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I looked out of my window at the hustle and bustle. One could say that having an apartment right above the city square was inconvenient, but from my point of view, I could see everything, and I loved it. Everyone was getting ready for the Bicentennial Celebration. People were running around with streamers, balloons, chairs. I could see the Greek columns near the presidential stage and water fountains near the courtyard that would spit out water in synchronization with a light show being erected. Last minute dress alterations were being made not just in the capital, but across the nation. Food orders were being double and triple checked. Everything needed to be flawless for the big day on Saturday.
It’s been 200 years since the Order and its team of scientists found a Cure for racism, a disease that ravaged Earth for centuries. From what they taught us in school, the Cure was mutagen that targeted only specific genes. After it entered the body, it replicated itself until it could flood every cell in the body. It then entered the genome of all the cells and deleted the genes that gave us a tendency for racism. The genetic predisposition was more common in some “races” than others, but to eliminate the threat everyone received the Cure. Every child born is inoculated at birth. I received the Cure. My sister received it. My parents did, and their parents before them. Discrimination by race is nonexistent, and the world is better for it.
I wished I could say that the world was cured of all evils, but it wasn’t. In terms of race, the inequalities between us were eliminated, but the numbers stayed the same. People of white skin color remained the majority. However, they received no benefits from the color of their skin. By eradicating races, a fragile peace was maintained around the world. Intercountry violence eventually ceased to exist since most conflicts arose from a certain level of xenophobia. Violence against racial minorities within countries also disappeared. Despite the elimination of racial structures, people continued to be discriminated against because of gender, class, and/or sexuality among other things. The Order was still trying to identify the genes that give us the inclination to discriminate in such ways, but when that happens, those cures would be added into the cocktail that children were inoculated with.
Before the Cure, things were not as good as they are now. I have heard tales of what happened during the plague of racism. Most of my information comes from history books and stories passed down from generations before us. What I have heard is terrifying though. People died every day…killed by government officials, the ones who were supposed to protect them. People died from not receiving the same services as the majority. I have just heard tales, and they frighten me. I do not wish to live in such a world. I am glad that I have been given the Cure for this disease…
“Anjali?” A voice behind me interrupted my thoughts, and I tore my eyes away from the chaos below.
“Hmm…what do you want Naina?” I said in my slightly annoyed, but endearing voice.
“You know we have to go see my parents in an hour. Or did you forget?” chastised Naina as she brushes my lips slightly in a kiss.
“Why can’t we just stay in tonight? We’ll see them on Saturday anyways for the celebration. You know…we could do something more worthwhile,” I said suggestively as I pull her in for something more than just a kiss.
She pushed me away and stared me down. “I am literally going to kill you. You promised you would not bail on me.”
“I know, I know; of course, I’m coming. Let me just put a nicer shirt on.”
About 45 minutes later, I found myself on Naina’s parents’ couch. I know it may seem like I don’t like Naina’s parents, but as far as parents go, they are some of the good ones. They accepted Naina unequivocally when she came out, quite unlike my parents and sister, who disowned me at the age of 17 when I brought a girl home for the first time. Hatred against the queer didn’t go away with Cure, especially in the Indian community. Since then, I have just had a slight distrust towards parental figures.
“So are you ready for the Bicentennial?” asked Raj, Naina’s father.
“When I was little, my mother said I was lucky to have been born on the anniversary of the most important feat in history…but I just get bummed that the attention is not on me for my birthday. But yes, I am ready. Our outfits are going to be amazing” I said, excitement creeping into my voice second by second.
“Yeah, we’re going to look so freaking sexy,” Naina piped in as she joins us in the living room from the kitchen with a tray of tea. Naina’s mother, Padma, rolls her eyes at her daughter’s brashness.
We made small talk, avoiding any discussions about my job at the same time, for a while. I can only tolerate small talk with people for so long, so I motioned to Naina that it was time for us to leave. But she was not paying attention.
“Would do you think happened to people like us when there were races? Do you think what the books says is true?” questioned Naina. I sat back down into my chair as I was already half-way back up to leave. We were not going to leave anytime soon.
“Well, the books say that people with our brown skin color were marked as terrorists. It was so long ago, though. How could I or any of us say anything true about what happened back then?” Raj said.
“I just don’t get how skin color, something that has no importance at all, had such an effect on society. It’s not like it has any biological basis. It doesn’t give any certain group of people any advantages or disadvantages physically or mentally. It just doesn’t make sense.”
“I agree, but at least, we do not have to deal with it. It was another time. A dark time albeit, but the past is the past, and it will stay in the past. Our world has no room for the hate and violence that occurred during the time before the Cure,” I emphasized.
“What if it happens again? What if someone is resistant to the Cure? What would the Order do if someone didn’t receive it?”
“You know that’s impossible. The only way to not be cured is if you did not get the vaccine, and everyone gets the vaccine. There’s no way around it. Don’t worry.”
“What about the morality of forcing people to take this Cure? What if some people don’t want to take it?”
“Naina, I mean, unless you want racism to come back, I think everyone should take it,” I quipped.
Padma and Raj chuckled with me, but Naina remained silent, obviously mulling over our conversation.
The rest of the ride back home was silent. I thought about what Naina had said. What if someone didn’t take the Cure? What if? What if? That’s such a loaded question with so much possibility. Even though I tried to quell Naina’s fears, wasn’t it my job to address just what she was talking about? I chastised myself. I should stop dwelling on impossible things.
Saturday finally came. It was the Bicentennial (and my birthday, but the joy of that was overshadowed by something much bigger). Today was the day we officially celebrated the progress given to us by science that allowed us to be safe in our skin no matter what color it was. Everyone in the city started to congregate in the square, anxiously waiting for the president to come out and make her speech. The music was loud, the crowd was dancing to the rhythm, and the champagne was popping everywhere. People were inebriated by the alcohol and the feeling of such a momentous occasion. Suddenly, the crowd went silent, and out came the president. She looked darling in her white tailored pantsuit that starkly contrasted her obsidian skin.
“Please welcome President Shirley Chisholm!” a voice boomed from the speakers. The crowd erupted into a thunderous cheer.
“Welcome everyone to the capital’s Bicentennial Celebration of the anniversary of the Cure! Today is a historic day, and I am so glad that I can celebrate it with each and every one of you. 200 years ago, our world was not a safe place. People with black and brown skin were not safe. A drop of color in your skin placed a target on your back. Our people were dying, and no one was doing anything to stop it. Except for the Order. They revolutionized our world with the first vaccine for racism. At first, people were resistant to the change, but eventually, everyone began to see the benefits of such a Cure. It was for the social good. People’s lives were being saved. Today, we celebrate those scientists that worked so hard to make this world a better and safe place. Cheers! And enjoy your night!”
At the end of her speech, fireworks shot up into the sky, illuminating us in a multitude of colors, blanketing us in warmth, joy, and safeness in our skin, regardless of color.
After a moment, the fireworks seemed to become something else. Then I heard the screams. People, drunk and stumbling, scrambled to get away from the stage. Immediately, I started running straights towards the explosions. I had to protect the president. “Anjali! Anjali! NO!” I heard Naina screaming behind me. ‘STOP!” I kept running. I had to protect her. It was my job.
I suppose I should mention that I worked for the President. I am the head of national security, and my work for her is everything. If it hadn’t been for Naina, I would’ve had no social life because I would’ve immersed myself in my work alone. But I never mention my work to anyone because the safety of the President is of utmost importance and I could give her enemies a way to get to her
I jumped onto the stage and shielded the president with my body. Bombs were going off around the entire square. The air was filled with smoke, making visibility difficult. Debris from the bombs was flying every which way. I got the president into a car, and we sped off. I paused…Naina. I left her. But she was not my priority. She knew what she signed up for when she started dating me. I had to trust that she knew what to do and that she was safe. I had to stay focused on my task at hand: the safety of the President.
President Chisholm was frazzled but physically intact. She brushed some dust and rubble out of her hair. “What the hell just happened?!?”
My partner, David, who was on his phone trying to get in touch with the rest of the President’s security detail, said with a shocked look in his eyes, “Madame President, I think you might want to look at this,” and handed over his phone.
We all looked at the screen. There was a man wearing a white hood saying something to the camera. Behind him, there were portraits of some people. The faces looked familiar, I think I had seen them in a history book once. Their names...oh I remember, George Washington, Adolf Hitler, and Mark Zuckerberg. Three men known for very different things. Above their portraits hung a Christian cross.
“Hello, brothers. Today, in the capital, we carried out an attack during the Bicentennial Celebration. Our target was the President and anyone who dares to celebrate a “Cure” that sought to eradicate the one true and pure race: the white race. We commit ourselves to destroying this absurdity and anyone who gets in our way. We are the Uprising. This is your last warning.” The screen went black.
The car had gone silent. I exchanged a meaningful glance with my partner, and I turned toward the President.
“Ma’am, our first priority is getting you somewhere safe, far from the capital. We cannot allow you to go back to Headquarters.”
“No, my safety is the least of our worries. We need to find these people. We need to squash this infestation. This is an uprising, and I cannot allow it in our country.”
“Yes, ma’am I understand that. But you need to be safe. In the end, we are going to need a leader. We need you.”
“No, someone needs to deal with this. Someone needs to find them.”
“I will do it. Don’t worry… I will handle this. Let me do this for you and for our country. I won’t let you down.”
The President just looked at me for a few seconds. I could see the gears turning in her head, weighing her options. “Okay. I believe in you.”
I didn’t realize I had been holding my breath until I let out a sigh of relief. “I promise. I will find them. And I will end this.”
Our car pulled up to the safe house, and all of the car’s occupants got out of the car and hurried inside. Most of the security and national defense teams had already arrived.
“Okay everyone, David, I need you to call everyone…anyone…We need to find out who these guys are, what they want from us, and what they are planning on doing. Everything. I also need to know about casualties from the celebration. I need names.” I just prayed that I would not see Naina’s name on that list. “Madame President, we’re going to get you onto a live feed in just a little while, so you can talk to the country. They need to hear from you.”
Everyone scrambled to get to a phone or a computer. I glanced over at the President. She just looked tired, I could see it in her eyes. I was too ma’am. I was too. Naina. But I couldn’t start thinking about my feelings. There was a bigger problem at hand. The Uprising. What was their deal? This was clearly an attack motivated by racism. But racism was eradicated. How did they managed to escape the vaccinations? How many of them escaped the vaccinations? Our country can’t survive if we are infected with racist ideals. There is no room for it in this country. I must have gotten lost in my thoughts for several minutes because David came to check that I hadn’t gone catatonic or something. I saw the President sit down in front of the camera.
“Today, as people of this country, we grieve the brutal massacre of dozens of innocent people. We pray for their families, who want answers, and we pray for this country. We stand with the people of our nation’s capital, who are undoubtedly reeling from these terrible attacks on their city and our country. Although it is still early in the investigation, we can most definitely say that this attack was an act of terror and hate, driven by the very seeds of racism that we had thought we had eradicated 200 years prior. The Bicentennial was a time to celebrate the end of racism, something that had ripped our country apart. Now, those same sentiments threaten to destroy our country once again. Today, I ask you to stay united, in grief, in anger, and in a desire to help and defend the people who have been hurt or threatened by this attack. We are still learning about what just happened, but I have directed the full resources of this nation’s government towards this investigation. Our national defense team is investigating this as an act of terrorism and racism. Over these next days, we will uncover why and how this happened. Just a few minutes ago, I spoke with my friend, Barack Obama, the mayor of the capital. I told him that this nation will step up for this city and this community. We will be there for the people of the capital. Instead of giving up in fear or turning against one another, we will stand united as citizens of this country, sworn to protect our people, our nation, and to take action against those who threaten our safety. Bless the friends that we lost tonight. Bless their families. Bless this country that we love. Thank you.”
I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. The only emotion coursing through my veins was anger. I needed information about these people. And, a few hours later, we had some real information.
“Okay, David. What do we have?”
David sighed and gave me the run down. “What we know from the video is that this is a group who call themselves the Uprising. Obviously, from their message, they want to establish a master race of people with white skin color. The intel that we have received suggests that they are a group of people who live in the Appalachian Mountains. They live in isolation there, which could explain how they managed to escape getting the vaccines. Now, we could try to raid their colony, but I assume that they are now on the move after committing these attacks. But I dispatched a surveillance team just in case, so we will have eyes on the colony in an hour or so.”
“I’m going with them,” I adamantly said.
“No, you can’t! You have to stay here!” David objected.
“I’m in charge. While I’m gone, you take care of the investigation. This is an order. I’m not arguing with you on this,” I said harshly, maybe a little more harshly than necessary.
I gathered up my tactical gear and headed outside to meet with the team. The colony was relatively close, so it didn’t take more than an hour and a half to reach. When we got there, the first thing I registered was the silence. There was no one there, save a few stray cats or dogs. I counted about ten cabins, each able to hold approximately fifteen people if filled to maximum capacity. That means there are about one hundred people out in this world without the Cure. One hundred people capable of disrupting the peace and safety that had been carefully crafted two centuries ago. As we were exploring one of the cabins, I heard something. It was faint, but it was there. I focused my hearing, trying to pinpoint what the sound was and where it was coming from. It was a car engine starting. The roar of the engine had been muffled, but not enough. I could feel my heart start to race. I motioned for half the team to get back to one of our cars, and told the rest of the team to stay back and gather evidence. We rushed to the car and started it, fearing that the other vehicle might have already gone ahead, but we managed to catch up with it, remaining at a safe distance to avoid being detected.
It was a black SUV. Our heat scanners picked up only one person in the vehicle which placated me as we outnumbered them in this certain scenario. We must have followed them for about ten miles until the SUV veered right onto a dirt road. Far along the road, I could see a halo of light illuminating the air. There seemed to be some large building with lots of lights. How was the government not aware of this? We parked our car a distance away from the compound so that we would not be discovered.
“Alright, everybody, we need to infiltrate this facility. It looks like the entire colony moved to here. I’m going in. Alone. Do NOT send help unless I call for it. Under no circumstances, understand.” This was my mission. For some reason, I felt like this was my problem to fix, and I did not want anyone else getting caught in the crosshairs.
I could see the disagreement on everyone’s face, but no one voiced their opinions. I think they understood where I was coming from, especially since I was the only person of color in our group. We surveyed the facility, looking for the entrance where I had the best chance of not being discovered. Eventually, we decided on a service type entrance that only had one guard positioned. I was to enter when the guards were changing shifts.
I moved quickly, but not too quickly. As I approached the facility, I could feel the tension building up in my body. I approached the guard from behind and place it on his back. “Don’t move,” I warned. Then, I swiftly knocked him out. My breathing grew deeper as my training from so many years ago kicked in. I hadn’t realized that I had missed this sort of adrenaline rush. I was in. First, I noticed the stark whiteness of the hallway. It reminded me of a hospital. The coast was clear, so I started inching forward, gun in hand.
“Stop!” a voice behind me yelled. A guard had found me. I turned around quickly and shot him with a tranq. I knew more guards would be coming behind him, so I started running. I heard shouts and running behind me, and I realized that I don’t have time to be out in the open. I had to find a place to hide. Ahead of me, I could see that the hallway split into two. Right or left? Left it is. I sprinted down the left hallway, hoping that the guards decided to go right. I heard voices ahead of me, but it was either them or the guys with guns behind me. I had to think quickly, and just then, I saw a door ahead on the right, and I slipped in.
The room was unoccupied and filled with random objects. Some sort of supplies closet. I heard the guards run past the door. Thank the gods. It was pretty dark in the room, only illuminated by light streaming through a glass window. I could still hear the voices that I had heard before, so I snuck up to the glass, crouched down, and peeked over the window sill so that I wouldn’t be seen by the people on the other side. There were a few people huddled over a table, looking at a couple of diagrams. I couldn’t discern what the diagrams said, but it was some sort of device. From what they were saying, I concluded that it was a bomb that held a gas that when inhaled, would reverse the effects of the Cure. I pulled out my communication device and quickly relayed this information to my team. As I was typing, someone else walked into the room, and I didn’t see the face as the person walked in.
But then she spoke. That voice. I would recognize it anywhere. My typing stopped in its tracks. And I felt the dread set in. It couldn’t be. It didn’t make sense. I looked up and saw her. Naina. It was definitely her. Her long hair had been pulled back into an uncharacteristic bun, but it was still her. She looked different in her all-black uniform, but it was her. She stood out from her companions. The only brown girl amongst a lot of white men. What the hell was she doing there? I feared the worst.
One of the men in the room said, “I think we need to deploy these anti-Cure bombs in the next few days.”
“I disagree. We just bombed the capital. We need to let that spread fear and hate across the nation. Let them tear themselves apart. And then let’s hit them with the anti-Cure in a week or so, which will effectively split the nation into irreparable pieces,” Naina argued. The other men in the room agreed with her. No one had addressed her with a specific title, but it was obvious that she had some power in this meeting. She was part of the Uprising. How could I not have known?
My shock at this revelation had left me vulnerable so I was not paying attention to anything other than Naina. I didn’t hear the door behind me open. Suddenly, I was wrestled to the ground by a few guards. Fuck, they had found me. But honestly, I didn’t really care. I resigned to my fate because my life was a lie. My relationship with my girlfriend was a lie. She was not who I thought she was. They took everything that I carried and placed me in handcuffs and led me into the room that I had been spying on.
When I entered, all I could see was Naina. We locked eyes, and I saw a pang of regret flash very briefly across her face. Her expression quickly hardened.
“Hello, Anjali,” she said.
I didn’t respond. I just glared at her.
“You’re probably wondering why I'm here,” she said.
It must have been how she said it, so condescendingly, that set me off. I lunged at her and would’ve gotten at least one punch at her if it had not been for the four guards that held me back.
“Put her in one of the cells. I’ll deal with her later,” she spat.
They took me to the row of cells one floor of below and threw me in. The walls were all white. The room had a bed with a thin sheet in one corner and a toilet in another corner. They hadn’t bothered to release my hands from their handcuffs, so I just sat uncomfortably on the bed with my hands behind my back. After an hour or so, I realized that no one was coming anytime soon, so I started looking for a way to escape. It was difficult with the handcuffs, but I managed. There were no windows in the cell and only the one door. I examined the door. There was a touchscreen on the door, so I pressed it. It was a fingerprint scanner. The only way to unlock the door was with an authorized fingerprint. I looked for a way to tear the door off its hinges, but it was impenetrable. I paced around for a while thinking of futile escape plans before I gave up and slumped back onto the bed. I think I sat there for two or three hours more before she walked in.
“Are you ready to talk in a more civilized manner?” she said.
I didn’t even want to give her a chance to explain herself. “Fuck you. You’re a traitor. How could you help them?” I vehemently countered with.
“Okay, obviously you’re not ready. But you’re going to hear me out,” she said, moving closer to me.
“Why the hell would I do that?” I questioned.
“Because you still love me,” she argued.
For the first time in my life, I was speechless because she was right. Despite what was unfolding, I still loved this woman.
She smirked because I had just proved her right.
“Look, I didn’t mean for you to find out this way. Eventually, I was going to tell you, and hopefully, get you on board.” I made noise at that, expressing my contempt. I would have never joined her. She just put up her hand, indicating that she didn’t want me to interrupt. “The initial founders of the Uprising approached me about a year ago. At first, I was skeptical, just like you. But the more time I spent with them, the more their mission resonated with me. Our nation had run itself into the ground, and only a revolution could fix us. This nation used to be great once upon a time, but after the Cure, we had lost our greatness. It was time to make our country great again. I know what you are thinking. These people are white and racist. They hate people like us. But you don’t understand. They aren’t really racist! Why else would they bring me into the fold? They even let me take on leadership roles within the Uprising. It is easier to paint the Uprising as a movement based on the color of people’s skin, but it is so much more than that.”
I actually started laughing, which was something she did not expect. “Are you fucking serious? They are just using you! They don’t care about you at all. You’re just a token. And did you see the message they sent out after the bombings? They literally talk about the one pure white race. You’re deluding yourself if you think that they think positively about you at all. You’re brown and you’re a woman. They will never respect you. When you were asking all those questions a few nights ago, you were just acting weren’t you? Fishing for information?”
“You’re wrong!” she countered. “They respect me. I would never work with them if they didn’t. As for the message that was sent out, they apologized to me about it. The others realized that it was not inclusive of me, and they regret it. They just want to make this country safe and welcome for everyone. And, of course, I was fishing. I wanted to see if you would tell me what safety measures you had if something like this happened.”
“You’re actually delusional.” But then I realized that this was how racism worked. People were socialized into it. She had spent enough time with these people that were infected with racism that she got infected with it too. That was the one flaw of the Cure. Everyone had to receive it for it to work, and the Uprising had found the way around it.
She turned to leave, obviously exasperated with how the conversation had turned out. “I’ll send some food down. You must be hungry.”
My stomach grumbled, confirming her statement. She left.
Twenty minutes later, the door opened and a man entered with a tray of food. He unlocked my handcuffs. His visible guns and the two guards standing outside were the only things that stopped me from trying to escape then and there. I didn’t realize how hungry I was until I saw the food. The tray was loaded with my favorites: paneer masala, channa masala, and Kerala parathas. My training told me to not eat it, but I ignored the little voice in my head. I was so hungry. I scarfed it down so fast that I couldn’t even discern the individual flavors. I even missed the slightly medicinal taste of the paneer. After finishing, the guard came back in and took my tray away, but, surprisingly, he didn’t re-handcuff me. Suddenly, I felt very lightheaded and I collapsed onto the bed, entering a dreamless sleep.
The next morning, I woke up feeling very groggy, but nothing felt out of the ordinary. In my groggy state, I managed to get to the toilet in the corner and relieved myself. Sometime in the middle of the night, someone had laid out a fresh set of clothes: a green cashmere sweater, a pair of jeans, and matching underwear. Since there was no shower in the cell, I just put the clothes on after using the toilet. The sweater wrapped me in such warmth that I would’ve fallen asleep if Naina hadn’t walked in.
“How are you feeling?” she asked. She paused, and then embraced me. The look she had given me almost looked like she was asking for permission.
“Perfectly fine…” I said confusingly. I felt like I had something to say to her, but the thought was so fleeting that I forgot it immediately.
I saw a look of triumph flash across her face. Her beautiful face. I knew she was beautiful, but I hadn’t realized just how beautiful she was until now. I brushed the hair out of her face.
She sat me down on the bed. “I want you to join the Uprising,” she said bluntly. “Take the anti-Cure. You will be better for it. We will be better for it. Once the Uprising’s mission is accomplished, we would be so happy. We could get married, and have kids. Don’t you want that?” She didn’t give me a moment to respond as her lips suddenly found mine.
I protested and tried to pull out of her embrace. But I really didn’t want to escape. The more we kissed, the quieter the rational voice in the back of my mind got. Our kisses got deeper, and the part of me that loved Naina and would always love Naina was exalted. My body responded to hers, our hands getting tangled in each other’s hair. I felt her hand slide up my back. I pressed myself against her, our kisses getting more fervent.
The force of her body pushed me back onto the bed, forcing our kisses to momentarily stop. My breathing was heavy, and gods, I wanted her. We stared into each other’s eyes for what seemed like an eternity. I pulled her back towards me, and her hand tugged at my sweater. I knew what she wanted and I wanted to give it to her. The slight moan that responded to her touches gave her the permission that we both craved, and she lifted my sweater over my head. Every minute, more pieces of clothing were removed, thrown onto the floor like they were nothing. The electricity crackled between us, and I couldn’t tell where my body ended and hers began. We lost ourselves in the wonders of each other’s bodies.
When it was over, we just laid in bed. My back was towards her, her arm draped around my waist. Our sweaty bodies stuck together. She made a gentle trail of kisses down my neck. We stayed intertwined for a while in silence.
I broke the silence with, “I love you, Naina.”
She responded, “Have you thought about what I was saying earlier?”
My endorphin-induced haze prevented me from being peeved at her response. “I was otherwise preoccupied. I couldn’t really think about that now could I?” I jokingly replied.
My flippancy brought a coldness to her voice. “This isn’t a joke. I want this to be your choice, and you aren’t taking it seriously.”
I didn’t like the sound of her voice. I flipped around and tried to bring back the gentleness and fondness that existed before. She got up and started putting her clothes back on. “I’ll come back tomorrow. Think about it some more in the meantime,” she said, still with some cold annoyance.
A few hours after she left, a guard came in and told me to gather my things. I almost laughed because my “things” were the clothes that I had walked into the building with. But I did what I was told. I was quite confused when she led me out of the room. The ever-present voice in the back of my mind told me to run, to get out of here, but I ignored it.
We walked down the hallway and made a few turns before we reached another room. I walked in, fearing the worse of Naina’s anger. I knew she was mad at me. I didn’t want her to be mad at me.
But instead, to my surprise, I entered a lavish suite, complete with a television, a couch, and a king-size bed. On one of the walls were shelves, filled with my favorite books. There were no windows, but my disappointment about that faded when I saw the bathroom.
“This is your room now,” the guard said as he was leaving. The door locked behind him.
I crept towards the large plasma screen TV. It looked brand-new. Actually, everything looked brand-new. I explored some more and thoroughly messed up the bed after I threw myself onto it. From my supine position on the bed, I noticed a silver tray on the table in front of the television. I lifted the silver lid up, revealing a plate of waffles with strawberries and cream and a glass of hot chocolate. More of my favorites, I thought. Naina was so considerate. My stomach audibly grumbled, and I gobbled it down in about five minutes. A part of me wondered if she had already put the anti-Cure in my food, but she had promised me that it would be my choice, and Naina would never break a promise.
I mulled over what she had told me. A life with Naina or a life without Naina? One was obviously better than the other. But taking the anti-Cure? Was it worth it? Of course it was worth it. Naina was worth anything. A wave of food-induced tiredness washed over me, so I went and laid down on the bed. I drifted off, thinking of a future with Naina.
When I woke up, Naina was sitting next to the bed in an armchair.
“You were asleep for a long time. And you ate?” she inquired.
I loved that she kept making sure I was eating. She really did want the best for me. “Of course, I ate. You know I’m a sucker for strawberries and cream. Did you need something?”
“Good, I’m glad you’re eating. I just wanted to see you. And to see if you gave any thought to my offer.”
“I don’t know…why can’t we stay together and be happy without me taking the anti-Cure?”
“You have to trust me. You do trust me, right? It will be so much better if you take it. People don’t realize what has been taken from them. You see the world more clearly. When the Uprising lifted my blindfolds, I was amazed at everything that I was missing out on.”
“Of course I trust you. I just don’t know if I trust them. What would happen after?”
“You would join us. You would help us defeat the people that want to suppress us.”
“But it’s racism. Racism should be suppressed.” The voice in the back of my mind cheered me on.
Annoyance flitted across her face. “Don’t you like this? What we have? It could be even better.”
I did like this. I had no worries in this haze. All I needed was Naina. Her lips found mine, and after what seemed like an eternity, we found ourselves entangled underneath the sheets of the bed.
Every day after, Naina would visit me for a few hours and try to coax me into joining the Uprising, leading into it with one of my favorite foods. After every excuse and denial, we would make love, and she would leave. I could tell that her exasperation was growing with every visit, and I only wanted to make her happy.
One day, while I was eating, the door opened. “You’re early today!” I turned around with great anticipation. But instead of Naina, there was a white girl. She was slightly taller than me and my same muscular build. Honestly, she just looked like a white version of me.
“Who are you?” I asked incredulously.
“My name is Abigail.”
“Why are you here?”
“I’m here to take care of a problem.”
The tone of her voice immediately indicated to me that I was the problem.
“What have I ever done to you? I don’t even know you!”
“But I know everything about you. I know that you are a waste of space. And time. And resources. Naina is convinced you’re going to take this anti-Cure and be some great asset to our team. Every day she comes here and fucks you when she could be doing more productive things outside.”
“Oh, so that’s what this is about…you’re jealous. What…you’ve been in love with her for months but she hasn’t given you a single look and now you want to get rid of the obstacle in her way?”
She sneered, “No, exactly the opposite. Do you ever wonder where she goes after she leaves this room? She comes to me. To my bed. Into my arms. Her wife’s arms.”
“Stop fucking lying!” I screamed at her. “Naina would never do that to me.” I charged at her. I heard a strange, animalistic scream. I realized I was making it.
My years of training kicked in. She tried to kick my legs out from under me, but I was faster. I jumped to avoid her blows and delivered a kick straight into her chest. She stumbled backwards, the side of her head hitting the wall, but she regained her balance almost immediately.
There was a frenzy in her eyes that told me that she meant to kill me. I wasn’t going to let that happen. I went for her face.
I couldn’t even describe the pleasure I got when I heard the crunch that was made when my fist collided with her nose. She tried to punch back but her visibility was already clouded from the blood from her head injury. I was kicking this girl’s ass. Who does she think she is?
She could tell she was losing, and stumbled towards the door. Instead, I delivered one last punch that effectively knocked her out.
In those moments, I gained a tiny shred of clarity. It was like waking up from a dream. Whatever drug-induced alternate reality I had been living in was shattered. I realized just what kind of situation I was in. I had to get out of there. I needed an escape plan. If I hadn’t believed in the gods before, I definitely believed in them now. I guess when this girl had come in she had forgotten to close the door behind her. It stood slightly ajar, just asking me to escape. My window of opportunity was swiftly closing. Sooner or later someone would walk by and notice that the door to my prison was open.
I looked around for the clothes that I came in with. They had been bunched up and thrown into a corner. I pulled them. Much better. I could actually move in these. My next objective was finding a weapon. Something that would last me until I found my gear. I searched Abigail’s body and found a gun. What an idiot. It was like she wanted this to happen. She started to stir and I realized that if I was going to escape I had to do it now.
I peeked outside the door, making sure there were no other guards stationed outside. I knew I couldn’t get away with just sauntering down the halls. I would be buying myself a one-way ticket back into my cell if I did that. So I looked for an air vent that I could climb into. Down the hall to my right, I saw one. Before I closed the door behind, I grabbed one of the small tables in the room so I could use it as a step stool to boost myself up. I closed the door, locking the bitch wife in, and dragged the table underneath the air vent. Secretly, I hoped that they would never find her.
I stood on the table and popped the vent open with the spoon that had come with my breakfast oatmeal. The opening was a tight squeeze, but I wriggled myself through and placed the cover back on the opening. I knew the table would be a warning sign to all the guards, but I hoped by then I would be far away from where I had been locked up by the time they found it. I crawled through the vents, pausing to listen to any conversations that occurred in the hallways below me. It seemed like something else, more important than me, was happening because there was more frenzy than when I had first entered the facility.
I heard snippets of one conversation.
“They’re coming. What are our orders?” Who’s coming? The men below me sounded worried. “What if they kill us all?” “They wouldn’t do that. It’s against their moral code.” My intrigue was piqued, and I wanted to listen to the rest of their conversation, but they quickly ran off to deal with whatever was happening.
I heard someone say something about the weapons room. Even though I had that girl’s gun, I wanted to find my weapons and comm devices so I could communicate with my team. Just as I was about to jump down from the vents to get into the room, I heard the alarms go off. Either whatever crisis they were talking about happened or they know I’m gone. Fuck. I just hoped that in the chaos, they would overlook me.
I still had to get my stuff, so I looked up and down the hall as best as I could from the cramped position in an air duct. I saw no one in my limited visibility, so I decided to take a chance and jump down. I landed softly in a crouched stance.
“Hey! Stop right there!” I heard to my right.
“Fuck,” I cursed out loud. I started sprinting in the opposite direction. I knew it was risk. I had no idea what was up ahead.
My gamble did not pay off. Of all the places that I had seen in this compound, I ended up in probably the busiest. And there were definitely more than the 150 people I had estimated from the mountain colony. Did they recruit more members while I had been held captive? People were frantically calling other people. The screens at the front of the room had some defense plan on it. I deduced that they were under attack. From whom? I hoped that they would be friends of mine.
No one noticed me immediately. So I maneuvered my way through the crowd. Behind me, I could see two guards had me spotted, and they were trying to catch up. I pushed people aside, and no one gave me a moment’s notice. I managed to get to the other side of the room and ran out.
I entered another one of those hospital-like hallways. They loved those here. And I ran smack into her. Naina. She looked unkempt: her hair was not in the normal sleek bun that it was usually in here, the bags under her eyes were extremely prominent like she hadn’t gotten any sleep the night before.
My first instinct was to hug her, a remnant of the drug utopia. But I pushed that feeling down.
She pulled a gun on me.
“I knew you had escaped. But I didn’t really care. Because we are all going to die anyway. But then I thought, ‘I want to be the one who sees the life drain out of her.’ I wasted so much time on you. So I want to be the one to kill you.”
I stayed calm and maintained eye contact with her. She seemed deranged, like everything was falling apart. “No one is dying. Why do you think we are dying?” I mustered the most soothing voice that I could.
She started laughing and waving the gun every which way. “You’re the reason we are dying! Your people. They’ve blockaded the entire area. No one is getting out of here alive.”
I almost audibly sighed with relief. My people. I could get out of here. “They wouldn’t kill everyone here. Despite your faults, the people here are still people. They don’t deserve to die.”
“Then why are they dropping bombs? Please tell me. They’ve already dropped some on our Western headquarters. From what I know, they’re all dead. We’re next.”
I could feel the fear creep, but I didn’t let her see it.
She suddenly did an about turn and ran away. I felt a pang of sadness. What had happened to her? This disease had unhinged her. If that was what racism did to someone, I’m glad I wasn’t infected.
My mind moved on from her. I had to get a message to my team members. I remembered the phones in the other room. Yes, those would do. From how everyone was reacting to the attack, I would be able to get to a phone. I went back inside and managed to get my hands on a free phone. I dialed the number that I knew so well.
“Hello?” I heard David’s familiar voice on the other end of the line.
“David! It’s me Anjali!” I elatedly said.
“Anjali? Is that really you? We thought you were dead.”
“I practically was. But look, I’m still in the facility. If you can hold off dropping the bombs, I can escape.”
“Anjali, these bombs aren’t going to kill anyone. They contain the Cure… How did you find out about them?”
“Are you serious? Everyone here is under the impression that they are about to die. How did you manage to put the Cure inside the bombs?”
“Well, after you told us what they were planning with the anti-Cure, we decided to try making our own aerosolized version of the Cure. It took a month to fine-tune it, but it works. We tried it out on their western headquarters yesterday night.”
I gasped. “That is genius. I guess I’ll see you on the other side of the smoke then. If I don’t die first.” I had said it as a joke, but David recognized the tiny ounce of truth in my statement.
“Stay safe Anjali.” The line cut.
With this new information, I felt a lot safer, but I still had to deal with the fact that I was still surrounded by people who wouldn’t hesitate to kill me. I was surprised no one had paid me attention, as I was one of maybe two brown people in the room. They probably just thought I was Naina, considering all Indian people, “look alike.”
As I was making my way down the hallway, I heard the first bomb go off. The entire building shook from the blast. Behind me, I could hear the screams from the people in the control room. I wanted to tell them that they weren’t dying, but my self-interest propelled me forward.
A second bomb fell onto the compound, followed by more screams. In my search for an exit, I found Naina again. She was sitting in a corner, her arms wrapped around her legs. There was still enough love for her in me that I approached her to see if she was okay.
“Naina…? Are you okay?”
She looked up. In an ideal world, she would’ve apologized to me, and I would’ve told her that everything was going to be okay.
But instead, she looked at me with such vehement that I took a step back. “You…again. Damn, I was just praying that your brown-ass had gotten blown up in one of those explosions. Why do you keep bothering me? Why can’t you let me die in peace?”
She stood up and started approaching me, effectively backing me up against the wall. “Once I was enlightened, you’ve been a thorn in my side. Oh, and it was so easy to pretend to love you. You were putty in my hands. You’re weak. I thought you could be useful to us. But instead, you turned out to be a nuisance. In fact, all you brown people have been nuisances. Thank god my skin was pale enough for me to pass as white. Otherwise, I would’ve been like you, no better than an ape.”
Her words stung, and I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. I knew this wasn’t her talking. It was the disease. She didn’t really think any of this. As much as her words hurt, I knew that I just had to keep her talking just until a Cure bomb dropped. Then everything would be okay.
“Look, Naina. This isn’t you.”
She cackled, “This is me!! You’ve never understood me.” She started waving around her gun again. My hand inched towards my gun. She didn’t know that I had it, so I had the advantage in this situation.
Her gun found my forehead. I felt the cold metal pressing against my skin. “I should just end you right now, you piece of brown trash. Like I said before, I want to see the light leave your eyes.” She cocked the gun.
I didn’t give her a chance to pull the trigger. I whipped out my gun from the band of my pants and shot her. She stumbled back and looked at me in horror.
“You bitch!” she shrieked. Blood was gushing from the hole that I had made near her abdomen. She stumbled, likely from the blood loss, but managed to raise her gun again. I shot her again, this time in the stomach. The force of the bullet pushed her back and she fell to the ground.
In the gods’ poetic way, as I ran towards her, a bomb was dropped in our vicinity. The gas enveloped both of us, and I took a deep breath in. I could see Naina’s breaths getting shorter and shorter. I crouched down and cradled her head in my lap. I took off my shirt and put pressure on the bullet wounds to stop the torrents of blood.
“Anjali…” Naina said in a weakened voice. I could see it in her eyes. This was my Naina, not the corrupted one.
Tears were rushing down my face. “I’m so sorry Naina…” I mustered through my sobbing.
She managed to raise one arm and caressed my face. “No, I’m sorry.” Her voice was barely a whisper, and I leaned in closer. “All you did was love me. And I failed you.”
“It wasn’t you… it was the disease. It failed us all.”
“I wanted to make a difference in the world. I’m so so sorry.” She closed her eyes.
“Naina! No! Don’t you dare give up on me!” I shook her, trying to wake her back up.
Her eyes opened halfway, but I knew that these were her final moments.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you too,” I said, but she didn’t hear me. She was already gone.
I pulled her limp body closer to me in. She couldn’t be gone. The gods were cruel. They gave me back my Naina and then took her away from me. I held her tightly, refusing to let go. Her face was so peaceful that she looked like she was sleeping. Maybe she will just wake up and smile at me and kiss me. But the lack of flush in her cheeks and the coldness of her hands told me that that was not going to happen. She was gone.
An eternity later, I heard a voice telling me, “Let go Anjali, it’s over.” At that, I clutched her body even more. I couldn’t leave her.
A different voice, a more familiar one, said into my ear, “Anjali, you have to let go. Please. You have to let go.”
I yielded to David’s request and wrapped my arms around him. “She’s gone, David. She’s never coming back,” I said in between each sob.
He didn’t say anything and rubbed my back, which was exactly what I needed.
The next few hours were like a dream. They took me back to our headquarters and asked me to painfully recount what had happened over the past month. I detailed everything: how I found out about their plan, the painful truth about Naina, the violations of my body, how I escaped, everything. I told the story so many times that I was like a robot, completing the task that it was programmed to do. I also learned what happened outside in the world during my captivity. After initially bombing the capital, they started dropping anti-Cure bombs in small cities across the nation. Violence erupted between communities of color and white people. We lost so many friends of all colors. It was exactly what had happened all those years ago. They told me that mosques and temples were destroyed. Policemen were beating up my black brothers and sisters. I shouldered the burden of this pain and violence and these deaths on my shoulders.
In the days that followed, my friends and teammates initially tried to give me space to recover, but I realized that doing something was the best way to heal. I devoted myself to ensuring that something like the Uprising would never happen again. It was this purpose that kept the grief at bay. I had lost everything else. In the two hundred years of the Cure, no one had thought to make it aerosolized, so I had to give the Uprising credit for this ingenuity. We fine-tuned the delivery system: instead of using bombs to disperse the Cure, we devised an airborne system in which all corners of the Earth could get sprayed. Once the Cure was inhaled or made contact with any part of the body, it entered the bloodstream and altered all the genes that gave us a propensity for racism. Working with scientists of the Order from all countries, we fashioned a, hopefully, fool-proof way to make sure everyone got the Cure to avoid another situation where racism would cause such widespread destruction. At the beginning, the ethical issues of such a solution were brought up just as they had been two hundred years ago. Is it ethical to force everyone to take the Cure? But in the end, just like before, the price of the lives that are lost to racism won out against the want for free will. There was also the question of what to do with all the people who had joined the Uprising and survived. I didn’t want them to rot in a jail cell for the rest of their lives because they had a disease. At the same time, what they did led to the deaths of many of my brothers and sisters. The leaders of the Uprising were thrown into prison for the rest of the lives, but those who were not in the main circle were given community service sentences. I don’t know if I agree completely with the punishments, but my opinion did not really matter.
I also went to see Naina’s parents every day after. For the first few weeks, we talked about Naina and reminisced about the happy memories. We helped each other grieve and eventually found peace in the fact that before she died, she apologized for the pain that she had caused and passed knowing what was right. We scattered her ashes in the river, knowing that that was exactly what she would’ve wanted.
Life after was not the same as before. I threw myself into my work, devoting myself even more than I use to. I quit my job with the President and joined the Order, even though I had been effectively part of it for quite some time. I prioritized my work with them above everything else. The Order devoted their sources and energy to make Cures for all the structures that marginalized communities and I worked to advocate for those communities. I had my own vested interest in the queer community, but I ensured that everyone was given proper attention. My memories of Naina naturally dulled over time, but I never forgot the lesson and purpose she gave me. I never wanted someone to feel the way I had in that complex, suffocated by those who hated me for my skin color. No one was going to feel that way ever again for something that was part of their identity.