Friday, October 13, 2017

Beyond the City Limits by Clayton Stoneking

in Clayton Stoneking's post-apocalyptic tale, a young man in a simple farming community is curious about the forbidding secrets of the nearby city.

I trudge down the long row of dirt mounds; they're piled neatly to protect the delicate roots below. The light of the early morning sun cascades across the three large crop fields that surround the Community House. I love walking the grounds in the morning, especially this close to the harvest. I walk to the edge of the farm's land and look out into the thin line of trees that provides our perimeter. Through the thin, white, brittle trunks of the trees, I can see the bright lights of the city beyond. I look back, only briefly, toward the farm, before stepping onto the roots of the dying trees. I start to take another step when two small voices call out from behind me.

"Brother Kiran," the small voices squeak, "where are you going?"

I turn to see the two small redheaded boys who came to the farm only a few months ago. They're overalls are dirty, most likely from playing in the mud. One of them is missing a shoe and the other has left one side of his overalls unbuttoned, revealing the pale skin of his chest.

"Nowhere, Brothers," I say, "but how about a race back to the house?"

They don't waste time responding but instead whip their bodies around and break into a sprint toward the Community House.

The twins break off in separate directions as we approach the house.

"You win, boys," I shout after them as they run out of sight.

I see members of the family going about their morning routines. Aunt Selba is doing her best to clean the dirt and grime from everyone's work suits. Sister Snow is preparing a basket of vegetables for tonight's meal. Uncle Kyme is sitting in his old chair on the large porch of the Community House as I walk past him through the front door.

It's always dark inside the house. We only spare a few lanterns to light the meeting room where Father conducts community meetings. I traverse the dark corridors of the building toward the main meeting room. The house is a maze of additions, added to what was once a simple farm house. As more of the surrounding farms become barren, the families have to come here in search of work and food. We still get people coming in from all over looking for somewhere the crops are still growing.

The house is always empty at this time of day, so I won't run into a soul on my way to Father. When I reach the large metal door of the meeting room I throw my fist against it firmly.

"Come in," Father shouts from behind the door.

I push the door open and see Father sitting at the head of the large sheet metal table that almost completely fills the room.

"Good news, Father," I say. "We are just about ready for the harvest. I spent all morning walking the rows."

"Very good son," Father says, coughing. "But have you seen young Sylas around? He is supposed to be preparing dinner with Sister Snow."

"Well, he definitely isn't doing that. I just saw Snow out there -"

"Sister Snow," Father corrects gently. "You can't forget we are a family, and all family deserves respect."

"Right, sorry. Well, Sister Snow is out there and Brother Sylas isn't anywhere around. Maybe he ran off to hang out with Brother Dochek again."

Father sighs, coughing once again. "Can you please find him for me and tell everyone to assemble in the meeting room at once."

"Right away Father," I say as I turn to exit the room.

I make my way out the front door of the Community House and stop next to Uncle Kyme's chair, putting a hand on his bony shoulder.

"Meeting time, Uncle Kyme! Father wants everyone inside."

Uncle Kyme jumped out of his nap and spun his head to look at me.

"Wuttin the hell do I gotta go to some goddam meetin' fir I'm gon' be dead by dusk anyhow." With that Uncle Kyme fell back asleep.

I stand at the top of the porch steps and cup my hands around my mouth. I take a deep breath and shout as loud as I can,

"Everyone report to the main meeting room at once!"

I hear the echo of my own voice across the massive expanse of land that is the farm. I see movement coming from all over; the family is assembling. Sister Snow begins to walk up the porch steps toward the meeting room when I stop her.

Sister Snow is a plain looking girl, but I have suspicions about her innocence. On the outside she looks normal; long black hair, hazel eyes, some freckles adorn her face. She's quiet most of the time and has only been on the farm for a few years. I think she's about my age or a few years younger, maybe 17 or 18. I always see her wandering the outer edges of the farm. Some nights I think she might actually wander off the farm, down the road toward the city.

The city isn't actually a city. It's really just a settlement of people who originally wanted to have a place to live that's closer to where the food grows. It has quickly become an overpopulated mess full of horrible people doing horrible things. Or at least, that is what all of the stories say about the city. Father and Uncle Leopold are the only two people I know who have actually been there. Father says the city is a dangerous place for members of the family. He says it changes people.

"I need your help to look for Brother Sylas. He's supposed to be doing chores with you."

"Okay," Sister Snow says. "He told me that Father wants him to work with Brother Dochek today."

"Of course he did," I reply, sighing and scanning the landscape.

"I'm sorry Kiran, I should have been more responsible," Sister Snow says, avoiding my gaze.

"It isn't your fault," I say as I walk toward the back of the Community House. "He would have snuck off no matter how hard you tried."

I gesture for Sister Snow to follow me to the cellar doors at the back of the house. Normally they're locked, but I have a suspicion that Sylas is down there with Dochek. They like to drink the alcohol that Uncle Leopold makes from our vegetable waste. I try the door to the cellar and unsurprisingly it lifts up without much effort. Since the Community House basement is only used for storage, it's pitch black. I motion for Snow to stay put while I descend the steps into the dark basement. I place my hand against the wall and begin moving through the basement toward the room where the alcohol is stored.

My eyes adjust to the darkness and I can make out the door to the storeroom. I approach the door and place my ear against it. I hear two slurred voices, one I recognize as Sylas.

"I just don't understand why we aren't allowed to leave the farm," Sylas says. "Maybe the city would actually be okay. I mean has anyone even been there?"

"No way man. They just tell us a bunch of bullshit to make sure we keep working for free," Dochek replies.

I decide I don't want to hear anymore. I push the door open violently and position myself in the doorway so they couldn't sneak past me in the dark.

"Hey Sylas, could you tell me why you're down here stealing booze instead of helping Sister Snow?" I can't help but notice how much I sound like Father.

"Hey man," Dochek says, "we were just taking a little break."

"Brother Dochek," I say, "there will be a meeting very shortly. I suggest you get there before I do if you don't want Uncle Leopold finding out about this little plan of yours."

I step out of the doorway and Dochek slips past me in the darkness.

"Sylas, let's go. Father is waiting for us. He's calling a meeting," I say.

"A meeting? For what?" Sylas asks.

"I guess we're going to find out, aren't we? Now let's go."

We walk out of the dark basement and see Snow holding Dochek by the ear at the top of the steps. Dochek is struggling against her grip but she isn't budging, a stern look upon her face.

"Sister Snow," I say, "what did he do this time?"

"Well," she begins, "he came out of there insisting that you told him to go straight to his room and not look at anyone because he was being punished. But I knew that we are supposed to be going to the meeting and everyone has to go to the meeting, so I told him he should wait with me, but he said he couldn't do that and I didn't want him to trick me like Brother Sylas did, so I was holding him until you came up."

"Not as smart as you thought, are you Brother Dochek?" I say tousling his hair.

"Okay, okay, you've had your laugh, now let me go already." Dochek's voice doesn't have its usual indignant undertones.

Sister Snow releases Dochek and he reaches for his ear. He glares at Snow before turning toward the porch and ascending the steps. Snow, Sylas, and I follow suit and enter the house. We make our way to the meeting room which is already filling with family members all taking seats around the metal table. I am only a few years away from having a seat at the table myself, but for now I stand against the back wall of the large meeting room with the children. I catch my Father's gaze and give a nod toward Sylas and Dochek. He nods in turn, mouthing, "Are you ready?" to me, and then, without waiting for a response, turns his attention to the family.

"Let us begin," Father speaks with a booming voice that quiets the whole room. In the silence all attention turns to him. "We have been on this -" Father's words were broken by a racking cough. His body shook to the bone as he suppressed the coughing fit. "We," he begins again, "have been on this farm for years. Our family has provided food for so many in these times of scarcity. In return we have asked for very little, only that we are provided the resources to run our operation and to keep our family safe." There is scattered applause from the crowd as Father pauses, letting out another small cough, "As we all know, our family has always had a leader, someone to ensure the farm keeps running, and that everyone has a purpose within our family. For many years I have held that role, but now I'm afraid, my time as your leader has to end."

The crowd explodes into a cacophony of voices and confused cries for an explanation. Uncle Leopold stands from his chair and shouts, "That's enough everyone, Father is not finished!"

Father nods at Leopold. "I have become ill, and I can feel my mind slipping. For this reason I must appoint a new leader to the family."

Sylas elbows me in the ribs gently and I turn to him. He is looking at me wide-eyed as if he knows what Father is about to say.

"The new leader of this family has to be strong and smart. They have to know how to make the tough decisions."

I can feel nausea building in my gut. I don't know if Father would put this responsibility on me without telling me about it first. I wrack my brain trying to think of someone else in the family that Father might give the job to. I return my focus to him as his speech continues.

"The leader must be selfless, as this position gives no personal benefits. It is simply a responsibility that one must take on for the good of the family and the people we serve. I've been weighing this decision for a long time, and I have decided. The next leader of our family will be my eldest natural-born son, Kiran."

Applause erupts in my ears and I feel rugged hands slapping my shoulders in congratulations. I try my best to appear excited but inside I don't know what to think. I'm going to be in charge of everyone. I'll have to assign chores, handle sales, manage our inventory, go to the city. I feel like I have lead in my stomach at the thought of going there.

My train of thought is interrupted by the sudden silence of the room. I look to Father who's motioning for me to come up to his seat. I move through the crowd still receiving approving pats on the back, handshakes, and even hugs from some of the older women. I reach Father's chair and he stands up, offering me his seat. I shake his hand, hoping he won't feel how much I'm shaking. Father releases my hand and steps back against the wall next to Sylas.

"Speech!" a voice from the crowd calls out. A few more voices echo the sentiment and suddenly my mouth feels dry.

"My fellow family members," I say, "I am honored to be named your new leader. I will be just and diligent and with my leadership this family will have many more successful harvests."

The crowd cheers and applauds. I feel pressure building on my shoulders as I watch each person file out of the room. I hear excited conversation going on all around me. The crowd exits leaving the meeting room empty except for Father, Sylas, and me. I have so many questions that I barely wait for the doors to close.

"Father I -"

"First of all, call me Grandfather now." He replies with a smirk.

"Grandfather, why didn't you tell me that this was your plan? I don't know if I'm ready to lead the family."

"Oh come on, Kiran," Sylas says, "you've practically been preparing for this your whole life."

"Sylas is right," Grandfather says, "you are more than ready for the task, but for now," Grandfather pulls a small bottle from his pocket and offers it to me, "take this and go celebrate. Tomorrow your work starts."

"Thank you Fa... I mean Grandfather" I turn and leave the meeting room, taking Sylas with me by the arm.

We walk outside together and Dochek is waiting for us. He's sitting on the bottom porch step drawing circles with his fingers in the dirt. When he hears the door open he turns around and springs up.

"Hey Kiran, I can't believe you're our new leader," Dochek says. "Hey man, we should celebrate!"

"Brother Dochek," I say in my most authoritative voice, "I am the leader of this family now and you will address me as such."

"Oh excuse me," Dochek mocks. "We should celebrate Father Kiran."

I inspect Dochek as he stands anxiously awaiting my answer. I normally don't associate with Dochek. He has only been here for two months and has already made a name for himself as a troublemaker. Still, part of me envies Dochek's free spirit. He always does what he wants. I think that's why Sylas is so easily persuaded into following along.

"Okay," I say, "what do you have in mind?"

Dochek's lips curl into a grin. "Well, now that you're the leader, you can do whatever you want right?"

"Of course I can," I reply more pridefully than I should have.

"Well then, Father, why don't you take us into the city."

I feel my guts shifting inside my body at his suggestion. I try to keep a straight face while I turn to Sylas, hoping he will resist Dochek's plan.

"Do you think we can really go?" Sylas' eyes grow wide.

"No one is allowed to go to the city," I say. "Besides, why would you want to go there anyway?"

"I've heard that place is all about fun. A guy once came through my old farm from the city. He told me there are wonders there that we could never even dream of on this farm." Dochek's voice got higher as he spoke. His eyes light up with a rebellious fire, I know he is determined to go.

"I guess we could walk to the city limits and then come right back. There isn't any harm in that right?" Each word feels like a mistake as my mouth moves around it. Still, tomorrow I'll be Father Kiran so tonight I'll just be me.

We make a plan to split up and pack our own supplies for the walk. It's about three miles to the city limits. We meet in the largest field, next to the road off the farm. No one questions Sylas and I walking around the grounds. I'll be their leader soon after all. Sylas and I wait by the road for Dochek who is already fifteen minutes late. Just as we are about to leave without him, we see Sister Snow walking down the rows of crops with Dochek in tow by the ear once again.

"Oh come on Snow, let me go I didn't do anything. Father Kiran told me I could, now let me go!" Dochek screams, struggling to get away.

"That's Sister Snow to you, and we'll find out just what Father said you can and can't do." Sister Snow stops in front of me pushing Dochek to his knees, "did you tell him you were going to take him to the city?"

"Well I, uh..." I stutter. "Yeah I mean we are just going for a walk really, just gonna go see what it looks like on the outside that's all." I laugh nervously and look at the ground.

"Can I come?" she asks. I can hear the hesitance in her voice but the light in her eye is an unmistakable wanderlust.

"Oh no, what? No way, no girls allowed!" Dochek whines from his position on the ground.

"Now Brother Dochek," I say," I think we can afford one more pilgrim on this journey don't you?"

Dochek falls silent in acceptance and I can't help but enjoy the power that I have.

We begin our walk just before the sun falls behind the tree line. The road off the farm is covered in gravel and full of potholes. We walk along the side of the road so we can hide easily in case anyone shows up along the way. Sylas doesn't speak a word as we walk. The rest of us tell jokes and talk, but Sylas just scans the landscape in silence.

"Hey Sy," Dochek says, "you're awful quiet back there. What's the matter? Don't you know who we have with us? Father Kiran, the wisest and most powerful leader in the farm's history." Dochek erupts in laughter.

"I guess I'm a little nervous," Sylas says, kicking up dirt as he walks. "I've never been off the farm before. Father used to tell stories about people from the city."

"There isn't a thing to be worried about," Dochek says, "it's just a bunch of people in a group, what's so scary about that?"

"He's right," I say, "as long as we are together we'll be okay. Besides, I'm pretty sure they just tell those stories to scare us."

I know as the words come out that I'm lying. There is no joviality in Father's voice when he tells stories about the city. I know it's dangerous to enter the city. So I just have to hope that reaching the limits will be enough to make Dochek want to turn back. I'm starting to regret leaving the farm.

Before long we reach a sign which reads, "City Limits ½ Mile." In the distance we can see a giant glowing metal settlement booming with life. Dochek picks up the pace and motions for us to follow him. We have no time to argue as he disappears down the road. We start to run after him. With each step the city towers higher and higher above us.

I gaze in wonder up at the enormous metal wall before us. I can see smoke rising from within the city. Around the main entrance there are men with carts. Each one holds up a unique and peculiar item and shouts at us as we approach. I notice Sister Snow wandering toward a man with a shiny silver bracelet.

"I can see you're interested in this lovely bracelet," the man says, waving his hands mystically in front of his merchandise. "Why don't you try it on hmm?"

"Well I -" Snow begins, turning to look at the rest of us. "Maybe just for a moment, it is really lovely."

Before the man is able to touch Snow I grab her wrist and pull her away. "Actually, we're already running late. We can come back later."

"But Fa -"

"We're leaving," I say with a look that makes Snow look at the ground and pull at her hair. I move us toward the front gate where a large man is standing. He has a gun by his side and there is some kind of badge on his shirt. He looks at each one of us as we approach.

"Hey brother," Dochek says, "we're trying to have a little fun, celebratin' my good friend here." Dochek motions toward me with his open jar of booze. The man looks unimpressed by me and I shift my gaze to the dirt.

"You comin' in," he says, "you gotta pay, like everyone else."

"I know just want you want," Dochek says reaching into his bag. He pulls out another jar of Uncle Leopold's liquor. "This stuff will knock you on your ass friend. Drink up."

The large man grabs the jar from Dochek and pops the lid off. He sniffs the liquid and grimaces before taking a drink. His face contorts as he swallows and he tosses the jar back at Dochek.

"This is swill. Gonna have to do better," the man says.

I grab Dochek by the collar and pull him away from the man.

"Okay, we came," I say. "Now, since we can't get in, let's just go home."

"No way," Dochek says. "We didn't come all this way just to stop at the gate."

"He's right," Snow says. "We should at least go inside, just for a bit." She looks nervous but she sounds confident.

"Well," I begin, turning to Sylas who sips silently from one of Dochek's booze jars. "What do you think Sylas?"

"I, uh......" Sylas says looking at our faces with glossy eyes. "I think we should see what all the fuss is about."

Dochek erupts in laughter and lifts his jar high in the air. Snow's face lights up and they all look at me, hopeful. If they all want to go, then I will lead them. I open up my bag and reach inside. I feel around until my hand clasps around the small glass bottle that Father gave me earlier. They all light up as they figure out my plan. I open the bottle and take a long swig. The liquid is sweet and I instantly feel my head floating. I replace the cap and walk right up to the large man at the gate.

"I believe this," I say handing him the bottle, "will suit you a bit better."

The large man takes the bottle and removes the cap. He puts the bottle to his nose and inhales. His face softens from the sweet scent of the liquor and he drinks deeply from the bottle. "Thish good shtuff," he says with a slur before pushing the gate open and stepping aside. I turn and motion for the others to follow as I walk through the city gates.

Inside the city there isn't much space to move around. The streets are narrow and the air is thick with a combination of smoke and the smell of waste. I grab onto Sylas' hand and Sylas grabs Sister Snow. Dochek looks wide-eyed at the buildings that surround us. I notice the air feels thick and that it's hard to tell where the sun is through the tall buildings. The city constantly hums and voices yell over one another to be heard. Along the narrow streets are more people holding assorted oddities. I scan the street, taking in the haze of my surroundings. We're out of place here. I instruct the others to hold onto each other so we can move safely through the city. They all agree absently and I start to guide us - as well as I can guide us - through the city.

I lead us down a series of streets, passing storefronts and eateries. In one window I see large hunks of meat hanging on hooks. I stop dead at the sight of it. I haven't seen meat since I was a young boy. We used to have it during the festival season, but one day, Father said we couldn't get it anymore. Since then I've always thought there wasn't any meat in the world. But there it is. I start to walk toward the door when I realize, I'm no longer holding onto Sylas. I turn around just in time to see Dochek leading Snow and Sylas into a doorway across the street. The sign reads, "Maven's Tavern". I run across the street after them, glancing back only briefly for one last look at the meat on the hooks.

It's crowded inside the tavern and I have trouble seeing through the haze of smoke that lingers throughout the room. I make my way through the crowd, looking at faces, trying to spot Dochek's toothy grin. I spot Snow first, sitting at a round booth in the corner of the room. I push through the crowd and take a seat next to Snow, who is sitting alone.

"Where are they?" I ask her firmly. "Did they leave you here?"

"No Father," she replies with a grin. "They went to get the drinks."

"How are they going to -" but before I can finish I hear Sylas and Dochek behind me.

"A round for our fearless leader eh?" Dochek slams a large mug in front of me and he and Sylas take their seats at the booth.

"How did you get these? I don't imagine they were free," I glare at Sylas, knowing he is less likely to lie.

"Brother Dochek found some money outside. That's why we came here," Sylas says, drinking deeply from his mug. "Relax Father, we made it. Now we can celebrate for real. To Father Kiran!" Sylas shouts emphatically and raises his mug high above his head. I can't help but get caught up in the moment and before I know it, empty mugs litter the table. I feel a throbbing in my head and I look up from my friend's faces for the first time in what feels like hours. The room has thinned out considerably and the man behind the bar is staring at our table. I avoid his gaze and return my attention to the others.

"We should head home now," I say, "I think it's already dark."

None of them say anything; they just nod and follow me out of the booth. As we near the exit, the man from behind the bar moves in front of the door.

"Where do you think you're going?" the man asks.

"Home," I say, "we have a long walk ahead of us so if you don't mind." I try to push past the man but he shoves me back and I stumble into Sylas.

"You have to pay for your drinks first," the man says. "He said you're good for it," he gestures to Dochek and then looks back at me, expectantly. I glare at Dochek for a moment before returning my gaze to the man.

"I'm sorry sir, this has all just been a huge mis -" Before I finish speaking, Sylas delivers a heavy kick to the man's groin.

"Run!" Sylas yells, hopping over the man's hunched frame.

I grab Snow by the hand and run out the door and down the street behind Sylas. I can hear Dochek's voice screaming something from behind me as I guide Snow through the crowded streets. Sylas keeps running and turning down side streets until finally stopping in a small alleyway. I follow Sylas into the alley and stop to catch my breath. I look at Snow to make sure that she's okay. That's when I notice that Dochek isn't with us.

I step out of the alley and look up and down the street for Dochek. I can't see very far through the crowds and the light of the sun is all but gone now. As I stare down the darkening street I'm startled by someone grabbing me from behind. I spin around violently to see Dochek, standing in front of me, grinning, holding a large wad of money.

"Where did you go? And where did you get that?" I ask. Without thinking I embrace Dochek out of sheer relief.

"Alright, alright," Dochek says, pushing me away. "No need for all that. I just happen to knock someone over during our little escape and they dropped this. I thought it would be wrong not to seize the opportunity." Dochek grins and tosses the money at me. I catch the flimsy pieces of paper and tuck them quickly into my bag.

"Alright, I think we've had enough fun," I say. "Let's find our way back home."

They nod in agreement and we all exit the alleyway together. As we step out onto the street I notice the sky, full of dark hues of red and purple. The sun is setting, and we still have the entire trip home. I start to walk in the direction I think we came from. None of the stores look familiar. I decide we should walk towards the closest wall so we can follow it around to the main gate. As we walk, Dochek stops outside of a large, well-lit building with a sign that reads, "Madame Belfry's Love Tavern". I open my mouth to call out to him, but he enters the door before I have the chance.

I turn around and head for the building that Dochek went into. Sylas and Snow walk absently behind me. They're looking dreamily into the shop windows along the way. I open the doors of the building and go inside. It's loud and women are walking around with their breasts exposed. Men are sitting around drinking and hollering at the women as they walk by. I see Snow's face turn red and her eyes look to the floor. Sylas gazes on in wonder at the beautiful women. I try to look around for Dochek, but my eyes keep landing on the women. One of them comes up to me and presses herself against me. I feel her smooth skin and for a moment I can't remember why I'm here. I feel a hand on my shoulder pull me around. Snow stands in front of me, frightened.

"We need to find Dochek and get out of here," she says. I look around the room once again, focusing on the faces of the men. In the back corner, I see Dochek with a woman on his lap. I go over to Dochek and grab him by the wrist. He doesn't make any attempt to move. I pull on his wrist but he doesn't break his gaze from the woman in front of him.

"Brother Dochek," I shout at him. "I am telling you as your leader, we need to go, now." Dochek rolled his head to look at me.

"We aren't on the farm anymore," he says. "The family isn't here Kiran."

"Come on Dochek, we have to -" I feel Snow's hand on me again. I look into her eyes and know immediately that I have to leave him here. Snow leads Sylas and I out the door back into the street.

"Why did we leave him in there?" Sylas asks, ripping his hand free of Snow's grip. "I have to go back in for him." I see a twinkle in Sylas' eyes as he tries to go back inside. I grab Sylas by the wrist and jerk him away from the door.

"He doesn't want to come back," I say, looking Sylas in his glossy eyes. "He doesn't care about the family anymore." Sylas looks at me disgusted before flopping down onto a bench. I turn to Snow and she gives me a reassuring look and pulls me in for a hug.

"There's nothing we could have done," she whispers to me. "This was probably his plan all along." Snow lets me go and takes a seat next to Sylas, putting an arm around his hunched shoulders. I take a deep breath and square my shoulders before approaching my two remaining friends on the bench.

"Alright, Dochek isn't coming with us," I say. "But we still have to get out of here, and we still don't know where we are. I don't want to risk splitting up, so we will all move together and try to find someone who can give us directions." I grab their wrists and pull them off the bench before they have time to argue. I guide us at a brisk pace down the dark city streets. The bulbs that illuminate the street are growing duller as the night drags on, making it hard to read the signs over the buildings.

"Do you think," Snow begins, "we will need something to trade to leave the city, like we did to come in?" I stop walking and turn to Snow who looks concerned.

"I didn't think of that," I say, trying to keep my voice steady. "We should find something to barter."

"Can't we just give him the money and be done with it?" Sylas asks.

"I'm not leaving here with nothing, not now." I reply

"Fine, let's just go in there," Sylas says, walking into the nearest store. Snow and I follow him inside. The air within is dense with the smell of artificial sweetness. There are women standing behind counters with bottles and vials. Each one is a unique color and shape. Some of the women are sitting in chairs while different powders and creams are applied to their faces. I look around to each of the counters and when I come to the one at the end I see Snow sitting in a chair. I find Sylas and grab him before going over to Snow at the counter. A tall woman with high cheek bones is organizing her supplies, she only looks up briefly when we approach.

"What are you doing Snow?" I ask, reaching for her hand. "This isn't what we came in here for. Let's go." I grab hold of her wrist but she pulls it away.

"But Father Kiran," Snow says, rubbing her hands together nervously, "I think it looks fun. Besides, once I'm done I'll just ask this lady for directions out of here." Snow smiles and holds out her hand. "Can I have some money?" she asks, "I don't think she'll do it for free."

I don't say anything. I pull the money that Dochek had stolen and hand a few bills to Snow. She smiles in return and shoos me away. I pull Sylas over to some chairs that are sitting against the wall. We flop down together to wait for Snow to be finished with whatever it is that is happening. Sylas remains quiet next to me. I know he is still upset about Dochek, even though he wouldn't show it. They had been friends after all, he probably feels abandoned. I open my mouth to speak but I realize I have nothing to say.

I look down at the remaining pile of money that I'm still holding in my hands. The closest thing we have to money on the farm are the reward coupons we get for birthdays. But here, here is different. I shake myself out of my thoughts and look up toward the counter where Snow is sitting. The tall woman with high cheek bones is blocking my view, but I can hear Snow giggling behind the woman's petite frame. I turn to Sylas and motion for him to stay put, he waves a hand in agreement.

"Sorry to interrupt," I say as I approach the counter. "I just wanted to make sure Snow had asked for directions out of the city." The tall woman stops her work and looks at me as if she had just eaten something sour.

"Yes dear," the woman begins, "I was just telling her that you can follow the road right out front all the way to the gate, shouldn't take long."

"Thank you so much," I say, feeling relief for the first time since we came to the city. "Snow, it's time to go." I look up at Snow for the first time since I approached the counter. Her face is covered in powders and creams of all colors. I can smell the fake scents wafting off of her. She beams at me and her teeth sparkle, a brilliant white against the new red hue of her lips.

"But Father Kiran," Snow begins, a frown creeping onto her face, "I can't go yet. I have to show off my new look around town. You know the family won't appreciate it."

"Of course they will Snow," I say, feeling my stomach begin to churn. "We have to go soon, so we can show it to them." I pull on Snow's wrist but she rips her hand away. I try to grab her to pick her up but she screams and swats at me. The other women in the store come to Snow's aid and force me out. Luckily, Sylas notices the commotion and follows the mob outside. The women throw me to the ground outside and slam the door behind me. Sylas grabs my hand and hoists me to my feet, a confused look on his face.

"What happened? Where is Snow?" he asks, trying to look in through the shop window.

"Snow says she doesn't want to come back either," I say, brushing myself off. "They kicked me out when I tried to take her back by force." I turn the direction the woman with the high cheek bones had indicated and begin walking. Sylas follows close behind.

"So we're just leaving her too?" Sylas asks, "I thought you're supposed to be a leader? Why couldn't you get them to come with us?" I stop walking and turn to Sylas; his face grows redder by the second. I can't tell if it's from anger, or if he is still drunk from earlier - I think a little of both.

"I warned them about this place," I shout, pushing Sylas away. "I told them it wasn't a good idea. I knew that this place changes people. It's their fault for not listening. There wasn't anything I could do." I sit down on a bench and put my head in my hands. I feel hot tears running down my face. I look up at Sylas and say, "You and I can still make it out of here. Let's buy something for the guard, get to the gate, and get home before dawn."

Sylas looks at me but says nothing. He gestures for me to lead the way and I walk briskly down the street. We walk for a few minutes until we come across another Tavern, a jolly tune coming from within. I turn to Sylas, he nods, and we both go inside.

The inside of the tavern is much darker than the tune we heard suggested. Small groups of men sat at booths talking in hushed tones. I notice some people going up a narrow staircase in the back corner of the room. I walk up to the bar. Sylas takes a seat on one of the stools. There is a squat man standing behind the counter. He has hairy arms and his eyes have a piercing intensity. He looks at the two of us expectantly.

"Hello sir," I say, trying to sound relaxed. "We just need something to trade for passage out of the city." The man looks at me and brings a large hand to his chin. He clears his throat and rubs his hand over his mouth before speaking.

"Upstairs," the man says, gesturing toward the narrow staircase. I grab onto Sylas and we go upstairs. At the top of the staircase there is a large room full of couches. There are people lying all over the room with dead-eyed stares on their faces. A man approaches us, he is thin and tall. His skin is bone white, as if it's completely see-through. He looks at us knowingly and holds out a long needle, filled with a murky black liquid.

"Looking for a taste?" the man asks, almost in a whisper.

"No, we just need it to leave the city," I say, moving myself in front of Sylas. The man frowns at me and switches his gaze to Sylas.

"Well," the man begins with a hiss, "one of you boys has to taste, or I won't let you leave with it."

"I'll do it then," Sylas says from behind me. I turn to him, giving him a stern look. Sylas pushes past me and says, "It's the only way to get home. Besides, I really need to relax." Sylas grabs the money from my bag and puts it in the man's hand, and takes the syringe.

"Sylas you ca -" but I can't finish before the needle is in Sylas' arm. He pushes down on the plunger and I watch the dark liquid empty from the syringe. Sylas' eyes roll to the back of his head and he collapses backward onto the couch. I pull the needle out of his arm and sit down with him, resting his head in my lap. I stroke his hair and watch his glossy eyes move back and forth. A smile seems to be lingering just inside his lips, but his expression remains blank. I wait for a long time for Sylas to wake up, but he doesn't respond when I shake him. It's easy to see in his clouded eyes that he isn't coming back. I try to pick Sylas up off the couch but I'm met with laughter from the slumped figures scattered around me. Sylas' body feels like lead and I can't lift him off the couch.

"Please brother," I whisper in his ear, "I can't go back alone."

Sylas' milky eyes look toward me; I can see the resigned acceptance in his eyes and I feel tears forming in my own. I pay the man for another syringe and walk down the steps. I can't bring myself to look back.

I exit the tavern and begin to walk down the street. I am numb to the world around me. I feel tears running down my face but I almost can't remember what I want to cry about. The city is silent now. The bulbs lining the streets have all gone out and the moon is the only source of light for the city. I walk along the street and eventually come across a large gate, but not the gate we came in. I realize I must be on the wrong side of the city. I consider turning around and following the road back around to the front gate. But part of me knows that I can never go back, not after this.

I walk to the man at the gate and drop the syringe with the murky liquid into his hands. He nods at me and I push the gate open. I'm hit with a gust of fresh air and the smell of the land outside the city. The path in front of me leads away from the farm, away from everything I've ever known. For a moment, I turn to face the city. Toward my home on the other side. I can almost smell the moist, earthy scent that comes from the soil of the farm. I pull tight the straps of my pack and wipe hot tears from my face before turning again to the dark path in front of me. With an apprehensive breath, I take the first step down the road into the unknown.

3 comments:

  1. A potent tale of many jeopardies - with interesting characterisations, many thanks,
    Ceinwe,

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  2. A fine tale with well-portrayed, distinct characters. It's a story in which the reader quickly realizes what will happen but gets pulled in to find out how it happens. Thank you.

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  3. As Nancy has already commented, the use of the 'voyage and (no) return' plot gives the reader a pretty good inkling of the events to unfold. The scene-setting is irresistible - the tension of the farm, the gaudy fear of the city. I could have done with less 1st person present tense - difficult to sustain, perhaps more anecdotal contribution in the 3rd person from Sylas and maybe try splitting present and past tense to emphasize in Kiran the changes from calm to anxiety, or maybe the farm is past tense, the city present...just an idea for giving further dimension to what is quite a relatively long piece. It works well on the reader. I felt real fear for Kiran.
    B r o o k e

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