When Leesa was four she planted sunflower seeds in the exposed earth behind the oxygen pumps. She checked them whenever she could and sometimes watered them with tears.
Nothing grows underground, petal, said Mary.
She was right. Ten years later the sunflowers hadnt grown and neither had Leesa.
Leesa still sat behind the oxygen pumps. She was the only person small enough to squeeze into that narrow space. Sound echoed there. Voices travelled along the damp green walls and bounced off the steel cylinders. Leesa listened to the grown-ups talk about supplies. She often heard the words, running out. Leesa said she wished she could run out.
But where would you run to? said Mary.
They sat on the stone chairs in the dining hall. Mary unsealed a package of powdered food and emptied it into two bowls.
Just out, said Leesa.
Mary smiled as she poured water over the food. And get poisoned? she said. She put a bowl in front of Leesa.
Leesa took a spoonful of the sludgy food. What is this? she said.
What did we have yesterday? said Mary.
Fish pie, said Leesa.
Then thats roast chicken.
Good, said Leesa. All powdered food was flavourless. Leesa couldnt remember what roast chicken tasted like.
Is the sun still there? said Leesa.
After dinner Leesa went to the oxygen pumps. There was no sound there now apart from the hiss and whirr of the pumps. Quiet made Leesa think of open spaces and blue skies. She didn't know if that was a dream or a memory. She pressed her face over the area where she had planted the sunflower seeds and breathed in the soft scent of soil. She imagined the seeds sprouting suns. If she concentrated hard she could almost feel warm. Leesa fell asleep and dreamt of silence and nothing.
She was woken by Marys voice. It was high pitched and quick. The sound trembled. Leesa hadnt heard Mary speak like that since before.
Well die out there, said Mary.
Maybe, said another voice. It was a mans voice, a voice as strong as destruction.
Were running out of food, he said, and the oxygen pumps, they wont last much longer.
Leesa put her hands on the oxygen pumps. They felt as solid as forever.
She heard footsteps and then the world was quiet again.
She found Mary later in the dining hall. She was counting packages of powdered food. Her face reminded Leesa of people from before, red and creased.
Guess what, said Mary when she saw Leesa, youre going to get what youve always wanted. She smiled so Leesa could see her gums, but she was looking at the food again.
Leesa moved her foot in a circle on the rough floor.
Were going outside, said Mary.
When? said Leesa.
Soon, said Mary, when weve eaten all the food.
Leesa stared at the packages.
It wont be like before, you know, said Mary. She laughed so her voice sounded like distant gunfire. No armies. Thats good, isnt it?
Will there be other people? said Leesa.
Mary bit her lip. Maybe, she said.
Oh, said Leesa.
Mary looked up. Theres bound to be, we cant be the only ones, can we?
I suppose not, said Leesa. She slumped on a chair.
But thats a good thing, said Mary.
Will we die? said Leesa.
Well definitely die if we stay here, said Mary. Look, only enough food for a few more meals each. She piled the packages up on the table. Sometimes they fell.
What if we eat really slowly?
Ha ha, said Mary. She turned quickly away.
For the next while Leesa tried to avoid eating. She hid behind the oxygen pumps. She could hear whispers of before there now. The word afraid. Sometimes people talked about the future. Leesa didn't know what that was. It sounded big, like a nuclear bomb. She dug her toes into the soil and waited for a sun to grow. However slowly Leesa ate, the food supplies still went down.
They gathered by the exit rock. Leesa remembered when it was put into place. Six men had pushed and lifted then they had sat down, panting. There, well be safe now, someone had said.
Mary took Leesas hand now. Her skin was cold. The same men who had placed the rock now pushed to move it. They were thinner than they were before.
Gradually on one side of the rock something that hurt Leesas eyes appeared.
Thats sunlight, said Mary.
It hurts, said Leesa.
Youll get used to it, said Mary.
Leesa felt a sickness in her head as more sunlight was exposed.
Is this dying? she said to Mary.
No, said Mary, this is living again. She smiled.
Leesa let go of Marys hand. She ran back into the tunnels, back to the oxygen pumps. She heard footsteps and Marys voice calling her name.
Leave her, said someone else. Shell have to come out soon.
Leesa, said Mary.
Leesa lay on the soil and listened to the voices become quieter and then disappear. The whirr of the oxygen pumps slowed and faded. Darkness covered Leesas face like long fingers. She tried to brush them away. Just before the world went black she thought she saw green shoots sprouting through the soil.
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