When We Go
Our heartbeats pounded faster than our feet. The sound of snapping branches and labored breaths seemed impossibly loud compared to the tranquil forest blurring past. But making noise was a necessary risk through the thick woods and especially through vulnerable, open clearings; to stop running meant to die.
♣ ♣ ♣
Snip. Snip. Snip. Steel clippers shear through stem after stem as petite leaves fell onto the water below them. Their green shapes fluttered down with less grace than you’d expect, crashing upon the glass surface. Small ripples responded to their delicate touch, yet stillness returned and the leaves then would float peacefully acting as if we Gardeners hadn’t witnessed their clumsiness at all.
Snip. Snip. Snip. Anyone unfamiliar with that monotonous drone would go mad. The nursery air filled with its faint noise as dozens of hands clipped away in mute concentration. Some things required more focus than others, however blackberries, rose bushes–Plants such as those are a pain. But deep down I wished to be pricked by thorns. I longed to hold something as beautiful and elusive as a rose, even if it meant with bloody fingers. Instead I gathered spinach endlessly.
“Finish routine maintenance and you may change stations,” Mediators would say. But maintenance was a never-ending loop acknowledged only by their brief analyzing glances. Day after day, spinach leaves filled my old wicker basket as its fragrant green blossoms snapped under my fingers. Even when I scrubbed my hands raw, the cursed aroma stained them like dye.
Snip. The day’s last cuttings fluttered downward to disturb the stoic surface once more. I swept up each severed stem from the water. As I placed the handful atop an already leaning pile, I could hear the basket groan in boredom–or maybe in strain–as it struggled to contain what poured over its braided straw edges. As routine as spinach had become, I had to admire the emerald bundle nestled within its soft yellow bed like a cradled baby. So fragile and so essential. You don’t even taste that good.
Over time, resentment builds underneath these glass ceilings. Greenhouses sprang up everywhere, all for different reasons. But any food grown here ended up in rations, so even the poorest could be fed in trade for labor, like me. Despite the disgust projected onto us for being “leeches,” the wealthy, who detested rations still called the shots–always paying uncomfortably close attention to our efforts.
“I see you’ve completed your assignment,” stated a voice from above.
I searched from beneath my sunhat to meet eyes with a Mediator dressed in charcoal grey. He was quite triangular: broad shoulders which tapered into rather spindly legs; his sharp face could have been handsome if not for eyebrows thicker than thistle weeds. His demeanor was awkward too. A steel pen clicked repeatedly in one hand, ready to write on a beat-up clipboard clutched in the other.
“Yes sir,” I replied, raising myself off the cobblestone. Various head scarves and bonnets bowed between the tight rows of water beds around me, like blue jays searching for seeds.
The Mediator scribbled. “Name?”
“Eve Savet,” I said. “Eve Savet . . . Sir,” I carefully corrected.
There was a tense silence as he wrote each word with almost nervous strokes. Maybe he’s unsure if it’s spelled “Savet” or “Savay.” That was an optimistic thought. My calloused hands ran over one another as a sense of impatience deepened.
The pen finally clicked. He produced a stack of bound, green ration tickets from his pocket but held them awkwardly closer to himself rather than to me. I slipped them from his grasp with trepidation. What a creep.
A shrill scream ripped apart the calm nursery air. The unnatural noise retreated as unexpectedly as it had come, fading out like a fog. Confusion rather than fear consumed me. Women sometimes fussed over bees or shouted at beetles but I’d never heard something so sinister. A flock of finicky blue jays gathered amidst the centermost aisle, looking at one another and whispering in garbled phrases I couldn’t understand. Their light blue/green dresses melted into an indiscernible mass as they packed together. Another Mediator, bald and bear-like, strode towards the crowd shoving his way through the sea of skirts. Then nothing. Seconds disguised hours, and I thought maybe they’d drowned him.
When he finally reemerged, an unconscious Gardener was slung over his shoulder foaming rabidly at the mouth. The woman’s limbs convulsed as white, pupil-less eyes stared out at nothing. Even under his mountainous brawn, her wriggling figure looked barely manageable, like a slimy goldfish in a cat’s hungry claws. Breezy gasps began rising over the sound of shuffling fabric; a handful of blueberries were crushed between her dainty, spasming fingers. Bad berries?
“Don’t eat anything,” the rations man suddenly warned from behind me. The urgency in his voice snapped my attention back. His face was no longer awkward but conflicted. “Don’t eat anything. Run.”
“Run?” Fear finally brushed its spidery legs against my heart, but its fangs sank deep when he said nothing. Our eyes did not meet: whether the avoidance was of superiority or remorse was lost to me when he grabbed my precious yellow cradle, marching briskly in the opposite direction.
♣ ♣ ♣
The sunset engulfed everything in flames. Its fiery light reflected off buildings and streets, morphing walls into murals and puddles into pools of tangerine paint.
The world had become a Monet and the click of my boots echoed throughout its brush strokes.
My home sat patiently ahead. It’s recognizable silhouette guarded dense woods we were never allowed to go into as kids. As I reached for the brass doorknob, dull from generations of turning, it swung open to leave me reaching into blank space. Suddenly, Sona’s hand burned into my wrist.
“Chill out,” I snapped, “ I have our tickets right here.”
“No.” Her face was rigid. Terrified.
I noticed how utterly haggard she looked: puffy eyes, knotted black hair, bleeding ripped cuticles. Two carrying packs stuffed to the threads waited atop the kitchen counter.
“We’re leaving. Now,” she stated with resolve like a hatchet swing. My older sister picked up the pouches hectically and shoved one in my hands. “I accidentally overheard a conversation between Mediators. Something about arsenic and then a ‘clean-up’. I think the rationed food is poisoned.”
Don’t eat anything. Run. The scene of the woman convulsing, too brutally for her small size, replayed in a harsh loop. But the image of berries clutched in her hand became even clearer.
“Oh hell, you’re right.” I felt oblivious for not connecting the dots sooner. “Why?”
It took awhile for her to respond. She took her own cloak off a steel hanger shakily before surmising, “In their twisted reality . . . we’re inferior. Rationers, they ‘dirty the population’. Someone powerful must’ve decided we weren’t valuable enough, too filthy, to exist any longer.” She opened the door again, this time for us to leave. “If we don’t cash in, they’ll know and they’ll kill us anyway.”
Everything moved too fast. I couldn’t speak. Fear and disgust had sealed my lips. To kill your own people for aesthetics, it was unthinkable. Myths of such vileness plagued the ration lines like weeds, but never did I think it to be true. As her anxious hands guided me back over the threshold, I glanced into our dim home glowing with memories, knowing that’d be the last time I’d see it.
A Mediator weaponed with a menacing dagger appeared down the road. It raised like a cobra at the sight of our telling drawstring bags.
“ Stop!” he bellowed.
For the second time that day, I heard the word, ”Run.”
♣ ♣ ♣
The sound of snapping branches and labored breaths seemed impossibly loud compared to the tranquil forest blurring past. Twigs clawed at my cheeks, prompting whimpers to bud from my lips. But making noise was a necessary risk through the thick woods and especially through vulnerable clearings.
“Eve, hide!” Sona gasped.
Without waiting for a reaction of my own she shoved me into a mass of thick evergreen shrubs. I felt my skin tear under the stiff branches, but Sona crashed on top of me with a finger pressed to her lips. I forced my cries to thrash within my throat. No time for elegance. There was a facade of sturdiness within her almond eyes, an attempt to soothe my quivering breath; but in my heart I knew we shared the same terror.
A pair of burly combat boots crashed outside our den. I expected one of them to reach through and come down on my throat but he passed without pause. Footprints of crushed moss and leaves stayed behind like scars. Even as the sound faded away, my heart thundered in my ears. A few agonizing seconds passed without a sign of him. I searched Sona’s eyes for instruction, but she only shook her head pointing at herself.
“Stay, Button,” she whispered.
Mom used to call me that.
She turned over and crawled quietly back through the foliage.
Suddenly, I was alone. The silence felt threatening. I was concealed, yet the world felt as if it was screaming my name.
“Hey!” a deep voice shouted out in the distance, “Stop now or face termination!”
Oh, no. We were always taught to say “Yes, sir,” or a, “Deeply sorry, Mediator.” But instead of complacency, a cry of vicious resentment echoed through the trees and then a dull crack.
My feet moved without my permission. My legs already ached and my dress tore at the mercy of the forest, but a sense of fear pushed me towards the noise.
A patch of orange light peeked through thinning branches, open space meant no cover but I didn’t care. Pushing through, the trees stayed behind. Satin grass and shivering leaves rustled in the conducting breeze creating a soothing, yet eerie song. Where clearing once again gave into trees, stalks of foxglove bloomed tall and bright under looming oaks. Few birds sang from their branches in the dusk light.
Sona looked over and smiled at me weakly, “You’re gonna be ok,” she murmured in an almost dreamy voice, “finally.” Those eyes, usually so bright and wise, looked desperate for peace. A dripping rock hung loosely from her fingertips, before falling into the grass. It came down with a sickening wet thud as it landed on its victim.
I collapsed wordlessly. Happiness almost felt wrong but I couldn’t help feeling a flicker of guilty hope flare in my chest. “Sona where are we going? Being here at night isn’t safe.”
She grinned, “We’re going-” Sona abruptly cut off. Her pleasant face contorted into one of pain.
There was a dreadful pause.
Sona turned around with a gritted expression. A spot of crimson flowered slowly through the front of her shirt.
Amber eyes locked into mine: full of disbelief. “I’m sorry . . . ” she said. With the sudden strength of a dandelion, her hand reached out, but her weight swayed in the wind.
“Sona!” I shouted, scrambling to my feet. I reached for her as she collapsed limply into my chest.
The front of her grey top was already soaked with blood. “No no no,” I begged, lowering her head into my lap. A morbid contrast of long dark hair cascaded onto the bright grass.
Glassy eyes stared up at me, “I don’t wanna die,” she admitted through labored breaths. A weak hand raised to cover the bleeding as if it alone could stop it. A guttering cough rattled her body and dark crimson began seeping from the corner of her mouth.
“You’re not gonna die,” I reassured through building sobs, “you’re gonna be fine.”
The panic ten minutes before had felt overwhelming; now that was a clover in the shadow of a sequoia tree. Ripping a hanging scrap of my skirt, I pressed it into her wound with shaky hands. Sona only cried out in pain.
“I’m sorry!” I gasped through tears. A murky thought in the back of my mind insisted there was nothing I could do to save her. Part of me knew it was true.
“Eve, I’m sorry,” she murmured again, touching my hand with slick fingers, “I had to keep you safe . . . ” The serene clouds above reflected in her brassy
eyes. The color reminded me of home. They looked over at me and my heart wilted.
“Keep running,” she implored, looking over in the direction she wanted me to go. But her eyes never came back to meet mine. Her chest fell. Then silence.
“ So . . . ?” Hot blood pooled around my knees. “ Sona!” I screamed. But her face was blank, eyes staring. An awful unfamiliar pain tore through my chest. I pressed my forehead to hers, rocking back and forth as sobs turned to despaired wails that echoed pitifully through the dusk air. Wind whipped through the clearing as if to tear us apart. But I couldn’t let go. If I just held tight enough, cried hard enough, maybe she would wake up.
Please wake up.
♣ ♣ ♣
I carried her. What else was I supposed to do? I couldn’t let daisies bloom from her, while wasps burrowed in her decaying flesh. Sona deserved better than that. She deserved a whole valley alone.
Tears blurred my vision. More often than not, I was led by desperation rather than sight. I walked in the direction of her last gaze. As I carried her on my back like a child, sometimes I’d stumble and then collapse into the moss. She would fall too. I held back cries as I apologized weakly, grabbing those cold hands once again. Each time it felt harder to get up. Each time I looked at her empty face on the forest floor and it felt more like a nightmare. Yet, where Sona intended for us to go, we both deserved to see.
“We’re almost there.”
Alyssa Hammers has always felt the world possesses a hidden magic, one that we rarely feel except in literature. The written word shows us how mystical life truly is.