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January 16, 2014 (3rd Prize, Category 4)

April, 2014
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It was an ordinary Wednesday morning.

Seconds before the alarm went off, I was shaken awake by the white glow of morning fog pouring into my room. I blinked away the brightness as I checked the time through my swollen eyelids. 7:29 a.m.

With my eyes half-shut and my mind half-conscious, I watched the minute hand of my electric green clock inch closer and closer towards the beginning of another day.

Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

The room burst into a symphony of shrills as the clock struck seven-thirty.

I stifled the piercing noise of the alarm with a pillow, but the incessant ringing tones in my eardrum brought me back to consciousness. After several meager attempts to regain sleep, I surrendered and shuffled out of bed.

I struggled to remember the date in my drowsy state: January 16, 2041. My history test on the America’s Reconstruction Era was today. I groaned.

Laid against my desk chair was my school uniform, carefully placed last night. As I reluctantly dressed for the school day, I listened intently to the muffled voices of my mother’s air quality broadcast in the living parlor. The robotic radio anchors announced that today’s API was 600: “a record low for the month” they announced in their usual chirpy voices.

My gaze returned to outside my bedroom. I saw nothing but the smoke dancing across my window. The white glow of smog now encompassed the entire Shanghai skyline. The apartment building across the street was barely visible through the thick fog. However, given the circumstances, I was glad enough to see the outlines of the walls as it was.

I pulled the bedroom door open. Mother laid on the couch with her eyes closed, listening to the hypnotic tunes of the radio. I tried not to worry too much as she let out a rasping cough that exploded the sound barrier. She always got frustrated when I asked her to see a doctor. It’s nothing. Everybody has a cough, she would reply in a hoarse voice, letting out another violent hack.

As I ran into the kitchen for breakfast, I grabbed my favorite cereal from the cupboard and started pouring the flakes into a ceramic bowl. After checking the time for the second time that morning, I started shoving spoonfuls of cereal into my mouth and hastily rinsed the bowl in the sink.

My mother watched out of the corner of her eye as I rushed into the living room with my school bag in one hand and my gas mask in another. I slipped on the constricting mask and slung my book bag across my shoulders. Giving one final wave to my mother, I stepped out of the threshold, smoke enveloping me as I ventured forward out my home.

As I stepped into the murky elevator filled with clouded smog, I tried recalling my dream. The details were long forgotten but the feeling of warmth it conveyed remained. The smog had unfurled and I saw the sun in all its glory, the warm yellow sphere, embracing me with its rays of life. She greeted me like an old friend.

I sighed. It was a silly dream.

The elevator pinged open as it revealed the ground floor. Nothing was in plain sight except the white smog that surrounded me on an empty street. The sound of my own breath churned in the gas mask like a dying fish. I paced down the sidewalk, passing a couple of lone bystanders who were waiting for the public bus. I flashed them a smile. An odd thing to do since they couldn’t see past my bulky mask. 

Rush hour finally presented itself when I arrived at my first intersection. Crowds of disguised pedestrians were jaywalking across the street while angry drivers honked from inside their filtered vehicles.

As I waited patiently at the junction for the light to flash green, I snuck a glance at the homeless man lying on the pavement with a forlorn child. His face yellow with poison and his beggar bowl empty. I read the sign he held in his shaky hands: Gas mask for him. “Him” was the young child whose eyes stared at me with innocent happiness. His father’s eyes pleaded with mine. I unfolded my pockets and dropped 20¥ I had saved for lunch into the man’s bowl. The man’s face sparked to life. I couldn’t hear him through the thick rubber of the gas mask but I saw his mouth form the words “Thank you.” I never had a chance to reply; the traffic light had turned green.

 As I got closer and closer to the school, the smog worsened. My gas mask started beeping, warning me that the API has reached its capacity. My eyes could barely penetrate further than five feet. I heard other pedestrians mumbling through their masks, blindly feeling their way forward. Desperately, I fumbled my way through the morass of smog, using cement buildings and trees to navigate. Several times, I ran into someone, but neither one of us was shouting or angry. We were all just struggling to find our way.

When the tall school buildings came into view, I sighed a breath of relief. The five-minute bell had already rung and I did not plan to be late. Quickly, I rushed up the steps of my alma mater. The gray cement gradually became clearer as I climbed up towards the filtrated institute. As I neared the front gates, a loud commotion erupted behind me.

A man’s scream pierced through the air, surrounded by the series of car horns from impatient drivers. I turned around. The fog had slightly lifted to reveal a disfigured young boy lying on the streets, paved with blood.

A growing crowd of pedestrians gathered around the scene of the accident. A couple of people began to panic, shouting for help. Their cries were muffled by the encompassing mouthpieces of their gas mask. The driver of the now-bloodied vehicle stared at the dead body in complete shock but remained inside: he didn’t have a gas mask and couldn’t risk it.

The maskless father hunched over the lifeless body, crying into the boy’s chest. He screamed at the driver who remained safely inside while the son had passed on with an innocent smile still written across his blank face. In his hand, he clenched the crinkled 20¥ bill.

A crowd gathered around the father and son, feeling nothing but sympathy for the man. However, after a while, the masses thinned as they realized that time had not stopped – they had their own lives to attend to.

The father was staring above the stairs directly at me as if willing me to do something to stop everything and bring his son back to life. I stared back helplessly. Tears flowed down his waxen cheeks, dripping onto the red blood of his son, now completely dissolved from the world.

I forced myself to turn my back to the man and quickly paced inside the school. I removed my mask and breathed in the fresh air with each guilty breath. Just another ordinary day: I felt less convinced of my words the further I walked from the man who was now sunless.

 

By Mindy Liu,

18 years, Concordia International School Shanghai

 

 

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