“Out of all of the days you have to look that serious,” I quipped at the black-haired, sooty-faced boy who had his bare hands lodged within the workings of the machinery, “does it have to be today?”
“Out of all the things you could fill an empty head with,” Joseph remarked, not diverting his attention from the gears within his palms, “does it have to be a reminder of my birthday?”
I scowled at the insult and sighed, my breath mingling with the dark fumes of the factory. I had met Joseph about a year ago in the slums where we shared a single room with five other people and about twice as many rats. He might have been older and smarter than me, but I wasn’t one to forget. Not since I had found myself with fewer and fewer days to remember.
“Yes, it does,” I insisted quietly. “It should be a happy day.”
He raised his head from where he was working, interest piqued. From the corner of my eye, I saw his eyebrows furrow.
“You cannot be that dense.”
I met his gaze with confusion, seeing his startlingly gray eyes flash at me like lightning. I swore the machinery behind us roared like thunder. Suddenly, I found myself searching for shelter from the storm.
“I know we can’t exactly celebrate but-”
“I mean it when I say this, Henry,” he warned in the same voice he used to keep the younger boys from getting in trouble. “Getting older is not a cause for celebration.”
I wanted to pry further but distracted myself by fumbling with the metal pieces in front of me instead. As sad as it made me, I knew better than to argue with him. We were always more different than I liked to admit, and it wasn’t entirely due to the age difference.
Joseph would never discuss it in front of the others, but he wasn’t bringing home his shillings to family. He didn’t have one to bring them home to. I was from the countryside, where family and clear skies were all I knew. From what I gathered in the past few months, he had never even left the city. The first few times we met, I wondered if he had been born with that black soot coating his fair skin.
I turned to him again, and amongst the rumble of shifting gears and small feet across the floor, I heard him heave a wet cough into cupped hands. I watched in horror as he slowly lowered his palms to reveal a small pool of blood in them. It coated his teeth and dribbled down his chin; my heart raced at the sight. He was in a bad way.
“I-I’ve got an idea,” I stuttered impulsively, pulling my lips into a half-hearted smile, trying desperately to control the fear creeping up my chest. “It’s your birthday and you’re sick, so as a gift, you could let me work for you. I’d make sure we wouldn’t get caught.”
He wiped his lips with the sleeve of his shirt without speaking, before weakly shaking his head at the ground between us.
“The older I get, the closer I get to not being able to work alongside the rest of them.”
He gestured loosely to the young boys that flocked around us. “They can’t have the older ones doing this kind of work, do you understand?”
I nodded quickly. It was true that the older boys didn’t do the same work that we did – but why would they want to? Nobody cared to do what we did, for as long as we did it, and especially not in Joseph’s case. Nobody worked as hard as he did.
“So when I’m gone, who do you think is gonna do it?”
Before I had a chance to answer, he spun around a frizzy-haired boy working beside us. He couldn’t have been more than nine years old. I swallowed my words as I glimpsed the tiny lumps on his right hand, where his ring finger and pinky would be if they hadn’t been caught in the machinery.
“Every hour I work now is an hour he doesn’t have to work later.”
With a solemn gaze, he released the boy’s hands to let him resume working.
“And if that means working until I drop dead on the floor, so be it. Because if he doesn’t want to go to work for his family, they will call him selfish. I want to live in a world where he can be selfish, Henry.”
I saw nothing but hurt in his eyes; they flashed gray like the smoke that filled our lungs and consumed our dreams. His cheeks flushed red like the blood that stained his lips. I tried desperately to grasp a glimpse of white sunlight that streamed through our only window. It wasn’t fair.
“Everywhere you look, it’s awful,” I snapped back. It wasn’t directed at him but at the fact that we had to have this conversation. “If you’re not dead, you wish you were, but only long enough to remember surviving is your only option.”
“Lower your voice.”
I breathed heavily, realizing just how loud I had been by the looks I received from those around me. I wasn’t done yet, though.
“And some of these boys have come from places just as horrible,” I continued frantically, jutting my head toward a group of immigrants, “and yet they’re not any more used to this awfulness than the rest of-”
He grabbed me by the shoulder, gripping hard as he pulled me over to him. I stood in shock as he held me by my collar, peering down at me like he was searching for something in the blank look on my face.
“You don’t have to come from good to know we’ve got it bad,” he hissed.
I broke free from him anxiously, stumbling backwards as he released his grasp on my shirt. I wheezed, trying to catch my breath. My face felt hot from anger and
“And yet, they just keep coming,” I sputtered. “People just keep having children. It never stops. Why would you want to have children? Why would you want to put more people into this world?”
Joseph stared at me again, but this time, it wasn’t in anger. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but now, thinking back, it was sympathy. Pity for the little boy old enough to understand how every part of a machine worked and yet too young to understand how the world worked.
“It’s the only world we have,” he explained softly, with a sad smile. “We can either give in to it and let it kill us, or we can usher these children into a world that we can hopefully change someday.”
I wanted so badly to believe him, but the blood still dotting his lower lip tied my stomach in knots. I couldn’t help but fear for him and all the others who would eventually share the same fate, the same slow demise.
“And what about today?”
“Today we work. Long and hard and if you’re incredibly lucky,” he coughed again, clutched his chest and smiled through the pain, “we survive. And with our last breath, we speak up for a better tomorrow. We fight for their future.”
In the end, Joseph gave me a better gift for his birthday than I ever could have given him: hope. I held on to those words when he died of tuberculosis a couple months later. I clutched them close to my heart until laws were passed to protect the children working in factories. Only then did I let go. Only then did his gray eyes disappear from the thick smoke that filled our lungs and consumed our dreams.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.