Authors: Brian Martinez
Keep moving. Get to the top and find a place to hide.
We go back into the Stairs and head up, opening the Door to each Floor to listen. They have numbers on them which I can read because they're the same as on the Watch. The Suit sticks to my Skin. I pull at it to let the Bastard Air cool me so I can breathe more Bastard Air in. The Building is tall and so are the Stairs. The Sun follows us all the way up.
It's amazing how quickly Child learns. Yesterday I didn't know Munies could talk at all, and now she's copying me, echoing my words, reacting. I can see her pushing herself. She doesn't know it but she's helping me, too. I've felt my words grow clearer the more I think them and speak them to her.
Clearer until now.
She looks down at me from the next Floor up with her big, pink eyes.
“I just need to rest for a minute.” I cough and feel the Stairs swirl under me like Water down the Sink. “Maybe two minutes,” I add.
She's right. Right now the first of the Munies are stirring in their nests with the Sun across their dirty eyelids. They'll stretch their stringy muscles and crawl out into the Streets with a Night's full of hunger in their bellies, hunting for the first Supplies of the Day. We were careful not to touch anything and leave a scent they could track, but it doesn't mean we should make voices and loud foot sounds.
Hold the rail. Keep steady. Breathe deep and take the Stairs one at a time.
Climbing again, Child stays ahead but keeps her eyes on me. The Bastard Air breathes in through the holes in the Suit and feels good on my Skin. I've never felt this way about the Suit before, felt it choking me. The Suit has been the most important thing in my life for so many years, but at this moment, I hate it.
“I can't make it.” My Knees knock against each other and my Hand shakes the Rail. My Head is so heavy I find myself looking at the Stair in front of me with a sound like Trees in my Ears, when their Leaves are frightened by the Voice of the Outside.
I don't hear Child come back down, but suddenly her face is blocking my view of the Stair.
“Can make it.”
“You don't know how this feels. You were too young when it happened to you. It's like walking through Fire.”
I squeeze my Eyes shut and the whole World shivers around me. I'm back in the rushing Water, drowning in the black that pulls me down into the nothing at the center of the Mountain. It's the Voice of the Death, a perfect hunter, a voice even Time is afraid of. Then, out of the dark, I feel a hand on my Face.
I open my Eyes.
“No fire.” It feels good, so I say it again.
She takes my Hand from the Rail. I find the next Step and then the next. She leads me the rest of the way.
The top Floor is one room but it has only one Desk that I can see from the Hall. It's a bigger Desk, though, a nicer Desk, like how the Munies give their best Supplies to the largest of the group.
The Wall holds me up on one side, Child on the other. I tell her to bring me to the Red Couch so I can lay down for a while before we explore. When we shuffle through the Door, the Couch is all the way against the left Wall. I point it out to her since she probably doesn't know what one is. Her small body holds my weight long enough to reach it, and I try to sit slowly to keep from making noise but end up falling into it. Dust breathes into the Air.
She helps me turn over onto my Back, then get my Legs up.
“Yes, I'm still here.” My Lungs burn with every word.
She shakes her head. “Here before?”
I look around the Room. It seems built for one Real Person. “I don't think so.”
She eyes with me with a curious look. Instead of explaining herself she runs off and checks the Room. I can't do anything but lay on the Red Couch with my Eyes closed and listen to her move, hoping she finds what she's looking for.
I'm standing in a metal box. Round buttons on the wall take turns lighting, each with a number at the center. The light starts at the number one, then moves to two, then three. I feel pressure in my ears and I believe the metal box is moving but I'm not sure which way. There's a rug under my feet covered in bright, blue flowers. I like the way the flowers are connected by a swirling, green vine that runs wild across the rug, and I rub the vine with my foot but it doesn't move. It's only a picture of flowers.
My hand reaches out to touch the light, now behind the number six, but a second hand appears and grabs mine by the wrist. The grip is strong but doesn't hurt. It isn't meant to be cruel or vicious, only to stop my hand, and the hand is larger than mine, thin, with long fingers painted apple red at the tips.
My mother is next to me in the metal box. She lets go of my hand and her eyes are red. I hope it isn't because I wanted to touch the light, but the more I look at her the more I see it's not. The red has been there for a while.
She reaches out and grabs me by the shoulders and pulls me in close. I don't know what she's telling me but the brown in her eyes is becoming blurry.
Number twelve lights up.
She points a finger at me. Her eyes are getting blurrier and her face looks wrinkled but she keeps talking. She's telling me something important, something serious. The number fourteen lights up and the metal box slows down. I know it slows down because I feel it in my ears. She moves the hair out of my face and tries to smile.
Number fifteen. She stands up straight and wipes her eyes. The fear disappears from her face, making her a completely different person. The change is fast and complete.
The metal box stops. The Door slides open.
I don't know how long my Eyes have been closed but the Sun is looking through the Windows from high up now, the Sky full of sharp Light. The Day brings the most danger and I should be watching for it.
My Head is like a filled-up Garbage Bag, how sometimes it's easier to roll them to the Steep than pick them up. Child is crouched at the Door with her head tilted and her small body stiff and it reminds me of the Wood when all the Beasts are asleep and there's no Wind pushing at it. She's listening to the Building with ears much stronger than mine, and I'm lucky for that, because I can barely hear.
Maybe if I close my Eyes I can hear better.
Only a blink and the Sun is out of my Eyes, over the Building and to the other side. I feel better without the Light screaming at me but how can the Sun move so fast? Time has lost its mind without me to keep it. Keeper of the Time, that's what I was.
Another blink and Child's gone.
She comes back through the Door. I sit up and ask her where she went, my Fingers waving her over, holding onto her arm when she comes close. Her pink skin feels cool against my Hand and that's not good. I shouldn't be warmer than her, not ever. Not the way they are.
“Why did you ask me if I've been here before?”
“It's alright, you can tell me. I want to know.”
She looks around the Room but her eyes stay on the Couch. I try to remember what happened before, when we climbed the Stairs and came in.
“It was the Couch. I knew what color it was before I saw it.”
“I must have come to this Building when I was small. The memory brought me back here.”
I notice she's hiding something behind her back.
“What do you have in your hand?”
The Apple is bright red. It makes me think of the dream, about my mother, the way her fingertips looked around my Wrist.
I grab Child by the wrist. “Did you go outside for this?”
She shakes her head and pulls her body away.
“Where is it from? Where did you get it?”
“You got it here, in the building?” She nods and I let go of her wrist. “I didn't know Apples grew Inside Buildings.” She holds her hand out, offering it to me. “You're not lying, are you? If you went outside you might have brought danger back with you.”
Her eyes stay on it. She's not saying any more, so I take it from her and bite into it. The Water feels good on my Throat, good until it starts to burn, and my Teeth hurt with every bite, but I keep biting.
Child watches me from the Floor.
“Are you hungry?”
“You had one already?”
I don't know what else to say, so I eat the Apple she brought me.
I've decided the hardest thing I've ever decided.
With my Hand on the Window, I make sure the Sun goes away. When it's under the Ground and sleeping I turn to where Child is laying on the floor, in a nest she made of old paper. The foot with the Silvery Tape on it is dirty and needs to be taken care of.
A picture of my Hand stays behind on the Window.
“We're leaving the City.”
Her eyes open.
“The Munies will find us. Tomorrow or the next, one of them will track us here. They know the Trailer and they know the Cavern, so the only place we can go is away. But the more minutes we wait the worse I'm...”
Don't scare her.
“...The harder it will be.”
She stretches out in her nest, her arms and legs making straight lines as her mouth opens. She's ready for sleep, like the Sun, but she can't have it yet. Our bodies want sleep at different times, hers at Night and mine at Day, and one of us would have to change to stop that.
One of us would have to Change.
As we go to the Door I look to the other side of the Room, where Child went exploring earlier. There are things in the Wall that I remember spending a lot of Time looking at when I was small. Vision Boxes, I think they were called. Even as I look at them, instead of myself I see a picture of myself when I was small, watching the same Vision Boxes. But their faces are blank now, like so many, because the Death has found them. Like so many.
It's easier climbing down the Stairs than up them.
We come to the Floor with the big number five on the Wall and Child stops so hard I bump into her. She doesn't notice because she's listening again, listening to the Building, Her ears are twitching with sound.
Then I hear them, too: foot sounds.
Careful to keep my balance I slowly, quietly lean over the Railing to look down the long space between the Stairs. Child does, too, but it's too dark for her to see down there with the Sun sleeping, and even I have to squeeze my Eyes to see to the bottom.
There's nothing there.
Then I see it.
The Munie is small, not as small as Child but not full-size. It's a woman Munie. I've never liked to think of them that way, like Real People with bodies for anything other than hunting and killing. I only say this one's a woman because I've found they're better hunters than the men. Not as big, but good trackers with strong noses.
It sniffs at the Air, following a scent to the Stairs, and in its filthy hand I see a flash of red. An Apple. Child lied to me, she did go Outside for Supplies, and she did bring danger back with her, but I can't say it to her now because there isn't Time to say it and anyway the noise would fall down the Stairs and bring the Munie faster.
We turn and climb again with our Feet as light as we can make them. At the number ten we slowly open the Door and leave the Stairs behind.
The Hallway smells of the Death. In some places the Early Days of the Change can still be seen in the bones and the clothes and the torn apart things that were left behind. This is one of those places. It was clean once, but not now.
Without words I tell Child to follow me down the Hallway and through a Door which was left open in the panic of the Early Days. I can see in the Real Times it was very serious about keeping Real People out. When a Door is thick and has buttons, it was made to keep Real People out. I close the Door but it doesn't stay because the buttons don't work. Some Doors need the buttons to work, and that does no good anymore. This means there are no locks between us and the Munie climbing the Stairs behind us, which means we're not safe here. But that's not a problem because we're not staying.
The Room is white from the Ceiling down and filled with long Tables that hold Machines. Broken glass glitters on the Floor between the Tables, so I tell Child to be careful. “Walk on the Silvery Tape foot,” I tell her, and she tries but it's too loud and a little funny, so I lift her up and bring her the rest of the way to the Window.