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February Writing Challenge – The Map

March 1, 2022

Prompt: The father handed each child a roadmap at the beginning of the 2-day road trip and explained it was so they could find their way home. **Suggested this one to Matt D over at Writing With Cancer for his yearly challenge. Check out what he came up with for this prompt a couple weeks ago here!

My brother Nathan and I trudged along the dusty road, coughing repeatedly from the haze, and wiping ash off our upper lips as it beaded in our sweat. We could see the bubble of Tikanin in the distance, full of clear skies, and skyscrapers jutting toward the maxima. From faraway it resembled a marble or a snow globe without the snow. The atmosaics inside had programmed 75 degrees F and sunny skies from now until eternity. 

It seemed quite nice until the taste of char reminded me the people inside didn’t want us. Well, they didn’t want one of us, but they’d been too coward to decide which one. So here we were, two days outside Tikanin, in the wastes. Whoever survived could go home.

I passed my brother our only canteen. He sipped slowly, with his eyes closed.

“It’s going to be me,” he said. “Just promise me you’ll bury me somewhere nice, with a good view of the bubble. That way I can haunt them for all eternity in their pretentious crystal ball.” His lips quirked up on one side as he turned to me, ever the morbid joker.

I studied him. His tight brown curls were muted with ash, but his green eyes were still bright and held a glint of mischief. He was only a year younger, but already a head taller than me. The fabric of his shirt stuck to the skin across his chest, making it look broader than it had two days ago when he’d first pulled it over his head in our living room.

I’d never let him die. He’d never let me die. 

“We’ll find a way,” I said tightly as I turned away from him.

His arm shot out and grabbed my bicep, swinging me back toward him. “Mel, you know I’m right.” He held me tightly, but I couldn’t meet his eyes. “One of us doesn’t come back from this.”

I wrenched my arm free, stalked three feet away, and then whirled on him. “No,” I shouted as loudly as I could. Maybe more volume would make it true. “Both of us survive or neither of us do. There aren’t any other options.” I could feel tears on my cheeks but I didn’t swipe at them. “There has to be some other way, we just haven’t thought of it yet.”

Nathan sighed and ran a hand through his hair. It came away smeared dark with ash. “I can’t believe Dad would just go along with this. He writes opposition pieces against the Chronicles for God’s sake, and goes to protests every weekend. I just don’t understand.”

“That’s why they came for us Nathan.” I threw my hands up. “They wanted to make an example of Dad. Cracking down on the Procreation laws were the only legal way they had to do it after Mom had the twins. Dad had to do whatever they said or they would have killed all of us, including Nola and Pierce.”

I was pacing now, frustrated by having to explain this a third time to Nathan. But something he said nagged at me. Nathan was right, Dad wouldn’t just go along with this. It was in his blood to fight for what he believed in. There was something we were missing. 

I went through everything Dad told us as we traveled outside the bubble in our pod, everything he’d given us, the emphasis he’d placed on words, physical contact with us. There was only one thing I kept coming back to.

“Nathan, give me your map,” I demanded. He crinkled his eyes in confusion. “The map Dad gave you before he left.”

“Oh, right. I forgot he gave us those.” Nathan rummaged through his pack until he pulled out a folded sheet of paper about the size of a celly. “It didn’t make any sense so I stuffed it at the very bottom. We could still see the bubble. Why would we need a map?”

“Exactly,” I replied as I grabbed his map. I’d retrieved mine while he’d been rummaging, and now I spread the maps out in the dirt at my feet and we both crouched over them.

They looked exactly the same. I could see the bubble with roads leading out like spokes on a wheel. Nathan pointed out the dried up riverbed to the north and I pointed out the granite mine to the south of Tikanin. Our fingers left smears of dirt and grime. 

“They look the same,” Nathan said and stood up.

“I thought for sure there would be something,” I mumbled my disappointment toward the ground.

“Come on, let’s find some shelter for the night and get a fire started. Maybe it’ll scare away the rabid dogs.” Nathan was nothing if not practical.

At sunset we sat against an oak tree that’d been hit by lightening and lit a fire. With the drought, it had been easy to find dry wood to burn. There were already enough fires raging on the horizon, so we cocooned ours within a ring of rocks. We sweated through our clothes in no time, but I didn’t mind as much when the dogs started howling.

To distract myself from the clamor, I studied my copy of the map. It was hand drawn, like most maps of the wastes, and had a legend in the lower righthand corner outlined by hatch marks. There were little blue waves for water, green squiggles for trees, straight black lines for roads, and then there was the little house symbol for home. The little blue waves were unsurprisingly sparse across the paper and the black lines were surrounded by green squiggles, designed that way to block the view of desolate red clay and dead brush for the few who ventured outside the bubble. I searched ten minutes for the little house symbol, but it wasn’t where it should have been safe inside Tikanin. It wasn’t anywhere.

“Nathan, can I see your map again?” I asked.

He fished it out of his pack and handed it over. I unfolded it on top of mine to look at it. The house symbol was on his map’s legend, but I couldn’t find the house on Nathan’s map either. As I maneuvered the maps near the fire, the two pages aligned and I saw a small little house shape back-lit by flames. I sucked in a sharp breath.

“Did you find something?” Nathan asked.

I nodded slowly, not taking my eyes off the maps. “Here hold this side, but don’t let them slide out of position,” I told Nathan when he came to sit by me. 

I pointed out the features that appeared: A house next to a small lake, and what looked like a dirt road, all of them to the northwest of the bubble. With the maps aligned, the hatch marks surrounding the legend now formed words. I turned my head to the different orientations and read the words out loud for Nathan. 

“Trust me. Find the house.”

We were both silent for a minute. “I knew he wouldn’t let them win!” Nathan exclaimed as he pumped a fist in the air.

I was silent until Nathan hesitantly brushed my shoulder.

“Do we trust him Nathan?” I asked. Nathan opened his mouth, but no words came out, so I continued. “Do we know the maps came from Dad? What if it’s a trap Nathan? What if the Chroniclers made Dad give us those maps? What if this is just another way to make our family pay for Dad’s voice?”

Nathan took both maps from me and put them under my pack, safe from the fire. He took my hands in his. “Does it matter?” he said. “Do we have any other options? We go check this out and maybe our family is there. Or maybe they’re not, and it’s Chroniclers wanting to arrest us or kill us. But Mel, the other alternative is waiting for one of us to die right here.” He paused. “Wouldn’t you rather take the chance?”

“Always,” I whisper.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 1, 2022 10:43 pm

    I like it. Very nice use of the prompt. The use of the maps as a major plot point was genius.

    • mlwattsupp permalink*
      March 2, 2022 2:31 pm

      Thanks! I had fun writing it, although I was thinking about your dilemma about when to draw the prompt and when to sit down and write. I drew this one at the beginning of the month, spent the whole month with it lingering in the back of my mind, and then sat down to write only on the very last day of the month. I’m wondering if subject matter has something to do with it because I don’t always leave prompts to the last minute.

  2. March 1, 2022 10:43 pm

    Thanks for the shoutout also!

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