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Shades Of Gray
I walked swiftly through the empty parking lot. Off to my left, a huge landfill marred the site. The air around me was dusty and gray, just like everything else. The entire planet earth was totally gray now, with he occasional black or brown.
I shivered as I slid into my house.
“Mom, I’m home!” I shouted into the dusty gray room. Mom came around the corner, carrying a tray of food. I grimaced at the gray lumps. But of course, that’s all we have to eat now.
I walked into my room, carefully shutting the door behind me. I turned around and flipped on the light switch for the single bare bulb that lit up my room. When I was seven, mom had painted over the windows in an attempt to bring some comfort into the scene. There was a mural of a huge meadow, something I had never scene. There were things called flowers, and horses. Again, things I had only read about in books. Silhouetted against the bright painting, I could see the heaps of trash outside.
I turned around and looked at my bulletin board. There were pictures there, of me and mom, and of dad. Mom looked different in the pictures. She looked younger, and cleaner. Her hair hung in brown curls to her shoulders, and her blue-gray eyes twinkled merrily. She had laugh lines on her face, and she was hugging me. Only one picture of dad. Mom had only told me about dad only once, because it hurt to talk about him.
She said that he had gone to a rally in Washington DC, back when there was still a government. The food was running out, the land was dying, and people were scared. At the time, the Pacific ocean had been more than three-quarters full of garbage, and the entire Amazon rainforest had been cut down. The protesters had been peaceful, but they were all killed. The police had been called, and they were all shot. It was on TV, back when people had those. Dad had died in the hospital the next day. Mom had been pregnant with me at the time.
Another picture was pinned up on my board, one that I had cut out of a National Geographic magazine I had found in one of the piles of garbage. It was Earth.
Only this was Earth as I had never seen it before. It was all green and blue, with only a few brown spots. And the brown wasn’t even garbage. There were huge mountains and beautiful, glittering seas. There were expansive forests full of life, and vast, sandy deserts. It was an awesome sight, and one I would never see.
I sighed as my fingers traced over the picture. I had once asked mom how the world had changed so much. Now, if you looked at the world from space, you would see only a sphere of gray and black. Even the once beautiful oceans were filled from bottom to top with trash.
Mom’s face had gotten all sad as she spoke, the way she looked when she talked about dad.
“Rich people, the people in charge of our government, got to power hungry. They decided to keep most of the money and power to themselves, and threw away the garbage and waste carelessly. But it wasn’t just the people in charge. The ordinary people didn’t do anything either. We all just let things go on until it was to late. We polluted and ruined our planet.” She had sighed and looked away from me, and I knew our talk was over.
I sighed and flopped down on my cot. I pulled the blankets over my head and closed my eyes. I stayed there until mom called me out for dinner.
I sat down at our table and picked restlessly at my gray food.
Hoarding all the power and money didn’t really help anybody, in the end, I thought. Once food ran out, because there was no more land suitable to farm, the government had had to eat exactly what everyone else did. Garbage.
I looked up at mom. Her face is always the same. She always looks sad, and very tired. She never smiles. I can barely remember when she did smile. When I was about three, I can remember her lifting me up into her arms with a warm smile on her face. I can’t remember any other time. She has wrinkles on her face, although she isn’t that old. The blue-gray eyes that I inherited from her are always hopeless, and tired.
I bit my lip as I stared at my food.
“Are you okay?” Mom asked. I sighed.
“Mom, is it possible for the world to re-grow. To become good again?” I asked. She blinked, surprised. Then she sighed.
“I don’t think so. You would need somewhere to put all of the trash, and a way to bring back all of the animal and plant species we lost. I don’t know if it’s possible for Earth to heal from something like that.” she said sadly.
“Why didn’t anybody do anything, when the world started getting polluted?” I demanded. Mom sighed. She gave me a sad smile.
“Some people did. Some people tried to stop it, but they were far outnumbered. It is very easy to tell yourself that it’s not happening, that it isn’t real. When people tried to warn them, they refused to listen.” Mom shook her head sadly. “And then it was to late. I think most people simply refused to believe it could get this bad.” she gave me a small, sad, tired smile, and then went back to eating. I looked back at my plate, but didn’t eat anything more.
I went back to my room and pulled my pajamas over my head. They were torn and threadbare, as I had not had new ones since I was eight or nine. As I was drifting off to sleep, I heard a frantic pounding on the front door.
I jumped out of bed and ran to the door. Mom was already answering.
“Who is it?” I called. Mom stepped aside wordlessly. I stared as a woman stumbled over the threshold, into the house.
She was clutching a baby in a blanket to her chest, and towing a girl who looked about my age by the hand.
“Please,” the woman rasped. “Please, my baby is sick and hungry, and my daughter needs food. Please.” her eyes fixed on mom’s face, and I saw more sympathy there than I had ever seen in my life.
“Of course.” she said. The woman sagged against the wall with relief. The girl dragged her feet over to our couch, and sat down. Mom took the other woman by the shoulders and led her into the kitchen. I walked over to the girl, watching her in fascination. I had never seen another human being before, besides mom. Her eyes flipped open suddenly, and she watched me intently.
“Who are you?” I whispered. Her lips opened, and when she spoke, her voice was weak and tired.
“Terra.” she said. “It’s Italian for earth. Who are you?” she said.
“Nick.” I said. “It’s short for Nicholas. It’s english.” I added. She leaned her head back with her eyes closed and a small smile on her lips. My questions burst out of me so fast, my tongue tripped over itself.
“How old are you? Where are you from? Who was the woman with you? Why did you stop here? How-” she cut me off by raising a hand. To my surprise, she was grinning.
“Slow down. I’m fourteen, I’m from Wisconsin, the woman was my mother, Teresa, who is Italian. We stopped here because we had nothing to eat, and my sister is very sick. And if you want to know, her name is Speranza, which means hope in Italian.” She informed me.
“Oh.” I said. I bit my lip, trying to hold back my questions. She grinned at me again.
“It’s okay, I don’t mind the questions.” she told me. I nodded, and went to sit down next to her. She told me her story.
Terra was born in what was left of Madison, Wisconsin. Her mother hadn’t been able to find enough food for them once Speranza was born, though. So they had left Wisconsin, heading for nowhere in particular. They had just entered Pennsylvania when Speranza had gotten sick. This was the first inhabited house they had come to.
I listened avidly. I had never seen a girl before, except for mom, and Terra was not what I would have expected. She was very vibrant, and full of life. She was also the first person I had ever seen smile twice in five minutes.
I fell asleep curled up on the ground by the couch that night. Terra slept sprawled on the couch. She had told me that she had been sleeping on piles of garbage for nearly five months.
When I woke up, I groaned and rolled over. I was stiff from staying curled into a ball all night, and from sleeping on the floor. I sighed and sat up.
Terra was still asleep. I watched her sleep, noticing what she looked like for the first time. Her blonde hair was dirty, and her face was smudged with dust and grime. The backs of her eyelids were a light purple color. Her shoulders rose and fell slowly as she slept. She was very thin, and I thought her hands could probably circle her waist.
I got up and went to the kitchen. I wished we had something other than gray chunks to give them. I got a plastic dish out and filled it with our lousy excuse for food. I put the dish in front of Terra, on the ground, and then I went outside.
I stared up at the sky. It was gray, like everything else in this world.
How can people have let this happen? I wondered miserably. I sighed as I walked around, kicking pieces of trash.
“Hey, Nick.” somebody said quietly from behind me. I whirled around. Terra was there, smiling shyly at me.
“Oh, it’s you. You scared me.” I said, smiling back. She walked next to me for a while, and we talked. We talked about our past, the future, the earth, our families, and all kinds of things.
“So how old are you?” Terra asked, balancing carefully on a metal pipe looking object. I shrugged.
“Fifteen.” I told her. She nodded absently. Suddenly, she slipped. She shouted in pain as she landed and her ankle twisted sideways. She toppled over and I leaped to my feet.
“Owww...” she moaned.
“Terra! Are you okay?” I demanded. She shook her head, gritting her teeth. I carefully examined her ankle, while she winced in pain.
“It’s just sprained.” I said. She nodded, grimacing. I helped her to her feet, supporting most of her weight. She leaned on me with her eyes shut tight.
I grunted as she limped forward one step. She was actually fairly light, all things considered, but it was still awkward trying to walk with her.
Suddenly she gasped. At first I thought she was in pain again, and I tried to shift my weight so she would be more comfortable, but then she whispered, “Look.”
I turned and looked at her first, but then I saw that her eyes were open. I followed her gaze to see a something I never thought I would. The pipe had shifted slightly when Terra had fallen, revealing it. I recognized it immediately, from the mural on my windows.
“It’s a flower.” I breathed. She looked at me curiously.
“What’s a flower?” she asked.
“A plant.” I said, staring at it in disbelief. Terra shook her head, staring at it in wonder.
“How did it get here?” I murmured. I took a step towards it, and Terra shouted in pain again. In my excitement, I had forgotten her ankle was hurt.
“Sorry, sorry!” I said quickly.
I helped her get home, and then paused with my hand on the doorknob.
“Don’t tell them about the flower, okay?” I said. She nodded, her eyes blazing. For the first time, I noticed that they were a very clear, intense shade of green, like the picture of Earth on my bulletin board. I grinned and pushed the door open.
Instantly, Terra’s mother was all over her, and Terra was assuring her she was fine, and mom was trying to find the last few aspirin we had. I slunk away into my room. After a few minutes, Terra joined me.
She walked over to my bulletin board and looked at all the pictures.
“What’s this?” she asked, pointing to the picture of Earth.
I rolled to my feet and went to stand next to her.
“Earth.” I said. “Before.” Terra gasped. She leaned in to examine the picture.
“It’s beautiful.” she whispered.
“Yes.” I agreed. “It is.”
“I used to wonder,” Terra said, leaning back from the picture, “Why mom named me after the earth. I thought she meant it as an insult. But now I think she must have been naming me after this.” Terra reached out and touched the picture, gently tracing the shape of one of the oceans. I smiled, thinking of her eyes again.
“I bet your mom took one look at your eyes and immediately thought of this.” I gestured to the picture. Terra smiled at me.
That night, Terra slept in my room. I gave her the cot, and piled some blankets on the floor for my bed. She protested that she didn’t need the bed, that she could sleep on the floor just as well as I could. But I reminded her of her ankle, and she gave in.
We stayed up very late that night, talking about the flower.
“As soon as your ankle’s better, we’ll go see the flower again.” I promised. I could see her smile, even in the dark.
“Sounds like a plan.” she whispered.
But it was another week before Terra’s ankle was completely healed. We sat around at the house all day and watched Speranza run around. She had recovered remarkably well from her illness, and she was now on her feet, running around and getting into all sorts of trouble.
But then Terra was better, and it was time to check on the flower. We raced out the door and into the wasteland. We followed the same path as last time, until we found our flower. I knelt down next to it, and Terra crouched next to me.
The stem of the flower was a vivid green, with three small, veined leaves stretching out from it. The delicate petals were a dark purple. I touched one lightly with my finger. It was soft and velvety, like nothing I had ever felt before. The pollen in the center of the flower was brilliant yellow. The whole thing was beautiful, and so much more colorful than anything I had ever seen before.
Terra leaned over and smelled the flower. She sat up, smiling hugely.
“It smells like heaven.” she said. I grinned.
I looked around us. Garbage was heaped in piles all around us, and the depressing gray seemed to loom closer, threatening to engulf the tiny flower. As I sat there staring, a plan began to form in my mind.
“Let’s clear some of the garbage away.” I said. Terra looked up at me, puzzled.
“Where should we put it?” she asked. I frowned, unsure.
“I don’t know. For now, let’s just pile it up a little more. We’ll think of a better place later.” I said. Terra nodded.
“Sure.” she said.
We spent the next hour clearing away trash from the flower. By the time the light was fading from the sky, we had barely made a dent in the garbage.
“We’re coming back tomorrow.” Terra said firmly. I nodded, to exhausted to form a coherent sentence.
When we got back to the house, no one noticed that we were more dirty than usual. Speranza ran over to us, and I swung her up in my arms.
“Where were you?” She asked us, smiling.
“Outside.” Terra said, ruffling her sisters blonde hair affectionately. Speranza smiled at us. Mom came out and saw the three of us standing there, smiling and smiled in response. I was surprised, but happy. It was a rare occurrence when mom smiled. Teresa came out of the room she was sharing with Speranza. She smiled to, and for a moment, everything was golden.
Then Speranza leaped down from my arms and went dancing around the room, twirling in circles. I got an idea as I watched her.
“Mom?” I asked. She looked up from watching Speranza and met my eyes. “Do we have any books about plants?” I asked. Her eyebrows furrowed.
“I think so... In the den. But why do you want them?” She asked. I shrugged.
“Just curious.” I said. Terra grabbed my wrist and dragged me into the den. There was a bookshelf in one corner, with over a hundred books piled on it. I searched for one on plants, and found it quickly, because there was only one.
Terra and I sat down and flipped through it. I couldn’t find the name of the flower anywhere.
“Maybe it’s a new species.” Terra suggested.
“We should give it a name.” I said. She was silent for a while, thinking. Then her yes lit up and she leaned forward.
“Belle.” she said. She grinned. “From the Italian word â€˜beauty’.” I nodded thoughtfully.
“Sure.” I said. “That’s good. It fits.” She nodded.
We were out moving garbage all that week. By the end of it, though, we had a huge circle that was free of garbage. We had started watering the flower.
Terra had found some garbage lying around that made a perfect filter for the water. We cleaned it, and then poured some on the Belle flower.
Mom asked several times what we were doing outside all the time, but we just told her that we were out walking. I don’t know if she believed us, but she didn’t ask any more questions.
One day, as we were watering the flower, I found something in the heaps of garbage.
“Hey, look!” I called. Terra came over to me, and saw what was in my hand. She stared at it, confused.
“It’s just a piece of glass.” she said.
“I know. But look! It’s purple!” I said.
Actually, I had seen purple glass before. But now, as I stared at this piece, I was getting an idea. I turned and looked at the big open space where Belle was, and I pictured hundreds of pieces of colored glass, throwing dancing lights over the ground. I smiled.
“Let’s find lots of glass. And string or wire.” I said. Mystified, Terra helped me to collect glass and wire over the next few days. Instead of just waiting to find random pieces, we went trash hunting. As we hunted, I told her my idea.
“I want a place where there’s color.” I explained. “Not just gray. I want a place where I can see purple and green and blue and red. So I’m going to hang glass pieces over Belle, and I’m going to make a place where there’s color.” I told her. And Terra liked the idea.
“And when we’re done, we can show our moms and Speranza.” she said. I nodded.
It took us two days to find enough glass and wire and string. We worked on it only in the clearing, so our families wouldn’t see it. Then, we hung i.
I balanced carefully on an old trash can (at least, that’s what I thought it was), so I could reach the designated spot for the end of this piece of wire. I carefully bent it around a solid-looking piece of garbage, and then hopped down. Across the space, Terra finished tying her string, and she jumped back to the ground as well.
We stood in the middle of the empty place, watching the colors throw fragmented rainbows all across the ground. The colors were more vivid than anything I had ever seen. I heard Terra sigh, but it wasn’t a depressed sigh. It was a happy sigh.
“It’s beautiful.” she whispered. I smiled. The colors threw dancing patterns across her face, lighting up her eyes.
“Yes.” I agreed, looking directly at Terra. “Beautiful.
When we got back to the house, no one was there. I was confused; where was mom, and Terra’s family? But then I heard the a sobbing sound coming from a room in the back of the house. I grabbed Terra’s wrist and dragged her towards the room. I stopped in the doorway, and stared.
The bookcase had fallen over. The books were lying everywhere, all across the floor. A small figure was sprawled on the ground, and her head was lying next to the bookcase. Mom and Teresa were bending over Speranza, and mom was splashing water onto her face. I looked up at Terra. She had gone white, and she stumbled forward into the room.
“Speranza!” she croaked weakly. I walked around and lifted the bookcase up and pushed it against the wall. I knelt down next to Speranza in the space it cleared.
“Is she going to be okay?” I asked. Mom nodded.
“Yes. She’s just unconscious. She should be coming around soon.” she said. We all watched anxiously until Speranza moved her head feebly. She mad an indistinctive noise.
Teresa let out a huge sigh and hugged the little girl.
“Let’s take her to her room so she can lie down.” Mom said. Teresa nodded and picked Speranza up carefully. As they left, mom called over her shoulder, “Pick up the books, you two.” And when we didn’t move, she added, “Now!”
I sighed and started picking up books. Furious, Terra started shoving books onto the shelves viciously. She scowled as one of them fell back off the shelf and onto the ground.
“This is so unfair!” she exclaimed, jamming another book onto it’s shelf. “It could take us days to pick all of these up!”
“Yeah.” I said, depressed.
Unfortunately, Terra’s prediction came true. It took us three days to collect all the book and put them back on the shelves. It wouldn’t have taken half as long, accept that mom made us alphabetize them. Yuck.
So when we finally were allowed out of the house again, we all but ran to the clearing. When I got there, I slid to a stop and stood there with my mouth hanging open. I was so surprised, I couldn’t even speak for a moment. But Terra summed it all up for me.
“Wow.” she breathed. I nodded, still speechless.
The clearing was covered with flowers. They were all the same kind as Belle, but they were in many different colors. There was red, green, blue, yellow, white, orange, more purple, and any combination of the colors. They were all waving gentle in a a slight breeze. They glass pieces overhead cast multicolored lights over the flowers. It was truly beautiful.
We walked forward, carefully avoiding the flowers. There was still room for more flowers, but most of the area was carpeted in soft, delicate flowers. Terra smiled as she walked through the clearing. I felt a laugh bubbling up in my throat. It suddenly burst free, and then we were both laughing. We laughed for sheer joy. The flowers were so beautiful, and it was just very peaceful here.
It was our very own piece of heaven. There was color here, vivid and bright, beautiful and majestic. The fragmented, sharp colors of the glass, and the light, delicate colors of the flowers. It was our own colorful world, conquering the shades of gray around us.