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Under the Ash
Under the Ash
The cool ash and debris floats in the air and crunches under my feet as I walk towards the eviction site. I keep my head down, carefully avoiding the broken bits of rubble from the building. A haze of smoke still lingers against the charcoal gray sky, even though the fire was put out more than two days ago. I step on the building plaque, the eviction sticker still clinging over the compartment number, smeared with the black dust. A rose lies below it, similar to one my family put on our door to liven up the bleak décor. I turn my gaze elsewhere.
If it was a year ago, there would be Town Guards patrolling the eviction site, pointing their guns at any passerbys who dared to turn their heads at the sight of a flaming house or flicker an emotion at the sound of screams from its trapped inhabitants. Now the burnings happen too often, too many for the small group of authorities to control the aftermath. Evictions in Third Quarter are left for looting, where children and adults alike fight for any hidden treasures left in the burned compartment buildings. If you can find a valuable, you can name your price and feed your family for maybe two days or less.
The rule of eviction is simple: good citizens pay rent. Bad citizens don’t. Only good citizens live.
I know what I’ve come for.
The tell tale glint catches my eye from a garden plot. I kneel and dig my hands into the pile of ashes and dirt, filling my nose with the smell of smoke. I feel the hard, glossy lumps less than a foot down. When I withdraw my arms, my hands are full with emeralds.
I try not to fall to the mesmerizing gleam of their beauty and stuff the large jewels in my coat pocket. I bow my head and quickly murmur a prayer for the deceased, then one for my further protection.
Now that the deed is done, I feel so stupid for trespassing on this graveyard. I’ve never thought of myself as a thief, only someone who took former precisions that were really public property for survival. I’ve never had a connection to those I’ve looted.
A week ago, I had been walking to Ford’s Bend, the local market of Third Quarter, relishing the warm sun that had been hiding for several days. I passed a compartment building on Second Street with a white Squad truck parked by the curb. I dropped my head instinctively, in case there were Town guards watching the vehicle. Then something caught my attention.
There was a little girl kneeling by the garden plot tucked in between the compartments. In her hands were several emeralds, reflecting light so severely I squinted from its brightness, though I was several yards away. The girl seemed to be preparing to bury the jewels in the garden plot, looking every few moments at the window above her.
Transfixed, I took a few steps closer. The girl turned at the faint sounds of my footsteps, her eyes going wide with fear from being caught in the act. She quickly covered the emeralds in a deep hole with soil and looked back at me. She raised a quivering finger to her lips, her eyes pleading for mercy. I returned the gesture and nodded sympathetically.
The compartment door flung open. The girl ducked into the shadows, and I dropped my gaze to the cobbled street, fiddling with the soiled hem of my shirt. Two Town guards emerged, followed by an anxious, poor looking couple. The husband was supporting his quietly sobbing wife as the guards conversed, and then hustled the couple back inside the compartment. The guard slammed the door shut and rolled on an eviction sticker. The little girl whimpered.
If it was a year ago, it would have been considered bad luck to tread on the site of the evicted. The people of Third Quarter are very superstitious, but now most civilians are forced to degrade themselves to looting sites and risk “curses” to keep their families from starving to death.
I enter Ford’s Bend, frost biting at my callused soles. Wizened traders grin and beckon to me with toothless smiles, sniffing at the treasure in my pocket. I drop my gaze from the vendor tents, wrapping my coat tighter around my face against the late autumn wind.
I go to Unc Sy to trade. Before the revolution, he was an old family friend and a jeweler. He is the only merchant I allow myself to trust. At his tent made of animal skins and a child’s school desk, he greets me. After our salutations I hand him the jewels, checking if there were any passerby watching our exchange. He closes his long, bony fingers around them, moistening his puckered lips. After a short inspection, he nods assent and draws a handful of coins from a drawstring bag. I count the coins carefully. He only gave me five coins, which won’t buy more than one slice of bread. Fury burns on my face.
I turn to leave, feeling the small coins in my frozen hands. A sudden sob threatens to rack my body. My thin shoulders tremble as I try to warm my stiff fingers in my armpits. A single salty tear makes a trail through my smudged cheek. I double over in pain as pangs of hunger stab the lining of my stomach, but I keep limping down the street so I can scrounge for food before nightfall.
There’s a small sound behind me and I turn. Unc Sy motions me over. I shuffle back to his stall, still bent over in agony. He wears a sad expression of sympathy and shakes his bag over the table. Two bronze coins clatter onto the wood. I slowly pick up the colds pieces of metal as a hint of rue crosses the merchant's face. I slip the money into my pockets and leave the stall, smiling to myself as the promise of food rattles against my thigh. I almost forget to limp, and Unc See looks at me suspiciously. He has good reason to.
The wind bites at my flesh and howls inside me as I walk down Gullard lane. The warm feeling of victory at the market has dissolved, and guilt lies heavy in my stomach. What have I become? First taking the valuables of a dead child, then trading it for all of an old man's pay. Even the coins I have been given won't feed everyone for long, especially with the rising inflation for food.
Bits of ice scratch my cheeks as I enter my square when I smell something. Smoke. The smell sends me running to the rows of rundown compartment buildings as the stench grows stronger, forming a cloud around one building. A Town truck is parked in front of a compartment with a single flower on the door, its petals withering from the heat. The breath catches in my throat.
The last thing I see is the eviction sticker on the door as my home goes up in flames.