‘But, where is she?’
‘We’ve been over this, Marta. Now, we’ve been at this for-‘
‘No, you told us where she was. Where is she now?’
Mrs. Kaffa looks tired. No-one has come by to relieve her, and she hasn’t slept in what feels like weeks. She puts on a brave face, kneels once more, and speaks to the little one.
‘That’s the story. It’s all I have. I was but a wee bairn like yourself when it happened, anyway.’
‘Then there must be more!’ The child leaps to his face, big eyes shining. ‘That was ages ago! There must be more of the story now, people don’t just stop existing!’
She looks down at the young boy. He’s excitable, and prone to carry on, but she does love him. She loves all of them. She expects she’ll miss them one day.
‘Kemmel, get away from the edge! The clocktower will be by any minute, I’ll not lose you to old Ben.’ She sighs, and waits for the boy to retreat from the edge, ‘Anyway, isn’t ceasing to exist all anyone does now?’
‘But that doesn’t work! Mr. Doughty told us the same thing, and he was wrong too!’
‘How so?’ She asks, sighing internally at the memory of her predecessor, the frail old once-mayor.
Right on time, a giant spire pierced the blank space behind her class. Everyone stops talking and rushes to the yellow line, the closest they are allowed to get when detritus drifts by.
Mrs. Kaffa watches silently from the back, glancing more at the children than the old building, fractured in half and drifting aimlessly, from the great arches on the left to the oddly angled hills on the right, and on into the distance. She finds the hills far more interesting, personally; they float so perfectly upside down, green grass pushed by a wind that hasn’t noticed its own passing. The clocktower drifts away from sight, and the children return to their spaces on the scorched floor.
‘There, that’s it, Miss!’ Kemmel finally exclaims as he sits.
‘What is, love?’ Mrs. Kaffa doesn’t really mind the distraction from her regular class. She ran out of material a long time ago, but she can’t simply abandon her charges. She welcomes the change of discussion.
‘Ben; the clocktower!’ The young boy begins, excited eyes blazing with youthful experience, ‘Ben passes by, he always passes by! The story ends with The Wanderess falling, right? She disappears from view, and that’s the last word! It’s always the last word! But look at Ben, Ben’s been falling for so long, but he never fails to come back!’
‘I wouldn’t say the clocktower is falling, Kemmel, as much as it is drifting. Horizontally, if you hadn’t noticed.’ She smiles; Kemmel always has bright ideas. She’s sure he’ll be important, one day.
‘No, no, no! You tell this part really well, what happened when the Wanderess tried to jump onto the clocktower?’
‘Ok, but only once more, hear me? How many times have I told this story…ok. She was running, running so fast. Ben barely passes within view of the reverse hills, but oh, oh how she jumped. She leapt so far, and winds took her in their flow and carried her, her cape flowing like water behind her. But then she struck the clocktower, and…’ Mrs. Kaffa pauses, her eyes gazing into a very old memory, ‘she fell. Not down, not at first, she fell with the clocktower, for a while. But Ben was going so much faster, even at its slow drift. Her eyes were barely shocked, when it outpaced her. The moment Ben had floated far enough away, she fell, properly this time. She fell until she was a tiny dot in the distance. She kept falling. That still is, and will always be, the end of the story, Kemmel.’
The children are all silent, staring at the place Ben was mere moments before. All the children, except Kemmel.
‘See, you even said it. Ben is falling! It’s falling real slow and a little bit sideways, but it’s falling – just like the Wanderess. So, if Ben can keep falling all the time and still pass us by, why can’t the Wanderess?’
She’s still lost in the memory of the Wanderess. The girl, all in red and black, fleeing to find people long gone. What she must have seen, before she fell… The sparkling hills, the aeroplane, frozen in place but still flying, she wonders what the other side of the crater looks like, what it looked like to the girl who ran away.
‘I think the clocktower is from…a different time, dear.’
‘So? That’s not how stories work, it just isn’t! The hero doesn’t get all that way, just to fall. She comes back, just when it seems like all hope is lost! She’s due back already!’
Mrs. Kaffa sighs a deep, tired sigh. The boy is never going to give up on this, she knows that. He’s always loved the old stories. How long has it been since she saw the Wanderess? Has it been years, decades, centuries? She’s not sure she even remembers the feeling of time passing anymore. She’s not sure it is passing, anymore.
‘Class, this is a lesson you could all do with remembering.’ She begins, ‘Life, physics, reality…these things have their own rules the storybooks don’t really have to pay attention to.’
‘They did, once.’
She’s about the tell Kemmel to be quiet, but it isn’t him this time. A little girl at the back, Alesha. A quiet one, Mrs. Kaffa is surprised to hear her voice at all. The girl continues her point:
‘Mrs. Kaffa, you’re so nice to us. You keep us safe here. But be honest, please – do any of those things even exist, anymore?’
‘What things?’ She asks, already knowing the answer.
‘Physics, reality,’ The girl pauses, ‘Life?’
Mrs. Kaffa pauses. She thinks she knew, a long time ago. She thinks she had a good answer prepared should any of her charges ask such a question. She thinks.
‘I don’t know, love. Maybe that’s enough for now class. Do what you will for a while, just stay within the evacuation zone.’
Most of the children quickly dart off, playing amongst themselves, but a few stay behind, Kemmel and Alesha among them. Kemmel speaks up first.
‘Mrs. Kaffa, why do we have to stay within the yellow lines?’
‘Because that’s the evacuation zone limits. Everyone has to stay here, you know that.’
How long has she been caring for this boy? She’s quite certain he’s been a child for at least a century now. She ponders that one frequently – do they remain children through choice, or because they knew no other way?
‘Sure, the safety drill. But if we’re in an evacuation zone, does that mean someone is going to evacuate us?’
‘No, love. I’m quite certain we’re the only ones left, by now. We’re the lucky ones, remember.’
‘Then what does it matter? You always say you’re protecting us because we’re the future, but we’ve been at this for so long. What if there is no future anymore? Why can’t I do as the Wanderess did, just wander off?’
‘Because…’ She stops. She doesn’t know. She’s been avoiding this question forever.
‘Because you think there could be others. That people could swoop in and save us still.’
Mrs. Kaffa stays silent.
‘But you know all that. You’ve taught me everything Mrs. Kaffa; I’m only repeating what you’ve been teaching us for so long. But, in that case, don’t you think there’s a chance, just a chance that she’s still alive? That she could come back?’
The group stares out over the horizon; the reversed grassy banks, the fractured hills with the river that flows upward, the remains of a once-library.
‘Maybe, love. Maybe.’