My name is Ben and I can run across the whole world in fifteen minutes and forty-eight seconds.
It used to take longer, but now I’m eight and almost as fast as Dad. Every day, I run through the cabbage patch, between the rows of beans, past the house, and through the long grass where the chickens like to hide, arms pumping, legs turning over and over until I reach the shore. I tug off my shorts and t-shirt and splash into the warm shallows wearing only the waterproof watch Dad gave me. From there, it takes me another two minutes to wade out to where the sea meets the sky.
The sea is bright blue and encircles the whole world like a ring around a finger. I’m big enough now that the deepest water only comes up to my chest. I can lean against the sky and enjoy the view of the whole world while I get my breath back. Then I lay back and float in the water, watching the light reflect off the glossy sky paint in endlessly quivering patterns.
As the sun begins to dim, its spherical surface fading from bright white to soft orange, Mom strolls to the shore and calls my name. Lazily, I wade back across the water and she hands me a towel so I can dry myself off.
“Put your clothes on,” Mom says.
“You’ll catch a cold.”
“What’s a cold? You mean how at night when the sun turns off, the air feels cooler? How do you catch that?”
“Never mind,” she says, and begins to walk back to the house. I follow her, carrying my shorts and
t-shirt. Grass pokes between my toes every time I take a step. It tickles.
Our house stands in the middle of the world, directly below the sun, which hangs from the bright
blue sky like a tomato from a vine. In the shadow that extends a stride from each side of the building, mushrooms poke through the soil. Further out, we grow fruits, vegetables, and beans, arranged in neat squares with paths just wide enough to walk between the plants. It’s important not to waste space, Dad says. In the wild outer regions, where I run to Dad, who is kneeling between the rows of strawberry plants. He stands and dusts his hands on his patched pants. “Hey, Pirate.” He lifts me up and spins me around before setting me back down.
“Oof. You’re getting heavy.”
“Dinner’s ready!” Mom calls.
As Dad walks toward the house, I linger by the strawberry plants, which droop with ripe fruit. Glancing over my shoulder, I sneak a sweet, fat berry into my mouth.
Inside, Mom is clutching Dad’s sleeve and whispering urgently into his ear. “I can’t take this much longer,” she says, before breaking off with a glance at me.
“Take what?” I ask, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand.
“Nothing to worry about, Pirate,” Dad says. He sets plates on the table. Still smiling, he turns to Mom and says softly. “The sensor data is positive, but I think we should wait a little longer to be safe.”
Mom turns back to the stove. Dad massages her shoulders and peers into the cooking pot. “Smells good. What is it?”
“Bean stew,” she sighs. “Again.”
Dad lifts the heavy iron pot from the stove and carries it to the table. He ladles out the stew, giving me the biggest portion. It is rich and sweet. Basil. Tomatoes. Lima beans. All my favorite foods.
“Don’t slurp,” Mom says.
“He’s appreciating your cooking.” Dad runs his hand through my hair. “What’d you do today, Pirate?” “I ran from sea to sea -- still can’t beat your time -- and then I swam.”
“Don’t you get bored of doing that every day?” Mom asks.
I set down my spoon. Am I supposed to be bored? “I like running and swimming.”
“See? He’s fine. You want to help me harvest the strawberries tomorrow, Pirate?”
“Can I eat them?”
“Sure, but not so many your stomach hurts like last time.”
After dinner, Mom and Dad remain sitting at the table. I clear the dishes into the sink and reach under my bed on the other side of the room to get my guitar. Dad has been teaching me to play since I was five. I know all the chords and put them together to make tunes. While I strum softly, Mom and Dad talk in low voices.
“The sensor data has been clear for three months,” Mom says. “It’s time.”
I pick my way through the scale Dad showed me last week. Pentatonic, he called it. I don’t know how he comes up with so many names for things.
Dad talks so softly I can’t hear him, but Mom’s voice hisses across the main open space of our house, where we cook and eat and I sleep. Dad keeps glancing at the door of their bedroom, as though he wants to escape into there, but Mom holds his hands across the table.
“The drone recordings show no human life,” she says, “but there are animals, so the air must be breathable. And vegetation is making a comeback. It’s madness to stay cooped up down here when we could be rebuilding our lives.”
“We should have let them in,” Dad says. Why does he sound so sad? I hate it when they whisper together like this. It’s the only time I feel lonely. I form a bar chord and strum hard. One of the strings snaps, whipping back across my fingers. I cry out.
Dad is at my side immediately. “What is it?”
“I broke it.” I cradle the guitar in my arms, appalled at myself.
Dad takes the guitar. “It’s just a string. You can replace them.”
Dad glances at Mom, who folds her arms. “With another string. Don’t worry, Pirate.”
“We’ll get you one.”
Dad closes his eyes as Mom comes over and rests a hand on his shoulder. His shirt rumples as she squeezes. “You’ll see,” he says.
When I go to bed, they go into their bedroom. A thin strip of light spills under the door, along with a soft, wordless murmur. I wonder what they’re planning.
Next morning, I wake with the rooster’s cry, grab my egg basket, and go to the door. Blinking a few times while my eyes adjust to the bright sunlight, I frown. Mom and Dad stand on the shore.
That’s weird. I’m always the first one up. I run toward Mom and Dad, still clutching the basket. “What’s going on?”
Mom turns and opens her arms. I run into them. Dad squats beside me. “We’re going on a journey,” he says.
He points at the sky. “Out there.”
“In the sea?”
“Beyond the sea.”
“There’s nothing beyond the sea. Only the sky.”
Dad pulls off his pants and shoves them into a black bag. Mom turns away, strips to her underwear, and splashes into the sea. Hesitantly, I take off my clothes and put them in the bag too. He holds it above the water as we walk into the sea together.
When we reach the sky, Dad begins tapping on it, tilting one ear toward his hands. Has he gone crazy? “What are you doing?”
He shushes me and keeps tapping. From the bag, he pulls a knife and scores a rectangle in the sky paint. He runs the knife along the middle of the rectangle until it sinks deeply into the sky, feeds a metal object into the hole he’s made and rotates it. With a click, the square Dad cut swings open, revealing a dark hole.
“What’s he doing?” I ask Mom. “He broke the sky.”
“I didn’t break it,” Dad says. “I opened the door. Come on.” He pushes the bag into the hole and climbs in after it.
I splash to the open sky-door and peer inside. Dad stoops inside a narrow tunnel. In one hand, he holds a yellow tube with a glowing light radiating from one end.
“You next,” says Mom.
The floor of the tunnel is earthy, like the soil in the vegetable gardens. This doesn’t make sense. How can there be earth behind the sky? With Dad in front of me and Mom behind, I walk along the tunnel, longing to be back out in the open. Eventually, Dad stops and shines the light onto the ceiling, revealing a rusty metal door.
“Finally,” says Mom. “I thought I’d go crazy down there.”
Dad opens the door and hauls himself through. I hang back. Cold air moves on my skin, as if I’m running really fast, even though I’m standing still. “What’s that?”
“What’s what?” Mom says, pushing me forward.
“The air is moving.”
“It’s a breeze.” She laughs. “Oh, Ben, you’re going to feel wind in your hair and real sunlight on your face. You’ll be free. Isn’t that wonderful?”
It doesn’t seem wonderful. With her help, I climb up through the door and almost fall back down in shock. The space we are in is bigger than the whole world. All around us are huge plants, like tomato vines but a thousand times bigger, and with thick, hard stems so wide even Dad’s arms wouldn’t stretch around them. I crane my head, trying to see their tops. Are they so tall they scrape against the sky? But all I can see are interlocking stems, stretching higher and higher against a gray background.
“Where’s the sky?”
“Up there, of course,” Mom points upward. The dusty gray between the bare stems overhead looks nothing like the sky. Has the bright blue paint worn away? And where is the sun?
I turn all the way around, trying to understand. “Where’s the sea?”
“Hundreds of miles away,” Mom says. I have no idea what that means. I begin to whimper and hide my face in her stomach.
Mom pushes me away and begins pulling on her clothes. Dad squats beside me and turns me to
face him. “Ben, this will take some getting used to. The world is bigger, so much bigger, than you thought…”
Mom pulls her sweater over her head. “We had to go into the dome to keep you safe,” she says. “We knew there would be terrible fires and dust, so we had to go underground. Dad built our home, with help from.... He built it to protect us. Isn’t he clever?” She’s smiling wider than I’ve ever seen before, and talking so fast I can hardly keep up. What’s a fire? How could Dad have built the world? Did he build this one too?
I take a few tentative steps toward the nearest plant. Its stem is rough and jagged. I sense it is older than anything I have ever known. How many years did it take to grow so big?
Some things are familiar. Below my toes is green grass, not as thick or lush as the grass at home, but unmistakably grass. I wonder if there are chickens here. Are there boys who collect their eggs?
Confused, I turn back to Mom and Dad. “If the world is so much bigger, are there other people? Are they giants?”
Mom and Dad glance at each other. The smile fades from Dad’s face. Mom shakes her head. “There are no other people,” she says. “There never were. It’s just you and me and Dad. And we love you, Ben. We love you so much.”
I squint at the towering stems, which seem to go on forever. Even though Mum and Dad are right beside me, I begin to feel lonely. I reach for Dad’s hand. How long it will take to run across this new world?