Children Play in Shadows
Copyright 2012, Lazette Gifford
Elise held MaryJo's hand, afraid the younger girl would run off into the dark, dusty corridors. She regretted having dared MaryJo to come this high in the complex. However, she'd never live this down if she said they should go back. And at twelve years old, never looked like a long, long time.
She would have been happier keeping this her secret place, though.
"We shouldn't be here," MaryJo whispered, her voice quivering. What if she got hysterical? "It's too near the top!"
"I'll take you back if you want to go." Elise feigned indifference, but she really hoped MaryJo would demand they turn around.
She didn't. MaryJo had a stubborn streak. Teachers had stopped trying to teach her anything her dada considered a lie. Elise didn't like adults who lied to their children and made them look stupid in front of others. You couldn't talk about anything important with Maryjo.
She and MaryJo climbed more stairs, leaving footprints in the dust. They reached the level with the windows, all covered with old, dusty curtains. MaryJo stopped, her hand suddenly clammy in Elise's fingers. She feared MaryJo might faint.
"Is there really sunlight on the other side?"
"Yes," Elise said. "Bright, real sunlight. And dead plants growing all the way up to the windows."
"You looked?" The girl's face went deathly white.
"Yes." She didn't say she had looked at night, with the bright moon showing the world. She pulled MaryJo closer. "My grandmother says she and her friends used to go out and work in the sunlight until they turned dark brown."
"And died? Why would they do that?"
"No, silly, they didn't die or else grandma wouldn't be here, would she? This was in the days before the changes. People lived on the surface --"
"Did not! Dada says they always lived in houses like our apartments, but with windows the people covered over. He says no one liked the surface, full of bugs and dangerous animals even before the change!"
"Don't you have any history books? Don't you look at pictures from before?"
"Dada says it's all lies to get people against the government and pretend there were better days." MaryJo got her characteristic look of defiance on her face. "Your grandma lied to you."
"She did not," Elise replied with the same defiance. "Grandma showed me pictures. Everyone says your da destroyed his family pictures so he'd be in good with the Grounders."
"Life was great on the surface," Elise said. She felt the special warmth thinking about butterflies on flowers and birds flying free through the air; live ones, not stuffed like in the museum room. Elise loved to hear about summer storms and winter blizzards.
Life as a Grounder bored her. She wanted to run wild in the wind and hear birds sing, not just listen to their recorded sounds. She wanted storms!
"You're evil!" MaryJo took a step backwards. "You are an evil, lying polysci, trying to convince people to go up top so they'll die, and you'll have everything to yourselves. I'm telling my dada. He's making a list of polysci's and you'll be kicked out!"
"You say anything and I'll tell how you came up here to see the sunlight." Elise said and MaryJo's face turned white again. "He'd put you on the list, wouldn't he? Besides, no one is going out until the world is ready for us again."
MaryJo kicked and Elise shoved. The younger girl fell against the window, her arm catching in the curtain, raising a cloud of dust as she panicked and tried to pull free.
The curtain came down. Light flooded the room, blinding them with brightness. MaryJo wailed and fled, screaming as she headed for the stairs. Elise, finding herself on the far side of the window, threw herself against the wall, pressing into the shadow. Her eyes ran with tears from the blinding light.
The sun won't kill you, not in little bits, even now, Grandma had told her. We just ruined the atmosphere, but we're fixing it. We're waiting for the world to heal again and helping her along as best we can.
Elise could hear MaryJo, not far away, sobbing with fear. She needed to get to her before the baby got lost. She started to move, but the light touched her arm.
Your grandma lied to you.
Elise pushed against the wall, tears flowing for new reasons. For the first time in her life, she felt fear. What if grandma didn't know the truth? Sure, she was a scientist and worked in the labs, but scientists made mistakes. Even she said so.
She didn't lie. She didn't lie.
Elise scrunched down, her arm over her face, and ran through the light to the stairs. She stopped there, gasping and afraid, but she finally looked at her arm.
It hadn't turned brown. Maybe she had been too fast for the light. Maybe she wouldn't die.
They went down the stairs, silent and glaring, but Elise knew MaryJo wouldn't mention the incident for fear her dada would find out.
They didn't spend time together anymore. For weeks Elise watched her arm, waiting for the skin to darken and grow sores. It never did.
Her grandma didn't lie.
MaryJo's family moved to a new Grounder colony a few months later. They had to travel at night. She saw MaryJo in tears as they climbed into the cart that would take them to the surface. She screamed how she didn't want to die, and both her parents had to hold her down.
"Silly people," grandma said, watching the cart pull away. She shook her gray-haired head in disbelief. "Look what they've done to that poor child. They'll hide forever in their holes. But you, Elise -- you are going to have the whole world back."
Elise nodded and followed her grandma back to their apartment, safe in the deep earth.
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