The children giggle as they trample over branches and drooping brown vines. The wind responds with a sigh, picking up dirt and smearing it onto them as if attempting to convert their bright outfits to the drabness of their surroundings. Their attire, full of blues and reds and greens, stand out against the mounds of dirt and lifeless leaves. Dahlia picks up a twig and puts it in her hair, behind her ear. Parker picks up a leaf, laughing and counting every shade of brown, playing the game.
A bell rings, and swiftly they drop it all. They wipe the dirt off of each other’s clothing, take the twigs and leaves out of their pockets, plucking them out of their sleeves, their hair. They walk into the vibrant complex, a maze of neon buildings, without any space between them. The children enter the first tunnel, with a high light blue ceiling and furry green carpet. The door shuts behind them, enclosing them in the tunnel of endless reflecting light, and completely shutting out the wind and trees and dirt.
“Parker! Thank God you’re finally inside!” his mother calls as he scurries into the apartment.
“Mom! Guess what? Today we came up with roni brown, like macaroni, and wirt brown, like wet dirt, and buff brown, and—”
“Sweetheart, they’re all brown, a muddy mixture of the blues and greens and yellows that we have here.” Mrs. Turner gestures to her flowerbed, the plastic tulips bursting out of the jade and emerald grass-imitating pebbles. Parker nods along and grabs the watering can, certain his mother would want to refresh the plants.
“Run along, Parker.”
He shoulders his bag and walks to school, through the tunnels that connect each building in the complex, in their universe. He walks through the tunnel, looking up at the unchanging sky and walking on the carpet they called grass, never seeing a window, never allowed to go out except for that one time a day if he was good. Lately, it was being limited more and more.
Parker hears voices coming from their apartment and takes his hand off the doorknob, instead crouching down to listen.
“I don’t like sending them out there,” his mother whispers. Parker strains to hear.
“Why? It’s not dangerous anymore.” It sounds like Dahlia’s mom.
“We don’t know that.” There’s a long pause, and Parker can’t tell if they’ve stopped talking or if he simply can’t hear them.
“They’re just being kids.”
“I know. But it’s better for them inside. We have everything here – we’ve made gardens, and the sky, and fruit. I want them to have a childhood.”
“Playing outside is a childhood.” Another pause. “I think you’re just afraid. I don’t like looking out there either. It’s terrifying, but we can’t coop them up inside.”
“Actually, I think that’s what we have to do.”
“Why can’t I go outside, Mom?”
“Come help me with the garden!”
“I don’t want to.”
“Parker! Don’t you see how beautiful it is? We have to take care of it to keep it that way.”
“I don’t want it that way. It’s not beautiful.”
“Then what is?”
Parker’s gaze turns to the window, to the foggy grey sky and the dry and dusty hillside.
“No. That’s not beauty, Parker. You don’t understand.”
It’s two weeks before Parker is allowed outside again. He scampers out of the tunnel, eager as a puppy. He grins when he spots Dahlia standing by the gate leading out of the complex, holding it open.
“Hurry up, Parker. We wanna show you the mystery patch!”
Parker runs along, dying to discover the mystery patch his friends had found. They said they had been digging and found a box. The box was as lifeless as the rest of the outdoor world, crusting on the edges, soggy and ripping. Most of its contents were trash, but the children had found a small non-edible bean that was a new shade of brown.
“What will we call it?”
“That’s what my mom called it,” Parker said with a shrug. “She has a fake one inside. The fake one sparkles. I like this one better.”
“What do we do with it?”
He shrugs again. “Well, if we can’t eat it…”
“Let’s keep it,” Dahlia suggests. “It’s pretty. I can make a hair-clip out of it.”
Parker nods, placing the seed in his pocket. With that, the kids race off into the hills, crunching on twigs and leaves, stirring up a dirt storm, completely happy to be playing in the ruins. They jump and play in the lifeless world, and no one hears the little laugh of the seed as it falls out of Parker’s pocket and gets taken up by the wind.