The pen, after putting down the last bit of ink on the paper, was carelessly thrown away, rolling freely on a hardwood surface. The young woman sitting by the desk yawned, as if she just accomplished some tough work. She stood up with the last page, examining, or more precisely, admiring her signature.
Karel Aldouse, Karel Aldouse…
She chanted the name like a spell. It wasn’t her name right now, because all the kids received a Work Name the year they turned sixteen. Miss Dressler, just turned nineteen on this very day, nonetheless, preferred her Child Name much more to the professional one. The former one possessed more than elegance and completeness. It was a token, reminding her of the past, of her identity, of her uniqueness. While everyone, every steel person, addressed her as Dressler, she still went by Karel in her own secret world. This habit was more like a resistance against the speech by Mr. Watt, head of her former orphanage, on the Naming Ceremony:
“My sons and daughters, you are adults now. I guess you’d more or less prepared for this day in your previous education, but this moment could still be hard. It’s hard for me, for all of us watching you grow up, as well.” She clearly remembered Mr. Watt’s voice had more emotion than he usually did, as if he’s actually sentimental about these kids leaving.
“No matter how much we miss our carefree childhood.” No, she was never nostalgic about her orphanage times. The only thing she missed was the happiness counting the days till departure. “We had to move on, embracing our duty. You should become model citizens, serving our society, following the rules and protecting our values. Your new name, the Work Name, symbolized this change. From now on, you are cogs in the machine called community, and this name is your label.” These words disgusted her, even more than Mr. Watt’s posturing tone. She did not want to be part of a machine – that’s what those Steel People became; they were metal anyways. She’s made of flesh and bones, a distinct, independent person.
Sorry I’m no Ms. Dressler; I am Karel Aldouse, and I’ll continue to be.
Karel gave a victorious smile when she thought of the line above. She enjoyed rebelling more than anything else. Well, joy never exists in an orphanage worker’s daily life (her steel colleagues would strongly disagree on this). She had to find methods to stay sane under such boredom. Writing was one of the escapades, and today’s fiction was special.
It was her birthday. Although adults never celebrate birthdays, and majority of them forgot theirs over time, Karel tried to do something different each year, as the beacons guiding her in this iron-hearted world. Birthdays weren’t the best when she was a kid: it was rather repetitive, as every single party was the same, starting with handing her presents and ending with a wish. Oh, the bloody birthday wish, it troubled her so much. Her ten-year-ago wish failed, as she was still forced to make wishes in the following years. She faked hers, choosing demands as ordinary as possible, as she well knew they weren’t able to fulfill her authentic ones.
Her ninth birthday was memorable, though, because of the magical midnight experience. The sparrow, the only organic animal she’d seen in her entire life, glided into her dreams a lot. In those dreams, she sometimes was a steel person with hundreds of birds pecking her, reducing her into dust. Sometimes she rode on the sparrow, escaping the prison-like orphanage, flying across the wasteland outside. The wilderness was often borderless and she woke up exhausted. In lucky times, the sparrow would reach a city populated with people, people of flesh-and-bones, and drop her like a divine gift.
She felt obligated to write the story down on the ten-year anniversary of this event.
In addition to the writing, Karel prepared a valuable gift for her nineteen-year-old self – the key to the top of the orphanage. She obtained (she did not like the idea of “stealing” the key, since it should be her right to look at the outside world) it after weeks of deliberate planning, taking advantage of the steel people’s rigid daily routine. If one records the time it takes for them to do certain thing, she would find that they spend the same amount of time doing it on any other day, neither faster nor slower. Karel studied their cycles closely, finding the best opportunity for her scheme.
Every day she’s free from 4:50 PM to 5:10 PM, when the kids got their free time and before she needed to help preparing dinner. From 4:55 to 5:09, the headmaster, Mr. Ford, would patrol among the kids’ chambers, asking if their days were well. He only carries the key to his office during this walk, leaving the large chain, containing keys for every single door in the complex, in the top right drawer of his desk. A bathroom is located a room away from Ford’s office. The head of discipline, Mrs. Grese, occupying the room in between, concentrates on organizing her desk from 4:56 to 5:04. She had to sneak into Ford’s room through the window, without being noticed by Mrs. Grese, and replace the key to the building’s top with the one to her own room.
Gasping the key tightly, Karel walked quietly out of her little room. The plan worked so perfectly well in the afternoon that she wondered if the entire adventure was a whim. No one noticed her and the stolen key, just as no one noticed her going through the hallway like a ghost. There wasn’t much light source, as the half moon was already going down. Besides feeble light from the moon, the only guidance to Karel was those ghostly exit signs.
The journey to that door was a long one. Every cautious step carried turbulent thoughts in Karel’s mind. She was going to see the other side of the high walls. Is it just barren lands, a steel metropolis, or towns containing actual people? She longed for the outside as far as she could remember. Peaking outside from the gate was impossible: the dorms were on the other side from the gate, and the only time it opened for supply trucks were late night – the guards patrolling around the building would surely discover her and get her into troubles. She hoped to see more of the world when teens were moved from their old orphanage to their working places. The windowless shuttle crashed her hope. Karel asked countless people about the outside world, but the responses they offered were – why do you want to know? Has “outside” anything to do with your present happiness? Isn’t life here good enough? Live at present my friend, don’t dream of unrealistic stuff. It doesn’t benefit you or the society…
The appearance of that small, rusted door cleared up her consciousness. She was standing within an inch of it, breathing faster and faster. Karel’s trembling hand inserted the key, warm with her temperature and moist with her sweat. The door, appeared to be locked in the early times of the building, began to move. Even though Karel tried to pull it gently, the hinge sounded eerily unpleasant when its rusted joint rotated. Unable to restrain her passion, Karel swung the door open and sprinted into the cool, night air.
Grey, the only color out there was grey: light grey roads stretched across the land; grey structures stood in packs; little dark-grey figures moved along the pavement. Karel thought she finally broke out from the orphanage’s concrete cage, but the world, unfolded in front of her, was nothing but a massive grey cage. In the past, there was constantly a voice inside her, telling her about the possibility of such tragic scenario; yet, foolish as every other flesh-and-bone beings, she clung on the illusion of the sparrow, of liberty on the other side of the gloomy walls, of a better world lying under the loving moonlight.
She wanted to cry, but there were no tears. All her vitality seemed to be depleted. Even the power to release the teardrops vanished. She moved, like a zombie, to the end of the building, maybe vainly hoping to see something else at the horizon. The same brick-like grey architecture and wide roads stretched till the skyline met. Karel’s legs could no longer support her. She kneeled on the ground like a broken doll.
For years, a vague hope, a hope about the outside world, about a different future sustained Karel’s flame of life. Now, her heart is as dead grey as this planet. She could not think of anything that would push her through the rest of her times. In fact, she stopped thinking about her future, since there is no future whatsoever.
As Karel was standing up, the last time in her life, she heard noises coming from the door. The steel men had discovered her, probably because of the door’s loud creek. Karel did not turn around to the steps and shouts behind her. There was no need to. She stood at the very edge of the rooftop, arms stretching out like a cross. Breeze filled her blouses; it flew in the air like feathers.
She looked at the moon, the pale-white lighting up her pale face. Just as she determined to let go, a few dots appeared on the face of the moon. She halted, watching the band of eight sparrows getting larger and larger, as rapidly as they were ten years ago. For an instance, Karel felt she’s back in that chamber, where the sparrow came and got under the moonlight. She suddenly understood the meaning behind that bird’s gesture…
The workers of the orphanage reached the rooftop, but there was no sign of Ms. Dressler. Under the bright light shed from the moon, nine sparrows were resting at the end of the roof. They seemed to be happily convening, as if a jubilee was going on. The workers ran to the birds, waving their steel hands to drive them away. Their works were in vain, since the birds had started departing at the sight of these men.
Nine sparrows flew freely towards the sinking half moon, their shadows sweeping across the metallic landscape.