With a dull clunk, the lights went off. The only illumination came from green lights placed economically on the walls. As K walked under them, she could hear hums and pops. Keeping her back against the wall, she made her careful way forward. Where doors had been left open, she sprinted past, hoping the occupants would see a shadow and put it down to their imaginations.
Jake’s door was open. It always was given it was just a sheet of some greasy material. K crept as close as she dared and listened. A grunt and a sonorous snore made her exhale in relief. Carefully, she moved the curtain aside. It crinkled and she winced, waiting for Jake to shoot upright.
There. Her eyes fell on the keys and she frowned. No alarms, no glass cases, no guns loaded. This wasn’t right. She hadn’t known what to expect but it hadn’t been this. They were hung on a hook. A simple nail embedded into cardboard that hung on the wall.
It dawned on her. No one left this compound. Why would they? Adults wanted to hide. Children were too scared. They didn’t compensate for her. Tonight, she would prove to them all that a life out there would be infinitely better than the life she had here.
Tiptoeing, she danced across the room in seconds and snatched the keys up. They jangled in the tremor of movement.
“Shh!” she hissed then stopped herself. She was talking to a bunch of keys.
She made it back out of the room and leant against the wall, breathing heavily. Her heart was pounding against the prison of her ribs. Cold air whispered over the sweat on her forehead. Even though her legs were tremoring, she managed a smile. Stage one complete.
The difficult part was over.
Back in her room, she pulled on a patchy long-sleeved which had once been red but was now pink. On top she shrugged into an equally tatty hoody that her mother had found in the swap room. There was a skirt, and thick leggings and combat boots. Pretty much everyone here had them. Someone had said it was cold when they had returned from their mission so she pulled on a hat and some gloves. There was a torch under her pillow, one she could finally use after having rescued it from a lost property box.
As she left the room, she turned to look at the lump that was her mum. She contemplated kissing her, like they did in the movies they sometimes showed. No. Too clichéd. Besides, she would be back before anyone knew she had gone.
For the last time, she traipsed the long corridor, the silence which had become accepted now an enemy. Each time her foot took a heavy fall, or each time she breathed she was acutely aware.
Finally, she reached the door. In the darkness it looked menacing and for the first time, she felt jitters. Perhaps it was as bad as they said. Had she been ignorant? She could turn back now before it was too late. She was inside with someone who loved her. She was safe. She was fed. No. If she didn’t do this now, there wouldn’t be another chance and she would regret. By her side, the keys moved, reminding her of their presence. Slowly, she unhooked them off her belt. With her other hand, she raised the light to the door. Three bolts. Easily done. They squealed slightly as she slid each one across. Then two keyholes. Big. Square. It wasn’t hard to find the key that fitted.
Breathing out heavily she pushed it into the lock. There was a click. Her wrist turned, seeming to do so of its own accord. Tensions snapped and the key did a full circle. As she raised the key to the second lock, she realised her hand was shaking.
“Come on,” she muttered. One twist and it was done. Nothing separated her from outside except the force of her own body and mind.
She pulled and barely had time to feel the cold air over her before she was out of the door and closing it behind her.
K was in a walled pit, with cracked stairs leading up into a white day. One foot stepped onto the stairs and she heard them groan. It held. Her other foot came to meet it and this way, she shuffled upwards. Each creak made her heart beat a little faster and her pace quickened. Three more steps. Two more. One more.
She didn’t get past the last step because the view in front of her had stolen energy she had left.
It was a city. It had been a city. Skyscrapers stood like metal rulers, blocking out fragments of a purple, grey sky. Some were intact, maintaining dominance, reminders of human triumph and riches. Others had huge chunks missing, some falling in on themselves so they were squat and misshapen. Smaller building dotted their bases. There were great gaps where building should have been.
K looked up at the sky. In the books and in the art and in her head it was blue. Idyllic, dotted with those fleecy clouds that looked so soft. Not here. It was fiercely violet. There was no sun, just choking grey clouds.
She moved forward so now she was fully out of the pit. The stairs had led her to a plain and now she could see the city as it sat in its own collapsed bowl. Roads were still visible, but in chunks. Grass grew everywhere; crawling over crumbled stones and streetlamps.
A warm breeze trickled through, bringing with it an alien stench. In it’s aftermath, K felt her skin tingle. Raising a hand to her face, she felt heat wanting to break through her skin. For a moment, she thought about going back. It was getting hard to breathe, her lungs raking in thick soup with each movement.
Of their own accord, her feet moved forward, down the slope. She leant back, trying to get the balance right and adjusting to the soft, yielding grass. As she walked down, it seemed to disintegrate, tiny fragments propelled into the air. Some stalks were black, others a shade of blue. A pungent tang rose around her, making her cough.
Down into the pit and she set a foot on a little block of tarmac veined with cracks. Her boots slapped down, the sound unnaturally loud in the silence. Another step and she was moving quickly now, her destination a crumbled house straight ahead.
Details became clearer as she drew closer. Half of a sign hung above the door. The writing had long been rubbed off and the paint stripped. Now, a wooden board swung over the gaping doorway. K stepped through it, her eyes starting at the complete darkness inside. Flicking on her torch, she let the golden light do the seeing for her.
Desolate. It was the only word to describe this mess. A tiny wall, one which she could easily step over, shot with small boards of wood marked what she presumed was a bar. Once upon a time, her parents had shared alcohol over the counter and met after tiring jobs. Metal, mottled with green and pink shot out of the floor in various spots. Her feet crunched over shards of glass.
Suddenly tears sprung to her eyes. There had been no clue that they had been lurking under the surface. She gasped, realising now, that oxygen was not reaching her lungs. Backing out of the room, she dropped her torch. It landed with a dull thunk and rolled in a half arc, it’s light fixed on a stained section of wall.
Light hit her but it was no relief as air didn’t come with it. Gasping now, she stumbled up the hill, tripping and picking herself up. Her face was burning and she felt like at any moment it would erupt into flame.
She made it back to the pit and raced down the first few steps. Losing her balance, she tumbled quickly and furiously down. Her body slammed against the metal door and with her last few breaths she whimpered. With one fist, she pounded it as hard as she could, hoping that somewhere someone would hear her.
Blood was flowing into her eyes and so she closed them. The darkness deepened and all she became aware of was a solid black.