by Rebekah Postupak
Pohe sat silently at dinner, stabbing holes into her vegetables. There wasn’t much to say these days beyond “pass the salt,” and even simple phrases sounded irreverent.
“How was your day at school?” Her mother’s cheeriness felt like an intrusion.
My teachers are angry; my classmates are terrified. “Fine.”
“How go the caving lessons?”
Please don’t make me live without the sun on my face. Weak rays are better than none. “Fine.”
Her mother’s hand searched for Pohe’s cheek. Her gloved fingers were feathers. “How are your eyes?”
The greatest pain I have ever known. The… the burning under my lids, even while I sleep. The dreams, something more than hearing, something more than touch. I don’t recognize it, and I am afraid. “The same.”
“You’re using the cream Dr. Koretake prescribed?”
“Of course.” Pohe swallowed down the sudden irritation with a bite of carrots. Her mother meant well—they all did, fussing over her in the middle of the biggest crisis in their planet’s history—but it seemed pointless. A dying sun. Their entire civilization forced to abandon cities and move deep into the caves. What could a pair of sick eyes matter?
She excused herself and fled to her room, the faint beeps of the hallway’s sound strips hurrying to catch up. People said the sound strips had been the first thing installed in the caves, that living below the surface would barely differ from life above. The subterranean rivers had allowed the first hydroponic vegetable fields to be planted; lava streams threading beneath the deepest rocks had been painstakingly rerouted to provide warmth, and heat for cooking. People said life would be idyllic. The national poet had even composed a triumphant cave-themed ode about it.
Am I dying too?
Grabbing her sound stick and coat from their hooks, Pohe clambered out the heat window and followed the streets’ sound strips to Outside. Living at the city’s edge allowed quick passage to her beloved meadow—so small now!–and peace. She desperately needed both.
Her sound stick pulsed in her hand; someone was already there, and within twenty meters.
Pohe waited for the customary announcement, but heard only silence. At length she sighed and called out, “Pohe.”
Another long moment. The response, when it came, was tinged with annoyance. “Rarua.” Ah. Her brother’s wife; the rudeness made sense now.
“What brings you out here?” My eyes hurt and I fear I am dying like the sun. Please don’t rob me of my goodbye.
“Fresh air,” said Rarua. “Are you the air police?”
“I apologize for the bother.” Pohe mentally cursed propriety, which granted privilege to the first-arrived. “May I join you?”
Rarua snorted. “Did this thimble-sized patch of grass magically expand? There’s not enough room here for both of us.”
The words shot from Pohe’s lips before she could stop them. “There’ll be even less in the caves.”
“Don’t remind me.” Bending, Rarua felt around and then ripped out a handful of grass. “You know, sometimes I almost think I might miss this stuff.”
“They say the cave grass is really soft. In some quadrants we won’t have to wear shoes.”
“Great. Because we need the smell of more stinky feet.” Rarua tossed the grass in the air; frost-fringed blades floated down in tinkling whispers. “Fine. I suppose I’ve had enough time in this lousy frozen air, and doubtless you’re aching to be alone again. Enjoy it while you can.”
Pohe, rubbing at her tender eyes, listened to her go. Stinky feet would be the least of her problems if her brother’s joint housing application was approved. Pohe, her mother, her grandparents, and now her brother and Kuara in a cramped, two-lobed cave? Unthinkable.
A tiny flake landed on her nose; she itched at it almost without thinking. It smeared across her skin and a familiar smell burst into her nostrils. Not snow. Ash? Oh no. It was real: they were burning the fields today, to prevent surface beasts from settling in the soon-to-be abandoned spaces. It would still have to be a decent-sized fire to disintegrate the few remaining trees. Her eyes throbbed at the thought.
Her mind felt thick, clumsy, as her eyes strained. Was this what death felt like?
She reached back into legend.
Fire roared through memory.
what was the word???—
And as she—watched!!!—the orange swords raging across miles of lifeless earth, Pohe trembled.
750 words. Written for the flash contest Christian Flash Weekly, based on John 12:35, “Then Jesus told them, “You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going.”