This is part one of a short YA dystopian story (4k words total) that I submitted to one of Writer’s Digest’s short story contests. It’s about a girl who lives underground in a place called The Hive, and her friend, Sol, who takes her on a special birthday journey that she won’t soon forget.
Drip… Drip… Drip…
I know it’s morning by the pulse of dripping water, echoing deep within the cavern walls. Since I can’t see it for myself, I like to begin each day imagining the sight of a white-hot, toxic sun rising outside, the flare of its powerful rays heating the earth’s surface. I envision fingers of warmth trickling down into our cave system, slowly melting the ice that forms overnight. This steady dripping is the only natural way to tell that it’s a new day out there, since it’s too dangerous to go to the surface anymore, and we can’t waste precious batteries on things like clocks.
Then again, what does the separation of day and night really matter when it’s always cold and pitch black down here in the Hive? In the beginning, we all tried to keep to a regular day-night schedule, but over the years, most people gave up trying to differentiate between the hours and days.
For some reason, it’s important for me to keep track.
My roommates are still sleeping. I can hear soft snoring emanating from their bunks; so I move quietly as I tie my short hair into a messy stub of a ponytail and grope around for my clothes. I pull on a canvas jumpsuit – with multiple pockets and a clip for a portable emergency oxygen tank – and a pair of sturdy boots. The fabric feels rough against my calloused fingers, but these are clothes meant for warmth and easy movement; not style or comfort.
I flip open my switchblade with my right hand while the fingers of my left trace the rock wall near my bed, feeling for my notches. There they are, neatly lined up in groups consisting of four vertical lines; with a single diagonal slash through each; marking every 5th day.
I already know the significance of today, even before I carve a 5th notch into my latest stack with a gritty skritch.
My 17th birthday.
My hand sweeps over the entire mass of notches, a jagged roadmap of my teenage life; the first carving made on my 13th birthday, four years ago.
That’s when everything changed.
That’s when violent nuclear flashes forced us into darkness, sending us fleeing underground, away from the surface radiation.
That’s when I met Sol and fell in love for the first time.
I still remember his face in the sunlight – full, smirking lips and a tiny gap between his front teeth. Wide set, intelligent brown eyes, and a broad nose, framed by dark hair that curled up at the edges. He’s older now, and his voice has deepened, but I think I’ll always picture him the way I first saw him, under that golden light.
I hear footsteps approaching my room, barely audible through the thick stone wall; a unique shuffle that I’d recognize anywhere.
“’Seph?” Sol’s voice inquires softly from the other side of the door, accompanied by a polite knock.
I walk the six and a half steps required to get from my notched wall to the door, and twist the latch, pulling the heavy metal door open with a grating screech that vibrates through my body.
I can hear the familiar bustle of activity emanating from the Hive – people on their way to the dining hall, kids running and playing hide and seek, workers on their way to tend to the oxygen chambers or the greenhouses.
“Hey, Sol,” I greet him with our invented handshake – a brush of fingertips, a clap, a squeeze, a snap. I hear the subtle, moist sound of his lips parting over teeth as he grins, and I smile back. “Ready to head to the cafeteria?”
“I thought we’d do something different today,” he says, and I hear a lilt of playfulness in his voice. “Here, take this.”
I reach out and feel heavy straps placed into my palm, attached to the bulky weight of a backpack.
“What’s in here?” I ask, running my hands over the bag. I feel a burst of cold from a refrigerated pak buried in the bag and smell the pale, chalky scent of a dehydrated meal. “A picnic?” But the pack is filled with more than just food. It’s heavy, and I detect the faint clink of emergency oxygen tanks bumping together within one of the compartments.
Sol takes my hand and gives it a gentle tug. The surface of his palm is rough and warm, as familiar as an old blanket. “Just come with me.” I kick the door shut behind me and let him lead me away, both curious and intrigued.
© 2012 Tania del Rio
This article was written by Tania