All week we have been showcasing the top five stories in our short story contest, which leads us to our first place story, Erin Young’s “To You, In 20 Years.” Erin’s story, according to our judge, “paid close attention to every aspect of storytelling including a plot that was very much focused on action, adequate description of the world and its rules, character development, and narrative POV. By naming a future that is quite possible, this author calls attention to the ways in which we perceive and experience freedom, how we work towards coalitional collaboration, and what sacrifices are required for necessary change.” Enjoy!
Humanity retreated behind the wall twenty years ago.
It came from the rain, or so they once believed. Each drop shone, glistening just a bit darker than normal water, almost the color of ash. The Dark Rain only happened once, but by the following morning, half of the population was infected, and within a year the seven and a half billion that resided on Earth had been whittled down to a measly million.
Caligo Obscurum, they called it. A dark mist. Fitting, based on the clouds of black that could be seen rising from disturbed lakes and puddles whenever the water was disturbed by some miraculously-living animal.
Renna wondered if anything was still out there. Probably not. Not anything that was in the barely-held-together textbooks that she had never read in school, at least, but maybe something new—something that hadn’t been there before.
She rolled her shoulders, arms staying stretched out behind her in order to prop herself upwards. The shimmering mist rolled over the treetops in the distance, before settling once more on the leaves and continuing to make the rest of the world inhabitable. Her fingers drummed on the smooth stone of the wall. If she looked over the edge, she’d see the same mist crowding around the highest part of the wall that it could reach, never traveling upwards, and never evaporating either.
Condense, yes. Evaporate, unfortunately not.
Renna was very aware that evaporation would increase the risk of the air becoming contaminated with the virus as well, effectively killing off the rest of the human population—save for her, and a few thousand others. The Cursed Children, if those on the street were being kind, but it was usually something far more foul.
She laid down, the blue sky just beyond her reach. Fifty meters high, and she still couldn’t touch it. Not that she wanted to—it was the reason they were in this mess, anyway. Her eyes fluttered closed as she slowed the rate of her breathing.
“I know you’re not dead, stop acting like you are.”
“Oh, don’t I wish I was,” she hummed as something blocked out the light on the other side of her eyelids. Kai sat cross-legged, looming over her as he braced his elbows on his knees. His face was upside-down, but she could still make out the way his eyes got thinner at the corners and the gentle waves that hung down but brushed his eyes when he sat up.
It was a face she had known since she was young, around the same time she had found out that her parents had been put through Summer.
The title was a joke—a furnace was more like it.
His name wasn’t actually Kai, but she thought it fit. He had never corrected her, but a part of her wondered if he had ever actually been given a name. Renna sat up abruptly, forcing him to recoil back if he didn’t want their heads to collide. It wouldn’t have hurt her, but she knew he would have whined about the pain for far too long, even though he knew it was pointless. She’d never understand the feeling.
“Anything new?” He asked, moving to sit at her side. She watched him shield his eyes with a hand and squint into the distance. “Maybe you’ve developed some sort of eyesight mutation, but all I see are the same damn trees.”
“I have, actually,” she said, elbowing him in the side. “I seem to have discovered a new breed of stupid.”
“I guess it’s eyesight that looks inwards, then.”
It was a good line. She had to laugh. Kai’s lips quirked upwards into a smile as he dropped his hand and craned his neck to look over his shoulder. “It’s particularly bad down there today.”
Renna scoffed. “Why do you think I’m up here?”
It was never particularly good in LaCros, but certain days were worse than others. Like that day, when another Cursed Child had been born. It wasn’t an issue for Renna, of course, but it meant that another woman had been infected while pregnant, and LaCros was in an uproar over it. Had she containimated others, was there a leak in the walls, what type of mutation would the child have—the usual questions that were asked whenever another one of them was born.
Their numbers had increased rapidly during the first year or two after the Dark Rain, as it was much easier to become infected with the virus back then, but the amount of Cursed Children births had decreased substantially since then. The probability of getting the virus seemed to lessen each day and yet, the possibility of freedom seemed to get farther and farther out of reach.
Kai was quiet, dark eyes flickering to her periodically, letting her think. Jaw set, she grinded out, “Father?”
“None that I know of,” he said, following her gaze to the buildings below them, the small, stone houses and red-tinted shingles. LaCros—an iteration of a nearby city from before the Dark Rain called La Crosse—looked so small from where they were, but she knew that compared to the wall, they were even smaller.
“And the mother’s been through Summer already.” She might have even been alive—infected that gave birth to Cursed Children barely had any rights, and a peaceful release wasn’t one of them.
He artfully maneuvered around the topic. “They’ve found out her mutation already. It’s a bit like yours.”
“Not exactly, but,” he said, pausing for a moment as he rubbed his wrist. “She can heal pretty fast.”
Renna didn’t want to know how the doctors figured that one out. “But she can feel it?”
“She cried, so I’d say yes.”
Letting out a sigh of relief, she ran her fingers over the smooth stone of the wall. At least it wasn’t like her, and healing quickly would help the child maneuver LaCros pretty well. Maybe it would turn out a bit reckless because of it, just like Renna herself.
See, the problem with being unable to feel pain wasn’t that it made her care about her life a bit less, but that she’d never be able to truly understand if she was dying. They’d make a good pair, her and this child. One cannot know if she’s dying, and the other simply cannot die.
Kai seemed to catch on. “Maybe we’ll be out of here by the time she grows up.”
“You know they’re not any closer to eradicating it.”
“I didn’t say everyone. I said ‘we.’” He thought about his words for a moment, before shrugging as a rush of air escaped his mouth. “But that’s pointless, isn’t it? You’d never go.”
He was right. “We’d all die,” she said.
“Not from the virus at least.”
“We quite literally can’t get the virus, Kai,” she said, shooting him an incredulous look. “But that doesn’t mean we know how to survive out there.”
“Pessimistic as always.” The laugh that ensued was quiet, giving him a moment to pick his next words.“I know some of us would do just fine outside these walls. You’re the only one with a problem.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t mean just the two of us?”
“I couldn’t spend more than a day alone with you, much less the rest of my life.”
“You do realize that you’ll feel pain if I throw you off of this wall, right?”
The corner of his mouth curved up into a smirk. “You couldn’t catch me if you tried.”
It annoyed her that he was right. She would never be able to catch him, not because he was remarkably fast, but because Kai was simply untouchable if he wanted to be. Renna might not be able to feel pain, but Kai was nothing short of feline in his movements.
Out of the corner of her eye, she studied him as he sat, stretched out like she had been before, with his arms propping up his torso and his eyes just barely open as he took in the sun. In one abrupt movement, she made to swat him, but he casually bent his elbow and folded his body as her hand neared him, effectively allowing her palm to soar just over his head.
“Show off,” she muttered, folding her arms over her chest.
Kai pushed himself back upwards and reached over to mess with one of her curls. “Feel free to break your own finger again, if you’d like. We both know I have the better mutation.”
Renna slapped his hand away. “I’ve only done that once, you don’t have to keep bringing it up.”
“Once was enough.” He stood up and stretched, the all-black outfit he wore stark against the pale blue sky. “Race you back down?”
“Never. You always win.”
Taking her hands, he hauled her to her feet, the contrast of their skin tones making him look paler against the light-brown tint of her skin. “I’ll take the outside path, come on.”
Renna chewed on the inside of her cheek, but she still had no desire to say no. Kai had that effect, and had used it to his advantage ever since they had been young, no matter the trouble it got them in. Huffing, she pulled out of his grasp, before taking off at a sprint for the small staircase that spiraled inside the wall.
Though it was muffled by the stone that closed in around her, Renna heard him laugh, and immediately knew that she had lost. Even with her head start, he could make it down the wall without using half the handholds if he wanted to win that badly.
By the time she had made it to the solid ground, her breathing ragged as she braced a hand on the cool stone of the wall, he had already made it over to the stairwell exit—a whole fifteen meters from where he had scaled down the wall—and was leaning against the stone with his hands shoved into his pockets. Upon hearing her reach him, Kai merely glanced over at her doubled-over frame and said, “You’re a bit slow.”
“I wish you fell,” she spat, waiting for her heart rate to slow.
“I’d still land on my feet,” he said, taking her arm and beginning to lead her through the small town they called home. It truly wasn’t much, based on the fact that it was so close to the wall, but that was why they liked it so much. Living close to the wall was bittersweet—the taste of freedom was just beyond their reach. Still, when they were lucky, a breeze would pick up and send air over the wall.
Sometimes it smelled a bit like salt and water—the ocean, they presumed. It wasn’t like they had ever seen it, or even been close to it, but the smell was enough. Sometimes it just smelled fresh, like the air was coming from the acres of trees that she liked to gaze at so much. The smell didn’t really matter, though, it was more about the idea that there was something else out there, and this was their only way to taste it.
Besides, only those that weren’t terrified of becoming infected lived in the lower towns, and that meant that most of the Cursed Children found their homes together. Another positive was that less people would bother them as well, but people usually stayed out of their way regardless. That came with the title of Cursed, but that knowledge seemed to be a given.
It wasn’t until Kai didn’t stop at their tiny townhouse that Renna caught on. She didn’t say anything to him, but his fluid movements had gotten stiffer as they moved closer to their destination. What their destination was, she had no idea, but he had never done anything without reason.
The closer to the city they got, the more people that littered the streets. They packed together in market areas, passing from stall to stall, haggling for simple things like bread and apples. Renna had read about times where there were buildings made specifically to hold food. Supermarkets, they had been called.
She wondered what had been so “super” about them.
Kai veered from her side, coming back only a minute later with a roll for each of them. He hadn’t paid, but when they were this close to the city it was debatable that anyone would even take their money, for fear of it being contaminated. Renna gritted her teeth and shoved the bread into the pocket of her black jacket. Kai didn’t say anything about it, but he hadn’t eaten his either.
There was a crowd up ahead, right next to a small store with a sign that said, “NO CC.” She would have ripped it down if he hadn’t caught her wrist and pulled her through the crowd, muttering for her to keep her head down. He seemed to have an exact idea of where they were going, as she felt him turn her toward a tiny alley between two houses and had to force herself to stay upright as they raced up the uneven ground.
Kai stopped suddenly, his thinner eyes gazing into a small window. “Look,” he breathed, never turning his attention from whatever was in the house. “In the corner.”
Placing her hand on his shoulder to steady herself, she used her other hand to peer through the glass. There didn’t seem to be much in the home, save for an overturned chair and a few other unremarkable items. But tucked into the corner was a small bundle. “Are you stealing clothes again? They’re not even black.”
Despite her words, she knew there was something different here. Kai didn’t bother to come up with a retort. “Let’s go.”
Her hand fell from his shoulder as he shoved the window open, visibly cringing at the scraping noise. She glanced down to the street below, but saw no one coming for them. It didn’t matter anyway, this is what Kai did, and he never got caught.
He sent himself through the window, a single, graceful movement that had her scoffing as she watched him roll to a stop in the middle of the room. Renna, on the other hand, practically fell into the tiny house. She noticed a trickle of blood run down her arm, a result of the rough window, but she merely brushed the red liquid onto her pants and continued moving about the room.
Kai had already picked up the small bundle, holding it in his arms as if any movement—even that of his own—could cause it to shatter. The moment Renna realized what it was, her stomach turned over, even though her features remained calm.
“I’m not raising that with you.”
His features were bright as he held the child in his arms. “She took after you.” Using his upper arm, he propped the head up, letting her gaze at the tiny features. He was lying. It looked more like him.
She rolled her eyes, but gravitated closer for a better look. “We’d be horrible parents.”
“This would be the perfect child. She would heal so fast, it wouldn’t matter if we got her into a bit of trouble. Besides, I’d catch her whenever you dropped her,” he said, spinning away from her fist.
“Who said I’m going to drop her?” Renna cried, keeping her voice low.
Kai winked. He had won. “Let’s go home.”
She didn’t want to say yes, but Kai was already dropping the child in her arms and easily maneuvering himself back through the window, before holding his arms out and making a grabbing motion with his hands. The baby girl passed between them, and Renna struggled to get through the small frame, her boots connecting with the uneven ground after an amount of time that was much longer than Kai had needed.
Her ankle rolled as she landed, causing her to twist her foot in a circle until it cracked. Satisfied, she followed him farther down the tiny stretch of space between the two houses. They couldn’t go back the way they had come, that was for sure, with all of the people crowded outside the house.
Once they had made it a healthy distance away, there was a loud banging noise and shouts met their ears. Kai glanced over his shoulder, a shadow passing over his features. If they had just been a few minutes later, there might not have been a child to find.
“Come on,” he hissed, tucking the bundle into his jacket as best he could before they once again reached a main road. It was less busy than the last one, but the River Market was in full swing. Based on the fact that the river was the main source of water for LaCros—after being purified, of course—there was rarely a time when the River Market wasn’t full of people, but anything was better than that mob.
The two of them stayed close, refraining from making eye contact with any of the soldiers in the Garrison Unit, but tracking their movements all the same. Not long to go—but then there was commotion up ahead and Kai was slowing beside her, his normally serene features contorted into a picture of anger and alarm.
Renna touched his arm, signaling for him to wait, before moving off on her own. There was a young boy up ahead, no older than twelve, fighting his way out of one of the men in the Garrison Unit’s grasp. Pinching the bridge of her nose, she made her way back to Kai. “It’s one of us. Go on ahead.”
His jaw visibly tensed. “I’ll be back.”
“Meet you at home,” she said, before taking off at a sprint. There was a sort of wild glee in it—no one ever ran in the streets unless they were running from something.
There wasn’t really much to run to, anyway.
Renna caught the first one in the jaw, taking him by surprise. The man stumbled, the forest green coat that marked the Garrison Unit billowing around him as he dropped the boy’s arm. She took it, pushing him in front of her as they ran.
In the commotion, she barely heard the shot go off, giving her just enough time to shove the boy into a tiny alley like the one she and Kai had ran through not long before. Renna felt the impact of the round shooting clean through the spot below her right shoulder, but that was all.
It didn’t slow her down. Sure, the feeling of warm blood sliding down her arm wasn’t necessarily pleasant, but it was only an inconvenience. Turning into the alley, she paused. The boy was gone.
She didn’t know his name to call out, so she shrugged, picked up her pace, and started home. Cursed Children were smart, they knew how to survive. He’d be fine. Kai would be furious, but maybe if she laid it on thick about her bullet wound he’d let her off easy.
The stones beneath her feet were worn, barely fitting together to make a somewhat even path that acted as a road. In school, the teachers had taught about cars and how, in the very beginning, they even existed within the walls. But, eventually, there was simply no more room for other modes of transportation when people had legs that worked just fine.
That was how Renna put it at least—her teachers had always used much less hostile language.
By the time she had made it to the small house, it seemed to take twice the normal amount of air to fill her lungs and her skin was slick with sweat. Through experience, she had found that those were her first warning signs when she was starting to lose a bit too much blood. The door flew open at her touch, revealing the cramped quarters she called home, as well as Kai’s tall figure leaning against the table as he waited for her return.
“Where is he?” He asked, looking over her shoulder.
Renna pulled off her jacket, letting it drop at her feet. “I got shot.”
“I didn’t ask. Where’s the kid?”
“He ran off. Don’t know where he went.” She passed him, bending over to search through a cabinet to find where he kept the first aid items and having to catch herself on one of the chairs. “Where’s Noora?”
“Upstairs.” He noticed her struggle to find everything and crossed the room to her in one long stride, barely even having to look as he pulled out the bottle of alcohol. “You’re telling me you left him on his own?”
“He left me on my own, and I got shot. I think I’m worse off in this situation. I could be dying, Kai,” she said, pulling down the collar of her shirt to expose her wound. It looked pretty bad, though it felt just fine.
Kai glanced over at it. “You’re fine, it’s not too bad. Stop that!” His eyes widened as he slapped her hand away from her wound, her darker finger stained red from where she had pushed it into the hole.
Renna made a face at him, starting to dress the wound. “How’s the kid?”
“Don’t change the subject.”
She could predict his actions so well. “Consider the subject changed. Go look for him if you want, but I’m not getting shot again.”
“This is bullet number eleven, Ren. You could spare another if you cared enough.”
An eyebrow raised at his words. “I care a healthy amount. You just care about these random kids too much.”
Kai took the unused bandages and threw them back into the cabinet, slamming it closed with his foot. “You were a ‘random kid’ once.”
“At least I wasn’t a lost cause,” she huffed, a chill running up her spine as she cringed at her words.
“You haven’t grown out of being a lost cause.”
He didn’t respond. The only sound that filled the house was that of his retreating footsteps as he left her, ascending the staircase with feline softness. It was silent until there was a loud noise from above, and Noora was flying down the stairs, white-blond hair bobbing as her eyes found Renna and narrowed.
“You made him break something again! How many times have I told you to stop that?” The elder girl eyed the wound in her shoulder. “Go apologize before he shoots you himself.”
“Kai would rather die,” Renna said, but found herself moving toward the stairs regardless. The wood creaked beneath her feet, as it always had, announcing her presence on the second floor.
It was even smaller than the first, consisting of two beds shoved into the small space and only separated by a tiny table. Only two beds, mainly because they couldn’t fit a third, but also due to the fact that Noora worked most nights, and slept downstairs when she wasn’t. Now, however, there was also a structure that held the sleeping child.
True to Noora’s word, there were a few glass shards in the corner, remnants of whatever Kai broke. Renna didn’t care enough to attempt to figure out what it had been.
“Why do you always have to break things?”
He scoffed. “Sometimes I really do want to shoot you.”
She sat next to him on his bed. “I like the number twelve. Go ahead.”
That elicited a laugh, thankfully. She wasn’t that good at apologizing. “It’s getting worse out there,” she said after a while. “I’m starting to think you’re right.”
“I’m being serious.”
He fell backwards, landing softly on the thin mattress. “Things are changing. They’re more afraid of us than they ever were.”
“Theoretically, we are human versions of the virus.”
“Not the time, Ren.”
She shut her mouth. A minute passed before she couldn’t hold her tongue anymore. “Let’s go, then. You want to go beyond the wall? Round up all those kids that you keep tabs on.”
Kai blinked. “How do you plan for us to survive?”
“You haven’t thought that far?”
“I haven’t thought past the slim possibility that you would ever agree.”
She heaved a sigh. “There has to be stuff left out there. And besides, we can always come back, right?”
“Right,” he said, lips quirking up into a smile as he sat up. “You’re serious?”
“What could go wrong?” Leaning over, she bumped his shoulder with her own, making him frown at her wound. “Even if it’s just the two of us, I’m sure we can figure out some way to deal with each other.”
He sprang off of the bed, a certain glow to his features as he visibly worked everything out in his head. “We should leave tonight, then. Just the two of us. We wouldn’t go far, but far enough to make sure it was safe, before coming back for the rest. They’d notice if all of us were suddenly gone, so should we take them in pairs? That might take too long—”
“—but it could work. Threes, maybe? I think I know a way out, but—”
“Kai, shut up. You’re making me hate this.”
He pressed his lips into a tight line, jaw continuing to work as he turned over each possibility in his mind. It would have made her laugh, if it wasn’t for the fact that she suddenly hated the idea of leaving.
But, if it was a chance at freedom or remaining in increasing oppression, she knew her choice.
There was a tiny window just next to the bed, no larger than the width of both her hands, letting the last dregs of light filter into the room. It would be night soon. They didn’t have long.
“Go tell Noora,” she said. “And pack a bag. I’ll meet you downstairs.”
He was too wrapped up in his thoughts to respond as he disappeared. She didn’t hear him reach the bottom of the stairs, but Noora’s incredulous voice was enough to know he was out of earshot.
Pushing herself off of the bed, Renna crossed to the makeshift cradle. The child gazed up at her as if she was curious to know what all the commotion was about, making Renna smile as she whispered, “I’m going to be able to run as far as I want.” The baby girl reached upwards, tiny hand wrapping around Renna’s finger once it was within her reach. “Maybe one day you’ll be able to run, too.”
With one last glance at the now-dark sky outside the window, Renna left the room. Kai was already at the door when she made it to the bottom of the stairs and tossed her a bag as Noora looked between the two of them.
“You two can’t just leave me with a child, you know,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest as she turned to Renna. “I can’t believe you agreed to this. You?”
“It was my idea.” Her shoulders raised in a shrug, an action that would have hurt anyone other than her. “It’s dark. Let’s go.”
Kai sent Noora a quick salute, using his height to hold the door open for Renna above her head, before ducking out of their home together. The two of them slinked through the streets that led to the wall, avoiding members of the Garrison Unit whenever they passed. It wasn’t anything new, but tonight there was a special thrill that flooded her veins when she ripped the “NO CC” signs down from storefronts.
She hadn’t even considered how they were going to get out until they reached the river and Kai waded into the running water. “You’re not serious,” she said, barely keeping the whine out of her voice.
He didn’t care to answer as he jumped over the metal structures that kept the water from seeping into the ground and waded over to the iron bars in the wall that allowed the water to flow through. Raising his hands to the space between them, he milled it over for a moment, before his quiet voice met her ears. “We can fit.”
“You can fit.” Her complaints were useless, however, as Kai was already underwater and fitting himself through the bars. She cursed at him while he was out of earshot, stepping into the river herself and attempting to fight out the cold. When she was close enough to the bars, ducked under the water, hearing the sound of the purification that was occuring up ahead as she did so. She put a leg through, then a shoulder. Her head was the hardest part but, if she turned it to the side, she just barely made it.
The rest of her body followed and she resurfaced, looking around for Kai. He was up on a bank to her right, arms stretched out and face tilted up to the sky. Hauling herself out of the river, she made to slug him in the arm for not warning her that she would have to get completely soaked, but paused before her fist connected with his arm.
They were out. Renna could see the trees she had stared at almost daily, only this time they towered over her instead. There was something almost ethereal about it, the way the light from the moon filtered through the trees and made everything glow.
Kai let out a low laugh as he collapsed onto the ground, his eyes fixed on the stars. There were no limits now and, even though the sky was farther away, everything was somehow within their reach.
Things were going to change. They were going to get all of the Cursed Children out, and make a place where they could choose their own name. The idea brought a tiny smile to her lips as she bathed in the moonlight for a minute, before exhilaration took over her body.
Renna took off at a sprint through the trees.