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Shadow and Color

Emory R. Frie

          Eyes are the windows to the soul. That’s what I was told when I first joined the Morning Star. Which was why I didn’t cringe when I passed a man with eyes of the enemy being kicked and beaten by Pietro before he was taken away for interrogation. Unlike myself, Pietro enjoyed the feel of flesh against his fists. But I wasn’t hired because I enjoyed dragging in traitors by the scruff of their necks. The Morning Star hired me because I could see the true colors in people’s eyes even when they were disguised with died eyedrops or colored contacts. Few could see the difference. Fewer could see past the disguise. I could always tell the difference.

          I hugged my bundle close as I turned into the alley on my way to work. I always met two men there, both presumably homeless, both as inevitable as the barbed wire fence surrounding the city. Dominic always smiled at me from the concrete. He adjusted his knitted hat and unsuccessfully wiped grime from his wrinkled cheek. He had the enemy’s colors in his eyes. I’d made it a habit to give him something to eat—usually biscuits, because those were his favorite—and to make sure he had a steady supply of contacts. Dominic never told me much about his time with the enemy. The problem was that once someone turned, there was no coming back. But people could forget, confuse, hide. That’s what Dominic was like. I didn’t think he remembered that his eyes were forever stained by the enemy anymore. At least the Morning Star didn’t need to interrogate him.

          The other guy I was concerned about. He sat just down the street from Dominic, dark skin stretched over a hollow face, a striped hat pulled over thick dreads. The thing about him was that he always wore black glasses covering his eyes. I couldn’t trust someone whose color I couldn’t see. Sometimes I thought I saw strange shadows stretching out on either side of him. But I was always seeing things. That’s why I was valuable.

          I’ve never told the Morning Star about the man with the dark glasses, though. At this point, I was too used to him to bother doing more than drop a biscuit by his calloused bare feet and nod a greeting.

          He nodded to me today before Dominic could exclaim, “Isaiah, see here! Here’s Matteo. He’s got biscuits again.”

          I didn’t bother to tell him they were scones this time. Dominic didn’t notice the change.

          Another figure was on the street today, a woman I hadn’t seen before. She eyed the scones hungrily as I handed one to Dominic. She didn’t wear contacts or use drops; I could tell. There was only a standard sliver of the enemy’s color in her irises. I had the same. Most people did. Nothing to be concerned with; the Morning Star could still save us.

          “What else did ya bring?” Dominic questioned, looking at my bundle expectantly.

          “Just your drops.” I handed them to him, making sure he applied them correctly to cover the enemy’s colors before I turned to drop a scone at the other man’s feet. He stared after me as I walked away. I looked back just as I was leaving the alley, catching the man with dark glasses silently pass his scone to the lone woman. She scarfed it up greedily without thanks.

          Nostalgia washed over me as I left the scene and passed through the white doors where the Morning Star operated. As a child, I wandered the city like a beggar, jumping from shadows, pointing out colors. I was taken off the streets with a fellow survivor, Avalia, both of us thrown into training to hunt down the enemy and report to the Morning Star. We were good at our job. Avalia took more action than I ever did. I just watched and reported, attended interrogations. Avalia enjoyed inflicting the interrogations.

          But she wasn’t here anymore. I had to remind myself that over and over again.

          I ran into Pietro once I passed through the entrance. His pale complexion was stained red with the exhilaration of bringing in a resistant traitor.

          “I caught him trying to get people out of the city,” he stated proudly.

          I shrugged. “This isn’t a prison.”

          “He was trying to take them there.”

          A shiver ran down my spine. I didn’t like talking about the enemy’s place. Every time we talked about it, I saw shadows at the edge of my vision.

          Before Pietro could continue, a messenger came to report a summons from the Morning Star for me. It was another interrogation. There was nothing more said. Turning to lead me to the proper room, the messenger adjusted her glasses just enough to distort her eyes. Not that it helped around people like me. Messengers never had the enemy’s colors.

          I knew something was wrong as soon as I entered the hall. The interrogation rooms were the worst places in the entire city, practically dungeons with barred doors and chains bolted to the floor. Only one was in use today. When I heard the shout, I froze to the spot.

          The messenger looked back at me and I knew this was a test. It had to be. And I had to pass. In this place, there was no other option lest I wanted to end up like the people I was hired to look out for. Unless I wanted to end up on the streets like Dominic. Unless I wanted to be labeled a traitor.

          Without even taking a deep breath, I stepped forward just outside the room. The Morning Star was there, slowly circling the girl chained to the chair. Neither had seen me yet, and the messenger had already left. I was glad. No one could witness the way my lungs rebelled against me.

          When Avalia had disappeared, no one ever speculated that she would turn. She used to be like me, the enemy’s color so small it was barely a sliver in her eyes. Now it completely encompassed her irises. It shown so brightly I could look at nothing else.

          Numbness inked down my bones. My ears rang. I couldn’t hear the conversation passed between the Morning Star and Avalia. Soothingly, he went to lay a hand on her shoulder. She whipped around, ozone spiking in the air.

          “You cannot touch me, snake!” she barked. But her voice was more than her own. Another voice more magnificent and terrifying poured out behind it, causing me to tremble at its sound. I was certain this was the enemy. It was the first time I ever saw the Morning Star look so scared.

          Enemy eyes looked up at me and softened. There was something of Avalia in them again. But it seemed swallowed up by this new shade, this new identity. I didn’t know what to think.

          When the Morning Star noticed me, he composed himself and approached. “Ah, Matteo, I hoped you would come.”

          I didn’t mention the messenger.

          Standing beside me, he gestured to Avalia. “You remember her, I presume.”

          Steadily, I nodded.

          “Then tell me, what is it you see now?”

          I knew what I was supposed to say. But she wouldn’t stop staring at me, waiting.

          “A stranger,” I said at last, earning a proud smile from the Morning Star.

          “Don’t insult me, Matteo,” Avalia said harshly. “Tell him what I am!”

          My spine snapped straight at her words. I knew my labeling her would mean inevitable torture, excruciating interrogations. But if I couldn’t say it… She narrowed her eyes. That must have been when I made my decision.

          The words weighed heavy. “A traitor.”

          And she smiled, as if I had given her the highest of praises. Then the Morning Star shut the door and gave me the key.

          This was my test.

          I failed.

          We reached the barbed wire fence that night, shadows swarming the edge of my vision. Beyond the fence, I knew that was where the war waged. That’s where enemies swarmed. But I was helping one escape.

          When I stopped dead in my tracks, she whipped back around severely. “You’re not coming? You know what it’s like back there!”

          “Exactly why I should stay: I know here.”

          The fence stretched tall overhead, twisted at the top like birds caught in a web. We used to cross it sometimes, when we were just children trying to survive in a world of shadows and colors. Now it looked like a cage rather than protection. I didn’t know which side was safer.

          I thought I could hear the city stir behind me. Pietro was probably among the shadows that would try and catch us. It wouldn’t matter that he knew us.

          Waving around at the concrete and wire concealing the discarded and unwanted, Avalia demanded urgently, “Haven’t you ever thought of something better than this?”

          I shook my head. “There can’t be.”

          Her expression grew grim. In one fell swoop, she stuck out her hand. “Come with me and I’ll show you otherwise.”

Spring, 2018 Issue