His World.
CHAPTER
1
I had always been in the Compound. As far back as I could remember; this was my world. It was all I knew, perhaps all I ever would know.
My world went as far as the red brick buildings that stretched around the grassy Courtyard. It was a small world, but a peaceful world- the perfect place to hide a life-changing secret. A secret I was yet to discover.
I had been told all my life that I was something special; something different to everyone around me. I wasn’t sure why or how.
I didn’t find out for a long time, either. Not until I was eighteen years old. My birthday, when the world exploded.
“Happy Birthday,” whispers Moira, placing my breakfast tray on the table in my room.
“Thank you,” I reply. I’m not sure how she knows it’s my birthday; I thought I was the only one keeping track of how long I’ve been in the Compound.
My room is larger than the one Moira or the other Carers sleep in. There is a bookshelf in one corner that only Moira is allowed to touch. Long windows light the entire room, facing out to the sunrise over the Courtyard; a large grassy area with a single tree in the centre. I think it’s symbolic of something, but I don’t know what. I sometimes sit out there to read.
I don’t feel like reading today. Today, something is wrong. I feel it in the air.
When I’m finished breakfast, Teacher arrives. He is old, wise, and good; though not as friendly and open as Moira. I don’t know his name.
I respect Teacher, but Moira, I like. Though much older than me, she is my dearest friend. I imagine that if I knew my mother, she would be like Moira.
“Are you ready for your lesson?” asks Teacher, as always.
“Yes, thank you,” I reply, as always.
We re-enact our daily routine, walking a well-learned path out of my room and down the bright, warm corridors. Each doorway; I know. Each crack in the bricks; I recognise. Some of the rooms we pass are bedrooms, places where Moira, the Carers, and the younger Helpers live.
The Helpers are like Teacher, they know things like languages, music and numbers. Teacher knows things like Life, Death, and the Past.
I think Moira is wise like Teacher, but she is, in her heart, bad. She keeps secrets, and she tells me things that Teacher isn’t supposed to know. But still, I am grateful for these snippets of wisdom.
I don’t know why Moira is a Carer; cooking and cleaning for me, when she could be a Helper; learning new things every day to share with me.
“Teacher, why are some people Carers while some are Helpers?” I ask quietly as we take a seat in the shade of the tree in the heart of the Compound. The sky is a clear blue, as always - even when I sleep. There is a slight breeze.
“Each of us has a different calling in life,” says Teacher, stroking his white beard. It is the same colour as his clothes; the same colour as my clothes.
I’ve always liked colours. The Helper who taught me about colours was young like me, but he was only my Helper for a little while. I was fifteen when our lessons stopped; he was two years older. I haven’t seen him since.
His name was - is - Ezekiel, but I’m not supposed to know that. I still haven’t told Teacher, because then he’ll say Ezekiel is bad, the same way he told me that Moira is bad for telling me her name.
“You are drifting again,” says Teacher gently. He has the softest voice; not thick like Moira’s or husky like Ezekiel’s. “Remember to remain in the present. Gather your thoughts and focus them on the Now. Feel the breeze, the sun on your skin.”
“I like sunlight,” I say, but it sounds wrong. “Or is it sunshine?”
“Both are correct,” says Teacher, “Whichever you like. It is your choice, here in the Compound. This is your world, after all.”
He gives me a small smile, and I return the favour.
All is serene and peaceful.
I want to tear my hair out in frustration.
There is something he’s not telling me. I see it in his pale blue eyes; so light they reflect the sunlight. Behind his frail smile, he is hiding a secret. A great, big, huge, enormous Something that I don’t know.
Moira is hiding Something, too, though not as well as Teacher. She couldn’t resist telling me her name, and telling me what a name is. She told me that it was against the rules for any of the Carers or Helpers to have a name, that it would make things harder for me one day. I asked her whose rules, but she didn’t answer. I think they’re Teacher’s rules.
The closest I’ve come to finding out about that Something was with Ezekiel.
...
We’d been painting together, and he was showing me how to blend the colours to make new ones.
“The black and white with the cyan makes a sort of rainy blue,” he mumbled, focused on the paint on his palette.
“A sort of what blue?” I asked.
“A rainy blue- y’know, like rain, it’s sort of greyish blue but~” he stopped short, and put down his palette and paintbrush. “I wasn’t supposed to say that- about rain. You don’t get that here, do you?”
I didn’t know what he meant by here, but I knew I shouldn’t ask. Teacher didn’t like when the Helpers taught me more than what they were supposed to.
The next week, Ezekiel returned. His hair was a different colour- it was every week, but his eyes seemed darker, his movements were tense.
While I readied my easel, he got out other appliances- needles. They were for a new kind of colour, a different ‘art,’ as he called it; one that would stay with me forever.
He drew on my wrist with a point so sharp it ached, and I remember the tears springing to my eyes, and the way his hands would expertly guide the needle, and the trembling of his fingers when he had finished.
It was almost like he was afraid of what he had just done.
Once the soreness disappeared, I thought the picture was beautiful; a sun, with small lines indicating the light, beside a perfectly arched crescent moon. Beneath it was a word I didn’t understand, but I immediately liked the shape of the letters. Ezekiel liked them, too. And I liked the way his green eyes relished my attention to his art. He was proud of his work, and that pride replaced the momentary flicker of fear I had seen when he first put the needles away. And then that look was replaced with sorrow.
“You’ll need to hide this,” he’d said quietly, his voice almost too deep and hesitant to be heard, “But that shouldn’t be a problem; you always wear gloves, right?”
I nodded, even quieter than he.
“Good,” he said, “Wear gloves that cover your wrists, or sleeves. Don’t let... Don’t let Teacher see.”
His words unsettled me then like they never had before. Keep something from Teacher? The very idea was against everything I’d ever learnt!
And yet... Here I am, three years later with white gloves that cover my wrists, hiding the mark that Ezekiel left on my skin, still thinking fondly of the way his eyes had lingered on me.
He didn’t disappear after he’d drawn on my wrist. He still came the next week, different coloured hair, as always. It was rainy blue.
I should have known that something was different, but all I knew was the feeling in the bottom of my stomach, the sinking, aching worry that something was wrong, and I didn’t know what.
“You’re very quiet,” he said, and it was the first time he had stopped his lesson altogether to simply talk, “But I don’t think you want to be.”
I had asked what he meant, and he’d quickly turned back to his drawing demonstration, before replying, “They’re trying to dull you- to tame you. They want to raise you without colour or spark or passion. Don’t let them.”
Again, when I asked what he meant, he didn’t give a real answer. Instead, he did something new. Something different and scandalous. He took my left hand, sliding back my sleeve and turning my wrist up to see the sun, moon and word he had left there. His fingers ran over the letters, tracing them.
To this day, I run my fingers in the same pattern. My own secret.
But back then, at that moment, I was frozen. This kind of touch; this unnecessary, indulgent touch was something Moira had only spoken about once, in a hushed whisper as she touched my shoulder to soothe me after a nightmare. “It’s forbidden,” she’d said, “Against the rules.”
I knew that had to be true because I had not been touched before or after that, not with such gentle intimacy and care.
That was, until Ezekiel’s fingers brushed over my inked skin, filling my cheeks with heat and my chest with the pounding sound of my heart that screamed that this was something incredibly beautiful...
And incredibly dangerous.
“You’ll understand it one day,” he whispered, pulling away so I was left suddenly cold. “That’s the end of our lesson.”
And I should have known, I should have known, by the way that he hadn’t said, ‘I’ll see you next week,’ like he always did, that I wouldn’t be seeing him next week... Or ever again.
...
Now, I have only these memories and the secret art on my wrist to remind me of him. And those images are fading, slowly blurring in my mind’s eye so that I struggle to hold onto the memory of his green eyes, of the freckles that almost invisibly dotted his cheeks and nose, the way his hair was never the same colour as it was the week before, and those delicate artist’s hands that guided paintbrush, pencil and needle with expert ease. Everything else is dulled by a white mist at the back of my mind, a blockage so soft and peaceful, that it creeps up on me even in my sleep, making everything fade.
“I feel like I’m fading,” I say to Teacher, who sits cross-legged in front of me.
“You are vibrant as ever,” he replies. There’s still Something he’s not telling me. It’s dancing right in front of me, I just need to catch it.
“Vibrant,” I echo, testing the waters, “Like the colours in a painting.”
“Yes,” he replies serenely, wrinkles by his eyes.
“I remember,” I say, and he stiffens at the word ‘remember,’ as he always does. “One of my Helpers once showed me how to make colours more vibrant. Contrast, he called it.”
“A nice memory,” he says, “But only just that. A memory, to be left in the great enigma that is the Past. Remember your teaching; focus on the Now.”
I can’t take it anymore. I need to know. I need the truth.
“What happened to him?”
My world explodes into fiery destruction.
I know only one word to describe the explosion.
Interruption. That’s what it is.
The violent sound interrupts our words, it interrupts the peaceful air.
The tremble of force interrupts the stillness, shaking me to the core as I lay in the dust, thrown from my place.
The brilliant orange light interrupts the pale blue sky.
The red brick building nearest to me crumbles, and I see it all happening so slowly; every doorway that I know, every crack that I recognise, being torn apart and splintered into dust as the walls cave in. I hear screams.
There’s an iron grip on my arm and I realise that it’s Teacher, but when I see him- my blood runs cold. His bony limbs are twisted in all the wrong directions, crushed beneath the fallen building. His eyes are blue; too blue and too bright. There are no pupils in them, only light.
“Compromised,” he says, and his voice is not his own, “Compound Compromised. Send reinforcements. Compound Compromised.”
I can’t think, I can’t think, his grip on my arm is too strong, too strong for an old man like him, and his voice, it’s not right, his mouth isn’t moving, it’s wrong, everything is wrong.
There is a gaping wound right across his neck. There is no blood.
Only the sparks of live wires that have been cut.
And now I know something. It may not be the Something that Teacher has been hiding all this time, but it is a small something.
Teacher is not - was never - a human, but rather, a machine.
When a second explosion sounds, I yank my arm out of Teacher’s death grip and I run. I don’t know where I’m running, only that the sky is filling with a black smoke and my eyes are beginning to burn. My dress snags on pieces of fallen building and tears, but I keep running. My bare feet are aching and burning as they scratch across the rubble, but I keep running until I am inside the last standing building.
It’s dangerous and illogical- surely it’s the next target, but I need to find someone. Anyone who isn’t laying still under the destruction. Someone alive.
I bite back the sob in my throat, running through these familiar doorways, into a hallway that is all chaos and screaming. I know where I’m going now, and when I hear her voice, my heart shudders.
“Moira!” I cry, and my voice cracks with the effort, never being raised above a gentle talking tone. And Moira, when she screams at me to run to her, her frightened voice is so different to the reserved whisper she always spoke in.
“Moira, I’m coming!” I scream as I run towards her, dodging the other Carers and Helpers that run in the opposite direction, towards the exits.
‘It’s against the rules to have a name,’ she’d said. But Teacher is gone now. Everyone will be, soon. The rules don’t matter, anymore.
“Hurry!” she calls, her voice so frightened and strained, “They’re coming!”
I run to her in a heartbeat and for one deafening moment, she embraces me in her arms. Mother, I think, This is what it would feel like to have a mother. I don’t want to let go of her, and I don’t think she wants to let go, either. I can see it in the fear and hope that conflict in her eyes as she lets go and pulls me into my room, rushing quickly to my solitary bookshelf.
She begins pulling out the books, letting them drop to the floor as she knocks down more. I don’t question her, instead, I join her, pulling the books off the shelf until my hands find one that is firmly in place. I pull it again, and this time, Moira notices.
“Clever girl,” she says, and she gives the book a violent yank. It tips halfway out and stops, and the entire bookshelf gives a gentle shudder. She grips it with two hands, and a metallic whir sounds in her muscles as she pulls it aside with superhuman strength.
“You’re a machine,” I whisper, “Like Teacher. All the Carers... The Helpers...”
“I’m a person,” says Moira. With the bookshelf out of the way, I can see a large metal door in the wall, enforced with strange devices and locks.
“But not made of flesh and bones,” I say as she begins punching in numbers and scanning her fingers and eyes.
“Half,” she says, still focused on her task, “I am what most are, now. A human mind and heart, with the body of a machine. Once weak, now strong.”
The third explosion sounds and the room around me shatters into a million pieces of nothingness and grief. I fall against the metal door, just as it swings open. A hallway stretches deep on the other side, sloping gently upward into darkness. Moira has collapsed in the doorway, sparks flickering as metal spears through her skin. I choke on a sob as she slowly looks up at me, dying, because she pushed me into safety.
She reaches out and points into the darkness with an outstretched finger.
“Run,” she says, and her mouth doesn’t move, “F-Find the Painted People.”
My Moira, who told me secret things and soothed me when I woke from nightmares. “Run,” she whispers, “Don’t let them find you. Don’t l-let them change you.”
Her eyes lose focus and her head drops. Dead. Just like Teacher.
Just like I will be if I don’t obey if I don’t leave her behind and run.
I run.
I don’t know what’s chasing me, but the pounding footsteps echo through the darkness as I race through the tunnel, my arms outstretched to find something, anything at the end. It stretches so much further than the walls of the Compound, it stretches on forever but I run.
I don’t know what’s chasing me, but there are words that echo in my head as my lungs scream and my muscles ache.
Machine. Monster. Beast. Creature. Devil.
I collide with something solid, and my hands search desperately along the surface as I ignore the pain searing through me and find what I was looking for; a handle. I struggle with it for a moment, screaming for help.
Then the door bursts open and I tumble out, slamming it shut behind me.
I look wildly around. Glass towers reach endlessly up into a starless, black sky, brilliantly coloured lights flickering and shining on every surface.
Water splashes down from the sky, and suddenly I know what it is. Rain.
This is a world I do not know.
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