“It was said the Pause had swallowed the earth. So we followed the Green Light. Humanity became safe for the first time in all history,” Gwen recited with her classmates.
Placed in the front of the classroom above the blackboard was a large picture of a stern-looking man. The gold plaque underneath read, “Great Leader Andrew Brewam” The fluorescent lights flickered above Gwen and the other 15 of her classmates.
“Praise to Andrew Brewam,” The teacher said.
“May our Great Leader never die. We will serve him. Thank him for our home in Green Light, in Onica.” Their chairs scrapped back in a cacophony in the windowless underground room.
Gwen carefully unfolded her only sheet of paper for the day and rolled the last nub of a pencil across her desk, which settled neatly. History class first.
After the blinding light had receded, the country that used to be called the United States was now a dead zone. They all lived on the underside of that mirror, the horizon. Gwen had only seen paintings of it, where the water was big enough to imitate the sky. The sky she had never seen, her mother and sister, Abby had been one of the lucky ones. All of them had been born in Onica.
“Thousands of miles around Ground Zero were flattened by the change in pressure and force that resulted from a nuclear detonation, the nuclear detonation. That area is called what, class?” The teacher pointed at the worn books in front of them depicting a mushroom fireball.
“a Dead Zone,” the students replied in unison. Gwen tried not to roll her eyes.
A note scribbled on a napkin from lunch sat on her desk, which read, “Study hard, sweetie! Dad would be proud of you! Love, Mom”
“My grandma said that she could feel even the basement of Onica shake when Pause happened.”
But, the teacher was gently tapping his ruler against the plastic grain of his desk. The purple-hued smoke caught most of the screams, the body disintegrating faster than sound could leave the bodies. They had been paused.
“It was the foresight of your ancestors that has led to you being alive today. They, led by our great leader, were the only humans left after the world turned into a war to end the life that your grandparents once knew.” The bell rang, and in unison, Gwen and her classmates stood and recited the Onica anthem
“We rebuild united under one roof. We pledge our allegiance to Onica, devote ourselves to growing stronger as a people every day, dedicating our lives to our leader’s mission; to restart the world baptized in green light.”
Gwen went home for the day. She walked through the crowded hallways of Onica and left the spotless Green Light section where all public rooms were. She walked until the hallways became more and more cluttered, the paint on the walls showed their peeling.
Their home was small, only consisting of about three rooms. A bathroom, the main room, and their bedroom. They all shared it together.
Gwen squinted as the LED light shone in her face as she reached across the table in the kitchen.. Thin rubber covered the wires.
“Gwen, would you be able to look for Dad’s wine opener in his room?” Gwen’s mother asked. “I can’t get this dang can open and the can opener has been missing for days.”
“Alright,” Gwen said and turned. The cardboard was smooth under her hands as she opened the boxes. She went under his desk, and a letter was addressed to a Doctor Ulrich fell out. Gwen, her brow furrowed and her lips pushed out opened the letter until it was out of the envelope by only an inch.
Gwen closed her eyes and pushed the letter back in. Better to not know, whatever it was.
Gwen put the letter back exactly as she had found it and took the wine opener to her mom. As she ate the canned beans and rice, and her sister chatted gaily at the table. Gwen couldn’t stop thinking about the letter. What did it say? She wished she had opened it. But as she feel asleep, her mother’s and sister’s soft breathing close by her she turned over on her side and squeezed her eyes shut. No. It was better not to know.
Before going home after her lesson, Gwen stopped to get dinner for the day. She got the silver Freezo packages and recycled water for them to drink from the ration station. She started toward the paint chipped hallways to her home.
“Excuse me, miss, but you can’t go past here.”
“What? What’s happened?”
“We’ve closed off all of the roads leading to North Onica.”
“But my mom-“
“You have another family you can stay with?”
Gwen shook her head in response. The man gestured to a group of her neighbors who were stuck waiting outside the blockade.
“You’ll stay with them for now until we lift the quarantine.”
“Where is your sister?”
“She got detention, she stayed behind after lessons.”
Her neighbor nodded. “We’ll wait for her.”
They never saw her mother again. Not one of her neighbors who were home at the time of the quarantine were ever seen again. But even then, life went on, and only a few tears were shed among those lucky enough to be left. Her mother had always been tucked away in her study and never had time for Gwen. Her being was solely in napkins and little notes she had once tucked into Gwen’s backpack.
It was hard to say when exactly it became real for Gwen. At first, it was almost fun—a game of codes and secrets. People gathered in the streets of Onica and sat for hours, holding signs that appealed for help to be reunited with their loved ones. There were rumors that they were still alive and only just in the past year the walls that had been erected. But the crackdown in response was violent. Andrew Brewam authorized live bullets to be fired into the crowds of children and older people.
She remembered the last time she saw Augustus in the middle of Center Square. There were two different ropes; he hung by and the one holding the sign on his chest with the hastily drawn word “Traitor.” She turned around on her hard bed, the springs squeaking, causing the closest bunkmate to shift and groan. Gwen’s stomach was in knots with remembering his last words to her.
“My parents believe that they were led to justice by a green light leading us into the earth. But-“ Augustus had produced a faded letter, the creases were worn down from being opened and shut so many times. “even though not all were able to escape into the earth, not everyone was taken to the Pause. They tell us that there’s nothing else up there. This letter says otherwise. There are survivors.” His voice had pitched passionately, “Our ‘Great leader’ isn’t doing anything but killing us. There are other ways that we can handle the virus. We can’t even go to the ration station anymore. We have to get out of here,” He had pointed to a word in the letter that read, Petesville. “There. It was the only place that escaped the dead zone from ground zero. There are people who live there, and they have three meals every day, they get to feel the grass in between their toes and the sun shining down on them and everything that we have ever read about the outside before the explosion.”
“The sun?” Gwen had tried to imagine, instead of having a roof, having a vast emptiness above her. The feeling had made her fingers twitch.
Augustus had nodded, “there’s no green light down here. The only real light.” He had pointed upward, “is up there.”
All those words made her feel as if her body had grown bigger with her emotions. The person who gave her that hope was gone, just like her mother was gone. All that remained was the hope and the mission. To learn the truth about her mother’s disappearance, about her and her sister’s exile from the only home she had ever known. To find a new home, one where they didn’t have to look over their soldier and memorize the right answers not questioning, walking around with their eyes closed.
Gwen’s heartbeat was as fast as a hummingbird’s, feeling her face get warm in the bright yellow full-body FILER Suit. She adjusted the mask to stop the protective glass from fogging. Lifting a gloved hand, she gestured for Abby to move ahead. The markings left by the plague littered the street—rotting corpses piled in the ditches that once held the water supply.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“No,” They heard boots behind them and saw the red pinpoints of the guards’ Yursh T089 semiautomatics trailing the ground yards behind them. Abby whimpered.
Gwen passed the Brewan temple and noticed two vertical lines with a longer horizontal line, linking them with a whirlpool symbol, linking it all together had been spray-painted on the wooden door.
“Gwen, in here,” Abby hissed.
Gwen responded, immediately following Abby. Their footsteps crinkled the suit quietly in the large empty building. Rows and rows of pews filled the hall, “It’s supposed to be here.”
Abby stood guard at the door as Gwen rifled through the wooden boxes next to the altar, muttering to herself quietly. “Blueprints… blueprints..”
Gwen took out her lockpick and jimmied the lock of a small unremarkable desk that sat in the back office. “Aha! Thank you, Auggie.” She carefully took out the blueprints, read them, and placed them in the small case she had been carrying.
She went out into the temple hall and gave Abby the thumbs up. Abby nodded and peeked through the door. With a loud bang, the doors burst open the opposite way, knocking Abby to the ground. “Go! Go! Go!” Gwen didn’t even have time to breathe when the guards flooded in, their Yursh’s trained on her.
Gwen put her arms up immediately, and her muscles froze.
They twisted Abby’s arms as they pinned her to the ground. The groans that Abby let out were permeated with pain. The echoing marching of feet slapped the concrete floor. Gwen’s eyes darted toward the back door, her legs shaking.
“Put down the case.” The guards barked
Gwen started to lower the case to the ground slowly.
“I have a bomb!” Abby screamed.
Gwen held a gasp of surprise. She hadn’t told her about this danger. They were just supposed to get in, get the blueprints for the town hall and then leave. Abby was just as crazy as Augustus warned. Too late now.
The guards looked at each other.
“Let us go, and I won’t press pause on all of you!” Abby lifted her hand, holding her handmade walkie. “I’ll give you three seconds, and within that time, you will let me and my friend go.”
“She’s bluffing.” The guard on top of her shifted, causing Abby to cry out in pain. He tried unsuccessfully to pry the walkie from her hand.
“One” The guards hesitated. “Two”
“Th-“ Abby started and recoiled her head, ready to slam her face into the ground. Was that supposed to ignite the bomb?
Either way, the guards got off of her in a shot, allowing her to scramble to her feet.
Gwen held the door open for Abby, that crazy woman. Everyone sprinted towards the back. She slammed it shut in the guards’ faces as they got out to safety. A stray metal rod scrapped in a high pitch squeal as Gwen barred the door, preventing them from following them.
The tunnel’s walls glistened in the light. The drips of water landed on Abby and Gwen’s FILER suits as they edged through, careful not to fall into the waste processing facility below on their way out. Close to Gwen’s heart was Auggie’s letter.
“Ugh, it smells.” Abby shifted her backpack of stolen provisions and STABLE anti-radiation pills from the pharmacy. There was a bright light up ahead. They inched closer and closer.
“How can you smell anything through the FILER?”
“Well… I can’t smell anything, but can you imagine?”
“What is this place?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’ve never been here before? But you’ve been everywhere in Green Light.” Abby’s tone was accusatory.
“I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve never seen this hallway in my life.”
“That looks like a way out!” Abby shouted and pointed to the ceiling.
Gwen craned her neck and squinted through the fog collecting on her FILER visor.
A ladder leading up the side of the wall led to a hatch with a circular handle. Abby stared at the ladder. Her feet were stuck in place as if glued.
Gwen tested the first rung of the ladder. It was solid. She shook the ladder. It didn’t move. She climbed up the ladder, with Abby close behind. She wrapped one of her forearms around the last rung of the ladder, and with her other hand, she turned the hatch. Dust rained down on them, forming a fine mist that settled on the creases of their FILER suits. Gwen pushed open the hatch.
The sun was blinding. For a little while, they couldn’t see a thing. Their eyes were used to the darkness of being underground for their entire lives. After a while, their blindness left them. The sun reflected off the barren cracked rock that surrounded the slightly damp waste pool.
“We’re outside.” Gwen stared out into the desert. Where there was nothing, no walls, only floor, and everything seemed possible.
“There’s no green….” Abby trailed off. “Just all bright light.”
Gwen ignored her beating heart and immediately set off toward the rising sun. It was one of the directions listed in the letter.