My world is grey.
The house is grey and all around me the ground is hard, grey pavement and tiny grey pebbles. Even the sky is grey. I have never questioned the lack of color in my life. All I’ve ever known is grey and they way it has seeped itself into the very cracks of my skin. The people I know have sagging grey skin and attire themselves in worn out grey clothing. Because my world is so void of any other color, there are times when I find myself forgetting what red looks until I catch my ankle around a corner. Or what about yellow? If some people didn’t have blonde hair, I’d forget that one altogether. The grey is monotonous, but it is my life, and I know I should be happy having been gifted with such a thing as life; grey as it is or not.
Life. That is something I contemplate often. I have been told, and learned from observance, that those in my position are not expected to live passed the age thirty. That is the verage life span of humans in Haim. That’s the country where I live, named after our dictator, Alexandar Haim, who oversees the country and it’s government. Sometimes I even forget he exists; his presence in our society is seldom mentioned. But then I get sick and remember, through choked lungs, the factories that cause ash to rain down on us like fire. It is Haim who calls for their construction, telling us it is for our good that we build more. They help us in our “search.”
That, however, is not the story the old gypsy woman tells on the corner of Industrial Square. She says the ash from the factory is actually the remains of workers whom Haim has worked so hard they wither away and float out on the wind, ash forevermore. When I was younger I believed every word she spoke with my entire being. Now I’ve come to the conclusion that she’s just crazy, like everyone else in this god forsaken town. Although, some folks say her words have truth ringing in them, in a more figurative sense rather than the literal.
It is this factory – our region’s sole source of employment – which gives our city its name: Ash. I do not know what is produced in our factory and neither does anyone but the workers themselves, and even they never speak a word. I witnessed one incident where several men harassed a young boy, maybe 15, trying to pry information out of him. Not even when they ripped the clothes from his body and beat him beyond recognition did he say a word. Before today, I didn’t understand why he remained silent. Now it all makes sense; knowing the torture he would endure from spilling the secret was worse than taking the pain of remaining silent.
I have tried to avoid the factory ever since; as if remaining as far away from it as possible will help me forget it exists. If it weren’t for the ash that drifted by on the ever constant current, I might actually be able to do so. But something draws me back to it each day, wondering what goes on inside. Curiosity was always one of my weaknesses.
The ash is not only a reminder of the hard labor experienced in the factory, but also a reminder of our pathetically short lives. This strange ash, always in the air, gets caught in our lungs and into our blood streams. Haim tells us that it is a necessary evil; that he has other factories, uncontaminated ones, which make the medicine that helps “maintain” our illness.
I get sick at least once a month for three to four days. I cannot breathe, and my lungs hurt beyond words. It hurts to eat, to walk, to sleep, to talk. I lie in bed, grey sheets around me, grey sky above me, and wonder if my life will be even shorter than I was promised. It is happening all the time now; those who were predicted to live longer are dying younger every day. I am already seventeen and I have had friends – those eighteen, twenty, twenty five – die in their sleep, die from the sickness, die from unknown causes. Why is it getting worse?
Most of our parents are gone. The few that are still alive work in the factory. Anyone older than eighteen is required to work, and if you’re a boy, those who are over fifteen. The oldest person left alive in our town is Ofelia, the Elder. Although she is my guardian, never has she spoken her real age even to me. Rumor has it she’s around forty-eight, but I don’t believe it. That’s ancient. Ofelia has taken care of me ever since my real parents died; my father from a work related injury and my mother from the sickness. I loved them, though I knew them little because I was only five when they died. I remember being sad though not confused. I knew why they had died and, in my mother’s case, expected it. I had expected it every day since I was old enough to understand how the sickness worked. Every day since then, I have expected my sickness to follow. As for my father, he was thirty-two when his death came in the factory. When he didn’t come home at the usual hour, I ran all the way to Industrial Square and pounded on the giant, gated entrance. As the workers poured out, I noticed father was not among them. It wasn’t until a very official looking man in a suit came and took my hand, leading me away, that I understood my father wasn’t coming out. And, of course, I was never told what had really happened.
Oh how Mother cried. She cried for days on end and wouldn’t eat or drink a thing, barely even sleeping. I took care of myself, eating the cold things I could find in the fridge. After a week, she got the sickness. A day later she died. Then it was my turn to cry. When Ofelia found me, she said I had slept for four days straight. When I awoke, she was bustling around, giving me strong liquid concoctions and patting my hand. I moved in with her suddenly, into the massive, abandoned mansion she inhabited far outside the city limits. I have come to care for Ofelia, but have never loved her. I have not loved a soul since I lost my father and mother. I don’t remember what love feels like, especially considering I have had too many precious things take away from me to understand what giving means.
There was one thing my father told me when I was younger that I will never forget, though I forgot many other things he had said to me. We were talking of Haim, and his constant reassurance of the “search.” It was one, small sentence Father gave, after I had asked, shyly, if he would tell me what went on in the factory:
“Somewhere there’s a cure, Adler, and they don’t want us to know about it.”
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