Sliding my hands across the cool glass windows, I stared out into turquoise waves that crashed against the rocks like a silent explosion. The same blinding sunlight that made the ocean glitter poured through the windows and warmed my bare shoulders. I closed my eyes for a second, imagining what it would be like to be on the ground; dipping my toes in the cold sea, tangling my hair in the same salty air that would fill my lungs, hearing the calls of the sea gulls that circled the ocean, and, at last, the sound of the explosion when the waves collided with the rocks.
I carried these smells and sounds with me as I turned my back on the window and faced reality. The only smell here was of chlorine and plastic, and the room was silent except for the tapping on keyboards as people stared soullessly at the screens in front of them. The walls were a bright, clean white with no paintings or decorations to adorn them, just large, glass windows that looked over a world we could never enter. It seemed that I was alone in feeling trapped here, in this enormous glass city, where everything and everyone looked the same. History class taught us of a world with different cultures and tribes, clashing personalities and unique styles. Fashion magazines from hundreds of years in the past spoke of dazzling colour and daring statements. Old photographs showed careless laughter and unashamed romance. It was all such a far cry from the world we had built for ourselves, The Looking-Glass, the whole world in a city. They said we were lucky to be here, we were chosen, we were the survivors. But, it would appear that survival had cost us our freedom and our individuality.
It was said to be paradise on earth. The whole world united in one place where race, sex, orientation, age or ability did not matter. Those things seemed unimportant after all, when you were the few remaining survivors of a world-wide nuclear war. The air outside was poisoned with radiation causing death, disease and deformation and they needed to stick together to survive. And thus, The Looking-Glass was built. A glass skyscraper to house the remaining population of the world, with enough facilities that we would never need to go outside again; at least, not until it is safe. One hundred years later, I stand here at the top of the tower, staring out at an ocean, untouched for over a century, and surrounded by mindless people with no desire to test the waters, I am unable to decide whether the founders of The Looking-Glass would be proud or disappointed in what we have become.
Unable to bear the silence of this room any longer, I slipped quietly away and into the glass elevator that travelled through The Looking-Glass, carrying it inhabitants between the different facilities it offered. The elevator glided silently and effortlessly down the building, past the offices, shops, gym, pool and houses, finally falling into place at my stop: the library.
The library is the only place I can stand to be in this city. The only place that has not forgotten the beautiful things that once existed on this planet. My headaches melted as I trailed my fingers across the spine of a book and quickly tossed a glance in the direction of the librarian. Like everyone else in this city, she was distracted from reality, staring expressionless at the screen of her computer. I smiled and tip toed past her, down the spiralling staircase and into the depths of the library’s hidden treasure: the restricted section.
I had discovered it a few months ago… whilst sitting at a desk reading, a loud shout had echoed through the otherwise silent library, forcing my head out of my book. The librarian had rushed past me pulling on the arm of a boy and scolding him crossly. It was unusual to see somebody so animated, and interacting so passionately with another person, when you are used to perfect silence and the dull expressions of people glued to a screen. I recognised the boy immediately. Everyone in my class at school knew his name: James Rivers.
He was known for spending a year in prison. No one knew what he did to end up there, but since he had been released, he sat alone at the back of the classroom, scowling. I had caught his eye once or twice and seen the fire in his eyes. I knew he was not like the others. That day when I saw the librarian pulling him out of the library I was burned by his eyes once more, and I knew I had to satisfy my curiosity. Waiting until she had pulled him out of sight, I slipped away from my desk and wandered in the direction they had come from until I found what had made her so angry. The restricted section. Unlike the clean, tidy shelves and shiny covers of the books in the library, this hidden room was filled with piles and piles of torn and dusty books, newspapers, magazines, photographs, notebooks – each one an original copy rescued from the world that existed before us. The whole room was filled with secrets that burst with colour in a black and white world. Instantly, I was hooked.
And sometimes, when I would sneak down here to read, James would be sitting in the corner, his face buried in a newspaper. We would smile knowingly at each other and read together in comfortable silence, never speaking of our shared secret.
On this day, I picked a small, battered journal out of a forgotten cardboard box in the corner of the room. The handwritten print on the cover read: My Adventures in Wonderland. The Secret Diary of Alice Willows, aged 14 and a half. Intrigued by the adventures of this girl who shared my name, I settled into my favourite spot and turned the first page.
A husky voice jolted me cruelly back into reality. I looked up to see James standing over me, concern etched into his usually stony face. I realised then that I was crying and quickly hid my face in shame as I rubbed at my eyes.
‘Alice, are you okay?’
I opened my mouth to answer and quickly realised this was the first time we had actually spoken. My mouth became dry and I held up the diary I was reading in response. He knelt down beside me, gently taking it out of my hands and flicking through the pages.
‘The girl living in the tunnels. I love this one.’ He smiled. ‘Why did it make you cry?’
‘That girl. She’s just like me.’
‘No… her. All she wants is to escape. And she finally does and it’s not only everything she dreamed of, it’s more.’
‘So you’re crying because you’re happy?’
‘No. I’m crying because that will never happen to me.’
We sat in silence for a few moments. I was painfully aware of how close he sat to me, how his long hair needed brushing, how he smelt like vanilla. I was also conscious of my red, blotchy face and rubbed at it violently.
‘I want to tell you something, Alice.’ He said, after a few minutes. ‘I wasn’t meant to tell anybody why I went to prison – it was part of the conditions for my release. But I already share my secret place with you. Why not this too?’
I stared up at him, forgetting my tear-stained face. I had longed to know why he had been sent away.
‘I went outside.’
Appalled, my mouth dropped open in shock. ‘What?! But the radiation? How?’
He laughed. ‘That’s what everyone else said when they found out, the police, my parents. Oh James, the radiation, oh James, you could have died. But I didn’t… I tried to tell them… but they wouldn’t listen. Just sent me away to make sure I would keep my mouth shut.’ The fire in his eyes that had first drawn me to him shone brightly then, brighter than ever before. A million questions swarmed my mind but when I opened my mouth, only one would spill out: ‘Will you show me?’
Once again, I looked out over the ocean, this time in the darkness of the night. The moon shone brightly above The Looking-Glass, reflecting in the calm sapphire waves. The room was silent, as before, but this time eerily so. Not the dull, unsociable silence of people glued to their computers or phones, but real, dead silence. I was alone. I pressed my hand against the glass and closed my eyes, dreaming of all that James had told me, how he stumbled on a tree branch, how he kicked stones into the sea. I leant my forehead against the glass. I was so close.
I jumped back, startled, as someone placed a firm hand on my shoulder. As I turned to face him, James’ face was almost blue in the moonlight that shone through the window.
‘Are you ready?’
I grinned like a fool as I nodded, and I trembled with excitement as he took my hand and lead me toward the glass elevator. Silently we flew down through the sleeping city. We were in complete darkness, but every now and again, when the light from the moon would find a way in, I would catch him staring at me, an unstoppable smile spread across his face that matched my own. Finally, we reached the ground floor.
The ground floor of The Looking-Glass was only used for maintenance and power, and there was rarely anyone there. Unlike the silence of the rest of the building, the purr of the machinery echoed through the entire ground floor, deafening us as we tiptoed past. James hurried ahead of me and knelt behind a machine, only to emerge with two large backpacks. He handed one to me and my arm dropped with the weight of it.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Yeah, I’m fine.’ I smiled, slinging it onto my shoulders. ‘Come on, let’s get out of here.’
He grinned and grabbed my hand once more, pulling me through the maze of machines. Finally, after what felt like hours, we reached a door.
‘That’s it? A door? That’s the only thing stopping us from leaving?’
‘Well you can’t just walk out.’ He pulled a metal crowbar from his own backpack and took a deep breath before forcing it into the side of the door. I saw his arms shake and he bared his teeth as he pushed down on it. With a crack, the lock on the door gave way and it swung open.
‘Do you want to go first?’ He looked at me expectantly, wiping sweat off of his forehead. I stared back, speechless. Outside the door was a stony path that lead out to the unknown. All I could see in the distance was the beautiful night sky filled with dazzling shining stars. I took a step forward… and stopped myself.
‘What is it?’
‘The radiation’, I murmured, ‘are you sure…?’ James grabbed me by the shoulders, spinning me around and looking deep into my eyes. I could feel his fiery eyes burn my skin hotter than ever before.
‘I was out here for four hours and didn’t feel a thing. They say that radiation will take effect immediately. But it’s been two years, Alice. I believe the outside is safe now. But if you don’t want to…’
‘No!’ I cut him off immediately. No, I didn’t know this boy, but I knew I could trust him. Nothing would stop me from escaping this glass prison. I turned around, pulling my backpack higher on to my shoulders and stepped out into my new home.
The cool night breeze on my shoulders and in my hair was everything I thought it would be and like nothing I could have imagined. The salty ocean air hit my lungs like the waves hit the rocks on the shore, with an explosion that both terrified me and left me in awe and wonder. I ran down to the ocean immediately, slipping on the rocks and seaweed, and stood at the shore, letting the cold waves hit my feet and wash away my doubts. James ran past me, up onto an enormous rock and dived straight into the ocean with an incredible splash. I laughed, the first real laugh I could remember in forever and ran up onto the rocks to join him. Before I jumped, I remembered to take a second to breathe it all in. I watched James floating in the sea on his back, a look of peace spread across his no longer stony face. I looked up at the bright, shining moon and the twinkling stars. I closed my eyes and finally heard the sound of the waves hitting the rocks like an explosion. If being outside would kill us, I thought how small a price that would be to pay to just to experience this, and decided if I should die, at least I should die free.
I opened my eyes, not wanting to miss a single second of this day, the new first day of my life; and I jumped.