This story is my other idea for an entry for the novel scholarship I want trying to get. Please respond with feedback or vote on the poll on the right for your choice.
My chair was hard and I shifted every couple of seconds to find a more comfortable position. My dad’s arm slipped around my shoulder. “Stop worrying,” he whispered against my hair.
I gave him a nervous smile. He was right. I didn’t have anything to be afraid of. I’d spent the entire first ten years of my life in anticipation for this day. I would be fine. Almost nobody failed anymore. The system had proved very affective in rooting out criminals from our society. It had been in place for nearly 100 years now. Crimes had become all but extinct. There was absolutely no reason for me to be afraid. I took a few steadying breaths and relaxed.
It was my turn. My nervousness flooded over me again. My parents smiled encouragingly at me. I gave them a weak smile in return and stood.
The walk to the doors was a long one. Actually, it was only 50 or so steps, but each one felt like I was crossing a chasm. I felt every single one of the pairs of eyes boring into my spine. After I was gone, they would wait to learn my fate. I crossed through the doors. Most of the people in the hall I’d just exited were bored out of their minds. It was all so predictable. Nobody came up red. I could even imagine some of them wishing that I would be red just to end the monotonous of it all. I would prove them wrong. They would have to wait for a little longer before the streak ended.
I had no idea what to expect beyond the door. A smiling attendant with a clipboard greeted her. She made a show of looking down to at her clipboard. I knew it most likely that the lady had checked the clipboard before I had entered through the door. Everyone liked to be prepared in advance, why would this lady be any different. The show was probably to help the nervous nine-year olds relax with how ordinary of a thing it was.
The attendant “found” what she was looking for. “Kya Harris, room 103 on your left.” She flashed me a wide smile.
I found it very difficult not to roll my eyes. I smiled back at her and continued down the long white hall. The moment she was out of view, my smile fell. I hated fake people. Now most nine-year olds don’t scrutinize every move a person makes. Most nine-year olds did what they were asked without hesitation. Most nine-year olds would find themselves soothed by the fake attendant. Let me set one thing straight. I was not like most nine-year olds. I was a thinker. That’s what my parents and their friends always said after I asked a question. They would laugh then say, “That Kya Harris is a thinker.” Then they would continue whatever they were doing without a second thought. Hardly ever did they actually answer my questions. Two years ago I stopped asking questions altogether. I started learning by observation. That’s where I learned that what someone said and did had a completely different meaning from what they meant.
Despite the fact the attendant had attempted to be reassuring, the building did exactly the opposite. The architect had purposefully made the building as foreboding as possible. The white walls stretched higher than regulation permitted for non-government buildings. The doors were all slightly larger than normal. The black handles on each of the doors I passed were a few inches higher than any other I’d ever seen. Door after door stretched along the hall, each one seemed to be farther away from the others than it should have. The white carpeted halls swallowed the sounds of my footsteps. The purpose of this building, and all other government buildings I’d later learn, was to inspire fear. In this building you couldn’t help but feel dwarfed. It created a subconscious mindset that you were powerless.
There seemed to be no end to the doors. I knew that it was more likely than not that every single door I’d passed led to nowhere. The fact that you felt like you’d never reach the right room added to the fear factor. Every step was designed to suck confidence from the victim. I knew this all. Still, any resolve that I’d gained was being leeched from me. The building was doing its job.
Finally, finally, I reached room 103 on the left. I paused for a moment to rein in all of my emotions. Blank slatted, I twisted the too high handle on the too large door.
The room was pitch black. I didn’t move from my spot in the open doorway. On the far side of the room I could see a small person standing in a doorway, light from the hall silhouetted around them. I didn’t take me long to realize I was looking into a mirror. I was seeing myself. I took small steps forward until I was completely in the room. The door slammed shut behind me.
I couldn’t see anything. I spun back to door. There wasn’t even any light seeping in from around the edges. I searched frantically for a handle that didn’t exist. I was trapped.
I stilled myself and counted backwards from ten. After that I felt no fear. They were testing me, and I would pass their test. If everyone else could pass it, then I should have no problem.
I placed my left hand on the wall and started walking. I walked slowly, running my hand up and down as I did so. If there was a light switch anywhere, I wasn’t going to miss it. The wall was a glassy surface. Mirrors. All of the walls were covered in mirrors.
I made a mental map of my route. Four steps. Corner. twelve steps. Corner. twelve steps. Corner. twelve steps. Corner. Four steps. Door. In another four steps I’d reached the other side of the door. According to my map, I was back to where I’d started.
I hadn’t found anything.
I had to leave the comfort of the wall.
I walked to the corner and dropped to my hands and knees. I felt along every square inch of that floor in search of something. In my literacy class a few months ago, we had read The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allen Poe. As I felt my way across the floor, I experienced a very strong sense of dèjà vu. I told myself I was looking for some sort of switch or lever, but in all actuality I was looking for a pit.
On my third pass along the floor, I found a notch. I lowered my hand into it. A smile broke out across my face. There was a small handle like you’d find on a car door. In relief, I pulled it.
The whole room around me exploded in light from an unknown source. I had to shut my eyes against the sudden brightness. The lights were followed by a soft pneumonic hiss. I forced myself to look.
At first I wasn’t sure what I was seeing was real. It didn’t make any sense. But I was soon certain. The mirror walls adjacent to the door wall were closing in. I was going to be crushed!
I looked up.
In the ceiling at the exact center of the room was a hole. If I could get up there I wouldn’t be squished.
For a second I was frozen in disbelief. I’d never heard of anyone going in for their final evaluation and never coming back. Surely they wouldn’t kill me. This had to be another part of the test. If everyone else had passed it, so could I.
There was no way I could reach the hole by jumping so I didn’t even bother trying. I looked around to see what I had. It was a quick look. There was only the walls and myself. I formulated a plan.
I sat down on the ground and yanked off my shoes and socks. The soles of my shoes had very little traction and wouldn’t help me. I stuffed my socks into the toes and threw them into the hole. I had to wait a little longer before I could follow them.
I wiped my sweaty hands off on my pants and waited. I stretched my arms out to either side of me. I closed my eyes to calm myself. When I wall touched my outstretched hands I was ready. I wouldn’t have any second chances.
I put one foot on one of the walls and hopped so the other foot could do the same thing. I braced myself with my hands. Carefully, I started walking up the wall.
As the mirrors became closer and closer to kissing, the climb became harder and harder. I slipped only once, but my braced arms stopped me from falling. Up above the hole was a metal pipe. With only a foot and a half of space left between the walls, I grabbed onto the pole and hoisted myself up the rest of the way. I collapsed on the floor panting for breath as the walls smashed together.
Eventually I controlled myself enough to sit up. I smacked my head on the top of the small space. I rubbed my head angrily and found my shoes. There comforting presence was a welcome to my cold feet. I was in, I think, an air duct. Light burst from another hole 30 feet down the duct. I arranged myself and did a low crawl to the light. Through the hole was a room. I grabbed each side of the hole and lowered myself in. I hung for a moment before dropping to the ground. As I landed, I let my legs bend under me to absorb the impact. I ended up on my hands and knees on the floor. I would have to learn how to land more gracefully in the future.
I stood up.
I was in a room covered in monitors. Stern looking men and women were glaring at me. On one of the screens I could see walls coming apart. It must have been the room I’d vacated. They’d been watching my every move. I felt self-conscious under the weight of their glares. Was there some vital thing I’d forgotten to do?
“Did I pass?” My voice sounded small to my ears.
One of the men stepped toward me. He was holding something behind his back. “Yes, you passed, but in doing so, you failed.” He deposited the item behind his back in my hands.
Tears stung my eyes. I’d failed. Under their watchful eyes, I slipped on my new red shirt. I walked out of the door and down the long hall back to the waiting people. Maybe my parents would still accept me. Maybe they loved me enough that they didn’t want anyone else raising their child. Maybe I was a naïve, wishful thinker.
I was a Crimson. No longer would I ever be called Kya Harris. I was now Kya Crimson. While I walked down the hall, I sent angry thoughts to the clever person who decided that all the red shirts would be dubbed Crimson. Crimson being a shade of red, all the while not being a far cry from criminal. During the time I’d spent in the mirror room. My life had been irrevocably changed forever.
There was an audible gasp when I stepped through the door. My parents couldn’t look at me. My mom was crying. I used to think it was because she was sad. Soon I learned that it was from shame. The last Crimson had been a boy two years ago. Now it was me.
The officiator spoke up. “Harris family, will you accept or reject your daughter Kya Crimson?”
My dad stood up. There was no possible way he could look angrier than he did. “She is not our daughter anymore!”
Now it was my turn. I had to make an official apology and acceptance. My voice cracked once and I had to start over. I’m sorry I have failed you. I accept your decision.” The words were mechanical. They weren’t from me.
My father sat down.
I couldn’t move.
The officiator gave me a small push in the direction of the orphans. The orphans who had been placed looked at me with disdain. The orphan who hadn’t, fear. They did not want to share my fate. I found an empty spot in the back of the group with no chairs around it. I was the only red shirt in my year.
Snow fell softly. The day had yet to wake. This was always my favorite part of the day. It was the time when nobody was yet awake to spread their ugly stain over the dying world. Sorry, the “healing” world. At least, it was temporarily healing. It would continue to heal until our pathetic little point on the globe passed under The Burn Zone. Then everything would die. It would happen. I knew it. If it had happened before, it would happen again. It was only a matter of time.
The snow covered the death, that’s what I liked best about it. As long as there was a layer of snow, the world looked pretty. However, the gleaming sparkles would soon be the color of the gray death they covered. The plows would roll through, and the pretty would be gone. But that time was not yet. Until then I would enjoy this respite from my dreary existence.
Behind me I could hear the deep breathing of seventeen other girls. Not one of them had ever said more than maybe two words to me. I could say that it didn’t bother me. I could say that I liked the loneliness. I could say that listening to them talk about this boy or that boy or the fabulous life associated with doing this or that job. I could say that I never wanted them to include me in their meaningless conversations. I could say all of that, but I’d be lying.
My bed was the closest to the window. In most living situations, that would be the best place to sleep. But this wasn’t most situations. This was an orphanage. I’m sure that back before The First Burning, orphanages were well funded. They were probably stocked with blankets and pillows and four square meals a day for the children who weren’t old enough to go to their Glimpses. But that was in the before time. This is now. I shivered and tugged my thin blanket tighter around my shoulders. The chill coming through the window was enough to rattle teeth. Yes, this was the worst place in the room to sleep. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be there. In coming days, the other girls would push their beds together and huddle under piles of blankets as they attempted to go to sleep. They would use each other’s body heat to stave off the biting cold. I would be stuck on my own by the window.
My hand dropped absentmindedly to my foot before I had a chance to stop it. Under four layers of socks, one would find my small right toe dead and blackened from one of the horrible winters a few years ago. I’d cried for day, but nobody had bothered to check and see what was wrong with me until it was too late to save my small digit. After that, the caretakers had given me extra socks, red like all my other clothes, but nothing more. I’d taken to sleeping in a sitting position after that, with my feet tucked under me and my body curled into a ball over my legs. It had taken a while for me to get used to that position, but I’m sure it was the salvation of quite a few of my other toes. I could say I’m glad that none of the other girls ever ask me to share a bed with them, but I’d be lying. As I child I used to cry myself to sleep at night, but that stopped when winter hit and I’d wake up with frozen crystals on my cheeks.
Despite the horrors associated with the window bed, I did find a bit of joy. It came from looking out the window. If I didn’t sleep where I did, I would have forgotten long ago that sometimes, the world could be beautiful.
I heard a plow’s rumble from down the street. The fantasy was over. I laid back down on my bed and squeezed my eyes shut. I didn’t want to see the destruction of my perfect world. The roar of the plow grew louder and louder and softer and softer. It was over. Time to wake up and face another day.
On cue, the door opened and the overhead florescent light burned my retinas. Groans erupted from my formerly sleeping roommates.
“Up girls! Wake up! It’s time to make memories of another glorious day!” Ms. Whitley skipped around the room, checking to make sure all the girls were indeed up. Right before she reached my bed, she swirled around and skipped back down the row of beds the way she’d come. I can’t ever recall a time when she met my eyes.
I rolled off my bed and landed with a thump on my hands and knees. I pulled my small trunk of clothes from its place under the bed. I could say that I’m glad all my clothes are the same so I don’t have to make a choice in the morning, but I’d be lying. Back when I was still newly red, I’d asked one of the caretakers why, if my trunk could fit five tightly packed jumpsuits and four sets of night clothes, did it only have two of each. That was before I’d learned being a thinker was not a good thing. I shed one of my two sets of night clothes and dawned one of my two jumpsuits. I kicked it back under the bed and stood.
I wasn’t exactly tall, but I wouldn’t consider myself short either. Other people probably did consider me short, but that was a matter of opinion. The only description I could give my hair was brown. I gathered it up in one hand and pulled it over my shoulder. As I crossed the room of groaning, stretching girls, I ran my fingers through the snags a few times before weaving the strands into a braid. When I let my braid fall down my back, it reached my lower back. I would need to find something at the plant sometime and hack a good portion off. It was at the point where it was always in the way. Life would get simpler with it gone.
In the dining area, I downed a cup of something in one go. I struggled not to let it come back up. I think this slop used to be called breakfast, but most times I would rather continue to fast than choke it down. However, I’d missed dinner the night before and I’d need some strength to make it through the day. I rinsed my mouth of the awful lingering taste of the slop mixed with morning breath. And just like that, I was done with my morning routine, ready to face the day.
I walked out the front door the orphanage. Nobody said goodbye to me. Very few days did people in the orphanage actually acknowledge my existence. They would all be happy if I disappeared forever. To tell the truth, so would I.
I kicked up snow as I waded down the sidewalk. In a half hour, a bus would arrive to take the other girls into the district for their respective Glimpses. My job was in another sector, and the bus wouldn’t be heading in that direction. Jack Frost was on my heal, urging me forward more quickly. I apologize for my use of an allusion that you probably don’t understand. Back before The First Burning, people used to say that there was a man named Jack Frost who brought the winter chill every year. When I said that he was on my heal, I was referring to the fact that I’m freezing cold and the sooner I reach the plant, the sooner I’ll be warm.
My red jumpsuit stuck out starkly against the gray white sludgy snow that the plow had cleared out of the road. I didn’t bump shoulders with anyone though sidewalks were crowded. Back before, everyone used to drive to get anywhere. Now, the dwindling gas supply was kept in close reserve and only officials and the rich were still driving. I suppose it’s a good thing not as many people drive now. Burning fossil fuels is one of the key reasons we are living in the messed up world that we are. Our ancestors destroyed the ozone and started the burnings. Anyway, nobody brushed shoulders with me. Nobody ever did. The crowded sidewalk parted for me the like Moses parted the Red Sea. Sorry, that was another old allusion that you probably don’t understand. I’ll try harder to avoid those. One day they I’ll say one of them aloud and get in trouble.
The streets were wide. With so few cars, as many people walked in the streets as did on the sidewalks. Tall buildings loomed up around us, their purposes long since forgotten. The One commanded us to stay out of them, so we did. As I got closer and closer to the plant, the crowds became thin. Soon, there were very few people still about me. Nobody was walking in my same direction.
I was alone.
The plant loomed up in front of me like a giant blot against the gloomy sky. In front of me was the rest of my life. My moment of pause that I always took before entering the building was over. I climbed up the giant steps to find out what new surprises today had in store.
The plant was giant. Though it was shoved off to the side of the compound, it was the heart that made our society run. Below the floors was a massive storage empire. Food, clothes, gas, whatever, anything that had to be stockpiled, was stored here. Under that labyrinth of mazes and rooms, was the giant electric turbine that lit our world. The turbine ran twenty five hours a day eight days a week. In other words, it was always going. That is, always unless we were hit with a burning.
I arrived at the elevator and rode it down. Nothing was on the first floor except offices. I was headed to The Crimson Room. From there, I would get my assignments for the day. I breathed deeply through my nose. I was claustrophobic, thanks to a mishap I’d had before my evaluation day. The elevator ride down was bad, but the ride back up, when it would be choked with other bodies aside from my own, would be worse. The only thing that made the trip up better was my continued reminder to myself that I was heading to the outside.
I forced my breathing to remain even as I stepped out of the elevator and walked down the narrow hallway to The Crimson Room. My feet vibrated with the energy of the turbine on the floor below. There was one good thing about the plant: I wasn’t cold anymore. I wiped a bead of sweat off my forehead and pushed open the door to the room. I was, as usual, the first one to arrive for the day shift. Back when I was still a thinker, I would purposefully make sure I arrived long before anyone else. That way, I’d be able to gauge the other Crimson from them that day. Now, I only arrived early out of force of habit.
On one wall of The Crimson Room was a giant screen. The names of all the Crimson were organized into categories of what they would be doing that day. My name was under mechanics. I walked over to the corner where all the tool belts were stored. I always used the same one. It gave me the feeling that something was actually mine. I searched through the disorganized pile until I found mine. I secured it around my waist with a smile. The fact that I was on a team today and not doing a special job was a good thing. Because of my size, I was always assigned the special jobs that required a small person. Any day I wasn’t forced into further seclusion was a great day. I leaned up against the back wall of the room where I wouldn’t be readily visible to those walking in the room. I waited.
I didn’t have to wait long before me “coworkers” began to arrive. I’d been working with all of them for just over eight years. I didn’t know a single one of them by name. We weren’t a very sociable group. We weren’t allowed to be. For the most part, my fellow Crimson were men. There was two other women, but they were nearly as severe looking as the men. Our lot in life didn’t make us the most friendly people, as if someone would want to be friends with us. Back when I used to think, I knew a few of these criminal’s names. I had memorized the group of assignments as well which face went where. Each day, the probable names for each individual would get smaller as the teams changed until there was only one option left. Knowing their names was a stupid, pointless task, and since then, I’d worked hard to forget them. It was better this way. The Crimson had almost all arrived. We would soon be put to our respective tasks.
It had taken me at least a year to discover what about me the evaluators had deemed bad enough to destroy my life. I puzzled it out until I realized, no normal child would be able to do what I did. I was supposed to fail the evaluation. Instead, I’d passed and, by doing so, failed. Fail to pass and pass to fail. I should have realized before it was too late, but that’s the glory of hindsight. After this revelation that thinking was bad, I’d stopped. Now I was living life one day at a time.
The last Crimson arrived. The room was filled with our red presence. The white walls held us all in together. Red jumpsuits against the white walls like a drop of blood against newly fallen snow. We were the scourge of society, the ones that didn’t quite fit the mold. We are the Crimson.