Iris longs to be with others who resist State laws; others who risk punishment to express themselves however they choose; others who believe that what a person dreams is more important than exams devised to test how little you know about history.
She’s been searching for a group she heard about during a blackout: C.R.A.P. The Criminally Rebellious Adolescent Population supposedly live in a crumbling 20th century bomb shelter, playing instruments ripped off from the State Repository: assorted brass and drums, a piano with non-synthetic keys.
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 underground metropolis to the next, sweating inside her black neoprene wetsuit, black skullcap, black combat boots, hoping all her blackness will blend into the inky night. A guitar is slung over her shoulder.
Up here, in the messed-up ozone, all is as quiet as the day personal transport became illegal. Everyone knows people once lived above ground, drove vehicles with built-in music systems, and made babies in the backseat instead of in Petri dishes.
That was before the last trumped up election.
Iris immerses herself in a new theory, letting it expand from conjecture to verity. What if State-professed enemies are imaginary? Who would know in a world where lies are passed off as truths and truth is virtually unknown?
She wonders why the old and diseased don’t rise from beneath the State’s tyrannical thumb? Break into the Repository and steal bikes, skateboards, scooters, wheelchairs—anything to propel them down an unbroken path to freedom. What do they have to lose?
Her boots beat the pedals, wheels spinning as a drone spirals 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.
She chokes the handlebars, praying the metal frame will interfere with the eye-beam, deflecting rays like a shield. The drone moves swiftly, sputtering overhead, “We’re watching you C.R.A.P. You’re never out of our sight.”
Iris ducks as sparks ricochet off the bike rims and singe her wetsuit. The drone oscillates strangely before dropping and exploding.
The bike protected her!
She pedals back to her zone, a lone figure among fleshy rats with gray, expressionless faces. Tomorrow night she’ll venture further, intent on finding C.R.A.P., now certain they exist. Otherwise, why program a drone with the C.R.A.P. message?
Iris pauses near the opening of her underground unit, a metal tunnel that leads to an equally rigid life-pod. She turns, hearing the unmistakable melody of a human voice. Who would risk defying the curfew ordinance?
She dares to ask, “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. What shocks Iris most is the neglect of her uniform, which sends a message to the State--UP YOURS—a phrase she’d learned in her History is Fiction class.
The girl caresses a pet rat.
Iris smiles, believing in goodness. “What’re you doing up here?”
The girl moans.
“Are you okay?” Iris kneels by her side. Finely spun hair frames the most exquisite face. But her eyes are vitreous. Iris has seen that expression before; but she isn’t sure if it’s hope or fear.
The girl’s unruly presence gives her courage. “Are you C.R.A.P.?”
The girl moans again and sinks further into herself.
Iris wonders if being C.R.A.P. means you’re a little bit crazy. If allowing yourself to feel, like the State says, is the definition of madness.
She swings her guitar around and plays a few chords.
The girl begins to sob.
“Please, don’t cry.” If only Iris had learned to sing—but when she relaxes her throat, a discordant quaver seeps out.
The girl sobs louder. “It’s just so . . . so beautiful.”
Iris sets her guitar aside. “Where did you come from?”
“Petri-X.” The girl sounds ashamed.
Iris stares at the curve of her neck. Perfect, unflawed. She’s removed her surgically implanted auditory-phone. Wires dangle daintily from her ear. Iris disconnected her own phone the last time she sneaked out. Iris would purr her name if she knew it. “I’ve never met another C.R.A.P. ”
The girl’s eyelids flutter. “I hear there are more like us. Up here, hiding in ancient restaurants and pre-historic strip malls.” She moves her arms, revealing a tear in the front of her uniform where she’d severed her feeding tube.
“Are you hungry?” Iris asks. The girl appears starved.
She nods. “I’m Lily.”
Iris lifts the top-half of her wetsuit and unwinds her feeding line. It swells like a tiny inner tube. She licks the end before inserting it through the tear in Lily’s uniform, gently working it into her navel clamp, allowing her own life juices to flow into Lily.
Lily scans the wetsuit. “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, hair salons, and video arcades.
Iris plays guitar. Lily paints, using the old-world technique of fresco. Tons of plaster litter the ground, so no problem there.
Iris watches her separate areas with a flat piece of metal and sketch sensual curves of landscapes on the rough surfaces. Scenes of fertile fields and swelling seas, bucolic places they’ll never see or smell.
Lily lulls Iris with tales of paintbrushes woven from her hair and tints mixed from tears. “I tried State-sanctioned art,” Lily says with a lazy stroke, adding carmine to an otherwise colorless world. “We were required to replicate the classics from archaic books. Mine were exact copies, garnering approval and favor, but I was nothing but a serf. Crippled inside.”
“So you ran away?”
“Do you believe 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 excavated from the belly of a wailing woman.”
“I had a similar 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?”
“I once tore at my flesh as a way to call myself back from nothingness.”
Iris gasps a little. “It’s up to us to create the light.”
Lily cradles her pet rat and lets it perch on her shoulder. His pink tail skims the hollow between Lily’s breasts. Iris has to look away.
“Imagine spending four years lying on your back painting a ceiling,” Lily says. “So long ago, yet his images tell the history of creation and the fall of humanity. Did you know Michelangelo wrote sonnets before Shakespeare?”
I feel as lit by fire a cold countenance
That burns me from afar . . ..
I feel two shapely arms . . ..
Without motion moves every balance.
“Where did you learn that?” Iris asks.
Iris marvels at the way great thoughts seep from Lily’s mind. “I’ll set it 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’s ours alone.”
The universe had dropped perfect C.R.A.P. in her junk pile. They even have the same thoughts at the same time. Like all star-crossed lovers.
Luxurious nights pass in secrecy above ground.
Lily grinds plaster and mixes pigment in preparation for their journey. “Being together like this is pure light,” she says. “They can’t lock up our hearts.”
Iris tunes her guitar to Lily’s breath. The frequency lifts her for any uncertainties ahead. She packs essentials: antiseptic swabs to clean her feeding tube and the box of Super Strike Bowling Alley matches she unearthed, worth a fortune on the black market. A corroded hubcap becomes a second bike seat.
When it’s time to set off, Iris slips the top half of her extra 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 boots. “Wear these.”
Lily smiles, lovely as a cellulose rose.
They travel under a moonless sky. No stars. No asteroids. Only dust particles and chemical pollutants extending into the atmosphere. They pass an enormous billboard: Fear the Enemy. Deport. Deport. Deport.
“Can we really survive on our own?” Lily keeps asking. “Find a place away from spies who are so wicked and sleepless?”
“We’ll discover one,” Iris says.
“It’s a dream waiting to happen.”
Iris wants to say something equally brilliant, if only she had the words. But then, a conversation wasn’t really necessary when two lovers agreed. No one had ever been so in-tune with her, not even her petri-parents. Sure, they’ll miss her, as she’ll miss them. No doubt they’ll spawn a clone from her DNA, without the recessive C.R.A.P. gene.
Her diagnosis had come in Institutional Day Care when her brain rejected the requisite digital-chip. A month of interface examinations revealed a hypersensitivity to mandated directives. Her Q-R tattoo scans social, emotional, damaged.
On the seventh day of their trek, Iris and Lily settle in the bowels of a toppled theme park, in a moat where the head of a decapitated Alice-in-Wonderland lolls in a cracked teacup. They stow away during the day, foraging at night for anything useful—hauling off smashed, broken, bits of this and that. A miniature castle door becomes their front gate. They plant a plastic palm, add a garden flamingo. Scraps of wire mesh are woven into a dome roof in hopes of protecting them from drone rays.
Michelangelo eliminates marauding rats, pulverizing spines and skulls, growing fat as a fabled cow. Lily tans the hides, stitches them together, and fabricates something called wall-to-wall carpet.
Iris works to curve a splintered wooden stake into a bow. She braids twine, knots it over the ends, pulls it taut. Another stake becomes an arrow with a razor-sharp point. Lily fashions an over-the-shoulder sleeve from hides.
Meanwhile, they’re in dire need of a tube feeding.
Iris rummages around, uncovering a case of Cool Ranch Doritos, which had somehow survived the expiration date. “A feast!”
“Illustrious!” Lily presses her 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.
Iris picks up her guitar, arranging words in an elaborate language.
Lily works pigment into wet plaster, languishing over her latest fresco, Iris’s Song. Michelangelo nibbles 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 other C.R.A.P.
Early one morning, Lily weeps over something she can’t explain. Iris believes her tears are opalescent from the absorption of fluids through the feeding tube. It must have extra nutrients, she reasons, because Lily’s breasts are overflowing with the same milky substance.
Lily fashions a tent-like dress for herself. “Rock-a-bye, baby, on the tree top.”
Iris doesn’t know if it’s a song or a poem or how she knows the next line, “When the wind blows the cradle will rock.”
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.
Iris repairs a broken-down cart for a trek outward. “I’ll gather enough plaster to last forever after.”
“When we’re together I’m rarely afraid,” Lily says. Her beautiful eyes gather Iris in and then cast her off. “Promise you’ll come back . . . ”
“Your heart will travel with me.”
Iris shoulders her sheath, places the bow in the cart, and pushes it into a twilight strange with colors. It’s as if someone sprayed everything gunmetal gray. She thinks about her life with Lily; how she creates art from nothing, knowing no one but Iris will see it. Just as Iris shapes songs, knowing no one but Lily will hear.
She worries about Lily’s swollen belly, fearing it may be an invasive growth. Instead of looking for plaster she should be whisking Lily underground to a clinic. But that would mean turning themselves in to The State. They’d be put on display, sealed in separate glass cubicles. Separated, forever.
The windstorm slowly dies.
Iris wheels the cart around debris, pausing near a pyramid of ash, where a mischief of rats groom themselves. All wear collars.
The implications leave her breathless. Pets? Or spies? Impossible to know.
A mangy rat skulks forward, staring through soulless eyes. Iris grips her bow, retrieves the arrow, and fires. The arrow is a winged creature, flying smoothly and taking the rodent by surprise. She recovers the bloody shaft and leaves the rat to the others.
Further on, Iris exhumes a chunk of moldy stucco—a thrilling moment since Lily doesn’t have that shade of green. She leverages the stucco into the cart beside the bow and visualizes Lily’s impish glee. Even in a wetsuit Iris feels sticky leakage from her tube.
The day’s last light shakes a dusty haze.
Closer to the moat, an unfamiliar scent assaults her. Sweet and salty. But not unpleasant. The fragrance lulls her, pulls her the rest of the way home.
Michelangelo hunches by the gate; ichor stains his whiskers.
Iris rushes by him, seeing her lovely reclining and naked, a primitive portrait. “Lily!”
Lily smiles, cradling a writhing bundle.
It lets out a wail, a cacophony of hope and promise.
Iris kneels beside her family and serenades them with song.
This story was previously published in Shoreline of the Infinity”’ (Scotland) December 2020.
Sherry Shahan lives in a laid-back beach town in California where she grows carrot tops in ice cube trays for pesto. Her novel in free verse Purple Daze: A Far Out Trip, 1965 features a tumultuous year in history. Shorter work has appeared in Oxford University Press, Los Angeles Times, Exposition Review, Confrontation, The Writer and forthcoming from Gargoyle, Gold Man Review, and F(r)iction. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.