(Not my best, but that’s my fault, so I’ll have to live with it. This ended up less of a complete enclosed story and more of a test-run of a future project, but I’ll have to put it up since it’s all I have, ahaha.)
Thea lived in settlement where the walls to the north and south were a day’s walk apart, and the earth stretched endlessly to the east and west. They all called it the world as they knew it. It was the world Thea knew as well, born between the rusted, high walls that arched overhead, born into the darkness they all chased away with flimsy flames and flimsier resolve, but she never thought of it as everything. The world felt far too small for this to be everything.
“What are you doing, Thea! Eat your dinner,” her mother said, noticing her drifting attention. Thea saw her friends glance to her, one curious, one concerned. It was hard to see their faces in the dim firelight – the bright light of magnesium ribbons were for emergencies, not family meals – but she could sense their questions in the air between them. “Really, our daughter is such a daydreamer. She’d forget to eat and sleep entirely if people weren’t there to remind her.”
Her mother’s sigh was the grace note of a familiar speech, and Thea went rigid. She looked to her friends, skin already tingling with embarrassment. “Alright, look, I’m eating, okay?” she said, shoveling a mouthful of potatoes into her mouth. Her older brother elbowed her ribs, chastising her tone. She didn’t care. “We don’t need to talk about this.”
Perhaps her mother failed to hear, or perhaps she simply didn’t care, as she continued, “You should see the way she goes on and on about that old book she found in some crack in the north wall. Buys into the old stories like a child. Thank you for being friends with Thea, you two. It’ll do her good to have a more mature influence—”
“They’re not just stories,” Thea said. Her words spilled messy and bitter off her tongue, and though she was glowering at her plate, she could sense her mother go rigid across from her.
“See, this is exactly what I mean! If you two could talk some sense into her—”
“It just makes sense!” Thea shouted, standing up abruptly. “And it’s not just an old book, it was your grandmother’s journal, and just because you don’t want to read it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”
“Thea, sit down.” Her mother’s voice was cold.
Her brother tug at the back of her shirt. “Thea.”
Thea ignored them both. “You call me a daydreamer, but you don’t stop to wonder what ‘day’ is? Well, it’s in the journal, Mom! Day was when the sun was up, that’s what it meant! It was bright, and you could see without fire. It explains so much, and you just won’t liste—”
“I have had enough of this conversation, Thea!” her mother shouted, also rising to her feet. Thea didn’t know why they had stood up. They were out of firelight now. Neither could see the other’s face. She took the opportunity to let the tears slip as her mother added, “We’re going to have a long talk with your father later.”
Thea turned around, muttered an apology to her friends, and left.
Of course her brother showed up at her secret spot. She didn’t even need to turn around to recognize the uneven fall of his footsteps, and she knew better than to think he followed her. “That traitor,” she hissed, thinking to her worrywart of a friend’s disapproval when she’d confided her plan. “I can’t tell anyone anything!”
“Thea, what on earth do you think you’re doing?” her brother demanded in a tone so reminiscent of their mother that Thea felt her hackles rise.
“What does it look like?” she asked, gesturing to the clutter of items at her feet. She’d set a magnesium strip lantern on a ledge, illuminating the knife, the rations, and the currency. As if it weren’t clear enough, she grabbed a skin of water and tossed it into her bag. “I’m leaving. I’m going to find out what happened to the sky.”
Her brother stayed silent, and for a moment, Thea hoped that he understood. Her delusion ended quickly when he heaved an exasperated sigh. “Thea, look—”
Honest to god, Thea pointed the knife at him. Of course she didn’t extend the blade, but the principle of it was enough to shut him up. “Not you too. You don’t get to tell me what to do,” she snapped. “Not when you found the book with me. Not when you told me you want to see the stars.”
“I didn’t mean that I belie—”
He shut up because he knew she was right. This was the first time in a long time that Thea got a good look at her brother’s face. The last time she saw him in magnesium light was five years ago, when part of the wall gave away and crushed him. The doctors had brought fire brighter than anything and warned her to look away from the light, forgetting to tell her to look away from her brother, and she had seen everything from the awkward bend of his knee to the unnatural pallor of his face, twisted in pain.
Thea’s secret spot was secret for a reason. It was the site of the accident, and no one, least of all her family, wanted to visit here again. There was no wall here now, at least, not as they knew it. Instead of rusted panels, there was packed, crumbling dirt. No one bothered to think about what it meant. She wanted to point it out to her brother, force him to admit that there was something off, but she could see his face too clearly to not care about how he felt.
He looked pained again. Thea wondered if she would ever see him smile in the brightness.
Realizing that she wouldn’t be swayed, her brother switched tactics. “You don’t have to do this right now,” her brother said. “Give it a year. Give it some thought. Let Mom and Dad come around to the idea of you gone.” He tried to take her hand as she packed the last of her supplies, but Thea yanked away.
“I have to,” she said, tightening the straps of her bags as if it would strengthen her resolve further. “Right now. Tonight.”
Her brother didn’t understand. “Why?” he asked, throwing out his hands. “This is ludicrous, Thea! And even if your theory is true, you can go another time, when you’re older, when you’re better prepared! What reason could you possibly have that you can’t wait—”
“Because it’s spite!” Thea screamed, and her voice echoed off the north wall loud enough to resound back into the settlements, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. Her brother stood shocked and silent, breathing heavy as Thea rounded on him with fury in her eyes. “Because the only reason that I have is spite, and I know better than anyone that spite doesn’t last long!”
Blood rushing, almost giddy with it, she whirled around and snatched up the lantern that was still burning white sparks under the dusty glass. She thrust it off to the side of her brother’s face. Even out of his direct line of sight, he squinted his eyes.
“Because spite is a magnesium flame, and it burns hot and bright enough to sear everything around it, but it never lasts long. If I don’t go right now, my spark will fade, and I never will, I can feel it.”
“So why do you have to go?” her brother asked again, bristling again. He was beginning to raise his voice. “That just means you’ll regret it once you go!”
“Someone has to do it.”
“We’re fine the way we—”
“The way we are?!” Thea cut in, voice pitching. “Are we really? Living in the dark, caring as much as we can about strangers we just barely know the faces of. People doing things just to get by without any passion for it. It’s not that bad, I can see you trying to say that, but it is. We have flashes of happiness, sure, but we’re all living like a magnesium flame. Nothing good or bright ever lasts long.”
And then she ripped open the bag she had so painstakingly packed, thrusting their grandmother’s book in her brother’s face. “But the journal is different. It talks about the sun, and at set intervals of time, there would be something bright and warm high above us, and everyone could see everything without the tint of fire. Can you even imagine what that would mean? Seeing my face every day!”
She saw her words land. He blinked, and his eyes seemed to clear as if he were seeing his younger sister for the very first time. His jaw spasmed, searching for words, and Thea was ready for the rest of his protests. She was prepared to shoot him down.
“You look determined,” he said, and Thea felt her glare open into surprise. Her brother kept talking. “You look so different in white light – god, your hair is lighter than I thought it was. I haven’t seen you since… since the accident.”
Thea didn’t know what to say.
And then her brother smiled, the slightest twitch of the lips, and Thea saw a different person than the haunted, ghost she saw in her memories. “You’ve grown up so much, Thea.”
Her throat went tight, and her face went hot. “You’re trying to get me to stay,” she accused, tears brimming despite her attempts to stop them. “It’s not going to work.”
“Seeing you now, I see nothing is going to work,” her brother said, with a fondness she had known he had for her, but could never catch in the glimpses of firelight. He took the lantern from her hand and set it aside before pulling her into a hug. Thea leaned her eyes into his shoulder, dampening his shirt.
“Nothing will,” she reassured him. “And I have to go now, because I have to go far enough that when I start regretting, it’s not worth it to come back.”
“Alright,” her brother said. “I won’t stop you.”
“If I find out what happened to the sun, I’ll come back.”
“What is your obsession with the sun? The stars sound way cooler.”
“Don’t start with me, I mean it. I’ll come back”
“Tell Mom and Dad that too.”
He pulled back. “Heck no, that means they’ll know I let you go. I have to live with them for however long you’re gone. I won’t have them mad at me. Write a note.”
Thea huffed, about to protest that she didn’t have paper when she realized the journal in her hand. Inspired, she flipped through the pages and near the end, she tore a page out. “It’ll make sense when you read it,” she told him, and when he went to do just that, she stopped him. “Read it with Mom and Dad.”
Though hesitant, her brother nodded, and tucked the paper away. “Alright, then,” he said. “I guess this is it, then.”
“I won’t be gone long,” Thea said, picking up her heavy bag and drawing it over her shoulders. “But for now, I guess this is bye.”
“And you can come home, you know, any time, if you start regretting,” her brother added, rushing to say the words as she started to walk away, and Thea laughed properly, high and loud.
Stars by Emily Bronte
Ah! why, because the dazzling sun
Restored our Earth to joy,
Have you departed, every one,
And left a desert sky?
All through the night, your glorious eyes
Were gazing down in mine,
And, with a full heart’s thankful sighs,
I blessed that watch divine.
I was at peace, and drank your beams
As they were life to me;
And revelled in my changeful dreams,
Like petrel on the sea.
Thought followed thought, star followed star
Through boundless regions on;
While one sweet influence, near and far,
Thrilled through, and proved us one!
Why did the morning dawn to break
So great, so pure a spell;
And scorch with fire the tranquil cheek,
Where your cool radiance fell?
Blood-red, he rose, and arrow-straight,
His fierce beams struck my brow;
The soul of nature sprang, elate,
But mine sank sad and low.
My lids closed down, yet through their veil
I saw him, blazinig, still,
And steep in gold the misty dale,
And flash upon the hill.
I turned me to the pillow, then,
To call back night, and see
Your words of solemn light, again,
Throb with my heart, and me!
It would not do – the pillow glowed,
And glowed both roof and floor;
And birds sang loudly in the wood,
And fresh winds shook the door;
The curtains waved, the wakened flies
Were murmuring round my room,
Imprisoned there, till I should rise,
And give them leave to roam.
O stars, and dreams, and gentle night;
O night and stars, return!
And hide me from the hostile light
That does not warm, but burn;
That drains the blood of suffering men;
Drinks tears, instead of dew;
Let me sleep through his blinding reign,
And only wake with you!
3 thoughts on “2 – Rising to a Challenge”
A dystopia? Well this is new!
I like how you established the environment in this short story before introducing the conflict. The walls and darkness felt real.
Just an observation, but you seem to like “dreamers” (no offense, Thea ;D) to be your protags. All or nothing characters who yearn for the unreachable.
Ahaha, it’s not so much that I only have dreamers but more that I manage to finish their stories more easily. I admire characters with passion, be it Thea’s idealism or Alexander’s obsession.
Especially in short stories, I find it easier to get to the heart of a conflict or the essence of a scene more easily if the characters aren’t afraid to drive the plot forward. Also, I write for catharsis, and because I’m not prone to emotional outbursts in real life, I enjoy writing about extreme emotions.
Thank you, as always, for your feedback. I greatly appreciate it!
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As always, no problemo 😀