By T. J. Butler
They came when we weren’t looking. We hadn’t been looking in years.
First, they came for the lipsticks. They handed out waxy tubes of lip balm. Some refused, and their lips chapped, peeled, and grew feathery. I kept my lipstick hidden in the back of the drawer, that one I’d never worn. I just wanted to keep it.
Next, they came for the scented soaps. They handed out medicinal white bars. Everyone smelled sanitary and uniform. I kept my Heavenly Vanilla soap but didn’t use it. I didn’t want to smell heavenly in a sea of antiseptic clean.
They came for the mirrors. They handed out framed photos with the original inserts; happy families in matching outfits and perfect teeth. We imagined the families smelled like our old soaps. I tucked a small mirror into the back of the drawer near the lipstick. I just wanted to keep it.
They came for our clothes. By that time, we were just handing things over. We took their rough, grey caftans. We were shapeless and flowing with chapped lips. We were identically scented in plain, white clean. We carried our wardrobes to the burnings in suitcases and gym bags. The farm girls carried theirs in wheelbarrows. The men had black duffel bags, trash bags, and cardboard boxes. The boxes went into the flames unopened. The shoes burned slowly. The bras were burned separately, not for liberation but because someone had to sort out the underwires.
They had come when we weren’t looking. We still weren’t looking; we had lip balm, bar soap, and picture frames. We had our screens. They did not come for those. We shared photos of babies in grey. We dressed our dogs in grey. We had grey happy hours and grey birthday cakes. Our outfits matched, and we began to believe our vacation photos looked like the original inserts of happy families.
We forgot about our mirrors. None could recall the other things they’d come for. It was normal now. After the burnings, we no longer noticed when they came. We could not tell you what they took.
Nobody noticed the fences. The ones who’d handed in their lipsticks first were confident the fences had always been there. We nodded because they were sure and others couldn’t remember.
I did not forget: the sky was indigo, cloudless. I was barefoot in a red dress. The tall grass tickled my knees, and the air was still. The field was alive with fireflies switching their bellies on-off, on-off, on-off in a silent, twinkling musical score.
I raised my head and counted the stars in Orion’s belt.
I walked into the darkness with my arms open, guided by the on-off, on-off, on-off of summer.
I’d been tucking things away. I did not forget that I’d once owned a red dress. My drawers were getting full. I had hoop earrings, colored pens, a green plastic bookmark. I’d kept things I didn’t even care about, just because I wanted to keep them.
I heard about the searches. Women disappeared. They were all like me, with shadowy piles of useless trinkets and red dresses they still remembered.
Back when you could still get out, the weeds near the fences were tall, abandoned-looking. There were few guards. We’d been wearing grey for so long that we thought it was our own idea. Why would they need to guard against that?
There was no moon the night I ran to the fence. I crawled on my belly until I found the place where women had quietly, desperately clawed away the dirt. The fence scraped my back as I slid under.
I was at work. We heard some men in The Grey had disappeared after they were seen near the fences.
Work was a neon, smoke-filled nautilus of excess. Paper money didn’t work past the fences, but I still needed to eat. I got used to it. I’d picked up a red dress, and lipstick was everywhere. Everything they took in The Grey was here for a price, for a trade. I was okay with that. It’s a pink job.
I could block things out during my shifts. I’d look at someone and see my grocery list instead of faces. Laundry soap. Books. Other times, notebooks with clean, blank pages. My fingers would itch to fill them with words. This made the trades easier. I envisioned coffee and fruit instead of smiles and winks. I could conjure up a grocery store in place of the faces they made.
No one can get out of The Grey anymore. I heard they were shooting men seen near the fences. On our side, we had perfume and colorful dresses. We could get everything we wanted. We didn’t know those men. It was far away. Here, we never wore grey. We were happy. We were free.
Later, we heard gunshots at night. We knew it was happening on our side of the fence, but we said nothing. What was there to say? Instead, we looked in our mirrors. We smelled like Heavenly Lavender. We used lipstick instead of lip balm. We were still happy.
That summer, the brilliant bursts of muzzle flash replaced the on-off, on-off, on-off of fireflies. With our fingers in our ears, it was beautiful in the dark.
It’s hard to see groceries instead of faces anymore. It used to be so easy to conjure up books, or cookies, or fresh tomatoes. I can still block out faces, but I can no longer transform them into the reasons I go to work every day. Instead, sitting atop shoulders and bursting forth from shirt collars are rows and rows of grey, granite tombstones. These small, rounded forms block out the light and remind me that we cannot escape The Grey. It’s on both sides of the fence now, but we should try to be happy. After all, they never took away our screens.