Alana had her hand against her forehead to shadow the sun from her eyes as she scanned the landscape before her. A scarf was secured across her mouth and nose and perspiration showed on the long-sleeved shirt on her back. Clouds of dust were beginning to lift and swirl above the cracked earth.
“Alana, we need to hurry.” Lillette called from behind her, near the tunnel door.
She kept scanning the landscape. Mounds of trash in the distance looked like mountains and cast shadows just as large.
“Alana, a storm is coming. Don’t make me leave you behind.”
Alana shook her head and turned around with a huff of exasperation. Lillette’s hand was gripping the door handle with knuckles whiter than her pale face. She pulled the heavy metal door half open against the sand that was slumping against the raised entrance and slipped through the threshold. Inside, her shoulders relaxed and she let out a breath.
“I don’t understand why you want to go outside so much,” she said as she rested her back against the tunnel wall.
“And I don’t understand why you don’t want to breathe fresh air,” Alana took the scarf down from around her face and stamped the sand and dust from her feet.
“Fresh air?” Lillette stepped away from the wall. “That air outside is anything but fresh!” She pointed toward the door.
Alana shrugged and continued down the tunnel as it sloped deeper into the earth. The intense heat from outside followed them as they descended. Their leather boots crunched over leftover sand.
“Honestly, Alana,” Lillette started as she followed down the tunnel, “The outside world is dead, I don’t know why you can’t see that.”
Alana scrunched her nose but kept her mouth shut tightly. Soon, another door appeared in view, the end of the tunnel. Alana swung the door open and walked through it without waiting for Lisette, who let out a tiny pitiful cry and ran to catch the door before it closed. She was much more happy underground, like so many others of the colony.
Two guards, Jeremiah and Brotos, turned to see who was approaching through the tunnel. Alana nodded to them and passed through into the larger chamber. Three doors loomed in this larger chamber before them. She chose the one on the right and passed through another tunnel with two more guards on duty. As the door was closing to the chamber behind her, she heard Lisette talking to Brotos.
“I think the colony elders are going to be angry with her if she keeps going outside. We almost got caught in a sandstorm!”
Alana let the door shut. The colony’s bedchambers rooted off from here. The elders say that long before their own time they each person in the colony had their own chamber. Now, Alana shared hers with six other girls her age.She shouldered open the door and saw Emery and Ava sitting on their respective cots, chatting about something unimportant. They looked up as Alana opened the chest at the end of her own cot.
“So, Alana,” Emery sat up straight on her cot, “find anything alive outside lately?” Ava snickered.
“I mean, seriously. What’s up there anymore? Dirt? If you want animals go visit the cows at the farm.”
“They also have fruit trees!” The two girls laughed.
Alana paid them no mind as she took out a poncho and a full draw-string bag from the chest in front of her. She rolled them together and left the room, ignoring the girls who called after her. She continued down the hallway toward the end of the bedchambers, where the toilets were. The storage closet, overran with supplies long ago, sat next to the toilets like a lazy worm. She slipped inside while no one was in the hallway and picked her way over towers of linen, buckets of old boots, and boxes of bags full of crap.
In the back of the closet a ladder leaned against the wall. Alana moved it, revealing a ladder that led upwards into the ceiling. At the top she reached back down and maneuvered the ladder to hide the hole in the ceiling. She unrolled the pack and slipped the poncho over her head, drawing the hood to cover her head. Alana moved at a crouch along the bems in the ceiling. As a child she adventured every wall of the colony, learning its secrets and exposing the cobwebs. She had few friends, as none of the people in the colony shared her ideals. They were fine with hiding underground, like moles, waiting for the sun to die out unnoticed.
A stack of wood cut into branch-like strips stood hastily stacked next to a bucket of linen ripped into long strips of cloth. Alana took a piece of wood and wrapped a strip of cloth around it. Shuffling further along the ceiling sand had fallen into piles. Above her head was a small circular door. She gripped the handle and pulled, gritting her teeth against the weight of the sediment on top. When she broke through the surface, sand fell over her head, scattering on the ceiling like a shattered bowl.
Alana stood and pushed sand away with the wood before climbing out and closing the door. A gust of wind nearly knocked her to her feet. She held the hood tight to her head and steadied herself on her feet. There’s no wind in the tunnels, just flat ground, metal, and concrete. The sun had slipped below the horizon, giving the earth a moment to breathe before the intense heat returned.
Alana undid her pack and pulled out a tinderbox and flint. She lit the linen on the end of the wood and held it around the landscape. She had asked Lisette to help her move sand from the door earlier, thinking she would enjoy seeing the surface. She had been wrong. But now, when the sun was down and the long-rotting piles of garbage had melted and decayed, Alana crawled out of that hole underground in search of life.
Yesterday she went North again, so she stood and started Northeast. The colony was built into a valley, though the hills surrounding it had long eroded and turned to dry dirt once the trees died. Not even trunks were there to remind anyone of that time. She had searched this valley years ago, but the dunes changed weekly.
As Alana rounded a hill, her feet sinking into the sand, a gust of wind blew against her. Her poncho flapped in the wind. The higher she climbed the worse the air grew. It was heavy, and sat in her lungs like tar. An overwhelming smell met her at the top and before her weaved a river of garbage where she suspected water used to run. Any water that fell from the sky now burned the skin with a toxic ferocity.
She had made a bridge of sorts across the river of waste from years long forgotten. The people may be gone, but their decisions will die with this world. She continued straight, following the few stars that shined through the dust and film in the sky.
The silence of the night was a familiar sound, a welcome sound. The dim light from the torch in her left hand shone across the barren land that stretched forever before her. She listened to the wind and watched the shadows, but it was always the same. The only living soul was hers.
As Alana was trudging through the sand, her foot sunk into a hole. She fell forward, dropping the torch in the sand. Her leg had sunk into the sand and was being held captive. She let out an annoyed growl, “Probably a buried pile of shit and trash.” She said to herself, once again cursing her ancestors.
Alana pulled her leg and felt a long scratch form along her calf. She twisted on the side of the sinking hole and sat forward, swiping and digging the sand away with her hands. A yellow-white structure started to show as sand filtered through it. She stopped digging and touched it, feeling the coolness and smooth, but worn, surface of it.
“What is it?” She carefully pulled her leg out and dug a larger hole, moving sand away with her body.
Alana reached into the shadow of the structure and felt around. There were many pieces here, curving and rounding and trying to fit together like a puzzle. Her fingers enclosed around one loose piece and she pulled it out of the hole her leg had created.
She gasped at the object in front of her. It curved lovely, tapering and widening at the ends. It was smooth to the touch but weathered with age. A bone.
She had never seen one in her life. The dead of the colony were used as fertilizer for their weak crops. She gently placed it beside her and reached back into the hole with a new ambition. A few more loose bones were resting on the bottom, cushioned by sand. Alana stood and re-lit the torch, sticking it upright in the sand for better sight. Her bag made a lousy spade, but it would have to do to get the rest of the skeleton unearthed.
She ignored the tiredness from lack of sleep and spent energy as the torch burned lower. Alana stood in a large hole, in the ribcage of an animal skeleton as the sun peeked over the horizon. She stood in awe and shock and felt a twinge of sadness in her chest when she had to pull herself out of the hole before the brutality of the sun arrived.
Alana returned to her hidden tunnel entrance with a new-found happiness. She would be back tonight.
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Wow! This was an amazing story. I love how you invented a whole new world and described it so vividly. Alana really came alive--you wrote an amazing character. I'm from the critique circle, so I guess some critique: a lot of your sentences near the middle started with "Alana." "Alana did this." "Alana did that." "Alana walked here." "Alana walked there." I don't know if you were going for a more weary effect but I feel like it would be all-the-more powerful if you varied it up a bit. It would engage the reader a lot more. Outside of t...
Hey Meggy, Thanks for the feedback! It's something I've been trying to notice in my own writing, sometimes if the sentences start the same it just takes you out of the story a bit. Thanks for the read!
Thank you for being so receptive!