Age: 16, Grade: 11
School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Amara Thomas
Category: Short Story
They were beautiful once, I’m sure of it. I know I was. Now the girls shuffle from one room to the next, whether it’s for breakfast or the routine medical exam, in their faded hospital gowns. Mine is bright blue and crisp, and fits snugly, but the other girls swim in theirs; the fabric stretching only around their bloated bellies. They walk slowly, dragging their feet, their arms dangling at their sides. The cadence of their steps causes their thin joints to creak as they lumber down hallways that never seem to go anywhere. Day after day, we see the same maze-like corridors of the facility in their weak fluorescent lighting. There are no windows, which leads me to believe that we are, in fact, underground. And as far as I can tell, there are no hallways that lead to doors that lead to exits.
I got here later than the others, so conventions of the above-ground world are more freshly imprinted in my mind. I still wonder when we are going to be let outside to see our friends and families, or how our food and water is being transported inside our facility if there are no doors. Or, if we are underground, how did they manage to build this place, and who built it? What about all the pipes and rocks and skeletons that were buried in this patch of earth before? How long did it take to clear the dirt away? You see, these questions still nag me, but the other girls don’t seem to care anymore.
I am always respectful of the nurses, figuring they’re here to help, after all. I sometimes ask them my questions too, but they deny me answers. They’re very polite about it, too. I’m assuming that must be part of the job. I wonder how their employers managed to find people that can simultaneously be nice and keep everyone in line.
I have been here for so long (months, maybe a year) that I have started to forget the story of how I got here in the first place. One thing I’m certain about is that I have family out there- a mother, a father, and maybe a little sibling. They’re above-ground, waiting for me. I wonder if they are the ones who sent me down here in the first place, to be part of an important scientific experiment, or maybe for some kind of boot camp. Regardless of the reason, I assume they are coming to get me, eventually, and it’s just a matter of time.
Life down here isn’t terribly hard- I don’t have to survive on my own wits and physical strength, or force my way up through the upper echelons of a rigid social hierarchy to gain favors from powerful matriarchs. In fact, it is the opposite down here. We are told where to go, what time to wake up, sleep, and eat, and what to do with the rest of our time(which was never much). It’s actually convenient. The nurses are the only authority, and they don’t bark orders at us. They give us directions and always accompany them with reassuring smiles.
I assume something bad might happen to us if we disobey them, because sometimes girls go missing and I have conspiracy theories (that others wouldn’t believe, or maybe just didn’t understand). So far, I’ve reasoned out that there are guards stationed all around the facility, at every possible gate, tunnel, or air vent. I imagine them all as men, armed with lethal weapons (guns, probably), and they are ordered by the scientists, who pay for all the facility’s expenses, to harm us if we don’t do as the nurses tell us. Or worse, if we try to escape.
The other girls don’t speak to me any more than they will speak to each other. They’ve been like this ever since I got here. I try to get them to talk occasionally, asking simple questions about their lives but they never reply, so I switch to the weather because you can answer that with just one word. I tell them that for me, it’s a bit humid for a place underground (which makes me wonder if we’re underground at all). I wait for them to respond, or even nod their heads in agreement, but all they do- all they ever do- is stare at me with big, empty eyes.
I’m sure they all came from different countries because they spoke different languages and their skin and hair are all different colors. We’re all about the same age, twelve at the youngest and maybe eighteen at the oldest. When they arrived, they must’ve been in the prime of their youth, but now, their femininity is hardly noticeable. Their breasts, probably full when they arrived, hardly showed beneath their hospital gowns. They’d lost their periods long ago from the medication the nurses give us. Their cheeks are sunken, and their hair is so thin so I can seek large, flaky portions of their scalps. Their limbs are wiry, which is strange because we are all well-fed and taken to doctors for regular checkups. What confuses me the most is that although we shower daily, and the nurses take good care of us, the girls still look disheveled and filthy. From afar, I can imagine we look like children who have been living on streets and abandoned alleyways.
The nurses, who are in charge of the entire facility, lead the girls in daily walks through the serpentine hallways of the underground complex. We walk slowly in single file, and we’re so good at it every girl is able to maintain an equal amount of space between herself and the person in front. In addition to the walks, the nurses monitor us during mealtimes, call out our names from rosters, and inspect us to make sure we’re healthy. The nurses are taller, older, healthier, and have richer voices. Like us, they are all female. There is one nurse I like; she is Asian, short and plump, with a thick southern accent, and brown, crooked teeth. We aren’t allowed to call the nurses by their names, so I call her dajie, sister. Like the others, she never smiles, but I think she cares about me more than the others, maybe because I can speak in Mandarin to her, but I can never speak to anyone else in the facility, English or otherwise.
The days crawl by, and I start to wonder if anyone is coming to get us all. If this is all an experiment, where are the scientists, and why haven’t they come to collect data? When would the experiment end? Then, if this is the boot camp my parents sent me to as punishment for misbehaving, why isn’t life more grueling? The nurses would be more gruff and probably push us around more. We would probably have to do drills and scrub floors, but besides for our leisurely walks, we are well-taken care of. Pampered, even (although the sickly physique of the other girls is still an anomaly).
Maybe nobody is coming to get me. I’ve asked about my family, but the nurses continue to evade my questions. We eat and sleep and walk in formation, but there seems to be no other purpose for us girls.
More time passes, and I notice the nurses acting strangely. Our meal portions are getting smaller and smaller, and the nurses have stopped giving us medication. They’ve also been more reluctant to speak to us; their directions are more brief and less gentle. Just last night, one of the girls shattered a plate and a nurse I remember being particularly meek started shrieking at the poor kid, who was one of the youngest in the group, maybe around 12 or thirteen. If even the nurses were growing impatient, there could only be one reason- we were all going to die. Whoever controlled the facility was going to kill us all. The girls who sometimes disappeared and never returned were already proof that the rest of us wouldn’t last. The authorities- the real authorities- had decided to liquidate us all at the same time, maybe because that was more efficient and they wouldn’t have to waste food and resources on the ones that continued to live a bit longer, like myself. When we were all dead, the nurses would be jobless, and the prospect of having to find employment again was putting them on edge. Suddenly, I find that I am no longer living in an eternal vacation where we eat well and sleep well, and where having no purposes or responsibilities is a luxury that few can afford. I am now living in a gas chamber.
I have begun to hatch an escape plan. I discussed my designs at night with the other girls, encouraging them to join me; we had a better chance of defeating the guards if there were more of us. And there were hundreds of girls- I’m certain of it. However, when I explained to them how we would make our escape, they only looked at me with dull, empty eyes, completely void of luster. It was the same as it had always been. Did they not understand the words coming out of my mouth? I was speaking English, and they could all understand it. After all, the nurses spoke English to us, and they were able to follow those instructions. It has occured to me that maybe they do not want to escape. Did they not want freedom, or more importantly, to keep their lives, in the same way that I did?
Desperate, I tell dajie of my fears. For some reason I trust her enough to risk the nurses getting suspicious of my clandestine schemes. When she refuses to help me the first time, I get down on my knees and weep and pull on the hems of her cream-colored pants. My entire world is dependent on this one moment, this one favor. My life is delicately balanced on the tip of her tongue, because she might be my only hope of reaching above-ground without being shot down by the guards.
She refuses again. Politely, though, as she always does. She shakes her head and sighs, then leaves to attend to the other girls. I realize I am wrong to trust her simply because we come from the same country (different parts of it, but the same country nevertheless) and speak the same language. I suppose the only favor she granted me was not telling the other nurses how I had humiliated myself by pleading with her, who, like the rest, are pleasant faces in medical scrubs, with nothing else inside.
Today, the girls will all be taken to a separate room in the facility, reserved specifically for “big events”, and today is the biggest event of all, a special ceremony. I don’t know what the ceremony is for, only that it was important enough that even we-who are never allowed to do more than march around the hallways- are to participate. Every girl goes, and the nurses seem particularly happy when they guide us out of our bunks and into the “special place”. I hide under my bed and wait until everyone leaves. They’re doing headcounts, but I’m not conspicuous enough for my absence to be noticeable.
Since the ceremony is going to be the main priority, surely all the guards are to be concentrated there. There is even a possibility that after the ceremony, all the girls will be killed immediately, although I don’t know how the authorities are going to do it. It seems like an awfully big effort to kill that many people all at once.
When I’m confident there’s nobody left, I slip out from under the bed and start running. I go in no specific direction, dreading that any path I choose will lead to a dead end. The hallways are empty, as expected. It seems almost too good to be true. I run through every hallway we had been marched down, through every possible turn in the maze. I half-expect to be going in circles, but every turn takes me through new territory.
So far, nobody has raised an alarm for me, much less notice that I was escaping. I reach the gates of the facility. Beyond them, I can see big, brick steps leading out of the underground, into the above-ground world. Sunlight creeps in through the metal bars of the gates, settling on the steps and illuminating the path to above-ground.
I had expected to encounter armed guards, and was prepared to out-maneuver them. My body, although starved of nutrients, is lightweight, and the anticipation of freedom provides me with all the strength I need to outrun them. But there are no guards. Until now.
A small, middle-aged man with greasy hair sits behind a reception desk sifting through papers and occasionally yawning. He doesn’t seem to carry a gun, and he certainly doesn’t look threatening. This is who I have been afraid of facing all along? How could this man possibly overpower me, or any of the other girls? The guard doesn’t seem to notice me as I pass him. He isn’t looking up from his paperwork. It’s pathetic, even. He glances up lazily as I run by and I see him mumble something into a microphone. He’s alerting the other guards. The real guards, I think. But I have no time to panic. The gates are so close.
The sunlight glints off the cobblestone ground beyond the gates, as well as the hairs on my forearms. I can smell the tantalizing mustiness of fresh earth, possibly even after a rainstorm- does that mean there’s now a rainbow in the sky, too? I can hear noises- people speaking, cars honking. Perhaps the usual rowdiness of a marketplace or town square? Soon, I will be there too. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had a conversation with someone, or heard laughter, or felt the warm embrace of a loved one.
I hear the clamoring of footsteps quickly closing in on me. The guards are coming, and they are armed, with orders to kill on sight. I will have to evade them when I reach above-ground, but that’s another matter entirely.
I reach the gates and kick them open without hesitation. They split and clatter onto brick walls, making the loose metal hinges rattle incessantly. The bricks steps are quite tall, but I leap from one to the next with unprecedented agility. The physical strain of my run is gone, and I can no longer taste metallic fluid in my throat; I can only feel the bliss of the moment. I’m going to be free, at last.
The above-ground world is so close. I can even see it.