Beneath the Red Sky – Alexandra Lee

My mother said the sky turned red just before I was born, that corn wasn’t always black and that people only died by accident. She told me that the clouds were these milky white, cotton textured puffs and that she never had to check for plague mites in her bread. 

That sounds like a fairytale to me. 

Or maybe this beaten down, dying world really did look like that once, and all of these years tanning in the infrared sun turned me into a bitter cynic. I guess I’ll never know. 

When I was six, three men in titanium boots marched up the front steps of my home, and I saw my mother drop the plastic pitcher she was holding, murky water spilling everywhere. I remember looking at my hands and thinking how small they looked compared to my mother’s. I couldn’t have cared less for the knocking on the door, or the shouts that resonated outside. I was happy lying on our raggedy old couch and staring out at the neighbor’s yard and his blackened crops. I wrinkled my nose, remembering the acrid taste of the unripe carrots he’d give us for dinner. 

My mother went outside, shutting the door behind her. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her fall to her knees, a hand clasped over her mouth. One of the men glanced incredulously at me, at my skinny legs and messy hair. Goosebumps and hairs rose on the skin his eyes raked upon. 

He nodded curtly and led the rest of them away from the house, leaving my mother on the ground, sobbing.

At sixteen, I’d finally understand what had brought my mother to her knees. By then, my neighbor’s crops had gotten blacker and tasted worse than they ever had. The only difference was that I didn’t complain. 

I’d learned that those disgusting carrots were a privilege, and that they were better suited on top of our rationed bread. Somehow, my mother had gotten a hold of a match, and she struck it on a rock outside and stabbed it through the soft tissue of the bread. She’d told me that back when the crops had colors, people used to celebrate their birthdays by blowing out candles–sticks of wax topped with a combustible wick. She said that they’d tried to make artificial types of wax, but no one wanted to buy candles when they could use that money to buy more food. 

It was that day when the men in titanium boots came marching back to our door. I’d just finished blowing out the match, and the smoke was billowing around the dining table into the nearby lamp. The men were wearing government-issued gas masks now, since the air quality had deteriorated so much in the last decade. They rapped on our door again, stomped their boots and shouted at the top of their lungs. This time, though, I paid attention to their words:

“Resident 8B7Y, the army is here to collect,” it was the same man as before, with the same perverse look aimed at me again. There were lines on his face now, deep canyons cresting and falling.

My skin boiled, and, almost instinctively, I retreated out of his view. I asked my mother what they intended to collect, but I was only stalling. I already knew. 

She flicked a glance at me worriedly, then mumbled, “They aren’t supposed to be here for another two years.” 

Then it clicked. Two years. That’s when I’d be eligible for the army. But they wouldn’t come so early unless I’d made the short list. My mother had promised me to the army at six years old, because otherwise they would’ve killed me.

* * *

Training tested my will to live. Everyday, I wore the same sweat-soaked shirts, ate the same hard bread and pushed myself to the brink of collapse. I lived in a barrack with three other soldiers, all older than me, and all so much tougher than me. 

The army taught me what it meant to be loyal, brave and honorable–at least, that’s what they said. They pummeled everything they could into me, from cruel lessons to gunshots to tattered uniforms and endless punches to the face and heart. I trained and trained because I knew there was nothing else I could do. If I didn’t bend to their will, I was as good as dead. Those men in titanium boots–who now lived right next door–could pull out their automatic rifles and I’d be full of holes before I’d have the chance to scream. And the sad reality is that no one would care.

By the time I was eighteen, they told me I was ready for the real world. They slapped a rookie badge on my chest and told me I was ready to fight. To fight what exactly, I didn’t know. Even after spending two years in that ruthless place, I’d never once bothered–or dared–to ask. But I didn’t need to wait long to find out.

On paper, the Apocalypse Army had the purpose of “exterminating malicious threats to the world,” displayed frequently on their advertisements. I didn’t get it at first. However, according to eavesdropped conversations from my superiors, the Army wasn’t as self-righteous as they claimed to be. Apparently, they dedicated most of their efforts to “exterminating” any and all types of people who rebelled against the government, and were basically the grim reapers of this world. On my first real day in the field, the only thing that shined redder than the sky was the endless river of blood that pooled at my feet.

The next few months brought tears to my eyes, because I wasn’t ready to make my first kill, or my second, or the hundreds more after that. I met so many people, ones who had accidentally lived past their death dates, ones who had just forgotten to file their taxes, and children who were as young as I used to be. Their blood stained carpets, crops, and lakes–anywhere that was within the Army’s jurisdiction. They stained everything until it was all I could see, even after I’d closed my eyes, because even when I looked up–looking for home–the sky would be the exact same color that tenaciously flooded the back of my mind.

I tried hard to remember what my neighbor’s black carrots had tasted like, what my mother’s voice had sounded like and what my house used to look like, but everything I experienced was tainted. I tasted only the metallic tang of bile at the back of my throat, no matter what I ate; I heard gunshots ringing in all directions, always followed by screams that could shatter glass; and one image continuously plagued my mind: a hazy, scattered blur of my old home, covered in bones, guts, and blood.

Nobody else in the Army seemed to feel anything toward their jobs. They all just went about their days, not even bothering to pick out the mold that grew in their brown sloshes of oatmeal. What they did like to do, though, was dream. That was probably what surprised me the most. Other soldiers dreamed of being able to travel to a place with a blue ocean and white sand–something they called “the beach,” they said. “It’s real,” one of my barrack-mates had argued. “There’s one in the south, a little pocket of paradise. I saw it on one of the old maps, once. It’s called Antarctica.” When she’d said this, I’d scoffed because even though I’d never lived before the ocean had turned oily and black, my mother had taught me enough to know that the poles of the earth were the first ones to fall apart. If memory had served me right, Antarctica couldn’t have been anything more than scraps of floating ice, the same kind that consumed entire continents long ago.

Eventually, I got promoted. I remembered feeling a lot of things, but pride definitely was not one of them. The familiar nausea in my stomach had intensified, and I soon found myself hunched over the barrack toilets, sicker than I’d ever been in my whole life. I’d been eating the same things I’d eaten everyday since I’d arrived, so I realized this feeling was something else entirely. It was something that I’d swallowed deep inside, something that was begging to be let out.

Since I was an officer, the higher ups told me to move out of the barracks. I was a stellar soldier and didn’t need to live in my own filth anymore. At least, that’s what one of the senior officers who’d taken a liking to me had told me. His voice dripped like molasses, sweet and sticky, and I almost forgot the ocean roiling within me. But then he asked for my name, and all I could give him were the numbers that made up my citizen identification.

They brought me to a tall, rectangular building with such a height that I swear it was scraping the sky with its needlepoint tip. I’d only seen it in history books, so I assumed this place would be more ancient than anything I’d ever seen. But inside, I was given everything I could ever ask for and more. An enormous, soft bed; new clothes with hand-stitched designs, made with the finest fabric I’d ever felt; and more food than I’d ever seen in one place in all my life, with not one plague mite in sight. And it was all mine.

I grew accustomed to the lifestyle. After all, it was nothing like I’d ever experienced before. I loved to look down at the running ants milling about, so many stories below, baking in the crimson sun. I sipped constantly at something that stung my throat and paraded around in the most expensive things I could find, but I didn’t mind. I fwas content. But then these intrusive thoughts started to make their way into my mind. Thoughts of someone long ago, who had taught me so much of the world before, when I had a birthday, a name, and a past. Thoughts of hearing those titanium boots stomp up to my door, and my own steps disappearing out of sight. Thoughts that just wouldn’t stop coming, until suddenly, I doubled over in pain and the drink in my hand spilled all over the carpet and I felt its fibers scratching against my skin. 

After that episode, I went back to the old barracks I used to live in, but found them abandoned. There were cobwebs strewn everywhere, water dripping into moldy puddles and blood that had turned into rust on the building’s pipes. I didn’t have time to think anything of it, though. It was time for my first lone mission.

Lone missions were usually quick, minute things: issuing warnings to first-offense civilians, inspecting a potential anti-government conspirator’s assets, or making recruitment contracts for the Apocalypse army. And I’m sure that’s the kind of thing they sent me out for. What I didn’t expect, after impulsively deciding to take a scenic route, was to stumble upon a shoddily covered steel hatch a few feet off the dirt road. As a soldier of the Apocalypse army, my first instinct was to open it. But when I did, I’d wished I’d just kept walking. Because what I found was a series of musty tunnels that seemed to run on forever, and when I’d finally walked far enough, I found a crowd of filthy human creatures, who all screamed and scurried away like rats when they saw my uniform.

My stomach churned. Tentatively, I pointed my identification scanner at them. I gasped, because every last one of them was marked with the scarlet red cross. They were fugitives of death. What they had done to escape the Army, I had no idea. But they had all ended up here. What’s worse, I recognized most of them, since they had lived in the very same barracks as I did.

I ran back through the tunnels, like the coward I was, forgetting carefulness and trudging hastily with my titanium boots. Clunk, clunk, clunk. I’ll never forget that sound. How dark their faces had been, all smudged with dirt. How they all screamed when they saw me–I was the monster from their worst nightmare. And through all this, the only thing I could think about was that place my old barrack-mate had told me about. That little corner of paradise that still resembled the world from before, blue and green instead of red and black. When I kicked the steel hatch door closed again, I thought of how it wasn’t possible to find a world like that again, because now all it could’ve been were dried chunks of ice and black crops. She’d been misguided, and that’s why she’s rotting away in a tiny cellar. I smelled that plagued bread I used to eat, tasted the black carrots from my neighbor’s backyard, and kept hearing that horrible, horrible ringing in my ears. Clunk, clunk, clunk. I screamed, feeling all of it burn into me like phoenix-flames. Until it all fell into place for the very first time.

The sky is made of blood.