The last time I saw the sunrise, I was six years old.
I remember the warmth. I made myself steal every color, every minuscule shade, as it was my family’s turn to go down.
“We won’t live long enough to see it again,” the man in front of me said, wiping at one wrinkle-free cheek. He muttered it as he descended the steps, not taking a last look at the known world before defending into this unknown one.
We’d had no contact with the people who’d gone first, who’d tested the underground “safe havens” before the rest of the country was to descend. America had five underground cities, a designated number of people for each. We didn’t know how the other countries were doing it — if they had underground shelters, too. The plague destroyed everything, especially the priority of mass communication.
That morning was almost too early to call morning.
Three weeks earlier, the message rang from every radio, television, and broadcasting system in America: “Commencing Project Underground. Await your assignments. Commencing Project Underground. Await your assignments.” It ran for three days straight as the rest of the surviving police force marched street to street, knocking on doors and leaving notices.
Date: Thursday, February 15th, 2:00 AM. Location: 34° 21' 39" N / 117° 38' 0"
W. This was my sector’s assignment. California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and
Idaho. Sector 1. They built the underground safe haven in southern California, where the plague hit the hardest. Non-surprisingly, areas of high population were the first to explode into chaos.
They made it clear that to miss your assignment meant refusal to go down. You’d be left on the surface to die. And even six-year olds can read the urgency in their parent’s voices. Even six-year olds can’t sleep when the thought of being left behind rings in their ears.
My pen moves across the paper by pure memorization. Last time, bail was ten
clicks. This time, it’s twenty.
“Alexander McCoy,” I mutter under my breath. “You owe me.” I sign my name at the bottom of the sheet, next to my ID Number. Cotie VanDyk 10561. The 10,561st to go down. My parents: 10560 and 10562.
The uniformed seat-warmer behind the desk doesn’t smile as I hand the paper over. His badge reads, Matthew Farmer, 3985. He nods towards the bench at the other end of the small waiting room.
I sit, my old leggings providing little comfort between skin and cheap plastic. Sector 1 was built with speed and simplicity in mind. The plague broke out two years before I went underground. Seventy-two days after the first reported case, the government stopped counting the losses. They were exponential. The world had mere weeks to panic, find a cure, panic when there was none, and find a solution.
“How much do I owe you this time?”
I turn as a floppy-haired boy comes out of the double doors behind me, crooked smile on his pale face.
“Forty,” I say, standing. My boots scratch against the concrete. “Interest is a bitch, Lex.” A light above us flickers with the Sector’s usual half-assed energy.
Lex smiles, striding over and throwing an arm around my shoulder. “Daddy’s gonna love that.” He says Daddy like the word is coated in the plague. I shrug him off as he turns to the man behind the front desk. “Where’s my cuff?”
The man isn’t quick to stand, shuffle out of the room, and return with a paper bag marked: Alexander McCoy, 11286. Lex upturns the bag and lets its contents spill onto his hand — one metal cuff and two cigarettes. One is half-smoked.
“—Those things’ll kill you, you know,” Lex squeals in a high-pitched voice, tucking one cigarette behind his ear and the other between his lips.
“I don’t sound like tha—“
“My place or yours?” Lex asks, cutting me off again. “Wait — no.” He locks his arm through mine. My legs hurry to follow the rest of my body as he pulls us towards the door. Leather boots squeal in opposition. “Yours. Best to avoid Daddy’s wrath.”
Lex’s dad was a Council member, one of twenty in the Sector. The President of
“before” was one of the first to die, then the Vice President passed shortly after. Sectors 1 through 5 were run by twenty Council members each, mostly men and women leftover from the U.S House and Senate. Lex’s dad was a leader; mine was a plumber.
My mom worked in the Medic; Lex’s mom was dead.
Lex slides on his cuff as the doors to the police station sway to a close behind us.
We’re met with the dry smell of dirt and dust, the Sector’s natural perfume.
“Wrist,” Lex says, and I offer my hand. He taps our cuffs together and the metal sings. “Forty Clicks.” Forty Clicks is what my mother would make in a week.
“Lex.” I glare sideways at him. Shadows dance across his face as we drift passed yellow streetlights. I shove my cuffed hand against his chest. “Take them back.” “No.” He flashes a smile and ruffles a hand through his blonde curls. “Buy yourself a new bike, or something.” A woman glides passed us, blushing when she catches Lex’s eye. “Yours is shit.”
My eyes roll towards the dirt ceiling high above our heads. “I wish you’d gotten the plague.” You can’t let officials hear the juvenile insult, and my voice catches at the end as our eyes search the near-empty street. I’d forgotten to check.
Everything was built for order, and anyone found disturbing the peace was eradicated. Free speech died with our relatives. There was no room for error, they said – not when the population was a fraction of what it had been.
Lex breaks the tense silence with a forced laugh. “Oh, please. I’m definitely immune.” I roll my eyes again.
The government had never confirmed it, and teachers in Sector 1 were forbidden to suggest it, but Lex and I often talked about the possibility of immunity. The plague was air-born, turning the skin yellow and puss-filled. Your lungs would collapse — blacken, they found out after investigative autopsies. Shriveled, black lungs were pulled out of leaking bodies, and panic ensued. You could spread the disease before you even knew you had it, doctors soon found out. And worst of all: there was no cure. “What about that one girl in Maine,” Lex offers. I click my tongue and try to remember. “She had, like, fourteen siblings and all of them died.”
“Right,” I say. The story was printed in the last newspaper I ever read. “And she was the only survivor.” When scientists investigated, they discovered that the fifteen children shared only two beds between the lot of them. No one could understand why, with that much bodily contact and in such close proximity, the last girl hadn’t caught the disease too.
“Some of us are immune,” Lex says as we round a corner onto a new street. “And you know I’m right.” Apartment buildings tower over us on both sides. The height capacity of fifteen stories is almost always reached, except in the outskirts.
Lex lived in a large apartment building in the heart of the city. Plastic, iron, and cement were used in most construction projects, but Lex’s building was all sandstone and marble. It was rumored that the town square took eleven of the total fifteen months of city construction.
“Oh,” Lex says, interrupting the air as it floats passed my ears. “Did you get into
I quiet my sigh. APH stood for “American Plague History.” It was the Sector’s only history class and required government permission to take. I’d wanted admittance since my knees began their growing pains, but you couldn’t apply until your eighteenth birthday. The final lesson involved fifteen minutes on the surface — accompanied and in an air-tight suit, of course. But it was the surface, nonetheless.
I cough, hoping it clears the nerves from my voice. “Um, no.” I keep my eyes on a biker stopped at the intersection ahead. He fiddles with his cuff. “You know it takes the mail longer to get to the outskirts.”
“And I’m sure they’re not in a hurry to send out rejection letters.”
My lips part, mouth forming a neat oval. I swivel to see his face fighting a smile, a laugh. “You’re awful.” My fist barely makes contact with his shoulder and slips against his black t-shirt. “I’m not the idiot who got arrested for letting a stray dog into the infirmary.” My mother would give him hell for that one.
“Yeah, yeah,” Lex drawls. “That’s because you never do anything fun.” His voice bounces back at us, stuck in between metal walls.
“Where is everyone?” Lex asks, hand circling my elbow. His steps quicken, forcing mine to follow. “We’re in the outskirts, not the deserted regions.”
We reach a familiar connected strip of houses, gray cement dressed up by bright curtains made of old skirts. I move towards the door, but Lex stops me at the mailbox.
He reaches a hand in, brows jumping when he pulls out a thin envelope.
My shoulders hunch. “Not right now, Lex. I’m tired—“
“We’re opening it.”
I bite my lip as my stomach churns, tossing like the homemade slot machines in the Hub on the south side of town.
Lex pulls the letter from its paper sheath, clearing his throat and beginning with confidence. “Ms. Cotie Vandyke of Sector 1—“ he breaks his read-through to wink at me. “We regret to inform you—“ his eyes scan for another moment before he crumples the paper entirely. ”—hm.”
The corners of my mouth droop, as if to plant themselves in the dirt road. “Well, that’s the plague.” He says it flippantly, with nonchalance. “So what if you can’t go up? I’m not going up.” His mouth opens, closes. Opens—
“Lex, it’s fine.” But disappointment pulls at my shoulders, my stomach, my feet as they shuffle up the path and towards my front door.
I’ll never see the sun again.
Lex sits upside-down on the couch, blonde curls sliding across his forehead. It’s his turn, so I hand him a green grape and watch him toss it up and into his mouth. “Five,” he says, and with a big inhale, he launches the grape towards our triangular set-up of plastic cups. The grape exits his mouth with a pop and flies far beyond its intended target.
“You’re shit,” I say. I’d already made three successful shots.
“No, I’m bored,” Lex corrects. “I hate playing Cups.”
I blow the air from my lungs, slowly. Twelve years was a long time to spend underground. I fiddle my fingers in the rug, the cold cement underneath making goosebumps raise on my skin. “I don’t want to be here when I’m sixty.”
Lex’s eyes are slow to make their way to mine. “What do you mean?” It’s barely a question. His voice softens as he flips around on the couch, green to match the curtains.
“Cotie, we’re not going to be here forever.”
“No one talks about the plague, or the surface,” I say.
“We do.” His eyes turn to the door, as if someone’s going to come in and catch us.
I exhale. “Lex, it’s like no one’s even trying to go back up.”
He blinks, runs a hand raggedly through his hair. “Do you want to go to
Altman’s? He said he’s having an end-of-the-summer party.” His hands twitch. We’ll both be seniors next year. “His foster parents aren’t home,” Lex continues. Altman’s parents didn’t make it down. “And I’ll walk you home after."
He adds the last part because he knows I don’t like to walk alone in the dim night-lights. He says it to be kind, so I nod my head.
We leave the house, leave my street, leave the outskirts. I can’t keep my eyes from staring at the dirt. Lex can’t stop talking about Altman’s sister.
“—would it be weird if I asked her out?” he’s asking.
I’m about to respond when we round the corner onto Main Street. A couple runs from the square, the woman looking frantically behind them.
“What—“ I start, but another stranger shoulders me, knocking me sideways into
Lex. His arms round my waist and shoulders, pulling me to his chest.
There’s a group gathering in the Square.
“Shit,” Lex says. “My father was talking about this. The riots.”
The group is yelling something I can’t hear, their cacophony of voices morphing into a wave that hits me from all directions. They’re all dressed in black. And then I realize not all of them are rioters. Police rush at the outer circle, waiving black batons, crushing shoulders. Black and navy clash like chevron.
“The elevator,” Lex says, suddenly. I stare passed the group, passed little market carts surrounding the dried-up fountain, long abandoned. “They’re going up.”
The elevator sits opposite the stone Capitol building, a clear tube that climbs towards the sky. I know it leads to a room, and that room leads to what felt like a hundred flights of stairs when I was six years old.
I blink. “That’s impossible. They’d need—“ I stop. I watch the elevator raise like I’d watched the lucky APH students go up, year after year, jaw dropping. “They’d need a key.” The elevator dips down, then slides up again. The people inside tumble to the glass
Someone must be overriding the controls.
Lex tugs my arm backwards, and I stumble, falling to the dirt. He dips down, attempting to hide his black shirt that matches the rioters all too well. “Come on.” My lips part at the urgency in his voice.
He grabs my arm, a deep noise — like the rev of an engine — in the back of his throat. “My father said there were conspirators.” He yanks again. “We have to go.”
Up. They’re going up.
He stops. I’ve said it. His hand falls from my shoulder, leaving behind an empty pressure.
“No,” I repeat. “I’m going.” I tear my eyes away from his, my legs turning, walking, running.
“Cotie,” I hear behind me. He tries again, louder. “Cotie!”
Whistles scream as I run against opposing bodies, white faces fleeing a scene I’m desperate to reach. A heaviness grows in my chest. One look and he’d change my mind.
He won’t come. Even if I’d asked, he wouldn’t have come.
I can’t turn around. I run into the black-clad arms of pushers and screamers.
“Liars!” I can hear them scream; the words clear now — deafening. “The plague is a lie!” I force myself deeper, dipping through legs, wincing as a heavy boot comes down on my fingers. The crowd moves like the unsteady carts bringing food from the outskirts. Bodies next to me fall. I dodge a police officer to my right, but not before his baton comes down on my shoulder.
“VanDyke!” His gruff voice yells behind me. He knows me. “Stay back!” The ocean, the fields of tall grass that move like water. The elevator is only a handful of people away.
A cold hand grabs at my neck, another clutching my ponytail. I trip on a fallen body, my fall loosening the hands that leach my skin.
“Come on!” The voice comes from the elevator. It’s back on the ground. I don’t know if it ever made it up — if this is a second group or the first ones to force themselves through the doors — but I lock eyes with a pair of dark eyes, reaching for his outstretched hand.
“Come on!” He yells again, and all noise dissipates.
Run. It’s the only thing screaming in my ears.
My shoulder collides with the boy as I tumble through the last wave in the sea of black. I feel the air grab at my legs as the door slides shut behind me. It kills the sound outside, replacing it with heavy breathing and the sobs of a child in the back.
I hear the creak of levers pulling on one another, and I know the Elevator is about to go up.
“I’m Niko,” someone says, and a hand appears in front of me. I shake it, smiling, and look up at the dark-eyed boy. “That was some getaway you made.”
Tears form in the corners of my eyes. I laugh. “I needed to get out of there.” He sits down and I sit down next to him. Soon we’re all on the floor of the elevator, a dozen faces painted with every emotion.
I don’t worry about what happens next, because as I fly towards the surface in a glass box filled with strangers, all I can think about is seeing the sunrise one more time.