Free Of Gray

February 20, 2012
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The girl walked through the empty streets. Not a soul was out to greet her, just the bitterly cold breeze of winter. As it blew past her cheeks, she shivered in her thin jacket and clutched the bag in her hand. For many reasons, the girl did not like the outdoors. Weariness came over her every time she stepped outside, which would not disappear until she was back at her house again. And now, there were just a few more blocks until she was back in the comfort and safety of her home. Home from this dreadful loneliness that was the outdoors.

Just keep walking, she told herself. There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s been fine so far. Just keep moving… She turned the last corner somewhat assuredly.

Then, a sight of horror. One that had become so usual, so completely expected, and occurred at every second all over the world. And yet it was one that this girl would never grow used to, one that would haunt her at night for the rest of her life. It was only a single lifeless body sprawled on the sidewalk in plain view.

The girl let out a shriek of terror and grief, then sprinted her way home and hid. But she knew that this was not the first body she had ever seen, nor would it be her last. She hid away from the entire world, where she never felt safe. Her name was Aisha Bonnet, and she lived in the age of the Gray.

It was the late 21st century, and the world was full of death. An illness was spreading rapidly through the humans, taking countless lives by the day. It was a phenomenon that simply appeared one day, so new to people and without a clear scientific explanation. The disease took its victims and sucked the life from them excruciatingly painfully. There was no cure and no way to treat it, only to wait a few weeks for the victim to die. It seemed to be contagious, but how it spread was uncertain. Some believed it was in the air, and there was no way to escape it. It was inevitable that everyone would get it; the only difference between everyone’s demise was when exactly the disease decided to take effect. Then, because there was no longer any room left in the cemeteries, the dead would be tossed onto the curb to be picked up by Disposal trucks. Every day, hordes of dead bodies – adults, the elderly, children, and babies alike – were scattered through the streets. At times, it looked like the entire world of bodies, sky, and the earth itself had become a solemn gray. Thus the name of the greatest killer mankind ever knew.

The Gray.




JANUARY

Aisha shut the door and fell to the floor panting. Then, remembering who had been waiting for her, she stood up and tried to act as if she had not just seen what she had.

“Grandpa, I’m back! I got the food.” As she called out, she walked into the next room, where her grandfather lay on an old, decrepit couch. It was just the two of them in their small shack of a house, as it had been for as long as she could remember.

Her grandpa smiled, a weak but sincere show of happiness on his old, tired face. “That’s good. Did they have bread?”

“Yes,” she answered as she poured out the contents of her bag. “I managed to get two loaves! I’ll make dinner in a little bit.”

“Bread…” her grandpa trailed off. “Yes, it is an important part of the human diet. But nowadays, there’s rarely enough to go around. I remember the old days, when my father would take me out to the city market on the weekends – it was where Citizen Aid is today. There were a bunch of vendors selling all kinds of things. Our favorite one was the bread market. They had all different kinds of fresh bread; the loaves looked nothing like they do today, of course. Dad and I would pick out the best-looking one together.” He sighed. “They tasted great too. The taste of bread back then…it’s another thing I only wish you would be able experience someday.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Aisha assured him nervously. “The bread we get from the Food Distributions is good enough for me.”

“Is that so. Well, still, it’s nothing compared to what I remember. There are so many marvelous things I remember that you probably can’t even imagine…”

Aisha picked up the food and went to the kitchen, still listening to what her grandpa had to say. The times when he would reminisce about the old days were a little sad, but they introduced her to a much brighter, magical world. And so she would listen to his stories eagerly whenever he felt like telling them, in awe of what the gray place she lived in had once been. But she was careful not to pry too much, for fear that it might depress her grandpa, to think about how great life had once been and then compare it to how miserable it was now.

As she went to work with what little ingredients she had, Aisha thought about the many wonderful things she had learned from her grandpa. One was public schools, where children would go every day to learn. There, he was taught as a boy of something called a plague that existed in the Middle Ages, that was said to have wiped out a third of the world’s population. That didn’t seem too extreme now; after all, the Gray claimed nearly half the lives of all humans. Sometimes Aisha wondered what it would be like if she went to school. Would she meet other boys and girls, and learn together of everything she wanted to know about the big, albeit lonely world? But she knew that school nowadays would be a waste of time. There was no use in teaching sick children, half of whom would never even grow up.

Aisha poured the meagerly prepared soup into two bowls and placed a piece of bread next to each on the trays. Then she brought her grandpa his dinner and sat down next to the couch, listening to the life of many years, years of health and wonder. As she listened, she found herself staring at her dry piece of bread. It was not nearly as spectacular as she imagined the old kind to be. It had become old, stale, and gray just like everything else.




FEBRUARY

Aisha waited by the regular abandoned building, kneeling down and playing with a stick in the dirt. She noticed a sickly looking dog wobble by, and contemplated to herself whether it was safe to pet it. Then she realized that it was cold, and still the boy had not shown up. He was the one who told her to go to all the trouble of leaving home to meet him, and he was late. She was definitely going to make him pay…

“Yo!” a voice chirped behind her. Aisha jolted and screeched a little, dropping her stick.

“Why you… where have you been?”

“Takin’ care of some business. What’s your problem?” The presumptuous boy smirked. Aisha growled at his cocky attitude but ignored her urge to slap him for the moment.

“Whatever. So where are we going?”

“ To the outskirts of town. I found a pretty nice place around there I want to show you.”

“Fine. But it better be amazing!”

“Don’t you worry. I say it is, so it is!” The boy grinned and started to run, leading her away.

Aisha sighed at her friend’s manner. Why was he always like this? It must be from his lifestyle of running around all the time unsupervised.

This boy was called Rayden Shire; he was the only child around close to her age who was still alive, so it was natural that they would become friends. The two had met when they were young, and they were each other’s only companions to play with all day. Rayden now traveled all over the area, searching for food and shelter as he was left homeless - though he was always sure to come by and bother Aisha every once in a while. He had once had a sister, a fair young lady who took care of him since his parents were gone. Aisha remembered her pretty blue eyes. She also remembered the dull gray they had become the day Rayden dragged her onto a Disposal truck last spring. Ever since then, he would run away irregularly and visit when he felt like it, saying he was “independent” and “too good” for Food Distributions or a permanent home. While his flippant attitude never failed to appall Aisha, she knew she really had nothing else to do to fill her days with besides follow him around.

They ran past a dreary park, hopped over the stones of a creek, and traveled through a dead forest until they came to a street sign. MAIN STREET, it said. Suddenly, Aisha was discouraged.

“Actually, let’s not go here…” she said slowly.

“It’ll be fine,” Rayden answered, having been long aware of her fear. Ever since last spring, he understood her feelings a little more. “C’mon. You can close your eyes if you need to.”

She did as she was told, knowing how many houses were on main street, as well as how many people. And also, how many of those people were bound to be tossed out by this time of day. Reluctantly, she put her arm out. Rayden took it and led her down the long sidewalk, telling her when to step over something. Walking past them, even he could not stand the sight of a face that seemed to look straight at him.
Eventually, he told her it was safe to look and they continued down a winding road that led to a field of frozen, dry grass. Surveying their surroundings, they noticed the emptiness of the field. Strangely, it did not seem as lonely as when they were in the midst of town; an open field seemed more natural than a lifeless city.

“Ah, there it is!” Rayden exclaimed as some tall grasses came into view. He sprinted towards it, paying no attention to the girl behind him. “Aisha, check this out!”

“Just wait, will you!” she called as she tried to keep up with him. “Slow down…” But he had already disappeared into the grass. Aisha arrived at the area and pushed through the grass. “What is it you wanted to show me anyway..?”

There Rayden stood, next to a pond. It was a fairly sized body of water, and it was unlike anything she had ever seen. It was different from the ones near where she lived, for this one actually showed signs of life. Although there were a few icy patches on the surface, Aisha could clearly see how quickly it flowed and sparkled in the sun. Looking closer, she thought she could make out some fish as well.

“Wow,” she said, fascinated. This is so…weird.”

“That’s all you can say? ‘Weird?’ Well, that may be so, but in a good way. When I found this, it really put my mind at ease. It reminded me of all the little sparkly things in life, and made me forget all the difficult stuff, like finding food or a place to sleep. It might even provide me with those things anyway. It’s a true sanctuary. I think it’ll make a nice hangout spot in the summer, how about you?”

“Yeah. Let’s go here again!” Aisha was unaware of her excited tone, but she couldn’t help it. This was pretty amazing after all. After being afraid of the outdoors for so long, she had forgotten how beautiful it could be.

“All right. But it’s getting dark now, so we better head back soon.”

The two of them picked up a few stones by the side of the water and tossed them in, listening to the plunk and observing the water ripples. It was quite peaceful. Then they traveled back the way they came and arrived at the abandoned building again. The sky was a dark blue by then, and Rayden decided it was time to say goodbye again.

“See ya. Not sure when I’ll be back, but I think I will be!” he waved as he turned away and went off in a random direction.

“Hey, wait! Can’t you…” But he was already gone. “Why, that little…” Aisha sat down against the building and sighed. She did have a lot of fun that day, and was happy to see her friend again. But the thing that bothered her most about him was how much he made her worry. He rarely could tell her when he would return, and she would spend the days he was gone wondering if he was still alive. She rested her aching legs as she thought about something else, but tried to get it out of her mind.

Lately, Rayden was looking thinner. He sometimes appeared a little sick too…

Aisha stood up and tried to convince herself that he would be back again.




MARCH

The day was the warmest it had been in a while, and the long-forgotten sun was melting the patches of snow, when Aisha’s grandpa got sick. He was always a fragile man, rarely getting off the couch during the day, but one morning he got an awful cough accompanied by a terrible headache. He told Aisha not to worry about it, that it was only a symptom of his old age. Still, she could not shake the fear that his illness could escalate into something worse, and she set out to get him some medicine.

Of course, medicine was not relied upon to stop the Gray from consuming its victim; it was only a way of relieving the ill’s suffering temporarily. And it could only work for some time before nothing could ease their pain.

Stepping timidly out the door and surveying the streets for any deceased, Aisha thought about the possibility that her grandpa was beginning to be affected by the Gray. Of course, regular colds and flues still occurred, which had no relation to the deadly illness; but when the Gray first appeared in its victims, it seemed like a regular temporary affliction. The only way she could find out how much trouble he was in was to wait a while and see if his health continued to deteriorate. Anxiety gave her stomach a queasy feeling. This feeling occurred whenever Aisha thought about the Gray taking away the only people she had.

Because more than anything, she was afraid of being alone. No, she could not face the empty, gray world without Grandpa, and it was pretty boring without Rayden too. If they were to disappear, she would have no one. And the thought of being left alive all alone scared her more than the Gray taking her own life.

Aisha tried to focus on the matter at hand. She had to walk to the center of the city, where Citizen Aid was located. This organization to help the city’s remaining population was where she got her food every week. It also supplied people jugs of water, medicine, and sacks to carry the dead. She continued to walk the empty streets, thankful that the only bodies she passed were covered up. The sun’s bright light, which usually cheered her up after the cold winter, could not cease the uncertainty that continued to creep up in the back of her mind. She felt relieved when she finally reached the area.

It was a large circle in the center of many old buildings. Several tents were set up, crowded with people trying to collect all they could. Aisha hurried over to the medicine tent and pushed her way through the noisy crowd. She waited for a while until she got the attention of a young man working behind the large table.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said over the voices of many once they had made eye contact. “I need something for my sick relative.”

“What’s he got?” the man asked, not seeming too interested.

“Umm… I’m not sure, actually. But he seems to be in a lot of pain.”

“Hm.” The man walked over to one of the boxes behind the table and lifted a bottle out of it. “Here,” he said indifferently as he tossed it to Aisha.

Aisha looked at the bottle. Aspirin, it said. “Thank you very much…” As she tried to thank the man, she noticed he had already turned away and was talking with another citizen.

Satisfied enough by getting the bottle, Aisha pushed her way out of the crowd again. Though the man’s attitude did not please her, she knew it was to be expected. There’s no use in getting worked up over one sick person when half the world was dying.

She made it to an open area and attempted to look around to see where she could exit. A group of four people dressed in white caught her eye. They were handing out pamphlets promoting some cause they were prattling on about. Curious as to who they were, Aisha furtively stepped around their space. She now saw that on the backs of their white suits were black printed letters reading REVIVAL TROOPS OF AMERICA. Aisha wondered about this. Revival? Of what? Still clutching the bottle of aspirin, she stepped into the small crowd around them. The people around her were murmuring amongst themselves.

One of them, a man, was speaking. “So you see, good people, there is yet hope for this crumbling world. We are here to show you the way to a bright new place filled with hope…”

Aisha groaned and turned away. She had heard people like this before. People who claimed to have discovered a cure for the Gray that would reshape the universe or some nonsense like that. At first, they had gotten her attention; but she soon realized that they were all either out of their minds or trying to scam people into supporting their cause. There was no cure for the Gray, there never would be, and Aisha always figured those people were just spouting their words because they had nothing better to do until they died.

But then, the man in white said something that caught her attention. “…willing to cater to the needs of any afflicted person absolutely free…”

She turned around again and listened a bit more. “Yes,” the man said. “All you need to do is enter your name in our lottery and we will select one hundred people; their whole family shall be accounted for…”

This was something Aisha had never heard of. A program for caring for the sick? There were still hospitals, but due to space issues they had begun rejecting patients with the Gray long ago. Did these people mean that those with the Gray would be covered?

Now wildly curious, Aisha took a pamphlet from a smiling woman and rushed out of the city center. She read it on the way home. It turned out that yes, there was an organization out there dedicated to helping the ill. They would house them in a nice health center, feed them three meals a day, and provide all the medicine they needed to ease their pain. The purpose of all this was to hopefully keep the Gray from taking complete effect for a while longer, prolonging their lives. This would lead to an increased population, thus, the “revival,” and perhaps be the start of a healthier people altogether. They would also work on finding a cure for the Gray, a feat doctors had given up on long ago. It seemed a bit ridiculous to Aisha, yet gave her some hope. Only one hundred families in the whole country… One side of the pamphlet was for her to fill out her information to be entered in the drawing.

Then maybe Grandpa will be okay? She thought to herself. The small excitement the idea gave her lasted the rest of her walk home.

“Grandpa, I’m back!” she called, shutting the door behind her. “I got you some medicine, so let’s hope it helps.” She did not mention any word of the Revival Troops.

Her grandpa was on the couch, snoring. Aisha decided not to wake him and placed the bottle of aspirin on the table beside the couch, along with a glass of water. She sat on the floor for a while, allowing ideas to buzz through her head. They’ll take care of Grandpa, and me too. Maybe we’ll live longer. Maybe… She tried to shake the foolish, dreamlike thoughts from her mind. But shamefully, they kept coming back to her. It was the only hope she had now for a better life.

Later that evening, Aisha went up to her room and filled out the card nervously. She then dropped it in her mailbox with the faintest glimmer of hope.




APRIL

Mid April. That past month, Aisha’s grandpa’s condition had not gotten any better. He would hack and moan in pain all day, gradually wearing away Aisha’s hope as she sat by his side. She had started to pray every night fiercer than ever that the Gray would not take Grandpa away, because she could not live without him. She too was beginning to feel tired and sick just being with him every day. While she wanted to care for him, seeing him the way he was slowly destroyed her mental state. There was no way to escape it; Rayden had not visited since that last time. Aisha would tell herself every day to just keep moving, as she had that one cold day in January while walking back home. Just keep getting through the days and everything would be all right.

She worried every morning that when she walked into the living room, her Grandpa would sit there, motionless. Relief would wash over her every time she neared the room and heard his breathing. She would wake him up with a smile and give him his medicine. Then another day would start. One more day with Grandpa.

One morning, her grandpa did not wake up. It seemed like a normal day, the birds chirping their songs as usual. Aisha walked into the living room with her grandpa’s medicine. The first thing she noticed was silence. No snoring, no breathing; the room was dead quiet.

It was at that moment that the Earth stopped spinning.

Alarmed, Aisha went to her grandpa and shook him, hoping he would open his old eyes once again and say good morning to her like he always did. But he did not answer. He just lay there, being shaken and not responding. He looked like he always did, a peaceful old man. But what little life that was left in him was no longer present.

As she realized he would never wake up, Aisha began shouting and shook him harder.

“Come on Grandpa, wake up! Wake up, you have to take your medicine! Wake up so you can live another day…” Aisha began to weep as it set in that her only family was now gone. She grabbed her grandpa’s lifeless hand, feeling no pulse. She let it drop and cried to herself on the floor, letting her tears soak the filthy carpet. Grandpa was gone. He was gone with the rest of them, forever.

After some time, Aisha stopped yelling at no one and stood up shaking. She had to leave. She could not stay there with her dead grandfather for one more minute. Hysterically, she fled her house, not caring to close the door, and ran. She ran past all the fresh bodies on the sidewalks, not knowing or caring where she would go. All she could think was, Why? Why did you leave, Grandpa? Don’t you know that I’m all alone now? At that moment, she just had to run away from it all, run away from this ugly gray world. But she would never get away. The Gray was all around her.

After running for who knows how long, Aisha collapsed on a grassy hill far away from town, exhausted. No one was around her, and she was free to cry. But she did not. She did not cry, or scream, or even think. She just sat there, staring into the empty sky in front of her. Grandpa was gone, and Rayden was not with her either. She was a lonely girl in the dark gray world.




MAY

Colors. That was what Aisha first noticed about the place; its walls were all different hues of the rainbow. She spent hours running around the building excitedly, observing the glorious blues, reds, greens, and yellows among others. Though it disturbed the other residents, she could not contain her exhilarating delight. Yes, it was a colorful place indeed.

“Do you need anything else?” a woman asked standing in the doorway of Aisha’s bright pink room.

“Mm, no thanks. I’m good,” Aisha replied as she nibbled her toast. The woman smiled and left.

Aisha sighed, her breakfast tray on her lap, and looked out the window. It was truly a beautiful day out, and she yearned to play in the sun and grass after being confined to the indoors for so long. But she had been told not to leave the center until everything was sorted out. She understood all that, but was now getting impatient. To lessen her boredom, she pulled out the coloring book she had found in her shiny new desk along with some crayons. Though these were intended for small children, they seemed very new to her.

As she colored, Aisha thought of all the different emotions that had overwhelmed her that past month. The grief of losing Grandpa, the surprise of learning she had been chosen for the Revival, the satisfaction she felt of having a home again. It all seemed so long ago now. Her gray world was replaced with one of bright, joyous colors.

Around noon, the founder of the center entered her room. He was a friendly-looking man who spoke with an optimism and confidence Aisha was not used to hearing.

“Hello, Aisha. Have you been getting used to life around here these past few days?” he asked, smiling.

“Oh. Yes, it’s pretty nice,” she answered genuinely. It was. She could not remember the last time she had felt so content. Even though her family was gone, she now felt like she had the strength to continue on. Something inside her that she could not describe told her that she was not alone and she would be fine.

“That’s wonderful. Your information has now been all sorted out now, so feel free to go outside if you wish – just be sure to tell one of your attendants.”

Aisha’s face lit up. “Thank you! Thank you very much. And…” She paused. “About that request I made before..?”

“Ah, yes! Don’t you worry; we’ve sent a team out to search for your friend. We’d be happy to welcome him here if you consider him family.”

Once again, Aisha grinned. She was so grateful she had to fight the urge to hug the man. That would be childish. So instead, she cleared her throat and said in a very mature tone, “Thank you.”

The man smiled back and walked out of the room. Aisha was eager to run outside and jump around, but first she opened her window and poked her head out. She smelled the fresh air and felt the sun on her face. Indeed, she could not wait to explore the outside, a stark contrast to the intimidation it had given her just months before. Now, Aisha wondered what the place Rayden had discovered looked like in the warmer months, and she looked forward to visiting it with him once he – hopefully – was found. She looked all around her. The grass, the trees, the sky; they no longer seemed so glum. Yes, the Gray still existed, but her life was no longer burdened with the fear of it - she was finally free. For the first time in her life, Aisha Bonnet looked outside and saw a bright, lively world.

For the first time, she saw the wonderful, colorful world that she lived in.





END.





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