Authors: Kassy Tayler
What made Alex run? What was so different about today that made him think he would have a chance on his own? Did it have something to do with the seekers’ meeting? Had someone challenged his belief and he felt that he had to prove there was something outside the dome besides the flames?
The sky is blue …
How long had he been thinking about it? Was it planned? Where did he go? What part of the dome did he decide was the place to try? Did he tell anyone else his plans or was it an impetuous choice? My mind is jumbled, full of things I do not understand. I must not waver. I must be strong because everyone will want to know.
His mother’s lip trembles when I reach her. Her eyes are moist with the tears she does not want. “Is it true?”
All I can do is nod. I am afraid that if I give voice to the horror of his dying, she will somehow see it. It is tragic enough that he died. The thought of his body, burned as it was, should not be her last memory of her son.
She covers her face with her hands. My grandfather places his hands on my shoulders. His quiet strength warms me. I feel I should say something more but Alex’s last words are not something that she will understand at this time. Perhaps later, when the pain is not so raw. I look at his father. His body shakes and I realize he is fighting for control.
Alex’s mother raises her head and looks beyond me. She lifts her arm and points. “This is your fault!” She screams the words.
I turn and see Lucy walking slowly and tentatively down the ledge, as if she is no longer sure of her welcome. Her parents break away from the crowd and hurry up to her.
They had fought, Lucy and Alex. I’d witnessed it. Was that why he ran?
“It’s because of you that he tried to leave. You broke his heart. You said he wasn’t good enough, that you wanted more, that you wanted a life above.” Alex’s mother charges up the ramp and his father follows. I want to go to them because for some strange reason I feel that I am responsible for the pain she feels. My grandfather’s steady pressure keeps me in place.
Hands reach upward for Alex’s mother with each step she takes. Hands that want to soothe her and take away some of her grief. She will not have it. She pushes them away and does not stop until she gets to Lucy. Lucy seems small and delicate next to the raw emotion and I see why Alex loved her. I remember the way he looked at her and the wistfulness that came over his face when he mentioned her name. With her dark-as-night hair and pale skin, her beauty is ethereal. Her lashes are long and lush and as she blinks back the tears, I see that her eyes do not shine with the same intensity as mine. She works above and the time she’s spent in the light has made them fade.
Alex’s mother does not care about any of these things. She strikes Lucy’s cheek with her open hand and the slap of skin against skin echoes in the sudden silence of the cavern. Lucy puts her hand to her cheek, covering the large red welt left by the slap. “I’m sorry.” Her eyes glitter with tears. “I didn’t tell him to go.”
“Sorry doesn’t help him now.” The words are vehement and spat out as if they are bitter and rotten to the taste. Alex’s father wraps his arms around his wife and leads her away. Her sobs fill the cavern and the people shift uncomfortably as they disappear into their homes.
Once more all eyes are upon me. My grandfather nods his head and six men and women, Adam among them, break off from the group, all of them moving to a small cave across the stream. It is time for me to speak of Alex’s death. So much has happened and now Lucy’s words confuse me. She didn’t tell him to go, yet Alex did. What went wrong between them?
The rushing water of the stream fills my ears as we cross the narrow wooden bridge. If I fall in, where would it take me? The water courses under the thick rock walls and eventually joins the mighty river belowground, but where does it go after that? Does it eventually lead to the outside? I would be dead and drowned, long before I got to wherever it goes, but my body would move onward. The Bible speaks of the seas. It is something I cannot comprehend, but I am certain the river would go there. My thoughts flow as quickly as the stream, tumbling one upon the other until one thought alone comes forefront to my mind.
Will a boy ever look at me in the same way that Alex looked at Lucy?
The sky is blue …
There will be questions.
Silence greets me as I walk into the meeting with my grandfather. I know all of the people gathered there. They are our elders. They have been elected to represent the shiners’ dealings with the royals. But furthermore, they settle our disputes and keep shiner business private from the rest of our world. The last thing we want is the bluecoats among us. What is law above is not necessarily law below.
It is my first time in this cave that sits high on the wall opposite our home. No one is permitted to enter unless you are summoned. The series of stone steps that lead up to the entrance is always guarded to keep the curious away. The elders are seated in a circle upon a continuous bench of stone that is carved into the sides of the cave. I am not surprised to see another passageway that leads out. The most important rule for every shiner is to always have an escape route. Becoming trapped in a tunnel is a sentence for certain death. My grandfather leads me to the center of the circle, to a well-worn wooden stool, and I sit. A chill comes over me and I cross my arms in hopes that somehow it will warm me.
Is this how Alex felt? Is this why he ran? The elders’ eyes condemn me and I do not know why. They look at me as if I am responsible for what happened.
“What did you see?” Jasper, who is our leader, finally speaks. I tell them what I saw, from the moment I entered the promenade until Alex’s death.
“You saw him burned?” a woman, Mary, who is nearly as old as my grandfather asks.
Oh my God I saw him burned. I saw him after he’d been burned and he was still alive.
I know in my heart that the horror of it will never leave me. That it will haunt my dreams for the rest of my life. “I saw him after.” I am careful to keep my eyes upward and on their faces so they know I am telling the truth. “They carried him to the square after it happened.”
“He was still alive?” Hans, a council member, asks.
I close my eyes. I can still see Alex’s face, the skin gone, yet the pain etched upon what was left of him. I can still smell the charred flesh. I swallow and address my answer to the entire council. “Yes. He was still alive.”
“How do you know that he was still alive?” Adam asks. This is his first council meeting. Little did we know last night that he would be taking an active part so soon.
“He spoke.” He knew me. He knew what happened to him. He knew he was dying.
I see the doubt on their faces and hear it in the sudden rush of whispers that circles the room. All eyes return to Adam since he was the one who asked. It is up to him to continue. “What did he say?”
“‘The sky is blue.’”
“The sky is blue.” Adam repeats my, no, Alex’s words. His eyes dart around the room as if someone will have an answer. No one speaks so he continues, growing more secure as the elders give him leeway with his questions. “What does that mean?”
The last words spoken to me by the cadet creep into my mind.
Things are not always what they seem.
I open my mouth to share these words, but something inside me makes me stop. I look at my grandfather who sits in a position of honor at Jasper’s right. He is the eldest of the elders, yet he cannot speak as he is compromised by my involvement. I am nothing more than a witness. Should I be more? I can’t help but wonder about the seekers’ meeting that Alex called for this morning. What was said? Who went? What did they talk about? Was it the reason Alex decided to try?
“I don’t know.” I keep my eyes upon Adam as I speak, as I know I have nothing to hide. “I only know what he said.”
“Which path did he choose?” The question from Rosalyn, who is a few years older than Adam, comes before I finish.
I shake my head. “I don’t know.” I look at Adam. Did he go to the seekers’ meeting? Does he know something? If he does, shouldn’t he say so?
“Was it planned?” The questions come faster now, one tumbling upon another before I can give thought to my answers.
“Were others involved?”
“Did something go wrong?”
“Did someone betray him?”
“No. No. No.” I want to get up. I want to run away from the endless accusations. But more important, I want answers to
questions. They burst forth, unbidden.
“If Alex saw the sky, then he must have been outside.” The elders stop speaking as I give voice to the thing that has bothered me the most since it happened. “If the sky is blue, then what burned him? If the outside is flames, then wouldn’t the sky be the same color? Wouldn’t it be red like the fires? If Alex was out, then why did he come back in? If the bluecoats followed, then why did they not burn also?”
They look at me in shocked silence. Have they never thought of these things? Have they never wondered what it is like on the outside? Do they simply believe what they are told without question? If this is my future, then I do not want it. I need to know that there is something more out there, that there is a possibility of a better life for me, and if not me, then for the generations to come. There has to be more than this dome. If there isn’t, then why did we survive? Surely this is not the future those in the past wanted to preserve.
Finally Jasper speaks. “Bring Lucy,” he says. Hans goes to the entrance to summon Lucy. I don’t know what I am supposed to do. I stay where I am and look at the stone floor. I am too confused and too frightened to do otherwise. I know now that I spoke out of turn. I have no voice here. My fears and my questions are irrelevant to the elders. Finally my grandfather comes and touches my shoulder. I follow him to his seat and sit on the floor before him to wait.
Lucy enters with her head down. Her hair hides her face; still, I know she’s been crying. Is it because Alex is dead or because his mother embarrassed her? She sits on the stool and the questions begin.
“Why did Alex leave the dome?”
Lucy takes a deep breath. Her shoulders move upward and then slump downward. I watch her turn in upon herself, defeated before the battle is begun. “Because I told him I didn’t love him.” Her voice breaks on the words. “Because I don’t want to live below for the rest of my life.” She whispers as if she is afraid someone will hear her. “I don’t want to be a shiner’s wife.”
With her confession Lucy is no longer one of us. The elders will not go so far as to banish her; still, it will be as if they have. No man worth having will have her now. As pretty as she is, she’s a pariah. By rejecting Alex, who was one of the best and the brightest, she’s rejected them all. The same way I rejected James. Will he tell them? Will they look at me with disgust also?
“Did he say anything about running?”
Lucy shakes her head. “He said he would find a way for us to be together on the outside. That he would show me the sun and give me the world.”
I close my eyes as Lucy speaks. I can see Alex, proud, handsome, and always seeing the best in everyone and everything, including me. All he ever wanted was Lucy, and he was not good enough for her. Instead of getting angry, he tried harder to please her. So hard that he died, horribly. Was being in love with someone worth all that pain?
“You may go.” Jasper speaks for the elders. They do not look at her, but I do. She rises and she walks, but it seems strange, as if her body is not sure of the commands she gives it. She is distant, vacant, like the smoke that pours from the furnaces.
She looks down at me as she passes. “I desperately wanted him to be right,” she whispers. I barely hear her.
My grandfather touches my shoulder. It is time for me to go. I follow after Lucy. I need to talk to her, I want—no, I need—to know why. The guard at the entrance stops me. I recognize him as Lucy’s cousin, Abner, and his action is to protect her. I stand beside him and watch as she crosses the bridge. I can tell that she is already gone.
The ponies are blind.
They live their entire life underground in the tunnels. It is my job to take them from their stable, deep below the earth, and harness them to the carts. The carts move the coal from where it’s dug out of the earth to the shaft where it is sent above. At one time, long ago, there was talk of using steam engines to move the coal, but the shiners wouldn’t have it. The ponies are steadfast and faithful. They learn the route quickly and stop and go when they are told to. I love them with a fierce passion that surprises me at times. They know my scent and recognize the sound of my voice. They greet me with soft whickers and snuff me with their soft noses, in search of the treats I always keep in my pockets.
I did not sleep much after the council. My mind was full of everything that happened, and when I finally did fall asleep my dreams were disturbing and restless. There were images of Alex, blazing fire, and the cadet with the very blue eyes that became the sky. My grandfather had to shake me awake and I stumbled from my bed, still exhausted.
Things are not always what they seem …
We work twelve hours on and twelve hours off. Night or day has no impact on our body clocks as it is always dark where we live and work. My shift is during the nighttime hours. It has always been so, since I reached the age of thirteen and finished my education and started contributing to our society. I like working the night shift because when it is over I can go to the rooftops and watch the light from outside fill the dome.
The questions left from Alex’s death are still ever present in my mind. As I lead the string of ponies down into the mines I can’t stop thinking about it. Was there something I could have done to stop it? What was he thinking?
The tunnels are long and dark, with lamps placed at the intersections of each cross tunnel. The earlier tunnels used to hold tracks for the steam carts, but the trestles and iron of the rails are long gone, foraged among the years for different projects. The earth here smells fresh and damp as these tunnels are new. The ground beneath my feet is firmly packed from a large roller that is used as the tunnels are cut. The resulting dirt and rocks from each new cut are carted by the ponies to long exhausted deposits and the tunnels are filled in. Sometimes we send the dirt above, to replenish the gardens. The dome is like a well-oiled machine, each part serves a purpose, but lately I feel as if it’s about to break down because the pieces are old and weak.