(Kelly is written by Kelly Blanchard. Caden is written by Kristen Moger)
As Caden sat resting on her bed, she shivered a little and pulled the ragged remains of her blanket around her shoulders. She stared up at the ceiling, losing herself in the images she had pasted there–images of an endless sky, pathways through forests strewn with leaves, and the ocean, a vast body of water making huge curling waves frothing with white. The idea thrilled and frightened her.
Teddy believed they would get to be there one day—they would get to smell the scented air and feel the cool, fresh water on the skin. But he was a dreamer and she found his optimism annoying…and unsettling.
She pushed those thoughts aside and shifted her position, the tightness in her chest making breathing difficult.
The sound of soft footsteps outside her door made her sit up. Who was there? Her brothers and father had gone scrounging early that morning, and her mother had taken Deb to play with Mrs. Fish’s brood.
Oh, right. someone was coming to visit. Ma had mentioned it last night–someone to keep her company while Ma was gone. She sighed, giving in to the fact that everyone thought she was fragile and needed constant supervision.
Well, as long as it wasn’t Granny Olgen; she smelled faintly of burnt rat and tended to poke people as though they were made of stuffing.
The door opened and a slight figure entered. Someone new. Caden lit another candle to get a better look at her.
Kelly stepped through the doorway—her gaze sweeping the area. The stench of the place took some getting used to, but she had already forgotten about it by now, and her eyes had adjusted to the dimness of the setting. She set her gaze upon the frail girl sitting on the bed staring at her, and she saw the uncertainty in the girl’s eyes, and Kelly smiled at her warmly to disperse the uncertainty.
“Hi.” She gingerly approached. “I’m Kelly. You must be Caden. It’s a pleasure to meet you. May I sit?” She raised her brows as she motioned to the edge of the bed.
Caden glanced her over, uneasy with a stranger in her room. She gave a slight nod as she played with the silk scarf wrapped around her dark hair.
Kelly saw the uneasiness in her eyes and tried to reassure her with a kind smile as she slowly sat onto the edge of the bed. Then she glimpsed around at the room and up at the ceiling. “Lovely images. Did you do them?”
“Some. I like to draw.” She supposed Ma thought she needed a friend. Her defenses were up as usual, giving her comfort, but a small crack of curiosity made her lean forward. Being alone was safe, but loneliness came with its own pain and somehow this new girl made her feel better.
“Well, you are quite talented—a lot more than me!” Kelly chuckled as she wagged her head. “Stick figures it about as good as I can do.” She then glanced at Caden. “Do you know who I am, Caden?” Kelly wasn’t sure if Caden’s author had told her who she was and that she wasn’t from this world, so Kelly wanted to find out.
“Aren’t you a friend of my mother’s?” Caden asked, a little uneasy. A distant memory tweaked at her as she recalled a thought about a visitor from another realm. It seemed such a strange idea that someone could come from another world. “Oh, wait. I remember. Sorry. Fevers, you know. They mess with my head.”
Kelly nodded. “I do understand, and it’s okay. Thank you for allowing me to visit even when you’re feeling so ill.” She smiled but then glimpsed around at their darkened surroundings. “So, where exactly are we?”
Caden took a deep breath and studied the girl from narrowed eyes. “You from another realm or the past? Cause if you’re from the past, this is your future. Lovely, ain’t it?”
Kelly shrugged. “It depends on ‘when’ exactly we are.”
“Good question. Don’t know. I’ve been living underground for so long, I think I’m half rat.” She glanced at a picture of an open field of flowers. “You ever been outside?”
Kelly nodded. “Yes. I’ve seen brilliant sunrises and sunsets and experienced breathtaking storms.” But then she looked at the girl and frowned, “So why must you stay underground? What happened up there?” She jutted her chin to the ceiling, indicating to the surface.
Caden made a face. “You really aren’t from here, are you? About a hundred years ago a giant rock and all its friends decided to drop the earth by and have a party. Kinda destroyed almost everything around.
Those geniuses my brother calls scientists tried to protect us with some kind of dome thing, but that worked about as well as some of Pa’s inventions. Now we’re all stuck down here living in tunnels and leftover buildings sealed away from the outside.”
Kelly had heard stories of the possibility of a meteorite hitting Earth, so she assumed that’s what happened here. Good to know. “So where is everyone right now? I didn’t run into anyone on my way down here.”
Caden shrugged. “Digging, I guess. Gotta keep the Uppers happy with new merchandise.” She met Kelly’s gaze with a sharp look. “Don’t suppose you know who they are. You’re lucky. They live up top. Not outside up top, but as close as anyone gets to the sunshine. They’re the ones in control of the air and water, and such. We give ’em treasures from the past and they give us food.” She laughed, bitterly. “You wouldn’t believe how excited they get over bits of plastic.”
“But of course they’re being unfair and not giving the rest of you proper necessities you need to live well?” Kelly raised her brows motioning to Caden. She was trying to tread with care because she understood how being ill could make the person impatient, but she had come here to ask questions, so asking questions was what she would do, but she observed Caden’s body language to see if she needed to shift To a different topic.
Sitting back, Caden rested her head against the wall, reminding herself that her new friend didn’t need to bear the brunt of her anger. “Sorry. I get a little emotional about Uppers. We all do. Actually, it’s not bad here in the warehouse. That’s where we are, my parents’ warehouse. They do pretty good business here, and I do like to go scrounging. It’s kind of exciting seeing how things used to be. Creepy too, though. Sometimes we find skeletons and stuff.” She shuddered. “Don’t like that.”
Kelly nodded her understanding, but she had to ask a sensitive question. “And are you unwell because of your time underground or…something?”
Caden dropped her gaze, staring at the faded pattern of flowers on her blanket. “Eh, it’s the air, I guess. Or the water. Most Underlings, that’s me and all of us who live in the pits, aren’t what Uppers consider healthy. Actually, some days I’m pretty good. Then I can help.”
Kelly smiled. “And I’m sure you are very helpful. You seem like the kind of person who can find things easily.” She then glanced around the room and saw images of people she assumed was Caden’s family. “So…” She cast her gaze back to the girl and smiled kindly as she leaned back on the bed, bracing herself on her hands. “Tell me about your family.”
A grin played on Caden’s lips. “Well, there’s Ma and Pa. They’re good people. They took me and my brothers in from the sewers. Ma keeps everyone going and Pa is a bit of a dreamer. He thinks we’ll find a new home some day. Teddy does too. He’s a bit younger than me. Has a thing for reading and tells pretty good tales. Then there’s Jolon. He’s annoying, but okay. Likes bugs. Deb is Ma and Pa’s only real child. She’s a pest, but she keeps me going.” She pushed a long curl out of her face. “There’s a new person coming today,” she said with a bit of trepidation. “Ma and Pa have gone to the market to buy a guard ’cause…” she paused, wondering how much she should reveal to a stranger.
This pricked Kelly’s curiosity, and she raised her brows. “You can tell me anything. No one else in this realm will hear anything we talk about or find out about it, but the choice is yours.”
Caden thought about this for a moment then leaned forward. “See, we found something yesterday. Something big. At least, Pa says it’s big. I don’t know.”
Kelly frowned and leaned in too, her voice softening. “Do you have any idea at all what it might be?”
“Oh, yeah, I was there. It’s a…” she frowned, trying to remember what Teddy called it…”a mall.” She sat back. “Don’t know what that is, but Pa got all excited. Now he’s gone off to buy us some muscle.”
This caused Kelly to tilt her head. She knew what a mall was in her own realm, but was it different here. “A mall? And you all just….found it?” She furrowed her brows. “How did that happen?”
“Jolon found a map in one of the tunnels a few months ago. Pa and Teddy got all excited about it and decided it would lead us to paradise. Took weeks of digging and winding our way through some pretty unstable areas, but we found it. Pa says it should be full of riches. He’s hoping we’ll be able to buy our way into Uppercity. Probably all just decayed junk. Told you, he’s a dreamer.”
Kelly nodded then frowned as she sat up straighter. “Now, you mentioned a new person was coming?”
Caden squirmed in her blanket, not wanting to think about that. “Yeah. Since we’ve found this great treasure, Pa decided we need protecting. He’s buying muscle—that’s a person Uppers buy to keep their shops and homes safe from Underlings.” She grimaced at the idea of a stranger living in their home.
Ah yes, this made sense, but none of this sat well with Kelly. This was all a story, and she was still trying to figure out what exactly it was about or where they were in the story—before it began or in the middle? But that was a question she couldn’t ask Caden because she wouldn’t know, so Kelly had to get creative. “Just curious, but do you know how to protect yourself? Or have any weapon of any kind? With this new person coming in, I wouldn’t be very trusting of him.”
Caden laughed at the idea of being able to protect herself. She held out her arm, nearly bone thin. “Protect myself with this? I got muscle, but it gives way at the worst time. All of us carry knives to protect ourselves from the ratdogs, but I couldn’t stab someone. At least, I don’t think I could.” She shrugged. “Maybe if I had to protect Deb.”
“Deb?” Kelly raised her brows.
“Yep. Little sister? I mentioned her before. She’s the pesky one who always wants me to entertain her.”
“Ah yes, sorry, lots of information here to process, it’s hard for me to keep everything straight.” Kelly chuckled then shook her head. “So does anyone else happen to know about this discovery? Or just your family?”
“Just the family,” Caden said quickly, hoping she didn’t make a mistake by sharing the information. “You can’t tell anyone. If the Uppers found out about it, they’d take it away. We’re not ready yet.”
Kelly nodded. “That’s okay. I’m not going to talk to any of the Uppers. If I did…” An amused smile slid across her face. “Let’s just say, they’d have some answering to do, and I wouldn’t be very nice at all. Have you ever been up there?” Kelly looked up to the ceiling. “Or what’s the highest you’ve been?” She then glanced back down at Caden.
“Nope, never,” Caden said, fidgeting with her blanket at the thought. “All I know about Uppercity or the outside is what the others tell me, or what Teddy reads to us in his books.”
Not being able to imagine what it was like to live down here all her life, Kelly sighed then shifted her gaze back to Caden’s face and smiled. “So, if ever given the chance to go outside, would you?”
A thrill ran through Caden and she felt a jolt of energy at the thought. “I don’t know. It’s scary. I’ve lived all my life with walls around me.” She waved a hand at her room. “I’m so used to decay the idea of being free of the stench and the dirt…” A giggle escaped from her lips. “Sometimes I close my eyes and try to picture it, life outside. I try to feel the wind on my face and the warmth of the sun.” In the safety of her room, she finally admitted to a long held secret. “Yes. Yes, I want to. I do.” Tears burned her eyes. “I pretend I don’t because I don’t think it will ever happen, but I do. “
Kelly’s heart softened at this confession, and she offered Caden an understanding smile. “And what do you imagine it’s like up there? Outside? What would be the first thing you’d do if you went out there?” Kelly’s gaze returned to the ceiling. How often had she taken for granted the mere ability to go outside? But then she glanced back at Caden for a response.
Caden put her hands to her cheeks and let out a long breath. “Oh, I think…ah…I don’t know.” She chuckled, her eyes widening. “Breath. Yes. Take a long, deep breath and see what fresh air tastes like.”
“Do you think it’s possible at all? Or has the world’s atmosphere been completely destroyed?”
Clenching her hands, Caden reassembled her walls and let go of all thoughts of escape, retreating back into her bitterness. “Do I look like a scientist or whatever one of those educated people are? Pa says the Uppers have windows with views that show a green world out there, but everyone else says we’ll die if we go out. The last time someone tried to go out was over fifty years ago and apparently he fried like Ma’s potato cakes when Jordan tries to cook ’em.”
Kelly grimaced at the thought but then nodded. She sensed her time here was coming to an end—not quite yet, but close enough, and she didn’t want to burden Caden any longer, but she had one final question.
Determining the best way to phrase it, Kelly rose to her feet, glimpsed around the room, and then back down at Caden as she hugged her arms close to her. “All of this…do you see any way any of this will change? A way for the Uppers to get what they deserve? And for you all to have better lives?”
Weary, Caden snuggled down into her pillow. “Deep down? I think they should all be thrown in the sewage pits, but Ma says that’s just my hurt talking.” She paused and swallowed the bitter anger any mention of the Uppers brought. “I’m not the best person to ask. Teddy and Pa, they get up thinking hopeful thoughts. I think they’re bats. Maybe.” She hugged herself. “Hopefully.”
Kelly nodded. “Well, it’s time for me to leave. Thank you for letting me chat with you. I learned a lot.” She offered her a smile. “And I have a gift for you.” Kelly twisted her wrist and conjured a red rose out of nothing and offered it to Caden. “This is a rose. Be careful of its thorns. It will die without proper sunlight and water, but if you set it in a vase out of the way, it will remain absolutely beautiful though it will become incredibly delicate. Your little bit of the surface.” She smiled, offering it to Caden.
A small gasp of pleasure escaped Caden. Tentatively, she took the delicate flower and brought the deep red flower to her nose, breathing in the fragrance. “Oh. Thank you.” Her lips trembled at the soft touch of the petals on her skin. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. “ She dropped her gaze and managed a shy smile. “Maybe there is hope.”
Kelly touched her shoulder. “I believe there is always hope. Never give up.” With that, she kissed Caden’s forehead then pulled back and smiled. “You’re stronger than you think. Don’t doubt that. I have to go now. You take care!” With another smile and a wave, Kelly headed out the door. Still smiling, she stepped from that realm into her own world once more.
NOTE: Caden is a character from the first book of Kristen Moger’s Undercity Trilogy: ‘Down and Out’. For more information, visit her website.
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