By BrierMae Ossont
Candy caught an ash flake on her tongue. She held it there for a moment before blowing it out into the dry dusty air. I tried to catch a flake the same way. The sudden burnt-nothing taste tipped my lips and I wondered how she could grin and laugh with plastic all around her, in her.
Candy blinked quickly, her red-rimmed eyes thankful for any relief.
My eyes weren’t affected by the ash yet. I hadn’t been around the recycling plant long enough. I heard that more than a few plant workers had let the ash grind the membranes in their eyes so far down that they had to get perma-moist slips put in, like giant contact lenses. I wondered, looking at Candy’s sticky eyelashes, if she would one day wake up and find that her eyeball had split open. I imagined a fleshy sunken socket and soupy tears dripping down her face. I wondered if she would wear an eyepatch and if she would still be able to work in the plant. She’d have to work somewhere.
“Let’s go inside,” Candy said. I took her hand and stopped thinking about dead eyes. I followed her down the block and into a Sheeter’s Pharmacy. Candy rifled through flat sodas and expired energy drinks in the discount bin until she found a Salt-Lick soft drink. “They’re better when they’re flat anyway,” She said, “Pick your drink.”
I picked a Milky, my favorite. They came in opaque plastic bottles with soft cool colors and flavors like “BluBerry” and “MintLemonade.” I kept the bottles after I finished them, stringing them up in the windows of each new hotel I visited. Sometimes I pretended they were windchimes, and imagined myself in faraway gardens, away from factories and recycling plants, and greasy children.
At Candy’s, a sort of dormitory owned by the plant, she microwaved her Salt-Lick, pressing her nose into the microwave glass in an impatient way that made me smile. We sat on her bed and shared a phone screen playing music videos and art clips for each other until the sun went behind the plant. We tried each other’s drinks. Hers tasted like instant ramen broth and mine like the milk leftover in a cereal bowl. We talked, I think, about eyes and Milky bottles. I invited her to see my hotel room in the morning. I said we could eat at the brunch buffet.
“They have all kinds of cereal.” I said.
She shook her head, “I have to work tomorrow. Six days a week, six days a week, ya know?”
I thought I should have told her about the soup bar instead.
I first met Candy when she dropped off her kid-sister at school. Candy had spaz-pop playing on her phone, no headphones. She wore her work uniform but had foam ice-cream cones through the lobes of her ears. I knew they were scented, I had seen them at the mall.
“You’re young to be a teacher,” she said bluntly.
“I’m an admissions counselor,” I said, “for a work-debt program. Heir High still offers it if she’s interested,” I nodded to the kid-sister, who took no notice and wandered away. “The tuition is less if you work for them a season after graduating.”
“I might be interested,” Candy smiled, “I haven’t finished high school yet.”
I gave her brochures and complimented her earrings.
“They’re scented, although I don’t know why anyone would smell my earlobes.”
I laughed. I told her about the campus at Heir. I pointed at the map in the brochure as I went along, describing the test centers and computer labs that stretch acres wide. I told her about the mall just off-campus and my favorite store there, a dim room filled with neon-beepy vending machines.
“In the outdoor common there are giant air purifiers that pump out air that smells like cut-grass.” I said.
“It would be strange to live without the ash.” She responded.
I left Candy’s and spent the next six days getting tired of the brunch buffet and visiting classrooms throughout the local middle school. I handed out written tests in the morning and held one-on-one interviews for Heir’s Private Secondary Education Campus in the afternoons. I recorded most of the interviews, not trusting my memory or shoddy notes. Children came, and fidgeted, and told me about their favorite teachers, subjects, siblings. They seemed as uncomfortable in school uniforms as I was in tights and a too-large work skirt.
I wanted to ask them about the plastic. Some, the ones I assumed lived closest to the plant, came in with inhalers tucked in their pockets. One child wore goggles around his neck, and had a blister on the bridge of his nose from where it rubbed when he played at recess. I wondered if his mother had perma-moist slips.
On the seventh day, I met Candy at Sheeter’s. I brought my duffle bag and we filled it full of potato chip bags, candies wrapped in waxy film, and cardboard boxes full of frozen hotdogs and cheese. When we walked out of the air-conditioned store and into the ash we headed toward my hotel.
Candy told me what it was like to work in the plant: washing and bleaching plastics till they nearly melted in her hands, moving anything that wasn’t recyclable (black plastics, paper labels, sheet plastic, styrofoam) into the incinerator, watching new bricks of shiny white plastic get loaded into freight containers. I told her what it was like to work in admissions: the bedbugs at my last hotel, the way the train from one dome-city to the next rattled and smelled like cold feet, the endless interviews with tiny people with tiny brains that had teeny-tiny dreams.
When we got to the hotel we microwaved hotdogs and cheese. This time I pressed my nose against the microwave glass and Candy giggled. We collected all my Milky bottles and made a tower of them on the bedside table, delicately balancing the hotdog box on top.
“Ya know the little boy that wears goggles to school?” I asked Candy.
“I know of him.” She said.
I didn’t know what to say next. Candy popped a cheese cube into her mouth and talked around it,
“I’ve thought about it before, wearing goggles. But he looks stupid with that giant blister. There was an initiative at school a while back to have all the kids wear them; his parents were the only ones to take onto it. They’re from someplace else, probably with air filters.”
I nodded, thanking gods that I’m from someplace else. “Do you think you’re gonna apply to Heir?” I asked. Candy focused on opening a tinsel bag of potato chips. I reached for a candy, overwhelmed by the salt in the room. “I don’t think I can.” She said.
BrierMae Ossont is an emerging writer from Wells College. They are an ex-evangelical, anarchist, and nonbinary asexual who holds space in their writing for the gross, queer, and barely poetic.