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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.

Chapter Text

Stella was fine. At least as fine as she would ever be with that weird numb feeling in her chest and her stomach hurting like she had eaten something that had gone bad. But she was sick of being asked if she was all right by a worried Lucie and Andromeda. She just had a headache. Normal people got headaches all the time. It didn’t mean she was weak. She had just lost her best friend and normal people got upset about that.
She opened the medicine chest and pulled down the bottle of pain medicine that Gil had found somewhere. She wasn’t sure what was in it and was pretty sure it was expired but it wasn’t poisonous as he had taken a couple and was fine. She took one out and swallowed it with a cup of water. Lucie peeked in and instantly pulled back alarmed. Stella wondered what Lucie thought she was doing. Trying to kill herself like Juliet. It was ridiculous. She just had a headache.
“I have a killer headache.” She groaned and regretted it as a spasm of pain flashed across her head.
“Aww… Why don’t you stay home and lie down for a while? I can call Gil.”
“I’m ok. You know how he feels about sick days. I’ll just take one of these and I’ll be fine.”
She absolutely would. But even Gil knew something was wrong when she appeared wearing sunglasses. The shop was brightly lit with government-issue natural sunlight bulbs. It always seemed slightly ludicrous how the government always proudly proclaimed that the Nocturnes lived with plenty of light. It wasn’t true of course. This didn’t make up for sunlight. The sunlight that people like Leo and Summer and all the rest of the Daylighters lived in.
“What’s wrong?” Gil asked as she sank down by the desk and tried to add up the weekly account books. She was pretty good with math even if she hadn’t been able to go to college.
“I’m fine. I just have a headache.” She repeated for the 100th time. She was starting to believe that the minute this damn headache disappeared she would be fine. That Bill would magically disappear and everything would be fine.
Gil didn’t say anything for a while but just looked at her constantly with that worried look. She hated it and she also hated that she was having so much trouble adding up a simple row of expenses. Normally she would have been able to do double this.
“I got the email.” His voice startled her out of her reverie as she was considering if thinking about going home and playing Chopin was a good idea. It was not. At all.
“Yea,” she replied.
“That’s what this is all about.”
Stella balled her fists and forced herself not to start crying. Crying was something she couldn’t do. She was afraid that if she started crying she wouldn’t know how to stop because she hadn’t known how to stop when her parents died and now she felt the same. She needed to be strong.
“I can’t understand how this bill passed or why. It’s just another right that is taken away from us. And yes I’m not happy that I won’t ever see my best friend ever again. It just sucks.” She continued adding her figures though she knew she would have to keep doing it until they came out right.
Best friend was so much easier and neater to say than boyfriend or someone she loved. It was true because they could talk about everything and even when they didn’t agree or understand it somehow didn’t really matter. (It had that time they had that big fight but both had learned a lot about the world they lived and realized that they really weren’t in control at all. She had also learned how to forgive which hadn’t been easy.) But friend wasn’t the only word she could use to describe their relationship. The whole thing hurt too much to talk about or label or define.
“ I’m sorry.” Gil for once didn’t tease her or tell her to be careful. It was almost worse than if he had.
“Are you really? Aren’t you glad I won’t see him again? You never liked him.” Stella did let him hug her though. He was her family and no matter what they would stick together.
“I don’t like seeing you sad. Also I do like him. I just wish things were different. He’s a nice kid. He really cares about you, which is all that really matters. But you can’t blame me from wishing you had never met him. ” Gil patted her shoulder like he had when she was a kid and hurt herself coming down the stairs.
“Not really,” she replied biting her lip to keep from crying, “ It doesn’t matter to the government or to anyone else. People don’t seem to even see how they are affected.”
Gil sighed and went back to the invoices which they typed up on a typewriter of all things because one had been found in a basement that survived the disaster and it was practically free to operate and didn’t stop working during the power outages. Stella kept working too. She wouldn’t let herself feel.
It was at bedtime that she let herself relax and then she usually started crying. She would press her head into the pillow so she wouldn’t wake Lucie up. She suspected Lucie knew what was going on but Lucie never talked about it. Stella would have her cry, which usually made her feel much better and then drop off to sleep.
She would dream then and sometimes she hated it. When she woke up everything was back to normal. The way her room looked with the blackout curtains made her feel sick. In her dreams she could see the sun and when she dreamed of Leo he always looked illuminated by sunlight. She had never seen the sun but she had watched pre Apocalypse movies that showed her how it looked. In those dreams the world was just like them. They went to coffee shops and did homework and took pictures. They went on hikes to forests that looked far lusher than anything that Horizon had. She even dreamed about the ocean which none of them had ever seen in person. She dreamed that the sun was shining on her and that the world she inhabited didn’t have a trace of inky blackness or moonlight.
The dreams hurt the most. During the day she could push through with work and plans and hope that Huxley and his party could save the day. But in bed the world she lived in was just about perfect and knowing that was completely impossible was terrifying. She knew the plans were a gamble and that everything could go from bad to worse. She knew there had been revolutions in the past that had been put down and the leaders had simply disappeared. She didn’t want to think about what happened to them.
She got Leo’s letter a few days later. She didn’t recognize the handwriting and it was addressed to the shop not to her. But when she opened it she realized what had happened. As nice as the videos were this was written privately to her and wasn’t a public announcement.
She read it a few times squinting at Leo’s truly terrible handwriting and Gil came in to see her reading it. She glared at him for a second for technically she wasn’t taking up time from work. This was her lunch hour and she had a right to read a letter. It made her feel so happy just to see something tangible and to read what he thought even if it was far more disorganized and messy than when he talked.
Gil looked at her for a moment before he finished unpacking the boxes of antique wall clocks they had just gotten in. She could tell he was unhappy about something. It made her a little apprehensive.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I just wish you wouldn’t. Get your hopes up I mean. This video and letter thing. How much longer do you want to do this?” Gil put down a box more forcefully than necessary.
“But Huxley?” she replied.
“Stella, it’s a very distant hope. And a very dangerous one. If the Unity Party fails anyone connected with it could be in serious trouble.”
“But free representation is part of our constitution.” She replied knowing the answer. She wasn’t stupid. The constitution could be interpreted for practically everything.
“If the Council doesn’t like what they do they can say they are breaking the law and arrest them. All they have to do is plant evidence of election fraud or violence. We could all be sent to jail. Or worse. I’ve heard stories about what happens to people who are caught.”
Stella shivered. For the first time she wondered if it was worth it. Maybe just living the way they were was better than fighting for a freedom that seemed very far off. The idea of her brother, Ara, Lucie, Andromeda or Leo being sent to jail was terrifying. Perhaps it wasn’t worth it.
“Listen, I’m not trying to scare you. But I just don’t want you to get your hopes up. Also please don’t get too involved. Leave the politics to me.”
“I’m a strong, independent woman. I’m not going to be protected by a guy.” Stella scoffed as she punched him playfully.
“I’m just your protective older brother. I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
“I know. And I’ll be careful. I don’t want to get hauled off to jail either.”
She went back to her letter but it felt so cold and comfortless. Everything was so frightening. She couldn’t understand how just a few months ago she had been happy. She refused to allow herself to give up. She would fight out of this. The burning pain in her heart fueled her. She would be strong and brave. Someday Horizons would be united and they would all be together.