by Rebecca Karkkanen
The museum was quiet and mostly empty. It suited me. I had been here hundreds of times before, but it was still as fascinating as the first. I stopped at every display. There were things called cell phones, to be carried in the hand or the pocket, and board games – the concept was just so old fashioned – that were designed for two or more people to play for entertainment. But there were other artifacts that I could only guess at their purpose. For example, I stood and pondered for a while over a small, thin device made of translucent plastic with a tip on one end that seemed to contain an ink of some sort. Perhaps it was a precursor to the stylus, which was widely used a decade or so ago but that is not so popular anymore now that all the computers and screens use voice commands. But why did it have flowing ink inside? I pondered the mystery but did not grow any wiser. Eventually, I wandered into my favorite gallery: the part of the museum where they kept paper books. Something about them made me breathe more deeply. The mere thought that these items had survived the passage of time, some for hundreds of years, gave the room an air of dignity. I walked over to one display case in the corner and absorbed every detail on the opened pages. Of course, I could not read, but I pored over all those little squiggles and tried to imagine how they might make sounds and words and ideas. The security guard came over and looked over my shoulder. I suppose you could call him my friend. I did not know his name and he had never asked for mine, but we talked about history every time I came to the museum. He was an older man, and his grandfather had lived in the time when paper books were still used. He liked to tell me the stories, and I liked to listen.
“Tell you what,” he interrupted himself in the middle of an account of how books were kept in buildings called libraries. His voice dropped to a whisper and he looked around even though the room was empty except for us. “I have this little key here that will turn off the alarm. How would you like to hold a real-life book in your hands?”
“You can do that?” I was incredulous.
“Well, I’m not supposed to, but I know you’ll be careful.”
“But I thought the paper would be destroyed if taken out of the climate control.”
“Not if it’s only a few seconds. Here, go ahead.”
He went around the display case and stuck a small key into a labeled space in the back. A low buzzing noise that I had not noticed before stopped, and the silence felt like the absence of a headache. He slid the glass screen aside and gently lifted the book into my hands. I could hardly breathe with wonder. I did not know that books had a smell. It was musty and old, but good; strong but pleasant in a way that I immediately knew I would never forget. The book was heavier than I had imagined, about the size of my both hands, with a cover of harder paper protecting the hundreds of delicate pages inside. They were yellowed and faded, and they rustled when I shifted them even slightly. When on display, the book was opened to a spread with only words, thousands of tiny ants marching in straight lines beside each other. But when I turned the pages, I discovered that there were pictures, too. They were printed in the same blurry black as the words and with a sketch-like quality. The wild lines gradually took shape as I realized what they depicted: the topside. I had only ever heard about it in school, a short unit about the follies of past societies. I was taught that, before migrating below ground, our people used to live in the topside, where the hot sun blazes and where uncontrollable tempests kill and destroy. I had never experienced the sun and knew nothing of tempests, but these things were described as something awful. The topside was where savage animals roam, where fearsome beasts with fangs and claws prey upon the unsuspecting, where people are divided into regions of separation and battle against each other for supremacy, only to be themselves conquered. But this picture in this book did not fit with what I had always known. It showed a young mother with a baby, sitting in a chair with a curved circular object above them, I suppose to protect them from that blazing sun. They didn’t seem afraid of being in the topside. Rather, the scene was peaceful. I turned the pages to the next image, to see if this version of the topside could really be true. Here was the baby again, but with another creature beside it. It had fangs and claws, like a fearsome beast, but it was not devouring the baby. It was rolled on its side, its tongue lolling in a smile. It looked soft and playful. I thought to myself, Maybe I would like living in the topside. Maybe it is not so bad as everyone says. But I immediately pushed the thought out of my head. It was silly, and dangerous. We were not allowed to wish for impossible things.
The security guard straightened suddenly from where he had bent over the book with me. I listened and heard the same thing as he: voices floating through the hallway. They belonged to approaching museum visitors. He motioned for me to put the book back in the display case and hurried to the door to see how far off they were. I turned to a random page with only text and hoped no one would notice the change, then placed the book onto its stand. That’s when I saw a small piece of light-colored paper protruding beyond the rest of the pages. I should not have done what I did, and yet my curiosity was overwhelming. I didn’t stop to reason with myself, I acted only on impulse. With a quick glance to the security guard, who was still by the door and looking into the hallway, I slipped the paper out from between the pages and dropped it into my pocket, my heart pounding louder than the approaching footsteps. I replaced the glass screen and called to the guard. He came running and turned on the alarm just as the visitors entered the room. We pretended to have a deep conversation about history, but in reality we were both only trying to catch our breath. That was a close one. I had never done something so risky. And I could tell that the guard was just as relieved as I was. If anyone found out that he had turned off the alarm, even for those few minutes, he could lose his job. Or worse. I waved goodbye to the security guard with a plastered smile and did my best to conceal my fears. The folded piece of paper lay heavy in my pocket, tangible proof of my errors. Today I stole. What’s more, I thought about the topside without a feeling of contempt. Both of these are on the compound’s List of Grievous Wrongs, numbered seven and twenty-four, respectively. Along with everyone else, I had memorized this List by the end of my first year of school. I didn’t know what happened to people who committed the Wrongs, they simply disappeared. Some came back after several months, sunken-eyed and taciturn, but most never returned.
I didn’t look at the paper until much later that night. Soft sighs and deep breathing came from every bed in the dormitory except mine. I pinched my eyes shut and tried to fall asleep – tomorrow was a regular workday and I needed the rest – but sleep eluded me. I could not stand it anymore. Engraved on the inside of my eyelids was the creased paper sticking out just slightly from the pages of the book in the museum. So I lifted the covers and tiptoed to my box, where the paper was still in the pocket of my pants. Somebody snored and I nearly wet myself at the sound. But no one shouted, no one called the militia, no one came to take me away. I returned to my bed and sat on my pillow, close to the wall. It is never completely dark in the compound, the light from behind the walls is only dimmed. I unfolded the paper and smoothed it against my leg. Then came the much harder task of making sense of what I was seeing. It was a tangle of lines going in every direction imaginable. I held up the paper at an angle, then looked at it upside down and sideways. I sniffed it and it had the same ancient smell as the book. The lines were not printed, though, but seemed to be hand drawn. Suddenly I understood what the strange stylus-like object in the museum was for. These lines were made with ink, the same kind of ink that was in that artifact! I imagined how a hand would hold it and make the motions to draw this messy image and wondered who that hand might have belonged to. Why did they draw it? It did not seem to have any purpose. There was just a circle in the middle and spidery streaks escaping it and reaching for the edges. Some cramped words were written here and there, but their meanings remained a mystery. I had never before in my life needed to be able to read – not a single person in the compound did – but now I felt that I was missing something. It was strange, like learning, all of a sudden, that there is something called hunger and that it aches to be satisfied. I looked over the puzzling lines again, those peculiar pairs of lines in varying widths, like small and somewhat bigger tunnels crossing each other dozens of times. Wait… Tunnels! Of course! Hearsay explained that the compound was surrounded by hundreds or maybe thousands of tunnels built centuries ago, a remnant of the time when our society was newly born. Some of them led up to the surface. This was a map. With renewed vigor, I traced each of the lines with my finger. Most were dead ends or simply connectors between bigger tunnels. A frustrating amount of the lines tended to curve back on themselves and return to the circle that was the compound in the middle. But here, here was one route that led to the very edge of the paper. I put the paper down and stared at the wall. What was beyond? I knew the answer as surely as I knew that I should not be thinking what I was thinking. I was committing Wrong #24 again. And yet, my heartbeat whispered top-side, top-side, top-side, and I did not attempt to stop it. I crawled under the covers, the map refolded and hidden under my pillow. Maybe it was the lack of sleep – by now it was the early hours of the morning – or maybe it was something else, but my mind started doing peculiar things. It was forming a plan, spinning faster and faster and pulling all the loose parts into a complete and solid idea. It was impossible, and I told myself so. Perhaps I was going insane.
“It will never work,” I whispered out loud with my eyes closed.
“But how do you know if you haven’t tried it yet?” I was talking to myself, a sure sign that I was mentally ill.
“Why would you even risk everything? What is it you want that is worth so much?”
“I don’t know.” I was silent for a few minutes as I tried to form the fiery yearning that flowed through my veins into something that could be described by words. “I don’t know.”
Two hours later, the dimness from behind the walls was slowly being replaced by a brighter light. The entrance to the tunnel was guarded by two soldiers. I crouched behind a wall nearby and peeked around the corner, watching them intently. I was at the very edge of the compound, where I had never gone before. There was a stone in the back of my throat that made it hard to swallow and even harder to breathe. It was soon going to be morning and I would be missed, first from the dormitory and then at the factory. I should turn back; there was still time to abort this mission and nobody would ever know. I stood, ready to go. Just then, two more soldiers came from a room on the right of the tunnel, probably to replace the guard for the morning watch. I quickly ducked down again. One of them laughed and waved for the two soldiers by the tunnel to come. The four of them went to the doorway of the room and looked at something on the first one’s screen. None of them were watching the entrance to the tunnel. This was my chance – my only chance. With my sweat turning to ice on my skin, I crept the ten feet or so of open space that remained. One of the soldiers happened to glance up just then, and our eyes locked. My head felt like it was under water and I was sure that my life was over. His eyes widened in surprise as he realized what I was attempting, but he did not shout. He smiled briefly – the smallest of smiles, but one I will remember forever – and turned back to the screen and his companions. I stumbled, then, and thought I would faint, but something carried me the last few steps into the tunnel and around the bend, where I was no longer visible from the entrance. I walked in a daze, the map clenched in my fist, until the echoes of their laughs were distant. There was still a long way to go and many dangers on the way, but my swirling mind could not concentrate on anything but the fact that I had done it. I was in the tunnel and on my way to the topside. The relief I felt could not be real, could it? I leaned against the cold metal wall and started crying.