Rena had never felt so exhausted.
It wasn’t that she was doing much of anything–in fact, quite the opposite. She had grown listless counting the fissures in her stoic cement walls, grown weary as days blurred into weeks of hearing nothing but the voices in her head.
As the evening air drifted in through her cracked-open window, she found herself padding towards its sill, staring out into the frozen ghost of a metropolitan jungle.
Sure enough, that telltale wisp of steam snaked towards the twilit sky, a beacon in the growing night. Looked like the Underground was in full swing.
Hesitantly, Rena inched open the door as the murmur of the RoboScreen drifted up the hall, a ceaseless hubbub spewing its ugly message. “97 new plague deaths reported today,” it intoned. “This is a reminder to practice social distancing. Those attending public gatherings are subject to imprisonment under Emergency Order 1204.”
Social distancing. God, how she hated that phrase.
She had one foot out the door when a withering voice sprung from the walls. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Rena winced. “Sorry, Grandma.” She swallowed, throat thick with her lies. “I just wanted to get some air, walk outside. You know I’ve been cooped up all week.”
“Better cooped up than dead,” her grandmother muttered over the intercom. “Be careful, Rena. I’m getting weaker, and with this recession I can’t afford for you to get arrested.”
“I know,” was her only reply as she swept through the entryway and into the alley, her silhouette bleeding into the inky shadows.
To her relief, Rena only passed a few RoboCops as she navigated the labyrinthine streets, maintaining a cloak of darkness all around. As she approached the line of steam, she found herself in front of a series of nondescript garbage bins.
Left of the steam and down, Glenn had messaged her. Tinged with incredulity, she opened the rightmost bin, a rusted metal heap.
To her surprise, it had no bottom. A chute emptied straight into the earth, the ingenious work of teenagers with more of a rebellious streak than she could ever quite fathom.
After a brief fall, her landing was soft enough, cushioned by a wide net strung across the chasm. As Rena clambered up, a sweaty hand pulled her to safety.
“Welcome to the Underground,” came the raspy voice of a gangly man-child. “Behind those doors you’ll find the only party in the city.”
Rena nodded her thanks, quickly extricating herself from his slick grip, as she crossed the narrow strip of rock to the set of doors. Already, she could feel rather than hear the reverberations of earsplitting techno music pummeling the rock walls like a feral animal. Her own palms dampening, Rena pushed open the doors, and entered the pounding beast.
It wasn’t the pulsating music that hit her so much as the heat. It was like a furnace, a churning, angry inferno tingling with electricity. A massive throng of tangled bodies twisted in sync to the raging beat, a mess of limbs and lips and wildly thrown-about hair. While everything above was strict and contained, circular masks and shut curtains, the Underground was rugged. Dirty. It was a blur of movement cast in primary colors, a primitive scene of bold youth.
Rena’s heartbeat began to merge with the pulse, as a mad grin danced its way onto her face. Almost feverishly, she found herself edging into the crowd, when out of the heat came that decadent voice she’d been waiting for. “Rena!”
“Glenn!” He was as tragically handsome as ever, ruddy color brightening his devilish face. “It’s been too long.”
He smirked as he snaked an arm around her. “If you weren’t such a rule-follower, we could’ve been down here a lot earlier.” With one swift movement, he pulled them into the frenzy, dancing away amidst the circle of feral teenagers.
His hands on hers were like furnaces themselves, insatiably burning. Something within her had yearned for this for so many days shut up in her room, had clawed and screamed at her to venture out or risk suffocation. With bodies jostling them on all sides, she found herself pressing closer and closer to him, so much that their breath mingled as they talked.
“Do you think it’s safe to be down here, with all these people?” Rena’s eyes slid to his.
Glenn’s face twisted into a frown. “No plague talk. We party to forget, to escape–not to discuss.”
Gripping her palms tightly, he spun her around him, a whirl of color and movement inundating her senses. By now the heat had seeped into her until it melded into a glowing core within her heart, keeping her moving, round and round. As Glenn dipped her back, she felt the world lurch before her, then come flying back, a delirious rush of vertigo coursing through her veins.
But not only did the ground come rushing back to her–so did his arm. And on it, a blistering splotch of decaying purple skin.
Suddenly, the cavernous room seemed cast in cold tones of blue and grey. The pulsating music, the voices around her, were lower, muffled, as the room swirled in slow motion.
“Rena? Rena, are you okay?”
Her voice was faint, weak, not at all her own. “Glenn–Glenn, look at your arm.”
His face blanched. He began to yell something, but her ears had stopped working. All around her, the dancing petered out into a growing mass of spectators, jostling each other to catch a glimpse, wide eyes blinking with trepidation.
And suddenly, the party was extinguished. Perhaps someone had called the authorities, because the disease control droids were swooping in from all sides, spraying a stinging mist into the humid air, their metal frames sinister and artificial against the wild color of the Underground.
“Please remain where you are,” came the droids’ nasal voices. “It is reported that Citizen 0368 is exhibiting signs of the plague. As we vacate him from this illegal gathering, all citizens present will be imprisoned in the Quarantine.”
“No, no, no,” Rena muttered, petrified.
And as she gazed around the room, every face mirrored her own. Terror mingled with outrage was etched across each tragically prideful youth, as murmurs gave way to a trembling fervor.
Group by group, the teenagers crept toward the exits, until huge droves were clambering madly up the ladders. The droids sprayed their mist, spouting frazzled reproaches, yet they were no match for the sheer number of youth struggling their way out.
Rena watched in growing horror as the cavern emptied around her.
They could all be infected. Every last one of them. Yet still they continued up into the city, real-life sewer rats wreaking invisible havoc on an unsuspecting population.
And as much as Rena hated to admit it, she ached to follow them. Ached to escape into blissful ignorance, that teenage drug of unadulterated self-absorption.
She couldn’t face being locked up, forced to acknowledge the truth of the increasing horrors around her. Couldn’t live in this constant nightmare of death and fear, without even the possibility of escape.
Rena took one last sweeping look around the cavern, and shoved down the voice of morality clawing up her throat. For a fleeting moment, her eyes met Glenn’s as the droids raised him onto a gurney, locked in a raw second of bitter loss. And then she turned, following the last of the partygoers up the ladder.
Rena awoke the next morning to the grossly cheerful chime of the RoboScreen’s news alert. For a brief second, normalcy reigned, before the memory of the night before slammed into her like a truck.
“Breaking news,” it recited. “425 new plague deaths reported last night.”
Rena moved to shut it off, but the RoboScreen wasn’t done. “There appears to be a new pattern. All deceased persons housed a teenager aged 15 to 19 in their dwelling.”
Drop by drop, Rena felt the color drain from her face, as a muffled cough echoed from downstairs.
She had known this would happen. And she’d left anyway.
Rena sank onto her bed, numb, as the tide washed in, wave upon wave of guilt crashing into her. Minutes bled into hours, a timeless, endless expanse as the rising water slowly pulled her under.
Eventually, Rena’s broken gaze drifted back to the window, and she stiffened, sick to her stomach.
After its brief respite, once more the tendril of steam curled ominously, tantalizingly, out from the Underground.
It was almost boastful. Shameless. A snake threading its way through the reddening sky.
Despite everything, the party continued.
Anna Kiesewetter is a high school junior from Issaquah, Washington. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Writing Awards and is published or forthcoming in Skipping Stones Literary Magazine, the Lumiere Review, and Kalopsia Literary Journal, among other magazines. When she’s not scribbling down stories, she plays the violin and enjoys eating anything matcha-flavored.