I layed on the withered couch, closely observing the picture. The sharp boxes everywhere juxtaposed perfectly with the hundreds of scurrying people. “What do you think it was like?” I asked. “Back before the virus.”
Toph responded from across the room. “From what I’ve heard, it was exceptionally boring! Imagine having nothing better to worry about than boys and clothes! It would be unbearable!”
“I guess so,” I said. “It was a bizarre time.” Toph got up and walked over to me. “They turned this city into a colony,” I said pointing at the faded photo of Chicago in my hand. “Most people say it’s like heaven out there.”
“Well ‘most people’ don’t know anything. Come on Chloe, let’s go.”
As much as I would have loved to stay put all night, she was right. The couch groaned as its springs decompressed. I groaned just as loud.
“You’re sure he’s not coming back here until morning?” I whispered, petrified.
“Everything is fine!” Toph seemed almost arrogant in her trust of the plan. “I’ve been following this guy for six weeks now. I know his schedule front and back.
I still felt concerned, but I decided to stay quiet. I opened the door slowly, and walked inside, with Toph following close behind. We went in and started to look around. It was very dark, but I could see the faint moon-lit outline of the room. I walked over to a door in the wall and slowly opened it a crack.
“Why does a farmer have a bathroom!?” I whispered harshly.
“Oh no.” The sound of dread in Toph’s voice sent shivers down my spine. I quickly walked over to her. “We have to get out of here right now,” she said in a terrified voice.
“What is it!?”
“This drawer has a gun in it. Only enforcers have guns. We’re in the wrong house.” I let the horrifying reality sink in for a moment, but then I heard the door creak.
“Hello? Who's there!?” It was a deep rough voice. The words echoed through my mind over and over, like a throbbing mess of terrifying anticipation. The light switched on.
“Don’t move a muscle!” Toph stood there with a gun pointed directly at the enforcer’s head.
“Don’t shoot!” he said.
“Give me one reason not to!”
“B-because I can get you out of here!” he stuttered.
“We can get out ourselves,” I chimed in.
“But then what?” He was still terrified, but he somehow also looked very smug. I followed his gaze to a small rectangular box in the corner of the room. “It’s a camera. A group of enforcers have probably already been dispatched to kill you. Even if you could escape, the Imperial Guard has already seen your face.”
“Ok, even if you’re telling the truth, what can you do for us?”
“Because I can get you out of the colony!”
Toph took the gun and gestured towards the window. “Get us out. Now!”
He slowly approached the window, while Toph tracked his head with the gun. We followed him, out the window, to a ladder. If this complex had as much of an issue with fire as ours, I’m sure it got plenty of use. At the bottom of the ladder I looked around. I’d never actually been to this area of the colony, but just like everywhere else, there wasn’t much to see. Sheets of metal forming makeshift roofs threatened to collapse on a dusty, detritus covered ground. The effluvia of decaying garbage filled my nose with a pungent scent that was enough to make me gag. In a single file line, we slowly stepped over countless piles of rubble, making our way to the edge of the colony.
“So this is the wall keeping anyone from escaping?” I whispered to myself.
The man overheard and responded. “They assume that no one is stupid enough to try and survive out there. I’m going to leave now so don’t shoot.” He walked away slowly. I could tell Toph was seriously considering pulling the trigger. She didn’t, and as soon as the man was behind the corner I could hear frantic footsteps. Everything confused me. Just another simple burglary had turned into something that I’d never recover from. I’d never see my room, or my friends, or my-- I was so caught up in thinking that I didn’t realize Toph was talking.
“We don't have all day! He’s probably off getting backup if we don't leave soon! Come on! Lift me up!” I stood by the wall and cupped my hands tightly together to hold her weight. When she got up she extended her hands to grab me. I jumped down and hit the ground with a thud that sent dust flying everywhere. It already smelled better on this side of the wall. We could hear voices from inside the compound so we ran as fast as we could.
The farther away from my home got, the greener everything was, and the more free I felt. We ran minutes on end, never stopping, and never looking around. Never before in my life had I run straight for so long, or so far. It was truly liberating. After what seemed like hours of running, I was still full of adrenalin, and energy, but we stopped by a small cavern. “What do we do now?” I asked. “We can’t go back, and I don't have a clue of how to survive in the wilderness long term.”
“We’ll just have to improvise. A while back I actually saw a survival book. I didn’t understand the text, but the pictures showed me a few things.” Toph seemed much more optimistic than me.
“I guess that’s a start, but there's no way we could make it through winter.”
“What was that city you were talking about? You know, paradise?”
“You mean Chicago?” From the stories I had heard, the colony that Chicago was turned into, was only a few dozen miles east. “Let’s just get some rest. It has to already be past midnight.” Toph nodded, and we entered the cavern. The floor was cold, moist and uncomfortable, but the soft sounds of an outside stream comforted me asleep in minutes.
In the morning I ached all over my body from sleeping on the cold hard cave floor, so I got up and decided to get up and walk it off. I exited the cave to the vibrant light of the outside world. A few rays of sun breached the forest top and illuminated small regions on verdant, mossy ground. A small breeze gently rustled through the leaves onto my face. I took a long deep breath in. The pure, unpolluted air seeped into my lungs. It felt like the air cleansed me of the pollution I’d breathed all my life. I exhaled heavily and nothing felt better. I reached up and grabbed a leaf from a low hanging branch. Never in my entire life in the colony had I ever seen anything so vibrantly green. I carefully examined the intricate patterns formed inside the leaf for more than a minute then I let go, and watched as the wind carried the leaf in a twirling path, delicately gliding through the shrubbery, gently improvising a complex dance, calculated yet unpredictable. Finally it glided to a halt into the river below me, and was carried away violently on the cascading jets of water. I bent down and collected some water in my cupped hands. It tasted fantastic
“We should get going.” Toph’s voice snapped me back into reality. I wanted to argue with her, but I knew she was right. The sun was barely visible above the trees, but it was enough to see the direction that we should be headed. I begrudgingly started walking.
“This way,” I said pointing at the direction of the sun. Toph got a drink of water, and then caught up with me quickly. As much as I missed everything in my home that I had learned to love, this was still a thousand times better. Maybe if I had a family back at the colony I would have felt worse, but at the moment I was with the only person I really cared about.
We walked for hours, trudging through miles of densely populated forest. We had to maneuver our way around hundreds of rocks bushes and trees, but in every area we walked through the trees seemed to be more, and more dispersed. Toph and I didn’t talk much, and when we did it died down quickly. This didn't bother me though. I was lost in my own thoughts.
“Look over there!” Toph exclaimed. She was pointing towards something in the distance.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It looks like a road,” she responded. “Come on, follow me.” She started running, and I quickly followed her. As we got closer I realized she was right. I’d never seen a path bigger than a meter or two wide before, much less one made out of pure asphalt. The forest was spilling onto the road from both sides, but you could easily tell that it was once barren.
“We must be getting close,” I said stepping up onto the highway. “Let’s follow this road until we get to the city.” As soon as I started walking I instantly felt relieved that I no longer had to roam through an overgrown forest. On the edge of the road there were hundreds of huge metal poles that plants used as support. Out of every crack and crevice, plant life exploded outwards. The more we walked the more buildings we saw. Most of them were fully or partially destroyed, but at one point we even saw a full building. It was covered in plants, but we managed to get the vines covering the door out of the way. Inside there were shelves of mulch covered in plastic. A putrid, nauseating smell filled the room. Needless to say we left almost immediately.
As soon as the tall buildings came into view I was filled with hope and determination. The huge metal behemoths touched the sky and then kept going. They were just silhouettes in the sky, but they were still fascinating. The closer we got, the more defined they were in the sky, and the bigger they got. Even from that far away you could easily tell they were rusted and in ruins. Buildings popped up more and in more variety, but night was approaching fast and we were almost there, so we decided not to enter them. Finally we reached the entrance. A huge fence surrounded the city, so we followed the road for a few minutes around until we reached what looked like an entrance. There was a yellow sign hanging from the fence with symbols on the top and bottom, and a picture of a hand with lightning bolts coming out of it in the middle.
“What do you think that means?” I asked pointing towards the sign.
“I don’t know,” Toph responded. “Maybe something about the fence.” She seemed not to care. “Hello is anyone there!?”
“There have to be people here,” I said. “There weren't normally fences around cities, right?”
Toph just shrugged. “Let’s climb over and see where the people are.”
Whatever the sign said about the fence didn’t happen to us. We jumped the fence with ease and started walking around. The deeper we got into the city, the more vegetation there was. Ancient, rusted cars completely covered the street, and some of the roads were flooded or blocked by fallen debris, so finding our way around wasn’t easy. “Hello!?” I yelled, “Anyone there!?” No response.
“There has to be people here… right?” For the first time ever Toph sounded scared.
“Right,” I said. I sounded much more confident than I felt. “Let’s get to the top of a building, and look around from there. We found a building that didn’t look too decrepit, but was tall enough to get a good view of the city. We climbed set after set of stairs until we finally reached the top. I looked around from the roof of the building. There was no sign of any recent civilization. Toph trudged over to the edge of the building and sat down, dangling her legs over the edge. My legs felt like collapsing under my weight so I walked up to her and sat down as well. I was exhausted and starving. Colossal monoliths of steel surrounded me in every direction. It was nothing like I had ever seen before. The streets were painted in a thick layer of rubble and water. Huge gaping holes were formed in the every part of the buildings. Every spot that wasn’t made of rust or a broken window was covered in plants. It was clear the humans no longer owned this city. I could never Imagine what it would have been like to live in this time, but I still craved that much comfort more than anything else. In the distance the sun slowly climbed below the horizon, forming a brilliant array of indescribable color. It was beautiful, but then, in a single moment, everything went dark.
“There's no one here, is there?” Toph said quietly. She sounded like she had given up.
“We don’t know that for sure!” I said. I tried to sound enthusiastic, but I knew I failed.
“I’m... I’m so sorry.” Toph paused. “This is all my fault. If I had just been more careful we wouldn’t have gotten into this mess… I can’t imagine how much you must hate me right now.”
I thought back to the theft. It felt like it had been ages even though it was just a few days ago. “I don’t blame you.” This time I really meant what I said. “You couldn’t have known that any of this would happen.” A single tear dropped from Toph's eye, and fell all the way down the building to the ground. I never thought that I would ever see a forest, or a building, or a city, but the one thing that I never even considered that I would see, was Toph crying.
“I guess so,” she said. “I still feel bad about all this though… How will we make it through winter if there's no colony here in the city?”
“I don’t know,” I said looking into Toph's eyes. “But whatever happens… We’ll deal with it together.” I leaned in towards Toph and hugged her with intensity.
“Yeah,” she said. “Together.”