“Gem,” Lars pleaded, “look at me.”
The girl had grown thin and frail over the past two years without a real sun. The synthetic paradise she had created the night after meeting the Giver had remained exactly how she’d designed it, and not a bird or fawn had aged. The sun that filtered through high above was nothing but a piece of art, and yet it provided the warmth and light Lars and Gem had needed to survive so long.
Lars set the bowl he had brought in front of the girl, who was hunched over on top of a large, flat stone, and then inched it closer. “I brought you some chowder. Your favorite, I promise. You need to eat.”
Gem looked up and her hair fell in front of her face. Behind it, dark-rimmed eyes stared blankly forward, as if all life had been drained away. She made no effort to clear her face, and recoiled abruptly when Lars did. He hung his head, and looked at the chowder.
“Gem,” he begged. “For me?”
Slowly, she stretched a skeletal hand forward and lifted a spoonful of chowder from the bowl. She examined it, as if deciding whether or not the effort of eating would be worth it, but finally decided to try it.
“It’s good, isn’t it?”
Gem knew it was supposed to be good, and so she agreed. She took another spoonful, and then another, continuing to blankly gaze forward.
“Water,” she croaked in between spoonfuls. “I’m thirsty.”
Lars nodded and jumped up, twirling around to fetch the water he’d boiled earlier. As he ran off, the girl lifted the bowl and poured its remnants out onto the ground behind her.
“It’s bland,” she mumbled to herself. “Did I make it?” She couldn’t remember. Although she had tried to create everything she thought they might need before inviting Lars to the paradise, some things were forgotten and had to be made later. It was her idea originally to start making things from nature, instead of from the chalk, but she knew it all came from the same place anyway.
She was torn whether to be proud of the things she made: on one hand, she had made them from scratch and felt natural pride in her accomplishments. On the other hand, she knew the Giver had given her the gift to create anything she wanted from a stick of chalk, and felt terrible knowing she wasted so much time on something she could have just drawn. And on top of everything else, she knew she shouldn’t stay holed up in her fantasies forever; she was gifted for a reason, and she wasn’t helping anyone hidden away here with her boyfriend.
The guilt had torn at her thoughts for longer than she could remember; as soon as the initial honeymoon feeling wore off, she began to feel remorse. But she kept it quiet from Lars, who absolutely loved the place. Every time she drew a meal or something new to watch frolic, he would get all giddy and beg to be there when she did it. But as time went on, Gem could feel her strength draining away with every new thing she drew. She watched helplessly as the piece of chalk grew smaller, now only a fraction of the length it had originally been. It was the only piece she had been given, and didn’t know when or where she could find another.
Lars returned quickly with a glass of water in each hand. Seeing the empty bowl, he smiled and said, “Thank you. You really needed to eat. Gem? What’s wrong?”
“I want to leave,” she said simply. “To go outside again.”
Gem looked around, confused. “But, Gem–“
“No, Lars. This isn’t outside; we’re still in my room, don’t you remember? I want to go outside again and feel the wind in my hair, and the sun on my neck, and see squirrels run away in fear to their trees when I walk by, and sit on the porch and just, you know, be somebody in the world.”
Lars was silent. He set the glasses down on the smooth rock and placed an arm around Gem, who had hung her head and gone completely silent. “But,” he said, “can’t you do all that here? I mean, we still have some chalk left.”
Gem lifted her head to reveal a dim face of anger. “You don’t understand, do you? Nothing in here is real, Lars! Yes, I could do it here, but it’s just the same thing, over and over and over and over! Where’s the fun in that? I want the real world, and I can’t make that in here!”
Parrots began to sing from the trees as Gem began to cry. She looked up at them–brilliantly colored green and yellow birds she had drawn when the trees had looked especially lonely one night–and screamed. When she had quieted, she looked back at Lars, who had also began to sulk.
He stood and looked down at his girlfriend, and asked, “Do you still know the way? To outside, I mean.”
“Lets go then. Lets go outside.”
A smile crept across Gem’s face as she stood and faced the waterfall that had roared so beautifully the night she had finished the masterpiece. She pointed, explaining, “There’s a door behind the waterfall that will lead back to my room. I was still experimenting with transparency when I drew it.”
Lars lead the way, stopping just feet away from the falling water that obscured the rest of the cliffside beside them. The water splashed and misted through the air, covering him in a thin film of dew. “Are you sure this is what you want to do?”
“Very,” Gem replied. She reached forward into the waterfall and pulled back, revealing a wooden door at the end of her soaking arm. “You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”
“I do,” Lars said with a reassuring smile, stepping into the waterfall and through the door. Gem followed close behind.
Soaking wet and dripping on the wooden floor of her old bedroom, Gem began to cry again. Her bed was unmade and the clock on her bedside table reported it to be just after noon. Real sunlight filtered in through the blinds and left a light pattern across the dusty floor.
“We’re back,” Lars said, looking around. “How long were we gone, do you think? Oh, Gem! Look at you, you’re beautiful!”
Her eyes widened and she ran to her dressing mirror and peered in. Her hair had lengthened and now shined as the light hit it, and she had filled out to a healthy weight, no longer frail and skeletal. The skin on her face, which had broken out and never quite cleared up, was as smooth as a fresh sheet of paper, and the dark sinks around her eyes were completely gone. Even the way she moved, Lars noticed, seemed elegant and surefooted again.
She silently watched herself in the reflection as Lars crept up behind her and reached his arms around her stomach, embracing her in a hearty hug.
“We’re back,” she said with the first smile she’d shown in a long time.
“Let’s go outside,” Lars suggested. “Feel the sun and the wind, and maybe see a squirrel. Who knows? We can do anything we want.”