I wake up to the sound of the television blaring. We’re told often, growing up, that it’s important to watch the TV, so as not to miss anything ‘important’. However, I have become a master of ignoring its noise. The loud speakers make my head buzz and the high definition screen causes my eyes to bug out. Ofelia says this is because I don’t watch it enough to get use to how it makes you feel. I wonder for a moment if that’s true. She’s the most educated person in all of Ash, considering she’s the eldest, and one of the few who actually attended the old university. I flash back to the present, television noise floating up from downstairs, and decide it is a waste of my time, and my comfort is more important than “getting used to it.”
Sliding out of bed, I go to the window and look out at the grove of spires behind our house. We’re right on the edge of the city limits, the tall white fence that encloses our region is only four feet away, right in our backyard. What yard we have is composed of rocky dirt and tufts of crab weed here and there. Most people in Ash don’t have what we call a yard and that’s because most people live in apartments in town. If our plot of land didn’t have a government fence blocking my view, I might actually smile when I get up in the morning. It’s rather ugly with the paint all sun-bleached and peeling.
“The fence is for protection, city boundaries, and nothing more,” I hear the newscaster on the television drone. Why are they talking about the fence? It’s never on the news. “We’ve witnessed occasions when others have been hurt by what’s outside, so we built it as a solution. The people of our country, years ago, used the land for…vices of a strange nature; practicing unlawful actions and destroying what help and hope the government gave them. When President Haim was elected for our aid, he vowed to save all from the destruction of the outside…” I stop listening. Yes, he vowed to protect and the fence has served it’s purpose thus far. Why are they even talking about this?
It’s not just the fence that keeps us inside our little town. On the opposite side are spires, tall as the heavens, reaching towards the sky with arm-like branches. As far as I can tell, these ones are exactly the same as the ones inside the fence, only taller and more numerous. They rise from the ground like mighty swords, all grey, black, brown and white. The ones that have managed to push their way inside we call the ghosts. They’re far and few between, but their startling presence is so sporadic and uncontrolled it makes one jump, hence the name “ghosts”. I don’t think we’d be so intimidated if the mighty beasts weren’t as toweringly fierce as they are. No one dares try and breach the boundary because of them. Besides, we’ve all come to believe we are being protected. We’re just not sure from what.
I pull myself away from the window and patter over to my closet in the wall. It’s this huge walk in space that I’ve stuffed with all my belongings. I detest clutter so the rest of my room is barren while everything else I own I’ve shoved in here. I pull out some grey jeans and a soft blue t-shirt and slip them on. It looks cold out, even for March, so I also decide to grab Ofelia’s white leg warmers she hand knitted herself, and my brown boots. After brushing my hair and throwing into something you might be able to call a bun – if you squint – I step outside my room and down the stairs of the east wing.
Even though we live in this old, run down mansion, infested with rats and various disturbing looking insects, it’s nice to have such a big space all to oneself. Ofelia and I only inhabit the first two levels; the attic floor is far to unstable to support any weight and we’re always afraid it’s going to cave in. As I continue my way down the long corridor, my boots echoing loudly off the walls and ceilings, I notice how dirty the place has gotten. There are cobwebs everywhere and all the old furniture has dust on top of the sheets that cover them. I pull up the corner of a sheet off a sofa and cringe. The cushions desperately need reupholstered. I don’t know why I bother even considering it because we couldn’t fix the stuff even if we wanted to. No one knows how to reupholster furniture and water is so expensive that you save it all for drinking, not cleaning.
I stop before I get to the front hallway and look up at the moldings above our double front doors. I let a sigh escape my lips as I wonder who carved them and why it was so terribly elaborate. This entire place is a mystery. Why anyone would work to create such an enormous home and make it so detailed baffles me. Where did they find the time? I continue through the front entry and across to the west wing where I can hear the television becoming more audible as I near.
“After four factory workers died in the Western region, Haim has signed a new Order for the White-Washing of all fences on city borders…” the news lady’s voice drones on and on about the Order before flashing to an image of Haim signing the document.
“Another White-Washing?” I ask. It’s the second one in two months. Usually we do it once or twice a year.
“Yep,” Ofelia declares, banging down her glass of what looks like iced syrup. No idea where she got her hands on that. I know I didn’t get it at the store for her.
“How did the workers die?” I never watch the TV because I don’t have to. I just ask Ofelia the next day what was said. I walk into the kitchen and open the fridge, looking for something that doesn’t appear too indigestible.
“Oh, probably the sickness.”
“Did they say that’s what it was?”
Ofelia clears her throat and spits. “Nah.”
I head across the kitchen where I glance through a hole in the wall to watch as the screen replays images of previous White-Washings. A picture of what looks like the Northern Region appears, and everyone, from children of three years to those on their deathbeds, white-washing the fence until it gleams in the sunlight from wet paint.
“Why do we do it?” I don’t have to say exactly what I mean; Ofelia can usually tell what I’m going to say, maybe has something to do with her being a suspected witch.
“To remind us that the fence is our protection and by making us work on it we won’t want to destroy what we ourselves have cared for.”
I turn back to the fridge and find a red package of some sort of sauce and glance at the expiration date.
“Ew, how old is this?” I cringe, holding up the packet.
“Honey, if it has a date, throw it away.”
“It’s from two years ago! Do you ever clean this thing out?”
“You buy the groceries, not me.”
I throw the packet in the trash and start going through the cupboards instead. I can’t remember the last time I saw an expiration date on something. They stopped printing them on our packages because there was no longer a need. Things started lasting longer, so long in fact that even five years later it would still be good enough to eat.
After going through two cupboards, I find a brown and white plastic bag, about the size of a CD, and realize it’s the last package of noodles. It’s practically the only thing I eat considering the ash has practically ruined my appetite for anything. People think I’m crazy, actually, the way nothing tastes good to me. It’s not as if I want to dislike food, I just do. Ofelia tries to figure out why, but I don’t even know myself. Thus, finding things to eat is extremely difficult for me.
And I’m not picky, by the way.
Putting a pot of water on the stove, it gradually begins to boil after a few minutes of trying to light the burner. I’m terrified of fire. It’s literally my worst nightmare. I dream about the mansion burning down or being burned at the stake almost every night, and I haven’t a clue where this fear comes from. I fumble with the matches, my hand shaking just holding them in their tiny box.
I ask Ofelia if she wants anything, but she shakes her head as she swallows another swig of her liquid. I can’t stand to see her drinking something that I have no idea what it is, so I walk over and grab it out of her hand.
“What is this?” I gape. There’s stuff swimming around the cup that look like tiny gnats drowning in a pool of piss.
“Nothin’ much you need worry about. Give it here.” Ofelia takes a swipe but I hold it out of her reach, as she refuses to move off her rocking chair.
“What’s all this stuff floating around in it?” I ask, taking a small sniff. It oddly has no smell.
“Residue, whatdya think, girly?”
I can’t tell if she’s joking so I just continue to stand there with the cup in my hands. “Is it sweet?”
Ofelia gets a confused look on her face. “Why do you ask such a thing?”
“Cause it sorta smells like sugar.”
“You can smell that? Dang, girl, you got a killer of a sniffer.”
“It isn’t poison, right? Or alcohol? You know Dr. Fleissner said you needed to stop drinking and take your pills instead.”
Ofelia laughs. “Honey, you ain’t got no idea what that Doctor means to do with me.”
I set the glass back down next to Ofelia and walk back into the kitchen. “He wants to keep you well, I shout from the other room. “You’ve lived this long now, longer than anyone in all of Ash, probably in all of Haim, and you want to just throw away your life? I want to live, thank you, and so should you.” I furiously splash the hard square of noodles into the boiling water and poke it angrily with a spoon. Ofelia meets my words with silence and I refuse to break it with more chatter.
“It ain’t poison, Adler. I don’t want to kill myself.”
“Good, so what is it?”
I look up then and frown. “Umm…no thanks.”
I return to poking my noodles and Ofelia takes another gulp. “Poison,” I hear her mutter with a laugh. “Like she’d know.”
I don’t ask what she means; don’t want to know. I’m tired of her and her hidden meanings and rituals for long life. That used to be her profession, if you could call it that. Before she took me in Ofelia was the town’s…well, witch, really. We called her “Madam Voodoo” but she was described as everything from gypsy woman to psychic. She’s stopped fooling around with all that fortune telling and wizardry now, but she’s still as crazy as she once was, especially with her special potions and brews. I’ve stopped taking anything she makes me because it does weird things to people.
After I finish cooking my noodles I open the tiny silver packet and pour the contents into the pot. It makes the water and white noodles soon turn a murky orange that doesn’t look all too appetizing. I don’t bother to grab a bowl but reach for the pan and a towel, walk into the living room where the TV’s still going, and sit on the floor next to Ofelia’s rocking chair.
“Looks like it’s gonna be a cold one today,” Ofelia says, trying to sound like she’s just making small talk, but that’s not something she does. I slurp my noodles loudly, getting juice all over my face in little dots and, with my mouth full, mutter, “Yeah, your point?”
“Oh, just you might want to bundle up a little more.”
“Why, I’m not going outside…”
Ofelia raises her eyebrows.
“…or am I?”
“I’ve got clients today,” she says.
“Clients? What are you talking about? You haven’t had a client in years! You quit helping people forever ago!”
I can’t help but smile. Ofelia’s always like this. Nothing turns into an issue with her. She twists her words and makes you believe anything she wants you to. “So what’s the big deal?” I ask. “I’m not going to leave or anything. We have an entire mansion that I can go get myself lost in if you need me to disappear for a couple of hours.”
“Oh yes you’re gonna leave, darlin’, and you’re leavin’ soon. You’ve got fifteen minutes to put on whatever warmth you need and get your tush out of my house for the next several hours.”
“How many is ‘the next several hours’?”
“I’ll send you a message.”
We stare at each other seriously for about a second before releasing our muffled laughter. It’s a joke really. I came home one afternoon, I was probably ten or so, and Ofelia looked at me and said, “Good, you got my message”. I stared at her incredulously as she explained it by saying she sent a psychic telegram to my brain telling me to come home. It’s funny now, but at the time, it totally freaked me out.
“You’re a scam,” I had said, pretty pathetically, too, coming from a mostly silent ten year old.
“Well, don’t kill them,” I warn her, jumping back to reality. “At least, don’t give them any of that stuff you’ve been drinking. I’d really prefer not to spend the rest of my day hiding a dead body or two, in a closet somewhere.”
“Right, right, just get outta here, before they show up.” Ofelia stands up and shoos me out into the entryway and practically shoves me out the front door, throwing my coat after me. Her long grey hair floats behind her in the open doorway, strands of it hiding parts of her wrinkled face. She waves a cheery goodbye and shuts the door with a deep, echoing creak. I’m left standing on the front veranda, and I hear the door lock behind me. I’ll talk to her about that later, I think.
As I trod down the front steps I hesitate slightly, wondering if I should’ve checked to see what groceries we need before heading out to spend a whole day in aimless wander. I step out onto the weather-worn driveway that hasn’t seen a car in probably a century, and look back at our house. Its three levels are covered with wood siding, rusting hinges, an irritatingly leaking roof in April, and squeaky floors in October. It’s known for being haunted (that’s Ofelia’s reputation, not mine) and also for being a murderer’s lair (that might be mine). All in all, people never bother to knock on our door, and that’s something I can appreciate, leaky roof or not.
I pull my coat around me tighter, the thin brown tweed just barely warm enough, and finger my elbows. I rub the smooth velvet patches, one red, one purple, and smile slightly. It was my mother’s jacket, and it was her father’s. I know it must look rather silly on me, being a man’s jacket, but it fits rather perfectly, and Ofelia even took in the back and added three pleats, making it just feminine enough for my taste. I try not to think of my mother but sometimes I can’t help it. She’s everywhere, in everything I see, and wearing the jacket doesn’t exactly help.
After a good three miles of solid countryside, brown dirt under my feet and tall ghosts around me, I finally reach the south entrance of Ash. I can already smell the factory smoke and breathe in the smog that constantly fills the air. The people I encounter on my trip into the city grow as I reach the bustle of the town. Right in the center, Factory Square is where the population can be counted. To someone from the Western Region, where numbers of 5 million are far from uncommon, our town would be considered a village.
To get our numbers straight, my region, that is the Eastern Region, has a population of about 3 million. Southern Region’s close to 4 million, Northern, the same. All that’s not even including Haim’s City. The Western Region, I’m told, has a population not even worth counting, it’s so sparse. Altogether Haim has a population of about 16 million people. These are mind blowing numbers to me, although many have said that this is nothing compared to what they used to be. What the old numbers were, I haven’t any idea.As for Ash, one of the few cities in our region, the population is about two-thousand. Everyone knows everyone else. Sometimes it’s comforting, and most of the time it’s not.
I reach Factory Square and a young girl rushes up to me and tugs at my arm.
“I knew you’d come today,” she says. The girl is short and has bright red hair, pin straight. I recognize her but can’t remember her name. It always escapes me. She delivers our mail, I think. Something like that.
“Everyone has been called to watch the speech.”
“A speech?” I gawk. “It’s not Authority Day, is it?” The head Authority is the man who runs our city. His name is Zekial and he’s tall, skinny and ugly.
“No, it’s Jeremiah.”
I wince. Jeremiah is the head of the Guards and usually spends most of his time drinking, swearing, and looking through old, unsolved case files. They are the ones who really run the city, where the Authority simply tells them, “Do what you see fit.” Total nightmare, and something Jeremiah takes far to seriously. I have the displeasure of knowing him personally, too. He always stops me and asks questions about Ofelia.
“So, why is Jeremiah making a speech, then?”
“We don’t know,” the red headed girl says. “It’s just been announced to everyone that all citizens are required at the square this morning for the speech. Don’t you pay attention to the news?” She eyes me suspiciously and I feel myself grow hot.
“Yeah, but I must have fallen asleep.”
“It was this morning.”
“After the news about the Western Region’s White-Washing?”
“Yep, I was asleep.”
Suddenly, a microphone goes off with a loud squelch. We both wince and cover our ears as everyone starts to run off to the corner in front of the factory gates. She runs to catch up but I follow behind slowly, not one to draw any sort of attention to myself. As a result I end up in the back of the crowd and can only see the tops of other peoples’ heads rather than the speaker on the speech platform. Finally, everyone quiets to a hush as a man, tall and intimidating, walks to the center of the stage. I can see the top of his head and by the dark gelled hair under standard grey cap, I know its Jeremiah.
“Thank you all for being here,” he says in a slurred voice. Everyone acts as if he’s simply tired, it being eight in the morning, but we all know it’s something quite different. Still, I’m surprised he’s standing up on his own and can actually talk.
“Alright, to make this short, please listen so I don’t have to repeat myself to each and every one of you throughout the week when I find out you weren’t listening. I have been contacted by Haim that two members, a man and woman, have left their Factor unauthorized and have fled Eastern, to us. They could be anywhere in our Region, but all Factors have been notified to make a public announcement of their flight.”
A few people gasp, but really this isn’t news. Many people have fled their Factors in hopes to find better conditions. Most are later found and identified after they’ve died beyond the fences. I am surprised they are thought to have moved East, though. Most seeking better conditions move West or South. That’s where there is better work. The Eastern region really is the worst, our factory has terribly long hours and don’t hire new employees unless they are born here, male, and eighteen or older. Also, the quality of living isn’t great, either. I should know, living in a building ready to collapse at any moment.
“I have photographs of the runaways and I would appreciate it if all of you would look at the posters and contact the Guards if either person is found or has been spotted. Thank you, that’s all.” Jeremiah wobbles his way down off stage followed by two fellow Guards. After they’re gone everyone starts to talk again and move their way over to see the pictures of the runaways. Having nothing better to do, I decided to follow.
Though every street corner is crowded, I manage to squeeze my way into a group that is smaller than the others. Once I’ve weaseled my way to the front I can clearly see the picture of not a man and woman but a boy and girl. The first thing that strikes me is how young they are, too.
This must sound ironic considering everyone in Haim is ‘young’, but I’m struck by how they are merely children. The boy is probably nine or ten and the girl a year older than him. The boy has choppy, dark blonde hair failing in strands over his forehead, and the girl has deep brown hair, like my own, cut just below her jaw. They both look straight ahead, not frowning but not smiling either. I wonder what they could possibly be thinking, running away from their Region, probably leaving family behind worried sick, hoping to accomplish what? They don’t look like brother and sister…cousins, perhaps? I hear a few whispers around me and listen carefully to make sure I don’t miss anything important.
“I have a niece who went missing only last month. She could’ve dyed her hair,” a woman says.
A man spits on the ground, “I think they’re downright stupid fools.”
Amen, brother, I reflect.
“What poor things! I’d take them in, if I found them,” another lady speaks to my left. The man on my right replies again with, “Yeah, and then all three of yuh thrown in jail. Sounds fun.”
Before I can make a remark myself, I feel a hand on my shoulder and notice the crowd start to meander off. I turn to see Jeremiah smiling down at me.
“How’s your Guardian?” he asks.
Not again. Please. “She’s tolerable,” I say.
“Any new clients?”
I laugh as if this is an old joke and ask if he’s had any new case assignments.
“Just your Guardian,” he remarks again.
We both laugh, fake smiles never reaching our eyes.
“I‘ll keep her out of trouble.” If you stay out of my way.
“I’d appreciate that. Listen,” Jeremiah puts a gentle hand to my shoulder which I promptly shrug off with a grimace. “I was thinking I’d pay a visit to that manor of yours sometime. Stop in and say hello to Ofelia myself. Make sure everything’s alright.”
I let my eyes widen even as I remind myself to stay calm. “I’m sure that’s not necessary,” I decide. “We’re quite well, I assure you; unless of course you’re coming for one of Ofelia’s remedies?”
Jeremiah winces. “No. I don’t think so. I merely wish to pay my respects.”
Sure you do, I think, just like you pay your respects to everyone else in this town, like kicking them out of their apartments when they can’t pay rent.
“Then I’m sure Ofelia would be glad to see you,” because I sure won’t. “Good day, Mr. Jeremiah.”
My dismissal is one evidently not welcome, as Jeremiah spins on his polished black heels with a smirk, saying, “Take care now. I’ll be stopping by soon.”
I dread every conversation with that man, and once he’s out of sight I let relief sink in. Acting all nonchalant isn’t easy, or fun. Especially the way Jeremiah has suddenly taken to the idea of visiting Ofelia and I all the way out in the countryside seriously has me worried.
After a moment of eavesdropping around, nobody has much else to say about the runaways. I make my way to the factory and stand at the gates to watch the giant metal doors close, grabbing hold of the iron bars as I stare at the men walking in.
“I don’t like you checking out other en. Makes me feel disregarded.” I don’t turn around. I already know who carries the voice.
“Yeah, well…” I snort, “whatever they do in their sure gives them all great biceps.”
“Well I’ve got abs, doesn’t that count for something?” The voice comes to my side and I grin bigger than necessary.
“Well, I rarely see your shirt off so I’m not even convinced they exist.” I elbow him in the side and when I turn to look at him, there he is by my side, holding the bars like I am, staring back at me. “Yeah,” he confirms. “I think I imagine them sometimes too.”
I stop my smile and return to a frown. I suddenly remember I’m trying to hold a grudge against Griffin. We argued awhile ago and I haven’t forgiven him, because of course he started it. He’s annoyed with me, too, but somehow I’d say he still thinks we’re friends. I’m not sure yet.
“Why aren’t you working?” I ask, suddenly suspicious.
“Got the day off.”
“How’d you manage that?”
“Eh, you know. I have ways.”
I frown; he sniffs at me and rolls his eyes.
“What are you going to do with a whole day off? Vandalize City Hall?” I tease.
“No, I-I got stuff at home I need to take care off.”
“Oh…” I snort, “You’re not still on that kick about leaving and going to the Western Region, are you?”
Griffin turns to me and says, “Not that becoming a head developer at the factory in Duer to find a cure isn’t great and all but…”
I stare ahead and think of my Father’s words. “And you think it’s possible? A cure, I mean?”
“Of course. There’s a cure for everything.”
“Except the common cold.”
“Adler.” He rolls his eyes at me.
“But seriously, you really believe that?!” I sputter, stunned.
“Ever heard of hope?”
“Uh, it’s my policy not to indulge in optimistic emotions.”
“Well, despite your being a pessimist, do you want to come?” He’s frowning, deep lines creasing all over his face. I feel slightly ashamed that I’ve behaved this way when I remember his words from earlier. “I got stuff at home I need to take care off.”
“I-that is…is your mother doing okay?” I kick myself for sounding daft but I know I should say something.
“Yeah, she’s fine. I mean, she’ll get over it.”
I try not to get mad at his insensitivity but I know now is not the time to fight again.
“How are you doing?” I question. I know he won’t answer but I ask anyway. I glance at his eyes – small, deep set and brown – and see them well up with tears, though they don’t overflow. His silence is what’s unbearable. Griffin runs his hand through his shoulder length blonde hair and shrugs his shoulders.
“I-I’ll come home with you, if – that is – if that’s what you want.” I feel even denser, trying to fill the silence with words – pointless, meaningless words. Why can’t I just let the quiet sit between us for once? Then I realize I haven’t any idea what he’d do if I did. I always babble, especially when things get serious.
After another minute or so of silence, I shift my weight and turn to leave, but Griffin catches my arm. I turn back, surprised, as no one and I mean no one, has ever touched me in such a way since my parents died. The shock is so strange, even through layers of clothing, that I feel chills run down my arm where his fingers grip my sleeve. He doesn’t wrench me back either, but turns me slowly so I’m facing him, and still he doesn’t let go. “I think my mother would like to see you, if you want to come over, that is.”
I don’t reply until he lets go of my arm and then I say, “Sure. If that’s what she wants.” He nods and leads me off towards his apartment, a tall, brick building nestled in-between two tall spires, black and foreboding, just like the feeling that begins to nestle its way into my stomach, and into my throat.
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