The world was a different place before I was born. War was life, death was everywhere, and oppression was universal. The population of the world suffered, and tyranny spread like a disease. But we all had something in common: each other.
Back then, there were no lines between who could and couldn’t spend life together, and who could and couldn’t be in love. But, for the sake of cultural preservation, our world changed. And it was for the sake of cultural preservation that I was no longer wanted.
Earth, as it had been known, was gone, and all that remained was now called Edict. Edict was a formal republic created to prevent the events of the past from happening again. There were roughly two hundred million people left on the planet; the other billions of people were killed by war, famine, disease, or nuclear disasters. But Edict’s purpose was deeper than just maintaining order.
Edict’s mandate was simple: “Preserve, Produce, Seek”. When Edict first came to be, everyone was separated by race and country of origin. Each ethnic group lived together, and everyone stayed within boroughs of people from their homeland, creating the Ethnic Sectors. Leaders were chosen from each race, and those leaders were to represent their people in the republican system we had built. But above them stood the Supreme and the Director.
The Supreme was well loved, ruling over Edict and promoting both justice and transparency within each of the Ethnic Sectors. With the help of the Senators, the Supreme implemented ration programs, reconstruction efforts, and developed technology beyond what we had before the disasters. Huge touchscreen monitors in every home, state of the art facial recognition in every camera around the cities, high security and unforgeable identification cards. But the Director was far different.
By dividing everyone by their racial background there was one larger issue: What about the people who don’t fit? Those whose racial background is unknown, or who are full of so many different ethnicities, they become an anomaly in the system?
Edict’s answer was easy. Separation.
The Director oversaw this. It was the Director’s duty to supervise and take control over everyone that would now be identified as “Unknown”. The Director strictly regulated rations, education, and all business within the city limits of our segregated home: the Underground.
The Underground was an unintentional creation by Edict, but it sparked an entirely new culture. This is where I fell; I was an unidentified entity in the diluted race of “Unknown”. In a world that was supposed to be created upon equality, freedom, and the abolishment of tyranny, there were now flaws. Two hundred years ago, the first group of Unknowns totaled to 103 people- men, women, and children.
But Edict grew even more oppressive. People of different racial groups were no longer allowed to interact in order to keep the Unknown population from expanding, and were definitely not allowed to get married, join families, or reproduce together. If anyone broke any of these laws, they, like the Unknowns, were moved to the Underground, or worse. They could be exiled.
These were dark times for the Unknowns. Our living conditions were becoming worse and worse, our food supply was waning, and the Director and her staff tried to do everything they could to make it worse. Edict’s militant guards stood watch on every corner of the Underground; the only privacy you really had was any time spent in a restrooms. But the work was even worse.
The people of the Underground were given the most abhorrent tasks, and the most dangerous. Waste management, tailoring in sweatshop-style warehouses, and manufacturing the everyday items and foods that the people of Edict used and consumed. It wasn’t uncommon for people to die awfully by the archaic machinery, or to attempt suicide in an effort to escape this meaningless existence. Some were successful, and we believed they were the lucky ones.
But there was one job that only the Unknowns knew existed: Travelers. Travelers were volunteers from the Underground that were commissioned by Edict to defend and explore the world outside the gates. Everyone else is told growing up that there is nothing outside, but Travelers were the ones sent to discover the truth. The only problem was, once someone left to be a Traveler, they didn’t come back.
Every year, on July 21st, the Director and representatives from the Traveler Department came to accept volunteers from the graduating class of the Underground’s secondary school. A majority of the students would choose one of the menial professions within the Underground, but every now and again a bold student would volunteer for service. I’d always felt like I’d never have the guts.
This was my year.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep."
- Robert Frost; “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
Not much happened in the Underground.
Not until I turned eighteen, at least.
The biggest choice of my life was looming over me. Do I stay in the safety I have been provided in the Underground, or do I leave to risk life as a Traveler?
It was terrifying, not knowing what was ahead of me if I chose to be a Traveler. But at the same time, it was exhilarating and enthralling. I wanted to know what was outside the Underground, but the nervous skeptic inside of my awkward and uncertain body said three words to me: Don’t do it.
Deciding to put off my answer, I got dressed in the small, disheveled bedroom that I shared in the orphanage with two other abandoned Unknown girls. Everyone in the underground wore old, reconstructed clothing from the decades past. Whatever could be salvaged from the waste of the Ethnic Sectors was given to us, and we did what we could with what we had. I stretched and let out a sigh of a yawn.
Dirt, tracked in from outside, coated the creaky floor, and a thin layer of gray dust blanketed the leaning stacks of paperback books at my feet. I pulled a bleach-spotted black sweatshirt over my head , discovering a thumb-sized hole in the armpit, and stuck my legs into a pair of worn jeans. If I were in the Ethnic Sectors I’d have finished off the outfit by slipping on my white identification armband, but we did without such technology in the Underground. Shoving my socked feet into a pair of scuffed black boots, I opened the bedroom door and stepped out into the hallway.
“Good morning, Adrianne!” chirped a middle-aged lady with deep crow’s feet and friendly dimples. Her name was Rebecca Bringle, the House Mother of the orphanage I was living in. She brushed her frizzy white streaked hair from in front of her chocolate eyes. I had two more days until I had to leave; I would be too old to be supported at the orphanage at eighteen. “Have you decided on a profession yet?”
“No,” I replied shortly, having no desire to explain. All she ever did was irritate me.
“Well, you better get working on that, missy! Two more days and you’ll be sent out to the gates if you don’t figure it out!”
The truth was, I didn't want to have it all figured out. I didn’t want to have to grow up, support myself, and make big life decisions. All I wished for at this point in my life was to rewind a few years and enjoy the times when all that my worries consisted of was schoolwork and my few friends. I didn’t want to decide whether or not I wanted to be a tailor, a production line worker, or a Traveler. But I was not given a choice.
I gave Rebecca a look of feigned happiness, scrunching my face, and took a deep breath. “I’ll figure it out today,” I replied, but even I didn’t know if that was true.
Rebecca smiled, pleased with herself, and walked past me into the closet of a bathroom. Her arms were covered by a thick red sweater; her hands were wrinkled and bony. She was younger than she looked, only in her early thirties even though she looked closer to fifty. I sighed, relieved that she’d gone, and walked out into the spacious living room.
There were four large couches wrapped in warped plastic seat covers around the room and one glass topped coffee table placed inconveniently in a walkway. The room had atrocious wood paneled walls in a sticky maple finish and forest green carpet in desperate need of vacuuming. There was an awkward wall dividing the kitchen from the living room, but I knew if I were to walk past it, I would see the outdated appliances against stained floral wallpaper.
My two roommates sat on the well-loved couch in front of a boxy television screen. I could hear the static clicking and popping, and knew if I touched the screen, it might shock me. The movie they had put in the VCR was one I had never seen before. There were animated bugs talking to each other like humans would, and two fireflies had used their glowing rears as spotlights in what looked to be a miniature carnival.
“What the hell are you watching?” I asked the two girls, one of them a young and shy twelve year old, the other, uninhibited and free-spirited at sixteen.
“It’s an old VHS tape we found in the basement. It’s called A Bug’s Life”, the twelve year old, Keera, explained.
“I think it’s funny!” laughed the sixteen year old, Eliza. Eliza ran her fingers through her long hair, and smiled widely. Keera rolled her eyes at Eliza, then looked back at the television.
Eliza was always effortlessly elegant, even in the mornings. Her dark, tropical skin was perfectly sun kissed, and her hair fell beautifully past her shoulders in small ringlets. When she smiled, you could see it in her blue-green eyes in both their brightness and smoothly curved shape.
Keera’s beauty was much more subtle. Her skin was a beautiful beige with spots of freckles across her high cheekbones and soft brows above her slanted black-brown eyes. Her clothes never fit right on her malnourished body, and she looked tinier next to Eliza’s full bodied figure. But both, despite their differences, were two of the most gorgeous creatures I had ever laid eyes on.
“We’re going to miss you around here,” Keera started, speaking over the television. She had an old soul; Keera was the type of person you could exchange the word ‘hello’ with and feel as thought you had known her in another life. Her maturity outnumbered her years and made up for whatever maturity Eliza lacked.
“I’m going to miss you all more,” I replied. The humanoid bugs were running away from massive raindrops on the screen, and Eliza’s eyes were stuck to the television like peanut butter to the roof of your mouth. “I don’t have much in the room, but now you all will have a little more space to yourselves on the bed.”
Keera smiled. “It does get pretty cramped on there.” We all shared one queen sized bed and two large quilts, but were lucky enough to have our own pillows. If only we had our own parents.
Eliza was the lucky one, in my eyes. Her parents had died soon after she was born, and she was given to the orphanage when I was five. But Keera and I had grown up here since infancy. We were taken from our parents by Edict after they broke the law. Our parents were from different Ethnic Groups, I was told, and when Edict found out they were taken away. We were dropped off here.
I’d always connected more with Keera because of this; we had the same struggle. Though Keera often wondered what her parents were like, I didn't care. They were gone, and I never knew them. It didn’t matter. What was real was here and now, and now I had a choice to make.
“Adrianne, did you hear me?” Keera asked.
I blinked hard and shook my head, catching a piece of my frizzy blonde hair on the corner of my mouth. “What? No. What did you say?” I stammered.
“I asked if you were going to take that job offer at the dress shop,” she explained.
The dress shop was not a store, like it sounded. It was a production plant where all of the dresses in Edict were produced. It sounded glamourous, but I knew it wasn’t. If I was lucky, I’d get to sew the dresses or cut the fabric, but I’d probably only end up working with the dyes and fixing the machines when they broke down. Even worse, weaving the fabrics.
“Probably not,” I replied.
Keera’s eyes widened. “What!? That’s the best job you could possibly have here in the Underground! What other options could be better than the dress shop? Plumbing? Waste management?”
I smiled. “We’ll see,” I said.
That morning was spent putting the small amount of clothing I had into a duffel bag and watching whatever VHS tapes were not worn out on the television with Eliza and Keera. I didn’t want to think about my future, even if I needed to. My decision was to choose it on a whim at the last minute possible. When I’d eaten my typical lunch of spongy white bread and peanut butter, I set out for downtown.
Downtown was not what you’d typically think of in the Underground. And the Underground wasn’t actually under the ground. “Downtown” in the major cities of Edict consists of large, shiny buildings with beautiful, glowing sidewalks, neatly groomed trees, and hope of a bright future in the eyes of the gorgeous people you’d meet. But downtown in the Underground was hardly comparable.
The streets were cracked and randomly patched with sticky black tar, the sidewalks were splitting and overcome by weeds, and dirt covered everything. The buildings were all the same: concrete blocks that lined each street with grimy, barred windows and barren storefronts. Surrounding the downtown area were large twenty story apartment buildings made of brick that housed all of the profession workers. As our population grew, so did the number of apartment buildings.
I could not imagine having to live in one, with noisy neighbors pounding and stomping and bouncing in every direction. Having to live in a room with white walls and bland beige carpet, a corner of it reserved for a kitchen and an even smaller bathroom than the one we had at the orphanage. Edict’s armed guards would stand at the end of each hallway, making sure there was nothing out of the ordinary. “For our safety”, they would claim. As I walked, I thought about what my life could be like if I stayed and took the job at the dress shop.
I would live in one of those many identical buildings. I would have to work my way up the hard way, but I would never be more than a tailor. Maybe I might meet a nice boy, get married, and have kids. I could never leave the Underground, but I could find some version of happiness. Probably.
Downtown was busy today, more than usual. It was July 19th, the day before Traveler representatives would storm the town to recruit from my class, and two days before they’d take whoever they could away to the gates. A majority of the people I saw were young, many of them just shopping with their weekly allowances, but many out to cause as much trouble as possible before being thrown into the daily nine-to-five grind.
Edict’s guards stood upright and stone faced on each street corner, always with one hand straight down at their side, the other always bracing a gun. I didn’t fear the guards as I should have; I knew deep down they were people, too. They had to be human under their robotic appearance, but I didn’t mess with them as a group of boys across the street from me decided to.
“Hey!” one of them, a tall red headed boy with thick patches of freckles, yelled. He was face to face with a guard, backed by a motley of delinquents, chest pushed out proudly with a sly grin slathered across his mouth. “Why don’t you take your cute little gun and run back to your Supreme!”
The guard didn’t move; his eyes looked straight ahead, ignoring the obnoxious boy. “Hey!” the boy yelled, louder. “I said why don’t you get out of here!”
Still, the guard stood without reaction. The boy was writhing with suppressed anger toward the guard, who was both taller and larger than him. “Get out of here!” the boy screamed, punching hard against the guard’s chest with both hands.
Faster than I could think, the guard had the boy pinned down to the deteriorating cement, both arms behind his back. The boy was defenseless. “Don’t taunt the guards,” the guard said, his voice deep and resonant, releasing him to run away.
I could not help but stare at the guard, even after the incident had ended. He was tall, having several inches on me, and thick with muscle. His hair was short and brown, slicked back with grease tightly, and there were hints of black ink creeping up the side of his neck from what I supposed were tattoos. His eyes, which scanned the streets accusingly, were icy gray, and his ears held thick black gauges the size of my thumbnail.
Against him, I felt plain and feeble. I was pale with hazel eyes and commonplace dirty blonde hair. His face was sculpted and held sharp edges while my rounder cheeks always made me look years younger than I was. My lips were thin and my bold eyebrows stood out embarrassingly over my deep set eyes. The delicacy of my lanky figure made his athletic one look even more impressive. I, for a moment, envied his strength.
Our eyes met, only for a moment, and the corner of his mouth turned upward in what I supposed was the hint of a smile. Blushing, I covered my face and walked off briskly. I had come downtown, not to mess with guards or to watch brainless teenagers make fools of themselves, but to think. Walking past giggling gaggles of girls, more obnoxious boys, and the occasional exhausted profession worker was depressing. Here I saw two worlds: what I was and what I was about to become.
The sun was high in the cloudless sky, and it beat down harshly on my neck, raising up droplets of sweat. It was hot, but not as hot as it could have been; I suffered through wearing long sleeves and jeans to protect my pale, lightly freckled skin from the sun. Just minutes of exposure and I’d be pink.
I walked into one of the stores; a building with the word “BOOKS” in white letters above the doorway. The barred-glass door opened with a struggle and the ringing of a small bell. It was dark inside. The windows were covered by sheer gray curtains and only a few lights hung from the steel beams of the industrial ceiling.
“Welcome to the book store, where we have books,” said the tanned, dark haired clerk dryly. I’d never seen her show any emotion, save disdain, toward anything. Even books. I enjoyed that about her, even though I never knew her name. She had razor cut bangs and bobbed black hair that matched the long black dress she wore at the checkout counter. Her lips were always coated thickly with cheap dark purple lipstick.
“Cool,” I replied, not knowing what else to say. Casually, I perused the tall metal shelves that stood cluttered with books: new and old, thick and thin. The store had that distinct musty smell that all old book stores should have; an even aroma of old paper and dust. Having a profession would mean less time spent here and more time hunched over a desk or sewing machine. Having a profession would also mean less time with friends and more time spent in quiet contemplation and mindless action on an assembly line. Stop thinking about it, I told myself. You don’t have to choose that life, anyway.
The bookstore had no one but me, the clerk, and the books within its walls. I preferred it that way. The clerk and I would acknowledge each other’s presence from time to time, but it was the books that were really my friend. Specifically, the poetry.
Since I was young, I’d loved poetry. It was a method of writing that emanated emotion, and sought to find the same in you. Poetry was the way a person could share the feelings they couldn’t say. If I thought hard enough, I could remember one stanza of a poem Rebecca had read to me when I was barely eight years old:
"The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep"
At eight years old, I dreamed of being a Traveler, and kept these few lines close to my heart in hopes that one day, I would be able to travel on for miles and miles, far from the orphanage and the Underground. Now, however, life was not as simple.
I walked past shelves holding non-fiction and memoirs to the only wooden bookshelf in the store. It was small, standing as tall as my waist, with three shelves holding piles of untouched blank journals and uneven patches of dust. I reached for a black, hard-covered journal with manila pages that rested, abandoned, on the top of the bookshelf. Feeling its weight in my hands, the journal felt like an old friend. It was perfect.
Walking to the clerk’s desk, I smiled shyly. “Just this and an ink pen, please,” I mumbled.
The clerk pulled out a simple black pen from a jar on the counter and punched indeterminable numbers into the clicking cash register. I pulled my coin pouch from my back pocket. “Four bucks, even,” she told me, blandly.
Nodding, I took the bills from my coin pouch and handed them to her delicately. She snatched them from my hand and stuffed them into the drawer. “Thanks,” she said, shoving my items across the counter to me.
“Thanks,” I replied, turning to walk out.
“Leaving us?” she asked. I stopped in my tracks. Was she making small talk?
“Uh… I don’t know yet,” I replied, turning back to face her.
“Get out of here while you can. I wish I had,” she said. Her brown eyes were downcast, as if begging me to do what she asked; her plum lips were pressed shut tightly.
I nodded, then left the bookstore.
I’d bought the journal with no predetermined intentions of what to use it for. But that evening, after having scarfed down a dinner of canned peas and chicken soup, I climbed up to the roof of the orphanage, pen and journal in hand.
The sun was slowly setting, leaving the sky a beautiful burnt orange streaked with majestic purple clouds. The heat of the day quickly dropped; the chill of a northern wind blew over me. I didn’t have much light left, and neither did the Underground; the power would go off city-wide in a little less than an hour. I could see the fluorescent lights and smog of downtown and the rolling hills of the vibrant landscape beyond the city limits. Beyond that, Edict’s gates.
Against the wide horizon, everything seemed so trivial. My decisions, the Underground, even Edict itself- all of it was so small in comparison. The sky was vast, and so was the earth, inhabitable or not. I had never left the Underground, but I had never really desired to until I looked out to the hills from this very spot just at eight years old. I let my mind wander.
Did I really want to stay here? Should I play it safe, or take a risk? I’d never taken much of a risk before, unless trying the monkey bars in primary school counted. I didn’t think it did. I opened the journal, clicked open the pen, and bled onto the paper.
“It’s July 19th, and tomorrow the Director and her Travelers are coming to try and convince us all to volunteer. By ‘all’ I mean my class. All of the eighteen year olds. Barely any of us will do it. I haven’t made a decision yet. I don’t know what to-“
I stopped writing.
"-what to choose quite yet.”
I wrote the lines of the poem underneath my small paragraph of thoughts.
Stay, or go?