a short story by suha
art by Hauwa Bashir
It was warm, welcoming, peaceful. The perfect place to die, he thought, as he looked at grandfather on his death bed. The thought didn’t bother him. Everyone died eventually, and his grandfather lived a long happy life, just like everyone else will if they keep their rose-colored glasses on. It surprised him that his grandfather had managed to live this long after taking them off before he went blind decades ago; considering how often he talked about how nobody should wear them at all. He remembers responding with ‘finally’ upon hearing that his grandfather had fallen sick.
“What a long life,” his grandfather breathed. “Way too long,”
Unsure if he was being addressed, he remained seated.
“I often heard people talk about the world they wanted to see. Foolish optimism,” his eyes were closed, a faint frown contoured on his face. The boy wondered if he knew he wasn’t alone in the room.
“Because the distances you can travel by taking your glasses off is disturbing,” his tone wavered from critical to a soft, almost frightened one. He was recalling memories he never wanted to revisit. “The world is so different that it becomes a foreign reality beyond your wildest nightmares. You itch to put your glasses back on, but you’re stunned beyond motion.”
Uttering the last word was a struggle for him, and his breath slowed. The boy wondered if he’d speak again after he left. He thought about his grandfather’s last words being a rant about rose-colored glasses and rolled his eyes at how fitting that would be. Either way, he knew he would never see him again. This was the only visit he intended to pay, and the concept of funerals had long been abolished.
Walking down the street on his way to the beach, he heard the woman on the PA system give the daily announcements.
“Good morning, citizens! It’s a beautiful day in the capital, the perfect weather to fly a kite. We expect more of this sunny weather throughout this week,”
Her cheerful manner instantly put him in a cheerful mood.
“We’re pleased to announce that, according to the World Happiness Report, we have ranked as the happiest country in the world, for the sixteenth year in a row!” she continued.
Cheers erupted through the crowds but died down abruptly, as a voice with unique tone broke into a loud screech.
“Happiness?” the voice roared.
A man stood several feet away from the boy, in the middle of the street. Everyone cleared out of his way the moment he began to speak. He wore a torn button-down shirt and dress-pants that were darker at the bottom than the top, his tie hanging around his neck undone. His fists were clenched at his side, the veins so prominent in his neck and forehead that you could almost see them move in sync with his heart beat.
But his most noticeable feature, was that he wasn’t wearing his rose-glasses.
“It’s an illusion!” he continued, livid “You think you can see with your glasses but you’re blind, you’re blind, you’re blind,”
The boy realized that he was no longer exhaling; the world seemed to have frozen, and he felt that exhaling would break its state. He was unable to take in the man’s words, but the mere sound of something so furious, so loud, so different, had captivated him.
“We see what they want us to see, but what’s real?” his voice cracked, “it’s what we never wanted to see,”
Two men in uniform marched up to the man in silence. They each grabbed an arm and dragged him away, silencing him.
“We apologize for the inconvenience,” said the woman on the PA system. “Have a rose-colored day!”
Everyone was smiling, radiant at the good news that had flooded the streets. It was like nothing had happened at all.
He arrived at the beach, and sat on the ivory sand, listening to the waves as they crashed onto the shore. The sight of the blue water turning white as it folded itself into foam and retracted backwards was mesmerizing. It was quiet, with the occasional seagull flying over him. Soft winds teased his hair and the hem of his shirt, and he could feel the warmth of the sunlight embrace his skin. The sky was azure and clear, meeting the sea in the horizon, and the scent of the salty ocean filled his nostrils. It was a perfectly serene atmosphere he could’ve marveled at for hours.
Yet the boy couldn’t shake the infuriated man from his head, and the memory of how quickly his anger transcended into fear made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. What struck him harder was the fact that no one else seemed to retain the image of that man at all. He was taken away by the authorities, as though he had been snatched from existence.
“You think you can see with your rose glasses but you’re blind,” the man’s words echoed in his head.
He was reminded of what his grandfather had said in the hospital.
“The distances you can travel taking your glasses off is disturbing,”
His grandfather was blind, how much visual-memory could he be retaining anyway?
As for the man from the street – he was a stranger. Why should his words be trusted?
The boy knew that forgetting about what he’d heard was best. All his common sense, and everything he had ever been taught told him so.
But all his instincts and intuition fought against that. He knew he wasn’t thinking straight, but he felt like this was the first real thought he’d ever formed. And despite knowing the consequences were dire, he couldn’t resist as he lifted his hand up to his face, gripped the cold frame of his glasses, and pulled them away.
In one heartbeat, all sense of amity was extracted from the air.
The blood drained from his face at the appalling image before him, and his senses jolted awake.
The blue pigment of the sky was not visible through the thick, black clouds that hovered oppressively low. The beach was covered with what could have been tons of garbage like he had never seen, ranging from plastic bottles and bags to decaying food. He saw abnormally lean children searching through the litter.
The seagulls had gone silent, and he quickly became aware of the fact that the only seagulls within his sight had plastic materials wrapped around their necks and were either dead or dying.
He held his breathe to stop himself from inhaling the revolting smell that filled the air, and that’s when he saw it. The sight that carved itself into his mind in a way he knew would haunt him for eternity, was the sea he was admiring only moments ago.
There were dozens of bodies floating in the water. Their clothes were damaged and falling apart. Their skin was discolored and loose, seeming to have lost its elasticity but their limbs were stiff, and the boy felt sick at the thought that if a wave that was too strong hit them, they just might break.
The boy felt compelled to run, flee, escape, but could hardly breathe. He grabbed his rose-colored glasses and put them on, but the images he saw acted as a lens in his eyes that he couldn’t remove. Panting - with panic rising in his chest, creating knots that made it difficult to exhale - he jumped up and took off, running as fast as legs could carry him.
He didn’t know where to go where the images would not follow, but he knew where to find someone who knew what he had seen; the hospital.
With every stride he took he prayed that his grandfather was alive, breathing, conscious. He had to see him. He had to tell him that he was right all along.
When he found himself on the street once again, the woman on the PA system was giving the evening forecasts.
“Good evening, citizens! It’s a lovely evening in the capital tonight, and we’re experiencing some of the best weather we’ve had all summer. The skies are clear -”
A bellowing scream drained all sounds from the street, and the boy realized it had come from him.
“Lies!” he shrieked. “What we see isn’t what’s really there it’s all a lie,” his throat was scratched up and his voice was a higher pitch than normal. “It’s all fake, a setup. You don’t know what they’re hiding because you’d be petrified-”
He was interrupted as two men in uniform approached him, each grabbing one of his arms and dragging him away. He struggled, kicking his legs screaming until he could almost see his lungs shriveling up in his chest. One of the men stabbed his arm with an injection, rendering him paralyzed.
And as he was being taken away, he heard the woman on the PA system.
“We apologize for the inconvenience, have a rose-colored day!”