His brightest memory of his mother is of the day she dies. He is used to watching his family grow smaller and smaller around him. The nostalgia is overwhelming. It feels like yesterday when he came home from school to find his father’s body in the kitchen. Wrists wide open, grey blood flowing in neat little lines, following the patterns in the grey and white linoleum tiles, and the two of them hunched over his twitching body. His mother didn’t tell him stories for a while after that, but she did tell him to stop taking the pills.

She whispered to him that there was more to life than fear and pain. That somewhere out there, there were cities, Free Cities where pills weren’t rules and nothing was grey. In those cities, there was noise and color. Where living wasn’t just being alive—it was exciting and breathtaking and real. Places where living meant something.

She whispered that there was something more, something better there. Something beyond the State walls that kept them in and the rest of the world out. That something was why she kissed his father’s weeping wrists and smiled as his body shuddered and bled. It was why she whispered, ‘He’s free’ when he finally died. Why they didn’t take their pills the day his father’s body was buried in the grave he had been assigned on the day of his birth.

It’s why he’s standing here right now in his very best clothes. His shirt is white and pressed, all sharp lines and cutting corners. His trousers are dark grey and his shoes are black. His mother is in a pretty white dress. His father had loved his mother in that dress. With straps that wrapped around her neck and a heart shaped neckline; it was made of soft, cottony material that fell to her calves. She always wore her hair up when she wore that dress. Today, her hair is down.

It jumps over her shoulders as the wind picks up, dark brown curls tousling for a spot on her shoulder. She’s smiling softly as they read to her, her crimes. He doesn’t hear them. He only sees his mother, smiling.

Her lips are not grey.

Refusal to take medication. Refusal to administer medication to a minor.

It nearly floors him, and his mother grins wide and bright and dangerous. It’s a secret: the dark color on her mouth isn’t the grey his brain tells him it’s supposed to be. Instead it’s a vibrant, sharp color. It ensnares him with each delicate curve over his mother’s cupid’s bow and full dark line over her lower lip. She mouths one word to him.


Willing distribution of hazardous materials. Accessory to distribution of hazardous materials. Distribution of hazardous materials to minors. Theft.

They shave her dark brown hair while they read her crimes. Public humiliation always preludes public execution. That’s the way things are done. But his mother holds her head high. She wears her secret smile as her thick dark hair falls to the ground in near perfect ringlets about her feet. She looks like she’s trying not to laugh. Their eyes are still locked.

He’s been off his medication ever since the day his father died and his mother kissed his wrists bleeding sluggish grey blood, but teachers administer it at school. He does his best to hide the pills around his gums and on the roof of his mouth like his mother taught him, but sometimes he doesn’t have any other choice but to swallow them. If he’s lucky, he can get away and hurl them back up in the bathroom before they dissolve in his stomach and take away the sight that he had been born with. The sight that had been stolen from him, from all of them with their first pill. The sight that nearly none of them knew had been taken.

Treason against the State. Refusal of cooperation in corpse removal in the case of your late husband. Slander.

It’s the same sight that had driven his father mad. He’d promised himself that he wouldn’t be the same way. He had to stay strong for his mother. He had to keep her safe.

He’s been off his medication ever since the day his father died, and this is the first, brightest color he’s ever seen.

He’s hoarded the soft, dull greens and browns that can’t be changed no matter how hard science tries. The dark brown of his mother’s hair, and the honest black that was his own and his father’s. He clings desperately to the shade of blue he had never known the sky was. The first time he found out what yellow was, he stared at the sun until his vision was full of dark black spots and static for two hours afterward. His mother had held him and told him how proud of him she was.

That doesn’t compare to this.

This– This red is a revelation. It’s the last thing his mother will ever give him, he knows, and he takes the gift greedily. He does his best to paint a picture in his mind of how she looks. How the men in their pristine white clothes and thick grey boots look as they hold his mother upright. He does his best to remember the color of her skin, olive with a smattering of dark brown moles criss-crossing her arms. His father used to tell him that they were star maps written onto her skin.

He drinks in the color of her amber eyes, and the way the red makes them seem even brighter. His mother looks deadly like this, smiling her secret smile like she’s waiting for the right chance to let everyone in on the joke. Others will only see it as a particularly dark shade of grey on her lips. But he knows the truth. He knows this truth.

Their eyes are still locked as the stool is kicked out from under her. He doesn’t flinch when he hears her neck snap. He doesn’t blink. She wouldn’t have wanted him to.

His eyes flit away from her and land on a girl who looks his age. Her eyes are the same dark brown as his mother’s shorn hair. She’s doe-eyed and frightened. And that’s when he knows that his mother’s secret smile wasn’t just for him. It was for this girl. It was for Doe-Eyes, too.

He doesn’t smile at her. He barely even nods. She seems to understand the gesture. He looks away, but he feels her eyes on him as the square begins to empty and as his mother’s body is taken down.

He finds the lipstick later, hidden amongst other precious little things in a hollowed-out old book beneath her bed. The book alone is enough to get him arrested, much less the treasures hidden inside. He smears one thick line over a piece of paper before folding it up and stuffing it into his pocket. His family’s apartment is his now and his alone. It’s a heavy burden for an eleven-year-old. He’s stuck living where his father took his own life and where his mother was dragged out by the back of her neck for trying to give him something the rest of the State had forgotten.

He sneaks out after curfew and leaves the paper in a small crack on the stool his mother stood on, not even eight hours ago. He watches from his window as Doe-Eyes scuttles out from the darkness and snatches up the paper. She steals away into the night in her pure white clothes and her dirty brown eyes.

That same night, he takes a knife from the drawer and draws it across his forearm in three deep gashes. Father, Mother, Son. Everything, everything, grey. They well up in wide, bright, dangerous color. They well up red. And when he sleeps that night, he dreams.

When he wakes up, he’s twenty-one, and the world is just as ugly as it was (just as grey, grey, grey, as it was) when he was a child. The only differences now are his job, the quality of the furniture in his childhood apartment, the regulation beer in his refrigerator, and how much fight is left in him. He has to get out. He’s going to get out. He just needs to figure out when.

He arches and cracks his back, rolling his shoulders as he pulls himself out of bed and into the bathroom. He grabs a cloth to wash his face but catches sight of himself in the mirror. He has his mother’s eyes. They’re grey, but not in the way that everything used to be. No, his eyes are grey but are flecked with green. Damn near vermilion in the right kind of light. He’s got his father’s hair and cheekbones. His skin is only a few shades darker than his mother’s was. He doesn’t have star maps written onto his skin, and he’s glad for it. He thinks that if he did, he’d end up cutting all of them off.

He cleans his face, shaves, then dresses himself for work at the factory. He has a small breakfast of regulation canned Good Meal: patented and sure to be filled with all the vitamins and nutrients a man of his age and stature needs to keep functioning properly. It smells like motor oil, and it doesn’t go down easy. He wonders how long it’s been since agriculture quivered in the face of processing. He wonders how long it’s been since fruit still grew. He barely remembers what strawberries taste like, or if they even had a taste at all.

He cracks his neck and dumps his dishes in the sink. He resolves to wash them later because he always does. When does he ever not? He’s a good citizen. He knows routine. He knows what he’s supposed to do when he’s supposed to do it and when. He understands what is expected of him. He’s a good man, a strong man, perfect for work in the factories. He is a credit to his society, especially after how terrible both his parents turned out.

He picks up the cup containing his medication and pops out his dosage for the day. He can feel the cameras in his kitchen trained on him as he puts them into his mouth. It is a gaze that could turn dry hands clammy. He grabs a bottle of apple juice from the fridge and takes a long pull off of it to wash the taste away.

By the time he grabs his jacket and leaves the apartment, the pills have dissolved with countless others in the juice, and his vermillion eyes are glinting in the warm summer sunlight. The when is now.


science fiction-fantasy by Nailah Mathews, age 16
2014 Gold Key, Silver Medal
Ironwood High School, Glendale

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