This story is by Jenna Da Sie and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
In her youth, Serena’s parents told her stories of what the cities were like when they were filled with people. But now nothing. Once sprawling and lively, now dead and quiet. Whenever Serena had the chance, she would pepper her parents with questions about the time before the division.
She would sit on the earth worn carpet with her brother Duke, while anticipation ran through her. They would listen to the tales of people living on top of one another. Streets so crowded you weren’t able to move, and the harsh blanket of congestion that filled the air. Populations had always fascinated Serena, but Duke never cared for the stories. Nowadays they were only allowed in groups of eight or less.
After the division, The Alliance of 8 rose to power and killed off half of the population. If they caught you with more than eight people, they would randomly take the spares away, as The Alliance called them, never to be seen again.
Her parents disappeared over a year ago, but Serena knew in her gut they were still alive. She vowed she would find them, even if it took a lifetime. Duke complained about how often they moved, but she wouldn’t gamble their safety for just a few moments of human contact no matter how much they craved it.
Serena pulled the curtain away from the window, glanced around then shut it. She brushed her ash blonde bangs out of her eyes and shoved her belongings into a backpack. They had to leave, three days was one too many.
“Duke! We need to move on.”
Her brother stalked into the room and leaned against the door. “Why? We can stay and let six people join us.”
A pang of loneliness ate away at her. She’d tried to keep him occupied, but since their parent’s disappearance he’d drawn into himself and their companionship was gone. “We can’t take that risk. You remember what happened to mom and dad.”
“Serena that was a random taking. It won’t happen again. I can’t take this anymore! Why is it still just the two of us?”
“It’s the law!”
“It’s a stupid law that’s meant to segregate everyone.”
Serena rubbed her temples in frustration. They’d had this fight more and more lately. “By the way, I heard noise last night. You aren’t meeting up with more people again are you?”
“I told you I stopped,” he said petulantly.
“What about the communities dad used to talk about? What if I found one? Then we could live with more than eight people. We might have to move to a few different houses, but I know I can find it.”
“Serena, you can’t be serious. There isn’t some hidden population that The Alliance doesn’t know about. Those are just stories.”
“Our parents believed, and I think that’s where we were headed before they got caught. Remember the poem mom used to recite to us? ‘Lonliness discolors us, but we are the power that brings hope in our lives.’ We are strong, Duke. I’ll find it, you’ll see.”
Duke crossed his arms over his chest. “That poem doesn’t mean anything. Wherever we go next, I’m staying. I’m done running.”
“I’ll look at the maps again,” said Serena in a resigned tone. Maybe if she studied them, she could find a group that had a number less than eight and would be willing to let them stay.
Three hours later, she hadn’t found anything of importance. A deep sense of foreboding filled her, they needed to leave. Serena rubbed her dry eyes and went to get some water. When she returned, she found her dad’s old journal and flipped through the worn pages. Some were stuck together and as she tried to pry them apart, she noticed a piece of paper stuck in between.
Her heart raced as she peeled the corners back. At last the paper came free. It was a map from before the division. Some of the lines dividing the country were in different places and up against the border to the north, she noticed some small cramped writing in the top corner.
It was a cypher code. Her dad had taught her how to do them when she was a child. This one used numbers to translate into letters. After a few moments looking for the pattern, she plugged in her and Duke’s birthday. A thrill of anticipation made her shout aloud.
“What happened? Are you okay?” Duke ran into the room.
“I found it! I know where we need to go. Dad hid an old map from before the division in his journal. Look the cypher says: To find kanata is to find hope. It means community. It will take some time to get there, but we won’t have to be alone anymore.”
“Are you telling me we have to walk for weeks, maybe months to find this place and it might not even exist?”
“The map and dad’s journal prove it.”
“It doesn’t! I won’t take a journey that’s uncertain. You don’t even know if there’s more people. The Alliance wiped out most everyone. There’s no secret kanata. There’s nothing! I’m staying here until I find a group to live with.”
Tears welled in Serena’s eyes, one escaped and fell down her cheek. “You don’t want to find them?”
“I don’t have it in me anymore to keep searching. I’m tired of running,” said Duke. He wrapped her in a hug.
A knock pounded on the door. Serena’s breath caught in her throat.
“Who is it?” she called out.
“It’s The Alliance of 8. Open to us immediately or face the consequences!”
Duke tightened the grip on her hand.
Serena opened the door and The Alliance burst through in their red uniforms, white helmets and sabres attached to their backs.
“You have been found in violation of our laws, Serena and Duke Stone,” boomed the guard.
“How do you know our names?” asked Duke.
“We make it our business to know.”
“You said we broke the law, how? It’s me and my brother, no one else.”
“That’s a lie.” Came a deep voice as a man stepped out of the shadows. The insignia on his chest indicated that he was the leader.
He consulted a glowing tablet. “You have hidden a number of people in the basement.”
“What? No, that’s impossible!” she cried out.
Duke slipped his hand out of hers and lowered his head. “Serena, I’m sorry, but I was so lonely.”
The blood rushed from her head and her legs almost crumbled beneath her. “What did you do Duke?”
“I’ve…I’ve been smuggling people in and out of the houses.”
“For how long?” Betrayal sliced through her gut like a knife.
“I started after mom and dad were taken. You were always stronger than me. You could handle being alone, I couldn’t.”
“But you had me, Duke.”
“I’m so sorry, please forgive me.”
The captain stepped forward. “Your resistance is pointless.”
Duke pulled her close and whispered in her ear. “Find kanata. Run Serena! Don’t lose hope like I did.” He spun and in a flurry of kicks and punches, the guards dropped to the ground.
Serena ducked under an Alliance guard, grabbed her backpack and ran out the back door. Her last glance of her brother was of the captain thrusting his sabre into Duke’s chest.
“No!” she cried out. Her heart broke in two, but she continued to run. She didn’t stop until the forest muffled her footsteps and the light on the horizon broke. Serena stopped and examined her surroundings. A variety of wild sounds, most of which were critters, brightened up the forest, and were strangely synchronized with the rustling of the leaves and branches of the treetops in the wind.
She sat on the forest floor and pulled out the map. Tears poured down her cheeks and sorrow made her body ache. Serena was truly alone. After angrily wiping her nose on her sleeve, she began to trace the route from her current location. She would never give up.
Four months later after narrowly avoiding all patrols, Serena came upon the huge wall. It stretched for miles on either side of her and rose so high into the sky, it touched the white billowy clouds. Before her stood a door, just like the map had said. She only wished Duke were here to see it. Her heart hammered in her chest as she knocked on the rusted door with a sweaty hand.
As it creaked open, a cacophony of sounds assaulted her ears, like tiny needles stabbing her eardrum. She covered them with shaking hands. At first Serena couldn’t distinguish the noises, then slowly the sounds filtered out and she blinked. Before her was a thriving city with thousands of people, the likes she had never seen. They were tall and short, laughing and smiling. Her heart pounded against her ribcage No more seclusion. Here it was. The bright new future.