What Used to Be by Jessica Zimmerman

This story is one of the January Writing Challenge entries chosen to be a featured story.

My head is pounding, and my mind is screaming, and every atom in my body is being pulled in every direction at once and then

It stops.

Mel’s voice is amplified by the abrupt silence. “Close your eyes.”

I grunt. They’re already shut. Tightly.

I hear the mechanisms releasing; the capsule lets out a sigh of relief. Wherever it was taking us – whenever – we made it.

Adrenaline fades, replaced by the intensity of needing to know what the past has to offer.

An audible click, and the restraints around me fall away. I peel apart my eyelids just in time to see a metal shutter sliding away from the tiny window on the door.

What I see makes my heart want to quit on me.

Funny, you’d think it could handle more than this after traveling through time.

But you can’t blame me.

We are not tucked safely below miles of rock. We are on the Surface.

We are staring outside, and it is not on fire. It is not ablaze with storms and wind and crumbling remnants of what used to be.

It doesn’t waste away, remembering. It simply is.

Even more: It is white.

A color that has somehow been lost to the future, the one we come from.

It’s a color we glimpse only in the corners of each other’s eyes, or tinged with gray in a few foods or fabrics. It’s a color always coated in dust, grime, grit, and smog.

But not here. Rather, not now.

Pure, shimmering white coats actual trees, rocks, and bona fide creeks. Branches become crystals, chandeliers dangling from the sky.

Yes, you can see the sky. It is unpolluted, its air still breathable.

My hand is on the door’s controller.

Mel’s excitement fills the cramped space. It suffocates my own disbelief.

“Wait, you can’t leave yet. Your bag. Everything you brought. Put it on.”

I obey. Six thin shirts will have to be enough.

For her, a real coat. A real scarf. Shiny boots constructed for more than contaminating work. They did not come from our time.

The door slides open.

The cold is a rush I have never known. The cleanness is impossible. These powerful trees are made only of fantasies.

But cold.

It is something else entirely. Our furnace of a planet will never feel this chill again, not even in our tunnels far from the stifling, storm-split Surface.

And yet…

My skin now knows the sting of ice pellets dancing from the sky, and my lips know the chapped sweetness of warm, wet, breathing and visible clouds of air in front of my face.

We run. We trip. We fall. We bury ourselves in this frozen cloud that hides every inch of the earth. She throws a ball of it at me. I scoop it up and fling it at her.

I never want this to end.

“Snow,” she says.

It clicks. I’ve read somewhere of this frozen precipitation, but I couldn’t put a name to it. This four-letter word is perfect. It is cool and crisp, clear and fresh. My whole being is filled with ice and joy.

It seeps into my bones and I can’t feel my fingers or my toes or my nose.

We walk through it, weaving between trees whose branches hold brushstrokes of white. In my mind, my footprints are stenciled into place, impossible to erase.

“Mel.” I catch her arm and pull her close. “You brought us here. You did it. This is…”

“Indescribable,” she whispers.

“Beyond it.”

She leans into me. Her warmth somehow penetrates through the concrete-solid cold. I feel her exhaustion, her pain. It is mine too.

All this beauty is bittersweet, mocking. We’ve seen what will become of it.

It isn’t the tragedy that squeezes me, though. It is hope.

“This is our chance to set things right,” I say.

She yanks herself back. I stumble.

“Daniel, no.”

“What?”

“No changes. We’re too far in the past already. One wrong step and time breaks. We’d doom everyone and everything we know.”

I stop and consider her. I truly do. My conclusion: the future we know is not worth preserving. We could make it so much better.

“A worthwhile risk.”

My mind is made. My breath spells it out in the falling flakes.

Her eyes ice over, colder and harder than all the snow that ever was and ever will be.

“You haven’t studied as I have,” she tells me. “You don’t realize what could happen.”

“I’ve studied this plenty, don’t pretend otherwise. There’s always a way. That’s what you told me when you built your machine.”

“I won’t let you do anything.”

“You can’t stop me.”

Determination, stubbornness. Call it what you will. It brought us together. Now it has no choice but to rip us apart.

 

 

Jessica Zimmerman
15
USA
Germ Magazine guest author
… is a contributing guest author for Germ, which means the following criteria (and then some) have been met: possessor of a fresh, original voice; creator of fresh, original content; genius storyteller; superlative speller; fantastic dancer; expert joke teller; handy with a toolbox; brilliant at parties; loves us as much as we love them.

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