Piece of Paradise
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Kaem rose from his slumber, his muscles restored. He had beaten the sunrise, waking from habit alone. His internal clock would not let him miss his duties even when winter made the sun late to the morning.

He slung his legs out of his bed, and took two deep breaths before standing. There was no time to waste. He opened his closet, grabbed his tools, and walked out the door of his dusty, pocked shack.

The cold didn't bother him. He would sweat soon enough at the quarry.




Clank.

The pickaxe was dull, but it did the job.

Clank.

Slowly, but surely, it broke into the earth.

Clank.

Kaem was working on a fissure.

Clank.

A crack that would eventually fracture this island.

Clank.

And the north peak would become Kaem's.

He never interacted much with the other denizens of the island. Much of the time, they simply watched from the top of their cliff, peering down at him from their safe haven. The last time they'd tried to stop Kaem from digging, their untrained feet had caused some to slip and fall into the sea of clouds below. All they did now was stare as he cracked the land in two.

But this day, as the canyon he was carving was finally finally nearing the final stretch of the island, one of them descended from above on a thick rope made of bedsheets. A child. A spot on its green head was bruised grey, and it stumbled over to Kaem, who simply gave it a curious glance before getting back to his work.

"You're leaving, aren't you?" It squeaked.

Kaem always hated how they talked — the high frequencies always made his head pound. Still, he replied. "Yes."

"And you're taking the north peak with you?"

He gestured to the great quarry around him and nodded. "I'd like somewhere quiet and secluded. Your kind make it difficult. So I am making a new island."

Kaem's hostility had no noticeable effect. The child stood as close as ever. Its eyes wandered across the quarry, its pupils fixating on each and every crevice that struck deep enough to pull wispy puffs of cloud from below, threatening the integrity of the ground on which they stood. They followed each such crevice along the path, until their eyes met with their feet, where that cold mist came through, tangible sky from the heavens below. Then, they moved on, their eyes coming to the last sturdy rocks that Kaem was working on. The last keystones of Kaem's operation.

"You only have a few meters left," it observed.

His muscles suddenly surged, and he struck into the rock forcefully. "A few more hours of work."

"Really?"

"Really."

There were a few minutes of silence, only filled by the sound of Kaem's pickaxe clanking against the earth and his disciplined grunts of exertion.

After some strikes, he stopped. "Why are you here?"

It blinked.

"Last time someone came down here, they fell," he continued. "You should leave."

"How did you get so strong?"

Kaem sighed. They never listened unless it was something they wanted to hear. "You get strong when you have no other choice," he said with some spite. "I was trained."

"By who?"

"My father."

"Oh." Kaem briefly had hope that the child's curiosity was satisfied, but: "Where is he?"

Kaem's grip on the pickaxe tightened. He turned from the child, and struck the rock just once. The hit rang and echoed across the boulders and rubble of the quarry, before it finally dissipated, cold and silent like the vapors coming from the cracked ground. "Killed. By your people."

There was a silence in which Kaem listened for retreating footsteps or the scaling of a rope, but only silence endured.

"Is that why you're leaving?"

He didn't move. "Go back to your family and ask them."

That did the trick. The child went back to his rope, and began to slowly climb upwards. When it was halfway up the rope, it looked back down at Kaem, and it shouted: "I'm gonna be strong like you!"

Kaem stopped, watching as the child scampered back up the rope. Once he was sure the child couldn't see the finer details, he let a small smile work its way onto his face. Under his breath, he whispered.

"You won't."

He looked back down at the last remaining structures connecting the north peak to the greater island. With another ten, fifteen minutes of work, he'd have his own piece of paradise. For a moment, he looked up to the sky. It was cold, but the sun was coming up above the clouds, and he could feel its attempts to push through the thin atmosphere and warm him. With the pickaxe swung over his shoulder, he breathed, and experienced, only for the sake of experiencing. Holding this one, final moment before his goal.

But it was brief.

Because there was work to be done.

His final strike echoed in the air, and time froze to a standstill as the child sat on the top of the cliff, the quarry's edge, watching as the island split in two, the cold gray stone of the quarry separating from the rock wall with a loud grumble and several cracks. As Kaem drifted every so gently backwards, he looked up, up at the cliff face from which the bedsheet rope was being pulled in, making eye contact with the child. But it only lasted a split-second. Soon he was looking at something more pressing.

The billowing clouds below.

And then it started the crumble. The quarry, the island, his paradise, turning from one piece into two into three into only the most particulate parts. And once the ground had no more cohesion than the blood pumping at record speeds through Kaem's heart, he and his world began to fall, deep into the clouds, into the sky, into the smoky and blissful abyss.

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