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So Ugly and So Glorious

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I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”
― Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

The loud beeping of a city announcement (it had a particular sound reminiscent of a warning) startled him in the kitchen. Stella had not answered his phone calls for several days and he was starting to grow fairly frantic with worry. He raced to his computer and found the announcement in his email. The bill had passed. He and Stella could no longer see each other. They were separated by an absence so great that though they lived in the same city they might as well have lived on different planets. It didn’t feel real. He must be imaging it.
He tried to dial her. Somehow he had to talk someone. He had to be certain that he wasn’t going crazy and imagining things. Another beep alerted him and then the mechanical voice, “We’re sorry. You do not have access to the number you are trying to reach.”
“Fuck this.” He was shouting into a dead line; suddenly aware that it wasn’t he who was going crazy.
“Leo, what’ s going on? I was finishing some important work. I told you I didn’t want to be disturbed.” Noah poked his head into the room and despite his lecture he was smiling. Leo felt a wave of rage so strong it was more like nausea.
“This…. Announcement. Its illegal. It’s immoral. Its…” He didn’t have the words to describe how sickening this whole thing was. He wasn’t gifted with Noah’s linguistic powers or Andy’s ability to joke.
“Oh you got the email. There was a little delay in sending it out. I’m sorry Leo. I’m afraid that your little affair with Stella will have to end but really you should date someone of your own kind. Those Nocturnes are fascinating I’m sure but now that you are graduating you should think more toward the future. Find a nice Daylighter.” Noah’s tone was soft and sympathetic but the way he said “affair” and “fascinating” sounded dirty and degrading.
Leo stared at him unable to speak. It had always been this way. There had been Noah with the political prowess and gift for talking his way out of everything. Andy had popularity and a masculine bravado that made up for his intellectual deficiencies. But Leo had always been the one who had his head buried in a book. Not the personal development or political books of Noah but novels and stories of the days before the Apocalypse. He had always been different. Sensitive, spoiled, a rule follower not a rule creator.
He hated his brother. But then did he hate his brother so much as what Noah represented? The careless and easy way of destroying and subjugation whole classes of people was not just Noah’s doing? In fact in the scope of things Noah was the least of all the people. Noah was only a small link in the chain that had tightened around all of them. At least all those who had the ability left to think and feel.
Noah left with a trail of laughter in his wake. Leo stood up and slipped out of the house. Curfew would come in a few minutes and though it was technically legal to be out in Daylighter neighborhoods he was well aware that anyone who wanted to could pick him up for curfew violations. Those rules were not evenly applied.
So all that had come to this. He remembered as if it was on a screen in front of him all the times he had seen Stella since he had met her. He would never see her again. He couldn’t even talk to her. Neither of them had believed such a thing was possible. Neither of them had believed that the bill would pass.
But after all how could they have been so naive? The humanity that had created Auschwitz and Hiroshima was just as capable of creating Horizon and segregation. He used to love reading history and remembering how those post Apocalypse people survived. Nothing had really changed. People were still killing each other and stealing from each other. The hatred that created the “gray hours” ban was the same hatred that created Jim Crow and the Warsaw ghetto. They just weren’t killing people yet.
He was completely helpless. There was nothing he could do to stop any of it. He wasn’t a politician or a business owner. He only had a camera and a video channel a few outsiders watched. But it was something. It was a way of telling the world that he was wrong. That the Daylighter system was fundamentally flawed and broken and could not be salvaged.
He had promised to protect Stella. He laughed bitterly. He had not only failed to protect her but had made her life a thousand times worse. He thought back to the last time he had seen her in person. The bruises on her face had stood out on her pale skin like poisonous ink. The way she hadn’t been able to stop shaking though she tried hard to conceal it because Stella didn’t betray weakness like that. She was in danger because of this and yet somehow he knew she wouldn’t stop.
None of it was really about their relationship. At least the videos had a purpose greater than communicating. These videos were a way of bridging the gap between their two worlds. It was a way of somehow finding the way through the mist to connect. They were a way of showing that fundamentally Daylighters and Nocturnes were no different from each other.

Leo graduated that week. He went to the official ceremony where he received his diploma and took a few pictures in which he stared unsmiling into the camera. To display negative emotion in his family was unacceptable. His world was a world of casseroles, white picket fences, smiling faces and children who always obeyed his parents. He had always been good at pretending. He wasn’t like Andy who was constantly getting into trouble by drinking too much or failing papers. But now there wasn’t anything left. He had no pretending left.
He sat in his room most of the week and stared at the ceiling. His family grew increasingly angry when he would come downstairs and eat in silence. They thought it was all over Stella. It was over Stella but it was so much greater than Stella or him or any one person and they couldn’t figure that out.
“Leo, this attitude is unacceptable.” His mother’s voice was sharp with annoyance.
“I’m sorry that my hatred of this cities’ laws is offending you. But I can’t pretend to be anything else.” He saw Noah smile and his mother reach for her water.
“I always thought that girl was trouble. But I thought it was better for her to come here than to come to who knows how much trouble if you met her somewhere. Now she’ll probably try to get money or something.” His mother’s voice sounded exactly like Noah’s.
Noah patted her hand and said soothingly, “Don’t worry, Mom. I made it clear that she wasn’t to expect anything from us. Leo is behaving like a spoiled brat.”
“How dare you? How dare you imply that Stella is some sort of blackmailer or …anything else? She is the best friend I have ever had. You are so blinded by your own prejudice you can’t even see it.” He pushed back his chair and started to stalk toward the kitchen.
His mother stopped him with a restraining hand, “Please, you know we are only saying for your own good. Someday you’ll be thankful.”
“I won’t. This isn’t right. This whole situation isn’t right. It divides people even more. I can’t believe nobody in this family can see it.” His voice rose until he was almost shouting at them all.
His mother predictably started to tear up, “I don’t know what happened. It’s all that girl’s fault. You used to be such a good kid. You never objected to anything before you met her. Now you’re throwing your life away. How can you do this to us?”
Leo didn’t reply. Perhaps after all it wasn’t his Mom’s fault that all this had turned out this way. She didn’t see. Couldn’t see because the world she had lived in was divided. It was true. He always had been the “good kid”. The nerdy, socially awkward one. But had he really been “good”? Hadn’t he participated in the same oppression that Stella talked about?
It was all so complicated. So confusing. There was another communication left to him besides those videos. He could send her a letter (if he didn’t put a return address no one would know where it came from) and perhaps they could find one of those antiquated things called “instant messenger” to send messages back and forth. For the first time he realized Stella was one of his few friends. He needed her friendship so much. She was one of the few people who actually understood just what this whole thing was about. All of his old friends would be just like his family. They couldn’t understand.
He pulled out some lined paper from his desk that he wrote his notes on and started “Dear Stella,”. Somehow it was surprisingly easy to write like this. To write how confusing this whole damn world was a relief because thoughts, which weren’t tethered, to words could be reduced to neat sentences lined up on a page. Somehow he knew that his world had changed forever and it wasn’t just because he loved a girl named Stella. But now, tonight, he could write to her and to himself of the great big EVERYTHING and find some meaning in it.