IRIS longs to be with others who resist laws; others who risk punishment to express themselves however they choose; others who believe that what a person dreams has more value than exams devised to test how little one remembers of history.
She heard about a group of kids her own age. Whispers, during a blackout:
“They call themselves C.R.A.P.”
“I heard they live in a crumbling shelter.”
“They play instruments ripped off from the State Repository. Brass and drums, a piano with non-synthetic keys. Lucille, a black Gibson ES-355.”
Iris dreams of joining them.
She risks venturing above ground, hunkering over the rusty handlebars of a felonious ten-speed, peddling above the transit tube that links one subterranean metropolis to the next.
Up here in the messed-up ozone, all is as quiet as the day personal transport became a capitol offense. Sure, everyone knows people once lived above ground, drove vehicles with built-in music systems, and made babies on the leather backseat of a four-door sedan, instead of sowing sperm in Petri dishes.
That was before the last trumped up election.
An age has passed since Iris’s last expedition. She sweats inside her black neoprene wetsuit, black skullcap, black combat boots, hoping all her blackness will blend into the inky night. An acoustic guitar is slung over her back. Despite the dangers, euphoria wells inside her. She feels herself expanding with purpose, and immerses herself in a new theory, letting it develop from conjecture to verity.
What if State professed enemies are imaginary? Who would know in a domain where falsehoods are passed off as truths and truth is virtually unknown? Why don’t the old, decrepit, and diseased rise from beneath the State’s tyrannical thumb? Break into the Repository and steal bikes, skateboards, and wheelchairs—anything to propel them down an unbroken line of freedom. What do they have to lose?
Her sight blurs when light streams through cracks and seams in the sky. It’s impossible to know whether the beams are natural or fake. She turns her head toward faint sounds, hoping for something resembling music, but it’s only retching, as always from pods below.
Her boots slap at the pedals. The wheels spin. She watches a distant fog take the shape of an eye and storm toward her. If it detects her neuro-waves, her whereabouts will be transmitted to the State lickety-split. Those who violate curfew disappear for good; some things are worse than death.
Iris chokes the handlebars, praying the bike’s metal frame will interfere with the beam, deflecting rays like a powerful shield. The eye oscillates, moving swiftly, raging toward her. It spins in tighter and tighter revolutions, circling lower and lower.
Iris rejoices when it crashes to the ground in an oily ball of flames. Shrapnel ricochets off her front fender. Her boots smoke.
She wags her middle finger. “You’re nothing but a moth to my flame!”
Clouds swooping in from the north suggest rain. She wasn’t expecting that either. She executes a perfect wheelie, flipping around, and peddling back to her zone. On a future night she’ll venture further, intent on finding C.R.A.P., certain they exist.
Iris pauses near the opening of her sunken life-pod. Is it? Does she hear? The melody of a human voice.
She dares to ask, “Is anyone there?”
Iris swings off her bike, works the front wheel into rubble, ignoring the hum of diagnetics below. “It’s okay,” she says. “I’m C.R.A.P. Like certifiably.”
She senses movement, shuffles closer, and raises two fingers in a primitive peace sign. “Hello?”
Then Iris sees her. A girl about sixteen, lying on her back, arms crossed over her chest. Her hair is like the wild forest she’s seen in banned books. What shocks Iris most is the neglect of the girl’s uniform. It sends a message to the State—UP YOURS—a phrase she’d vowed to remember from her History is Fiction class.
The girl caresses a bejewelled rat.
Iris smiles at her. “What’re you doing up here?”
The girl moans.
“Are you okay?” Iris kneels by her side. Leafy hair frames the most exquisite face she’s ever seen. Her eyes are vitreous. Iris recognizes the girl’s expression. Or maybe not. It could be hope or fear.
The girl’s unruly presence gives Iris courage. “Are you C.R.A.P.?”
The girl whimpers, sinking further into herself.
Iris wonders if being C.R.A.P. means that you’re a little bit crazy. If letting oneself feel, like the State says, is the definition of madness. She swings her guitar around and plucks a few cowboy chords.
The girl begins to sob.
“Please, don’t cry,” Iris begs. If only she’d learned to sing. So much comes to her unattached to memory.
The girl sobs louder. “It’s just so . . . so beautiful. As if all the voices in the universe came together in a single note.”
Iris scoots closer. “Where did you come from?”
The girl looks empty, far away. “Petri-X.”
Iris longs to touch the curve of her neck. Perfect, unflawed. The girl has removed her surgically implanted auditory-phone. Wires dangle daintily from her ear. Iris disconnected her own phone during her last expedition to the outside.
Iris would purr her name if she knew it. “Are you C.R.A.P.?”
The girl’s eyelids flutter. “I hear there are more like us. Up here, hiding in pre-historic strip malls.” She moves her arms, revealing a tear in the front of her uniform where she’s severed her feeding tube.
“Are you hungry?” Iris asks. The girl appears to be starved.
“I’m Lily.” Her chin quivers.
Iris lifts the top-half of her wetsuit and unwinds her feeding tube. The tube pulses and swells at her touch. She licks the end excitedly before inserting it through the tear in Lily’s uniform, gently working it into her navel clamp, sighing when her milky seeds flow into Lily.
Lily points to the wetsuit and giggles. “You look like a victim of pyrotechnics.”
Iris and Lily meet like this each night in the mangled milieu of glass, steel, and concrete that was once museums, libraries, and video arcades.
Iris plays guitar. Lily paints, using the old-world technique of fresco. Tons of plaster litters the ground, so no problem there. Lily separates areas with a flat knife and sketches sensual curves of landscapes on the rough surfaces. Scenes of fertile fields and swelling seas, bucolic places they’ll never see, smell, or touch.
Lily lulls Iris with tales of paintbrushes woven from her hair and tints mixed from tears. “I was forced into sanctioned art,” Lily says with a lazy stroke, adding colour to an otherwise colourless world. “We were forced to replicate classics from tomes in the treasury. Mine were exact copies, but I was left crippled inside, a mindless slave.”
Iris loves her restraint and patience. Lily’s art has survived no matter how poor and insufficient the materials. “So you ran away?”
“Do you think we have mothers, fathers, sisters, or brothers other than those in the lab?” Lily asks, chewing the end of her brush. “I once dreamed of being sliced from the belly of a wailing woman.”
“I had the same dream.”
“They only want us to know what they want us to know.” Lily resumes painting. “I prefer High Renaissance art to 20th Century soup cans. Don’t you?”
Lily’s strokes her bejewelled rat. “His name is Michelangelo.” The way she cares for him, so incredibly tender. When his tail brushes the hollow between Lily’s breasts Iris has to look away.
“Imagine spending years lying upward, painting a ceiling,” Lily says. “So long ago, yet his images tell the history of creation and the fall of humanity. “How did he know?”
“I heard his paintings were destroyed.”
“Yes, all of them.”
“The tragedy isn’t that one person has all the power—but that millions don’t have the courage to stand up to him.”
Iris marvels at the great thoughts seeping from Lily’s mind.
“I heard unknown beings gather and deliver food to the ill-fortunate,” Iris says.
“Hanged, everyone of them.”
“Tell me more about Michelangelo.”
“He wrote sonnets before Shakespeare.” Lily recites:
“I feel as lit by fire a cold countenance
That burns me from afar . . ..
I feel two shapely arms . . ..
Without motion moves every balance.”
Iris is intrigued. “How did you learn that?”
“From a courageous Elder.”
“I’ll set the lines to music.”
“We can’t keep meeting here,” Lily says, her voice no longer frail, gaining strength from the nightly injections. “We need a place that is ours alone. Only then can magic and will truly survive.”
The universe dropped perfect C.R.A.P. in Iris’s junk pile.
Luxurious nights pass in secrecy above ground.
Lily grinds plaster and mixes pigment in preparation for their journey. “Being together like this is rare, almost like freedom.”
“We have the same thoughts in the same moments.”
Lily smiles. “Like all heart-bound lovers.”
Iris tunes her guitar to Lily’s heartbeat. The frequency bolsters her for any uncertainties that lie ahead. She packs essentials: antiseptic swabs to clean their feeding tubes, and the box of Super Strike Bowling Alley matches she exhumed, worth a fortune on the black market. An ancient hubcap is turned into a second bicycle seat.
When it’s time to set off, Iris slips the top half of her wetsuit over Lily’s ragged uniform. “To blend with the darkness.”
“If only . . .. ” Lily stops.
Iris understands completely. No one can be wholly beautiful in State-issued shoes. Guaranteed ugly for life. She steps from her singed boots. “Wear these.”
Lily smiles, lovely as a cellulose rose. Iris puts on the rags of her uniform and steps into her shoes, a perfect fit.
They travel under a moonless sky. No stars. No asteroids. Only particles of waste matter and chemicals extending into the atmosphere.
They pass enormous billboards: Fear the Enemy. Deport. Deport. Deport.
“Will we ever find a place away from the far-reaching Eyes?” Lily asks.
“We won’t stop until we discover one,” Iris says.
The lovebirds make their way slowly, rarely stopping to camp. Everything is too still. Iris doesn’t like that but keeps quiet about it.
“You were just a dream waiting to be born,” Lily says.
Iris wants to say something equally brilliant, if only she had the words. But then, talking wasn’t really necessary when two people mirrored each other.
No one has ever been so in-tune with me, Iris thinks. Not even my petri-parents. Sure, they’ll miss her, as she already misses them. No doubt they’ve begun
paperwork to develop a clone from her DNA. Without the recessive C.R.A.P. gene.
Iris’s diagnosis had been charted in Institutional Day Care when her brain rejected the requisite digital-chip. A month of interface examinations revealed a deadly allergy to mandated directives. Her Q-R code tattoo scans artistic, emotional.
On the sixth day of their trek, Iris and Lily settle in the bowels of a toppled theme park, in a
moat where a decapitated mad hatter lolls in a cracked teacup. Iris is grateful, but wonders, How did we make it this far without passing a single person?
For tonight at least, the lovers won’t risk a fire, sleeping in the echoing shadows, bound to each other for solace. A breeze teases Iris’s guitar strings, bringing forth breathy music, calming in spite of peril. They luxuriate in it.
The day’s sun is dangerous and oppressive. Nights are timeless. Hours pass foraging for anything useful, hauling off smashed, broken, and bits of this and that. A miniature castle door die-cast from aluminum becomes their front gate. They plant a plastic palm, add a garden flamingo. Scraps of wire mesh are woven into a dome roof to protect them from marauding Eyes.
Michelangelo eliminates rats, pulverizing spines and skulls, growing fat as a fabled cow. Lily tans the hides, and stitches them together, fabricating something called wall-to-wall carpet.
Meanwhile, they’re both in dire need of a tube feeding.
Iris discovers a case of Cool Ranch Doritos, which have somehow survived decades beyond the expiration date. “A feast!”
“Illustrious!” Lily presses her salty lips to Iris’s mouth; Iris loses herself in a primeval memory of vanilla and orange blossoms.
“Ours is the happiest place on earth,” Lily says, so satiated her tube swells.
Her beauty pummels Iris like an avalanche of stars.
Iris plays guitar—arranging words in an elaborate language that shakes the prison of their surroundings. Sometimes it’s as simple as humming a lullaby or telling Lily to imagine a nursery filled with newborns. “Imagine their melodic weeping, the rush of their warm breath.”
Lily works pigment into wet plaster, languishing over her latest fresco, Iris’s Song. Michelangelo gnaws on her toe.
Iris shoos him away. “Doesn’t that hurt?”
Lily seems oblivious. “What, my sweet?”
“Your toe,” Iris says. “It’s bleeding.”
“Red! Quick! Fetch a receptacle!”
Soon the trees in Iris’s Song bloom scarlet.
Iris never hungered for her more.
They no longer talk about searching for others.
Early one morning, Lily weeps over something she can’t explain. Iris believes her opalescent tears are from the absorption of fluids from her feeding tube. The free-running substance must have extra nutrients, Iris reasons, because Lily’s breasts are spilling the same milky-white substance.
Lily fashions a tent-like dress for herself. “Rock-a-bye, baby, on the tree top.”
Iris reclaims her wetsuit. She doesn’t know if it’s a song or a poem or how she knows the next line, “When the wind blows the cradle with rock.”
“Trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.”
Iris doesn’t understand everything Lily says. Sometimes it sounds like she’s having a conversation with herself. It’s all beauty shining from internal prisms.
Summer heat rages and violent winds consume the crumbling ruins, sweeping away Lily’s last morsel of plaster. She cries and cries, her tears raining on seething thermals, spreading ruts across the thirsty ground.
A terrible silence descends. It feels like time slowing down like she’d heard about. But this slowing is on the inside.
Iris gets busy repairing a cart for her trek. “I’ll gather enough plaster to last forever and after.”
“Promise you’ll come back to me . . . ” Lily’s beautiful eyes gather Iris in, and then cast her off.
“Love is keeping promises.” Iris kisses her. “Forever.”
She pushes the cart into a strange twilight, like someone sprayed everything gunmetal grey. She thinks about her life with Lily. How she creates art from nothing, knowing no one but Iris will see it. Just as Iris writes music, knowing no one but Lily will hear. Point and counterpoint.
Iris worries about Lily’s swollen belly, fearing it might be an invasive growth. Instead of foraging for plaster she should be whisking Lily underground to a clinic. But that would mean being separated forever.
The windstorm slowly dies.
Iris wishes for stars, once so vivid and white.
She chokes on floating filth, wheeling the cart around debris that resembles a volcano. But no, it’s a mountain of charred paintings and books. Iris rubs her eyes. She catches a glint of something shiny and trudges over, daring to put faith in the universe. She begins digging with her bare hands, uncovering a tin can. Spam!
Iris piles cans into her cart, nervous, dreadfully nervous, knowing it’s someone’s secret stash. But her soul is fired with purpose.
The implications leave her breathless. She isn’t prepared for this. What choice does she have? She must go back and share a meal her Lily. She’ll allow her the honour of turning the tiny key.
Along the way, she exhumes a chunk of moldy stucco. It’s another thrilling moment since Lily has never painted with this particular shade of green. She leverages it into the cart, visualizing Lily’s impish glee. Even in a wetsuit Iris feels sticky leakage from her tube.
The day’s last light shakes a dusty haze.
Michelangelo sits atop their gate. Ichor drips from his whiskers. Iris looks past him, seeing her lovely Lily reclining against the cracked teapot, a naked and primitive portrait. Her face is lit by an enchanted smile.
Iris rushes forward. “Lily! My Heart!”
Lily cradles a small, swaddled bundle. The creature releases the wail of a full heart. Iris lets the cries enter her, laughing and sobbing. Lily draws her in, embracing the fullness of their family.
Together they listen to the faintest echo of others, those who are rising to breathe air that resounds with freedom.