There are moments in history when drastic change comes about. Whether it is for the better or for the worse can only be told after time has passed and stories are written by those who witnessed it. The question that often puzzles me is how do you pinpoint the exact moment, the precise word, or the final action that changes everything for everyone? My own history has to have such a moment, yet I have no idea of how it occurred. When did our forefathers decide that it was necessary to save our race by going inside a dome? Was it the moment they saw the comet in the sky, or was it later, when they realized the deadly implications of its existence? Was one voice responsible for the decision, or were many involved? These things are not taught to us, only that the decision was made.
Was it only a few days ago that our history was taught in two stages? The time before the dome was spoken of in reverent tones, while the time since was nothing more than a cautionary tale to keep the unprivileged in their proper place. There was no alternative to our lives but death. For some of us, that was not enough. We had questions, and we would not stop until we had the answers. As I step out of the slash in the earth that was our home, I realize that our future has changed. There is no going back from this point. I, like my friend Alex, have seen the sky, and only death will keep me from seeing it again.
I can only hope, when future generations look back on this day when we spilled forth from the earth and found that the world was not engulfed in flames as we had been taught, that I will be remembered kindly. That, like the scientists who built our dome, I only did what I thought I had to do to stay alive. Still I cannot help but wonder, as I think about all those who lost their lives, how many deaths will I be held accountable for? Or will the historians even remember my name?
The sky is blue … Alex’s last words run through my mind as I stand next to Pace and we stare in wonder at everything that lies before us.
The words that could be written about this moment are meaningless in comparison to what we see. Pace takes my hand beneath the vast expanse of sky, and I realize that Alex’s last words did not do the sky justice, because there is so much more to it than the color blue. There are colors I have never seen that are brighter than I can comprehend. The distant horizon is full of them, one fading into the next and the next and the next until I don’t know where to look. I don’t even know what to call them as they are beyond my understanding. They are more than the reds, purples, and oranges that I have seen before. Those colors were faded and old, covered with ash and soot. The colors that I now behold hurt my eyes as I stare in awe. My mind insists that they could not possibly be real and I have to convince myself that this moment is real. I tell myself over and over again that I am awake and not trapped in a dream.
Cat calls out to us and I turn to the sound. He stands on a large flat rock that starts in the sand, close to the cave entrance, and goes on to jut into the sea. Cat is not happy, and his complaints let me know that I am, indeed, awake. A wave crashes against the rock and showers over him. He lays his ears back in distaste and cries out again, urging us to come back to the safety of the cave.
Pace and I had run ahead of the others who escaped from the flood that destroyed our village beneath the dome. How long will it be before the rest of us find their way out? I take a moment to search the sky for the canary, Pip, who we were chasing when we realized that the underground river would lead us to the outside. I slowly turn and look at the large wall of rock that rises behind me. Somewhere above is what is left of the dome. I shield my eyes with my hands as I search for a spot of yellow. Will we ever see Pip again? Even though I know Pace would miss him, I honestly cannot blame the tiny bird if he chooses to fly away from this place that was our prison. I certainly would fly if I had wings.
I turn back to look once more at the sky and find Pace watching me. His love, so recently declared, shines in his beautiful blue eyes and he lowers his head to gently kiss me. I know from the touch of his lips that he wants me to know how important this moment is to him, no, to the two of us together. My breath catches in my throat at his kiss and I hold it and onto him, until he finally pulls away. When he does, I have to force the breath out and my chest hurts with the effort. I ignore the pain because I see the most glorious thing as I turn to the west. A golden orb hangs right over the water, like a hand dipped into a bowl, part of it beneath the surface and part of it above. It is so very bright and my eyes water with pain, but I can not tear them away from the sight. I blink and blink again because I don’t want to miss anything even though my throat feels as if there is a tight band around it.
The orb looks as if it will slide right into the sea. The realization that it is the sun and I am looking at the edge of the world fills me with so much wonder that I tremble. The sea is vaster than anything I have ever imagined, but the sky, the sky is limitless and beyond my comprehension. There is a world outside the dome. It is not flame or fire as we were always told. Instead there is this inconceivable openness that never ends, which makes it close to impossible for my mind to comprehend it. I keep a tight hold of Pace’s hand because I am frightened that without him I will fly off into the oblivion that stretches before us. It is hard to understand that everything we’ve been told our entire lives is a lie. My mind is at war with itself so I try to take a deep breath just to collect myself, but instead all I can do is gasp.
My chest burns and my lungs convulse. I cannot breathe. I am suffocating and I drop to my knees on the sand. My hands clutch at my throat as if someone has wrapped a band around it. Nothing is there, yet the constriction is real. There is nothing I can do to stop it. I don’t want to die. Not now, not when I am so close. Not when my dreams have finally come true. Not when I finally have everything I ever wanted.
“Wren!” I hear Pace shouting my name as if he is far, far away. I want to answer him but I cannot speak. I open my mouth and nothing comes out. I claw at my throat as if I can free it from the vise that holds it shut. I pitch forward with the effort to draw a breath. Salty water splashes into my face and my eyes burn and tear. All I can do is blink. Pace catches me and turns me over so I am halfway in his lap. I see him above me, as if he’s at the opposite end of a tunnel and his face is full of fear. I grab his arm as my lungs labor for air. A horrible spasm wracks my throat and I feel my eyes bulging. I know I am dying and there is nothing I can say, yet there is so much I want to tell him.
Is this how Alex felt? This desperation to make sure that nothing was left unsaid? He had to welcome death over the unbelievable pain he felt. I was not burned by flame, but my lungs feel as if they’ve dissolved into ashes inside my chest.
Suddenly Pace flips me over. He bends me over his arm and strikes my back. My insides feel as if they are coming up my throat, and I gag. Thankfully I am able to draw a breath, but as soon as I do I begin to cough. I cough and cough and something black comes out. I feel as if someone has stuffed thick fabric down my throat. I keep gagging and coughing and it keeps coming up, black and horrible and thick. It has been inside me, all this time, killing my lungs, and killing the rest of my body slowly. I want it out. I want all of it out. I want my insides to be free of the coal the same way my body is free of the dome.
I don’t know how Pace can stand it. I look at the mess in the sand that has come out of my lungs and it makes me sicker, if that is possible. My stomach joins in the upheaval. I feel as if my insides are coming out, one small piece at a time. I am exhausted. I have nothing left to give, yet it keeps coming. Pace rubs my back and scoops handfuls of seawater and dribbles them on my neck until I slump over his legs, exhausted. I hear voices behind me; the others have found their way out. I should tell them to go back, to ease their way into the air that is so fresh and clean that I feel as if it will kill me. But I can’t say a word because my world has once more turned to shadows and I feel myself slowly sliding away into the darkness.
* * *
There are times in our lives when we dream so vividly that it is impossible to tell what reality is and what our minds trick us into believing is real. We stay in the dream, mostly because it is so much better than the monotony of our everyday life until something jolts us to awareness and we wake up, not certain of where we are or where we belong. When it happens to me I close my eyes tight and try to recapture that part of the dream that led me away into a different world, as if I could will myself into that place once more.
I find myself trapped in that half-dream state. My mind cannot settle on what is real. The sounds around me are different than what I am used to. My bed feels strange and my body aches all the way into my bones. My throat feels raw and I am so very thirsty. I lick my lips and taste nothing but salt. Someone nudges me and I have to force my eyes open.
It is Ghost, my favorite pony from the mines. He is curled up against me, and my head is on his side. He nudges me once more with his nose as he does when he wants a treat, and I place my hand on the side of his face to let him know I am awake. Cat lies beside me and sits up as I move.
I blink and gasp at the beauty and wonder of what is above me. The sky is full of points of light: some bright, and some so distant I can barely see them. They are everywhere; no matter where I look I see them.
“You’re awake.” Pace’s sweet and handsome face blocks my view.
“What are they?” I manage to croak out as I point upward.
Pace kneels down beside me. He puts a hand on Ghost’s head to keep him still as he looks over his shoulder at the sky. “Stars,” he says. “Sailors of old used them to navigate the seas.”
“They are beautiful,” I whisper and he turns to look at me once more. I see in his face that something is horribly wrong, and the beauty of the stars is forgotten as I quickly sit up. My head swims and my stomach rolls in protest.
“Stay still,” Pace urges me with his concern plainly showing on his face. “You should rest.”
“The others?” I ask.
“They’re here, except…” Pace’s voice trails off and my head fills with horrible thoughts of what more could befall us. Panic fills me. I climb to my feet, trembling with weakness and terror. Pace sees that there is no stopping me, so he helps me up, always steady, always there. Ghost scrambles to his feet behind me, and Cat frantically jumps away. He is still nervous and not happy about the circumstances, and he lets us know by meowing fretfully. How easy it would be just to sit down and cry out my fears, but I cannot. Not now. Not ever as long as I remain strong.
The lamps we carried from the tunnels sit on rocks that are scattered about the shoreline. Because I am a shiner, I can see fine without them, but Pace cannot see as I can in the dark. Still the light is comforting. The sandy beach we came out on is much smaller now, so small that I fear that we may run out of room and have to retreat back into the cave if the water comes any closer. The ponies that came with us stand huddled against the cliff wall. The openness has to be frightening to them, because they can’t see. They knew the tunnels. How can they survive in this unknown world since they are blind? I know Ghost is frightened because he stays close to my back, as if he’s still in the harness and I’m leading him through the mines.
The children that joined up with us during our escape are gathered close to the cave entrance with a lamp. They are recovering the things from our village that have washed through from the flood, and I hear their excited chatter as they pull something from the water. Alcide, who is a year younger than me, is with them as they pile the things they find close against the stone wall that towers behind us.
James and Adam are nearby. James sits with his head down and scrubs his hands through his hair. Adam watches the children. How long has he been awake and waiting to see if the body of his wife—and my best friend—Peggy, who was also James’s sister, washes out of the cave? She was lost in the flood, and the pain of it, of watching the water rise around her and knowing there was nothing we could do, is still fresh in my mind, along with the cries of Adam. They had only been wed a day when the flood came, caused by an explosion in the caves after we were attacked by the bluecoats from above.
“They just woke up. They had the same problem as you,” Pace explains. “It wasn’t as bad with the young ones, just a few spasms and they were done.” I look at him, at his handsome face and his beautiful blue eyes. He, like the rest of us, has been through so much, and I feel like I let him down because he had to take care of all of us once we came outside, while I was sick and unconscious. He has to be worried about his mother also. My father was holding her prisoner when the explosion happened. We have no idea what happened to those above, and now, since we are outside, we have no way to find out.
“They haven’t been deep in the mines yet,” I explain, grateful at least that the children did not have to suffer. “They are still too young.” We don’t go into the mines until we’re thirteen and have finished our schooling. Most of the children we found were between five and twelve, and had been in school when the attack came. Alcide is fifteen, so it makes sense that he would recover before the rest of us.
“I set them to working, so they wouldn’t think about their families,” Pace said. “I thought it best if they kept busy. I wasn’t thinking about what else they might find.”
“Bodies?” I ask.
Pace shivers as he nods. “At first they cried, especially the little ones,” he explains. “Now they look at it as helping them, even though the people are dead.”
“That’s because of you,” I say, wanting to offer him some comfort and gratitude for what he’s done. But I also have to ask because she is … was … so dear to me. “Peggy?”
“Not yet,” Pace says as if there is some slim hope she might still be alive. I know better than to grab onto it. I know there is no hope left for her.
I look once more at Adam and James. They both seem done in, as if all the life has been sucked from their bodies, and I know I must look the same if not worse. I wouldn’t wish what I’d been through on anyone, not even James, who I’d been at odds with since this strange journey began, and especially not Adam, who had suffered so much for our cause. I know how they feel. Bringing up the coal from my lungs had nearly killed me, especially since I was weak from the battles I’d fought. Adam and James had to have fared better than me because they were stronger, but those who were weak and had years of coal dust inside of them, how would they survive? Even now my lungs feel strange and sore and my throat is raw.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t any help,” I say, even though it won’t change anything. Then suddenly a chill washes over me that has nothing to do with the night air that surrounds us. “Where are Hans and Mary?” They are the oldest of all of us, all that was left of our tribe of elders as all the rest had been swept away in the floods.
Pace hesitates, as if he’s searching for the right words. “They didn’t make it,” he says. “It was too much for them.”
No … I don’t want it to be true. I wouldn’t believe it was true, not until I saw for myself. “Where are they?”
“With the others,” Pace says and his voice breaks. He looks away for a moment yet keeps a strong hold onto my hand. I don’t know how long I was unconscious, and because I was, because I wasn’t strong enough, Pace had to endure these things by himself. It was weak of me to leave him that way, but I don’t know what else I could have done. Maybe I shouldn’t have rushed outside, maybe I should have warned the others before they came out. If only I had known what being outside would do to us. Like everything else that has happened in the past days, every decision I’ve made has been difficult. Every decision I’ve made has led to as much bad as good. I don’t know why this has fallen on me. I don’t want it any more. I don’t want to be responsible for all this death.
“This way,” Pace says. He pulls on my hand and I follow, regretfully, yet resolved, since I have to know. Pretending something hasn’t happened won’t make it so. We walk toward the children. As we approach James and Adam, they struggle to their feet and join us. They are both quiet. Considering all that has happened, I am not surprised; still it worries me, because I don’t trust James, not after everything that has happened. Not after everything he’s done. We are a strange group, the four of us, with Ghost and Cat following along after us as we walk to where the river joins the sea. What if we are the only ones who survived? Surely, with all the people that live in the dome, some had to have escaped. I think of our friends from above. Lucy and David, Jilly and Harry, who joined us in the fight, and my father, Sir William Meredith, who is the Master General Enforcer and the one we battled against in our effort to escape the dome. Was he the one who sent the bluecoats down with the flamethrowers? I cannot help but think it would be fitting if his decision to come after the shiners resulted in destroying the very thing he was trying to protect. How will history remember him when these chapters are written? I guess it will depend on who does the writing.
We come to where the river spills forth from the cave. I look at the mammoth slash in the earth. How long has it been here? Did our forefathers know of its existence? Was it written down someplace that this could be a way out, or did they deliberately hide it from the inhabitants when they finalized the dome? How simple it would have been for all of us, if we had just simply known about it from the beginning. From the looks of it, I’d say it has been around a very long time, since way before the dome. Possibly since the beginning of time. Was this something else my father kept hidden from the people to preserve the bloodline of the royalty that he values so much?
The children have been busy, sorting and stacking the things that have spilled forth from the earth, with Alcide directing them in their endeavors. Pots and pans, blankets, clothing, bits and pieces of furniture, and some toys lay on the sand, the only remnants of our village. Cat stops to sniff through the things. I stop and ask one of the children, whose name I do not know, to lead Ghost over to the rest of the ponies.
I give Ghost a reassuring pat as the little boy takes the halter. I should learn his name; I should learn all of their names, as we might be the only ones left. Before they were just part of the innumerable group that went to school and played in our cavern, all belonging to someone. I had no time to worry over them as I was wrapped up in my own life with my own group. Are we four, me, James, Adam, and Alcide, along with these children, all that’s left of the shiners? Is this loss because of me and the decisions I made? Was making sure Alex did not die in vain worth all these lives that were lost along with his?
Adam and James splash across the water and Alcide follows them. Pace waits for me. He stretches out his hand, and I realize I am frightened to take it. I don’t want to see the faces of those who have died. I don’t want to know that Hans and Mary made it out, only to die because of the fresh, clear air. I don’t want to know that so many people drowned, but I must go on. I cannot change the things that have happened; I can only hope to learn from them. If only the lessons did not come with such a steep price.
Hans’s son, Freddy, who is twelve, sits beside his father’s body. Hans lies on his back with his head against the cliff wall and his feet pointing to the sea. Beside him in the same position lies Mary, who was the oldest of us after my grandfather died. Both had been kind to me, when I didn’t deserve it. Hans especially, because he knew that I had Pace hidden in the tunnels and he did not turn us in. What we will do now without their wisdom and guidance? They were the last of our elders. Who will we look to when a hard decision has to be made?
Their faces show the strain of their deaths, and as I look at them I also see the horrible death that Alex suffered by being burned alive, and my grandfather’s, when he was crushed. All of them dead now because I wished to see the sky. All of them dead because I made decisions that affected them and changed their lives. What made me think I should be the one to decide for all of us? I should have left it to wiser heads than mine to make the difficult decisions. I should have thought things through before I acted. I had this ideal in my mind about how things should be. Now that I am faced with the harsh reality of how things are, I’m not so sure anymore. I am not sure of anything, especially not the decisions I made.
Freddy leaves his father’s side and comes to me. He doesn’t say anything; he just buries his head into my chest and breaks into tears. I am at a loss as to what I can do for him, what I should do for any of us. All I can do is put my arms around him and hold him while his body shakes with sobs. He’s lost both his parents and his home. He’s tried to be brave, but there comes a point when you have to give in to the sorrow. I wish I could cry like Freddy. Have Pace wrap his arms around me and just cry into his chest until the tears come no more, but I can’t. I’m afraid that if I start I won’t be able to stop. I console Freddy as best I can until his sobs subside, gone as suddenly as they came. He smiles briefly, nods, and then steps away as if he is embarrassed by his display of emotion.
There are more bodies beyond Hans and Mary. So many that I cannot count them. Alcide has tried to lay them out, but some of them are so broken that it was an impossible task and they lie at strange angles with their arms and legs in awkward poses, beaten by the floodwaters and the stone walls that they tumbled past on their way to the sea. It is heartbreaking to see babies among them. The last minutes I spent in the village were with Jasper’s wife and small son. I can still hear the boy’s laughter as Pace entertained him with the tricks he’d taught Pip. So many lives lost. The cost is immeasurable.
“Who have you found?” Adam asks Alcide, as if it would make a difference.
“Abner,” he says and looks at James. “Your parents are here. Jasper and his wife…” his voice trails off. There is no need for Alcide to list them. We know everyone who was in the village is dead, including Peggy. Still Adam asks and Alcide shakes his head.
“Do you think everyone is dead?” Freddy looks up at me with a tear-streaked face. “My mother?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “We won’t know…”
James interrupts me. “Until they show up.”
“James,” I say in frustration. Freddy shouldn’t have to deal with these horrors. None of these children should, yet there’s nothing else we can do at the moment. We have no place else to go. Before I can chastise James any further, we are interrupted by a shout from the children.
We turn to look and they point at the water coming from the cave. Another body has washed down. Adam takes off at a run and we follow him. His cry rings off the cliff walls as he picks the body up from the water. Peggy is limp in his arms, like a cloth doll. I catch a sob in my throat as James runs to help Adam. She was my best friend and all I can do is watch as they lay her gently and tenderly in the sand. A horrible sound comes from Adam as he takes her hand into his and pushes the hair back from her face with the other.
“Oh Peggy,” I say and my heart breaks for all of us. I’d tried to be strong, but the sight of Adam with her body does me in. I crumble beneath the weight of my grief. Tears consume me, and I turn away as I try to choke back the sobs. I don’t want anyone to see me, to see the pain that I suddenly cannot control, yet there is no place to hide and no hiding from the grief. I cry for Adam, who lost his wife; for James, who lost his sister; and for me, who lost my friend. For all these children who are now orphans and have no one but us to depend on. I cry because I don’t want the responsibility of all these lives, and guilt threatens to overcome my grief because I am the one responsible for both the living and the dead. Pace reaches out a hand to console me but I push him away. He cannot help me and he can’t make it go away any more than I can. I step away from him, from everyone, but there is no place for me to go. I try to make it stop but there is no stopping it.
“What right do you have to say anything?” James moves quickly, leaving Adam’s side in one instant and standing before me in the next. I wipe at the tears and choke back a sob as he moves threateningly close, his face only inches from mine. Even though my eyes are full of tears, I clearly see his hatred behind the shine of his green eyes. Eyes that are the exact same color as Peggy’s were, yet very much different in what they reveal of the soul beneath. “All of this is your fault, Wren.” His words spew out with the same disgust as the coal that choked up from our lungs, and my grief suddenly gives way to fear. “All of it.”
James’s words are like a dagger into my heart. Especially since I know them to be true.
Copyright © 2013 by Kassy Tayler