Beauty’s Price

By
She was trapped.
Pounding wildly, her heart hammered against her chest. White strands of hair fell into ancient eyes; annoyed, she pushed them back. Crouching, she curled up timidly behind a thick oak.
Then, footsteps. Soft at first, they grew in intensity until they were a loud, roaring sound – a drumbeat signaling an execution. Frightened, she did not cry out, but instead, rocked back and forth, her dry, wrinkled hands forming a cage of protection around her knees. She was roughly sixty or seventy–she herself did not know for sure. The last time she had checked, she was born in the year 2500 or so. It was 2566.
Her life had been a monotone one. She did not remember her childhood clearly, except that it was long and tedious. All she knew was that she had been a factory worker all her life. As a child, she had been one of many working in a steel factory, pounding abstract shapes to frame the sides of elevated skyscrapers. Long hours she had worked, though how long, she couldn’t recall–ten a day, perhaps? Twelve? She didn’t remember.
Adulthood arrived at the tender age of sixteen. From then, she had transferred from the factory to the management office. There, she had recited boring orders over a complicated intercom system. The rules were harsh; children who did not complete their share of work received a series of electric shocks. The shocks grew in intensity as the number increased: the first shock, a warning; the second, a punishment; the third, death. Refusal to comply with any rules would result in immediate electrocution, no trial whatsoever. Any conspiracy plans were instantly revealed through the undercover police and punished with torture.
It was impossible for anyone to escape their occupation assigned by the government–you were a builder, a child-bearer, a police officer, a government official, a factory worker, a food producer, or a doctor. Once appointed, a person was required to stick to that path until the end of their life, which was determined not by age, but looks. Once a person lost their youthfulness, they were sentenced to death. Plastic surgery could buy them another five years–ten, if they were lucky. But ultimately, beauty was the most important trait for a worker. Attractive women and men were valued and allowed special privileges; ugly ones were scorned and tossed into the lowest class available. The same strict rules applied to everyone, but an exceptionally beautiful person was often exempted from the harsher ones.
The old woman was never very pretty in her younger years. But people had liked her, even though she was not beautiful by conventional standards –light hair and bright colored eyes with fair skin. Her hair had been much too brown, delving into the regions of black. Her eyes were too, a dark brown, the color of soggy mud. The poisonous fumes of the steel factory had eroded her skin, exposing her to a mild form of skin cancer. The long hours wearied her, revealing dark circles under her eyes. Her weight, too, had suffered; although she was not emaciated, she was not at a healthy weight for someone of her tall stature. Often exhausted, she looked like a ghost compared to the other beauties of her age – the lucky ones sentenced to work as government officials, food producers, doctors, child-bearers, or police officers. Not the factory workers – no, never the factory workers. They were a lower class all by themselves, even though they had no control over their birth status.
She sighed, inhaling the fresh air around her. She hadn’t breathed country air for what was it – fifty, sixty years? The city was heavily polluted from the car exhaust and toxic wastes released bluntly on the open streets. The government hadn’t needed to care about sanitary issues ever since the creation of child-bearers. Twenty percent of the women and men born were assigned that position, and as long as they were healthy, there was always a long line of humans to replace the dead ones. The value of a human life had dwindled down to practically nothing. One child dead was not going to disrupt a line of factory workers–for there constantly was another child to replace that one. And as always, a certain percentage of children were always taken better care of. If the factory manager liked you, then you were destined to live to at least sixteen, when you were transferred to a better station. If they didn’t like you, then you were only there to serve temporarily.
She was lucky, though – the factory manager had taken a liking to her, despite her meager looks. She was always provided an extra loaf of bread and cheese each morning and offered second helpings during evening meals. Of course, she was not to tell the other kids; in fact, she had never even known until much later. Meal portions were kept in secret and eaten alone. It wasn’t until her fellow workers had started to die off did she finally discovered the truth. And even then, she did not say anything. It wasn’t her business–survival was the first instinct.
Her second job as a factory manager was also one out of luck; she had somehow managed to grab the lucky spot. The other promotions that were offered included the repairmen, the undercover police (usually reserved for teenagers), the cleaners, and packagers. She had tried to be fair in her work, serving each child the usual portion of food that was required by the government. However, when children began randomly dying off because of the lack of nutrition, she received her first shock by the government inspector. You have to keep at least half of them healthy, he had told her. More, if you can, but half is usually already a great task. After all, food is limited.
And so she did. Out of tradition, she chose the strongest and prettiest children to give the bigger food portions to. She didn’t understand why there were limited food portions or why the factory didn’t order more; all she knew was that she wasn’t allowed to ask questions. Any questions asked would earn an electric shock; any questions asked about the government could result in electrocution. The more irrelevant the question, the worse the method used of imposing death.
In her mind, the footsteps echoed like bombshells dropping in a perfect rhythm. They–the police officers–would discover her any second now, crouched and huddled behind one of the last remaining trees in the country. Was it still a country? She couldn’t remember – any political information whatsoever was withheld from the public. There used to be something called journal keepers that reported information to people; however, journal keeping was not a job position, and therefore, was unacceptable to society. Any such person was instantaneously killed with the worse punishment–slow mental and physical torture. She did not know what the specific tortures were, but whoever did never came back.
The grass smelled sweet underneath her feet. There was hardly any green left in the world – only gray, black, and white. There was a lot of red, as well – red, according to the government officials, was used to symbolize power and prosperity. She often thought it was a rather frightening color, one used to intimidate people from speaking. But of course, she was wrong, clearly disillusioned; after all, the government was always right.
A one and a two and a three…the pitter-patter of steady feet ceased to frighten her. It was her time, after all. She was what? Sixty-six, perhaps? In her opinion, she looked like a course prune–something ugly and meant to be thrown away. She was no longer even decent looking. Everyone else around her had disappeared when they were forty or fifty, apparently having been killed. She was fortunate, though; by some miracle, she had been saved. Or perhaps forgotten about.

I shouldn’t be afraid, she told herself. I had an extremely long life. The government was right to come after me; it’s silly trying to hide from something that is inevitable. I will surrender without a fight and allow the nice young police officers to do as they wish. They can kill me, if they want to, as long as it is a nice, rapid blow to the head without much pain. The government was nice already to allow me to live so long.

Shakily, the old woman used the lowest branch of the tree to pull herself up. Afraid a moment ago, she no longer was. She was being selfish. She was not doing her duty as a citizen. After serving her time, there was no more use for her. She was too old, her voice too delicate to bark out orders into a microphone. She was too old to be any more use as a factory worker. Her time had come.

Determined, she stepped out from behind the last remaining oak tree.





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