My first published story, from issue 3 of Laptop Lit Mag
So come with me, where dreams are born, and time is never planned. Just think of happy things, and your heart will fly on wings, forever, in Never Never Land. –Peter Pan
Dank darkness, rocky walls, and dirt. These were the things that Humo knew, the things that had surrounded him his whole life. So what was he doing, digging upward, towards the forbidden and unknown?
“Father, tell me the story about the Surface again!” begged a five-year-old Humo.
The shadowy figure of Humo’s memory would let out a loud laugh and relaunch into the tale, a tale of an endless ceiling, of wide open spaces, of animals and breeze, and a bright glowing ball called the “sun.”
Humo stopped to catch his breath, bracing his small wiry body against the safety lines he had cast. He took a sip of water from the moleskin pouch at his waist and rubbed the sweat from his pale eyes.
They had called him a heretic, spreading falsehoods about a Surface that no longer existed, one that had been destroyed by war. Humo still remembered the night they had crashed through the door of his home, how Mother had clung so desperately to Father, begging as they dragged him away. Fear had grasped his heart in a vise, like the great rock crushers that stood in the center of the village. After that, Mother had never really been the same. Her already-thin stature diminished further, becoming more and more wraith-like until one day she refused to wake up.
With a sigh, Humo banished the thoughts with a firm shake of his shaggy head. For awhile, he could simply concentrate on the dig; there was a particularly large boulder he had to drill around carefully, lest it become dislodged and collapse his haphazard tunnel. But inevitably, like a hungry dog, the thoughts slunk back.
When Humo was six, he approached Cael, the best digger in the village, about helping him dig to the surface. Cael promptly reported him to the Elders, who threw him into the Hole—a small four by four pit that extended several feet into the earth—for the night as punishment to “purge those heretical thoughts” from his head.
At fourteen, Humo approached the Elders with blueprints for machines and tunnels to reach the Surface. He explained how long it would take, the precautions needed, and dozens of other tiny things. He had rolls upon rolls of pictures and ideas. This time they stripped him in front of the entire village and lashed him for a quarter-wick.
After that, there always seemed to be a lackey for the Council coincidently near Humo, no matter where he was or what he was doing. So he bid his time. He became the model citizen, waking up bright and early at first candle, being the first digger out to help excavate further tunnels, diligently sifting through the dirt for the precious metals used for crafting.
Humo smiled as he dislodged another bit of dirt, climbing higher. It had been hard, pretending to have lost interest in the surface, planning in bits and pieces while his watchers grew slack. It had taken three years before the Council decided he had truly given up his plans, and another year and a half for him to assemble everything he needed. How he would love to see their expressions when they realized he had escaped! These thoughts danced across his mind as he continued the repetitive task of drilling: turn the handle of the small drill, move forward several feet, stop, clear out the drill, reset the safety lines, continue to drill. With only the dim light of the small phosphorus lichen he had secreted away, it was impossible to tell how long he had been drilling. A candle? Two? Perhaps a whole day?
At long last, his drill broke through the bedrock. He was here! With trembling hands, he cleared away the debris and stuck his head into a world of light. After several minutes of excruciating blindness, he could squint through his tears and see where he had drilled into. White. White floor, white walls, white ceiling. His dirt covered overalls and shaggy black hair stood in stark contrast with his surroundings. As his eyes adjusted further to the unnaturally harsh light, he jumped in surprise. Sitting in front of him were three children. They were completely hairless, and their skin was almost as bleached white as their surroundings. Their white smocks blended in perfectly. Slight blue veins pulsed beneath their pale skin, snaking around their brittle bones, and their eyes had an ill-looking yellow cast to them. Their limbs seemed grossly distended and they sat with their impossibly long arms wrapped around their impossibly thin legs, staring silently at him.
This couldn’t be the Surface his father always talked about, could it? Where were the stars, the trees, and the grass? And his father had never mentioned such queer looking creatures, which sat unblinking like marble statues. Humo cleared his throat nervously, and almost fell back into the hole in surprise when the figures scrambled around the corner in a flurry of white.
“Wait!” he called after them, but they were gone.
Humo got up and wandered around the strange new world, still unable to accept that this was the Surface. Endless rooms and hallways confronted him at every turn, all the same stark white. Sometimes he thought he saw the figures watching him from the corner of his eye, but when he turned, they were always gone. Everything here felt so clean, so dead, unlike his home, where every rock resonated with the life of the earth surrounding and sustaining them.
Eventually he reached a room that was unlike all the others. It was painted a pure and motionless black, with tiny pricks of white winking though in a swirling pattern from the center of the ceiling. It was darkly beautiful. There was nothing in the room, except at the very center, where a pyramid of steps led up to a small platform just below the ceiling. He reverently approached the steps, sensing the holiness of this place. At the top, there was a small inset at the very center of the platform, and sitting within it was a delicate translucent drill. Much longer than the one he had, it tapered down to a point so fine it almost disappeared. He somehow understood that this drill had been waiting for him all this time. He gently took the drill in hand—it was much heavier than it looked— and tossed his old worn drill down the steps. It made a harsh clanging sound as it hit each step, but he was no longer listening. All he could hear was the sweet melody of this new drill as it cleaved easily into the soft ceiling of this strange world. Somewhere in the distance, a small thin wail arose.
He passed through many worlds after that. A place of trees, where the branches became an opaque canopy soaring above him. A field of brightly colored balls under a large parasol striped in pastel colors that stretched endlessly into the distance. But he no longer saw these. His mind had been consumed with the thought of reaching the Surface, and nothing was going to deter him. The drill sang a sweet lullaby to him each time it bit into the surface of a new world. Each time, unheard by Humo, the faint wail of sorrow followed.
After a time, the drill broke through a level once more, and Humo found himself in a room. It was painted a plain brown, and the floor was of simple wood. Somehow, he knew that this was it. This was the Surface; he only needed to find the exit. Yes, there was a door on the other side of the small room, but standing in between him and the door was the ugliest creature he had ever seen. Pale saggy skin covered his face, forcing it into a permanent scowl. He had a dark mane that sprouted like a weed from the top of his head and tumbled down in a cascade to his waist. His clothes were old and torn, and did little to cover his emaciated skeleton of a body. Light hair covered him like a fuzzy mold. He held some disgusting twisted piece of glass, which his gnarled hand curled possessively around, like a malformed branch. Humo felt his lips curl into an involuntary snarl at the image, and watched as the stranger did the same. The stranger’s teeth, the few he had, were broken and yellowed, and the visage sent shivers through Humo’s spine. What was this creature? Was he the guardian of the Surface? Yes, he could see now, not just anyone was privileged to see the Surface. It was meant for him. Him! All he had to do was destroy this decrepit caricature of a human being and the Surface would be his! With a rage filled cry, Humo raised his drill and charged the stranger.
As his drill hit the figure, it shattered. The delicate tinkling sound seemed so out of place with the ferocity of the strike. It was only then, standing in the midst of broken glass, a million distorted visions of his face glaring back at him, did he see the slim silver frame that had been holding the mirror in place. Behind the frame sat a squat chest made of rough hewn stone. Wordlessly, he dropped the broken drill and stepped over his glaring faces to the chest. Placing one worn hand upon the rough stone, he pushed, and the lid slid back silently. Reaching in, he pulled out a thick leather tome, its pages yellowed with age. As he flipped through them, an involuntary sob escaped his thin frame. Here was a picture of Humo, filled with the vitality of youth, sitting among his peers laughing. Here was another of him, at some sort of formal dance with a pretty young girl. Here was his marriage. His children. His grandchildren. Each page brought new tears as he viewed the life he had thrown away for his dreams.
Somewhere, a broken old man curled into a ball and wept.