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The Other Side of Darkness
She felt the rush of adrenaline start in her fingertips as she moved the curtain, allowing light to dance across the dusty wooden floor.
Outside, the trees were on fire in scarlet and gold...exactly how she had remembered Autumn to be. The crisp cool air biting her nose and cheeks, giving her face a rosy glow. It was her favorite season.
And Emily had to experience it through her foggy window in the attic. But she felt blind to the world. She could only see what life held in the cracks. The orange leaves that used to comfort her now seemed to be mocking her, laughing as she stood, a prisoner, behind perpendicular bars. She would never again be able to soak up their energy, leaning against the bark of the tree as she dozed off to sleep. Now she wouldn't be caught dead outside of these four walls, let alone amidst the shadows of the trees.
How big the world looks from up here, Emily closed the curtain, and look how small I am.
Yes, the world still spins. The earth still breathes and the birds sing and the sun paints itself across the sky in the morning. And all without Emily. She wanted to cry but couldn't find the strength, she cried herself to sleep last night.
Yes, the world still spins and Emily lies on the floor simply watching the days go by. One gets a sense of how precious the good times are when it becomes a mere memory. Stowed away in your brain to keep you sane and torture you.
But drowning in endless silence gave Emily a lot of time to write. She was eleven years old, as of yesterday, and while most eleven year olds didn't care for poetry, words were Emily's only companions, now. She picked up the pen and journal she got for her birthday and began to write:
anger spilled across bed sheets
sadness in four white walls
happiness is a distant dream
don't let them know I'm breathing
And the ebony leaves continued to cascade down the tree and into the soil, unnoticed.
There was a time when she lived through the wind, when she was one with the soil. When the morning sunrise melted into the sapphire horizon and it reflected in her curious eyes. There was a time when a child was allowed to be a child.
Now Emily sits flipping through memories, ink sinking into her mind. She once laughed at her clumsy handwriting, but it was this very ability to be clumsy and without fault that Emily missed the most. The girl whose journal she was reading was not the same Emily. That Emily wrote about the trees and the beauty of the birds and the grass, the flowers and the dreams and the questions.
She even hated her name. It was the name her parents gave her, the name that was on her birth certificate that was burned to the ground. Emily meant ashes, guilt, torment, invisibility. Emily was nothing.
Her finger landed on one particular page and her wandering eyes fixed upon the date: October 5, 2050. Her birthday. Two years ago. The day her life changed.
Emily closed her eyes and felt herself rewinding time until she landed head first into her memories of that day.
“Emily, be quiet!”
“Emily get up in the attic, you mustn’t be seen!
“But mommy it’s my birthday and Trae's coming over and–”
“Emily we’ll celebrate your birthday another day.”
Emily could feel her mother pulling her by the arm, dragging her up flights of stairs. She had to suppress her tears because every time she let out a sob there was a sharp response from her mother. It was the first time Emily’s mother had ever snapped at her. Waves of guilt washed throughout her body, though Emily didn’t know what she had done wrong.
On that particular birthday everything was taken away from her: her name, her best friend, her garden, her family.
There is no Emily Smith.
Not according to the government anyway. In their records there are four people in the Smith family on Hubbell Mountain Road. Lucy Smith is married to Steven Smith and they have twin sons, Nathan and Alexander, who are away at college.
Emily does not exist.
But this was what the new government had wanted. Limiting the amount of children had worked so well for other countries so why not America? The land of the free had forced children out of their homes and away from their families. A country that provided safety for so many people had made Emily’s every day a living he**.
But that’s what is in the fine print for freedom. Emily’s brothers get to go to college because she is hiding in the attic. Steven Smith is able to run for Mayor because he is pretending that his family is perfect.
Lies. Liars. Lying. That is all America really is.
Emily closed the tattered journal and threw it across the floor. Had it really been two years in this attic? She wondered. Emily scanned the small room and noticed her painting set, complete with an easel. Her parents have been giving her more gifts over the years because she read all of the books and newspapers they owned and she guessed they felt a little bit of guilt. Irony reminded Emily that she had always imagined herself a scientist, exploring the world around her and now she is forced to paint what she could not touch.
Emily picked up the paintbrush with a sigh and stabbed it into the black paint beside the easel. She covered the white canvas in darkness. She turned her head to look at the quote that her mother had written across the wall above her bed “A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.” It was by Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the most famous artists. Momma believes that I will see light one day. That I have to live in the dark to see the light. Why doesn’t she have to live in the dark? Why only me? Emily continued slashing the smooth ivory paper with black, hoping that a trap door would appear and she could escape.
She really can’t complain too much, after all pop said much worse things happened to children like her who go outside. My father said I should be lucky to be alive.
Emily’s eyes narrowed and she grabbed her paintbrush and walked slowly towards the wall. Her left hand quivered with anger as she wrote:
You said I’m lucky to be alive.
But what is living if I can’t go outside.
I might as well be dead,
if this is living.
Emily had thought often about just escaping or giving herself up, awaiting whatever treachery could possibly be in store for her. But her father was a man of power, of influence and reputation. If she stepped foot out of her house and someone saw her, her father would lose his job and the community’s respect. Of course everything would be her fault and she had done nothing wrong except being born.
The door creaked open and a startled Emily dropped the paintbrush onto the floor. Her mother stood in the doorway with brunch and a quickly fading smile.
“Emily Rose Smith! What is that on the wall?! Did you write tha–what am I talking about, of
course you did. Why did you have to take such a nice birthday present and ruin it? What would
your father say?!”
Yup, everything was her fault.
“Momma what do you expect me to paint? You let my flowers die again.”
Emily's mother fixed her freshly pressed argyle sweater and licked her finger to tuck the stray hairs behind her ear. Lucy Smith was not a woman who ever dressed down, even when doing dishes. Appearance was everything.
“You know gardening was never my strong point you can't criticize me for that. Here I am bringing you a nice meal and I see that you painted all over the walls like a child.”
“Mom I'm eleven. I'm supposed to be a child. I'm supposed to run outside and get my hands dirty and you're supposed to scold me and tell me to wash them before coming in for dinner.”
Her mother's face softened and the guilt glistened in her eyes.
“Well, honey...you you know why you can't do that and so your father and I try to make the best of your situation here. We're trying to keep you happy.”
Emily's eyes darkened and she responded in a low voice. “Keep me happy, really? Do I look happy? Have I ever been happy?”
Mrs. Smith placed the tray on a table beside the door, turned on her heel, and left mumbling to herself. Emily laughed, no one understands how I feel. They pretend they do but if any one of them were locked in an attic for two hours they would go crazy. Try two years.
Emily didn't even know what time it was when her momma brought her up a bucket of soapy water and a sponge to wash the wall. Her watch had died about a week ago and she was not about to tell pop that it needed new batteries because he had more 'pressing matters' to attend to. Because re-election campaigns were more important than his daughter he locked in an attic. Of course.
The Smith's were the perfect family, Emily watched the words bleed as she pushed the sponge to the wall, there is the perfect housewife and the perfect Mayor. The perfect twin sons who both got scholarships to Temple University. The perfect house with a perfect stone wall leading from the road to the walk-way. Only the trees know our secret, and they tell each other in the howling wind at night.
That night the wind was brutal, slamming the tree branches against the window. Emily felt as though they were trying to point to her, directing the outside world directly into her room. She almost wished someone would come in the night and snatch her. This thought eased her mind and put a smile on her face as she dozed off to sleep.
Emily was deep in morning slumber when she was awoken by the slamming of doors and someone's high pitched scream. It was piercing and made her heart shrink. It wasn't her momma's, the commotion was coming from across the street. The woman's voice was running a million times a minute.
“No! It can't be. Maybe he's just sleeping. You know how he's a deep slee–” she cut off as though she knew she was wrong.
It almost sounds like Mrs. Daniels. But that means. No. NO. Emily hadn't heard from Trae in two years, she assumed he was hiding in his house just as she was hiding in hers. She knew they would never give him up.
The cries from across the street became painful sobs. Each deep breath from Mrs. Daniels attacked Emily's throat as she attempted to swallow down her fear. I'm sure Trae is fine. Maybe their dog died, is Duke even still alive? It has to be Duke. He was an old dog, it was his time to go. But the fear crept up her spine and poisoned her mind. Emily's craving to know the truth thickened.
“Molly, honey, please calm down.” Emily recognized Mr. Daniels' voice. He could stand in the center of a burning building and be calm. “We're going to get to the bottom of this, I promise.” His voice quivered a little which made Emily nervous. Mr. Daniels was not a man to admit defeat, he was the cement that held everyone together.
Unfortunately the Daniels' did get to the bottom of the situation. Emily's parents didn't think that she could hear them whisper downstairs but when removing a few of the loose floor board it was easy to make out the words.
“Steven are you saying that he killed himself? He's twelve. How does a twelve year old boy learn about such things?” Emily's mother was the easiest to make out, she was never good at keeping her voice down.
“Honey, please lower your voice I don't want Emily to hear such things.”
Too late, Emily thought to herself, but were they telling the truth? Had Trae killed himself on purpose?
His parents loved him more than anything; they were the kindest souls in the neighborhood. Emily had often considered herself their adopted daughter because growing up she spent more time there than at her house. It's not that she didn't love her parents, she did, she was just the weird little girl who liked climbing trees instead of wearing pretty dresses and playing with dolls. Emily's mother still wore pretty dresses and played with dolls.
Emily's mother continued “Molly told me the other day that she and Trae had gotten into a little fight. He wanted to see Emily. Or wanted to speak to her to wish her a happy birthday. She said he said this last year on her birthday.”
“And what happened?”
“Well, of course she said no and he became furious. You know that boy isn't the kind to raise his voice to his mother like that. But he told her that he could handle living the way he did, but unknowing of Emily's whereabouts is what killed him.”
Something in Emily snapped. A monster crawled into her mouth and screamed down the crack in the floor “HOW COULD YOU LET THIS HAPPEN?”
Her parents jumped and looked up towards the ceiling, both faces flushed when they realized Emily had heard everything.
“Honey what did you –”
But Emily cut them off. The monster had the floor. “You know we're best friends. If he wanted to see me on my birthday why didn't you? You keep us locked in our houses like we're prisoners and look where that got you. Trae is dead. And it's all your fault!” Emily burst into tears and collapsed on the floor. The monster was raging inside of her like a tiger in a cage, clawing to get out but the sobs were overpowering.
Emily's parents tried comforting her all night. But no amount of hugs, especially her mother's, could bandage the pain that coursed through her veins. Nothing made sense to her anymore. I could understand if I died, but Trae...Trae was better than me in every way. He was. Beautiful. He was... Her thoughts hung over her head like a darkened cloud preparing to rain. Even in the pitch-black room she felt the quote on the wall throbbing in her head. Trae was my...my. Light.
But as the night grew long she contemplated this thought. Maybe she was the light, a fire burning. She always thought her momma was insane telling her to 'find the light in the darkness' but what if she was the light in a world of darkness?
Pacing around the room, a million conclusions raced through her mind. She finally decided what she had to do. Emily had no more fear of the outside world or what it may bring, because inside her was a flame that would never die. She opened the window and felt the cold wind whispering, welcoming her.
Emily climbed down the twisted vines and escaped into the darkness.