I follow Kyre’s directions to the bathroom, wrapping a threadbare towel that I’d asked Kyre for around my still dripping clothes.
The house has a type of dying beauty that no amount of cleaning seems to erase. Dusty paintings hang from light gray walls, their frames dark ebony and sharp corners.
One, in particular, catches my eye—lonely trees that are backdropped by a silver starry night that fades slowly as a glowing fireball peeks over the horizon in the corner.
The gentle pinpricks of white paint, the smooth lines that create the trees that are both perfect yet imperfect, the graceful sweep of the horizon, the powerful ball of flames that rises from the shimmering black water, it all captivates me. I could almost feel the artist in the piece, a lonely soul who just wanted to give something to the world. The way the trees stand out starkly against the stars, branches reaching for each other… I feel their longing. The fireball catches one of the leaves, and embers shoot to the sky, glowing, almost pulsing, frozen in time—
I start, my thought process abruptly broken off as I pivot on my heel and stare at Kyre, who is holding an empty bowl and a pair of used chopsticks. His startlingly gray eyes are wide with surprise and—is that apprehension?
I look back, confused, and the moment stretches a bit too long before I speak.
"Hi. I, um, forgot the way to the bathroom, and then, well…" I wave my hands at the painting.
His face is now a strange mixture of amusement and exasperation. He runs his hands through his hair, making the ends stick up slightly, and seems to think for a long minute. I watch, my artist's eye taking in the angles of his face, the straightness of his hair, the long bangs that are pushed to the side. I thought his hair color was black, but on closer inspection, it appears to be dark blue. A small lone silver hoop earring glints at his right earlobe. My fingers suddenly itch for my stylus and tablet, but I left them in the backpack, which was by the fire.
"You know what," he says suddenly, "I'll just walk you there. If you couldn't remember the directions I gave you five minutes ago, you probably won't remember them now."
Kyre continues down the hallway and I follow, naturally falling into step behind him. He has a smooth gait, but when I look closer, there appears to be a slight limp; his left leg seems to be bearing a bit more weight. It's subtle, and I still have to walk pretty quickly to keep up. The dark gray-blue carpet is worn yet soft under my bare feet.
He takes a right turn, slowing ever so slightly, and disappears down the corner. I follow hurriedly.
The floor here is hardwood, the dusty coolness a stark contrast from the carpet. Kyre is standing a little ways off. I walk up to him, and he points at a door.
"Here it is. I'll be in the kitchen if you need me."
"Thanks," I reply, trying the silver handle of the ebony door. It swings open easily. Kyre stands there for a moment longer, then leaves, his footsteps echoing briefly before the carpet swallows the sound.
I step inside the room, and my jaw drops. Before me is what is quite possibly the largest bathroom I've ever seen.
Right in front of me is a bath, about the size of a medium-sized pool, steps leading down to the stark white tub that is embedded in the floor.
I skirt around it, pausing briefly to admire the steel faucets with stained glass handles that shimmer in colors of blue, sea green, and turquoise. There is a curtain at the other side with a steel-plated sign that says "Changing Room." I ignore the fact that it isn't actually a room and push the heavy dark blue fabric to the side to make my way through.
Inside, there is a small bench and a mirror. I place the dry clothes to the side and quickly strip out of the wet ones, leaving my underwear on as it survived the worst of the… I struggle to remember the word. Rain. Yes. Rain. I think of the hard, cold water that beat down on me. It was a feeling similar to what I'd only experienced in showers, and that water had been lukewarm.
I look down at the pile of wet clothes with distaste, then shrug on the new ones. The shirt is about three sizes too big, and the shorts are baggy. There is a drawstring on the shorts though, and I tie it so they don't slip off.
Fifteen minutes and several missed turns later, I find myself in the kitchen with Kyre.
"So you really don't have anything besides ramen?"
"No," he looks a bit apologetic. He's leaning on the counter, his hands folded into the pockets of a black hoodie.
"Seriously, Kyre, we need to get food. Soon." I look at the large wall clock hanging above the doorless kitchen entrance. 6:00.
"Why? Ramen is food. Plus, it's easy to make."
"For one," I reply, gesticulating vaguely with my hands, "Ramen is unhealthy. The packets you use are the instant ones, right? The number of preservatives in them, as well as the processing the noodles went through, is incredibly unhealthy. For another, I'm vegan, and that bowl you gave me earlier smelled like shrimp. So where is the nearest grocery store?"
Kyre looks stricken. There's no other way to put it. His eyes are wide, and his already pale skin gets even paler. But then, his expression starts looking resigned, and raising his face so he's not looking directly at me, he speaks.
"I don't think I can go. There's a tunnel on the way there, and it's so dark… I have nyctophobia."
I now feel bad for asking him, but I do need food. The rations I'd packed before leaving are spoiled from being in the rain--I'd checked them, then held them at arm's length as I urgently asked for the trash disposal. "Is there another way to get there?"
He shakes his head. "The Government isolated this area from the rest of society to preserve the last remaining houses from the past century. Boss only lives here because she likes the grandness of the house and the quietness of the forest nearby. There's only one way out: an old escape tunnel used by Government fugitives. It's protected with a Level Four security code that I--" He hesitates briefly, then continues. "Uh, someone I know hacked for me." Now he's tapping his fingers restlessly on the counter on either side of him.
Kyre drops his gaze to look me in the eyes. "Point is, there's no other way." I see the pain and fear in his eyes, and my heart goes out to him as I remember my own tiring climb to the Above.
I reach out and hold his hands, my warm fingers covering his cool ones in what I hope is a reassuring way.
"I'll come with you, then."