March 20, 2017

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The Last Park Bench Lover

In those days, the sky loomed dark at all hours of the day and night. Gloomy clouds hung over everything, and chemicals made the air unbreathable. The sun hardly shone through, a feeble, faint light just barely able to pierce through the layers of the atmosphere to the half-dead earth. Most plants outside of the greenhouses had died long ago, so even the landscape matched the darkness and the grayness of the earth. No one traveled outside anymore, avoiding it unless absolutely necessary, which had become less and less over the years as everything became connected.

It was not a world full of lovers and romantics. People had lost hope when the last green thing upon the earth had died. In a world as gray and glum as this one, what had people to hope for? Poets and artists had nothing to weave their artistry around. Writers had lost all inspiration, for the world of dystopia had come to exist in their own reality. Fairy tales and novels went out of style, and so did most film. All creative types learned to hide their creativity, for none had use for it anymore. The world belonged to the logical ones, the scientists and the mathematicians, the doctors and the nurses, those who had a concrete and obvious purpose.

And yet in some, that spark of romance and creativity refused to die. A few souls among the living harbored this sense of hope within them, living their lives with the desperate hope that some day the world might turn green again and the air become breathable and the world would become what it had been all those years ago. When people would walk through the park just because they could. When people didn’t have to hide underground or in their houses and could breathe the air that surrounded them. When the world presented itself in shades of green and blue and red, a rainbow in its own right. Their fellows knew them as eccentrics, attributing their hopefulness to a sort of mental instability. Some watched them with envy, those who had once carried that hope within but who the world had forced to give in. A few watched them with disgust, those who the world had so indoctrinated to believe that anything other than what was should be. And those who held this hope within their hearts could easily recognize the likeminded, those who also held this hope.

They were the creators and the dreamers. The romantics and the ambitious. The optimists and the believers. They were the ones who loved with all their hearts and would willingly give their lives for those they loved. They were the ones who danced because they could and who sang whether or not they sang well. They were the ones who bright a certain light and joy to the world, despite its cantankerous tendencies.

Dana Joylette was precisely this and her mother always cautioned her to beware of the world. Her mother had once fit the same description, but the world had beat it out of her, beating her to a mere shred of what she had been in her younger years. “Dana, my dearest,” she would whisper in her daughter’s ear every night before bed, “love with all your heart. Don’t let anyone stop you. Dream your dreams. Believe that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Stand up for  what you believe, my darling, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

Dana had held onto those words her entire life. She loved like no one else could love. She dreamed dreams that no one else could. She always believed that a better way existed, that the darkness didn’t have to consume the world, that everyone deserved a second chance. She helped those who fell down and built them up again. Her actions set her so far apart from everyone else, that her peers gave her the nickname “Quirk.”

Markus Williams, on the other hand, fit the mold of the world. He believed what everyone told him to. He only wanted to live in the now, not in the past, not in the future. He refused to believe that the light could ever return, and hardly believed that it had existed in the first place. He worked hard at his modest, sensible job, and it made him happy. His parents had lived the exact same way, doing precisely what the world demanded and believing precisely what the world told them to be true. In all ways, Markus Williams was the perfect example of average.

Until he met Dana.

At the end of a seemingly endless day, Markus closed up shop at the little convenience store he ran, locking the doors tightly behind him as he exited into the tunnels. He slipped the key into the pocket of his bag, slinging it across his shoulders and shoving his hands into his pants pockets. A song from the radio, a rather boring tune, slow and calming, settled at the back of his mind and he started to whistle as he walked. Content, Markus lost himself in thought, his eyes settled on the ground at his feet as he walked.

He almost missed her.

Running back towards her place of work after having mistakenly left her keys, Dana raced down the tunnels. She zoomed around a corner here, zipped around a corner there, and by the time she hit the tunnel down which Markus walked, she almost tumbled right into him, missing him by a fraction of an inch. Her eyes widened as she noticed him, just barely catching herself as she fell to the ground on the other side of him. As she pulled herself to her feet, she stifled a snorting giggle at the sight of Markus. He had stopped in his tracks, his hands still dug deeply into his pockets. His bag had fallen and his things had emptied out. His jaw hung open slightly, mirroring his widened eyes in their startled terror. A sway ran down his body as he attempted to move but his surprised had temporarily paralyzed him.

Dana hurried over to him. She picked up his things, noticing among them a sketchbook, before she reached out to steady the tottering young man, her arms tucked under his and around his slender back. She looked up into his eyes, shards of ice mingling with flecks of olive. A smile stretching across her face, she reached up and flattened his hair, wild from the close encounter. “I’m Dana,” she said. “Are you okay?”

Markus nodded, pushing himself out of Dana’s arms. He wanted to react more aggressively, but people didn’t react with violence and aggression anymore. With a weak attempt to clear his throat, he straightened himself up, fixing his clothes and his bag before shoving his hands back in his pockets. “I’m doing well, thanks.” He let his eyes linger on Dana for just a second too long, taking in the beautiful glow of her skin and the warmth in her eyes. Coughing, he pulled himself away from her, turning himself back towards his home. “Have a good evening.”

“That’s it?”

Slowly stopping, Markus stood in silence. What was he supposed to say? As a young man, he shouldn’t have allowed Dana that interaction and he shouldn’t have allowed himself that look at her. His heart pounded in his chest in a way that he didn’t recognize and, frankly, it scared him. When it came time for him to wed, which wouldn’t come for another couple years, with him only having turned twenty this year, the people would select a wife for him based on the compatibility tests that had become a compulsory tradition for those turning twenty-two. No one partook in romantic entanglements anymore; everything was based on utility.

“That’s it?” Dana repeated, rounding Markus to stand in front of him, her arms crossed and a sly grin on her face. “What’s your name?”

He hesitated. “Markus.”

“Well, Markus, I can see that you’re not acquainted with who I am,” she replied, a laugh in her voice. “People call me Quirk.”

He allowed himself another look at her. “I can see why.” His own voice sounded strange to him, a tremor coloring it, an unfamiliar nervousness as he drank in her appearance. Her disheveled hair tumbled to her shoulders onto her strangely colorful shirt. Her eyes danced in a way he had never seen before. Every move she made seemed lyrical, as if she danced to a song only she could hear. She definitely was not like other girls her age, who stood still and complied with the customs of the world, which included limited interaction with the young men such as himself.

“Do you want to see something, Markus?” Dana asked him as he made to continue back towards his home. “Because I don’t think you’re really quite like everyone else.”

Markus shook his head vigorously, his vision blurring as he did so. “No, no, no,” he protested too eagerly. “I’m just like everyone else.” He did everything they did, the way they did. Nothing set him apart, which was exactly how he wanted it.

Dana took his hand, her skin soft against his. When Markus tried to slip his out, she tightened her grip. When Markus tried to protest—“This isn’t appropriate”—she dragged him down one of the tunnels. Slowly, she felt his disapproving grasp soften, his fingers uncertainly fitting perfectly with hers. A grin quirked across her face and, slowly but surely, a matching one spread across Markus’.

After a few short minutes of ducking down the tunnels, Dana stopped below a hatch. Scrambling up the wall, she managed to grab a short rope ladder tucked in a crevice nearby. Quickly, she climbed it and opened the hatch. She turned back to Markus. “Coming?” she asked, her head sticking out of the hatch, a hand outstretched to the young man. Markus looked from her hand to the hatch, stretching his neck to get a closer look at what lay outside it, but Dana blocked his view. He bit his lower lip and shrugged. “Don’t make me pull you up.” Dana’s laugh sang through the air.

“I’m not sure we’re supposed to be here,” Markus protested, gesturing to the sign that blatantly read Do Not Enter. Just like everyone else, Markus always followed the rules. He didn’t even know what would happen if he broke them, but he didn’t want to know. He had heard the stories of what punishment befell those who deigned to break the law and it certainly didn’t sound pleasant in the least.

Dana laughed, climbing back down the rope ladder and grabbing Markus’ hand again. His heart skipped a beat. “No one comes down this tunnel anymore, Markus. It fell out of use a long time ago. It was one of the first tunnels built, so it isn’t even as steady as the newer ones. It was abandoned because too much traffic made the possibility of it caving in too great of a risk, so new ones were built that could withstand the traffic that this particular tunnel normally held. It was a major highway in its day. But it’s safe. No one will notice. I go up here all the time and no one has caught me yet.”

“Yet being the key word here.”

“Come on, Markus, I know you can’t really be exactly like them. You can’t really be happy. I saw your sketchbook. Do the rest of the world have sketchbooks, Markus?” Markus paled, his face quickly draining of all color.

“No one knows about that, Quirk,” he said frantically, opening his bag and making sure he tucked it away in its proper, hidden pouch. “Not even my parents. They think I’m just like everyone else.”

“Markus,” Dana replied, “you think you’re just like everyone else too.”

“Because I am, Quirk, I am!” he insisted. “I don’t believe in whatever whack things that you do. I don’t believe that the world can ever become what it was. It’s been this way for so long, that I’m not even sure that what we’re told it was even happened. It’s possible that the dreamers like you made it all up. I’m perfectly happy working my convenience store job and going home to my parents. I don’t need to see the sky—blue or gray or purple or whatever color it was or is supposed to be. I don’t need the grass. I don’t need to hope that those things could exist. I don’t draw any of that stuff. I just draw the stuff around me. The shelves with food at the store. The shadows in my bedroom. I’m nothing like you, Quirk!”

“But can’t you see, Markus? Your denial means you’re exactly like me, but you’ve squashed it. The world has quashed your spirit and you’ve let it! I can prove to you that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is. I can prove to you that it wasn’t always this way, and that proof is through this hatch, so if you’re at all curious, which I know you are, Markus, you will come with me.”

Markus stared at Dana’s hand, noticing every crease and crevice running across her palm. His eyes flicked to her face, encouraging and more enthusiastic than anyone he had ever known. With a deep breath and a courage he didn’t know he had, Markus took her hand.

When he crawled out of the hatch, Markus couldn’t believe his eyes. The world he saw around him matched the description of the world he had received—gray skies, gray earth, rundown buildings—but something didn’t feel quite the same as what he normally saw out of his windows. It didn’t smell like death and decay, but a hint of something… something floral? floated through the air, the air that was noticeably breathable. A touch of color painted everything. The sky didn’t look nearly as gray as it should have, a hint of blue shining through. The grass didn’t seem quite so dead, a few blades of green peaking their heads through amidst the mass of brown.

“It’s coming back,” Dana whispered, her head resting on Markus’ shoulder, tears at the corners of her eyes. “The earth is reviving itself. We may have killed it, but it’s resurrecting, Markus.” She bent down and picked the tiniest daisy, placing it in Markus’ palm. “It’s very much alive, Markus. See? There is hope after all. This daisy is hope. The blue in the sky is hope. The green grass is hope. This right here, Markus, is hope!”

“Hope,” Markus whispered, the word strange on his lips but sweet.

Dana took his hand, dragging him over to a lone, decrepit metal park bench. Together, they sat, neither one speaking, reveling in the newness of the world around them. Slowly, their hands crept together. The hope in the world had revealed something to Markus: romance hadn’t died either and it was very much alive in this moment, a certain electricity between the two young people. Markus looked back over at Dana and whispered,

“Hope.”

***

Prompt: See title.

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