Springville was not always like this. From what she could gather, the metropolis was once bustling with liveliness. Cars of all colours would zoom past, the occasional blast of a horn dissolving in the air, along with sounds of laughter and chatter. Tessa had also heard of the greenery that once enveloped this town: of dewy grass blanketing the ground, of undulating hills and succulent fruit that hung from the trees. Making her way to the supermarket now with her mother, Tessa was reminded of the sombre reality. Chalky, grey sand covered the earth. Instead of roads and high-end buildings, there were shacks and decrepit houses. The market stalls around them resembled a cluster of sheds, with crinkled pages of paper stuck on the walls, serving as constant reminders of the regime.
In the middle of the town sat a complex of buildings. People said that from a bird’s eye view, these buildings would form the shape of a triangle. This is where the generals stayed, led by their ruler, Shoko Asahara. No-one else was allowed to enter.
Tessa now stepped into one of the homogenous grey market stalls with her mother when a distant gunshot blasted through the air, startling them both. As the realisation sunk in that this was of the norm, their fear dissipated as quickly as it had settled in.
“Good morning and welcome to Fresh Fruit and Vegetables,” the store owner, Mrs Peters, doled out, her eyes glued to a newspaper that read, ‘Victory against the rebel groups.’ A picture of Asahara, surrounded by his generals, dominated the front page.
Tessa’s mother started to pick out some vegetables when she spotted her friend from school.
“Hi Tessa!” Amelia cried, a smile growing on her face.
“Amelia!” Before Tessa could say anything else, her mother’s startling “shh” cut her off.
Amelia silently dragged her to the carrot section and whispered, “We’re having an outing tonight. Do you want to come?”
“I…” Yes. But Tessa thought of her mother. She’d never let her go. “Aren’t you worried?”
“They’ll shoot us if they see we’re breaking curfew.”
“We’ll leave before then.” Amelia insisted.
Tessa glanced at her mother who was carefully picking the perfect sized cabbage. “I’ll have to ask my mother.”
After grocery shopping, in which her mother only bought a piece of cabbage, a few apples and a loaf of bread from the small bakery next door, Tessa and her mother made their way home in uncharacteristic silence.
Gathering up the little courage she had, Tessa cleared her throat and spoke tentatively, “Mother, I have a favour to ask of you…”
Unable to meet her mother’s expectant gaze, Tessa kept her eyes on the basket she was holding while rearranging the apples inside them.
“Amelia and some friends are going out today. Can I…maybe…join them?”
Her mother suddenly stopped and looked at her. “Tessa, you shouldn’t even be asking that question. You know how dangerous it is out here without a parent or adult.”
Tessa quietly gulped. “I know, but…at school there are too many restrictions. We don’t even have a chance to spend time with friends. Every other time my friends arranged to meet, you wouldn’t let me go.”
“And that was for your own good.”
“Just this once, mother. Please let me go.” Tessa looked at her, eyes wide open in hope.
“I’m sorry, Tessa. There are merciless people out there who’d do harm to you for no reason at all. It’s too dangerous.”
“They might not even find us! And I’d come back before curfew!”
She shook her head and said firmly, “It’s not going to happen. Have you forgotten where we live? This is Springville.”
A momentary sigh of defeat escaped Tessa’s lips. Her mother’s objections would not stop her from imagining what it would be like to spend one night outside without adult supervision. She yearned to be revelling in the thrill of being alone, to watch the sunset and its marvellous hues smeared in the sky instead of seeing a distorted version through their grimy window, with cobwebs accumulating at the corners.
This was not the first time that her mother had rejected her propositions. Yet for some mysterious reason, Tessa felt even more powerless. Waves of chilling water crashed into her every time she realised this reverie would not come true.
That evening, Tessa traversed to the Caves by foot. The Caves was their hideout: a rocky, arched formation on the polluted beach to the west of town, overlooking the crumbling buildings ahead. She was angry at her mother’s constant disapproval, her constant attempts at hindering Tessa from experiencing the liberties. The sky was now a darkened pastel blue, impending nightfall. It was too late for Tessa to back out now. Somewhere within, she was glad for that.
Upon her arrival at the Caves, Tessa spotted Amelia and two other friends, Hannah and Joe, sitting beneath the rock structure. She waved and greeted them. Despite the pollution and greyness around them, the cave had its own special beauty and Tessa couldn’t pinpoint what it was, exactly, that spoke to her.
“I brought some drinks from the shop.” Amelia said while Tessa took a seat. Amelia’s mother owned a small grocery store with a whole section of sweets and confectionaries that Tessa’s mother couldn’t afford. “Here,” Amelia handed over a plastic bottle with yellow liquid in it.
The drink had a bubbly, citrus taste that surprised Tessa. She hadn’t tasted anything so subtly saccharine for a long time. With the death of her father, cabbage soup and bread had become the staple dish at home. Any hint of sweetness had been forgotten in Tessa’s life – until now.
“What’s that?” Joe asked suddenly, standing up. He moved towards the side of the cave where some fireflies huddled in groups against the cool basalt.
Tessa and Amelia stood up, poised over the fireflies. They were glowing in bright iridescence, covering the black rock wall in pearls of orange. Tessa reached a tentative hand out as if to touch them, or perhaps the area of rock illuminated by the bugs. Before she could make any contact, the fireflies flitted away, hovering before the rock surface.
Tessa exhaled a breath of awe while Amelia and Joe gaped with wide eyes. The fireflies resembled embers of a burning fire, crackling in the air. They skimmed up and down, all around, resembling a fountain of dancing stars. It was something Tessa had never seen, a sight so disparate from what she was usually accustomed to. Beauty, it seemed, was worth the risk after all.
The enchantment of that moment suddenly withered, as a static cacophony of noise pounded over the beach through the speakers of the lighthouse. Only glimpses of words could be heard: “curfew,” “shortened,” and “seven.” Tessa glanced at her watch. It was six-fifty and the journey home would take thirty minutes.
“There’s no way I can return in time,” she said, her brows knitted in apprehension.
“Come with me,” Amelia offered. “My home is the closest. If we run, we might make it.”
Had Tessa not felt as anxious as she did then, she would have been laughing at the thrill of the moment; of the wind blasting by as the three of them rushed on, of the imminent danger, escaping at the cusp of time. Instead, a creeping powerlessness seemed to overshadow her new found wisdom. No matter how fast they ran, time seemed to sprint faster than their legs could carry them. And Tessa was exhausted from running. Amelia’s house might have been the closest, but it was still too far.
She stopped momentarily to catch her breath when she felt her sweater bunch up and someone jerking her away from her friends. Tessa was roughly shoved towards a man, wearing those dark grey trousers she knew so well. A gun rested at his hip.
“Another kid outside of curfew,” he growled.
Looking up, Tessa saw other officers capturing Joe and Amelia. Her heart beat furiously now as she wondered if this was the way she would die. She closed her eyes then and thought of her mother, of those words she had uttered to her, so full of surety and concern.
It’s too dangerous.
But then she remembered the cascade of fireflies and the sheer beauty of those specks of gold.