The outside world was unknown to her, but she could see a glimpse of it through the window in his room.
The embroidered hem of her white dress trailed behind her across the gritty granite tiles. Her dark hair curled and floated behind her, almost touching the floor.
She stopped underneath the window and stepped up onto the wooden bench that leaned precariously against the wall. She raised herself onto her toes so she could see outside, as she had done every day since he’d shown her this last, and possibly only, window onto the world. The world not as it once was, but the world as it was now.
She didn’t remember the old world. He'd shown her pictures in the books he studied so intensely. Pictures of how the world used to be: crowded and angular and busy and terrifying. The world on the other side of this magical window was nothing like that. This world was soft and quiet and slow and calm. This world moved at its own pace.
She marvelled at the wispy grey mist that curled and twined around the tops of the dense forest that surrounded this tower. The leaves on the trees fluttered, marking the gentle passage of a breeze.
She stared longingly at the emerald-green vines, with their purple bell-shaped flowers, tightly embracing the limbs and thick brown tree trunks. The vines reminded her of tinsel on the Christmas tree she’d seen in one of his books. She shivered at the thought of something so alive, something growing, snaking around the trunk of her own body.
Something small and brown ran nimbly along a thin branch and launched itself into the air. It stretched its furred limbs wide, using the wind currents to glide it to another tree. She closed her eyes for a second and imagined floating like that, unencumbered by gravity or rules. The glider ran down the trunk, along the ground, and up onto a large grey stone that jutted up from the leafy ground.
She wondered again about that stone. She’d noticed it the first time she’d looked through this window. It was almost as tall as her and covered in moss and lichen, but there was something comforting, relaxing, about it when she looked at it. She’d seen him out there once, running his hand over the front of the stone, but he never talked about it with her.
She asked the same question she asked every day. “Why can’t I go out?”
“You know why,” he answered. Even with her back to him, she could tell he didn’t bother to look up from his book. This was his room where he studied his books and scrawled his notes and theories. She’d never read any of his writings. He said she wouldn’t understand them.
“Tell me again,” she asked, awed by a warm yellow shaft of light melting a hole through the mist and highlighting the mass of pink flowers at the base of the stone.
Outside was so full of life, so different from inside. Inside was dirty and faded and old and tired. Outside was vibrant and colourful and new and full of energy.
He sighed and she heard the small thud of his book closing. His chair creaked and the legs screeched as he pushed backwards and stood up. His footsteps sounded loud across the tiles.
“Because it’s dangerous,” he said, putting his hand on the small of her back before stepping up onto the bench beside her.
“It doesn’t look dangerous,” she said, turning to look at him. Her dark eyebrows drew down and she pouted, knowing she looked childish but not able to stop herself.
“Well, it is,” he said. He pushed a strand of loose hair behind her ear then put his hand under her chin, tilted it up, and stared into her soft grey eyes. “You need to stop doing this. You can’t spend all day here looking out the window. It’s not healthy and I wish I’d never shown it to you.”
She closed her eyes, shook her head, and pulled away from his hand. “You don’t mean that. I’m glad you did. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Yes, but you were happy before.” He gestured at the window. “Before you saw this. We have everything we need in here. You don’t need to go out.”
“But you go out,” she insisted. “You get to feel the sunlight on your skin, the breeze in your hair. You get to breathe air that doesn’t smell like smoke and dirt. I just want to feel it once, breathe it once. Just once.”
He stepped down and took her hand, pulling her down off the bench. He put his hand gently on her cheek and looked into her eyes before pulling her close and wrapping his arms around her.
“Please, don’t do this,” he whispered into her ear. “Can’t you be happy with what we have? We have each other. Isn’t that enough?”
She hugged him back and felt ashamed.
“Of course, I’m happy,” she said, kissing the corner of his mouth. She took a step back and it took all her will to not glance up. Even now she felt the spell of the window. “I’ll make us some tea.”
As he tinkered with the machine, he berated himself.
“Why? Why do you always do it?” he fumed as he bent down to tighten a bolt. “Are you stupid? It always ends the same. You know that but you do it every single time. Remember what they used to say? Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”
The spanner slipped out of his hand and clanked as it hit the tiles, bouncing out of his reach. He swore and stood up, glaring at the tool as he stretched to ease the ache in his lower back. The machine was silent but he put his hand on it and felt the slight tremor that assured him it was still running.
He thought about her again. How could this time be different? He couldn’t make her unsee the window; it was too late for that. He couldn’t stop the hypnotic pull the window had on her. He had to make her understand she could never go out.
But he could never tell her the truth.
“There’s someone out there!” she gasped, pressing her nose against the glass.
“There can’t be,” he said.
“There is,” she insisted. “Come and look.”
He stepped up beside her and looked outside. It was late in the day. The sun was behind them, and the tower cast a long, dark shadow over the forest.
“Over there, near the stone,” she said, excitedly pointing, leaving tiny smears where her finger jabbed on the glass.
He didn’t see it at first. He squinted and strained, trying to see what she thought she saw even though he knew she was wrong. She had to be wrong.
Then he saw movement and a man stepped around the large stone into the clearing. The man shaded his eyes as he stared up at the tower.
In the room at the top of the tower, he whispered, “How?” as she linked his finger with hers and squeezed. They both stood still, barely breathing, watching the stranger debate with himself about coming closer to this unexpected structure in the forest.
The stranger took a hesitant step, then another. When nothing happened, his confidence grew and he strode towards the tower until they could no longer see him through the window.
She pulled him down from the bench near the window and said, “We have to let him in.”
“No, we don’t,” he said, frowning and trying to process what he’d seen. He knew the stranger outside would be circling the building, looking for a door, but he also knew he wouldn’t find one.
For three days, they stared out the window and watched. The stranger kept returning to the stone to contemplate this anomalous weathered stone building that looked so out of place amongst the greenery.
The man in the tower wondered if the world had finally changed again. This was the first person he'd seen for almost as long as he could remember. This was the first person she'd ever seen. This was something new.
On the fourth day, she squealed, “He sees us.”
The stranger stared up at the window and waved. He placed his hands around his mouth and was obviously yelling something, but the tower was soundproof so they couldn’t hear what he said.
“He’s not going away. Can’t we let him in?” she pleaded, but he just shook his head and they both kept watching.
He willed the stranger to leave. But the stranger stayed put, trying to work out how to get into the building.
It was on the sixth day that the vines struck. The stranger stood there, leaning back against a tree trunk, whittling a short stick he’d snapped off a smaller tree earlier. He was looking up at the window, so he didn’t see the thick green vines snake slowly out from the undergrowth.
She gasped as the vines slithered across the ground towards the stranger. One vine touched his boot and started to wrap itself around his ankle.
The vine started to climb the stranger’s leg. He didn’t notice until it touched his knee. He jumped forward in surprise, but the vine held on tight and the stranger fell onto his stomach. The other vines wrapped themselves around the stranger’s other leg and both arms. He struggled and sliced frantically with his knife only for new vines to take the place of the ones he cut.
“We have to help him,” she said, jumping down from the bench and yanking him down with her.
He didn’t want to but he also knew what this meant. The world had not changed, and he knew what happened to any person who was outside for too long. To this world, humanity was a disease to be eradicated and once its defences were activated, once it realised you were there, it wanted you gone.
“Wait here,” he commanded, helping her back up onto the bench.
“Hurry,” she said, staring out the window again. Her knuckles turned white as she gripped the windowsill tightly, horrified by what she was seeing. “The vines are trying to pull him apart.”
He ran, taking the stone stairs three at a time, hoping that he wouldn’t trip and break his own neck. He reached ground level and breathed heavily, trying to get his breath back, as he fumbled with the metal locking wheel on the steel trapdoor. He pulled the door up and stepped down onto another circular stairway. He ran down. And down.
He hoped he wouldn’t be too late. But he started to slow as he realised that this would show her how dangerous outside was. If the outside world pulled this stranger apart right in front of her eyes, as he knew it would, maybe she would stop asking to go out. Maybe this time would be different.
He shook off this thought and sped up again. He couldn’t let her witness that and he couldn’t let someone else die like that. Not while there was still a chance of stopping it.
He ran past the machine and headed up the tunnel on the other side. When he reached the ladder, he grabbed the machete he had waiting there and hooked it onto his belt. His arms and legs were shaking by the time he climbed up to another steel trapdoor, this one above his head. He turned the chunky metal wheel until the seal broke with a hiss and he shoved the trapdoor up and open.
He climbed awkwardly out onto a carpet of leaves and scrambled to his feet. He ran in the direction of the stranger, who was yelling and cursing as he tried to fight off the deathly vegetation.
When he got there, the stranger’s knife was on the ground and the vines had a tight grip on his neck, wrists, and ankles, and they were starting to pull in different directions.
The tower man yelled as he sliced at the vines with his razor-sharp machete. The stranger dropped to the ground like a puppet whose strings had been cut. He was purple in the face as he gurgled and grabbed at his throat.
The vines withdrew and lay still, as if they were contemplating their next move. The tower man pulled the stranger to his feet and slung the man’s arm over his own shoulder. He half-dragged, half-carried him back towards the steel door.
The vines started moving again, twisting and snaking across the ground after them, reaching for the stranger.
The men were almost at the door when one vine thrust itself forward and rapidly twisted around the stranger’s ankle. The vine pulled and tripped them both, which allowed more vines to wrap around and around the stranger’s legs and arms.
The tower man slashed wildly with his machete, but the vines were too many and too strong. He watched helplessly as the stranger was dragged into the undergrowth, back into the forest.
“We can still help him,” she said.
He spun and saw her head appear at the entrance to the tunnel. He reached out and moaned, “No. Stay inside.”
She pulled herself out of the hole and started towards him.
“No, go back,” he whimpered but the further she got from the hole, the more translucent, the more ghost-like, she became.
She didn’t seem to notice but, with every step, she faded more until she disappeared completely just in front of him. The locket that had been around her neck dropped at his feet.
He sank to his knees and, with tears streaming down his face, screamed, “NO. NOT AGAIN!”
When he finally looked up again, the world was quiet. The trees were just trees, the shrubs were just shrubs, the vines had vanished, and so too had the stranger.
“Why don’t you ever take me?” he sobbed, as he picked up the locket and stood up.
Nature never took him; never treated him like a threat and he didn’t know why. All he knew was that he was always left alone.
He walked back to the tower clearing and stood in front of the large stone, running his fingers over the engraved name, again and again. He felt every stroke of every letter that formed her name.
He didn’t know how long he stood there, but the light was starting to dim when he headed back to the hole. He climbed back in, pulling the heavy steel door closed above his head, and spinning the wheel to lock it in place. He moved slowly down the ladder until his feet thudded on the earthen tunnel floor.
He hung the machete back on the side of the ladder and trudged back towards the machine.
He sat down at the console, flicked the screen on, and started the program.
Then he just sat there, running the locket chain through his fingers, staring at the flickering green numbers and letters on the black screen. It would take a couple of hours but he’d sit here and wait, just like every other time he’d run this program.
He didn’t know how the machine or the program worked. When he’d stumbled across this place, it was empty and he’d been out of his mind after watching the world murder his two companions.
He'd left his friends joking and chatting by the fire they'd started from wood they’d collected. He went to fetch water from a nearby stream. When his friends started screaming, he dropped the water bottles and ran back to camp to witness them being pulled apart by the vines.
He always told himself he'd been too late to save them, which was why he’d run blindly, imagining the vines slithering sinuously after him. He was too scared to look back and when he came across the open metal door in the ground, he scrambled inside.
He pulled the door shut and fell down the ladder. He landed with a thud, twisting his ankle, and a light came on, illuminating what appeared to be a tunnel.
He lay at the foot of the ladder for days, waiting for someone to come and find him. Thirst finally made him get up. He explored this strange underground structure and learned that he was alone.
The place smelled dusty and damp but the kitchen and bathroom had running water and the cupboards were well-stocked with cans and dried food. Enough to last one person for a very long time.
He found a bedroom with a closet full of men’s and women’s clothes. The men’s clothes were slightly loose on him, but they fit well enough. On a small bedside table, a couple laughed adoringly at each other in a photograph in a tarnished silver frame. They looked very much in love and he looked at the photo for a long time before placing it back face down.
Then he found the machine. It looked like something he'd seen in old books – something from the old days. It shivered under his hand when he touched it and he quickly pulled his hand away. He assumed it operated the lights that came on and went off as he moved throughout the complex.
After a few more days, he built up enough courage to open the other trapdoor and he found the stone tower with the circular room at the top and its one window onto the outside world. The window room was filled with printed books and handwritten journals and embroidered cushions and handmade wooden furniture. He started spending his days in the window room, reading.
It was in one of the journals that he found the instructions for the program and the machine.
The writing was scribbled and smudged as if it had soaked up the writer's tears that fell as his pen moved across the page. It told of the death of the woman not long after the world began to fight back against humanity. The vines got her one morning as she walked back to the tower with an armful of colourful flowers.
Her husband was distraught and left long, rambling, scrawled passages in his journals that made no sense at first. He could not accept her death, so he invented the only solution he could think of: a resurrection program that would run on his machine.
This program would bring a version of her back even as her bones lay in the forest, buried beneath the large grey tombstone.
When the program started, she would resurrect to a specific point in her life. She rarely remembered much about her life, and she never remembered anything about her death. She could touch things and be touched. She could ask questions and learn, as an artificial program can learn, but she never knew she wasn’t real.
While the program ran, the machine could never be allowed to stop, and she could never go outside. The book was clear on that. There was some sort of field built into the walls of this structure, connected to the machine, that kept her functioning. If she ventured outside these walls, the program shut down and she ceased to exist.
He didn't know what had happened to the husband. He assumed he eventually gave himself up to the outside world, which would explain why the steel door leading to the outside had been open when he found it.
What he did know was that he didn't have to live here alone. So, he ran the program for the first time.
Since that first time, he'd lost count of how many times the program had run.
With each new resurrection, they had to get to know each other again. She wouldn't know him or understand why they were there. He couldn’t deny it was fascinating watching her learn and grow, and it was different each time.
But it always ended the same. She always ended up going outside.
Maybe this time he wouldn’t tell her about the window, wouldn’t let her into the tower room.
But he knew there’d come a time when she’d become curious about the room she wasn’t allowed in, and he’d give in and show her the window. And then she’d start to get restless again.
But that was a problem for the future.
He didn’t realise he’d fallen asleep until a warm hand touched his shoulder and a gentle voice asked, “Are you alright?”
There were tears in his eyes as he smiled, turned, and looked up at her. “I am now.”
About the Creator
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
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