Helpless, I watch as her pale, sunken face contorts in pain, as her broken body begins clicking back into place, as she is being remade. She kneels in the center of the bright stadium, scraping at the dirt as if it were the only thing tying her to this world, this harsh reality. She looks as if she could be not much younger than me, though it’s hard to tell as her blonde hair is thrown up in the wind, like a curtain hiding her from the audience. She opens her mouth as if to scream, but no words come out. Oblivious to the crowd of people stopping to watch the show. But of course, that’s all that this is to them, isn’t it? Yet another spectacle for them to find pleasure in. Though they aren’t wrong. This display is nothing more than a reminder that even the broken can be fixed if they earn it. Even the broken are worthy of their pity. A puppet show, if you would. The broken let themselves be fooled into loving, into feeling, into a tunnel of all that is good and just. That is, until the tunnel comes to a dead end and the walls cave in. Bringing all their dreams down, soundless against the crashing of the rocks. The first lesson we learn in school: never enter that tunnel. They drag her new, pristine body back through the thick, iron door, her screams of defiance becoming less, and less until they are no more. I shouldn’t think anything of it. People refuse the making ceremonies regularly, another side effect of being broken – you run away from the people wanting only to fix you. At least that’s what I used to think.
That night, I dream of the iron door slamming shut before I get a chance to look through at the darkness behind it and what may await me there. I’m once again tugged back into the reality of my own dark bedroom. I wake up in a blur, my eyes finally focusing once I’ve sat up in my bed. Unsurprisingly, my bed is coated in sweat, along with my now sticky, warm skin. I roll up the sleeve of my now drenched nightgown, my right arm leaving me almost panting in pain. Like buds sprouting from a branch on a tree, or oil, slowly devouring the ocean in its wake, little veiny cracks appear to be covering the sleeve of my arm. Adding to what work was done throughout the last five nights. Adding to what I can only describe as a mystery.
My Mother used to tell us stories of the centuries before us, and how weird it was to think things like love, and happiness were what we once longed to have. What we once would have killed for, died for. Now, we want nothing to do with it. Because once we have it, it can only be taken from us. Which only makes me all the more clueless as to what has happened to me. All my lessons, all my warnings, I have always strived to be the smartest, the safest. I read all of these books about the causes and meanings of breaking, I’ve never thought to read one about how it feels to break. And I now know why. It isn’t so much the pain that hurts then the feeling it produces. To one who has never let themselves be hurt, it’s almost a treat to feel for once. Even if it’s painful. Alas, nothing I know can help me decipher what breaks me now.
I shake off my useless questions for another time and focus on getting through the morning. There are no making ceremonies today, so I don’t need to worry about a big crowd as I head off to work. I silently thank the gods for the breeze in the air today. Nobody can question my covered arms if all of them are wearing the exact same thing. I pull on a simple, grey sweater my aunt knit for me last winter and fashion my dull, black hair into a low ponytail, keeping it out of my face as I reach down to tie up the shoelaces on my large, concrete blocks of boots. I’m almost out the door when Caira calls back to me.
“Annys!” I turn around, frazzled and annoyed knowing that by this rate, I’ll be a good ten minutes late for work. “You forgot to take a breakfast. Aunt Latia put this together for you, she says she wants you to pick up some bread for her on your way back.” Caira hands me a brown paper bag leaking from the bottom and turns around, her auburn hair dancing in the breeze. Once again, I am left alone on
the broken pavement. Ever since Dad died, Mom’s been rotting away in her bed, leaving Aunt Latia to take care of us. She may be strict at times, but she’s the only parental figure I feel I’ll ever have. For that, how could I resent her. Caira and I, although we’re cousins, have always been closer to sisters. I grew up looking after her, and her me. She works with my Aunt down at the bakery, a job I have always envied. Instead, I have to walk all the way across town to get to the newsroom.
Slowly but surely, people begin to emerge from their houses, joining the rows of people off to work. I walk with my head down, eyes fixated on my boots, clicking with every step I take. The sun is warm on the back of my neck and I shiver a little when the cool breeze washes over me, weaving its way throughout the town. Once again, my mind betrays me and my thoughts drift to the making ceremony yesterday. Being remade should be a gift, it’s certainly presented as one. I know we are taught the broken don’t want to be fixed, but deep down, I’ve always known there was something else, something more to the story. I wince as my arm cracks a bit more. My traitorous mind seems not to be the only thing slowing me down this morning. I come to a stop at the theatre, thinking I might catch the sweet, swift sound of the music from inside. Knowing I will not find any music doesn’t bother me. The theatres practically a tourist museum nowadays. But just stopping to wait and hope for it makes me a bit more enthusiastic to get to work each day. I live my entire life following the rules and guidelines, having this one moment to myself each day is a treasure I can never share. I enter the sad, grey building at the end of the street with a big, rusty sign, illegible lettering scribbled all over it, marking it as the newsroom. My lock finally gives in and the door to the office swings open. I cough into my sleeve when I’m instantly engulfed in dust and the sweet smell of old paper. I walk across the empty space and take a seat at my desk. As a journalist, my job is to write absolutely nothing and stare at a screen all day. There is nothing to write about, and nobody to read it.
We live in one of the smaller towns in Arilae, close enough to Clephaise that we’re on the map, but still small enough to be overlooked. Alstian is perhaps the most boring, ordinary place I’ve ever been. Then again, I’ve never had a choice to be anywhere else. Therefore, reporting on important matters or an interesting crisis isn’t quite on my radar. Instead, I often find myself going through old records and articles, trying so desperately to find something that perks my interest. Today is no different. I roll up my sleeves knowing I’m safe from video cameras or anyone coming in for at least an hour or two. Surveying the dark room, I decide to start over in the corner with the least amount of boxes stacked up underneath the windowsill. My hands are coated in black dust and I wipe them off on my shirt, leaving handprints on my stomach. Everything here in this room is so simple, so untouched, and yet, something about reading these articles… It makes me feel like I should be in trouble for something. A feeling I find I quite enjoy.
By the age of fourteen, all children are required to have jobs. I’ve been working for nearly four years and by now, I’ve gotten pretty used to the schedule. I leave almost as quickly as I came switching off with Edgar, an older employee who makes it very clear he likes to keep to himself. After grabbing some bread at the Old Market, I decide to take the long way home. This way I can stop by the library. I intend to check every book in order to figure out what is happening to me.
Once I get there a librarian offers to take me to the broken section and I make a mental note to make a second trip here. There is no way I could read all these books in one sitting. I pile up the books onto a desk and sit down. From here, I finally have the chance to get a good look around me.
Rows upon rows of bookshelves surround me and I suddenly feel so small. I’m surrounded by so many different stories and worlds, yet the only place I have ever known is right here. I feel so guilty for wanting more than this town, this life. But I’ve always wondered what it would be like in a world where people were really, truly whole. Because here, whether you’re broken or not, I fear something will always be missing. A painting hung up at the end of an aisle catches my eye. From back here, I can make out an ocean, its waves crashing up against the rocky shores. The picture reminds me of a desert. I know that the two are completely opposite from each other, but I can’t help but make the inference. The waves remind me of sand dunes, being blown by the wind, moving like waves. I feel a sense of adventure looking at the picture now. Wishing it was much more than just a canvas and oil paints.
From what I’ve gathered so far, there are more things that can break you, than fix you. I’m not heartbroken, depressed, angry, I’m not an unstable person. The only thing that could fix me is the making ceremony. Only the broken that have somehow redeemed themselves, are let back into the society, are “fixed”. There is no way that I could be redeemed because I’ve never done anything wrong. There is no making ceremony for me in the future. I try so hard to fit in, and I do, which is why none of this makes sense to me. I sigh and slam my head down onto the communal desk. The librarian two shelves over huffs out a suppressed laugh. I know your stereotypical librarian is an old, cranky woman but the smile on this librarian’s face, it’s brighter than a thousand suns. Her golden hair is swept up into a bun and she looks as though she’s the same age as my mother. Without anything covering her eyes I can see them clearly. It’s more than the Bluish hue color her eyes magnify that gives me a pause. It’s the emotion behind them, and what’s written there.
She must see me staring at her, so she walks over. Now, up close I can see the age written on her face, the gray hairs caught up in the blonde, some subtle wrinkles beneath her eyes, and more. It’s funny how from afar, things seem so much more beautiful opposed to up close. Don’t get me wrong, she’s still beautiful, but there’s a hardness to her eyes that wasn’t there before. A question. I straighten up in my chair as she approaches.
“Can I help you with anything?” I ask, surprised when she does nothing more than peer over my shoulder. “No,” She says quietly. She then leans closer to my ear and whispers, “but I think I can help you.” I’m more than taken aback at her comment. What does this woman think she’s talking about?
“What do you mean?” I inquire, hoping she doesn’t notice the heat flaring up in my cheeks. She pulls up the sleeve of her long, sapphire blue dress, revealing broken skin running up her arm, spreading further across her body. “How did you-” she cuts me off.
“I used to be a nurse and your neck looks like the next victim.” she says, clearly growing irritated I haven’t caught on to what she’s trying to tell me. I put a hand on the back of my neck suddenly self- conscious. “I want to help you; I know what you’re going through. I can explain it.” She gives me a moment clearly sensing my uncertainty. Am I so desperate as to seek help from a crazy woman? I may be “broken” but I’m still sane. Regardless, this is the only choice I have been given all day. All my life, really. That must mean something.
“Fine,” I say, trying to sound more confident. “What’s happening to me?”
“Okay,” she says putting her hands up as if to say slow down. “But first, I’m going to need you to come with me.” She offers me a hand and I take it, following her through the rows of books, all the way to the back of an aisle. Just like an adventure book, she walks up to the painting of the ocean I was looking at earlier and pulls, opening a secret door. I guess I was right, there is so much more to see up close. She takes a step into the dark, gesturing for me to follow her. I hesitate, then let myself be carried along, further into the darkness, further into the truth.
“I’m Emery,” she says finally filling the uneasy silence that has followed us through the tunnel. Unfortunately, I find her words only make the situation more awkward as we continue down the path.
“Annys,” I reply. “Where are you taking me exactly?” I ask, finally working up the courage to do so. We start down a flight of stairs and she helps me up when I stumble down the first few steps. I finally start getting the hang of it.
“It’s kind of like an orphanage for the broken,” Emery explains, “except we’re more like a family, we can’t survive without one another. Not meaning we rely on each other, but more the world would be a little darker, a little emptier when they’re gone.” She says these words without knowing how deep they cut into me.
I instantly feel stupid for doing this. I don’t even know what it’s like to feel that way about anyone. I’ve never let myself think about what it might be like to feel like that. I have no understanding of the word family. The closest thing I have to what Emery describes is Caira, though I doubt it’s mutual. The rest of the way there, we walk in silence. I stumble a few more times but never allow her to help me up. I’m fine, I can do it myself. I repeat those words inside my head for what feels like hours. We finally come to a large wooden door. Its lock has been busted and now swings open with little more than a push.
My breath catches in my throat as we enter the large, bright room. They have no lanterns, no candles, no lightbulbs, but the room is filled with light. From here I can see a vast hole in the middle of the roof, allowing the sun to shine down on us. The walls are covered in spray paint. Different artwork and emotion written with every stroke of paint. One message stands out more than anything else on the wall, “Only when broken, can we truly be whole.” A part of me wonders if they believe that. A part of me wonders if I should. No more than twenty people fill the room, and although it should seem empty, their laughter and sense of peace seems so overwhelming it takes up the space. It takes up the very air I need to breathe. Both the old and young exist in harmony. Playing with one another, talking to one another. I’m even more shocked to notice that most of them don’t even seem to be related. It creates a sensation in my chest I hadn’t realized I could have. An aching that longs to join them.
The people aren’t the only things that surprise me. We are taught that the broken have nothing, they act like rats fighting over the nearest dumpster. And although there does seem to be some garbage in the room, it’s nothing like I would’ve pictured. Everything has been repurposed into chairs, bowls, clothes, anything you would ever need, I wouldn’t put it past them to have made already. Even an old chess set sits at the corner of the room, though a few pieces have been replaced with multicolored gum wrappers. A boy and girl both around my age come over to greet us. Along with a little boy I can only describe as the spitting image of his mother. Emery lifts the boy up and twirls him around. It pains me to
see that while he has his mother’s beautiful hair and eyes, he also has matching cracks working their way up his neck. The older boy and girl come closer and I can make out their features more clearly now. The girl has fierce, red hair and pale skin. She stands quite a bit taller than me, and her back straightens the closer she gets, as if sizing me up. I tear my gaze away from her and take in the boy. His tanned, dark skin stands in contrast to that of the red-haired girls, and his curly, dark hair covers his bright, green eyes.
“Quinn, Elijah, this is our newest recruit, Annys,” Emery announces, gesturing to me.
“Newest recruit?” I ask, trying not to make Emery feel bad. “I may not know what I am, but I’d like to find out before I join any type of club.” I say annoyed. Quinn looks me up and down before matching Elijah’s stupid grin.
“I like this one,” she says smirking. “Maybe now I’ll finally have some competition.” She gestures to Elijah,” this one isn’t as quick-witted as I’ve come to like.” Elijah gives her a shove.
“Not now,” Emery says pointing her finger at them as though imitating an angry mother from a movie. “Let’s get some privacy, this might be a bit too much information to give you standing up.” Just the insinuation that I’ll need to sit makes me feel queasy. I’m led into a smaller room by Carter, Emery’s son. He grips the sleeve of my sweater so hard I think if he moved too fast, he could rip it off. I sit down and Emery begins to speak.
“Just listen to me,” she says, suddenly the picture of solemnity. “Everything you know, is wrong. When we break, it isn’t because of emotion, or being hurt too many times. We break when we begin to realize feeling is better than not feeling at all. Being hurt is better than not knowing what it feels like to be hurt. Your heart doesn’t have to break for you be broken. Your heart becomes whole the more you break.”
“This can’t be true,” I reply thickly. “It doesn’t make any sense. If breaking is good for you, why is everyone disgracing the broken, why are we trying to prevent it?” She looks at me as though the answer is the most obvious thing in the world.
“You tell me,” Emery says. “You tell me why you cringe when you look at our broken faces, you tell me why you know the truth but can’t accept it. People accept the pretty things, the things that make more sense to them. Tell me, who wants to live a life looking like this and thinking they’re better for it.” Emotion wells up in her eyes and understanding washes over me. Accept the pretty things, the easy things. Why change the future when the past is easier to handle. Realizing this truth is like peeling off a layer of paint to find a treasure underneath.
“I guess you could say we cracked the code,” Elijah says, and in spite of myself, I laugh. I laugh until my throat burns. And, for a second, I can truly imagine what it feels like to be whole.
And now, here in this tiny room, with these broken people I realize what I’ve done. The broken let themselves be fooled into loving, into feeling, into a tunnel of all that is good and just. That is, until the tunnel comes to a dead end and the walls cave in. Bringing all their dreams down, soundless against the crashing of the rocks. The first lesson we learn in school: never enter that tunnel. I remember thinking this just the other day. When life was simple and planned. And somewhere, deep inside me, I know that I have entered the tunnel. And I pray the walls cave in. I pray that I might stay there forever.