Alex reached out a trembling hand to the roaring waterfall.
They had taken it, his dry place. He had fought, kicked and screamed for help, but it never came. He washed the blood off of his hand, multiple cuts criss-crossing his knuckles. The cave walls were smooth, worn down through time by ancient rivers.
It was the floor you had to watch out for. Alex had stumbled while running, hands splayed out in reflex scraping on the rough stones. Home cave. Some called it “New Chicago” which always confused him. What is a Chicago? He’d ask the question during meals of dried fungus, harvested from the walls in garden galleries.
The elders would just grin and pat him on the shoulder, “Never mind that. How’s the strips? They’re fresh picked!”. Faces pulled back in smiles that hid something inside, he felt it. That dragging pain like the one in his palms, flesh cut open by unyielding stone.
His dry place. Not much in the cave was truly dry. The air was filled with flecks of moisture borne on whispering air currents. The elders warned him to never go to the mouth of the cave, up the steep cliff sloping to the surface. When the rains first came, they said, it was barely enough to make a stream cascading off the ridge.
Now, they said, it was a raging torrent. The world is trying to drown us, so we must go deep and huddle in its warmth. Pirate crews would search the old world for treasures. Alex wanted to be a pirate. They would dance and sing around the fire, telling stories of how they found buried vaults of dry wonders. They would give out precious gifts, brightly colored squares wrapped in clear film.
They tasted sweet and tart, with flavors Alex had never imagined were possible. It was a dry world treasure, they said, made for children to eat. Alex still had one left in his pocket, wrapped tight keeping out the damp. At least the bullies didn’t take that.
They were probably splitting up his things right now, cackling with glee.
He had been warned about going too far, past the modest huts made with stone and topped with strips of fungus too bitter to eat. But he couldn’t help himself. The waterfall where he stood was the extreme limit of the camp, where water turned a wheel powering their lights.
The old generator was another miracle, taken from a dry vault and hauled several days to where they lived. Men died to bring it here. The outer surface was pitted and flaked in spots with rust, green paint glistening under the lights. Alex would come down here sometimes, to listen to it turn and whine.
He’d put his hand on the metal and feel the vibrations, telling it his most precious secrets.
The secret that he kept closest to himself, one that he didn’t dare tell anyone. He wanted to leave. Home cave was home, but it was also something else. He would catch elders sitting in their huts weeping, wiping back tears if they saw him walk past. Smiling to his face, but silent sadness drifting like fine droplets coating everything with despair.
One treasure had changed everything. A book, the only one he had ever seen at camp. He learned the words from the oldest of them all, made a promise to never tell. Reading was not encouraged. Markings were on the treasures, pulled in from the downpour by pirates on the hunt.
They had markings like “Express Delivery”, “Chili 20ea Cans”, “30 Watt Lightbulbs”. Words that he learned, but didn’t understand fully their meanings. Each treasure would be handled by the elders, reverently like they were newborns in a mother’s arms. He couldn’t understand the sadness.
The book, kept in a chest wrapped in cloth. It read “Tour guide – The Sights of Chicago”. Pictures of places and people, tall buildings and “cars” on dark strips, dotted with bright yellow. The elder that taught him, had told him about cars. They were wonderful, moving fast with glass to see the outside.
When Alex asked about the rain, the elder grew silent with growing sadness on his face. The rains, he said, started slowly at first. Then the rivers swelled and rose, sweeping houses and things from their places on dry land. Many lives were lost. Emergency declared, people rushing to shelter.
Buildings failed under the torrents, supports weakened by waterlogged soil. Some collapsed from the sheer weight of water collecting on top, drains and downspouts overwhelmed and bursting. That was when they searched for caves like this one, stretching deep into the ground.
It was one of the few dry places left. But it wasn’t enough.
Alex couldn’t stop dreaming about the pictures he saw, the people happy and smiling. He wanted to walk on the dark strips, talking to people through their clear glass. Maybe they’d invite him in, let him sit on the dry seats and smell the air while they talked about happy things.
Perhaps it was for the best he lost his dry place. It was time to find a new one. He felt in his pockets, hand closing around the colored square.
He would find someone like him, and give them this treasure.
Candy for smiling faces, dry cheeks free from tears.