It’s not her fault; she told me not to go. I’ve only seen pictures of trees and blue skies. All the screens in the hallways, projecting something that we’ve lost. I can’t stand it anymore - living underground in metal rooms and recycled air and only the stories of the elders to keep the memory of the time we lived above ground alive.
It’s not her fault; she told me not to go. My mother, always with the worried look and the asthmatic cough we all have from breathing filtered air our whole lives. But I’m tired - I have to know. I have to see for myself where the ladders lead and why the suited workers who climb them come back down covered in dust. They all start to smell of death before they’ve even reached 30 years. I once asked her why they go above at all; she described it as penance for crimes. Above ground, we used to have prisons. But we don’t have that luxury here - we just have people we punish. Every punishment is now the death penalty. How justice used to be is not something the elders like to talk about. They swallow too much when they tell those sorts of stories - I think the present is hard for them to stomach. It’s too hard for a lot of us to stomach.
The elders, the ones who grew up above the ground - some of them are over a hundred years old. But now that all the children are born and grown in these underground rooms, we only live to 45 or 50. I think that’s most of my mother’s worried look - she knows it’s almost time for her, and when she looks at me it seems like that’s all she sees.
The elders, the ones who grew up above ground, tell us about the last days the skies were still blue and the water ran clear. Their stories are now our oral traditions, but none of us will ever know what was true and what wasn’t, because all we have are the daylight rooms and the hallways full of projections of a nature we don’t know. We are forgetting, because most of us have nothing to remember. I have nothing to know or to forget, and I am only something that exists in a non-existence. I can’t stay here.
I’m tired of the stories and the metal rooms and the recycled air and knowing there is nothing else for me besides being assigned a profession next year, when I turn 18, where I will be just one part of an unnatural machine that unnaturally supports unnatural life. I need to know.
It isn't her fault.
The hallways say it’s night. I saw all the suited men come back down the ladders just moments ago, so I know all the families are in their pods. No one is allowed in the halls when night is announced. Law and order. My mother has finally fallen asleep, so I quietly slide our pod door open and closed, making as little noise as possible. And then I find myself running to the ladder at the end of the hall, and as I climb it there is something here in my chest, in my heart, that knows I’ll never see her again. I’m about to give myself the death sentence.
As soon as I open the hatch, the alarms ring loud, and that awful mechanical voice that calls us to dinner and calls us to bed is now calling to tell us the hatch has been opened without permission. So I run, and in the darkness I can’t see. But the time to look is later; so I run until I can’t see the light from the open hatch anymore, because it means they can’t see me. With my eyes adjusting to the darkness, all I see around me are crumbling boulders and a dusty ground. Now that I’ve stopped running, I’m starting to realize how hard it is to catch my breath out here. Maybe there is nothing worth seeing. Maybe I have doomed myself for nothing. No, I’ll wait until the morning to make any conclusions. Who knows what daylight will bring, besides the answers to whether or not the stories the elders tell are even true. So, still panting, I sit myself against one of the boulders and try to sleep, wondering if I’ll ever wake up, but not really caring.
We are less than we know.
Opening my eyes hurts. The light around me is so bright I don’t know if I’ll actually be able to bring anything to focus.
Within what may have been a few minutes or several hours of me wondering what exactly it was that I had done, my surroundings began to come into focus. But it wasn’t the hallways. There were no trees and the sky was the color of rust. There are no clouds and the air smells like metal.
The worst part- the worst part is that it is SILENT. The elders said there were animals, seen and hidden, in the dust fields that used to be forests. We didn’t have their sounds, but they used to tell us about these small, flying rats called birds, and wet toads who sang songs at night. Dogs that yelled and cried, and other flying rats- a smarter kind, who asked “WHO” throughout the whole night. They never got an answer.
There is nothing. In the iron light of day. I thought about shining a light through a blood slide and wondering why it had cracked when it dried. And, to be honest, being out here alone in a light that felt like burning, and a brightness so intense that it’s actually dark, it’s almost overwhelming. All there is is sepia and red. All there is are shades of blood at varying levels of degrade. The ground and the sky are bleeding.
Coughing, I start to realize why we live below. I start to wonder how long the cough can last before it’s blood, and how long the blood lasts until it’s my insides. But it’s too late. And I’m not here to see the places we razed to the ground, the places we suffocated under our feet. I’m here for death and the end and the answer at the end of my favorite of all the fables the elders tell:
The Last Trees.
Ripping a sleeve off one arm of my shirt, I wrap the loose sleeve around my face as a filter. I am weak lungs from basement light and the air out here is filled with silt and anger. I walk. I walk for hours, until the bright orange-white that reflects off of all the boulders abates and becomes the inverse of itself, low-lighting what it had all day highlighted.
I wonder if my mother knows. I wonder if she’s trying to find where I’ve gone. If she knows me, she won’t. If she knows me, she’ll tell them not to bother looking for me, and she’ll understand why I hugged her yesterday.
The boulders. The only thing to see. The only sound to hear- wind spitting sand against their faces. The boulders. I have to take so many breaks, because every time I take a breath in it is heavy and filled with sand and dust.
If it’s the day after now, all I know the reason for is the time I was in the darkness again. But I keep losing time. I keep falling and I keep waking up hours… minutes….. days later? There is no time now, and there is no hallway and no mechanical voice and no quiet and no noise. And I forget my hair is soaked from sweat. And I forget my mother. I forget the cold, metal walls and I forget The Last Trees. It’s almost as if not just laying down to die is the most difficult decision I’ve ever made.
There is nothing left.
The story they tell us as we grow, when we get The Sadness and ask about above ground, it’s The Last Trees. It’s a saga of people who were made wrong and aliens who came to take minerals from our lands and an earth that turned red and toxic. But one stand of trees persisted. One stand of trees left colors we had forgotten and a smell of something that we all imagined as what “air” was supposed to be. They tell us about this last place, where clear water still ran in ground that wasn’t dead, and small things called flowers, that were made of color and sweet sap - they were there, too, along the water and along the feet of the trees. But the ones who took our freedoms and took the colors in the sky and made the air poison; they didn’t care about The Last Trees- to them they were just the last four or five ants left in a closed universe they had already destroyed. And we had all started our lives underground. But a few of us, the ones with blue eyes- they went to The Last Trees as their last home, and the legend is that that was where they stayed. There might be more of us and their lungs may have adapted, or absorbed the protection of the trees.
That was the legend.
In the end, I found them; they existed. Something from the underground was more than just an echo. In the end, I walked through The Last Trees, and I breathed the closest thing to real air that still exists. And I saw the filtered light of a dead sun through leaves that still remained green on their bottom sides. I have never truly seen the color green. And there was water. It looked as if something clean were enveloped by veins of corroded metal. But it was still clear. Kind of. In the end, there was the thing the elders called “grass” covering the ground, and the dirt was not dust, but mud. Everything was soft, and it all moved together as if it had the feelings it takes to strive to live.
So I followed the way the water flowed. And I saw the machines taking the earth somewhere above the canopy. And I saw the people who were just a little bit wrong - walking up and over a hill. So I followed them and the sun and the way the leaves tilted as they tried to survive, and I found the edge of the earth. Above me, death. Below me, death. All around me, something I had always lived but never experienced.
I was alone.
I am alone. And the edge of the earth is just a monumental cataract.
So I jumped.