The Underground

Credits: first published in Blue Marble Review

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 television 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. Public gatherings are subject for 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 police-bots 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, go 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, she came to an awkward landing, 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 over 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, 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 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—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.”

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.

As much as Rena hated to admit it, she ached to follow them. Ached to escape into that blissful lust for freedom, 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 loss.

And then she turned, following the last of the partygoers up the ladder.

The night was eerily still as Rena made her way home. As she pressed her fingerprint into the sensor, the front door whirred open, and she crept up the stairs to the sound of her grandmother’s snores. She had hardly stepped into her room when the television came to life, flashing scarlet.

“Breaking news,” it recited. “Live updates as an unprecedented number of plague cases arise.” On the bottom of the screen was a climbing number, doubling by the second. An explosion of red dots littered the map of her city, swarming and spreading like spilled ink.

“There is an unexpected pattern in these cases,” continued the television. “All infected persons house a teenager in their dwelling.”

Rena’s heart leapt into her throat. Drop by drop, she felt the color drain from her face, as a muffled cough echoed from downstairs. She zoomed in on the map, begging it not to be true, hoping against all hope she was wrong.

She wasn’t. A tiny red dot bled over her own house.

Rena curled in on herself, finally feeling the tears leak down her cheeks. Curse freedom. Curse fun. She’d given up everything for a few sordid hours.

For a while, she just sat there, broken; until out of the corner of her eye, there was a movement in the window. Subtle, but sure.

Rena’s throat burned.

After its brief respite, once more the tendril of steam curled out from the Underground. It was almost boastful. Shameless. A parasitic worm threading its way through the reddening sky.

Despite everything, the party continued.

Anna Kiesewetter is a high school senior from Issaquah, Washington. She has been recognized as a 2020 Scholastic American Voices Award nominee, and her work is published or forthcoming in the Blue Marble Review, the Trouvaille Review, Kalopsia Literary Journal, the Lumiere Review, and elsewhere. When she's not scribbling down stories, she's probably exploring the bowels of classical violin music or deliberating between coffee and matcha flavored ice cream. Most often she chooses the latter.