Faces This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

July 13, 2011
The building's face has eyes, set high and barred among concrete cheekbones, but there is no mouth or even a set of stairs leading to an underground entrance. If the building has a voice, they have shut it up inside. Vents on the wall facing Nebraska Street exhale heat that smells like old age and library books. Above the rusty tin roof, a contrail is threaded like floss through the blue cotton sky. Amelia said the place is like the people it hides; almost breathing, almost living, all senses and no mouth. If you've seen it, you've wondered at least once what it would tell you if it could, but Amelia and I knew enough not to ask.

We used to drive past it on the evenings after gymnastics or trips to the Blockbuster video rental, when summer rolled over the windshield and our Dave Mathews CD mixed with barking dogs and airplanes. The building crouched between strip malls and the prairie, surrounded by a halo of purple grass and water treatment plants. Like the sewage facilities, we always knew it was a filter, trapping those who refused to shrink for the good of the system.

Amelia was my best friend in tenth grade. I tried to understand when she told me that those people in there, they were real, like us, just the victims of bad choices. Most of the choices weren't even their own. It reminded me of my little brother and the scar on his left ribs that stayed until he was nine. Mom had left the coffee pot too close to the edge of the counter, and when he reached it, spilling wet fire down his blue shirt, we knew it wasn't really his fault.

Over Spanish homework and soy lattes, Amelia explained that this was bigger. Over the years, it surfaced in her research papers and when we joined debate, it came up in one of her cases. She defended it and won, even when the opponent was a guy I thought I liked.

I remembered a quote I read in eighth grade about brave men and bad wars that was summed up with "our casualties were low." The building, the well-meaning organization inside -- both were veils of language and ideals draped over the truth.
Amelia was always talking about raising awareness.
"I don't know how society keeps overlooking things like this. It's like the Vietnamese eating dogs. We're animals. People just look the other way, even when they've got the facts, even when the numbers are right in front of them."

The numbers were there. Lives were there too, along with all the mute stories, contrails crossed and layered into patchwork clouds above the stained tin roof. It was always evaporating. It was too distant.

As startling as it was, the statistics and cold textbook definitions of suffering were not enough. We saw the building, the charming logo, the news stories, the clippings of articles on Amelia's wall as I watched her apply to law school. Hints were everywhere, but they were too timid to become concrete -- I realized that the only way to give voice to the problem behind the masks was to someday show people the faces.





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