I want to be here. I worked to be here. I need to stay here.
With no money in his pocket and hardly a shirt on his back, James moved to the city. He is the youngest of eight children in his family and when his father died at the age of thirteen, he was forced to upgrade his role in the family. James hated it. He could never work outside of the house, never hang out with friends after school or on weekends, his mom and distant step-father wouldn’t even let him apply for college. His senior year of high school rolled by him as every other year had, but he had nothing to show for it. Girls in over-sized college sweatshirts and boys in t-shirts and ball caps, the colors of their universities paraded the school halls. James hated his life. He hated his parents. The only thing he didn’t hate was writing. That is what gave him the opportunity to get away from his old life.
While scrolling through social media, reclined in a leather chair in the pale green front room of the house his father renovated by hand, and advertisement popped up on the screen of his phone. “Apply now!” it read, “submit your best piece of fiction or nonfiction writing for a chance to work in the world-renown Downtown Publishing Company!”. James had to look further into this application. Gazing around the room, making sure not one eye of his seven younger brothers and sisters were spying on him, he clicked on the “apply now!” button and began to enter his information.
While filling out his name, phone number, and email, James thought to himself, what should I write? I’ve never had to be judged on my words before. I want to move out and work at the publishing company. What if I don’t get in? What if I do? What will my parents think? What will my siblings think?
Questions swirled around in his head, unending pools of doubt dumped into rivers of fear. In this moment, there was no excitement, only anxiety. His self-questioning stood as a strong barricade in front of the hope he had when he imagined himself sitting in an upscale, modern business complex. Red brick covering the exterior, hardwood double doors, huge glass windows, bamboo floors, soft lighting, leather couches, high speed computers lining the walls. Despite his fears, James’ disdain for his parents and family pushed him enough to spin the gears in his mind and begin writing. Letters turned into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs. He couldn’t stop. His hands were moving faster than his brain could express ideas. He had decided on writing a fictitious short story. This is how it went:
Although the world never seemed quite right, Emily never thought differently about it. Life was simple. A well balanced life, close friends, a loving family. Nothing went wrong on Emily’s side of town. Right and wrong were easy to define and everyone had their place in the world: everything seemed to be black and white. Emily had been assigned, at birth, to become a writer. She knew nothing else, only going to school to write and was about to enter into high school. Emily had only ever worked with other designated writers during her grade-schooling, so her class was consistently small. However, in the high school setting, every child in the general area is combined into a single building in order to simulate what the real world will be like. The directors designed this type of learning environment in order to see if students could really stay true to what they grew up knowing as the only truth: stick to what you are assigned to. Never stray from your given purpose.
Emily understood that she needed to be a writer. Current professionals in this field were retiring soon without anyone to take their place so Emily knew she would have a successful job as a journalist for the city’s most popular news blog, The Unique Dependent – a company that seemed to write columns and release video news in order to promote the unified thinking of the community, and for Emily, that was what she was going to be successful at, once she made it through these next four years.
Day one of high school came along, walking through the narrow, endless hallways, bells ringing, teenagers swarming the halls like mosquitoes, eager to suck the blood of the new students. Emily was terrified. Where were the other writing students? She was lost in the crowd, abandoned by the ones she knew. Then again, the other writers most likely felt the same way as they attempted to stay afloat during these first weeks of transition.
Dirty looks and scoffs from the upperclassmen poured out on Emily like muddy rain. Knowing that being a writer wasn’t always the “coolest” job, she still didn’t realize that people could be this mean to her, or to anyone. The kindest greeting she received was a slow blink and a crooked smile from a teacher in the halls, which seemed to be less of a welcoming greeting and more of a pitying glance. How could she possibly make it through the next four years with this added exclusion? How can perseverance and learning be possible in these types of conditions? Emily’s family continued to encourage her: warm smiles from her father, hugs from her little twin sisters, Tina and Rebecca, and kind words from her mother. These were the interactions that kept her going.
When walking to school one day, a taxi drove by her while she was in the middle of a crosswalk. The light was red but the yellow car plowed through the rocky concrete streets anyway. “Screw you!” Emily screamed as she picked up her backpack that had fallen to the ground when she jumped out of the way of the speeding vehicle. Why would someone almost kill me and not even care? Emily thought. I had never met an unkind person until I started high school. Now people can’t stop being aggressively rude. What switch was turned off to make me no longer oblivious?
Her high-pitched scream was useless since he was now speeding around the corner, but it felt good to scream at something, even if it was just the sky. She had held in her emotions from the preceding weeks for far too long at this point. Her insides were the crashing waves in a storming ocean. Dark clouds covering the skies, flashes of lightning. Emily’s heart and mind lying in a tiny canoe, stranded in the middle of the giant blue-gray waters below. There was no use crying for help, no one would see any problems, no one would come to save her.
The screaming made her dizzy. The last thing on Emily’s list of priorities was to go to school. Fully aware of the consequences, an unexcused absence could charge her the spot at The Unique Dependent, but right now she could care less. Turning from the direction of the high school, Emily darted through the doors to her left with a striped veranda hanging above. The smell of ground coffee beans saturated the inside of the shop, it even overflowed out onto the sidewalk. A bell chimed above the door and a young man about Emily’s age stood behind the large counter. “Hi there, welcome to The Bean, what can I get started for you?”. She knew that voice instantly, “Paul, is that you?” Emily walked closer instead of continuing to squint from across the room, “man, am I happy to see you”. “Wait, did you not move on into high school? Your writing was incredible all through grade school, why aren’t you continuing?”
Paul smiled at her. “I got in. I just didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to be a writer, I didn’t want to go to a school that would put me in a box and ship me off to a position I didn’t want to fill. I would be taking the place of someone who might have actually wanted to work in a newsroom or publishing company and do the same thing for fifty years and then die”.
Emily swallowed hard. That was the exact plan she had for her life. What Paul now explained as what he believed to be an unjust system was what Emily viewed as a perfect life and would do anything to keep that goal in her long-term view. “Well, uh, I guess you can feel that way, but I can’t wait to keep moving forward with my writing,” she tried to defend herself, but Paul struck right back.
“You have always seen the world like that, Emily, right?” She nodded. “You see everyone as good,” Not anymore, she thought. “You only see one path ahead of you and never turn your head to see other options. You see black and you see white. You have never spent time enjoying the gray or even throwing in a splash of color. I like to throw in a pop of yellow every once in a while. Having spontaneity in my life is what makes everything I do worth the everyday struggle. I don’t want to fit in a mold,” you could see him almost jumping out from behind the black top table covered in punch cards, candies, and sugar packets.
“So what are you doing here now?” I asked.
“Well I need to make some money. With the little credentials I’ve received from only ever taking writing and english classes, this is the only place that hired me. So for now I’m here, until I can save up, move out of state and be a free man.”
Free. What does he mean by free? We are free. We get to choose to get up, what we eat, what we wear, who we talk to and don’t talk to, what more do we need to be free from? Emily was no longer paying attention to Paul as he further explained his life’s blueprints once he left The Bean and what he would be “freeing” himself from. She decided to skip getting coffee for the moment, Paul was still rambling behind her as she turned around, he seemed to be very caught up in his own words, having a great conversation with himself.
The narrow, wooden chair wobbled between the floor tiles when she sat down. Once everything was settled, Emily opened her laptop and began to work on some more writing for her classes. Is this really all I will ever do? The only job experience I will have in my entire life? The thought of never leaving the city and remaining in the same job, she once coveted, for fifty or more years, terrified her. She wanted to know what freedom was and what Paul meant when he talked about it. What is gray like? Is it better than where I am now? Worse? Can it hurt me? Hurt my family? The unknown was frightening but Emily was compelled to investigate more and more. The rest of the afternoon she attempted to search for information about cities and states outside her hometown and all that read on the screen was ERROR when she clicked on any search result.
“You need a different wifi password to search for things outside city limits,” Emily’s heart jumped from the sudden sound of Paul’s voice so close behind her. He was standing with his hand in his pocket, his other wrapped around a bin for dirty dishes. She asked for the password and began searching. She found a company that actually shipped people outside of the city through old, used, yellow moving vans. They were what secret, unregistered businesses used to help people who didn’t want the lifestyle that they had been bestowed at birth – if they had the money. Emily figured that’s why Paul hadn’t left yet. I have the money, I think. I have enough in my savings, maybe, to get out of here. Paul’s right. I need to see some color. “Pops of yellow” he said… I guess I can try that. If I fail I can always come back, maybe? Okay let’s do this.
Closing her laptop abruptly, Emily packed up her backpack, “thanks for the tips, Paul, I’ll hopefully see you on the outside.” Paul smiled without saying a single word. He was proud his rant had proven to have some sort of positive impact.
A yellow moving truck flew by as Emily ran out the door, bell ringing above, sweet smells drifting behind her. She had to find where that truck was going. About a mile down the road, the truck made a sharp right turn. For the most part, Emily had been discretely walking about 200 feet behind the truck, keeping it in her sight. But when it was put in park and a large man wearing saggy, elastic waist jeans came climbing out of the driver’s side, Emily started to run towards the truck. A crack in the sidewalk crept up and tripped her; crashing to the pavement and dropping all her things once again. The man pulled up his oversized pants and jumped up with all his might to fit into the tight front seat. The engine started and with the bang of the door beside him, the truck rolled down the street and out of Emily’s sight. Hopeless. I’m utterly hopeless. I couldn’t even do this one task right. Rebellion does not suit me well, the universe only seems to laugh at my newly discovered “dangerous” attitude.
Emily figured this was a simple sign. Spontaneity was not for her, apparently. Trying to remain rebellious, she skipped school but went straight home to report all that had happened to her that day to her mother. “Oh honey, you’re meant to be here. You are so beautiful and talented. Your written words will change the city, maybe even the world! You need to stay right here.” Emily had no idea if her mother was speaking these words out of love or out of her own selfish wants, but she honestly didn’t care. She felt guilty after only half a day of attempting to “break the mold”, although it seemed like a flawless plan at the time. Although Emily knew she’d never have the guts to leave her hometown and life assignment, her eyes had still been open to the fact that there was severe injustice that needed to change, and for her, running away would not be the answer to unseeing this truth.
Emily continued on with her English education and graduated at the top of her class segment despite only having four other writers as competition. She moved on to work at The Unique Dependent, fulfilling her childhood dream. But no longer would she only write the words put in her mouth by the voices of her superiors. Emily knew she could find a way to expose the community to what the world could be like, somehow….
What am I risking here? Emily’s head spun with worry, pushing back her courage further and further.
One day Emily was handed a story to publish about a man driving a yellow moving truck. The report was specifically on the man found inside the truck, he was dead. Emily looked closer at the thumb-sized, blurry picture. It was Paul. He had tried to escape but a local had reported a sighting of the truck and a police driver had pulled the yellow moving truck over. By the report Emily now held in her hand it read “man found dead in trunk of moving truck. Cause of death still unknown but on good authority we know that this man was a rebel. He was a coward despite his brave efforts to run away. His name is Paul Stevenson. He was assigned a writing position and never finished school or worked as a writer. He had no credentials, no family to support him, no one has claimed the body. We know all of this from the ID number he had which is implanted in every healthy child at birth.”
Emily was distraught. Shaking, falling to the floor, sobbing. Paul is gone. No one wants to claim him just because he didn’t stick to the life he was assigned at birth. No one cares that he’s been demoted to an eight-digit number. At that moment, Emily knew how she could help. She wasn’t just going to write a report about the tragedy, she was going to write how and why it happened in the first place. Her head was clear of any worry about opening the floodgates to endless consequences and controversy. Emily began to write; freeing herself, even as she sat in a swivel chair at a desk with her name carved in the top right corner. With a click of the publish button, she felt a little closer to Paul, like she was making an action towards change. She was blending the black with the white, she was making gray. A new perspective no average person had seen. Imagining the “pops of yellow” she had began to discover this very day, she internally repeated.
My life will begin here. My work will matter here. My heart belongs here.
And this is the story that opened the doors to James at the Downtown Publishing Company and shattered his fears of not knowing where he truly belonged.