“You scared us.”
“I—I? I scared…” Anne stammered. As if these people were the ones who should be scared. As if, in this situation, an aching and confused Anne should somehow be scary. She felt dizzy again. The warm, working hand touched her shoulder briefly, and then withdrew.
“You should not have been awake.”
“You should not… have been alive. We have given you half a dose and it has woken you back up. But I do not know how you were awake in the first place. I mean…” her voice trailed off. “Did Bob say anything to you?”
Then speaking more quickly “He really fucked up your box, you should have come feet first. I hope your back is okay.”
The words of this strange woman, lilted by her accent; something Middle-Eastern, or no, throatier, sharper, she wasn’t sure, went into Anne’s ear but lingered there waiting to be understood, a task that seemed futile, a wait that seemed endless. She couldn’t think so she decided to look.
She turned her head, which felt more normal now, left and slowly right. She did not know how many people were there earlier, fuzzy shadows in that fuzzy light, but she could tell that many were gone. There was only this woman. And a few meandering in the background, in corners against dirt walls. There were no sources of natural light, no way to tell how much time had passed. But time had passed, she could tell, she could feel it in her bones, less lead-like but still heavy.
A very young girl with two looped blond braids in red ribbons wearing some kind of Slavic traditional dress walked over to the woman, who had placed her hand back on Anne’s shoulder. She gave the woman a vial of reddish-brown liquid, rich like Alabama dirt, that seemed to swirl around in the vial on its own. And as the woman took it Anne thought she heard that vial humming a low hum, but this must have been her ears deceiving her. They still felt unused to hearing.
The woman stared at the vial in her hand for a few seconds, then turned back to Anne. “I’m—”
“—Noura.” Anne finished. She did not have a clue what was going on but she had heard that sound, that melody. And she wanted to show that she was competent. She was going to survive. She wasn’t going to let whoever these crazy people were fuck with her. She could hear. She could talk. She could reason if these people could give her some useful information to reason with.
“Yes, that’s my name. But I’m the Gardener- I’m in charge here. Do you know where you are?”
Not a warehouse. Anne’s thoughts began to race, indiscernible and limitless questions darting around in that place between her ears, beneath her curls.
Under? Under what?
“This is Under Ground.”
Darting, back and forth. Questions, epiphanies. Under… Ground: two words. The name of a place.
Noura smiled. “What’s your name?”
Hesitation. Quietly, “Anne.”
“Anne.” Noura said the name with a strong emphasis on the ‘n’, almost making it two syllables. “Anne, you died.”
“I don’t know how. I don’t know where. That’s not our business. Our business is to find out if you are viable. If you are able to become a productive member of this society.”
Formality almost over.
“You have two options. You can do so, or you can enter death- peacefully. You were already in the sleep of death and if you wish you can go to that place forever. As you will have already found there is nothing there. But there is peace. What is not an option is going back up. You will never return there and you cannot see anyone still living. You have two options.”
Like a spelling bee, word, letters, word.
Anne looked at Noura with a blank stare.
“Do you want me to repeat them?”
“Your options.” Noura seemed to be waiting a minute or two for things to sink in.
“You died darling, I didn’t say you that necessarily means you’re dead.” The Gardener looked away for a moment, as if she knew should not be using words like darling, making a mental note to herself. “Look we haven’t had someone new in a…” Noura looked back at a man standing against the wall. She continued, “many long times.”
“Noura, are you talking shit about me?” asked the man in whose direction Noura’s head had, she thought, nonchalantly turned.
Noura sighed. “No, Larry, I was just trying to remember when you first graced us with your presence.” She turned back to Anne. “Now, my colleague here…”
Noura’s voice trailed off as Anne could feel her eyes going out of focus.
Noura hesitantly put a hand on her shoulder, as if she was resisting the urge to snap her long fingers in front of Anne’s face. “My colleague here,” gesturing with a slight nod to the girl with the looped braids, who Anne looked at with heightened attention, having already forgotten the child. “She will assess you,” Noura continued. “We will spend a very short while assessing your viability, and during that time please let us know which option you prefer.”
“What are the options?”
Join us or die, again. “Your life has ended. You can take this opportunity, to exist, or you can cease to.”
Anne couldn’t listen anymore, she was done being meek on the outside, rational on the inside, or at least pretending to be, doing her best to lie to herself. She sprang up, adrenaline replacing the pain that was already dulling, the weight that was already lifting. “Fuck this, I’m out of here,” fumbling off of the mattress.
Noura did not look surprised. She was not a veteran of the job but she knew the drill.
Anne was spitting words in shock, not really hearing her own rant and by the looks of Noura she wasn’t either. But she continued, “…don’t know who you think you are or where the fuck you have taken me or what the fuck you think you are doing with me but I’m not going to be experimented on or have my organs stolen or join your cult with your dirty k--kool-aid vials. I mean, um, look, just,” she began to stumble but then found some more steam to continue, “Your colleague? How old is that kid? Where are her parents? Who the hell do you think you are putting people in coffins and trying to convince them they are dead.”
Calmly. “I already told you. You died. You are not dead. Your life is dead. Your life is over.” She glanced at her skeptical-looking cohort. “Based on your behavior you should be dead, really dead, already,” giving the vile a little shake. The leisurely pace needed to end. “Maja?” The Gardener asked without looking. “Give me your assessment.”
The young girl grabbed both of Anne’s hands and sharply pulled her back down onto the mattress. She was incredibly strong, acted swift and hard like a cop with a big ego. Anne was frightened again, her bravado wearing thin, her walls falling down. Maja took Anne’s face in her hands. Her heart was still racing and her breath still quick but she didn’t want whatever was in that vile, that was for sure. Maja tugged at Anne’s hair, pulled her eyelids up and down, then squatted to pat her torso down like the TSA. She pulled up Anne’s left sleeve and for the first time Anne realized what she was wearing, her long-sleeved navy dress, her only dress, and red Converse. Her mother would not have chosen them, and for the most miniscule moment in time, she could feel her little sister with her. Who would protect Kate now? Anne looked back at the small yet firm hand on her wrist. A red checkmark had been drawn in marker on the inside of her left forearm. Maja turned to Noura and gave an approving nod. She stood and took a step back.
“So?” Noura asked. Maja gave one last withholding look at Anne, more confused than before, out of anger, blank. She looked at Noura and gave a wiggling gesture with her hand, a silent “so-so”.
“Well then,” Noura chimed back in, “the decision rests with me. And I’m going to put my neck on the stone and let you in.” Noura looked up, perhaps wondering whether or not that phrase was colloquial English. “But I need you to remember that your life, your old life, is over. Now you are here, Under.”
Anne said nothing. She just tried, in that moment, to stay still. Wondering for some reasons unknown if that might somehow help.
The Gardener continued. “And here there are certain rules. The most important is that you are here to work. You must do as you are told. And you must not disrupt the order of things. Otherwise your death will be made everlasting.”
Anne wasn’t listening. Her life was over. Regardless of what Noura said, Anne’s life was over before she got in that oak box.
As Anne followed Noura out of the dirt room with the
mattress where she had fallen through the ceiling, she tried to match the pace
of the woman ahead of her, who she noticed was tall, maybe five foot eight or
nine, with narrow hips and shoulders, textured kinky black hair with bits of gray
pulled back thick and full at the nape of her neck, and that warm but fading
dark olive skin that looked as though it would glisten like molasses in the sun
and grey under the moonlight like in a black and white film. She wore green tank top, cargo pants, and
leather sandals. She had a few worn
woven bracelets tied around her left arm and her walk was a bit awkward but her
head was back, held high. Noura’s good
posture meant she was probably closer to Anne’s height, around five foot six or
The tunnel curved here and there, and because the hanging lights varied in their brightness it looked to Anne like a living and breathing chamber of unique and otherworldly paths, one rapidly becoming another and another. It was as if they were walking down the esophagus of a giant beast, headed for its belly. As Noura navigated the beast’s entrails Anne told herself this could still all be a dream. A bad trip. Anne hadn’t done any hallucinogens in a while. But Jorge at work mentioned he did mescaline on a reservation once and spent what felt like hours in a coma-like dream. In it, he was part of some circus of multicolored skeleton people in elaborate clothes, like on Dia de los Muertos. And he felt trapped in there, truly believing he could never leave. This could be just like that. But she didn’t hang out with Jorge, or anyone else who would have mescaline really, outside of work. So maybe not.
After 2 or 3 minutes of walking, Noura ushered Anne into a much larger space, a space that seemed so enclosed yet so endless. “Welcome to Under Sky, Anne” with the same emphasis on the ‘n’. And she emerged into the vast dome, stepping on the dirt at least 30 feet below some sort of bright film of air and cloud, floating there on the dirt ceiling with a quality almost like thin television static, quietly hissing with white noise. Ethereal geese flew by silently in a V formation. If this was a bad trip it was certainly elaborate.
“I can show you to your living quarters if you want to rest before the tour, but your fatal injury has been tended to and your headache should be going away.”
Anne suddenly felt the stinging somewhere in the right posterior of her skull. A small wound was closed up, as was the hole on the top of her left temple. Someone had shot her. An icy cold came over her body. Is it possible to have goose bumps on your eyeballs? Anne felt her nostrils flare and pupils dilate, as if she were watching someone conduct experiments on her. How much fear does it take to induce a heart attack? What about if the subject is already dead? Whether or not she was tripping or injured or worse, someone or something made a hole in her head.
Noura turned to face the stunned woman in the navy dress and red Converse.
“Anne?” she asked in a quiet low voice, like a concerned school nurse. “Do you want to lie down?” …again.
“No,” Anne spurted back, in a manner almost involuntary. “Show me.” Maybe the only way out of this hallucination or coma or whatever it was, was to find an exit, solve a puzzle, kiss a frog.
“Okay then.” Noura turned back around and continued onward. She led Anne through a scatter of houses.
There were close to a hundred ranging in size, some plain, some adorned with tiny random objects- a few pieces of glass, bottle caps, soda pop tabs, hanging glow sticks and Barbie dolls and clay-dirt sculptures in bags that once served as packaging for snacks like Dragon Wafers. All of the houses were some sort of adobe. Some were round, some rectangular, some both- looking as if they had merged together like tree trunks, despite their differences. Anne concluded that these, and the larger of those with four walls, were for groups of two to maybe four or so people. There were a few small stone gardens and most homes had woven baskets outside. Some were a natural rusty-beige in color and many were painted in different hues: faded reds, warm creams and yellows, cool blues and lush greens. And one, one was a muddled violet with a spectrum ranging from lavender to burgundy along its rounded curves and edges. A large rondavel with a wooden door in its entry way, a feature the others lacked with their small open arches, was thus marked as a place of importance. Anne kept looking at this purple house in the center as they continued to weave through.
Noura began, “The sky that you see here in Under Sky is an astro-physical projection.” Anne studied it. “It’s not of the sky as you know it, we are still under the soil as you can tell from the walls that surround you. When you look up what you see is a series of snapshots of time. Where we live here is a…” don’t say strange, she thought, “unique place, and eventually you may begin to understand it.”
Anne was still looking up, staring into the distance of the white noise above her, where those geese had flown to and disappeared in a wavy blur. “Anne?” Noura asked, sharper this time. School nurse turned principal. Anne’s eyes met Noura’s. It was her turn to study. Anne had a lovely face, thick dark brows above big greenish brown eyes, strong cheekbones and full lips with a square jaw, still somehow feminine. It might have been the dark chocolate curls that swirled around her strong features, softening them.
“After your first shift your single will become available.”
Anne just stared.
“Your rondavel. So for now you stay here. This is good.”
Anne wondered, was she worried about her on her own?
“It’s my job to ensure your safety. So for now, I will ask you to stay with me.”
Anne was doubting that a bad trip could continue so long as to include an overnight stay. She must have been pronounced dead mistakenly and landed in the hands of this body-snatching cult with their weird little houses and their illusions of geese.
“Mine is the purple one, we passed it.”