By Yelena Crane
The mountain burned. Plumes of smoke rose, the stench of burning waste permeating every square inch of the rubbish island. Beneath Almeeda’s feet lay the shame of her country—hidden to the tourists expecting paradise. In the same pair of steel-capped boots she got when she first started the job a decade ago, she waded through the mountains of garbage, separating the real trash from what could still be salvaged for other markets.
She kicked a few cans out with the tip of her boot—her only protection from the mercury and other toxins—and set them aside to bring to the collection ships. Some of the cans caught on a discarded palm tree, its trunk blackened and leaves shorn. Somewhere else it could have thrived, provided shade, but here nothing beautiful grew.
She entered a path with smoke so thick even flies avoided it. Almeeda did not have the same luxury. She fanned the smoke, narrowed her eyes into slits, and looked for any metals in the heap.
A shape came out, coughing. “Nothing.” Cough. “Good.” Cough. “In this one.”
“Safe picking,” Almeeda said.
From exposure to the fumes, her own eyes streamed and voice choked, but she had to speak. It was so rare to run into another soul in the wasteland. Sorting through waste was a lonely affair.
Almeeda did not recognize him at first, his face covered by a cloth and voice more like gravel than she remembered. When he bowed his head and stepped down from the pile, she saw it was Jawad and blushed—though her cheeks could barely show the rush of blood.
They went through the heaps together.
“What’s that used for?” They began their game, trying to identify what something once was, how it was used. It helped to pass the time and often said something more about them than the objects.
“That,” Jawad paused to clear his throat, “an old vessel used in fancy resorts for capturing evil spirits to spook tourists with.”
Almeeda laughed, covering her mouth with her hands. When she pulled them away, a thin layer of soot stayed smeared on her face.
“Is there a spirit in it now?”
“No, you can see it’s empty. Must be out somewhere. Hungry.” He made a gesture as if he was about to eat her.
Jawad turned his back to grab something from a pile and hid it in the sleeve of his shirt. Almeeda saw the lump but said nothing; she knew others sometimes found valuables and took them home to their families. No one worked here because they wanted to. She could never take the risk to steal; nothing here was worth losing her job. But the sliver of herself she pretended no longer existed, that she’d forced into hiding, still wished she could matter so much to someone they’d take such a risk for her. To be a lump up someone’s sleeve.
Once, she’d had bigger dreams.
Almeeda stopped to watch the sun sink. “At least we still have this.” The sky glowed with pink and orange hues, the clouds like wings of gold. “It makes even the trash beautiful.”
Jawad tugged at his sleeve and pulled out the lump. “A gift, for you.”
Almeeda turned over the plastic rose in her hand, its color a perfect capture of the sky at that moment. It was the most beautiful rose she had ever seen. With the smoke still billowing behind them and the sun gleaming ahead, they stood, smiling at their fortune.