The unbitten popsicle—as a miracle in the stasis of Irisia’s life—melts. Drips of grape syrup on her hand itch like ants, joyously waving goodbye to her teeth and tongue.
Irisia thinks the popsicle is happy, icy droplets parting ways with one another, simply because she is happy. Her legs charged with courage, slip through time, ready to complete a long-held mission. The world never seems like a place in which she can walk without being monitored, now she’s attempting to run in it.
Shards blossoming from her dreams are what sunrays look like as they cascade from the dome, three stories high—her neck craned to see—through thick glass and onto the concrete floor. Five feet ahead of Irisia, the shaft of light waits; and its surrounding shadows, sensing gravity shifting with a human’s presence, keep to themselves. Silence is interrupted by bird chirpings Irisia conjures up. With personal symphony encompassing her, Irisia brings the rapidly dissolving dessert to ready teeth. Ice crumbles in her mouth and sweetness flows into corners, just like how the light seeps into her pores even without contact: Irisia longs for the moment it touches her, so much so, the mere sight evokes tactile sensations. An intense heartbeat develops inside the mouth cavity, struggling to keep the teeth from joyous screaming.
Irisia is not supposed to be in the dome. But here she is. Licking the popsicle.
A few trots, kicking up twirling dust, bring Irisia to the edge of the light. She hesitates out of a preparedness pent-up in years and the surreality of the moment, but that culminates with her inching her toes inside the realm of greater senses—and indeed, heat slithers through the coarse material of her worn shoe, massages her foot. Her body thrums, yearning to feel what it has never felt but knows that it should—from ancestral instinct, from transcendental connection, from an intra-spatial knowing.
Irisia has never felt heat and light. The sun engulfed her ancestors, her grandparents, her parents. The words Miss Garrett drilled into them during History, now, interspersed among the dust around Irisia: “The old world is completely gone.”
Miss Garrett’s claw-like hand splayed on a horizontal plane, absorbed in her mime of the old world’s horrors, of charred fields, scorched up in flames, dried-up lakes and rivers, inundated continents. The teacher’s thin face scrunched up to a ball of paper written with devastation in human history, the terror, the trauma—Irisia remains undecided every time as she recalls, whether she is scared of Miss Garrett’s face telling those old tales, so agonized, or the content of it all, the implications delivered by those thin lips. Those lessons introduced weird consonants of “apocalypse,” “contingencies,” “risks,” into Irisia’s brain, buzzing and zooming into her ears like insolent bees, never flying far away from topics of heatwaves, climate change and global warming.
A shudder shoots through Irisia as she sees in her mind’s eye a flurry of motions explodes onto forbidden Level Nowt—Miss Garrett running up the stairs with Discipliners in tow, their batons raised, poised to swing down as they did when commotion occurs at the food line, and the teacher’s scrunched-up face accompanied by teeth clicking, her hand clasping onto Irisia’s wrist.
Irisia closes her eyes and pictures the luminescence above showering like friendly kisses, and not torches of reprimand. She pulls her entire body into the light, a stage light, and Irisia, an esteemed actress worthy of it; she hears the sun’s applause.
What remains little of the popsicle disintegrates like stardust upon celestial entry: Irisia and all her earthly possession tied to this underground compound feel like alien objects, now returning home, awash in the sun’s gutlessness.
Irisia chuckles as the irony comes to her, that the dome is used for christening and other assemblies demanding divine attention, that offspring of the destroyed peoples still worship the destroyer, and attach it to all things right, clean and beautiful. The sun has its own way of stroking our cheeks, making us feel safe, Irisia thinks, that others willfully ignore as it suits them.
Irisia, eleven, who once told Mr. Snyder to hurry up with fraction multiplication during Math class, who once volunteered for the yearly social fair that would tie all the Sectors together, and who once confessed to being the thief of an extra piece of bread because the teachers got madder by the second, believes in progress, initiation and facing things head on. Irisia hates running from things simply because they are supposed to be scary. Thus, when her one friend, Queenie—also her partner in crime inside this compound where crimes mean cheating a cup of coffee from the adult section in the cafeteria—refused to come along, Irisia felt a tear in their friendship.
She brings her face to the glass, upturned closed eyelids see sundry shapes of clouds; she hears the sun laughing in the playground that isn’t restrictive as to how many people can fit into it, she feels the sun caring for the carrots and cabbages that don’t taste like rainwater mixed with mud.
The hairs on her nape rise, out of a desperate need to disperse heat. For the first time in eleven years, Irisia stands still, and sweats. She welcomes this sensation. In the compound where heat can’t be afforded—humidity is perennially stable, surfaces kept at 25°C, both ensured by regulated ventilating system—sweating is as enjoyable as seeing your popsicle melting, racing against time and gravity to lick every drop before the ground claims it. Irisia is glad she chose this tank top, nylon with sporadic holes, last night.
Last night was tumultuous, with Queenie’s questions hanging in the empty air between their bunks, deterring Irisia’s resolve ever so slightly. Sitting cross-legged on their bunk bed in Community Section as opposed to Units Sector—where family units are—judgment mixed with concern on her face, Queenie dismissed Irisia’s proposal. Queenie deemed her overcompassionate friend’s talk loony and nonsensical, and her claim of “it’s just for a peek” disingenuous: why would two eleven-year-olds abandon order and disrupt it in finding something that almost obliterated the world? And if they did, what changes would they bring to the establishment, besides getting punished?
At which point, Queenie fidgeted in her neat covers and quilts and said, “We don’t have anyone else.” As if Irisia didn’t already have those words etched behind her eyelids.
“After all, your parents died during the final wave.” Queenie added.
Banishing Queenie out of her mind would be an act of foolish delusion—Irisia is always going to carry her friend inside of her. She will tell the sun all about Queenie. Eyeing the door embedded within the opposite concrete walls, monolithic except for the number one faintly printed across its sleek surface, Irisia breathes shakily. A few more steps away, this light will be hers to touch, like birds returning to nest after a day of learning to fly. Irisia never has a nest to return to.
Ever since Irisia hears of a before—a ripple-less normalcy before people in the old world realized the devastation at the end of their tunnels—this distant reality constructed by words is all that in her head. Irisia conjures up fantastical situations: her father’s hand, hairy and sallow, reaches for a remote control to change temperatures, and cool air floods out, or warm air when snow taps on the windowpanes; her mother, manicured fingers clicking away on a Sensor, which was called smart phone, and food would appear on the doorstep with a ring of the bell, sausages made from real ground meat, shrimps freshly-caught, hand-pulled noodles, little black balls floating in milk tea—all of which, conjured from faded images projected on the screen in class. But all of it is, of course, fantasy, as her parents’ world was already changing, day by day, before Irisia was born.
Irisia wonders if people in the old world had so much to eat their tongue tasted paper when met with pizza slices. She wants nothing more to sink her teeth into pepperoni made with real meat, on cheese that stretches and ketchup that spills to the side of her mouth; she wants slices after slices, in boxes upon boxes, stacked up higher than her head, and Irisia could order more and more, the bell would ring time and time again, and she would have more than enough to eat for a lifetime.
The door feels like a puny opponent as Irisia pulls her spine straighter. Waving at the sensor in the adjacent wall, Irisia puts the popsicle into the popped-out bin, then watches its journeying down the refuse processor. A sweaty palm against the cold surface, Irisia whips back to look at the dome, and the door she’s climbed through, and beyond which, spaces devoid of footsteps determined to take her away from the only chance of adventure.
A determined push, and a wisp of chilly air escapes. Irisia steps into a cavernous area of vegetation. Rows of crops in soil sprawl out in uniform strips, the air pervaded with the earth-like smell faintly resembling rainwater, as well as the tangy fragrance of overly ripened mangoes and tomatoes. The aromas manifests in patches of soil dotted with shades of overbearing and tyrannical yellows and reds screaming to be picked in time. The whole garden is enlivened by soft lights, invited by panels of skylights.
The lights have their own choreography, sways unknown to humans, as if tantalizingly playing hide and seek with the fruit; Irisia wonders if they would mind an added playmate. She surveys the area: there must be an exit that would bring her to the surface. Sure enough, across the garden, a rectangle indicative of a door, likewise unadorned, announcing its solemn duty. A plan swims to Irisia. She slips through the tiny door creak, doubling over in fear of discovery—there are sure to be farmers or monitors guarding the farm.
Seconds agonizingly crawl around Irisia, as her hands and knees maintain measured synchronicity. Thoughts wander and rebound in the greenhouse-like space; Irisia projects herself up onto the roof and adopts a bird’s eye view of her movement. She keeps imagining a stern, loud voice ringing across the farm to halt her, and she, a caterpillar caught in the act of nibbling off leaves, would be squished. Her fingernails caked with dirt, tank top sticking to her back with sweat as glue, forehead glistening like a beacon amidst dull shades of browns, Irisia is a butterfly in the making.
The arrival is unceremonious as Irisia’s head bumps into a hard edge. Her hands tracing the hard edges of a corner, she stands sheepishly, relaxing one muscle at a time. The door is likewise only slightly taller than Irisia, but this time she can’t help sensing a wave of fear, infected by the ominous aura of the cold concrete slab, suddenly looming over; because once outside, all her dreams might come true, or all her dreams might burst into nothingness, like films of soap on the ground, trodden by millions of feet.
Breaths heaving from her lungs, a thin film of mist in front of her eyes, Irisia pushes the door. Her breath evaporates as the blinding white outside floods in.
The slit becomes a crack, and incoming is the sun’s enthusiastic embrace, Irisia’s eyes and the tip of her nose immersed in its arms.
Irisia puts her toes out, the previous sensation as when Irisia greeted light in the dome, intensifies. The heat warms her heart as it melts her skin. Her eyes wide on the ground, shades of concrete burning intensely yellow, Irisia dares not gaze up; she raises her eyes steadily, one inch at a time.
Irisia raises her hand, an index finger erect like a frontier fighter holding up swords, spears, or shields. Irisia puts her finger out.
The sun is a fairy tale, and Irisia the princess, the prince, the queen, the breadcrumbs, the frog, the dragon—whatever the flaming orb wants her to be, as long as she is part of its story. If make-believe is childish, then the overbearing reality in front of Irisia grants her wisdom hitherto unheard of.
Irisia’s finger scorches, slithering red flames eating her pink flesh. Pain snarls its teeth like it’s been locked away for a lifetime and now unleashed, at long last allowed to return.
Her desire burns with the fire—Irisia wishes it would last. But a motion out in the field, distorted by the harsh light, black and long, obscures the beauty in the moment. Her body moves on its own accord, the black object her magnet. Face burning like yolk through the sizzling oil upon contact, running away and contained by the rim of the pan; likewise, Irisia stays half-shielded by the door.
Eyes straining through the stabbing and pulling of the beautiful orb overhead, invisibly invincible, and she sees, a stick-like figure out in the world. The stick—the figure has a body; a body of solid composition, a shape unmistakably, humanoid. Only, a thin transparent film sticks to every particle of that shape, distorting it further. Jolted awake, as if an electric current is sent from Irisia’s end to it, the shape moves. The human, as if answering every question muttered by Irisia’s quivering lips in all her terrifying purple dreams, extends a hand, and waves to her.
“Enough.” A voice rings behind her, clipped, slicing through the air.
Irisia knows that everything has ended at that moment, as a hand shoots out from behind her, and the door, a prison guard, takes away the sun, flailing and screaming, before the time is even up. Irisia still has so much to say. She feels herself, a bird observing from above again, flying back till she reaches the warm floor.
Irisia turns, faces Miss Garrett. And Queenie, her unmistakable brunette hair peeking from their teacher’s ghostly form.
“Now you know,” Miss Garrett’s lips, thin and red-lined, a solemn judge on the bench, delivered her life sentence, “why we live inside.” The woman points, steady finger a sword in the air, “And not out there.”
“You knew all along?” Irisia pushes herself from the ground, thinking about the uneventful journey from her room, up the winding staircase past classrooms and facilities, smooth sailing to the uppermost level Nowt. Queenie’s darting eyes slip behind Miss Garrett.
Irisia closes her eyes, fingertips rubbing furiously, the raised skins with blisters, tremors of pain emanating from them, comfort her.
“Yes, your friend informed us right after you had left, and Queenie’s done the right thing; maintaining the order of things.” Creases between Miss Garrett’s brows dangle like capsized quotation marks, questions darting inside her brain, quite unmasked.
A gesture of her hand unleashes a swarm of uniformed Discipliners and farmers file from the door at the end of the garden. Miss Garrett continues, “It is the only reason you got so far, we wanted you to understand, on your own, without our lecturing or forbidding.”
“I understand.” Irisia’s head whips back as she enters into the trap of Miss Garrett’s beckoning hand, turning into a tight grip on her wrist. Queenie trots along, eyes downcast, keeping her distance.
Irisia chuckles to think about at least one thing has been true—she said, “it’s just for a peek,” and one peek, indeed, is enough.
They walk down the straight paths between the patches of garden; Irisia feels a million eyes on her, yet her heart is steady. She knows, fingers tracing the crimson scars on the tips—the gift of the sun, the trace of her aspirations, the prize for being different, the possibility of surviving in the embrace of lovingly cruel sun—that the sun, and its every offspring, are out there waiting, beckoning for Irisia to come; and they will never disappear from her dreams, day and night.