Father’s gone again. He’s always gone by the time I wake up. I had hoped that I should get to see him once today, today of all days. But what use is hope? If such a thing really existed, it, too, would be devoured in the gleaming, metal forest swallowing us whole. Nothing can escape its grating grasp. Not even air.
I crawl out from underneath a rag which I like to call a blanket, and quickly pull my dark hair back with a colourless ribbon that matches my dress. I fall to my knees for a moment to kiss the forehead of my sleeping brother, Arvel, taking care not to wake him or my sister sleeping next to him. His soft hair tickles my cheek, but I feel no need to laugh. I want to see his eyes, eyes that are always wide and bright and filled with so much hope. He’s so young, it scares me. I want to tear him from his dreams, wrench him away from that false hope before he starts to believe in it and gets hurt. But then I want him to stay there. I want him to never leave that realm of gold falling from the sun and flowing over his skin as the purest water that he’s never had.
But I can’t. So instead I whisper into his small ear “Sleep well.”
I turn to my sister, about to do the same thing, when she sits up, her eyes meeting mine. She doesn’t say anything, but I can hear, I can feel, what she’s saying: You were going to leave without waking me.
“You should sleep, Karin,” I tell her softly. “It’s my turn today.”
“You aren’t going to sleep,” she responds.
“I did yesterday. Your turn. Make sure to take care of Arvel.” I stand up to leave, but Karin quickly clambers to her feet and wraps her arms around me.
“Happy Birthday, Carrie,” she says quietly.
I return the hug. “Happy Birthday, Karin.” When we part, we stare at each other for a moment, and the reflection we each see is clearer than any mirror. Same hair, same eyes, same nose, same mouth. I brush a stray hair away from her mouth at the same time she does it for me. We don’t need anymore words. I leave the curtained-off room, Karin at my side.
Mother is bustling around the corner that acts as the kitchen, cleaning and packing all at once. It’s only when I’m slipping on my shoes at the door that she notices us at last. “Carrie. Karin.” On her face is that look I hate the most, the one where her lips are all twisted and rent out of place and her eyes are crooked and and scrunched up. She’s trying to smile at us. “You could wait a minute. Arvel might be up soon.”
“Father was gone earlier,” I reply.
Mother comes over and hands each of us a tattered brown bag. “Carrie, Karin, here. We got you something.”
I blink at it once, twice, then accept the collection of holes separated by pieces of brown parchment. I waste no time in opening it up. I take out a braided scrap of brown cloth with a small piece of rounded glass dangling from it. Before I even look, I know that Karin has the same as me.
“It’s beautiful.” I look up at Mother. “Must ’ave cost an awful lot.”
“Scraps,” she says. “From the weaver’s. Your father sanded some broken glass ‘e found. Nothin’ much.”
“It’s beautiful,” Karin repeats in my stead. She puts hers on, and I do the same, watching the charm shimmer in its own light as it hangs from my right wrist.
“Happy Birthday, Carrie, Karin,” Mother says, the gnarled smile on her face softening ever so slightly. “You’re both eight now. How does it feel?”
I put my hand on the door to leave. “The same as any other year.”
The vapour is thick and swarming and slimy as it crawls down my throat and into my lungs. I’ve learned not to cough, however. Coughing draws attention, and attention is something I can’t afford, just like everything else.
I stick to the walls of the street. Not as if there’s much else to stick to. It’s like being jammed into a drawer that’s barely bigger than you are, and then five hundred other people are jammed in there with you. That’s how big these streets are. Or at least, how they feel.
My steps are swift, but careful. Even if I fall and cut myself I’d still have to work, so I shouldn’t fall in the first place and save myself unnecessary pain. My biggest worry right now is that I might be late. If I’m too late, then the factory won’t want to keep me working for them, and then we’ll lose what little money I make. It may not be much, but it’s something we need.
I arrive at the factory without running into trouble. That’s good. I slip inside unnoticed and head over to where I check in for the day. There are more than a dozen other kids my age and older crowding around the desk. None of them so much as glance at me as I fall at the end of the jumbled line. One by one, the children go up to the desk, say something, then scurry off to different parts of the factory. It’s only a couple of minutes before it’s my turn at the desk. I peer up into the tawny faces of a dirt-covered man.
“Name?” he asks gruffly.
“Karin Smith,” I respond. Even though I’m the older twin, Karin was the first one to go to work here, so I use her name. We alternate days so one of us can stay home to watch Arvel, which is cheaper than finding someone else to look after him. So every other day, I’m Karin. When Arvel is old enough to work at the factory himself in a couple of years, then I’ll start working as ‘Carrie.’
“Usual place,” is all the man says as he scribbles down that I came in today. I walk away and head towards the back.
I enter through a cold, metal door behind another kid and come face-to-face with a scowling man nearly three times my height. Behind him is the array of heavy machinery; it’s all rumbling away, gears all twisting and turning, and filling the room with its huge presence and deafening sounds. Smoke is churned just above the workers’ heads, making a few cough every now and again. I draw my eyes away from the familiar sights and focus on the man in front of me.
“No dilly-dallying, and no talking,” the man barks above the sounds of the machinery. He points a grubby finger at a boy next to me. “You, carrying duty. To the far left. All of those parts need to be moved to the warehouse.” He moves on without even waiting to hear if the boy has questions. He points at me next. “You, oiling and cleaning duty. All of the machines in the back before lunch.” He gestures at a dark-haired boy next to me. “You, too. Oiling and cleaning.”
We head off to the back of the large room, weaving our way in and out of the assortment of people and machines. If there’s even a difference, anymore. The people here might as well be machines. They all work in the same deadly silence even while they drown in the grating sounds of the machines. And for what? A loaf of bread every two weeks? Is it really worth it?
“Faster,” the boy I was sent with states tiredly. “Don’t get me in trouble.”
I must have been lagging behind. I pick up the pace, shoving all my thoughts to some forgotten corner of my mind.
We gather the necessary supplies from the large cleaning storage in the back and head over to the closest machine. It’s still on, its rumbling vibrations engulfing me. We go over to some parts that are barely moving and get to work. He oils, I clean. He oils, I clean. He oils, I clean. He oils, I clean. We never say a word to each other, just work in the silence smothered by the screams of the gears.
We finish one machine, two machines, three. We’re on the fourth one when another boy walks up to us.
“I’m ’posed to join,” he shouts at us; or at least his face looks like he’s shouting. His voice comes out a whisper next to the machines.
“Start on next machine,” the boy next to me says without looking up. “We’re nearly done with this one.”
The second boy frowns and looks around fearfully. “I... I don’t know how.”
“You stupid or something?”
“Never done it ’fore!” comes the hasty response.
I glance at the new kid. Tall, light hair, has some meat on him. He’s older than I am by perhaps a year or two, but his light blue eyes are wide and shining like Arvel’s. He’s never worked in a factory before, that much is obvious. Something must have happened to his household that forced him to start. I pity him, but at the same time, I hate him. Maybe he got to be a child, once. Maybe he got to go out and play even after he turned five. Why couldn’t I? Why couldn’t Karin? Why can’t Arvel?
Arvel will be here soon. He’ll be just as confused as this kid. Maybe someone will help him. Maybe someone won’t. I might as well create some luck for him.
I stand up, holding one of the dirty oil cans out towards him. He stares at it like it’s dog poop.
“Take it,” I say firmly.
He does, reluctantly. He turns it over and opens his mouth to say something, probably to ask some question, but I cut him off.
“Watch him.” I point to the kid next to me. “Do what he does. Oil the machines. Be quiet. Got it?”
The new boy hesitates, then nods, and crouches down next to the dark-haired boy, watching the young veteran’s hands dart in between the cracks of the still-turning gears with the can.
I pick up my cleaning rag and shift over. Now I’m in front of two huge, turning gears. My ears are ringing from their clanking, but I’m used to it enough to bear the stinging pain until my whole body becomes numb from the strangling sounds. The gears slow down a little and I take my opportunity to swash the rag against the immobile bars squaring in the gears. I’ve only cleaned a little when I hear a loud clank next to me, followed by a yelp.
I turn and see the new boy staring down as a puddle of thick black crawls over the floor. It’s coming from an oil can laying on the ground, the lid cracked and falling off. I bite my lower lip. He must have dropped it. He wasted resources. That’s not good.
The boy next to me knows it as well; I can tell by the way he tenses up. He stands up, and walks to the other side of me, away from the crime scene. The new boy looks to us.
“What do I do?” He asks, more startled than afraid. He doesn’t know yet. It was oil, and that’s one of the more valuable resources here. I wonder how long he’ll go without getting paid. I wonder how many beatings he’ll get. I wonder how many bandages he’ll need but will never get. I wonder how much he’ll cry.
I was thinking so much that I didn’t have time to back away before one of the men watching us sees that we aren’t working and heads over to us.
“You three! Stop dawdling!” He shouts at us angrily. “You know the rules!” He stops. His squinted eyes drop to the floor, land on the oil puddle. His jaw sets.
“I didn’t mean to,” the blue-eyed boy says apologetically. Still no fear. “I’m sorry. I’ll clean it up.”
“Sure you will,” the man says with a deadly calm. “And you’ll work off this mess for the next month. No pay.”
The boy’s eyes widen. “What? I-I-I’m sorry! It won’t ’appen again, sir! I need the money! Plea--”
His pleads are silenced with a sharp slap across his face. He stumbles back, more from shock than pain, and rubs his cheek. His eyes are already shining. I edge away a little, away from the boy and closer to the ever-turning machine.
“S-s-sorry, s-sir...” he mumbles, shuffling his feet. The man’s eyes glint.
“I betcha are, boy.” He hacks and spits to the side. “But not enough yet.” He raises his fist again and this time it barrels into the boy’s stomach. The boy cries out as he falls back and tumbles into me. I don’t have time to brace myself and I fall. But I don’t fall. I land on something hard half way. It’s cold and hard and hot and burning and rumbling. My left arm is cast aside and is caught. But only for a second. Then the pain sets in.
A scream wrenches itself from my throat, hurting more than actually making sound. My arm! My arm! What’s happened? It hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts! I squeeze my eyes shut to will away the pain, but not before I see both boys and the man jumping away, their faces drained.
I try to pull my arm away as it falls in on itself. It doesn’t help, and only hurts worse. I can’t help but shriek as my body jerks around on its own. I look at where my arm is. Or should be.
Red. More red than any other color. The gears. My arm. It’s stuck. It hurts. The pain is still there, still strangling me, but I start to drift away from it. Like it’s not really me there. That’s not my flesh being churned and chopped up like some pig in a slaughterhouse. That’s not my blood covering the gears and the machine and the floor and the colourless dress of the girl standing there. That’s someone else. Maybe that’s Carrie. I’m Karin, aren’t I? Isn’t that my name now?
I fall away from the machine at last. There’s a few strips of red, dripping flesh dangling from where my elbow used to be, but that’s all that’s left. I land on the floor, but don’t feel it. I don’t feel anything. Not the warm wetness of my blood, not the iced hardness of the dusty floor, not the pain that must be there. The world is black at the edges and white in the middle, then I open my eyes.
I see my good arm. There’s my bracelet, the glass broken now. There’s a few drops of blood oozing out of my wrist from where the glass cut. Not that it matters. What’s a few drops to a puddle?
My bracelet. Mother. Father. Karin. Arvel. My birthday. Our birthday. Karin’s, now. My bracelet is broken, as my arm is, as I am, but my reflection lives. A quiet thought wafts into the shards of glass. Arvel. I never said goodbye. Maybe my reflection will.
I let my fingers fall on the broken glass, let them cut into my skin. The floor drifts away from me as chaffed skin scrapes my own and pull me away. I see two patches of light blue, wide and shining and wet and scared. The sky. Am I outside? No. Outside is black and bitter. There is no blue outside. There is only red inside.
Then the black sky fills my world.