swim trunks, some of them in cut-off jeans, instead. They smoked cigarettes, and had sangria in a big cooler. They offered me some, and I sat with them for a while, chewing boozy fruit and spitting rinds discretely into my red solo cup. 

They lived down the block, they said. Well, one of them told me this—a tall, skinny boy in grimy Adidas shorts whose white stripes had turned grey. He had a buzzcut and a backwards baseball cap that did nothing to keep the sun out of his face. His name was Jacob, he said, looking at me through his sun-squinted eyes. He was a musician. He had over 3,000 connections on Friendster. 

I ditched my friends, my innocent-seeming high school friends, and joined Jacob and his friends for the afternoon. I could see the kids from my high school looking over to find me every now and then. I would smile at them, nod my safety towards them, then go back to my solo cup and Jacob’s crew. By the time the sun was sinking behind us and darkness was rising up over the water, I was dehydrated from the brandy-laced wine, spinning. Jacob asked if I needed help getting home. When I said no, he said, “Okay. But you should come by later, tonight. We’re having a party. Bring some of your friends.”

After we took our sun-drunk naps, I picked out my high school friends who were most likely to come along—the girls with the limp hair and the poorly put-on makeup, who didn’t care that Jacob and his friends lived in a grungy apartment building that rested on the bay and smelled of stagnant sea water and mildew. We made our way down the main road that cut through the two sides we knew of the small town—the oceanside and the bayside. We jumped on a bus that only cost a dollar when we got sick of walking in the heat. 

The party had already started when we got there, and boys Jacob’s age (I had gotten from him that he was in his early 20s) were milling around with more red solo cups. There was a beer pong table in the backyard, between the building and the water. The building itself was old, its wood grey and weathered from season after season of sun and saltwater. When we wandered in and out of apartments with the boys, they were old too, and dirty at the baseboards, grime driven deep into the linoleum tiles on the floor. They seemed like paradise. Jacob found me, showed me around, told me that the whole building was owned by a guy who lived in one of the apartments, was friends with all of them, and was lax about collecting rent. His parents had invested in the building for him, so he didn’t care. He just liked hosting a party every night. 

 Jacob took me to his room and picked up his guitar. He wrote his own songs, his own lyrics, he said. He used to be a poet, when he was younger, but learned how to sing and play. He picked out a few notes and began singing to me. His sandy buzzcut shone like a halo under the harsh overhead light. His songs were about sadness, addiction, loss. Some of his friends heard him playing, filtered in, asked him to play covers: Pink Floyd, Neil Young, The Grateful Dead. He switched gears seamlessly and soon everyone was singing along, drinking, laughing. His roommate came in, one of my friends from high school trailing just behind him. He was older than Jacob, it seemed, taller and skinnier, his teeth worse, his clothes more stained and moth-eaten, but magnetic all the same. The boys from the house came and went. When Jacob and his roommate and my friend were alone in his apartment, he put down his guitar and kissed me. Kissing him back seemed like the right thing to do. As the overhead light disappeared from his proximity to me, and made the edges of his buzzcut shine again, I closed my eyes.

In the top bunk of his and his roommate’s bedroom that night, we talked in the dark. My friends had all left, gone back to our rented house. I stayed. Jacob told me that a lot of them—him and his roommate especially—were trying to start life over. They had done and seen and been some bad things in the past. The house was a party house, yes, but they had a solemn pact with everyone there to keep the hard drugs out—crack and meth and heroin and all the things they’d taken in the rural towns of their youth. I felt a kinship to him, then. I told him about my own troubles. I would like to start over, too.

“You should stay,” he said. “Stay with me.”

A week later, when my friends packed up and went back home, I called my mother to say that I had found a way that life could be new, a fresh start. She cried.

“How old is he?” she asked.

“Twenty-one,” I said. It wasn’t a lie, like when I introduced her to my boyfriends in their thirties.

“At least there’s that,” she said. She wanted to believe me, whether it was true or not. She had to.


We spent days on the beach, sun-drunk and salt-water washed. Our hair grew thick and our skin grew deeply golden. I found a job, and at night I worked, a clerk in an irreverent souvenir shop. The manager thought my dry sense of humor, that the bathing-suited patrons so rarely laughed at, was funny. I sold stickers and goth sand bottles full of little carved skulls, blacklight posters and indie CDs. 

We dropped acid once, twice, three times. We took macro doses of mushrooms, not even then knowing that micro doses were a thing that could be done. Jacob and I walked on the beach one early morning, before the sun had come up. We held hands like we always did. We had settled into a routine: we worked, we spent days in the sun, we fucked at night, we gave each other space when we needed it. He was trying to record a demo. He was always on Friendster, uploading his tracks. He wrote lyrics in notebooks, strumming away until the melodies became apparent, noted them above the words. He was gentle, really. He never hit me, and he didn’t want me hurting myself. That wasn’t something I’d always had.

Walking down the beach, we fell into a rhythm of foot and after foot in the sand, not talking, not knowing where we were going. We couldn’t get lost on the long straight strip of the shoreline—all we ever had to do was turn around and go back. 

 In my hallucinogenic-tinted eyes, the dark sea swirled. Curlicues of color came up from each crash of a wave. Jacob’s face, in the darkness, looked angelic and demonic in turns. His hand in mine was sweaty. After we walked and walked more, we sat in the sand. I had no idea what time it was, what day it was. We’d been awake all night, first in the swirl of the party at the house, then alone. Our dingy apartment, with its stained linoleum floors and messy kitchen and its hot plate, seemed lightyears away by the time we sat down.

“It’s better, right?” he said. “Better than before? Better than home?”

“It’s like paradise,” I said. It was July by then; I’d been there almost three months. Even my dumb job, even the tourists and the kids who came in and out of it, were okay. At the end of last month, we’d blown our rent money going out, just once, to the fanciest restaurant we could find—not the french fry and burger places we normally ate from. We sat in a dim-lit patio in our old clothes while families who had a lot more money than us looked at ease. We drank wine and pretended that this was our life, fooling no one. After, we went to another place and drank liquor-laced slushies in inner tubes off their dock. I didn’t think, often, about what would happen when summer ended, when the town became haunted by cold winds and absence. I never thought about the future, not then, and how my present moment being good—without hard drugs, without violent and controlling partners—was more than I’d expected.  

The sky started growing lighter, at first just a tint of washed-out blue just above the line of the ocean. The blue faded to pale yellow, and the crown of the sun began to peek above the waves. It was the brightest thing I’d ever seen, and as it inched up the sky, I swore I saw something around it, cradling it. A set of hands. I blinked away my fading hallucinations, but they were still there, gentle hands on either side. 

As the sun rose, she appeared. I hadn’t seen her since that first day at the beach, when I’d stepped out of a car with people my age who seemed so much younger, who I hadn’t really even said goodbye to when they left. I thought about them then, for the first time in a while, my high school friends, having summer-night parties back home, getting ready to go on to college in the fall. But my thoughts of my old friends disappeared as the woman appeared on the horizon.

She was as resplendent as that first time I had seen her. Appearing bit by bit as the sun did, first her arms, then her glowing face, then her body covered in its shimmering robes. I wondered about her, this woman who seemed to make the sun rise. Was she caught in its path? Did she feel chained to this act of beauty? Did she have any choice but to pull the sun around the sky, day after day? Did it begin to feel like prison to bring light to the world?

“Do you see her?” I said to Jacob, who was also staring, pupils wide, at the horizon.

“The sunrise is so beautiful,” he replied. He stood and walked towards the water, wading waist deep, his old cut-offs soaking up the lapping waves. He stood there as she rose at the edge of the sea. He was surrounded in swirls of color, in my eyes. The sunrise queen smiled down at him before launching the sun cleanly into the sky and disappearing.


Our house swirled around us. There was always a party, always late-night walks to the beach, always alcohol and soft drugs. A neighbor got an STD and another neighbor who slept with the same girl got the same one a few days later. We set up a stick-and-poke tattoo shop in someone’s kitchen, and after practicing on everyone in the house, we started selling them to tourists who came by for parties. A boy got head lice, then his roommate did, then we all did. We had spent all our money on beer and mushrooms, and so we put mayonnaise and plastic bags on our hair for a whole day to smother them. It worked. 

Sometimes, when I was very drunk, I would start to cry. I didn’t know why. I was happy, I thought. I would talk to Jacob, and only Jacob, about the sunrise queen. He hadn’t seen her that night, didn’t know what I was talking about. He would smooth my hair and say, “It’s okay, babe. You were tripping.” But I knew what I had seen.

The wind started blowing, late at night, off the water, through the cracks in the house, over the dying grass in our bay-side backyard. Fall was coming. Summer was ending. My manager cut my hours at work. Jacob’s did, too. Soon we would get fired. Soon there would be no tourists, no walks on the beach, no mornings in the sun. Neighbors started to leave, to go back home, to go to a beach town further south. Jacob and I didn’t talk about what we would do. We didn’t think about the future, even though the future was pressing up against us. 

One late night, Jacob asked me to take his video camera and film him down on the beach. He wanted to make a music video. He wanted to be wind-swept and sand-speckled in it. It was late at night, we were drunk. Our neighbors had turned in for the night. We walked out to the water.

We took the video over and over. The night became short, then ended. The sun started to come up. I looked to it, away from the tiny screen reflected from the lens I had trained on Jacob as he sang and played. I saw her hands again, her fingers underneath the orb of the sun.

“Look, baby, look,” I said, turning the camera towards the sunrise and the woman who made it so.

He saw her then, too. “What is she?” he asked.

“She makes the sun come up,” I said. “Every day. Don’t you think she gets tired of it?” Her robes were shining, melding with the sea.

When the orb was in the sky, we watched, quietly in awe, as she walked over the water towards us. Her face was more serene than the ocean with its crashing waves. She grew taller as she came closer; she had seemed so small at the horizon, and now she towered over us. We shook as she came nearer to us. As she stood at the shore, just a few feet away, she bent down and looked into our eyes. She raised a hand to her lips, silencing us, and disappeared.

We didn’t sleep until an hour or so later, after Jacob had downloaded the video of his song onto his computer and uploaded it to Friendster. It was the perfect video, he said. No one would believe it, and they didn’t even have to. We had captured some kind of magic, and he was going to share that magic with the world, attached to his songs. It was perfect.

After the video was online, we crawled into our messy bed. We hadn’t washed the sheets at all, that I could remember, since I’d been there. The bottom bunk was empty. Jacob’s roommate had gone one night, in a car, and never came back, calling only once every few weeks to say he was okay.


We woke up when the sun was already down. We had both missed our alarms, if we’d even set them, and there were two messages on our machine that said the same thing: you didn’t come in today, so don’t bother coming in tomorrow. 

I laid in bed while Jacob played the messages. I stared at the ceiling, the cobwebs in the corners. 

“They tell you over and over at rehab,” I spoke to the expanse of greying white, “that insanity is doing the same thing time and time again and expecting different results. Do you think the sunrise queen gets tired? How do you think she keeps making the sun rise on all this shit, every day?”

Jacob didn’t answer. Maybe he hadn’t heard. Maybe I hadn’t been talking to him, anyway. He was sitting at his desk, at his old computer. 

“Holy shit, babe,” he said. “Fuck work. Fuck our jobs. Our video’s been shared thousands of times.”

I climbed down from the bed. There were empty takeout containers everywhere; we hadn’t bothered to take out the garbage that week. The remnants of Kraft Mac and Cheese were glued to the bottom of a pot on the hotplate. I wasn’t hungry, anyway.

I got in front of the computer with Jacob, the two of us sharing one seat. He pulled up the video, watched it over, almost like he wanted to see it with all the eyes that had been on it.

The beginning was as I remembered it. Jacob, wind spiking his hair, his voice carrying off to the waves. I loved him, I think, even though I barely knew him. We alluded to our lives before, but we lived only the ones we were living. 

But when the sun came up, everything changed.

The video didn’t show us, then, we’d been behind the camera. But we ooh and awed and sounded like fools. We babbled about a queen walking on the water when there was nothing to be seen. The screen was empty but for the sunrise. There were no flowing robes, no shining face. And at the moment the sunrise queen walked from the edge of the water, in my memory, we turned the camera just a bit, saw an old woman in rags, homeless and wandering aimlessly, walking down the sand. Still we babbled and exclaimed. We sounded so foolish. The video had been shared, watched, laughed at thousands of times.

On the chair, we looked at each other. We looked around us. We saw the dirt, the grime, the life that had seemed like paradise just a few months before withering in the fall. We wondered, quietly, inside ourselves, where we would go next, how we would try one more time to start over.




Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer and transmasc person (they/them) who is the author of Transmutation, All City, and Psychopomps. Their work has appeared in New York Times, Washington Post, Tin House, Pacific Standard, Eater, Brevity, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and more. They are the recipient of grants and fellowships from PEN America, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and the winner of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award for 2022. Their novel All City was the first awards finalist by a transgender author in over 80 years of the Ohioana Book Awards. They formerly served as an assistant editor for Sundress Publications in Tennessee, and currently edit LGBTQIA+ non-fiction for Jessica Kingsley Publishers. DiFrancesco lives in Philadelphia and is the human companion of a middle-aged, ill-mannered Westie named Roxy Music, Dog of Doom. Photo by Christina Ramirez. 

Heather Crank is an award-winning visual artist and designer, who is equally comfortable and successful in the worlds of fine art and business. Her films have been showcased at the Guggenheim, SUPERNOVA Animation Festival, Meow Wolf, Night Lights Denver and RESFest, and her clients have included firms in the tech, motion picture, music, and educational spaces. Highly versatile and skilled, her specialties include motion design, and graphic design. Heather holds a BFA in graphic design from the California College of Arts, and is a recipient of the Adobe Achievement Award as well as a silver IDA. Follow Heather on Instagram and connect with her on LinkedIn.