He struts towards me, and around the desk so we’re on the same side of it. I stand my ground, my pulse racing faster the closer he gets to me. His gait gradually slows until he stops only inches away. I can’t look him in the face. Instead, I look at his chest where the t-shirt stops and his collarbones begin. I can feel his breath on my left cheek, and I bet he can feel mine brushing against his chest. My breathing is shallow, my heartbeat erratic from his close proximity. I can’t seem to keep my mouth closed.
He tests the boundaries by leaning in closer so there’s mere millimeters between us. My breathing and heartbeat slow further, anticipating some sort of touch that never comes. He reaches for something behind me and pulls away, but not far. I can still feel heat come off his body and smell wheat on his skin. Glancing up at his face, a smirk is still spread across his lips, but there’s a need in his eyes. A need to touch my skin with his fingers. Licking his lips, he brings his left hand up to my face. He clears his throat softly before opening his mouth.
“Coal,” he utters, breathlessly. I can see the small piece in his hand from my peripheral, not wanting to look away from his hypnotic gaze. “The outfit helps keep you camouflaged, but your skin being so clear will cause questions.”
I’m unable to speak, but I try to tell let him know through my eyes that it’s okay for him to put the coal on me. I’m incredibly anxious, but I want to know what it’s like to feel his fingertips graze my cheek. He doesn’t say a word, but his hand moves closer to my face and his sight moves to my features, studying the curves and lines. He runs the small piece of coal down the bridge of my nose, starting at my brow. He’s really careful to make sure that only the coal touches my skin. He makes a line across my forehead, then one under each eye across my cheeks. He takes several seconds lifting the piece off my cheek and running it down my chin, like he doesn’t want to give up looking at me just yet.
With a deep breath, he sets the coal back on the desk. Exhaling, his right hand comes back to my face, hesitating before making contact. He brings his thumb down my nose, smudging the line he made so it doesn’t look drawn on. I don’t feel the coal on my face under his finger, though. Only the warmth and comfort his touch brings me. The calluses from years of hard work are rough against my skin, but it’s oddly soothing. There’s a familiarity that makes me think of home. Not what I have with my parents, but more of a promise that no one else could fulfill. One that guarantees, no matter what happens, he will ensure that everything will end up okay. For better or for worse.
It’s over too soon. He smudges the rest of the marks on my face and pulls his hand away, lowering it to his side. His gaze lingers on my lips before he carefully exhales, taking a couple steps back and away from me. The further he steps, the more my anxiety returns. It makes me want to close the gap and lose myself in his arms, but my mind clears. I remember why I’m here again. Micah. Answers.
“Time to go,” he mutters, turning away from me and moving towards the door.
I breathe deeply to collect myself and my emotions. It’s difficult to control something I’ve never felt before, but I manage to reign in my selfish wants for now. The want to feel his lips kiss mine, his body against mine, and his hands brushing along my skin. It’s difficult to ignore, so I push it aside for the time being. There will be time for that once I’ve gotten my questions answered. Once I know the truth about my brother.
I compartmentalize my feelings and center myself quickly. Mini meditation is an art that I mastered a few years ago to help me grieve over the loss of Micah and stay focused on my studies at school. Walking around the desk, I follow his lead out of the room. I imagine I am an Unfavorable so that I don’t stand out. The last thing I need after all that preparation is to get caught and stoned. Or worse. Who knows what they would do to my helper here if we are seen together, too. I don’t want him to get into any trouble after all he’s done for me so far, and still will do when we get to wherever we’re going.
He leads me out of the room and to the left, away from the gate back to Geha. After living under the dome, I’m vaguely aware of all the dangers I could face going outside the boiler room and into the fresh, unaltered air. Even if it means bringing sickness to Geha, it is worth the risk for me. I will be the first Favorable to breathe unfiltered air in decades. I keep my gaze ahead, at the sunlight on the grass on the other side of the archway. It’s so welcoming that I almost let my excitement get the better of me and run to the outside.
We’re so close to breathing pure air and reaching the opening out of the boiler room when a boy around the same age as my helper stops him. His hair is a sandy blond, though, and he’s not quite as tall as my new friend. He looks just as muscular and tan as him, but his brown eyes aren’t as appealing.
“Ryder,” the new man calls. I’m relieved to finally hear the name of the guy who’s been so helpful. “Skipping out on boiler duty? You know you’re the only one who can figure out those papers in that little room.”
“Axe, my friend,” Ryder calls, clapping the guy on his left shoulder. “Everything is working fine today, so I thought I would help with some Drudge work.”
“That’s kind of you,” Axe comments. “What’s this girl hanging around for, then? You have a shadow hanging on you.”
“True,” Ryder laughs with his companion. “She’s from our sister village down by the river, Kynol. I’m showing her around and going to teach her the ropes.”
“That’s a long ways away from here. They don’t have anyone in Kynol to do that over on their farms?”
“No, sir,” I say before Ryder can answer. I manipulate my voice so that I sound a few years younger than 16. “We’re short on help so my parents sent me here so I can help some of the elders on the farms back home.”
Ryder’s greenish gray eyes look me up and down, a silent appreciation at my quick thinking. Axe looks at me with curiosity, not sure what to think of me.
“Alright bud,” his friend smirks at me, talking to my helper. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“That isn’t a whole lot,” Ryder mutters, eyeing his friend.
With a chuckle, Axe walks away from us and back to the closest boiler. Ryder watches him go, and turns to me for a compliment once his companion is several feet away.
“Well done, Kyanite,” he regards me, pleased with my little trick.
I want to thank him since his mannerisms suggest he meant to give me a compliment, but I’m not sure how that is one. I’m aware that a Kyanite is a rare mineral from back on Earth-that-was, but almost nonexistent now. There’s a sample of it in one of our oldest museums: the building that once housed our founder, Nevada Geha. It had many different properties and purposes, but the use is what made it unique. The Kyanite mineral inspires hope and fair treatment to others. What does that have to do with me?
Instead, I give him a short nod and half a smile. It’s sufficient enough for him to turn back towards the boilers exit and into the fresh air. I don’t hesitate behind him. I’m eager to feel the unfiltered sunshine on my skin. Only four whole steps and I’m outside. My feet aren’t touching clay anymore, but natural, nature grown grass. I want to take my shoes off and feel the blades under my feet and between my toes, but it doesn’t feel like an appropriate time.
Either way, I can’t help resting my feet to take in the landscape. Only grass stretches in front of me for several meters. The color fades between yellow and green, with patches of red scattered about. Trees formed a boundary between the boiler room and everything outside of Geha that I couldn’t fathom until today. They stretch so high up that I can’t even see the treetops from where I stand. I stare at the leaves in wonder and awe. Though I have seen some on the outside of the dome from inside Geha, nothing prepared me for the hues I’m witnessing at the base of these marvelous creations.
The lowest hanging leaves have a vibrant aquamarine shade to them, which matches the morning sky. This, alone, is mesmerizing enough, but it doesn’t end there. As my gaze travels upwards, the aquamarine darkens and changes to a deep amethyst. From the amethyst, the leaves fade and change to ruby, orange, yellow, and green going up to the very tips. I never knew that Geha was so high up before. Seeing the trees from down here gives me a whole new perspective on life inside the walls, as well as out. I feel nothing besides awe for what’s evolved naturally, without further tinkering from man. The atmosphere outside the dome must have made them evolve this way after they were genetically engineered centuries before I was born. It makes sense why I would have only seen the green at the tops, now, from inside the walls.
Ryder stands just underneath the cover of branches. I can see him in my peripherals. He’s watching me, giving me time to absorb the new scenery. He chuckles, faintly, before making his way back towards me, grabbing my hand, and dragging me beneath the umbrella the branches form over us. His hand is coarse, but gentle. I grip it tightly with my dainty one to make sure he doesn’t let go and leave me lost in the woods. Although, I wouldn’t completely mind if I could keep the view. Even the shrubbery has variations of the same colors dotting the trees and grass for miles without end.
The direction we head is beyond me, and so is any time that passes. I’m in a daze until Ryder slows down and stops, still holding my hand. I, reluctantly, tear my eyes away from nature to see the small entrance to a cave ahead of us. It looks like it has formed in the side of a huge hill of the same clay the boiler room is carved out of. His hand slips from mine and he closes the gap between us and the entrance. My anxiety spikes, but I follow. He’s the only person I can trust, down here or up in Geha. I have no reason not to follow him.
With the opening only being four feet tall and two and a half feet at its widest point, it isn’t easy getting inside. In fact, if Ryder hadn’t stopped us just outside the entrance, I never would have seen it at all. I’m not even all the way inside the cave before the cool air inside washes across my skin. It’s refreshing. As soon as I’m all the way inside, it opens up so I can stand without any problems, but Ryder has to duck a bit. He’s standing at the back of the cave, about eight feet away, waiting for me.
I stretch my arms out to my sides to test the width – my fingertips barely touch on either side. The clay is smooth and cold against my fingers. Taking careful steps, I cross to Ryder, where a blanket, pillow, a small food storage, and the remains of a small campfire. Off in the left hand corner, there’s a small pool of bubbling water. I’ve never seen one before, but if I had to guess, it was a natural hot spring. Not large enough to heat up the cave, but enough for someone to bathe if they wanted.
“Do you live here?” I ask, concern clouding my tone. He shakes his head, and my chest untightens with relief. “Do you sleep here sometimes?”
“Sometimes,” he nods, but doesn’t seem willing to say more just yet.
“Why have you brought me here?” I start. If he isn’t going to take charge, then I will continue to – happily.
“It isn’t safe to talk anywhere near Loyals could be,” he responds, bending down to poke at the ashes from his previous fire. “There hasn’t been an insurgence in a couple centuries, but they still spy on us just in case. Many of us believe there are Loyals disguised as traders going from village to village to earn our trust and learn any secrets.”
“Do you think that?”
“Come sit,” he offers, avoiding the topic. “What’s your name?”
I hesitate. It’s a fair question since I know his, but I feel weird giving him my name – almost vulnerable.
“Alora,” I introduce myself. “Alora Travene.”
“Well, Alora Travene, get comfortable,” he insisted, gesturing to the blanket and pillow at his feet. He stands, and I take a step back, not expecting him to. “I’m going to get some wood to start fire. I know how cold it can get in here.”
“I don’t need a campfire,” I say, carefully, teeth gritted. I’m getting impatient, but I don’t want to flip my lid when he’s the only person willing to help so far. “I need answers. I have no intent to stay for longer than I have to.”
As soon as those words leave my lips, I regret them. What am I going to do once I find out what happened to Micah? Go back to Geha and work to make advancements in a place where I don’t trust anyone? That seems illogical. The decision will have to wait until I’ve accomplished my current goal, though. Shifting focus will do nothing to help me figure out what happened to my brother, and that’s what is important this moment.
“I want to give them to you,” he breathes. Something is weighing on him, because his shoulders are hunched and he won’t look at me. “I’m just not sure it’s my place to.”
“What does that mean?” I pressure him. Silly question, I know, but I don’t understand why he would bring me all the way out here in a disguise just to tell me that. I can’t accept his response.
“What the bulge do you think it means?” He spits at me, squatting and reaching down to smack the coals into disarray. It doesn’t have the effect that he was going for, I’m assuming, because he makes me want to giggle from how ludicrous it looks. I wait a couple moments to see what he’ll do next, but he doesn’t move.
“Were you intending for that to be –”
“Go jump in a boiler,” he interrupts, agitated and trying to brush the coal smudges off his right hand. The more he rubs, the worse the smudges get. I bite down on my pursed lips to hold back a laugh. Once I collect myself, I speak up again.
“There’s no need for profanity or rudeness,” I insist, with a gently tone. There’s no reason to yell in a small space. He looks at me with confusion and curiosity. “We may not use profanity in Geha any longer, but we are still aware of the different terms. I know that the word, bulge, is used as slang terminology rather than what it is meant to be defined as. As far as being rude, I really hope I don’t have to explain that to you.”
He doesn’t respond. He doesn’t move. However, his gaze changes from confusion and curiosity, to recognition. As if he has seen me before. Like he had met me long before I ever traveled down below Geha, and we used to meet up for a drink after a hard day’s work. Which is impossible since I’ve never even seen anything outside the walls before yesterday. Instead of bringing that up, though, I try and lighten the mood with some humor.
“What?” I inquire, raising a hand up to the coal on my cheeks. “Do I have something on my face?”
A grin spreads across his lips that he can’t stop, though he tries. He looks down at the ground, but his smile grows so quickly that a chuckle bursts from his mouth before he has time to stop it. With a sigh, Ryder rubs the tension from his brow and his shoulders slump from the slack the released strain creates. I smile, pleased with the outcome. His laugh brings a warmth to my belly that I don’t recognize.
“I’m sorry for my disrespect,” he acknowledges. “When I become frustrated, I internalize it and become angry. It’s a trait I’ve had since I was young.”
“Although no one in Geha likes to admit it, everyone has their flaws,” I offer, knowing that mine is my inability to let go of Micah and what happened to him. Anyone else within the walls would have grieved for him and moved on, like my parents, but I can’t. I need to know what happened the day of his Rite. “I find that they give one character.”
“Thank you,” he nodded, still staring into my eyes, looking for something. After a pause, he speaks again. “You look like someone I know.”
“That’s not the first time I’ve heard something similar,” I giggle. “The elders would tell me I looked like Micah all the time. Before he disappeared.”
I have no problem mentioning my brother, but my heart heavies. It feels like a weight is placed on my chest whenever I discuss his departure. My turn to look away. I fold my hands in front of me and focus on my intertwined fingers, hoping it’ll be enough to distract me and get the weight lifted from my chest. At least momentarily.
“What’s his name?” Ryder asks. He’s careful with his timbre and words. Trying not to break me while talking about my brother.
“Micah,” I answer.
“I – I,” he hesitates, still unsure he should be the one to tell me what he’s trying so hard to say. “I think I know your brother.”