Teens & Young Adult Science Fiction

My hair is the softness and scratchiness I imagine grass to be from what I’ve read in books. I run my hand over my head for the fiftieth time today; I had it shaved off last month because of the lice outbreak. The boys and girls run around the cement room, jumping through each of the ten bunk beds, screaming and throwing pillows. They tap their heads on the low ceiling. One boy cries and cradles his elbow, others gathering around to console him. Normally I would stop the chaos. Normally I would calm the child. Normally I wouldn’t think about going outside, but it’s all I can think about.

Two girls throw fists at each other and I push them apart with my hands on their faces. “Stop!” I hiss. “It doesn’t matter! We leave tomorrow and you’re fighting about what? Nothing!”

The evening passes in slow motion; I count rucksacks and help the other bunk leaders fill the sacks with nonperishables and root vegetables; the scientists have grown food underground in the hydroponic system for the last forteen years. There are at least fifty sacks of potatoes. 

“Repopulate the planet!” one of my co-leaders of the left wing shouts and it bounces off the walls of the mud room. “Hey Thea, are you and your boyfriend going to bring on some little babies as soon as we’re outside?”

“Shut up, Matty,” I sigh.

“So you admit it, you and Zay are going to have babies?”

“Use your ears, idiot, did I admit anything?” I growl as I haul a heavy sack from the corner. “No, I didn’t.” 

Matty rolls his sickly blue eyes, his skin so pale he almost looks gray. It’s a contrast to my naturally olive skin, but Zay is the lucky one, he has skin the color of chocolate and doesn’t look at all ghostly in comparison to some of the kids. We’re all looking forward to meeting the sun. 

I toss a thick green coat to Matty. “Love from the scientists,” I say and recount the coats to make sure I have enough for the kids in my bunk. They’re worn with holes and stained with mud because they came from other children years ago, else they came from adults who died from the ineffective vaccine. The scientists say it’s cold outside, that we’ll need coats, but I don’t even remember what cold is.

“The scientists don’t love us. Why do you think they’re kicking us out?” Matty says and joins me to count coats for his own kids.

“Because we’ll die living in the Underground our whole lives. Have you learned nothing in history?”

“M’dear, the scientists only want to protect themselves. We haven’t had an in-person lesson in four years for a reason.”

I scoff; I hate it when he calls me that, probably because he’s a year older than me. “You only hate video lessons because you’re terrible at math.”

He smirks. Zay’s entrance is a welcome one. “Finding the best?” he asks, referring to the coats. We’ve got first pick because our kids have the best test scores in school. Zay’s eyes are like chocolate beans, glittering all the time. He barely spares Matty a glance while they dig through the same bag. Other bunk leaders enter and elbow each other to the coats, but by that time Zay and I are pushing our way against them. We walk down the dimly lit corridors, turning left, left, right, left, passed the cafeteria, passed the gym, passed the library, passed the entrance to the classrooms, and enter the left wing. Zay goes into his bunk, and I go into mine.

“Shut it!” Zay shouts so loudly from next door I can hear it over the hollering of my kids. I pull the mallet from my pocket -- a gift from Matty five years ago -- and bang it against a plate hanging on the wall. The ring reverberates in my ears and the children grow silent. Each of their faces turns to me, eyes and mouths wide open. They know the consequences of wreaking havoc. They also know things aren’t the same anymore. 

There are twenty of them. I’ve known each since they were infants, before the last of the adult civilians dropped to their knees from the virus, clutching at their throats until their last breath relieved them from the torture. West, Dion, Neveah, and Audrey are the youngest kids at ten years old. The oldest is Gabriella, four years younger than me and the one who always ensures I’m practicing my Spanish. Everyone had parents at some point, but they died when we were all so young that they took every ounce of heritage with them. We’ve blended into one culture: different personalities, different colors, but the same languages, the same purpose. 

I toss the coats to the kids, each coat chosen for each kid. Their bags are packed, nothing is laying around. They’re ready; I’m ready. They brush their teeth and use the toilet in the bathroom in our hall. I wait by the door outside my bunk while they return one by one, crawling into bed and whispering louder than usual. The walls are cement bricks and painted white. Matty stops in front of me, a few of his kids continuing down the hall, giggling over their shoulder as they watch us. 

 “Are you ready to go into the real world, Momma Bear?” he asks, a pout on his lips. “It’s what you’ve been waiting for since you were a little girl, right?”

“You have memories of the Outside. I don’t.”

He leans against the wall opposite of me. “Are we going to stick together when we’re out of here? Or will you and Zay run off into the sunset?” His hair is nearly white cut so short. 

Zay comes out of his bunk and glances from me to Matty, not moving from the doorway even as kids push passed him. “Leave,” I say. He does, though he drags his feet. Zay smiles and clasps my shoulder. When Zay smiles, it always feels like what I imagine the sun on my face to feel like. When Zay smiles, I know that we’re both ready for tomorrow. 

The kids shuffle all night long. They toss and turn and some talk in their sleep, shouting, “Stop!” or “Don’t open the door!” I drift in and out of sleep myself. Morning doesn’t come soon enough. 

Their rucksacks are clasped to their backs as we make our way to the left entrance. They walk in a single file line. Zay is in front of me, leading his own ducklings along. The kids wring their hands or play with the zippers on their new coats, otherwise hug the bags of potatoes to their chests. My boy Galo falls to the ground, a burly boy standing over him. In two steps I yank the kid away and shove him towards Matty.

“Keep your kids’ hands to themselves!” I hiss. Matty glares at me; he believes in fighting, and while I understand the concept, it’s too dangerous. It was ideas like this one that broke our friendship long ago. Zay still has a scar across his chest because of Matty’s barbaric opinions.  

Through the long mudroom, the door at the top of the stairs clicks. We know the scientists would be here to bid us goodbye if it was safe, but they don’t want to risk getting the virus. Anything outside won’t hurt us because we’re immune, but the scientists aren’t so lucky. 

The rest of the left wing lines up down the long corridor. Matty’s kids are next to mine, Zay’s kids in front of mine. We wait. They’re all here. The scientists don’t need to say anything; everything is in the packets that are buried in every bunk leaders’ bags. The metal door opens. The light is a blinding rectangle. The cold hits my face even from this far back. My heart is in my throat. I’ve waited for this moment my whole life, yet I’m regretting it. I want to run to the safety of my bunk, but I’m at the top of the chain now. Me and Zay and Matty. A world without adults is a fun world in the stories I read the kids at night. But it’s an aggrandized thought. Zay turns around. His smile fills me with warmth. He turns around and leads his kids out the door. I follow.  

It’s so bright I can’t see anything, but I follow the child in front of me. We march down a cement path, making our way onto a larger street with yellow lines down the middle. My eyes open further and I march my kids to walk parallel with Zay’s. Trees are on either side of us, brown and dead. The sun warms my face but the wind pushes through my coat. Soon grey and pink and yellow houses pop up on either side of us. It turns into businesses, run-down bakeries and hotdog stands with signs falling off the walls and ivy growing up them. It’s a ghost town of the pictures in our schoolbooks. It’s lonely and terrible and amazing wrapped up into one pretty bow. 

Before I walked through the doors of the Underground my very first day living there, my parents hugged me goodbye one last time. It's my only memory of them. Both of them holding me like they would always be there for me, like they would always love me, protect me, hold on forever. That's what the sun feels like.

March 12, 2021 20:59

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