As @Calluna had hoped, I've decided to turn my Tell A Story to Me entry into a novel! I'm really excited about it and have quite a bit of it written already. You can find the original story here! I highly recommend reading it first, for obvious reasons. This is the rough draft of the second chapter. I'd love some feedback on it!
Soon, I found that not everyone was as trusting as Scout. Honestly, it came as a relief. Not that I wanted to be doubted, mistrusted, questioned. I was more concerned with the other outsiders. They called them Terrestrials. Apparently, it had started as a joke. Something about them being aliens, just without the “extra” part. They weren’t far off with that. Being here, I felt like an alien in their society.
Things were different above ground. People were not trustworthy at all. Nearly everyone I had ever met was out for themselves. They didn’t care about you unless you could do something for them. My biggest fear was someone from my last camp finding their way down here. What if they believed all the lies Raze had told them about me. He was incredibly convincing and manipulative. There was no way that everyone in that village didn’t want to see my head on a spear. If they started spreading stories, it would be the end of me and my life here.
I had decided as soon as Scout welcomed me that I was going to do my best not to mess this up. I was sick of running. Sick of moving from camp to camp. Being the outsider had never worked out in my favor.
My first meeting with the Elder Council went well. They did seem welcoming but did make it known that I was not trusted yet. I had hope that it would all be okay. I was told to help with Carl and Scout’s tasks and learn what I could about the upkeep of their lifestyle and community. I was so excited to be accepted even on that minimal, trial basis level.
“Are you ready?” Carl asked, his head poking into the flap of my small tent. They didn’t have a house for me yet. The Elder Council told me I would have to earn it. Once I was allotted a home, I would officially be welcomed into their community. I needed to earn their trust and prove my worth. Carl assured me that it wouldn’t take long. It never did. He would help me.
I nodded at him and climbed out of my tent.
“What are we working on today?” I inquired.
“Today, we’re helping the farmers. We're going to check the sunlights. Make sure they’re all intact and none of them are burnt out.”
“Sounds like a plan. That’s going to take all day, though?”
He laughed. “You haven’t seen the farms yet, have you?”
Standing at the edge of the fields, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was so bright and beautiful. I almost thought we were somehow above ground. The only thing missing was the blue sky. Trees, grass, and plants grew everywhere like they naturally popped up here, though I knew they didn’t. They had been very carefully planted and cared for until they prospered. The farms stretched out for what looked like miles.
“Well, now I see why this is going to take all day.”
“At least the scenery is pleasant. One of the farmers might even sneak us a nice treat or two.”
“How do we get up there, though?” I asked, pointing up above our heads where the giant lights dangled from the high cave ceiling.
“Ladders. Come on, it’s going to take both of us to move them.”
Carl led me to a shack along a side wall. It looked ancient. Boards were missing from the walls so you could see the contents inside. Shelves of lightbulbs and unlabeled bottles climbed the decrepit walls. With one bump to the shed, everything would have tumbled to the dirt floor below.
“Yeah, we’ve been meaning to rebuild that, but no one has had the time,” Carl said after he noticed that I was staring at the decrepit building.
“Someone might wanna get on that. You’re going to have a lot of broken lights if anyone runs into this thing.”
Carl laughed. “You’re not wrong. Thankfully, not a lot of people other than the farmers come back here.”
“I don’t see why. It would be nice just to come and relax here.”
“I guess us natives aren’t as impressed. This has always been here for us. We’re over the magic that you see.”
“I suppose that does make sense. What a shame, though.”
“Here, help me with this.” Carl lifted one end of a huge wooden ladder. It looked so long, I thought it would scrape the top of the ceiling once it stood upright. I hurried over and struggled to lift the other end.
“We’re gonna have to hurry. I don’t think I’ll be able to hold this up for long. How much does this thing weigh? An actual ton?”
Carl’s laughter met my ears again. It was great to hear such joy so frequently here, even if it was at my expense.
I was surprised Carl could lift the ladder. He was very tall and lanky. He hid his actual muscles and strength very well. Above ground, I would have mistaken him for someone incredibly weak with his ultra pale skin and his dark hair making him look even paler, on the verge of being sickly.
“I’d say it’s pretty close. Let’s get to work.”
Getting the ladder upright was much harder than carrying it. Carl and I traded off every couple of sunlights. I was thankful none of them were damaged. I’m not sure how I would have gotten up the ladder carrying a bulb nearly the same size as my body. I’m not sure how Carl would have gotten it up there, either.
“I told you it was an all-day job,” Carl smirked at me as we sat under an apple tree several hours later. Words could not express how thankful I was to be done with the lights. I hoped that tasks got easier after that point. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle something more difficult so early on. I kept that thought to myself, though, afraid of looking weak.
“Yeah, yeah,” I laughed, biting into one of the apples the farmers had given us as a thank you. I couldn’t believe how good it tasted. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. My arms are done for, though. That ladder is no joke.”
“It doesn’t feel so bad to me now, but I’ve been helping with the sunlights since I was about twelve, I think.”
I nodded, imagining a smaller version of Carl struggling to help carry that gigantic wooden ladder. I tried to stifle a laugh.
“You’d really be laughing if you had seen it. I think the first five or so trips, I couldn’t even get the darn thing up off the ground.” We laughed together and enjoyed the rest of our gifts.
I slept well that night. My body was so tired, there was no other option. I couldn’t imagine how Carl and the others did that all the time. Life above ground was hard and tiring, but I’d never come across anything as heavy as that ladder. It was an important job, though. Their entire livelihood depended on it.
The next day, we went back to the fields. Carl said we would be helping the farmers weed the crops. We would be helping them a lot. There was always something that needed done and everyone benefitted from the extra help. They’d be able to put the best word in for me, too. The Elder Council held the farmers in very high regard.
“How do you have weeds?” I asked, confused. “There shouldn’t be anything extra growing down here.”
“It’s not weeding as it would be for Terrestrials. It means we’re going to go through and get rid of the plants that aren’t thriving. Some of our plants produce bad fruit, too. So we’ll be taking care of that.”
Carl led the way to the first patch we would be picking through. Rows of vibrant green plants and red and orange fruit ran in parallel lines. They looked so delicious that I felt my stomach rumble.
We walked down the rows slowly, looking for any abnormalities. I was trying to pay attention and catch anything different, but I was mostly just thinking about how the fruit would taste.
“There,” Carl pointed to a plant a couple of feet away. “That one isn’t producing well.”
Once we were closer, I could see what he was talking about. The plant was much smaller than all the ones surrounding it. Its coloring was off, too. Instead of a deep, popping green, it was dull, almost faded. The fruit growing from its weak branches were such a pale shade of orange, they were almost yellow. They weren’t nearly the size of the other fruit, either. Something about the plant made me feel sad. I didn’t understand why. I, also, didn’t understand why it wasn’t thriving. Everything else down here seemed to thrive with what seemed like no effort whatsoever.
“The fruit on this one will be sour instead of sweet like the other ones. It’ll make you sick.”
“So it has to go,” I said.
“You know it.” Carl crouched down and started digging at the soil around the plant. Underneath, the roots ran deep but narrow. “I think I found part of the problem,” he informed me as he dug deeper. He lifted up a solid, perfectly round rock. The roots had started to slowly encase it. “Once the roots hit this rock, they struggled to get around it, stunting the growth.”
Carl handed me the rock. I rolled it around in my hand, the roots prying away from the hard surface. Once the rock was free of the roots, I stuck it in my pocket.
“Is that normally what the issue is, something getting in the way of the roots?”
“Most of the time. There are some that just won’t grow. I assume they’re just bad seeds. I have found a great deal more rocks lately, though. Not sure why.”
“Interesting,” I said, patting the rock in my pocket.
We spent hours combing through each row of the growing crops. It was tedious work, but much better than carrying around that humongous ladder. Carl and I laughed and bonded over the work.
“How long have you and Scout been so close?” I asked as we scanned a row of corn stalks towering over our heads.
“Pretty much my entire life. Our families lived next to each other. She feels more like family than just a friend. We used to get in trouble together all the time as kids.”
“What kind of trouble?” I was intrigued.
“We used to pull a lot of pranks. On anyone that we could, too. We were awful,” he laughed at the memories. “One time, we broke into Marshall’s office after hours. Marshall is pretty much the head Elder even though they claim there is no such thing. Everyone is equal and blah, blah, blah. Anyway, it’s way easier to get into the building than it should be, honestly. We took all of the furniture out of his office and put it on the roof of the building. We arranged it exactly how it has been in his office. We put a note on the inside of the door and hid hints around the rest of the building to lead him to his new, open office.” Carl laughed at the memory. “He was so mad. I thought he was going to kick us out for it. His face was completely red as he screamed and screamed. Thankfully, Scout’s dad stood up for us and a few of the other Elders thought it was pretty funny, too. Marshall has always needed to lighten up a little. He has no sense of humor whatsoever. I think he’s forgiven us now, at least. It’s been nearly five years.”
I laughed with him. “It sounds like you two were quite the handful.”
“That’s putting it mildly. We took off a few times, too. Adventuring down tunnels, ending up where we shouldn’t have been. It only took a time or two of getting in trouble that we got better at not being caught.”
“So you know the tunnels pretty well?”
“I wouldn’t say that. I don’t think anyone actually knows them very well. They’re very expansive and being dark makes it even harder to recognize where you’ve been. Not too many landmarks as you Terrestrials would call them.” He gently elbowed me in the ribs to let me know he wasn’t using the term negatively.
“I suppose that does make things a lot more difficult, doesn’t it.”
“Incredibly. We got lost a few times and were pretty fortunate to make it back at all. What is life like up there? I’ve always wondered, but none of the newcomers have ever been close to my age. Never really bonded with them or they didn’t have much of anything to say.”
“It’s bright, for one,” I laughed.
He smirked. “Never would have guessed.”
“It’s a lot more stressful up there. It feels like there’s so much more to worry about. Predators could be anywhere and people aren’t so kind. It’s more every man for himself than living and growing together.”
“Why don’t people want to work together?”
“We didn’t build a community together as you did here. We were all stuck fighting for our lives up there and using what wasn’t destroyed after the government fell. It’s still anarchy up there. I don’t think it’s going to change any time soon.” I frowned. I had accepted the fate of my world years ago, but it still was hard to think about.
I continued, “I wish it was more like this up there. I wouldn’t even be here if that’s how it was with the Terrestrials. Instead, I’ve jumped from village to village since I was a kid. I barely even remember what it feels like to be trusted. It’s been so long.”
“I’m sorry, man. No family?”
I shook my head. “They’ve been long gone for years.”
Carl frowned, too. “No wonder you ended up down here. I can’t imagine all that chaos. There’s got to be some plus side, though?”
“I guess. The air is better up there. It’s beautiful, too, with all the trees and plants. It’s more colorful like it is here in the fields. Imagine just this part of the Underground, but everywhere.”
“It can be, but there are also dangerous animals lurking everywhere.”
“The biggest animal I’ve ever seen is a rat,” Carl and I laughed.
“You’d be in for quite the shock then!”
The rest of our workday went by quickly as we compared our homelands. I told Carl all about the large cats and other creatures that lurked above our heads. I quite enjoyed his look of horror and intrigue. Maybe one day, I’d get to show him around above ground.