Authors: K.C. Finn
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
No part of this work may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the publisher.
Published by Kindle Press, Seattle, 2015
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so used to the way my brothers shake me awake that it takes three tries before
consciousness really sinks in. I know it’s Bhadrak doing the shaking this time
because he’s the oldest and strongest of the four. One more nudge, and I’ll
surely tumble to the ground from the high bunk carved into the tunnel wall. I
shuffle around, wiping my eyes and trying to flap my hand at him to show that I
don’t need another push. Sleep and dust have caked my lashes with such a thick
crust that it takes a while to get them fully open.
is it, loser?” I tease, giving Bhadrak a sleepy smile.
is anything but a loser: tall and athletic, in his prime at twenty-three. His
kind, dark eyes beam down at me before he gives my shoulder another playful
slap for the jibe.
your turn under the lamp, little sister,” Bhadrak says. “Go get healthy.”
wriggle around in the bunk, careful not to smack my head on the earth ceiling
of the hollowed-out room where we live. The family rule is that the littlest
and lightest have to sleep at the top of each of the two triple-bunkers in our
room—which means I’m stuck at the top forever, unless Mumma decides to have another
child. And since she has five of us to deal with already and it’s been sixteen
years since she had me, that doesn’t seem likely. The only other way to replace
my second-eldest brother, Vinesh, in the middle bunk would be to gain about
fifty pounds, but that’s about as likely to happen as me waking up without
having to be shoved. When you live in the Underground, weight gain is an absurd
leaves me to get into some shoes and presentable overclothes, but when I reach
the living section of our two-room home, I find him pacing back and forth on
the stone floor of the pantry space. He hasn’t been up to the surface in nearly
a full week, and the tension is starting to show. I don’t really know what all
the fuss is about. I’ve never been above ground at all. I wrestle past him to
get to the plastic boxes on the pantry shelves, rattling each one and looking
through their clear sides.
sighs. “You know there’s nothing fresh.”
true, but it hasn’t stopped me hoping that things might have changed by now.
Bhadrak is a scavenger—one of the Underground population chosen to go to the
surface and bring back whatever fresh produce he can find. Since the government
has been scouring the area above us for the last six days, he’s been on strict
orders to stay below the earth. They are orders that I’m very happy with,
despite my rumbling belly. I can’t allow myself to think about what would
happen if Bhadrak, or anyone else here, was caught above ground. We’ve lost too
many of our people through carelessness already.
be able to go up again soon,” I tell him. “Better safe than sorry.”
is what our father used to say, and it’s a great pity that he didn’t take his
I know just where to get something,” I suddenly remember, turning on my heel.
third-eldest brother is Mukesh, and he sleeps on the bottom bunk opposite
Bhadrak’s. Amid his numerous bedcovers, I fumble around until something rustles
at me. With a triumphant smile, I uncover a packet of crackers from his secret
stash of extra snacks. As an afterthought, I grab one of his hats and tuck my
hair up under it. When I return to the living space, Bhadrak gives me an
expectant nod, running one finger along the edge of my baseball hat before he
tries to flip it off my head. I recoil just in time with a grin.
know Mukesh doesn’t like you borrowing his caps,” he warns.
got hats coming out of his huge ears,” I reply. “He can spare me this one.”
both laugh, but Bhadrak’s sharp eyes are already flying to his watch.
go!” he says, giving me a push. “Your time slot starts in three minutes!”
throw myself out of the door to our rooms, pausing only to open my crackers and
earn an impatient groan from Bhadrak. The wide corridor outside our living
space is peppered with many other doors, which lead to rooms identical to our
own. Some house two, or even three families if their numbers are small. We’re
lucky to be a group of six and have an allocation to ourselves. I munch the dry
snacks as I continue down the well-lit tunnel, heading for the wide, round
Atrium at its end.
population of this section of the Underground is greater than four hundred
people, and most of us congregate in the Atrium to socialise, trade goods, and
visit the health lamps when it’s our turn. The Atrium is a vast expanse that
extends three storeys upwards, giving a pleasant feeling of space to our
otherwise cramped lives. I climb an iron ladder set into the side of one
curving wall, reaching the lamp rooms on the second floor. There are a few
people milling around as they await their turns, and a little panic flutters
inside me that the attendants might have given my slot to someone else already.
If they have, I won’t get a space for at least another week.
I rush for the door to my usual session room, a hand grabs hold of my trouser
me, young man . . . ”
man? I turn with a glower to find a sweet old lady beaming up at me. I’m not
that tall myself, so the sight of her tiny frame placates me a little in being
mistaken for a guy. Instead of correcting her, I pull off Mukesh’s hat, letting
my long, black hair trail down around my face. The lady’s wrinkled brow expands,
pushing her eyes out like those of an old potato.
dear girl, I’m so sorry!” she soothes. “I’m a little turned around today,
stuff the rest of the crackers into my grey trouser pocket, keenly aware that
I’m definitely late for my lamp time now.
there something I could help you with?” I ask the old lady hurriedly.
looks me over. “No, no,” she croons, “you’re not who I was looking for. Sorry
was looking for a boy, and she thought she’d found him. When I finally get into
the lamp room, the attendant glares at me with crossed arms, but says nothing
as he turns on the machinery and leaves me to it. I slip off my trousers and T-shirt
in the bright space, walking across the room in my underwear to a camp bed,
which is set up under a huge, golden light. I lie down under the lamp and try
to relax, letting its heat permeate my skin. I’m such a deep shade of brown
that it’s unlikely that I’ll burn, but I still have to remind myself not to
fall asleep here when I shut my eyes.
it turns out, that’s not much of a problem, since the old lady’s mistake keeps taunting
me. It’s not my fault that I have to wear the hand-me-down clothes of my four
brothers. If I could be dressed in something cuter than a baggy old T-shirt and
trousers, I would be. It’s not as though there’s a dressmaker handy when you’re
living twenty feet below the ground. And Mukesh’s baseball caps are useful
because they keep the dust and dirt of the earth ceiling from falling into my
hair all the time. I tell myself that it was my clothes that made the old lady
mistake my gender, nothing more.
uncomfortable shiver passes through me as I lie beneath the rays of light. I’m
supposed to be soaking up the vitamins from this simulated sun, but all I can
think of is the truth beyond the lies I’m telling myself. Even if I were
dressed as a girl, I’d still be flat-chested and have no curve in my hips. Even
when my hair is uncovered, there are still some people who look at me twice
because they’re unsure whether to say “sir” or “miss” when they address me.
Even my voice is lower than any of the other girls I know, and I’ve picked up
too many bad habits living in a room full of boys all my life. Mumma used to
tell me not to worry, that I’d grow into my womanly shape when I got older.
Since I turned sixteen, she’s stopped saying that and, believe me, I noticed
when she did.
let out a sigh as a low buzzing tells me it’s time to turn over and get some
vitamin light on my back. I lie with my face flat against the camp bed, pleased
that no one I know was around to see my embarrassing encounter. It suddenly
strikes me as strange that the old lady would be walking around in the lamp
corridor in the first place. Elderly survivors in the Underground usually have
light treatment delivered to them by our small supply of medical staff.
Everything gets fetched and carried for them and they live in their own
accommodations on the opposite side of the Atrium. How did a little wrinkled
thing like her even get up the ladder to the second floor?
more confused than ever by the time my dose of light, heat and vitamins is up,
but I dress quickly and try to turn my mind to thoughts of dinner. It’s going
to be something dry and boring like rice and bread again, but at least it means
I get to sit down with all my family and have a good laugh. Mumma and my
youngest brother, Pranjal, will bring our food back from the communal kitchen
so we can eat at home in privacy tonight. If I hurry, I can be back in time to
have the first scoop of hot rice, my privilege as the baby of the group. When I
make the return journey from the lamp rooms to my home, the old lady who was
waiting outside is nowhere in sight. I reason that perhaps she has found the
young man that she was looking for.
steam that greets me when I return to our rooms fills me with relief. I’m not
late for dinner. The low-pitched chatter buzzing in the living quarters lets me
know the family is assembled and, as the steam clears, a hand reaches up and
rips the baseball cap from my head. Mukesh’s wide chipmunk cheeks are puffed in
agitation as he dusts off his precious hat, looking at me as though I’ve
damaged it just by wearing it out for an hour. When he turns his back, I pull
my ears to make them stick out like his, earning a laugh from Vinesh and
Pranjal from where they sit on the floor.
on baby sis,” Vinesh says, patting a cushion beside him. “You don’t want to
miss the stunning array of bloaty carbs Mumma’s got on offer tonight.”
heard that, you cheeky ape!”
shouts at him across the slim space between the living area and the kitchen.
She is enveloped by a cloud of steam, but her smile shines through it at me as
sweat beads her brow. I almost dash over to help her dish up the meal, but another
movement stops me. Someone else is following behind her, carrying the bowls. It
takes me a moment to absorb the petite frame and wrinkled brow, but when I lock
eyes with the stranger, I realise she’s the same old lady that I ran into back
on the lamp level.