Violet lives in the Divided States of America, a country split between the Purple and Green People
“Who’s there?” I call into the empty blackness, a chill running down my spine. I watch as a black cat leaps past me and around a corner, disappearing into the darkness. I exhale a sigh of relief and try to convince myself, yet again, there is nothing to fear. I begin walking, squeezing the strap of my satchel filled with documents like a four-year-old clinging to her mother’s hand. I dart across the street, heading toward a haunted-looking building with decaying red trim.
Delivering business documents in the Forbidden Strip is dangerous, especially for a thirteen-year-old Purple girl like me. My parents would have never let me come here, but we are struggling for money, so I became a business courier. The Forbidden Strip is part of the Divided States of America, which consists of three separate lands. I hail from the West, a land solely for the Purple People, and the Green People occupy the East. My parents tell me the West is far superior and our brilliant shade of lavender should remain separate from the East’s pale-green skin.
We believe in individual achievement and preserving traditions while the East advocates a new direction, putting the government’s interests ahead of citizens’ needs. I am told that the people from the East look down on us and we have a long history of conflict, causing mistrust and fear. Between both lands lies the Forbidden Strip, where people from the West and East choose to live together. I have heard terrible rumors about the people who live here. However, important documents still need to be transferred from the West, even if we are separate territories. So, I must skulk through the neighborhoods of the Forbidden Strip delivering documents, afraid of every shadow I see.
* * *
I am still jumpy as I walk toward the train station to return home when I notice a tall figure with a similar satchel tucked under his arm rapidly approaching on the horizon. He must be another courier arriving from the train station, but is he from the West or East? And is he dangerous? I glance around the street for places to hide—an odorous garbage bin, a rickety wooden stairwell, an abandoned couch.
When I look up again, the figure is staring straight at me. I am no longer a courier, but a deer caught in headlights. I take inventory of my feeble weapons: my satchel strap, shoelace, and a hair elastic. I feel the breeze from the figure’s coat as we walk past each other, and I continue toward the train station without looking back at him.
Just when I think I’m a safe distance away, I hear a deep voice yelling, “Are you Violet, the courier from the West?”
My mind is racing: I could pretend that I am not her or ignore the stranger and continue to the train station. He walks closer and grabs my hand. As his flashlight dances across my skin, it reveals a deep purple—the color of a field of violets in spring: “Well, you sure are purple. Purple as they get, and you have the right courier satchel. There was a mudslide on the train tracks and they’re halting all travel until it’s cleared. You will have to stay in the Forbidden Strip for another day.”
The light moves across his hand as he readjusts his satchel, causing me to gasp. His skin is bright green, the color of freshly mown grass. He must be from the East. I blink and look again, but he turns off the flashlight and I cannot see his skin anymore. He bids me farewell, though I am too distracted to thank him.
I touched his skin. I talked to him. And he was green.
I run and run until I am out of breath to distance myself as much as possible. As my lungs recover and my body evaporates its layer of salty sweat, I remember the man’s green hand. I think about his message and don’t know whether to trust him. Maybe the tricky Green People caused the mudslide. I recall now that I never heard the 3 a.m. train whistle: maybe there really was a mudslide.
I stare at the empty streets of the Forbidden Strip, wishing they would transport me back to the familiar streets of the West. I feel utterly lost. A tear slips from my eye. I look up at the sky and take big gulps of fresh air. The bright, glittery stars are beginning to fade into the pale-blue morning light, and the sun is peeking up from behind the buildings. I don’t have time to decide whether the Green man’s message is true. The glow of a new morning is spreading across the Forbidden Strip. If I can’t return home, I need to find a place to hide.
* * *
I awake to the sounds of feet thumping below me and little voices begging for a pancake breakfast. For a blissful moment, I am convinced that I am lying in my own comfortable bed back in the West and these are my two younger siblings, Iris and Mauve. I am the last one up, probably exhausted from my adventure in the Forbidden Strip. I roll onto my side and open my eyes. Instead of finding my purple wall, I see a cobweb-filled ceiling, a dusty mattress, and an attic stuffed with old bicycles, worn chairs, and dusty paintings. The moment of bliss slips away as I remember my current situation.
Earlier, I’d wandered through the streets in pursuit of a place to hide.
What horrible plan are they devising? Are they triggering a war to force us to adopt their views?
After careful searching and several close-up encounters with squirrels, I discovered a fire escape leading to an attic. Fatigued, I collapsed onto a tattered mattress and pulled something fuzzy over my body—was it a carpet or an old couch cover? I couldn’t tell, but promptly fell asleep.
My thoughts return to the animated voices below me. I didn’t know that people from the Forbidden Strip also ate pancakes. Suddenly, I am struck by homesickness: this family reminds me of my own. Despite stark differences between the West and Forbidden Strip, we also seem to share at least one similarity.
This, of course, does not diminish the fact that people from the Forbidden Strip are dangerous and I must remain hidden. While this family may seem friendly, they could ascend the stairs at any moment, catching me like a thief. They might imprison me in this attic, brainwashing me with their views. Quietly, I begin creating a hiding place out of chairs and blankets. I press my ear against the floor and hear the family’s continuing conversation.
At first I only hear scattered words like “maple syrup,” “West,” and “East.” A few minutes later, their voices erupt in a heated debate:
“But we belong. We can’t keep yielding because we’re afraid of conflict.”
“You don’t understand! If we start a conflict, our people will be destroyed!”
“It is time to stand up. We need to spread our way of life.”
My ears perk up. What horrible plan are they devising? Are they triggering a war to force us to adopt their views?
A plate clanks and a chair is pushed back with annoyance: “Will you two just stop fighting?”
“We’re only working out important issues. These are serious conflicts that we need to discuss, and we have different opinions.”
“The two of you started fighting and ruined breakfast!”
A pair of feet storms up the stairs. They ascend the first flight and stomp down the hallway. Then, they climb the second flight. I expect them to stop walking. Instead, they continue moving toward the attic. My breath quickens and I sit up from my eavesdropping position.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
The steps get closer and closer, louder and louder.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
The door across the attic creaks open and someone grabs a flashlight. I feel a wave of panic—they are sure to notice me now. I hold my breath, cross my fingers, and stay completely still as a sense of defenselessness washes over me.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Time has suddenly slowed down, and every second is stretched into hours. Finally, they stop in front of me and whip back the blanket. The light flashes across the corner of the attic and settles on my face.
* * *
“Hi.” The blanket reveals a tall girl peering over me with a surprised expression. “I’m Unum.”
She smiles warmly and extends a hand. A surprising greyish-brown hand—a mix of purple and green. I blink, confused. Isn’t she supposed to scream and call her parents? She stands before me with a playful, questioning look. “And you would be?”
“I’m . . . I’m V-Violet,” I stutter.
Unum’s hand lingers in front of me. She wants me to shake it. But she is not Purple. The image of my hand touching the green skin of the man whirls through my mind again and I can’t imagine my fingers touching her even darker complexion. “Are you gonna shake my hand or not?”
“Sorry . . . I . . .” I struggle for words. I hesitate to trust her or reveal any more of my identity, but I don’t have a choice because she reaches forward and gives my hand a welcoming shake.
“How did you end up here in my attic?” Unum asks.
She jumps up from the corner and moves to the other side of the attic.
“Oh, and don’t mind my parents arguing. Sorry if you heard that.”
I have no clue what to say.
“Don’t worry if you are shy. I was shy when I first came here as well. Just follow me. I’m heading up to the roof to get some air.”
Following Unum onto the roof of a three-story building is the last thing I want to do, but her amiable personality draws me in. She turns and opens the window with a loud shove, climbing onto the fire escape and up on the roof. That explains why the window had been unlocked when I slipped into the attic earlier this morning. She looks down at me from the ladder, her green hair with purple highlights blowing in the wind, reaching out a hand to pull me through the window.
“I hope you’re not afraid of heights!” she calls.
Fortunately I’m not, but I am afraid that she is going to push me off of the ladder. I have trouble maneuvering onto the roof, but she waits patiently for me as I transfer one limb at a time. She leads me across the roof to a little ledge where she keeps a woolen blanket, a messy stash of food, and a thick book.
“So, you come here often?” I ask, attempting to sound friendly.
“Oh yeah. Pretty much every day. It’s freeing to be above everything, isn’t it?”
For the first time, I look out from the brown-shingled roof and gaze down at the world below, seeing the Forbidden Strip in daylight. Everything looks miniature from this height. The rows of houses stretch in every direction. While one house is round and pale yellow, another is a beautiful stone mosaic. Purple, green, and greyish-brownish people dot the streets, along with a few cars and bicycles.
“It’s a nice change of view compared to the old musty attic,” jokes Unum.
“Yeah.” I force myself to laugh.
“Why are you here anyway? I’ve never heard of you before. Are you visiting from another part of the Forbidden Strip?”
“Why should we even want to live together? We have different ways of life, and we are different colors. We simply don’t belong together.”
Suddenly, my throat tightens. I’m not sure what to tell her, so I play along: “Yeah. I’m from the northern part of the Forbidden Strip. I was supposed to take a train home.”
“Oh, and then the mudslide happened! I heard about that. Sorry.”
“Yup, the mudslide that must have been caused by the terrible Green People.” As my words hit Unum, her facial expression changes from cheery to quizzical.
“You’re kidding, right? It happened naturally; it occurs a fair amount around here. That sounds like the propaganda the Purple People are always spreading. If they actually talked to Green People, they would realize what is really happening.”
Suddenly, I don’t feel comfortable around Unum. I need to get off of this roof and away from her. I abruptly stand up and run across the roof.
“Wait!” cries Unum. “Where are you going?”
“Get away from me!” I scream. I find the fire escape and begin descending as quickly as I can. I should never have followed Unum. But she runs as quickly as I do, and we reach the ground at the same time. Catching my hand, she forces me to sit on the grass and looks me in the eye. I find myself holding the hand of someone as different from me as fire is from water.
“Violet, are you okay? What just happened?”
“How can you defend Green People? There’s no point in talking to them!” I shout.
“You must not be from the Forbidden Strip. Instead of fighting with each other, Purple and Green People need to work together.”
“Just because you believe it, doesn’t mean you are right! ” I counter.
“Well, I am right and people from the West are actually wrong!”
“Wow, you didn’t even listen to my perspective before saying that you’re right.”
Unum crosses her arms. “Okay, tell me everything you think about the Forbidden Strip—and I will tell you why you’re wrong.”
“You want to bring Purple and Green People here and force them to live with one another. I even overheard your parents plotting!”
“Partly true. Except, we only want to demonstrate that Green and Purple People can live peacefully together. We don’t want to force anyone to do anything.”
I fidget with the grass and decide to pose a tough question. “Why should we even want to live together? We have different ways of life, and we are different colors. We simply don’t belong together.”
“The color of my skin doesn’t change anything about me. Yes, we are sharply divided by our different political opinions, but why couldn’t we come together? Imagine the power we could create by working together.”
We are both silent for a minute before Unum continues: “I have a very different view from you, but I also realize that I’m giving you a lot to consider.”
I ponder Unum’s questions. Is she telling me the truth? Why am I scared of her skin color? And if everything she says is true, why did I believe the negative stories about the Green People and the Forbidden Strip?
I think back to when I was younger and first learned that Green People lived in the Divided States of America when a neighbor reported a Green person sneaking around our street. I remember my fear as my mother told me to hide under my bed. Were the Green People trying to break in and harm us? Was this the first step toward another war? I learned to be afraid of the Green People and look down on those who lived in the Forbidden Strip. For thirteen years, I believed this was the truth and never questioned these assumptions. Yet here I was, face to face with Unum, who was once a little girl like me and whose parents had told her something completely different.
Up on the roof, I realize that for my whole life I have been looking at the shingles. Only now do I look out at the rows of houses and recognize that I have been missing this view my whole life.
* * *
I stare out the window of the train as the fields speed by, blurring into shades of gold and green. A greyish-brown hand sticks up from under my seat and passes me a note. I scribble an answer and pass it back to the waiting hand.
I am bringing Unum home to meet my parents so that we can change their perspective about the Forbidden Strip and Green People. Stowed beneath my seat in a large duffle bag, she is concealed from the train masters, who are under strict orders not to let any non-Purple People cross the border. We are playing a game where we tell each other something new about ourselves in each note. Unum told me that she originally lived in the East and moved to the Forbidden Strip because her parents wanted to live together even though her mother is Purple and her father is Green. The greyish-brown hand sticks up from under the seat once again. This time, it holds a round, copper object that glints the sun into my eyes.
“It’s an old penny” she whispers. “I found it on the floor.” I bring it closer to my eyes, examining the head of an old president on the front and a shield on the back. I squint as I try to decipher the string of words engraved on it.
“The first part looks like ‘e pluribus.’ I remember learning it means ‘out of many’ in Latin. Can you read the rest?” I ask, handing the penny back to Unum.
“Oh look! One of the words is ‘unum,’ like my name. It means ‘one.’”
“E pluribus unum. Out of many, one,” we say in unison.
She hands me the penny and our hands briefly touch in a flash of colors. I hold it in my purple palm, watching the sun dance across my reflection in the window. Less than 24 hours ago, I had never touched a different-colored hand. I think about the insight Unum shared: the color of your skin doesn’t change anything about you. While we are many different colors, as humans, we are one.
Before we know it, we have arrived in the West.
“Welcome home!” cries my mother, wrapping me in a big hug. “I heard about the mudslide. I’m glad you are safe and back in the West.”
I walk inside our small house and feel the warm fingers of our fireplace reaching toward my body. I breathe in the smell of home. My mother brings me tea while my siblings run into the room.
“Hi, Iris,” I say, patting her purple hair. “Oh, and hi, Mauve,” I say as she climbs onto my back. My father walks into the room, his hands dirty from his job repairing cars. After nearly an hour of talking and laughing, I see a greyish-brown hand from outside the window and I secretly motion to Unum.
“Hey everyone, follow me.” I guide my family outside, our shoes crunching across the brown grass. I ask them to climb up the fire escape to the roof.
“Look down at the shingles,” I tell them. My family is visibly confused, but they walk behind me as I lead them across the roof. I ask them to sit down and hold hands.
“Alright, now let’s look up from the roof,” I say.
“Wow,” exclaims Mauve.
“It feels like we’re on top of the world!” shouts Iris.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been up here before,” observes my mother. “But it’s a nice change of view.” My hands are shaking. I am nervous about what will happen next.
“I have someone I would like you to meet,” I announce in as confident a voice as I can muster. Unum peeks her head up from the top of the fire escape and says a friendly hello, just like she did when we first met in her attic.
I look out at the rows of miniature houses below. Each one is painted a shade of purple, from indigo to lilac, and covered by a brown shingle roof. In the distance, I can see the small, run-down buildings become townhouses and modern skyscrapers. I also vividly remember the colorful buildings in the Forbidden Strip, the Green man’s hand, and Unum’s greyish-brownish complexion. Purple is pretty, but there are so many other beautiful colors too. I think I am starting to see outside of my skin.
I can also see the light of a new perspective and the possibility of change. Unum and I helped each other to see beyond our own views. Now we are challenging my family to change theirs. It will not be easy: I know that there are heated arguments and many questions ahead. But, if I can change my family’s beliefs, others can change theirs too. Is it possible that one day the Purple and Green People will work together and learn to trust each other? Could parts of the country find ways to unite?
I toss the coin that Unum and I found on the train into the air. Perhaps there are more than just two sides to our country.