“Meanwhile, fire raged. Flames rose high from the ground to the sky, stretching for miles along the California coastline. They were ruthless and unceasing, tearing through forests, farmland, and cities without mercy.”
The day was bright with sun streaming down onto everything, making it glow. The sky was a rich, rich blue, cloudless and immaculate. The sky matched the town, for the town, too, was immaculate – neat rows of swaying palm trees, sparkling sidewalks, and glittering, golden buildings stretching a hundred feet into the air. The town and sky had a companion in its perfection – the people of the town: their smile, light speech, and laughter were as impeccable as the rest. Never a frown was exchanged in this town, and for this reason the town had its name. This town was Paradise Row.
Evelyn Caberton was one and the same, her smile lighting up her face often, her steps quick and delicate. She never spoke a harsh word, she laughed brightly and frequently, and she was easy to talk to.
Eli Sullivan was exquisite, too, his straw-colored curls bouncing merrily, his blue eyes piercing, his walk easy and loping. He burst out with great guffaws perhaps even more than he grinned, and he seemed to grin more often than he breathed.
There were boundless, if subtle, similarities between the two, yet only one thing linked their families: money. Evidence of their wealth was everywhere: in Lavinia Caberton’s sparkling jewelry case that she opened it intermittently to peer at her reflection, touch up, and stroke her silky hair; in Henry Sullivan’s wallet, thick with crisp $100 bills. Each and every citizen of Paradise Row were connected by their innumerable riches, the money bringing forth the sparkling sidewalks, sweeping palm trees, and golden towers.
Evelyn Caberton only intended to buy a sundae and hurry home to her front porch that day: school was out and there was nothing to do but enjoy herself. So why not?
Eli was less relaxed and slightly annoyed. Books, books, that was all Father talked about these days. If he had to read, why did he have to go to Elizabeth’s Fine Books, the most snobby bookstore in Paradise Row or maybe all of Western California? Oh, who cared about history? I mean, it’s, like, history. Nevertheless, he had grabbed the first book within arm’s reach and turned to find Evelyn.
. . .
Meanwhile, fire raged. Flames rose high from the ground to the sky, stretching for miles along the California coastline. They were ruthless and unceasing, tearing through forests, farmland, and cities without mercy.
A hundred miles east, starving masses were rampaging through farmlands, stealing and pillaging, leaving the farmers with nothing and the thieves with only a little more than that.
Another hundred miles, and mothers and fathers worked far into the night, toiling for hours, finally returning home with worn faces and hands cracked from dust and heat, carrying just barely enough to keep their little children alive.
All the way on the East Coast, the government was riddled with corruption, more and more laws written that would benefit no one but the already most privileged. As the country fell deeper into debt, a hundred more laws were passed in haste to try to prevent an all-out catastrophe, but they did nothing but pull it deeper into calamity.
. . .
“Hey Evie!” Eli panted, rushing up under the railing of Evelyn’s front porch.“You’ve gotta, gotta see this.”
Evelyn grinned, expecting an ice cream or something even better, like the key to her mother’s private collection of books, which she probably kept because she didn’t want Evelyn to read them, but who cared? They looked amazing and had intriguing titles; if she wanted to read them, why shouldn’t she? “Of what sort, Eli?” She brushed her hair out of her face and sighed gently, standing up and beginning to walk.
“I was gonna take you skating in the first place, but my sister got sick, so…”
“Can’t we still go. Eli. I’m sure she’ll be fine.”
“This’s better, promise. C’mon.”
“Let us just go to the bookstore, Eli. Or perhaps we ought to go flying.” She adapted a heavy drawl. “Yep, let’s, Eli. Take an airplane up a couple miles and jump off. Surely the clouds will catch us.” There were no clouds in the sky.
Eli looked at her with admiration. She was so smart. She’d take books over movies any day, and she was so witty, always knew how to make him laugh. “Anyway…” he gave a random grin that lit up his face like the sun. “Here, come on.” He grabbed Evelyn’s hand, his face somehow changing to become much less lighthearted, guiding her to the nearest building, which stood a hundred feet tall, made of shining marble and plated with gold. Eli frowned uncharastically.
She brushed her hair away again and gave the same long sigh. “What are you doing?”
“Roof,” Eli said simply. And with that, he tugged on Evelyn’s hand, pulled her through the door, into the shining, golden lobby, all the way to the other side, where the elevator glimmered in its glory.
Evelyn shook her head frantically. “What? Eli, I can’t, Eli!”
“Can too, Everfine Evie-lyne,” he chuckled at the old nickname, “Get ya’ self up there.”
Uneasily, Evelyn pressed the button, stepped into the elevator, and just barely nudged the panel marked R for Roof. As the elevator glided smoothly upward, she gripped the golden handrail until her knuckles were white. If her mother found out… “Eli, think of Ms. Lavinia. I can’t do this.”
“Your mother would just ‘darling’ you a bunch, fix her makeup, and hurry you along. Come on, Evie, she won’t disown you or anything. We’re not leaving Paradise Row or anything crazy like that.” He let out a chuckle, and then resumed his worried frown.
Still a little sick, she nodded. The elevator came to a smooth stop and the doors flew open. They were on the roof.
Only 10 stories, it was true, but the height was still breathtaking. On 3 sides, a great metropolis of green and gold stretched out beneath them, trees, parks, shining buildings, the sun casting a fine glow upon everything.
Yet the fourth side–
“Eli, there’s a fire! Eli, it’s blazing. It can’t be more than a few miles away. Oh –” she swept her hair out of her face and began to pace. “… Are we safe, Eli, are we safe?”
Eli wheeled around to face her, his eyes stormy, gesturing to the blazing inferno. “Quiet, Evelyn. It doesn’t matter.
“People are dying out there, the fire’s killed over two hundred already. All people like us, you know, people who have family and friends and a life worth living. But that fire took it all away. Why does it matter if we’re safe?”
“What do you mean it doesn’t matter? It’s going to travel here, Eli. Sweep through the city and burn me to ashes. We’ve got to get out of here, Eli!”
“No. No, maybe you’re right, but… that’s not why I showed this to ya’, Evie. I showed it to ya’ because I want you to realize something – what a bubble we’re living in.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We’ve always had everything we needed. Look out there. They got nothing. Doesn’t it feel wrong, somehow?”
“Maybe… yes. But the question is, why? Why does it matter that we have everything…” she stopped. “Wow.”
“We’re all selfish creeps, all us here in Paradise Row. You’re not alone.”
Evelyn blanched. “Eli! All I meant was… Indeed, I feel that we have more than we’re entitled to, given we’ve done nothing. Nothing at all. Yet there isn’t a way to change that, Eli. I’m not prepared to be some sort of heroine and sacrifice all I have so a few people can get back home.”
The fire raged.
“Sit, Evie.” Evelyn sat nervously beside Eli, the marble roof hot underneath her hands. “Evie, I’ve learned so much, about everything that’s going on out there: The Western California wildfire was arson, ya’ know. You don’t know the beginning of it, it’s terrible. But that’s not the only thing, mostly, it’s just how twisted this entire system is, with no one helping anyone at all. No one’s ever given ya’ a hand, ya’ know? and no one ever considered really helping the outside. That’s what I mean when I say we’re all selfish creeps. Paradise Row doesn’t work like that. But I promise… just a simple act of selflessness, it feels like heaven. It creates somethin’. It makes somethin’ whole. Just that simple act.”
They sat in silence for a while.
“Yes. You’re right. But think about it, Eli… of course I want to help the people out there. But I can’t! Just think of Mother’s reaction.” Evelyn almost practically heard her mother’s voice and could see her caressing her long, silky hair. “Honey, what a sweet idea. I’ll see if I can spare a twenty for Doctors Without Borders or something of that sort. Would you like a new dress, darling?” The idea made her cringe.
“There’s nothing, huh?”
“Nothing.” Evelyn closed her eyes tight and tried to stop the dreadful idea from taking root. I don’t want to, anyway, she told herself. I want to keep Paradise, and my ice cream sundaes. I want to keep my family. It may be horribly selfish but I can’t let it all go.
Resigned, Eli stood up and walked slowly back into the elevator without a single grin.
. . .
Evelyn walked slowly home, but she couldn’t stop thinking about the catalyst she had seen on the roof. How blind she had been, all her life! Living like this, while people were dying mere miles from her home! But she was certain there was nothing she could do. She lay down on her front porch, sighed, and brushed away her hair. If only, if only. She did want to help those people, truly she did, but there was only one way to do it, and it meant leaving everything behind. She felt rotten for not doing the heroic thing. But time after time it nagged her… what she’d leave behind if she rushed to help the people in the fire, and what it meant for the rest of the world. She closed her eyes and gave a long, long sigh.
And then she heard the scream. High and piercing, it sliced through the sky like a knife, stabbing straight into Evelyn’s chest and making her gasp with pain. No one else seemed to hear it. Yet she knew it was a child, crying out from the fire.
And for some reason, she thought of Eli, and her scream, and her fire.
She knew he would be there, and indeed he was, atop the roof. He was pacing back and forth, but he turned around as she walked and ran to her. She shook her head.
“People are dying. People are dying. I can’t…” That could have been you, she thought, but couldn’t bring herself to say it out loud. “We have to leave.”
The implications of her proposal began to settle.
“Yeah,” Eli finally said. “Yeah, we gotta be part of the fight. I can’t, like, bear stay here and watch the world sink into ruin.”
Suddenly Evelyn’s own proposal seemed altogether too real. “So that means goodbye? To everything? To our childhood, to our life?”
“Any other suggestions?” Eli said sarcastically.
“No. I just… I wish I could keep this perfect, you know? But hearing that scream, I realized it’s not just a bunch of meaningless lives at stake here. Universes are at stake. Every time someone is born, a whole new universe is created, because everyone’s life is unique, you know? I have my own universe, and I’m right at the center, and you have yours, and they’re all equally important. And that’s not the only thing. I don’t want to end up like my mother, only caring about food and makeup and romance novels. I want to do something, I want to be something.”
Eli stared wonderingly at Evelyn. “Well phrased.”
“I’ll meet you tomorrow. Same place, same time?” Eli nodded. It was decided.
So much was not spoken, but so much more was felt, a thousand feelings whirling around in both of their heads. There were lamentations of a childhood gone, of luxuries resigned. Yet there were deeper feelings, too, of sacrifice and self-worth. They knew they were doing something noble, and it warmed their hearts, because in Paradise Row, these acts were seldom. This act would not benefit them, but it would benefit a thousand different universes. They were doing the stuff of heroes.
. . .
At home that night, Evelyn thought about her decision. It was hasty. It was only briefly discussed. So why did it feel so right, and why did it feel so wrong?
She looked around at her room, the plush, golden rug, the chandelier, the canopy bed. She looked at all the riches. Then she looked beyond the riches and just gazed at the effort and the love that went into making this room so beautiful. Her father (he was almost always away for business) had spent hours here, fixing up the window seat, painting the bookshelves.
In this room, she and her father had read fairy tales and long novels, talked about school, and just killed time, sitting comfortably in the armchairs. Here, she and Eli had played pretend and eaten their first taste of ice cream. She and Willow, her best friend, had giggled here, talking about crushes and books and everything else you could imagine. There was never a worry, never a frown, just content and safety in this room that she would find nowhere else. No worry about paying the bills. No arguments over a too-expensive smartphone. Just peace.
It’s perfect, she thought, and something heavy settled in her chest, some strange, twisted monster. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to pop the bubble. I want to stay forever.
She couldn’t, she couldn’t. She’d go to Eli and explain. Perhaps he’d understand. Perhaps he was feeling the same way.
She snuck out the window of her room, creeping silently, barefoot, across the dewy lawn. The moon shone brightly, casting an eerie glow. In a minute she was on the roof again.
“Hey, Evie. Ready?”
She took a deep breath. “No. Eli. I can’t.”
He stood still as a stone, unblinking, unmoving.
“I don’t want to leave this place. I don’t want to be the heroine. I don’t want to sacrifice everything, Eli, I don’t, I can’t, and I won’t.”
“Evelyn.” It was the first time he had ever used her full name. “You’ll never know just how much I get ya’.”
Relief flooded through her, coursing through her veins and settling in her stomach. “Thank you, Eli.”
“But there is still one more thing you don’t get.”
Tension arose in her again. “What is it?”
“Come here.” He beckoned. “When my dad dropped me at Elizabeth’s, I just grabbed the first book within arm’s reach, but I guess it was fate, because I happened to pick up this book, A Titanic Struggle by Nicholas Greenfield. The title’s really cool, because it means two things – titanic is like big and strong and powerful, but the S.S. Titanic was this supposedly unsinkable ship that sunk. So it means, like, a heroic struggle on a very sinkable ship.
“Here’s the story. The Titanic, it ran into an iceberg around three in the morning in the middle of April, 1912. More than half the people on the ship died, ‘cause there weren’t enough lifeboats. But it took maybe three hours for the ship to sink all the way, and the engineers were some of the first to know. Well, if they had been sane, they would have immediately jumped into a lifeboat with enough food and stuff for days. They didn’t, though. They got workin’ trying to fix that boat, delaying its fall. Of course it was all for nothing – in vain, and they knew it, because there was no stopping a ship with a huge hole in its stern. And they kept working even as the bow rose up into the air. Every single one of them died, but there’s no tellin’ how many lives they saved, delaying the boat from sinking.
“Do you understand now?”
His words were simple, but she understood. Something hot and powerful coursed through her, making her stand up taller, the idea of such goodness and sacrifice. It propelled her, it warmed her, it filled her with an unreachable desire to do something. “Yes.”
“So, let’s go!”
“No.” Her words were a whisper, barely heard even in the silent night.
“Evelyn!” Eli yelled exasperatedly. “What is it now? Can you shut up being such a selfish freak?”
“Eli,” she said softly, “I love this place. I love not having a worry in the world. I love having too much money to know what to do with. I love the fact that nobody ever frowns. I love that no one ever worries about paying the bills. The thing is, Eli, this world would be perfect, as perfect as a diamond ring, if the rest of the world didn’t exist.”
“There. Hit the nail on the head. But it does exi–”
“And I want to help it, Eli. With all my heart, but if I do, then I feel…” she trailed off.
“I feel as if this is the closest to perfect the world will ever get. I feel if I leave, it’ll pop the bubble that has made us whole, and there will be nothing, nothing, quite perfect left for the world to have. I just cherish the idea that there is still something perfect. But if I leave, there won’t be… not one thing.”
“Oh, Evie,” Eli whispered. “But you’re wrong. There will still be something perfect for the world to have, forever and ever and ever.”
“What is it?” she breathed, and Eli looked at her and smiled.
“I think I know something perfect too,” she said finally, smiling back. And again, Evelyn felt that warm, powerful thing pass through her, that she now knew was belonging, and sacrifice, and love. And she knew, all of a sudden, that no amount of money could create a perfect world. There was something infinitely more powerful and pure, and that was the knowledge that someone cared.
“Are you ready?” Eli said again, his voice swelling with hope, his face lighting up with a brilliant smile.
“I’m ready,” she responded, tossing her hair away one last time and giving a sigh that burst with promise. And they walked, hand in hand, down the stairs and onto the lawn and through the streets and out of a not-so-perfect world.
We never will know what became of them, because, we must admit, they were only children. But they were children with something untouchable, unfeelable, and that was the knowledge of their sacrifice. They had power, and they had strength, and they had faith, and as all of you know, that is all it takes to change the world.
However, perhaps we can infer….