Our group coalesced in the darkness like beads of water. We bumped, hugged, wept and merged. We called out our own names and those of our neighbors, working through the list in our heads. Now and then, a name was spoken and someone else cried out, crawling over the rest of us to be reunited.
It seemed we heard each name twice before someone realized who was missing.
“Britny,” someone whispered, her name said in a manner unlike the rest. It was an answer, rather than a question.
Several girls wailed. I heard Vincent shouting obscenities beside me and reached out for him, knowing the two of them had been close.
Our entire group formed into a ball of consoling hands, patting and squeezing. The scene was so eerily like our birthday, but the fear and grief was so much stronger having spent waking hours together.
“We need to get out of here,” one of the guys said.
“We just lost someone!” one of the girls shrieked.
“He’s right,” a soft voice said, as sobs turned into sniffles. “It isn’t safe in here. If another comes, I can’t do it again.”
“Up or down?” someone asked.
Beside me, Vincent roared. I heard flesh slapping against flesh and I moved to break it up—I felt him striking his own face.
“Stop it!” I told him, wrapping my arms around his shoulders. “We survive to mourn her properly.”
His hands went to the back of my head, pulling our cheeks together. I felt his chest moving in and out with quiet sobs and felt someone else’s hands reach around us both.
“Up,” someone said. “It’s closer, and it’s away from the ones that just passed.”
“Maybe they reverse direction when the tremors stop.”
“The tremors stopped a while ago.”
In the silence that followed, we gathered our courage and our wills and trudged upward.
We staggered forward as a tight group, hands against the inner wall and on each other. I made Tarsi walk inside of me, not able to stand the thought of her anywhere near the edge.
Kelvin walked ahead of us. I rested a hand on his shoulder, needing to maintain contact for more than just finding my way. We moved in complete silence, save for the occasional whistle of a bombfruit outside and the unexplained, unprompted curse from various members of the group.
I tried not to shuffle my feet, lest I pick up splinters from the newly exposed wood. I felt exhausted and depressed, a sensation that seemed to come after working so hard to stay alive. It was as if my body had exhausted all its energy—its desire to preserve itself. Now that it had succeeded in doing so, extending my life for however much longer, there was no more of that juice within me to maintain my will to live.
Consciously, I was happy to be breathing and for my two dearest friends to be alive. But physically, I felt hollow. If another danger posed itself, I would lack the energy to respond. I was walking—but until that mysterious animus of self-preservation renewed itself, I was a staggering husk, half-dead inside.
We moved like that for several hours, the silence stretching out so long it began to sustain itself, the quietude forming into something fragile and precious that none of us seemed willing or able to shatter. Even when the tunnel diverted, heading off at an angle that seemed so foreign after the miles of gradual curving, those of us that had not made the prior ascent went along without question, accepting whatever the world threw at us.
Scrambling up a steepening slope, we fell to our hands and knees as it became too precarious to stand. The tunnel had become solid, the walls on all sides oddly comforting, despite the darkness it created. Another odd twist and the way became even steeper, and then there was the sound of rustling up ahead. Something like waxy paper brushed across my face. The cave of wood ended, as did the silence.
“Careful,” one of the guys whispered, still handling the quiet thing we’d crafted with care.
Hands guided hands through the new tangle of limbs and dried leaves around us. Something about grasping the boughs with my palms and the upward climbing felt completely natural. Primal. I pushed Tarsi up behind Kelvin and followed so near to her that my hands clutched holds above her feet, my head brushing against the backs of her legs. We seemed to be climbing up a hole in the tight weave of limbs, a continuation of the cave that bore through the canopy. It almost went vertical, and I could feel people climbing up behind me, all of us spreading out and fighting to reach the end. We were powered along by some intense, internal desire to be safe. To rest.
I felt as if we would soon break free, but the tunnel through the tangled wood began to level out. Then it descended slightly, and I felt a moment of panic, wondering if we yet had a long way to go. The branches underfoot became damp as the ground dipped down, then gradually rose back up. More rustling ahead, someone above us crying out. A thick flap of leaves somewhere above was pushed aside, and a crisp light filtered down through the darkness. I felt the energy around me—
Tarsi and I reached the lip, and Kelvin pulled us out. The three of us collapsed with the others on top of a flat spread of foliage where we laid on our backs in a new silence of hushed awe. Above us hung a sight we were vaguely familiar with from years of dreaming but had never before seen with our own eyes: a wide tapestry of blackness specked with pinpricks of brilliant light.
Stars. Countless stars. Bright and shimmering. Chaotic yet somehow ordered. The same, yet different. Some seemed so much closer than others, and some were clumped together in tight packets of camaraderie. One third of the sky was especially dense, a wide band of white dots so intermingled they seemed fuzzy as they stretched from horizon to horizon.
“Holy shit,” one of the guys whispered, a reminder to the girls and me that they hadn’t seen this either. The rain clouds had been yet another canopy overhead the night they’d explored the roof of our strange home.
I tore my eyes away from the view and surveyed our group, thankful for the collected illumination from all those distant suns. I wondered if we were lucky for so many to have survived, or unlucky to have been so close to the top before it happened. One of the girls moved over and embraced Vincent, whispering her condolences. Tarsi squeezed my hand, and I reached for Kelvin with the other. My chest hurt with the thought of losing either of them.
In the distance, I saw shapes moving, a train of vinnies sliding across the pale green carpet. Looking around, I noticed many more of them and saw the leaves rustling here and there as the large beasts burrowed down or reappeared. It was an alien landscape, even as I reminded myself that it was my only home. Nothing in the training modules had prepared us for this. And when I thought about the presence of so much air beneath me—separating us from the hard earth below—I felt faint. Like we were floating on a cloud and willing its firmness to hold.
Without a word—just a soft chorus of sobs—our little group tightened, our bodies pressing together like our first night outside the fence. Hands interlocked with other hands, no care for whose they were. They were all ours. All squeezing. All loving and all fearful. I rested my head on someone’s arm and gazed up at the stars, watching them twinkle through my tears, as mesmerized by the complete blackness between them as I was by their light. I soon found one patch that was startlingly devoid of anything, a lonely little patch, and I lost myself in it, drifting off to nothing.