One hundred times. That’s the number of times I used to say my own name in a day. It wasn’t always like that but after the Darkness came; saying my name to myself was the only reassurance that I hadn’t disappeared.
Because that’s what happens when things aren’t said, they are forgotten. Like the old days. When I was fourteen, I was obsessed with reading books and watching TV, then reviewing them on YouTube. My best friend, Arjun and I ran a vlog called Loquacious. We had two things in common; our love of pop culture and our joint inability to shut up. We weren’t bad kids, but we were always in trouble for running our mouths. But that all changed and because we weren’t allowed to talk about it, things were often forgotten.
I was once called Zoë, a name I thought suited me well. But no one says that name anymore. They call me Ruth, after the great grandmother of King David.
Every generation has its event. Not just a strange occurrence, but one so epic the entire world stands still. For my grandparents, it was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. My grandmother remembers being in math class in the fourth grade when she got the news.
For my mother, it was September 11th. It was her second week of college and like her mother before her, she was in math class. She thought it would be the beginning of World War III.
For my generation, it’s the Darkness. On November eighth, 2018, the world went dark and nothing was ever the same.
The Internet was the first to go. I remember it vividly because Arjun and I were discussing an episode of The Flash on FaceTime when I lost my Wi-fi connection on my iPhone abruptly. Two hours later, it was the electricity. When the grownups finally realized the entire world had gone to hell, they decided to get organized. If you were “fortunate” enough to live in a community, it was mandatory to chip in for a community generator. Once the sun set, the generator came on, but there were no TVs or computers, just light, and the mandatory radio each home withheld. All radio dials were set to The Reason, the only radio station left. There was no music, just news and designated times for the teachings of each religion.
New laws were put in place. The United States of America was no more. There were colonies. Racism became a thing of the past and people wore colors, based on their religious affiliations. If you were Christian, you wore white. If you were Jewish, you wore blue. If you were Muslim, you wore green. If you were Hindu, you wore red. The Buddhists wore yellow. And then there were the others who refused to be classified by their beliefs and wore black.
The wearers of black were the outcasts. Widows, single mothers, people who weren’t straight or didn’t fit society’s confines of gender norms. Other times, the wearers of black were scientists, atheists or those whose spiritual beliefs didn’t align with the belief systems of the powers that be, so they were referred to as witches and blasphemers, who lived outside of our society and communities, but because we needed their talents, they weren’t openly persecuted for fear they would stop helping.
In the beginning, they tried to alienate them, but that winter, many of our populations died of the flu or the common cold. Because of this, they were finally allowed them in, just as long as they didn’t interfere with our affairs.
The world had changed. People had changed. No longer did the world seem small. In fact, what used to be the United States was now four regions with no states. Every region had an independent government with its own leaders. We lived in the East, and if you wore white, your government was New Genesis. Within each region, there were five leaders; each based on one of the colors, except for the ones who wore black. The ones in black had no rules and lived separate from us.
Since the Darkness began, I could count the number of times I’d seen them. Once, when I was sick, a healer came to see me. She was a tall woman, who wore pants. It was quite a sight because I hadn’t seen a woman in pants since before. Her skin was like amber. Her head was shaved and whenever she moved she’d jingle like the bell Santa used to ring outside of Macy’s as her silver jewelry dangled from her wrists and ankle. As she tended to me, she softly sang a song that sounded so beautiful I had to ask her what it was. Maybe I was delirious from the fever, but I could have sworn she said, “The road to freedom has become the road less traveled. The path begins on the road of gravel.” It made no sense because our roads were paved and everything else was dirt.
I wore white. Not because I believed in the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, but because it was my father’s house, and in my father’s house, it was what we needed to believe in, in order to be safe.
It’s funny because, before the Darkness, the closest we came to being religious was taking advantage of Christmas sales.
In this new world, schools still existed, but girls stopped going to school once they saw their first period. So if you were a girl, you were ripped out of school the minute you saw red, which was most-likely middle school. After that, you were forced to learn a woman’s place. We were all taught to cook, garden, clean, launder clothes, sew, and care for children. The only reason the witches were allowed in society was because they produced the midwives, medicine, and healers. Other than that, their way of life was a mystery to the rest of us who followed the rules of order. They lived beyond the wall.
When the Darkness came, I was 14 and had seen my period for two years, so there was no more school for me. Before it all, it was my dream to become a writer. In fact, I was a writer on the school paper and Arjun and I created our own monthly comic. He did the illustrations. Most of my days were spent reading books and binging obscure television series with him, but there were no more books and no TV. I hadn’t seen Arjun in two years and asking for him was forbidden. For girls were forbidden to interact with males outside of their immediate family.
My days began before the sun rose. My mother and older sister, Nafesa would prepare breakfast and I was responsible for ironing my dad and my younger brother’s clothes for work and school.
My only connection to the outside world was Sammy, my little brother, who would tell me about his day and stories he’d heard of the people in black.
“What’s new kanga-Roo?” he’d sing as he made his way home from school. He thought the name Roo was ever so clever and soon, it stuck. No one called me Ruth unless I was in trouble. It was always Roo. I wanted to slap the name out of his mouth, but my neighbor, Martha Warner slapped her brother and the powers that be had her publicly flogged to teach her a lesson. So I humored him, giving him treats, and once in a while, he’d sneak books out of his school’s library for me. The options were slim, but I was so bored that I relished in the fact that the Babysitter’s Club series hadn’t been burned like many of the others and that’s saying something because I thought I’d detest those books. But two books in and I was Team Dawn all the way.
I vividly remember the sting of jealousy I’d feel when Sammy and dad would leave for school and work as I had been reduced to the role of domestic help. That jealousy returned when I learned Nafesa had been invited to senior prom. It was the first time in a long time she had been allowed to be anything but plain. Her dress was made of the finest white lace. Her hair was adorned with jewels I hadn’t seen since before things went dark. She was even allowed to wear makeup.
Prom night was a journey to the past. Girls and boys were permitted to interact with one another. There was dancing and laughter. There was freedom for one night. Or so we thought.
“I’ve got a secret for you, kanga-Roo,” Sammy called as he anxiously made his way into our backyard after school. Although he could be annoying, I looked forward to his arrival, because he was my only friend.
“What is it?” I asked as I hung laundry on the clothesline.
“I’ll tell you, but first you’ve got to gimme something sweet.” This was the way things were now with us. I was now responsible for all the cooking, so Sammy extorted baked goods out of me.
“Spill,” I said, pulling a sugar cookie I had baked earlier out of my apron.
“Jonah Sewell says his sister got an invitation to prom.” He inhaled the entire cookie as opposed to taking small bites.
“That’s not news, you Muppet.” I went back to hanging clothes, disappointed that prom qualified as news.
“Do you know what happens at prom, Roo?” he followed me, pulling at my apron, reminding me how small he was in comparison to me.
His eyes became glassy and a look I had never seen before on him appeared. Fear.
“What is it, Sammy?”
“They sell the pretty girls or the girls from good families, and their families never see them again.” Tears began streaming down his round face and for the first time in a long time, I hugged Sammy tightly and he hugged me back. “It’ll be like Nafesa all over again.”
I was shocked and frightened by his words all at once, but me freaking out would have just frightened an already distraught seven-year-old. Instead of crying, like I felt like doing at that moment, I bent down to his level, wiping his face with my white apron and smiled brightly as I stared into the sorrow of his deep brown eyes.
“Now Sammy, you know you’re never to say that name. Her name is Mary now.” He nodded, but his chest heaved as if thunder rumbled within, and the wrong word would have caused a storm to erupt. “Who told you that’s what happens at prom?”
He was silent for a moment, then looked around suspiciously as if to reassure himself that no one was watching.
“I overheard Headmaster Schmidt, telling my teacher his son was going to bid on the Bronfman’s oldest daughter’s hand in marriage at the prom.” The tears began again. “And when I went to lunch, I asked Abel Stevens about the prom and he said the boys buy girls to marry there.”
I spent the next half hour or so convincing Sammy that he had nothing to worry about and I wasn’t going anywhere, but the more I consoled him, the more I needed to be consoled.
For the next few weeks, the only days that brought peace were days where there was no mail. Fear of prom had taken over my life and since there was no TV, games, or friends to distract me from reality, all I could do was imagine worst-case scenarios.
The details of prom were still unclear because Sammy was seven and I’m sure there were many things he could have misheard or misinterpreted. Still, I couldn’t help but think of how things had changed after Nafe-Mary’s prom. Mary was no longer required to help at home. Something changed in her. She was quiet and there was a look of pain or sadness in her eyes, but she never said why. She stopped talking to Sammy and me. A week later, her engagement was announced.
The days following Sammy’s revelation made Mary’s post-prom behavior make sense. Adam Bronfman, the leader of the blue sect’s eldest son, chose my sister, Mary. All of a sudden, there were servants at our house, waiting on Mary hand and foot. After they got married, her job was to look pretty and push out as many babies as possible. It left me wondering, what happened to the girl who spent hours volunteering in soup kitchens and had plans of joining the Peace Corps after graduating?
We rarely saw her as she wore blue and we wore white. But not only that, she was a woman of status and we were regular people.
I had always believed prom was meant to be a night of frivolity, but from the grim picture Sammy had painted, there was no prom king and queen announced at the end of the night.
I longed for my journal, where I used to keep my short stories. Most of the stories were of those who wore black. It had once been my only escape, but writing fantasy was forbidden. When my mother caught me writing in it, she whipped me so severely I couldn’t sit for a week. She cried more than I cried as beatings were done publicly like some perverse form of entertainment. As she beat me, I watched as the crowd took delight in my suffering, remembering the judgmental faces of those who cheered. The women were the disciplinarians. Maybe it was cathartic. Women weren’t allowed to make decisions, work or socialize outside of their husbands’ social circles, so maybe being the delegators of punishment saved them from insanity, because they were in control of something.
I was always in trouble, even when I tried not to be. The more I was made to wear white, the more apparent it became I was born to wear black.
On May 2nd, 2019, I received an invitation to prom and once again my world changed. Instead of an early rise, I was encouraged to sleep in to reduce the dark circles that had become a permanent fixture beneath my eyes. My hair was washed with rose water, and I was bathed with lavender water. My coily hair was stretched and ironed until it was bone straight. My hands were soaked until they were soft enough to remove the calluses I had acquired from the daily routine of sweeping, scrubbing, and washing. And for the first time ever, I received a manicure and pedicure.
The dress was what I loathed most. It looked more like a wedding dress than anything else, but I couldn’t cry for fear of destroying the mask that had painted on my face and receiving more lashes than the last time.
Before I could put my dress on, my mother entered the room with a grave expression on her face. She smiled, but the glassy look of her gray eyes gave me the impression that she wore a mask as well and she could have cried at any moment.
“You look so beautiful, Zo-Roo.” She slipped up for the first time in nearly two years. “But in order to go to the dance, we have to make sure your insides are just as perfect as you look on the outside.”
Her smile was still in place, but her voice faltered and a lone tear escaped her eye.
“I don’t understand.”
“There’s a healer here to examine you.” She put a hand on my shoulder as if to reassure me, but I couldn’t help but back away.
“No!” I said, my voice defiant and I didn’t care. “If that’s the case, then I won’t go to prom.”
“You have no choice in the matter. You will be examined and you will go.” Without waiting for me to respond, she turned and left the room, and soon after, a woman in black entered, but there was no jingling.
“Please lie down,” the woman said in a sympathetic, but strong tone.
I look up to see a woman whose eyes match her tone. Her hair isn’t shaved like the last healer I had encountered. Instead, her hair’s texture was similar to my hair in its natural state, but she wore it unapologetically wild. Her shoulders were bare, exposing olive skin with a tattoo with a quote I’d heard once, long ago, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
“Do you believe the devil exists?” I asked as I grudgingly laid down on the bed.
“How can you live in hell and ask such a question,” she answered as she covered the bottom half of my body with a white sheet.
She apologized and I didn’t know why until she examined an area of my body no one had ever touched before.
As she examined me, she began to hum a familiar tune. “The road to freedom has become the road less traveled,” she began.
“Your virginity is still intact, so I presume, you’re one of the lucky ones.” Her voice sounded pained as she said those words.
I felt humiliated. I wanted to yell and scream, but she wasn’t to blame. She was right. This was hell and I was being punished.
“The path begins on the road of gravel,” I finished, realizing my fever had nothing to do with the lyrics that had stayed with me for over a year.
She stopped abruptly, removing her gloves, and pulling me up.
“How do you know those words?” Her question sounded more like an accusation as she searched my face in anticipation of an answer.
I shrugged. “I heard it before. I think.”
“It isn’t anything you just hear. It’s for the outsiders. Those who don’t fit the mold.”
“I thought I’d heard it in a dream, but it must have been from the healer who cared for me when I was sick.”
She looked at me for what seemed like forever, then looked at the door. When her eyes returned to me, there was a sense of urgency.
“Never forget, we will always accept, those they reject.” After saying these words, she quickly left the room and my mother re-entered, making a fuss about my makeup.
After getting dressed, the ride to prom was mostly a blur. Upon arrival, I heard music coming from inside Town Hall. It was the first time I’d heard music in nearly two years, but I wasn’t excited. If anything, the bass made the beating of my heart seem more intense.
As I stepped out of the Sedan, a gravel road, lined by trees caught my eye and for a moment, I contemplated running for that road and never looking back, but they would have probably caught me and flogged me publicly.
I thought I was going to be sick as I was escorted into the building by the Feldman’s boy who used to be named Atticus but was now referred to as Ephraim.
I couldn’t deny the excitement I felt when we entered the room where community meetings were held. It had been transformed into a magical ballroom with fairy lights and food displays that mirrored anime food. The kind Arjun and I used to spend hours obsessing over because it always looked better than the food in real life.
I stood there taking everything in. Too nervous to eat anything, which seemed to be a trend with most of the girls. Although we were all impeccably dressed, we were still basically in uniform. I still wore white and everyone else wore their designated colors as well.
I looked across the room and my eyes met a familiar set of brown eyes. It took everything within me to keep me from running across the room to meet Arjun. Instead, he made his way over to me in a manner that was too cool for the Arjun I knew two years prior.
We stood face to face simply staring at each other for a good 30 seconds. He was different. Taller. More mature. Muscular. Handsome. And wearing white.
He grabbed my hand and squeezed it tightly.
“I wanna hug you but I don’t think it’s allowed, so I think we should dance.” Even his voice was different. It was deep and serious, but it vaguely bordered suppressed excitement.
I simply nodded, following him to the dance floor.
“I’ve missed you so much Z.”
“It’s Ruth now, but everyone calls me Roo.” I placed my arms around his neck as he placed his hands just above my waist.
He smirked and for a moment, he was the boy that used to be my best friend with the cheeky grin.
“I can’t really judge. My new name’s Zachariah.”
“But I don’t get it, isn’t your family Hindu?”
“Shhhh-” he looked around suspiciously. “Not if my dad wants to continue being the leader.”
“Wait, your dad’s Minister Johnson? What happened to your last name being Patel?”
“Patels don’t wear white,” he whispered.
“I’ve missed you so much. I’ve been going crazy.” I had to stop myself because I felt like crying.
“I’ve missed you too Z…I mean Roo.” He shakes his head. “I don’t think I can get used to calling you that.”
“Neither I, Zachariah.”
We spent most of the night dancing and talking so much that the last two years seemed to disintegrate until the music stopped.
A short man, wearing blue, approached the microphone with a smug look on his face as another gentleman, wearing green, handed out paddles with numbers on the back.
My skin began to crawl and my stomach did somersaults that made me dizzy. I had to grab Arj-Zachariah’s arm to keep my balance.
Before I could ask any questions, they began herding all of us girls like lambs to the slaughter. I began to tremble violently. I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking. I turned back to look for Arjun, who didn’t look scared at all. Instead, he said, “Don’t worry, you’re my first choice.”
My heart sank. He thought he was reassuring, but instead, I was disappointed in the fact that he had accepted what was happening and was a willing participant.
One by one, they called our names alphabetically and I watched as my peers were fought over by boys we had grown up with, played with as children. Realistically, we were still children.
Some girls seemed to enjoy being prizes to be won, while others sobbed. One girl ran, but she was caught and publicly flogged like I had expected.
When the surname Cooper was called, I nearly vomited. My eyes searched the room frantically for someone that could help but there was no one.
This time, they called my full name, “Ruth Cooper, please step forward.”
I walked up to the podium and the bidding began. As Arjun and the Bronfman’s other son engaged in a bidding war, I closed my eyes and began to mumble the words to the forbidden song to myself like some sort of mantra.
“The road to freedom has become the road less traveled. The path begins on the road of gravel. Never forget, we will always accept, those they reject.”
I finished my mantra and my eyes found the man in green, holding a sharp pair of scissors. As if possessed, I rush over to him and grabbed the scissors.
The room fell completely silent and still as everyone was probably thinking I wanted to hurt myself or someone else. Much to their surprise and mine, I began to chop my hair off and then my dress.
There were screams as everyone looked at me in absolute horror. Arjun’s face was what hurt the most as I could see actual disappointment in it.
I don’t know what I looked like to them, but for the first time in a long time, I felt free. Liberated even. I dropped the scissors and much to my surprise, no one came rushing toward me. Instead, the crowd parted as I moved. It was as if I had some highly contagious disease and no one wanted to breathe the same air as me.
I walked out of the hall and into the first spring night I had witnessed in the longest time. When I looked to the path, the healer, who had examined me only hours before, was there, smiling.
“So how does it feel?” she asked as I caught up with her.
“How does what feel?”
“To have climbed up from hell.”
She held my hand and we began our journey down the graveled road. I didn’t know how to answer her question because I was still adjusting to purgatory.