I’m running. I’m running as fast as I’ve ever run in my life.
I don’t exactly know why, except that the last gong sounded and I didn’t make it back home in time. So now I’m left out here. ‘Here’ is a place I’ve been so many times I know every crack in the road; but I’ve never been left out at night, and the fear that strikes me is too raw to think through.
So I run.
My feet lead me while my mind frantically thinks of all the stories I’ve been told. All the reason’s why I am supposed to be back in the bunker—safe for the night—and all the other people who didn’t make it back and were never seen again.
It’s been raining, which isn’t that odd except that it’s been raining more than usual and the road is slippery. I’m going too fast and too carelessly and I slip.
My legs slide away from me and before I can scrabble for purchase I’m on the ground. My hands sink into mud, and so do my knees and everywhere is covered in the thick sludge that coats the road. The chain around my neck slips out from my shirt. Dog tags swing loose, splattering down into the mud
Somehow that breaks through the haze of panic. I push myself up onto my knees and wipe the mud off the tags. Conner Anderson. My father’s name. My name.
I take a deep breath look myself over. I’m dirty, and I’m going to need new clothes if I have a hope of surviving the night—or at least somewhere warm to sleep. Winter is early and fierce and though I prefer the cold I’m no match for it outside on my own.
When my heart has stopped racing I stand. I recognise the area instantly and with relief. It’s a small street along the river with a narrow road. The houses are all useless to me. They’re in ruin, overgrown with moss and vines, and have been cleaned out of anything useful long ago. My interest is in the pathway alongside the river. Trees and bushes have become wild and tangled along one side, giving it plenty of cover, and I know from past explorations that the river is lined with tall brown reeds.
The sky is grey and dark. It takes me longer than usual to find the entrance and I gain several new scratches and bruises trying to push my way through in the wrong places. My heart begins to hammer again as my mind torments me with thoughts of being caught. By who or what I know not, but the thought alone is enough to feed fire to the fear coursing through me.
My only consolation is that once I’m within the little lane, anyone who doesn’t already know it’s there will likely walk straight passed it. Unless they come by river of course.
But I’m not thinking about that.
I walk slowly down the pathway. The concrete is old and cracked and mostly grown over with roots and grass. Which is good as it softens my footsteps. Still I tread lightly, conscious that any sound could attract attention or scare off potential food. I rub my stomach, which is grumbling as the panic wears off. Not only was I fool enough to get too far from the bunkers, I didn’t even have any food before leaving.
I curse softly and kick at a rock. Which was a pretty stupid thing to do because it skitters across the concrete, ricochets off into the reeds and plops into the water with a splash.
Wincing, I look around for any movement, any indication that there was something or someone around that had heard.
The only movement is by the reeds.
When I notice I go still. The reeds recede into murky water as brown as the plants themselves, so it’s hard to make anything out. Still, I know that somewhere within those reeds is a girl.
Her eyes are on me, I know. Probably since I first entered the small lane. With the realisation that she’s watching me the hairs on my arms stand up and there is a prickling on the back of my neck.
Peering hard into the plants I try to make her out, but like all the times before I can’t. She’s part of the surroundings in a way I cannot be; still, it’s my only hope, so I take a few cautious steps forward.
One foot sinks into the sludge that used to be water. It’s cold and sends shivers up my legs and through my spine. Wrapping my arms around myself, I keep going. I’m up to my knees in watery mud when a thought crosses my mind.
She might not want me there.
I glance around, wondering if she’s close. For some reason it’s never occurred to me to be afraid of her. Of course I know she’s dangerous, yet still the fear has never come.
Well, not until this moment at least. There’s a low sound to my left that makes me jump. It resembles something like a growl and I remember that she is wild. That she has always been wild and I am not. I’m just a boy from the bunkers with no family and few friends. Certainly no one who will come looking.
Suddenly I decide I might be better off back on dry land.
I edge back up to the concrete and huddle down by the trunk of a dying paperbark tree. Looking around I see the remnants of a few scraps I had brought her several days beforehand. The scraps are gone and all that’s left are the rags, piled in a little bundle near where I entered. I had walked right passed them.
Then a glimpse of red flashes on the edges of my sight. For a moment I think I’ve fallen asleep and this is a dream. I lick my lips and glance about, feeling twitchy. I push myself to my feet, wipe my hands on my already filthy clothes and stare.
My stomach swoops and I’m not sure if I’m excited or scared.
With slow disbelief I step forward once. The reeds are silent, and everything is so quiet I feel that time has stopped. That everything is waiting for…something. I walk forward and kneel.
Before me, clumsily planted in the ground near the rags, is a flower.
A bubble of laughter echoes through the trees. I clap a hand over my mouth and feel my eyes go wide. I stare about frantically. My thoughts race to the people who have gone missing before me. Daniel, Old Man Grey, Lucy. I close my eyes, trying to shake away the fear. It seems as if even the trees are holding their breath as I wait. The reeds sway gently in the wind.
After several beats of silence, in which my heart races, I relax.
The flower has been planted in a small mound of soggy dirt. The stem is thin, studded with little triangles that grow from it’s startling green core. The flower itself is small with little vibrant red petals curling inwards.
It is the most amazing thing I have ever seen. So colourful and bright, so lively. I had no idea something could look so beautiful. Of course I’ve seen pictures of flowers in faded old books, but never a real one.
I touch a petal and it bends easily. Hastily I withdraw my finger. It’s so delicate!
It has a sweet smell too, almost sickly sweet, but so unlike anything I’ve ever smelt before that I can’t help but breath it in. Wonderful!
Thinking of all the books I’ve read with pictures and words that are so hard to believe, it’s almost possible to imagine a time when there were fields of flowers like this one. Where trees had strong trunks of rich brown that stretched towards the sky, branches full of leaves of a thousand different greens. Where you could pass a person on the street and not be afraid. Even say hello! Where you could sleep in a comfy bed all of your very own. Where you could clean your clothes in a machine. And food! Food that was stacked upon hundreds and hundreds of shelves in a big building that you could take and eat right there!
The images won’t form though. They are blurry and tainted by the world I know is real.
Looking down at the flower, I wish I could have been born in a different time.
It’s the year 2137, sometime around June—if the weather is anything to go by. At least that’s what they tell me. I wouldn’t know. Some of the adults have clocks or watches that help them keep track of time. For me, time passes as the hunger grows, as the sun rises and sets and as the days get hotter and colder.
I’ve heard tell of seasons. Of months where it’s hot and the plants grow bright and colourful, and how storms come and go again afterwards, leaving blue skies that stretch endlessly over the horizon. The world was always changing.
In my whole life, seventeen years, the flower in this lane was the first change I have ever seen. My life has been full of grey skies and drizzling afternoons that are cold as the eyes of those that surround me. Everything is frozen in this dying world.
I sit near the flower, leaning back against a thin tree so I have a good view of the flower and the water edge. I pull my knees up to my chest, huddling into myself to preserve warmth.
It could have been moments or hours, but my eyes drift shut and it’s not until I jerk awake that I even realise I’ve been asleep.
Blinking blearily I sit up from my cramped position, only to be struck by the dim morning sun. Shock hits me. I survived the night.
Then I catch sight of her and I’m startled into proper wakefulness.
She’s sitting near the waters edge, dark matted hair wet and flat against her head, scrappy bits of clothing clinging to her thin frame.
I sit up fully, eager to move forward and look at her properly, though I don’t move any closer. I don’t know how she will react if I get too close, but I’ve never seen her properly before and cannot help but be curious.
She must have sensed my movement, as her head twitches towards me, like a dog’s ears twitching in response to a sound. I don’t know how she heard me, but suddenly her eyes are on me, and I’ve never seen eyes so blue.
My breath catches.
She’s still as she watches me. I’m not sure if she’s going to attack me or run away and I’m suddenly afraid.
Her head tilts and it’s such an innocent gesture that I relax. The flower is still beside me, looking a little sad and damp, and I shrug off my jumper and spread it across some leaves above the flower. Tying the sleeves to the branches to keep the makeshift shelter in place, I watch her, hands trembling, in case she decides to attack. Instead she stands and walks toward me a little, her head tilted curiously and her eyes focused on my hands.
I stop what I’m doing and watch. My body quivers, and an urge to run itches through my legs.
Her footsteps are light and sure, her every movement as smooth as a cat. Graceful, easy, wild, dangerous. She has lived out here her entire life. If I were to run, I would not get far before she caught me.
I can’t help but shrink back from her, and my thoughts stumble through my options. Everything I’ve ever read races through my mind, as useful as shorts in winter. I’ve been told time and again the importance of making it back to the bunkers before they shut, but no one has ever said what to do if you don’t.
A lump forms in my throat and my heart beats so hard I’m sure she can hear it.
She stops before me and crouches.
Blue eyes (such blue eyes) study me for several tense heart beats. She reaches out and I try not to flinch. I fail.
She hesitates, head tilting. Her lip curls, and the corners of her eyes crease and I realise she’s amused. The realisation is so unexpected that a laugh slips through my lips, high and hysterical.
She smiles, and takes hold of my arm and tugs. I let her pull me to my feet, though really it’s not like I have a choice.
‘Do you have a name?’ I ask as she leads me down the lane.
She glances back at me at the sound of my voice but looks away before I finish talking. She doesn’t answer. She doesn’t understand me.
The lane is long and winding but eventually comes back out onto the road. That surprises me. I’d never ventured far enough down the shrouded lane for fear of not hearing the gong.
I stop in the middle of the road, prompting her to look back at me curiously. I gaze down the street, in the opposite direction to where she’s leading me. Back there is the way to the bunker. It would be open now. I could go home. I could be safe.
But the girl is looking at me and there is something in her expression that seizes me.
I’m afraid; but I have always been afraid.
Besides, if I tried to go back, she might just drag me off anyway.
So I take a deep breath, I turn away from the bunker and safety and home, and let her lead me into the unknown.