They told me not to.
“It’s not worth it,” they said.
“It’s too risky,” they warned.
I listened to the complaints of my fellow survivors as I continued to put on more layers. It’d be cold and the usual jumpsuit wouldn’t be enough.
I wonder what that felt like.
I pulled on a pair of black sweatpants over the bottom half of my jumpsuit, tightening the laces twice around my waist before they became snug. Walking across the room, I opened a trunk and began rummaging through, looking for a coat.
A hand gripped my shoulder, pulling me up from the trunk. “You’ll get yourself killed,” Rila said, crossing her arms.
I refused to let my eyes linger on what that posture did to her chest.
This was no time for flings or dalliances.
Certainly no time for the feelings associated with them.
“You heard the radio,” I said, stubbornly returning to the truck of clothes that no one had worn since I’d been alive. “I want to see it.”
She barely stifled a groan. I didn’t have to be looking at her to know she rolled her eyes. She thought me stupid, to risk my own life to witness something so frivolous, in her opinion. Me? I knew there wasn’t a romantic bone in her body. She couldn’t possibly understand why I wanted to do this.
Why I needed to.
If I got killed in the process…
At least I’d be able to claim I lived for a day, too.
Finally, I found what I was looking for: a long, black trench coat. I slipped it on, covering the bland gray of my jumpsuit.
I slipped past Rila, who continued to stare at me, as if the glare would freeze me in my tracks and change my mind. Instead, I made my way over to my own trunk of personal belongings, pulling out a pair of sturdy boots that, apparently, used to belong to my father, before the war. He’d wear them during the winter, to keep from slipping on the ice. I’d never had a cause to even try them on, not down here, buried miles beneath the earth’s surface.
Sitting on my cot, I began to unlace them.
“Rokar,” Rila said, becoming exasperated. She walked over and knelt in front of me, wrapping her hands over mine. “You can’t be serious. You’ll have to—”
“I know, Rila,” I said, more gently than I felt.
There were always rules to follow, but nothing made them more crucial than when what remained of your population was forced to go underground in order to survive what the rest of your population did to mess up the world above. It didn’t matter that almost eighty years had passed, since the war ended—and only because everyone who survived had burrowed like rabbits in shelters built strictly for that purpose. Never imagined they’d be used, but hey, wasn’t that always the way of the apocalypse?
Like everyone else—especially those of us who’d been born in these shelters—I knew the rules. You could leave whenever you liked. The sentry at the wall would open the door, after making sure the way was clear, and let you out, directly into the tunnel that led back up to the surface.
It was claimed you could hear them bolting the door behind you, before you left.
The Catch, we called it. Freedom to the surface was always ours, if we want it. But once we leave the protection of the shelter, we can’t return. Not by the way we left, at any rate. Instead, there’s a hidden entry, that only those who’d been in the shelter before knew about. If we wanted back in, we’d have to make it there.
A mere 30 miles away from our wing’s exit point.
After we all listened to the daily broadcast over lunch and I made my proclamation that I was going up there to see it for myself, everyone had the same thought. Hell, even I did.
30 miles was a long way to survive.
Especially at night.
Especially against those who didn’t make it below the surface, who now claimed the earth as their territory, their home, their hunting ground. More animal than human, rumors claimed. More beast than brain, unless you counted survival.
In that case, they were fucking geniuses.
Deadly, terrifying experts.
But I’d made up my mind.
I had to see it.
I pushed Rila’s hands away, surprised to see tears forming in her eyes.
“You’re a bastard, you know that?”
I didn’t respond, instead slipping on my other boot.
By the time I finished tying the laces, she was nowhere in the hanger. Everyone else avoided my gaze. It didn’t bother me as much as it should have. I raised my collar and stuck my hands in my pockets, making my way towards our exit point.
The rumors had been right.
They did bolt the door behind you.
I didn’t hesitate. Not with my senses already going on overdrive.
Based on the clocks below, it was almost 5:00pm in the evening, 10 days before Christmas. Supposedly, it was overcast out, so I’d miss seeing the sun. But walking up the stairs, through the long tunnel that led to one of the doors of our sanctuary, it was already brighter than any light we created below. I could already smell the dank odors that filled the tunnel, smells I couldn’t place. My body felt weird. I was getting a headache. I wasn’t surprised.
There had to be some side effects of living underground and going to the surface for the first time.
But I kept walking.
Until I saw the end, marked by large, arched overhangs that remained open, unguarded.
I couldn’t help it. I jogged up the remaining stairs, surprised that my body began shivering. I don’t think I’ve ever felt true cold before. I nearly stumbled out as I reached the top, my boots slipping. I caught myself on one of the beams as I inhaled deeply and stared in wonder.
There it was.
It was exactly as I imagined, exactly as my mother described it to me. The ground was covered in white. The sky—who knew it stretched so far, seemingly endless?—was the same gray as my jumpsuit, yet it held a beauty unequivocal. And from it, snow fell. Little, perfect flakes of natural wonder.
The abandoned cars and run down buildings from the city were new additions to her description, but I barely even noticed their interruption.
I didn’t want to step away from the archway, didn’t want to ruin the serenity of the scene before me. But I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t be this close and not know what it felt like.
I stepped forward, my boot sinking with an incredible crunch.
I held out my palm.
A pair of snowflakes landed at the center, before melting into my skin.
A second later, more flakes replaced them, following the same pattern. I couldn’t help it.
In the distance, a guttural scream answered.
It would only take an hour, maybe less, before I was found.
Before the hunt began.
But in that hour?
That hour, I lived.