The tiny girl hops off where she was sitting cross-legged on the floor, energetically throwing herself at the handsome young man. He’d just gotten out of the shower and is in the process of wiping his hair dry. He smells subtly of freshly watered grass and something else distinctly vanilla, which does not come with the shower gel.
“Noah!” The girl, age six, says again enthusiastically. She holds out a book with both hands and smiles with all teeth. “Read to me today?”
“Hm?” he replies with a lift of his brows. “You’re not using honorifics with me anymore?”
“Noah-gege,” she pouts and of course it’d have an effect with those puffy cheeks and radiant eyes of hers. “Ying Ying waited the whole day for you to come back.”
“You waited long?”
“This long!” She extends her arms outward as much as she could and stresses once more for emphasis, “Like thiiis long!”
“Only that long?” he asks her. “Yu Ying, you are not being genuine enough.”
He has half a heart to watch her struggle with widening her arms again, trying to show him just how genuinely long she has waited. Noah chuckles and the girl catches on, her lips shaped into a pout. “You are bullying me.”
“Mm, I’m bullying you.” He folds his towel and neatly places it on the overhead rack. “What do you want to read?”
Their living space is quite cluttered. The underground room is arranged with a makeshift desk, wooden chairs, bookshelves that are filled to the brim, random trinkets lying around, dirtied plush toys, stacks of uncleaned clothes… Noah feels a headache coming in. He’s very particular to tidiness and this all screams filth. It’s a conversation for another day, though, as the little girl is reluctant to let him out of her grasps.
“I wanna study English.”
Yu Ying tiptoes and pushes her book against his chest. He takes a quick glance at the cover – “The Magnetic Universe,” the earth is orbited by parallel, white lines. He remembers it being one of the many books he’d brought back from the city a month ago. He’d stuffed it in his bag for no reason other than for entertainment, just a little something to read to pass the time. The content is certainly too complex for Yu Ying.
“Everyone speaks English in the city,” the young girl says.
Her height barely reaches his abdomen. Noah examines her eyes – innocent yet unwavering, not like that of a six-year-old child. He finds it a pity that she has to mature so quickly.
“Is the city amazing?” he asks.
“It must be amazing. Whenever you come back, you bring in all kinds of things. There are so many books, a lot of food and even toys too!”
“It’s a big place,” Noah tells her. “You’ll get lost.”
Her eyes widen in awe. “How big? Like one hundred times bigger than my room?”
“One million. It’s so big that the pictures can’t compare.”
“Then there must be a lot of people too…”
She’s completely enamored by the thought and Noah can’t blame her. She had grown up in such a small shack like this after all, and the prospect of meeting new people is astonishing. Even that concept is new to her – the idea of there being more people above the surface, that the contacts aren’t limited to the ten who live in the shelter with her. Noah had explained it to her once – that the world used to have billions of people, that overpopulation was a problem before the radiation hit. Now, the opposite holds true.
“Ming Tang says you don’t have to study hard if you’re an alpha. He said they let you go in if you’re an alpha.” Yu Ying struggles saying the last word. She doesn’t know the implication of it. Gender education is something he’d need to teach her one day…when she grows up more. “Ge, are you an alpha?”
“No,” he replies.
She pouts. “Noah is handsome, smart and kind. Why are you not allowed in the city?”
“It is a secret,” he tells her. The curious glance she gives him lets him know that she’s insistent on the topic, so he says instead, “Come sit. I’ll read to you.”
She gives him the gummiest, most happy smile he’s ever seen, and she drags him, rather forcefully, to the center of the room and starts a spiel of “you promised!” and “no take-backs!”, prompting a few other children to rush into the room as well, confining him in that cramped space.
He might as well be in a daycare when only two of them are staring at him eagerly, one of them is more focused on braiding his hair, and the remaining two are fighting over who-knows-what – something about being the first to marry him when they grow older. He has a line of love interests in the form of kindergarteners, but all’s well that ends well when they start falling asleep one by one.
“…the particles which hit a rotating satellite inside the belt. The first such observance was an extreme-energy ray that had surpassed 100 joules – in other words, an atomic nucleus greater than that of…” he pauses and tries to make the sentence less technical, “than that of a heavy tournament chess piece thrown at you at 60 miles per hour…”
The reference flew by without incident only because no one bothered to ask questions. He flips the page and continues reading, “Astroparticle physics are fundamental in understanding the earth’s rapidly changing field. Such discoveries have allowed scientists and engineers to imitate a false field, a magnetic model that can temporarily block harmful cosmic rays…”
“However, it does not account for the seemingly random shifts and tilts of our magnetic pole. In order to…” He stops and sighs. “None of you are listening.”
“I am listening,” says one boy to his right. His name is Ming Tang and he’s turning thirteen next year, the oldest of all the children here. He has quite a scholarly feel to him especially with his black-rimmed glasses – procured by Noah – and his upright posture. He recites smoothly, “You were explaining that although the false fields can replicate a real one in the events of a complete collapse, fine-tuning is needed for it to be completely stable.”
Noah hums in satisfaction. “Then you might be the only one listening.”
“I am listening too.” answers Yu Ying. She has both her hands on her cheeks, staring at him cutely. “Gege’s voice is very nice to listen to.”
He flicks her on the forehead and she rolls on the floor, squealing in that childish voice he’d become accustomed to. Noah closes the book – they’d barely gotten through the first five pages – and says, “It’s time for bed. Don’t bother me for the next twelve hours.”
“Aww…” Yu Ying lies listlessly on the floor. “I wanna hear about your adventures today. I wanna know if you fought any bad monsters…”
“Next time,” he dismisses her.
“Noah,” Ming Tang quietly calls out to him.
Like all of the children here, the boy is way too mature for his age. He presents characteristics that the rest don’t have though. It may be the fact that he’s forced to be the caretaker most of the time – Noah doesn’t delegate himself to do so. It may also be, though, that Ming Tang doesn’t have the innocence like Yu Ying, like he’s seen the world above the surface and outside the fifty-meter shelter they live in.
The boy looks at him with discerning eyes. “Are you leaving soon?”
Noah returns the gaze. “Why are you asking?”
“I don’t know.” He changes his voice to a whisper and it’s rare for him to look so unsure. Everyone has fallen asleep in the candlelit room, leaving just Noah and the precocious boy, five feet apart but the distance seems so much farther, like the both of them have erected walls that none can cross. “I just feel like you will leave.”
Squeaking noises come from the entrance, the sound of wheels being rolled across graphite. The boy gets up and blows out the candles before crawling under a thin blanket. Noah turns to the newly-arrived.
“Noah, you are back?” asks the grandmother. Her aged eyebags crinkle up when she smiles. There is weariness in her unfocused eyes, a telltale sign of aging but also much more. When she speaks, her voice is low and haggard, but kind all the same. “Where have you been lately?”
She struggles with the wheelchair; she can’t get through the door without some maneuvering so Noah walks up to her and offers, “I will help you to your room.”
They go in silence but it’s hardly a long one. This room to the next is scaled in half a minute and Noah is already undoing the straps on her chair, helping her to sit on the adjacent bed. The elder looks at him fondly throughout all this, praising him as if he were her son. He isn’t, of course.
In fact, they’re not familiar. Noah is still a stranger here.
“Child,” she says suddenly, “you should go.”
He pauses. “Go where?”
“Away from here, to the city, anywhere.” Proverbs say wisdom grows with age, and it does hold truth. From the first time Noah had met her a year ago until now, the elder hadn’t asked many questions, hadn’t even batted an eye when he started living with them. Noah had always thought there was a conversation she wanted to have with him, one that was long overdue. She continues, “A young man like you, so intelligent and strong, shackled in a shed like this. Why do you not leave?”
He doesn’t answer. He’s uncertain.
“I cannot read you.” She shakes her head. “You are detached. You are a passerby, a wanderer not stirred by anything around you. When you leave and come back weeks later, you bring books and toys, little playthings for the children. You come back injured, Noah – I can see even with my worn-out eyes – yet you talk not of the creatures you’ve encountered nor of the places you’ve been.”
“I wonder why you stay,” she places his hand on her palm. There’s something mysterious, something solemn in her eyes. “I used to think it was because of the children, but some mornings I catch you staring into space, outside the little hole we’ve drilled into the walls. You are caring, Noah, but nobody will give their freedom to stay in here. You may not belong anywhere, but you certainly do not belong here. The children do not have a future here and neither will you.”
She continues, “When you left last week, I thought it was time. When is it finally time for you to go?”
“What if I want to stay?” he asks, eerily calm.
“You do not,” the elder replies. “I know it.”
“I…haven’t found a place yet,” Noah says. “If I do, I will leave.”
“When you do, Noah, leave us and do not come back,” she smiles at him. “Yu Ying tells me that the books you read are inspiring, that the places you visit are beautiful, that you are able to see the sunlight, the clouds and the clear blue sky. I have seen them a long time ago, and I know what it is like to crave.”
He asks, “What about you?”
“We can get by without you here. The children are smart…” She chuckles a little. “It must’ve been what you taught them.”
“But it would be good if you take Ming Tang with you. He is a very special boy, intelligent and brave. He is soft-spoken but he dreams of everything we can’t have.”
Noah retracts his hand. He picks up the canteen by the nightstand, fills the mug beside it and hands it to her. “I will go on a trip tomorrow. When I return, I will consider it.”
“Good.” Her missing teeth show when she smiles, and she takes the mug from him, grazing his fingertips in the process.