Prompt: The Celebration | Word Count: 2,488 | Genre: Dystopian
Caleb stopped and stared at the path ahead, just a more solid shadow in the dark of the caves. The only illumination came from the light of the flashlights some people carried. They had found chemical reactions that would give them energy to charge the batteries of the flashlights, down here in the dark all these years. Caleb’s mouth made a thin line in his face. Next to him, his sister Eve flicked the switch of their flashlight on and off, making the darkness dance on her face.
Caleb shook his head. “Don’t do that. It’s not-.”
“Good for the battery.” She finished his sentence with one finally snap of the button, plunging the path just before them into darkness. Caleb could still imagine her smile answering his frown as she whispered, “But we’re almost there. Tomorrow we reach the end.”
His jaw tightened. Yes, tomorrow. Allegedly. They had been in this tunnel for almost thirty years, by his best estimate, so stories of escape made his eyebrows crawl. People talked about wind and light and trees and sky as far as you could see. Eve sucked on the stories like candy. She believed the old ones, when they said that this tunnel would open its mouth and spit their group onto the surface of the planet. Caleb couldn’t quite stomach the words.
He couldn’t deny that they were traveling up, though. He paused to wipe his face and neck with a rag. Eve snapped the flashlight back on and danced toward the sound of river racing next to the path. Her rhythm tugged Caleb forward, but he couldn’t hear the music she danced to. The water was a marching order to him.
Eve had been born on the path. Her skin was pale, her blood hiding beneath the surface. Her pupils were perpetually dilated. Caleb guessed his were by now, too, but Eve’s eyes still looked unnaturally wide to him. All the children born in the tunnels were like that.
Caleb had spent his first few years on the surface, but he carried no more than a dim memory of them. He closed his eyes, trying to see a yellow ball hanging in a blanket of blue that stretched as far as he could see. He remembered that it had hurt to look at the yellow thing, but he couldn’t feel the pain anymore. When he opened his eyes, the cave walls crowded his vision again. He saw Eve weaving towards a group of her friends, further down the river.
Caleb stayed where he was and stepped into the water. He hissed as he splashed it onto his arms and neck. He tried again to count backwards, to estimate the years that had passed down here somehow. He shook his head. It was impossible without a sun rising and setting. He could only guess, based on the gray hairs he sometimes pulled from his head, and the inches that Eve had gathered.
One of Caleb’s earliest true memories in the caves was of the death of their parents, just after Eve’s birth.
His throat closed, and he splashed back up onto the bank of the river. He ate dinner alone; not sure he could choke down food and talk of the surface at the same time. He could feel the chatter humming all around him. He hunched his shoulders up to his ears.
As their group of barely fifty people sprawled along the river to make camp, Eve found Caleb again. She sat in front of him, her knees gathered up to her chest. She waved the flashlight in his eyes. “So, Caleb. What is the first thing you want to do when we get to the surface?”
He sighed and scrubbed his hands over his face. “How could I possibly know, when I’ve never remotely experienced this before?”
Eve rolled her eyes and echoed his sigh. “It’s called imagination, Caleb. I’ve never been on the surface once, and I still know that I’m going to roll through the grass down the side of a hill.”
Caleb shook his head and refused to meet Eve’s eyes. Stories.
* * * * * * *
He rose early the next morning, before most of the camp stirred. He left Eve curled up under a blanket and went to help with breakfast. They always had fish, thanks to the breeding program they had started years ago, and the cages they dragged down the river with them. Their gardens traveled with them, too; generous plants that gave them nutrients without asking for much in the way of light.
“You look so gloomy.” A finger jabbed into Caleb’s ribs and he looked down at Martha. Her eyes sparkled in a nest of wrinkles. The darkness of the caves hadn’t been able to bleach the brown out of her skin or steal the smile from her lips.
He shrugged. “Don’t I always look this way, Miss Martha?”
“Well, of course you do. But this isn’t every other day, young man. This is the day we come to the end. Anyway, haven’t I told you not to call me ‘miss’?”
“Yes, Mama.” The untruth of the word stuck in Caleb’s throat, but it made Martha’s smile burst forth again.
“That’s a boy.” She reached up to pat his shoulder. “Isn’t Eve excited?”
Caleb bent and tugged a knife from his belt. He scraped it against the scales of a fish. “Of course, she is. Everyone is.”
“Everyone except you.”
He shrugged. “We’ve traveled a long way with no end.”
“And that means there can’t possibly be one?”
His gaze flicked up at her face. “Have you been this way before, Mama?”
She chuckled. “You were always so quick, child. Just like your true mama. You know it was her that figured how to grow those plants over there?” Marth gestured with her own knife, flicking scales onto Caleb’s cheek.
He rubbed his cheek on his shoulder and blinked. “Why would you come back to the tunnels, if you’ve already been this way?”
Now she shrugged. Caleb thought he saw one of her eyes wink, somewhere over the dimples in her cheeks. “Somebody has to show you all how to get there. And convince stubborn fool smart boys that there’s somewhere to get.”
He snorted and returned his full attention to his fish.
Martha did lead them, as the path in front of them grew lighter and lighter, until they could turn the flashlights off. Eve clutched Caleb’s arm, her eyes even larger than usual.
“Do you see that, Caleb, do you see it? Light.”
He nodded and clutched his flashlight so hard it bit into his hand. When even he had to admit he didn’t need it anymore, he thrust it into his pocket, followed by his hand, so Eve couldn’t see it shaking.
The light attacked their eyes, and the old ones tied rags around their faces and held out their hands to be led. None of the children of the tunnels hid their faces, though. Caleb could see, through his own tears, that Eve’s eyes had crumpled shut, and water streamed out of them. His breath caught in his chest and his stomach tossed and turned. She minced forward, ahead of him, holding her arms out to her sides for balance. Next to Caleb, a man collapsed with a groan and rolled into a ball.
Caleb bent to help the man, but someone touched his shoulder. Martha bent next to him, and she nodded after Eve. “Go. He’ll be fine; I’ll see to it myself.”
Caleb struggled to his feet. He walked through a curtain of brightness. On the other side of it, he heard Eve. “Come on, Caleb. We’re here. It’s real.”
“It hurts,” he answered, too soft for her to hear. Even his throat felt burned, seared by the light. When his closed his eyes, the backs of his eyelids were a bright, bright red.
He staggered into someone’s back and stopped. He rocked backward, and his body caught a rhythm that he had overlooked before. It sounded like drums, rising through the dirt he stood on. Water still leaked out of his eyes, crowding his vision. For a minute, everything was the same white-hot color as pain. He heard someone whoop. Then he saw Eve, waving. She rushed toward him, filling his view.
“Do you see it?” She clasped his hands and looked up at him.
Wind blew her hair back off her face, and he touched her cheek. His throat constricted. Her eyes stood out, like ink on a blank page, and the light seemed to shine through her pale skin. He had never seen her face like this before. He tasted saltwater in the corners of his mouth.
“You look just like our mother.”
Her lips twitched in a quieter smile. She rubbed the tears off his cheeks and cupped his face in her hands. “We made it, Caleb.”
He picked her up and swung her in a circle. She squealed, and he echoed her words in a shout. “We made it!”
He staggered to a stop and put Eve down, laughing. She pulled him deeper into the crowd. He recognized the people from the tunnel, but there were strangers, too, welcoming them. Figures stood out against the light like solid shadows. Some crouched in the grass, some stood still, just moving their legs in wonder. Others leapt and shouted and danced and laughed. Out of the corner of his eye, Caleb saw Eve dancing. Behind her, Martha swayed into view, clapping. Caleb heard the drums again, and squinted, looking for their source.
Martha grabbed his hand and swung him in a circle. He staggered, and Eve caught his other hand. Their chain grew as others stepped into it, then morphed into a circle. Martha let go of Caleb’s hands to clap, and it took him a minute to realize that he was stomping in rhythm with everyone else. Eve darted in the middle of the circle, twisting and bending, and marveled at how her dancing looked up here. He marveled at how everything looked up here.
They danced until Caleb’s clothes were soaked with sweat. He even let Martha pull him into the circle, to the laughter and cheering of everyone from their tribe. He could see the strangers, the surface-dwellers, on the edge of the circle. He recognized them by their indulgent smiles.
When the circle broke, they kept laughing, and sang their marching songs to new rhythms. Up here, without the walls, Caleb could finally hear the music in them. Someone passed him a cup of water, and, when it slid down his throat, the dark and cold reminded him of the cave. He choked on it.
The surface-dwellers offered them food they had never tasted before, and Caleb ate until he couldn’t eat any more. He sat next to a surface-dweller, Katie, and asked her questions between bites. She had only been on the surface for 528 days. He admired the exact number, and she blushed. He shook his head.
“No, it’s just, I’ve always wanted to count, but…”
She nodded, understanding. They watched the light around them fading, and it awed Caleb.
Katie gave him a tent, for him and Eve to stay in that night, but Eve didn’t want to leave the sky, even for a minute. She lay on her back with her arms crossed beneath her head and fell asleep that way. Caleb tried to stay out with her, but he couldn’t sleep with the wind chasing itself over his skin and the emptiness around him making him feel small. He crawled into the tent with a lump in his throat.
The celebrations lasted three days, and Caleb could count them because the sun rose and set in each one. It didn’t look exactly like he reminded from childhood, but it had been so many years. They stayed in the clearing where they had reached the surface, and the mouth of the tunnel yawned behind them. Caleb couldn’t look at it without the hair on the back of his neck standing up. By the end of the third day, he had to walk away from it.
He saw Martha leave the camp before he reached the last line of tents and people. She struck out across the land, to where the grass faded into dirt. Caleb lengthened his stride to follow her, glancing over his shoulder as he did. He hadn’t seen anyone leave the camp yet, but no one stopped him.
Within a few minutes he was panting, wiping sweat off his forehead. He was surprised at his weakness, after so many years of walking. He plodded on, ignoring the stitch in his side, trying to keep Martha in view. She never once looked back. He could have called to her, but now he was curious. He lost sight of her after she crested a hill, then started down the other side of it. He put on an extra burst of speed and staggered to a halt when he reached the top of the hill.
Martha stood next to something he recognized but didn’t want to acknowledge. A wall that reached up as far as he could see. She stood still. Waiting.
He trudged down the hill and made his way toward the wall. He stood in front of her with his hands in his pocket and his shoulders slumped. Martha put a hand on the clay of the wall.
“I had a feeling you would find this, sooner or late. I was hoping it would be later.”
Caleb didn’t realize he was clenching his jaw until he had to pry it open to force words out. “What is this?”
Martha stroked the wall. “The light here isn’t as bright as the sun, but isn’t it so much brighter than anything you ever saw before?”
Caleb stared at her. “So. ‘The end’ is just a bigger cave.”
Martha straightened. “A bigger cave, with better illumination. Food that more closely mimics that of the surface. Grass.” She took a step towards him. “All of the best of the ingenuity that’s kept us alive all these years. Powered by energy harnessed from chemical reactions we discovered just before the war.”
“Is there even a surface?” Caleb’s voice had deflated to a whisper.
Martha looked away from him for the first time. “I don’t know.” Her shoulders heaved in a sigh. “I’m content with this. It’s the only surface the young ones may ever know.” She glanced back at him. “You won’t tell Eve?”
He shook his head. “Of course not.” He jerked a shoulder to a panel on the wall, just above Martha’s head. “That controls the lights?”
She nodded and stepped aside. Caleb put a hand on the lever and stared to lower it. Martha put a hand over his.
“Not too fast. It’s bad for the battery.”
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