By Yada Pruksachatkun
When I was six, my mother woke me up with a gentle kiss in the cheek, and led me from my room to watch a man die.
Behind the bars, I remember seeing the lined face of an aged man, his eyes sparkling. He could be no less than fifty, but his build and shiftiness hinted at a physical fitness of youth. A silk white tuxedo shirt and black pants covered his body, still shiny even through a layer of grease and undeterminable filth. He swiped the sweat off one shiny cheek.
“You think, that killing me, will change anything Harley?”
He knew my father’s name. How did he know my father’s name?
A high-pitched chuckle escaped him, hysteria laced with fear. “You know , you can’t hide down here forever.”
My parents looked down at him, both of them bearing emotionless masks. My mother was the first to speak.
“We can, and we will. What we did wasn’t wrong-”
“What you did? Kill innocent people with a handgun?” His voice kept getting higher and higher, and we were all thinking the same thing. How high was his voice going to get? “And I have a faint suspicion it’s not just that. There’s tricky gang business here, I can just sense it.”
Papa shoved the head of his pistol into the man’s cracked lips, forcing him to open.
Duph. That simple noise rang through the air, and then gave way to silence. The man’s eyes went wide, before red started enveloping and eating at his face.
Mama, seeing a nod from Papa, led me back to bed. She whispered, “Never take any chances. Lesson number four. To be invincible, you need to have no fear. no emotions. Emotions for any other other than your own blood is weak.”
I nodded, strawberry red still splattered in the corners of my eyes.
“Mom, what’s it like to be in the outside world?”
I lay, sprawled across the bed, eyes droopy and mind fuzzy.
She smiled that crimson smile, laying her head thoughtfully next to mine. She always tried to think of a different aspect of the world every night.
“Well, there’s these things called stars. They’re out there, far away from this earth, and they’re glowing balls of pulsing energy. There, anything can happen.”
On an impulse, she pointed up at the stone ceiling, before getting up and looking at me, concerned. “Aria, do you have enough pillows?”
Moms. “Yes.” She looked over my small frame, huddled underneath a patched blanket.
“No you don’t.” Crossing the dimly lit room, she opened one of the many boxes filled with mismatched objects, objects of the outside world.
‘Do you want to see my latest drawing?”
“Of course Aria.” Sadness tinted her sugary voice. I knew my mother sometimes felt bad, that I had to grow up this way, sixty feet below civilization,, right beside the sewage canal and the cemetery, but for me, I never knew a life without it.
Jumping up, I pushed a pile of boxes filled with weapons aside.
It was Earth, or at least, the Earth in my mind.
She had told me about these people called “artists” the first day we had started these daily tellings, of people who could paint, dance, and sing the world away, who had the power to move continents and make the sky blue.
Ever since that night, I was hooked. Whenever I wasn’t sleeping, I would be dipping paintbrushes into paintpots, which my parents had cared to steal from the outside world before they moved here. I painted the sky, which for me bore a cold, stony face, bright blue, and drew windows on the walls. And in those windows, I drew plants and birds and little foxes running around in the bush.
“See here, here’s a prince, who I will fall in love with!” I pointed at the stickman.
She gave me a disapproving glance. “No emotions. Remember Aria. They make you weak,and I need you, to be invincible.”
I looked down, ashamed.
My mother and I stood, side by side,her arms around my shoulders. Pressing her lips to my hair, she whispered.
“360 days since the last government official. Maybe we can be normal, and we can go up, someday soon.”
I felt steps and a right turn, then a left. A creak, a door? But that couldn’t be, why would there be a door in the tunnels, underneath the city?
“Sssh, don’t be scared,” my mother whispered, her breath tingling my ear. “Be invincible.” She tugged at the blindfold behind my ears, before taking them off.
Light filtered through my eyes. It was an expanse of a room, the ceiling reaching high above, a pleasant cream, and the walls painted red and blue. Her breath tickles my neck.Extending a short finger, she points at the men in the room. One of them has one droopy eye, the other a stained color of yellow. His full lips are drawn back into a permanent sneer. The other man seems fine, but is stretching his hands far back from what seems to be capable semi-consciously.
“That’s Uncle Sam and Uncle Danforth, why don’t you say hello to them?” She waved at the two men standing in the middle of the room. “Aria, these uncles are extremely kind hearted men. They’ve been helping us since the very beginning. “
The uncles straightened up noticeably from their seats.
“They’ve been our outside ears and eyes. They’ve been risking their lives to get us enough food and drinkable water to live. If you could trust anyone other than us, trust them.”
With that final introduction, he walked abruptly out of the room, taciturn as always.
I looked at the men with new eyes. Without them…We could die. They had the ultimate power. They could simply stop going up and getting food and water for us…And then what would happen?
Staring at them curiously, I climbed on one of the unmoving animals. It didn’t utter a sound.
“Why are you doing this for us?” I cautiously asked, looking for any hints.
The droopy eyes man laughed, before glancing over my dead-serious gaze and quieting down.
“You have the presence of your father.”
My eyes bore into his.
“Your dad’s our boss. He’s one of the biggest gang leaders in New York. So without him, the whole organization. “ He pretended to pop a balloon.. “Gone.”
Gang leader. What is this? “Mom?
She read the question in my gaze, and hesitantly led me back off the unmoving animal.
Overhearing the conversation, father’s voice trailed from the door. “She’s only twelve. We’ll tell her when she’s older.”
A corner of his cracked mouth came up, amusement spelled out in his expression.
“And do you think she’ll survive until then?”
Nothing. My mother clamped her mouth together.
My mother pulled me close to her, turning away from the talking men. “Aria, I’d like to introduce you to a few things.”
She petted one of the small brown animal with four legs that sat in the room, and I reached out a hand as well.
“This here is a chair.”
A…chair? So those were the things that people sat on! And chairs usually came with a table, so where was the table?
“Where’s the table?” Excitement suddenly coursed through my veins.
“That there is a table.” Uncle Sam’s pointed finger led me to the bigger animal.
“But…Isn’t a table supposed to move?”
Tables in Aria World were objects that moved on its own, holding up things such as water and chocolate for its master. Not this unmoving…object that held nothing but books.
“Chairs, tables….Is this an office?” The pieces clicked together as I tried to piece my mother’s daily retellings of the outside world to the room.
For once, my mother’s deadened, hardened, and perfected face broke, a real smile showing through weary eyes.
“Yes. And up there…” She pointed at the door. “This place is a building, and we’re in the basement. Up those stairs, is the world.”
Her last words trailed off, leaving sparks in my eyes.
Up….To the World…To the world where there were princes, and these things called ‘cars” that moved on rounded legs and people wore fine clothes and anything could happen.
Bang! The left side of the door came completely off, an armed, man wearing a khaki uniform coming forward.
I don’t know what happened after that. One moment I was up, the world sinning round and round and me still pondering about the world Up There, and the next, someone was carrying me through darkness again.
It’s been a year since my parents have been put into jail.
At least that’s what Uncle Sam tells me they went, forced into a place where the mentally insane and the evil are put, run by equally evil men. He had taken me back to my parents’ part of the Tunnels, a network of rooms that started at the basement of that fateful night or day (there is no telling, when there is no light) through a hidden door. There, those emotionless monsters in khaki will never find me.
I hate them. The people in khaki that stole my parents away.
Even the thought of them clenches my fists and squeezes at my heart. How can someone be so cruel, to take away any chance of my parents’ livelihood, after forcing them to hide underground for so long? They’re the real villains, they are. My parents may be clinically “insane,” they may have killed. But they’re still human, with hearts and souls, desires and hatred.
Mother had told me this might happen, and told me how I might find her if the khaki men ever get to her. Under Uncle Sam, I’ve grown stronger. Trained, not only to kill rodents for food, but people. He has covered my insides with ice, so that I won’t feel the cold. But even here, in the warmth of a small fire, I can feel it creeping up my toes.
Everything’s been so cold since mother left .
There’s no turning back. Running on the tips of my toes as to avoid any sudden noises, my dark silhouette races across the dark, dank tunnels. There’s a white light somewhere near, eliminating the small crevices in the rock and soil surface.
“Up a flight of stairs, turn to the left, walk for 60 footsteps.” I repeat that to myself, hoping to the tips of my body that my memory had not waned.
Finding a flight of stairs to my right, I pause. The world turned black as I closed my eyes. Trying to remember, bits and pieces float by from that dreadful night. The gentle pressure of my mother’s cold hands. The light that filled my gaze as she took off the blindfold. Seeing chairs for the first time. “Sssh, don’t be scared.”
She was there again, leading me up the stairs. Touching the tunnel wall, I felt my way to the corner. Her hands nudged me left. Something cold and damp fell on my head. Cold drops glistened (rain?), which meant I was close to the surface. The gentle pressure was gone, the last remnants of mother washed away.
Up ahead, a door hung on its hinges. The lights flickered, before going out. Past the fallen door, chairs now lay in disarray, a dulled red. The table is upturned, and the room reeks of rat feces. Clutching the piece of paper in my hand is the only thing that stops me from dropping down and crying.
On it, an address is scrawled. 1200 W 40th Street, New York, NY.
That is where my parents will be, trapped somewhere behind bars. That is where I needed to go.
I tip toe past the door to the stairs, and start climbing.
Up. Up to the world I have never seen. What may lay there?
I step up the last flight of stairs, and open the door. A warm breeze tousles my hair about. Looking back at the flight of stairs, to the place where I had spent all my life, I waved goodbye.
“I won’t see you until I go find my parents.” I say to no one in particular. The words sound reassuring, and seems like a good-enough goodbye.
When I step out, I’m greeted by two women, both carrying shopping bags. “Hey, who’s this charity case?” one asks, looking over my dirt-covered sneakers and my lackluster clothing.
Before the other woman could comment on how bad I looked, I swung my hand towards both of their faces, making them fall to the ground, shopping bags flying everywhere. The first woman screamed, yelling, “Who are you? Gosh, you could be the daughter of Harley and Daph, seriously!”
Harley and Daph? Do they know where my parents are then?
“Wait…Harley and Daph…..?”
“The criminals and gang leaders!” She snapped,” Thank god they’re being executed for their crimes today.”
Executed….The word rang uselessly through my mind, trying to find a meaning.
My mother’s voice answered, “ Executed. That means.” She made a “skak” sound, and pretended to fall to the ground, dead.
Mother…Father…No, no, it can’t be! They can’t be killed! Why today, why today?
Tears threatening to overcome my vision, I run, not even caring to look at the world for the first time.
This Earth is darker, it’s skies so gray it almost matches the color of stone. The earth is littered with garbage, scarred from humanity. There are no trees, no lined gardens. Everything is cement, gray, plastic. Fake. I could slowly feel Aria’s World, the world I had spent so many days and nights daydreaming about, slipping away.
Mother had lied to me. Things have changed since the last time she’s been up here.
Smoke filled my lungs as I raced past the “buildings” (which I had imagined as clean, cobblestoned quaint little things). In reality, they were monstrous objects that reached its ugly head to the sky, crowding what little blue was up there.
I finally stumbled my way to 40th street, and down to 1200. The building in front of me is the biggest of all, reaching far higher than the eye can see. Its front face was entirely made out of this transparent material that was cold to touch, three guards standing near the front entrance with solemn expression etched on their faces. “Glass,” a memory told me.
My gun slid out slightly from my pocket, but I held it close. This was no time for killing. That was rule number two. It was okay to kill underground, but on Earth, it wasn’t.
“I just wanna get in,” I said, trying to sound normal. “I have a sore leg.”
That didn’t seem to do the trick. They looked at each other, bursting out in laughter.
“Sorry kid, this is a government office, not a hospital. There’s one down the road.” One man pointed at another tall building with a giant plus sign down the road.
Darting behind to the back of the building and leaving the guards to ponder the suddenly agile sore-legged person, I found a smaller entrance labelled “STAFF ONLY.” It didn’t budge at first, but after wiggling around with a wire (Lesson #301 from Mother), it let out with a slight nudge.
It smelled like hand sanitizing alcohol, something Uncle Sam had given to me once when I got a cut.
Walking down the brightly lit pathway, I saw how noticeable I was against the white backdrop, so I decided to hide in the shadows where no one could touch me.
Back here, there were no people. Judging from a sign on the wall saying “HAPPY NEW YEAR,” maybe people were gone because of this “new year” festival or disaster, I didn’t really know.
After a few minutes of bare walls and hand sanitizer smell, a map caught my eye, taped on to the wall, a blueprint of the government building. Tracing the paper with my finger, I looked at the foreign shapes.
Hospital care, court rooms, offices, detention centers I read, slowly spelling out the letters like I had learnt to with small brochures.
If anywhere, they must be in the detention centers! Looking at where they were, I ran up the stairs, took a right, and hit head first into a woman in a gray uniform.
“Hey, watch where you’re-”
Grabbing her neck, I used her pressure points to pin her up to the wall, before putting her to sleep.
A few more men and women in black and gray later, and up the stairs, rooms, and little dead ends that made up the maze-like building, I found myself in front of the “detention center.” After searching through the pockets of the one of the black uniformed men’s clothes, I had found a card. Mother had described this place well, telling me about the different people who lived here, and the system this whole place operated on.
It was almost like she had known I’d be here today.
The guard in the office near the “Detention Center” entrance was watching movies, his face turned slightly to the left. Sneaking up to the door, I lodged myself firmly against the wall, Swiping the card slowly on the door, it cracked open. Darkness greeted me, and I had a feeling that mother wasn’t there to turn on the lights. But no-She had to be. Squeezing my stomach to be as thin as possible, I lodged myself into the other room, closing the door with a slight click.
There were rows upon rows of rooms, with a barred wall on one side. Most of them were empty, but some held people with eyes that didn’t shine, that had lost hope.
Sneaking up to one, I carefully asked, “Do you know Harley and Daph?”
The man, who looked slightly like Uncle Sam with a droopy eye, squinted at my face., at the strange young girl who should not know of a place like this, let alone be inside one.
His eyes lit up in recognition. “Aria.”
“How do you know my name?”
“You’re Harly and Daph’s kid! Of course I know you.”
He knew where my parents were! I held onto the bars that separated him and me.
“Could you tell me where they are? A smile lit up my face, the first I have had in a long, long time.
He went quiet. The look of uncertainty and sadness could not be a good thing.
“I’m sorry. They’re gone. The men took them away yesterday.”
“Well, where are they then?”
“No…No…I don’t think you understand.”
“What is there to understand?”
“They’re gone.” He slowly spoke, gesturing to the ceiling.
What was he on about?
“To the Grace of God.”
God? What did he mean? “How do you know this?”
“I was your father’s right-hand man. We survived together, all these years, stealing off the rich. How can I not know where they are?”
And with that, he leaned in close.
“Now listen Aria. I know this is a lot to take in, but I need you to run as fast as you can back down there, and never come back up until Uncle Sam tells you its safe. Don’t worry about me. I promised your father once that we would die together, and I’m not planning to break that promise.”
The strange man’s words clung to my skin. To the Grace of God. That’s where they were. How do I get there? Where was God?
Finding a staircase, I ran as fast as I could down. Down past the clean hallways, down past the woman in gray who was still laying on the ground. I could feel the man’s words pressing up to me.
Why weren’t my parents there? 1200 W 40th Street they had clearly written, yet they’d lied to me!
How could they leave me like this?
Something in the back of my mind told me that they hadn’t left willingly, and that they’d never come back, but I pushed it away. Running past the dirty streets, the gray skies, I ran to the building where I had emerged, the small sign “closed under construction” plastered over its three-stories, peeling paint and broken windows peeking from underneath it.
They were dead. My parents were dead. I had ran too slowly. Reality had finally caught up.
Tears blurring my gaze, I stepped inside my bedroom, in a daze. The world revolved round and round, fragments of memory of a time where little Aria would lay her head next to her mother’s and listen to stories of the world above, an Aria who still believed that anything could happen.
Not knowing and not caring what I was doing, I ripped off one of the boxes and tore out the paint pots and brushes. Dipping the paintbrush into the white, I splattered white on the ceiling, and on the walls.
I flung the blobs of paint on the walls pretending that they were bullets to the khaki men who had taken them away, and then killed them. Feeling the triumph of seeing their lifeless bodies on the floor.
But I couldn’t, not here, not now.
So instead, I threw the paintbrush to the other side of room. and laid on the pillows. Looking up, I looked at the hand-painted stars on the ceiling.
Mother had said that they were glowing, pulsating balls of energy, where anything could happen. The white dots sparkled mischievously in the light.
I wonder if stars shine like this, in the real world. Or are they twisted up there too?
The cold nipping at my feet climbed, an iciness overwhelming my heart that even Uncle Sam’s training could not cure.
The ice spread from my toes, creeping its way up every nerve. And I spread it out, stretching my hands to the corners of the room, letting the ice overwhelm me, become part of me. It thawed my tears, soothed my venom until I could not feel anything. Not grief, happiness, frustration.
Nothing. Just cold.
I guess this is what it must feel like, to be invincible.