I am on the plane to Shenyang, groggy with sleep, and the first thing I do is look out the clear window. The suns rising through the poofy clouds. The flight attendant announces that we are about to land. She tells everyone to turn off their electronic devices, and buckle up. Yadda, yadda, yadda … I look out the window again, and suddenly miss New York’s vibrant sunrise. It’s not that Shenyang’s isn’t colorful … it’s just orange and a light shade of lemon.
After we land, I walk through the glass hole-like hallway to the airport. A gust of AC blows at me. I’m almost run over by a bunch of people … all hurrying to leave the terminal. We go to get our luggage and boxes, and hurry to my relatives behind the double-glass doors. I see my cousin Tom, grin, and wave to him. He grins back. Then he slides towards me, and takes a picture of me waving with his iPhone, capturing the moment. I chuckle. He flashes his pearly whites, and squeezes me into a bear hug. I drop my bag in shock. “Can’t … breathe …” I tell him. He immediately let go of me, and apologizes. I see my aunt blabbering off with my mom. My cousin grasps my hand, and leads me towards the sliding doors. My uncle opens the back door of his black car, and we hop in.
In the car, I let my thoughts drift away and look out the window. I frown at black smoke curling from buildings. My uncle opens the windows, and I cough. A whoosh of smoke and dust blows into the car. The air is worse in China than I thought it would be! I manage to open my eyes before my cousin closes the window.
Later that night I have a dream of peering over a balcony made of royal wood, when suddenly… motes of dust swirl around me, and seem to push me downward. Leaves are circling around me everywhere … cigarette butts still smoking, making me cough … Everything goes black. Suddenly a sheer string of light shines past, and whispers, This isn’t real … it’s just a nightmare … … I sit up, sweating, then BONK, I accidentally hit my cousin Tom’s head with my nose. He grunts. Then he tells me that I had been screaming in my sleep. I look around, the blinds are still down, but a faint bright light still shines through. I look at my phone. 4:00. 4:00! “I’m so sorry for waking you up so early …,” I tell him, staring at my cuticles. But I’m surprised he isn’t bothered.
He says he’s glad I’m up because we have to meet someone on Skype. He says it’s an activist leader, and as we wait for her picture to spin into view, I admire her raven hair and chocolate eyes. She says her name is Beatrice, but she prefers Tris, and she wants us to sign a petition to stop pollution. Tom and I look at each other, because we both really want to sign it. She says once we sign the letter, we can bring it to her apartment down the street, and then she will mail it to the government.
Her apartment is on the seventh floor, and before she opens the door, she looks at us through a peephole. Her apartment is filled with many tall plants that remind me of soldiers. She has stacks of color-coded folders and the names on all her files are alphabetized. I wonder which folder our signed petition will go into. But after Tom gives our paper to her, she is too busy turning the pages of an illustrated book to look up at us. I try to break the silence by asking her the title of her book, but she answers curtly: “Cinderella.” But then I notice that it was a Chinese, not an American, girl on the cover. This Cinderella was holding a fan of pink bamboo, and she had loose, silky hair. Her smile looks frighteningly real. When I ask her if the story is the same as the U.S. version, she stares at me as if I am an alien, and says, “No … not at all.” I don’t challenge her, and neither does Tom, not even about how she plans to push our petition through, but I guess she liked me, because the next day, I am surprised to receive a text from her that said downstairs ASAPS at playground to talk, don’t be l8te.
Nervous, I tug on a wool sweater, and head downstairs silently, without waking anyone up. The clouded windows winding up with the apartment stairs are so foggy that I can’t identify the outside world. I brush my fingers along this window fog, which makes transparent streaks, like an animal’s scratch, but I’m able to wipe enough dirt away to see across the street; I notice motorcycles with rusty latches and high rises looming in the distance. I continue down the stairs, and when I reach the playground, I spot Tris on a swing, her tiny hands over creaky chains. Tris smiles suspiciously … she looks happier than the other day. I’m not sure what to expect of our meeting, but when I ask her about it, she murmurs, “It’s just the petition ….” Her legs are dangling from the swing. Then she spouts: “The petition has been approved by the government!”
My jaw drops. Honestly, I didn’t believe that our paper would actually get to the government … much less be accepted. But this was fantastic news! I couldn’t wait to tell Tom about it. At home, I giddily hurry up the stairs and find Tom on the couch, drowsy with bags under his eyes. His hair is messed up, but it still looks okay. I explain everything to him, from the nightmare to the conversation to Tris. I take a deep breath. “The petition has been signed!” I cheer.
His eyes widen, and he gapes at me. “What?!”
“Ummm … the petition has been signed … This means you will be safer,” I say. “Our family will be safer.”
“Yes,” he says. “I hope it makes a big effect, and that our parents will be proud of us. “
Then we stay up until midnight planning how to surprise our parents with our accomplishment. At one point, I go to look out the window. The streets are bustling and sure enough, there are paparazzi right on the front door of our apartment. At least there are codes for the main door of each building…we don’t have to worry about a reporter kicking down our door.
The next morning, I am stirring my brown sugar oatmeal when Tom nudges me. “What?”I whisper, overtired and famished. He glanced at the magazine that our parents are reading, and my mom raises an eyebrow.
Then Tom can’t contain himself. He blurts: “We’re on the front page!”
“Sabrina … when did this happen? “My mother says cautiously, as if she is afraid she might be kidnapped.
“This-um … oatmeal is delicious, mother!” I say. And then: “What a sunny day! Perfect for goin--”
“Honey,” my mother says, “Do you need your eyes checked? It’s raining, dearie.”
Then my uncle jumps in: “And plus … we all know too well your mother cooks revolting plain oatmeal!”
“It’z vefy good! “I garble, shoving a spoonful of oatmeal into my mouth. Then I gag. They stare at me; everyone is laughing.
But then, when the laughter quiets, and I look at my mother and father, and Tom looks at his father, I realize how proud they are of us for wanting to make a difference. I am still so happy because Tom is going to be safer and healthier after we leave and fly back to New York. And then I think I’m also glad that we trusted Tris to help us, even though she seemed strange and different…and bossy. Tomorrow I hope she might want to meet me at the playground again, just to talk, so that we can be friends and share our different interpretations of Cinderella. And also I hope I’ll stop having nightmares about pollution.