Skyscraper Reflections

By Inas Hamdan

 

“Greed is what put you here and hard work is what will bring you out. As long as the skyscrapers stand strong, you have to pay back your debt.”

Dante didn’t listen as the mantra came out from the loud speakers. The old bed made crackling sounds as he was kneeling on it. He was looking out the window, looking at the far off wall, wondering when the officials would come to take him there, but all he could see was the hordes of people trying to escape the cruel desert sun. Every now and again his eyes would catch the abandoned skyscrapers that still stood strong, those he had seen his whole life. But then he would look back towards the wall, anticipating the rest of his life there. 

“I noticed you weren’t present at breakfast.”

Without looking, Dante knew it was Maria. She had walked into his room with a plate of nutrition pudding. The bland, gray food he would never have to put in his mouth again after today.

“You know, having connections with us in the kitchen has its benefits.”

Still looking out of the window, he thanked her as she put the plate on his desk. He actually didn’t want to eat, but her bringing him food was nice. She was still standing there as he glanced over to check, careful to not touch the dirty walls in the cramped room. Dante had a habit of cleaning the walls, but he hadn’t cared to do so for the past weeks. All the dirt and dust from the outside had made the white walls almost the same colour as the meals. 

He heard her sigh and could have sworn she was about to say something, but instead he was surprised by the sound of the door closing. Maria had always looked out for him. Since the first day they met she told him that his metallic blue eyes reminded her of the past. Ever since, he had been ashamed of his eyes, but strangely she meant it as a compliment. She was one of the sweetest people here, but also so mistaken. He was ashamed he wasn’t called in before the age of twenty-five, but she was five years older and still hadn’t gotten a call. Many times before he had tried giving her advice on how to behave, but she never listened. She didn’t respect the officials and even spoke well about the sinners of the past. Those who killed earth. 

“Perhaps they weren't aware of the consequences of their actions, ”she had said.

But Dante knew differently. For decades they'd been warned what would happen, and they didn’t stop until it was too late. Until their greed ate up everything the earth could offer. Until he was doomed to a life here. Today all that remained were their skyscraper offices on this side of the wall, reminding people like him of where their ancestors had committed those crimes.

Dante started feeling hungry and went towards his desk. Looking down at the gray mush in front of him he wondered, as he had done so many times before, how something so bland could smell so bad. He thought of the strawberry Maria had told him about. How would it taste?

The sound of his stomach rumbling made him sigh as he swallowed a big lump of pudding to silence it. Since that first day in the energy generator facility, when Ms. Flower told him that the only way he would get to eat was by working, he had hated it even more. He already hated eating it, but now he had to work for it? 

“This is not a punishment, but simply the only way forward for us. We did not doom you to this reality. Those in the past did.”

It was common for kids to break down during their first days at work, and seven year-old Dante was no exception. Ms. Flower had taken him to the side and spoken to him. 

“Remember, those of us who are from the other side are benevolent. Keep your head down, work hard, and you will be able to leave this place one day”

She told him that he had five minutes to get himself together or he wouldn’t get any dinner that day. Since then he had always been careful to do his job as best he could. Generating energy for those on the inside was important, he told himself. The weakness he had shown was probably something he had inherited from those in the past, and he made sure to get rid of it. 

Now, his last day wouldn’t be the day he would fuck up, he thought, as the sound of yet another mantra made him realize it was time to leave for his final shift. As he walked through the desert he looked at the wall, wondering what he would be doing if he were on the other side. How he would never have to wake up with the harsh sun reflected off the skyscrapers. But in the midst of those thoughts, Maria walked up to him.

“Oh my, you’re almost unable to walk.”

It was true. He had started getting weaker. Even his short blond hair had started falling out. Maria was the oldest one in the camp but was still strong. She had told him it was because she ate the leftovers of the officials’ food. She had tasted bread, strawberries, even wine once.

“I’ll miss you.”

The words came out automatically and he only realized how truthful they were after the fact.

“You don’t have to go.”

He did and she knew it.

“I’ll see you on the inside.”

“It’s not what you think it is. The officials, they’re not like us.”

No, they’re better. And soon he would become one of them. He couldn’t be any help to Maria anymore.

“I hear them speak all the time. They don’t see you as human. We can't be blamed for the sins of our forefathers. They are no better than you and I.”

The words of Ms. Flower echoed in his mind “This is not a punishment, but simply the only way forward for us.”

He wrapped his arms around her and and held on tight to stop her from saying anything more. Maria had always been the only one who noticed him, but she was so mistaken. As he let go of her, he made sure to not make eye contact.

“I’ll miss you.”

He could do nothing but pity her. Turning around, the last thing he saw before he went was a tear falling down her cheek.

 

Entering the energy center, he walked through the hundreds of bikes. He scrunched his nose as the smell of sweat entered his nostrils. It always hit him hardest when he first came in. After a while he would get used to it. Walking to his position had become automatic long ago. Number 692. He read the metallic sign on his bike as he stepped on it and started pedaling. The numbers on the timekeeper in front of him started going down, moving slower than ever. 

A little boy walked in with Ms. Flower as his shift started coming to an end. This must be his replacement. He didn’t seem to be older than six. They always took the oldest of the kids when someone was supposed to leave. They took them away from their parents and put them in their own rooms.

“From now on, if you want to eat, you work.”

It was so clear that Ms. Flower hated her job. And he couldn’t blame her. Having to interact with them all day? Even he couldn’t stand it.

“For each hour, you get one meal. No work, no food.”

Quick to the point, as she always was. They came yet closer.

“From tomorrow, you will be 692. This right here will be your position.”

Dante felt the happiness inside him as he remembered being in the little boy’s position so many years ago. Now that moment seemed so far away. Impossible to reach. He gave the kid an encouraging nod and kept biking. The last thing he wanted was to get into trouble on his last hours here.

“692 will generate better energy from tomorrow,” she said in her earpiece as she walked away. 

 

Over time his legs had gotten longer and it had become easier to reach the pedals. But now his legs hurt more than ever, and he had to stop every few moments to collect himself. He really was getting weaker, he thought, but quickly brushed it away as he realized it was time to leave. As he was leaving he saw Ms. Flower approach him. She was alone this time. 

It was finally time! He was so happy she was the one who would bring him in.

“Number 692. Get changed into these and meet me outside in five minutes.”

Dante knew it was foolish, but he expected more. Maybe a smile? He was one of them now after all. 

Ms. Flower handed him a stack of neatly folded clothes and walked to the outside. Everything was white, but he would get much nicer clothing there, he thought, while putting them on.

As he walked out he gave Ms. Flower a smile, but she didn’t look at him. She didn’t even acknowledge his existence as he followed her. Ms. Flower’s swift steps through the sand made it impossible for his weak legs to keep up without getting his clothing dirty. Her wavy black hair stood tall despite the strong desert wind, from all the hairspray she had put in it. It was the last time he would see the hordes of people just laying there, waiting for something, anything. But as they reached the entrance at the wall, he realized he wouldn’t miss them at all. 

He had thought many times of the moment when he would be standing there. How he would finally feel human. Walking through, he took a big breath, waiting to feel the change. But instead, all all he felt was a bit of pain in his right ankle from the walk, followed by a big rush of disappointment. The entrance led to a long white hall, and as they walked through it he tried to force out a feeling, but he just felt tired, as he had his whole life. He felt so weak, unable to keep up with Ms. Flower's strong long steps.

“Ms …”

He didn’t know if she heard his plea or if they had already reached their destination, but she toward a big sign with the number 12 on it and opened the door. As they stepped in, Dante shivered from the cold in the room. The office was small. The only things there were two chairs and a loud machine that blew out the cold air. Not even a window, which explained the clean white walls around him. 

“So, number 692.”

“Dante.”

He knew he wasn’t supposed to interrupt her, but he should be called by his name now. He had earned this.

“Right. You have served us well. And today your service comes to an end.”

What a strange way to say his time on the inside had started. But Dante kept quiet. He didn’t want to insult her by interrupting again.

“I’m actually quite sad to see you leave, as you have been great for morale in the facility.”

He felt a rush of confirmation and thought he should compliment her back. Maybe tell her how much he admired her.

“I have requested that we don’t go through this, but it’s protocol. Something about ‘showing respect to all sentient beings’. Laughable, don’t you think?”

Dante didn’t understand what she was talking about but still gave a small chuckle. 

“You will not be allowed on the other side.”

There was a long moment of silence before Dante understood what she had just said.

“I have to go back?”

He wondered if Maria had said something to get him into trouble. 

“Don’t take it personally. If we were to take every one of you in, we simply wouldn’t be able to generate enough clean air and water. We already have too many people inside.”

"What? But they said--" 

“This is the only way to get your kind to work. It’s not our fault your ancestors decided to take the privilege of nature from you. We're just looking out for ourselves.”

Was this a test, he wondered.

“And you actually descend from one of the biggest criminals of the past: the owner of the world’s largest oil company. It’s not strange that you were such a hard worker in the camp.”

“But what?”

Without even acknowledging his confused look, Ms. Flower turned away and started walking out of the room. As she locked the door, Dante realized how cold he was getting. 

“Nutrition pudding integrant in room 12 in five minutes.”

Her voice fading away, the last thing he heard were her steps as she walked down the corridor. Weren't they going to feed him? How long were they going to keep him in here?

The big machine in the corner of the room kept freezing the room, and Dante could now feel small crystals forming on his hair. He tried to collect his energy in order try and shut the machine down, but he ended up on the floor, just laying there. He couldn’t move and thought about the sun reflecting off the skyscrapers. How it would have warmed his now pale white skin. How that would have been his home, had he only been born before. How he would have been just like his forefathers, following whatever the expectations were for him. He would have been just as weak as he was today. 

Perhaps they weren’t aware of the consequences of their actions. He thought about Maria’s words as his eyes closed.

 

***