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The Grime of Greed
For years, I have been fascinated by what will cause the imminent downfall of humanity. No matter what situation I generate in my head, I always come back to the same conclusion; we will die due to the inability to root out our own instinctual greed and selfishness. I am thrilled to weave together a narrative which combines the topics of climate change and human nature. I also have projected myself onto the protagonist, Sage, implanting my own thoughts and struggles into her head. Because of this, the short story is highly personal to me.
The sun is peeking and flirting through the orange-tipped trees. The air is flowing through the cracked windows, fresh and crisp. The sky is a wide-open canvas of bright and deep blues and fleecy white clouds. The road is long and winding, weaving and slithering through the twisting mountains. The stereo is playing. My sister’s laughs chime through the music. I am happy.
I wake up.
This morning looks the same as the last. A gray smog latches and lingers over the once-sunny sky; the air is thick and dense. My bed reeks of sweat and grime, my bones creak and ache. My nose feels dry, raw. My mouth tastes sour and bitter and smoky. I hear electricity clicking and whirring through the building. I climb out of bed. Shimmy into my coat. Slip on my grime-laden shoes. Pull on my stained, itchy face mask. And I walk out the door.
Chipped paint on dilapidated buildings. The distinguished weight of worn-out air, coal-stricken oxygen. Smoke billowing out of towering oil factories. Dried-up water canals, crisscrossing over each other. The all-too-familiar burning and watering of my eyes. Welcome to Jeptow, California.
I remember when it was different. I think of it often. The greatest concerns of our world and its inhabitants used to be what lavish decor to adorn our homes with, the number of opulent accessories we would own, the frequency with which we would spoil ourselves with sumptuous restaurant meals. We would obsess over trivial dramas and insignificant events. It was so petty. We know that we, and future generations, would suffer from our rampant consumerism.
But greed clutched at our souls, our hearts. Its cold fingers gripped us and snatched away our common sense and empathy. You need more, it would say. Always more.
Scientists warned us. The environment warned us. Volatile storms, unpredictable temperatures. Unbridled forest fires. Rising ocean levels. But we were too clueless. Too selfish, too arrogant, too clueless. We had grown privy, not to our souls and to the blaring alarms and sirens of our humanity, but to the whims and impulses of society. We succumbed to the lies of frauds and charlatans because they were beautiful, reckless lies. Because we so, so desperately wanted to believe them.
We should never have believed them.
I am on my way to collect my food for the week.
Once acid rain demolished the majority of our crops, the government began rationing a specified amount of food to each citizen. Your family is given a time each week to collect your allotted bags of food. The system is deeply flawed; almost nobody is satisfied with how much food they receive, and you must strictly limit the amount you consume each day. Each member of my family has to collect their food individually, as it is impossible for one person to carry five peoples' bags in one outing.
The streets are bursting with homeless people; the city smells of oil and perspiring trash. There is a gloom, a heaviness that encompasses the atmosphere and weighs down the air. The citizens surrounding me walk hurriedly, scurrying to and from their desired destinations. They keep their heads bowed, their hands tucked protectively inside their pockets to shield themselves from the chilly temperatures. I believe a rainstorm is impending, but it is nearly impossible to differentiate rain clouds from smoke. It’s depressing. I feel eerie.
I don't dislike people, but I don't particularly like them, either. I find them to be quite lackluster, underwhelming. People don't confuse me. Perhaps their sheer predictability is why I don't care for human interaction.
However, a few select people surprise me. Elsie is one of those people. Employed at the Food Bank, her life consists largely of mundane affairs; the type of jobs that should depress a person. She is the only person I know who radiates happiness. Many plaster on a smile, but emit despair wherever they go. Her walk isn't wary, her eyes not sorry. I always look forward to seeing her.
I open the doors of the Food Bank; the aggressive A.C provokes a sharpness to tread up my spine. As I assume my spot in the queue, I develop a chill, tug my jacket closer to my body.
My jacket is the nicest thing I own. Although slight amounts of mud and dirt are smattered over it, the quality of it is quite respectable. I would even go so far as to call it fashionable; its dark brown fabric pairs nicely with my eyes, and its black buttons are adjacent to the color of my hair.
As I'm waiting in line, I allow my mind to wander. Instead of shutting out memories of days gone, I reluctantly welcome them. I think of the luxuries which used to be offered to us, the cozy house I used to live in. I think of my school, of pleasant summers filled with excursions to the movie theaters and escapades to surrounding mountains. Memories thick with nostalgia, buried in layers of bittersweetness.
Two years ago, we had to move to Jeptow for my dad's work. That's when everything went downhill.
My thoughts are interrupted when I realize that I have arrived at the front of the counter. Elsie flashes me a genuine smile, which is accompanied by her usual "Hello, dear". This greeting shakes me out of my stupor. I awkwardly wave back, then add a customary "Good morning, Elsie". I proceed to ask her how her week went, to which she responds "As good as any. And yours?" In truth, my week was, in a word, dreary. However, realizing it's not her responsibility to commiserate with me, I tell her my week was just fine. She hands me my bag and signifies the end of the interaction with a "Have a wonderful day, dear. Tell your family I give them my blessing". I nod back and walk out the door.
I don't care for Jeptow. However, seeing as my apartment provides little in the way of entertainment, I resolve to walking around the streets for a bit. The food isn't too heavy.
I absent-mindedly saunter around for what I presume to be about an hour. I feel distressed. Worn-out. Exhausted. I wonder what it would be like to die. To just not exist. To not carry the burden of sadness and pain, not mingle with weariness. I recognize the hot, silent tears wandering down my face. I am so tired. So very tired.
When I snap back into reality, I recognize the smoke that spreads from the tight alleyway. Take inventory of my utter solitude; there is not a soul here. I see the bright blues and reds and yellows of fire flash and rage just yards away from where I stand. I see it prance through the lane, burning and demolishing abandoned homes and kiosks. Feel it compress the air around me. I spin around, looking for an escape route. To my horror, the fire is spreading from both directions of the alley. I try to scream for help, but the encroaching fire and soot tighten my throat. The smoke settles into my lugs, sears my eyes. There is no way out.
A factory fire. Fairly common in Jeptow; when a piece of machinery malfunctions and a bit of dripping oil catches a bolt of electricity, the resulting fire can spread quickly. Usually, there are firemen to put it out. In my case, nobody else is around. Nobody to save me.
The fire expands towards me, heat brushing my skin, burning and curling my hair.
The igniting and scalding of flesh and bone and muscle. The singeing and blistering of fragile skin and tissue. I feel imprisoned in my own body, subjected to a cruel sentence of anguish and immobility. The pain is so sharp, so acute, panic stinging and pricking at my mind, my body. I fall down, resigning to the flames. Now, I can barely feel the flames licking and devouring me.
I am going to die. I accept this, snatch the mere seconds I have left to process it. I watch the world fade away.
Just hours ago, I wondered what it would be like to die. Now I know. I feel free. Reflective. Torn from the restriction and expectations of society, from insecurities and self-doubts.
On Earth, I never expressed my opinions for fear of backlash. I held others at arm's length. Because I was scared to be vulnerable. I was scared to become comfortable with those surrounding me. I walked on eggshells my whole life, dreading emotional exposure and transparency.
Now, I regret it. I wish that I had refused to be silent and malleable, that I would have expressed my opinions and dispositions. I know that this wouldn't have changed the world, or the appalling position it was in. But I could have spoken out. I could have acknowledged my justified anger, could have helped others become better acquainted with theirs.
I feel a spectrum of emotions run through me. I circle through feelings of bitterness and rage and anger and sorrow and happiness and freedom. And this time, I don't diffuse my feelings. I embrace them, accept them. I appreciate that I finally have the space to do so.
And I think, maybe we need anger and bitterness. Maybe it can be used to fuel us against injustice, to incinerate the grime of greed. And maybe we need joy and happiness. To give ourselves a reason to keep fighting and persevering, to remind of us our selflessness and humanity. I savor these concessions, relish in their candidacy and truth.
I always thought death would be accompanied by a feeling of closure. That our stories would come to a sweeping conclusion, followed by the stagnancy of finality. I now know I was wrong. Right now, I feel anything but closure. I feel anything but dead.
In fact, I feel more alive than I have ever been.
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"We're a mess. But it's a great mess, a glorious mess."