It took much less time to go down than it had to go up, mostly because Kel slipped and stumbled and without the traction of soles, the floor of the tunnel was quite slick. After a momentary panic at the gaining speed, Kel got their feet in front of them, slowing the slide with shoes stuttering against the odd surface of the tunnel floor.
There wasn’t enough time to think as Kel reacted to the twists and turns, trying to avoid tumbling. This wasn’t so slippery going up.
They managed to come to a stop at one of the more level sections, and sat there for a long moment, just breathing. Kel looked back up the tunnel, but the meandering path meant they couldn’t see very far. Mama, where are you?
A rumble in their stomach sent them further down the mountain, this time they deliberately sat down where the path got steeper, and pushed off, sliding down the rest of the way to Mama’s closet.
Mama was still nowhere to be found, but Kel was hungry and daunted and on the grounds that food might make things make more sense, they went into the kitchen to find sustenance.
Mama usually cooked, bringing together things they’d grown and eggs from the chickens and cultured protein from the meat vat into a variety of dishes. But with no Mama to tell the stove to cook, Kel had to make do with yogurt that Mama had made two days prior. A pile of fresh berries from the basket and a drizzle of precious honey made it decadent.
Kel frowned. Usually when they ate, Mama was there, listening to Kel talk, or explaining how things worked. I need you to explain this to me, Mama. Why is there a snake in my mountain? Why did the wall talk? What is Bot?
Kel was used to asking questions, and Mama was always happy to explain. Kel didn’t have anyone else to ask, but Mama had never minded. It had never occurred to Kel to wonder why there were just the two of them. In their whole life, Kel had heard their own voice and Mama’s, and no others but for the music Mama sometimes listened to at night. But no one had talked to Kel before, and now Bot had, and a wall. The wall that had answered Kel’s question.
Kel glanced up the stairs. The pull of the tunnel was strong, but knowing how far it was, Kel thought perhaps it would be better to go prepared this time.
They put the bowl and spoon in the dish cleaner and went to the cupboard to pull out what Mama called “play food,” though it was not a toy. This is what Mama would pack for Kel to take into the forest—not quite sweet enough to be a cookie, but filling enough to keep them from getting too hungry if they ended up out past mealtime.
They put four bars into a cloth, considered, and then added two more, and folded the fabric up around the food, knotting it to keep the bundle from falling apart. Mama would have just told the cloth to stay, but Kel couldn’t do that yet.
Water was easier; Kel plucked four clear bags of it from the wall, each the size of Kel’s fist, still connected to each other at the top, and set two behind their shoulder and two in front.
Then it was up to the bedroom, to pack food and water into the backpack, with a sleep bag, just in case, and a notepad. Kel stared at the pack and then threw in an extra pair of leggings and a tunic. The day had been warm and the tunnel had been warm, but nights were cold. Kel had no idea if the room at the top of the tunnel would be warm at night, but with no Mama to give them answers, staying in the still and silent house felt scarier than climbing a mountain to talk to a wall.
Kel picked up their little metal flute at the last, opened a window, and played a short, low calling tune. It was late enough. A moment later, a little glowing pixie buzzed in through the open window.
“If I’d known, I’d have brought you earlier,” Kel said. They offered a crumb of play food to the pixie, and it glowed a little brighter.
“Thank you,” Kel said. “You should make it easier. You can ride if you like.”
The pixie fluttered up to the top of Kel’s head, grabbed onto a short, tightly curled lock of hair, and settled as Kel dropped the flute into the backpack and shouldered it.
Chapter flower photo by Craig P. Burrows