“Mishla,” our grandmother Yaya told Mother even before my brother and I were born, “the baby you carry is special, like my uncle Niko, the great general who fought so hard in the third war. You must name your baby after him.”
Mother had just learned Father had been killed in the fifth war, despite fighting so hard, and although she would’ve preferred to name my brother after him, she was too heartbroken to argue with Yaya.
Growing up, Niko didn’t do anything special. He played with the other children in the caverns into which we’d moved to shield us from the airstrikes. He matched their outlandish stories about their dead fathers’ exploits with ones about our own father, trumping them by including the adventures of his namesake, even though no one had heard of him.
One day, when we were about eight and Niko was running screaming with the others playing king of the hill, he pulled out the boldest story of all: “I have grass growing under my bed.”
Szymon paused from shoving him off our dirt pile hill. “No one has grass growing anywhere.”
We’d read about grass and about other plants, and once we’d even toured the hydroponics labs the soldiers maintained. But no one actually had plants of their own. How would they grow in the caverns, without sunlight?
Niko was adamant. “It’s not much, just a few leaves. But it’s there.”
“Prove it,” said Szymon.
Niko shrugged. “Okay.”
Then Hinda pushed him down and he pushed her back, becoming king of the hill, and we didn’t mention the grass again.
I’d forgotten about it by morning, like I forgot about most of what he said, until at breakfast Yaya asked, “Where’s Niko?”
“He’s by the lake,” I answered, without hesitation.
“What lake?” Yaya’s eyes narrowed, probably suspecting this was another of Niko’s tricks he’d convinced me to go along with.
“The one at our old plantation.”
She grabbed my arm, her eyes wide in disbelief. “Tevi, has Niko gone Outside?”
“Yes.” I closed my eyes, honing in on where my brother was. “He wanted to find some grass to show Szymon.”
Mother moaned from the corner. That’s all she ever really did, since Father died.
“When did he leave?” Yaya’s grip pinched my arm.
“I don’t know.”
“Tevi, stay here with your mother. I’ll find him.”
“I know where he is, Yaya.”
“What did he tell you?”
“He didn’t tell me anything. I always know where he is. I know where everyone is.”
Yaya studied me, seeing me maybe for the first time as a person and not just as Niko’s twin sister, as the quiet one, the not-special one. It left me uncomfortable but proud, the way she looked at me.
“Stay close to me, Tevi,” she said as we made our way past the living quarters to the tunnels leading to the barracks, to other communities similar to our own, to Outside.
“Maybe you should stay close to me instead, Yaya. I’m the one who knows where Niko is.”
She humphed but let me take the lead.
The path grew rough and uneven, sometimes partially blocked by small boulders. A couple times we paused, flashlights off, when I sensed someone nearby. My grandmother hadn’t needed to warn me of the gravity of what Niko had done, or the trouble we’d face if caught in this part of the caverns. No one went Outside.
Finally, late morning the tunnels changed. A breeze brought fresh air across my face and gray light illuminated the tunnel walls.
Yaya held me back as we approached the opening to Outside.
“There’s no one out there,” I tried to explain, “no one but Niko.”
“There’s more to Outside than people.” She stuck her face next to the small crevice leading out.
I pushed her aside, eager to see what Niko had led us to, and surprisingly she yielded to me. I stuck my face where hers had been, looked out onto our former home, and was met by nothing. Yellowed rocks dotted a landscape that could’ve been Mars or the moon, covered by a dusting of yellowed ash falling from a yellowed sky. An old house with broken windows and a large hole in the roof watched us from beside a large, ash-filled hollow that could’ve been a lake once, or maybe just a bomb crater.
No blues, no greens, no animals, and no grass, just Niko sitting on a rock.
He stood and walked over to the crevice, even though neither Yaya nor I had said anything to him, climbed into the tunnel, and wordlessly strode down the path.
The walk back was quiet. Yaya didn’t scold him like I’d expected, didn’t say much, really. We stopped at one point to eat the protein bars we ate at every meal and to drink stale water from our canteens, but the water didn’t taste as stale as it normally did, maybe because I’d seen what it could’ve tasted like, if we’d still been Outside.
That night, after Yaya had taken us back to our rooms in the caverns we now called home, when Niko and I were supposed to be asleep, he leaned down from his bunk. “Tevi, are you awake?”
“I didn’t tell you where I was going. How did you find me?”
I shrugged, although he couldn’t have seen it in the dark. “I know where people are.”
“That makes no sense.”
“Maybe I’m the special one Yaya always talks about, not you.”
“Don’t be stupid.” He pulled back up to his bed, soon filling the air with snores.
The next day, as he climbed our hill to be king, whispers spread he’d been Outside, and no one dared ask about the grass under his bed. He spent the morning grinning from the top of the hill, our triumphant general. But as days passed the novelty wore off. Szymon led the mutiny, with mutterings about imaginary grass, and our general’s grin turned to a scowl.
“Tevi,” he asked me after bedtime a week later, “what did you mean when you said you know where people are?”
“I meant, I just know.” I’d never really thought about it. “I knew you were Outside. I knew there were soldiers patrolling the tunnels.”
He rolled his eyes. “There are always soldiers patrolling the tunnels.”
“Yeah, but I knew where exactly they were.”
He humphed like Yaya and went to sleep.
The next day, as we headed from our hill to our rooms for lunch, he pulled me aside. “Where’s Yaya right now?”
I scrunched up my face in concentration. “She’s at Hinda’s place, talking to her grandmother.”
“And where’s Mother?”
Niko practically buzzed with excitement. “And the soldiers, where are they?”
“They’re — ” I closed my eyes. “Most of them are massed in the tunnels leading to Outside. I think another war is starting.”
“Perfect.” He grabbed my hand, leading me away from our rooms. “Let me know when anyone is nearby.”
I frowned but followed him, dutifully notifying him whenever soldiers approached so that we could duck into nooks and behind crates of munitions and protein bars. After what seemed like hours but was probably closer to twenty minutes, we stood outside the door to a hydroponics lab.
“Is there anyone inside?” my brother asked.
“No, but — ”
He opened the door and slipped inside before I could warn him, before the caverns shook, dropping stones and dust onto our heads.
I waited until the air cleared, then mentally searched for Niko. I sensed him under a lab table, entombed by rock but still alive.
As I ran back to Hinda’s family’s rooms, the caverns were littered with dazed people, bloodied people, dead people, although those last ones I could only see physically. A shaken but unharmed Yaya hugged me close as I told her about Niko.
“If you say Niko is alive, Tevi, then Niko is alive.” Again she studied me like she had so many years before, realizing maybe I’d been the special one all along. “We will dig him out.”
Yaya followed me along the path. We passed soldiers but didn’t bother to hide this time; they were too busy trying to save the dazed and the injured, too busy trying to mount a counterattack, to notice us.
We dug for hours, a scrawny little girl and her old, fat grandmother. Finally we made enough of a hole for me to squeeze in next to Niko.
Blood clotted by dust oozed from dozens of cuts and bone protruded from his leg, but he grinned at me nonetheless. “The sky fell on me, but I survived. Looks like maybe I’m special, after all.”
I shrugged, relieved beyond expression he wasn’t dead but not wanting to feed his ego. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
He held out his hand to display his treasure: seven blades of grass.
Outside our tomb, the caverns shook until I could no longer tell I was special.
E.D. Martin is a writer with a knack for finding new jobs in new places. Born and raised in Illinois, her past incarnations have included bookstore barista in Indiana, college student in southern France, statistician in North Carolina, economic development analyst in North Dakota, and high school teacher in Iowa. She draws on her experiences to tell the stories of those around her, with a generous heaping of “what if” thrown in.
She currently lives in Illinois where she job hops while attending grad school and working on her novels. Read more of her stories at her website.
“Special” will be included in her upcoming short story collection, After All.