I wrote this one for the Toronto Star short story contest; the results were given last week and I didn’t receive a phone call, which means I was not part of the top three. As such I am now allowed to post it :-). So I hope you enjoy.
She looked at the newspaper with a smile; it tasted bittersweet. It was the right thing to do but not the easy one. The Star was the last light in the darkness, the last voice of freedom in a world of tyrannical silence. And its headline would sentence it to the same silent death as others… Yet, it just might stir something. Hope was a powerful force and the last word of the article. But was there any left?
In the icy cold morning the child could be seen holding onto his threadbare coat and holding a bundle of papers as if it were the most precious treasure in the world. No one would really pay attention to the kid; there were so many of them in the streets. Orphaned and trying to scrap some food from neighbouring trash. That paper probably was a treasure, something that the young one could start a fire and keep warm with. It was a sad thing of their society; one that could make you cry really. Once these orphans would have been taken care of by near kin or placed in foster families: no longer. And the saddest part? Nothing could be done. It was just a matter of making sure they did not become dangerous; they would not be allowed to gather and organize in gangs. That might give them security but not to the good people of the city. So the police was there for that. The “good people’s” security had become the most important thing in this world. It started insidiously in so many ways; a few countries deciding that their ways were better and more progressive than others had led to economic if not outright colonization that had resulted in violent retorts; attacks upon big city centres that left thousands of innocent victims transformed people’s ways of thinking. Where freedom had meant everything fear prevailed; people preferred to know they were safe from evil people who threatened their societal system even though it meant that their individual liberties were slowly reduced until one day it was too late. Strangers were no longer welcome and this country that once was a flagship of multiculturalism had closed its borders and treated its immigrants as undesirables.
And then there were the media; few remembered now that historically – before History’s content was deemed unsuitable for teaching – that newspapers were the voice of freedom. So many authors once used newspapers to raise a voice against the excess of the government. But then newspapers, radio and TV channels – let’s not even mention what the internet had been – had become tools of propaganda and manipulation. It was not even new in History; other tyrants did it during the twentieth century. There were two world wars to fight for democracy and it died at the hands of those who fought for it then, by those who claimed they were its champions. Who could have known? Well in hindsight everyone should have. In fact some tried to denounce what was happening only to be silenced, at first by negative advertisement – a powerful tool that – and thanks to the media destroying their character. Then it became more and people were arrested on the suspicion of terrorism – a word that became so encompassing that marching peacefully upon the House of Commons to contest a law that went too far was considered an act of civil disobedience, then one of terror – and afterwards some would just disappear.
Finally the culture of snitching became the norm; just like the slow removal of individual liberties it started with something people believed reasonable. The police would remind the population – through the media of course – to watch out for petty criminals in the context of crimes committed in one’s neighbourhood, then it turned into ensuring that your neighbours were not part of some ‘terrorist’ group intending to bring down the government and “our” way of life by defiantly demonstrating. And so friends started denouncing friends, brothers would bring their sisters to the police, children “denouncing” their parents over a refusal to buy the newest toy or the prospect of potential estate. These years were now called “the Purge” a shortcut for ‘purging the society of its terrorist elements’. Mostly it allowed the government to enforce a control of its population in a world that was increasingly poor in natural resources. Even now ten years later the scars of the purge could be seen; and still there was not enough food for everyone. Snitching still gained people extra food and money, which everybody – except members of the government named for life by the Supreme Leader – needed direly.
And through this all the only newspaper that had continued to express discontent was the Star. It was hidden in its columns for those who knew how to read between the lines: since there was no blatant incitation to rebellion the power that be could not reasonably silence it. Until now.
“Mum?” She looked in the rear-view mirror. Her son blessedly too young to remember the years of violence claimed her attention. He looked so much like his father it sometimes hurt. She had wondered so often if anyone noticed and prayed they did not.
“One of my classmates made a presentation on the Supreme Leader’s coming to power today.”
“And? Was it interesting?”
“I don’t know. It seemed he was a hero, but I am not so sure. If he were there would not be so many kids in the streets with nothing like the one we just saw.”
She could have cried; she had not wanted Ethan to notice. She had strived to educate her son in a careful way navigating between what would be safe for him and what would still be a reflection of who she was and what she believed in. But it was a world where an act of kindness could result in a long time in one of the government’s “rehabilitation facilities” and he surprised her.
“You didn’t think I’d seen him.” He sounded resentful. She sighed.
“I hoped you didn’t sweetie. It’s a difficult world we live in.”
“Because if I’m nice to others people will hurt me?”
“But you are nice to people. You gave a blanket to that old lady last week.”
“I did. But I did it in secret.”
“It’s not right.” There was a teenager’s definite certainty in his voice.
“Honey I know but you can’t ever say it in front of anyone else.”
“Has it always been that way?”
What did she answer to this? The truth could hurt the both of them; a lie might do more harm if or when his son discovered what she was up to.
“I’ll tell you a story Ethan but it’s something you cannot tell anyone; not your teachers, not your friends… not even Sarah.” He nodded seriously. And so she told him about the world from before; she didn’t go into details when it came to the violence of it. He was after all only twelve years old. But she did tell him of the world’s imperfections and how the seeds for what had happened after were already planted. Still there had been freedom and the rule of law; imperfectly applied but with all its faults the system had allowed for a somewhat healthy society where people could thrive and be generous if their nature was thusly made. When it came to it, there was no denying the violence of the purges. She spoke briefly of them and then of the ‘revelation’ by one newspaper of the Governor’s alleged betrayal of the Nation’s values and how they were responsible for the purges that had affected the good citizens of the country. The media asserted she had consorted with terrorists to undermine the hold of true patriots on our beautiful nation. The proofs were sketchy at best but it had been enough to raise people to fury, the same ones who had been apathetic for years. There had been a riot, most of the family had been killed thus cutting the final ties with the United Kingdom, something many had wanted for a long time considering the royal family corrupted for they had done nothing to prevent the “others” from invading through the process of immigration. And all had begged the man who revealed the treason become their ruler. He had become the Supreme Leader and moved Parliament to Toronto the more patriotic city – ironic considering it was the only city that still housed the one rebellious newspaper although it could always be argued that the Supreme Leader allowed it to run despite its dissentious articles. She didn’t tell him all though about the Leader though; some things are better left unspoken. Still when she finished Ethan’s eyes were wide open.
“That’s what’s in the newspaper.” He whispered in awe.
“What newspaper?” she asked.
“What about it?”
“The headline.” Ethan took out a paper from his bag and held it open. When she saw the headline she braked suddenly and even before the car came to a stop she turned snatching the paper from his hands shoving it into her handbag. He must not be found with this.
“Who gave you this?”
“It was in the teacher’s lunchroom.”
“What were you doing in there?”
“I had to bring my homework to Ms. Clap but she wasn’t in there. No one was. It’s the first time ever.”
She couldn’t fathom what that meant but it wasn’t a good thing that Ethan had this with him. She would have stopped on the curve and thrown the newspaper in the nearest garbage bin only it would have attracted people’s attention. No she could only hope to be able to discard it some place safe.
“I shouldn’t have taken it.” Ethan said wistfully.
“It’s alright sweetie. You couldn’t know.”
“I saw the picture on the front. It seemed familiar. I’m not sure why but then I started reading. Do you think it’s true he sent the Governor’s children to one of the rehabs?”
“It’s usually the way things are done.”
They drove in silence for a while until Ethan spoke once more.
“Mum, what’s going on?”
She looked out; a few vagrants were clustered here and there as if shying away from a threat that terrified them. One of them met her eyes – the woman she had given a blanket to – and she appeared sad and sorry. She looked ahead of her and sighed. A random act of kindness paid with denunciation; there was no hope left in this world. No good deed went unpunished. She stopped the car and without turning spoke to Ethan.
“Sweetheart, I want you to stay in the car; no matter what happens you can’t get out. And if they come and ask you about the newspaper you must tell them it was mine, understood?”
“Mum?” He looked scared her little boy. And she couldn’t give him comfort.
“Do you understand?”
“Do you promise?”
“Yes. What if they don’t come?”
“You have your key?”
“Then go to our secret place and stay here for as long as you can. Sarah will come and take care of you.”
“I don’t know sweetheart; you have to be brave.”
There were tears in his eyes but he did not cry; she found she was having trouble not to. She shook her head and stepped out of the car without looking back; she needed to ensure they didn’t guess Ethan was in the car. Unlikely as it was that they wouldn’t check, she must try. As she approached her house the officers of the special force surrounded her. On the steps of her porch stood the one person everyone revered and feared, the one person she despised above everyone else.
“Anastasia Swift?” He smirked.
“Supreme Leader.” She answered stiffly.
“Oh come on, Ana. It’s been a while but we won’t stand on protocol. Why don’t you invite me in?”
She really didn’t want to but she couldn’t afford not to; sighing and forcing herself not to glance behind her she opened the door and let him and his guards in. He made himself comfortable sitting on the sofa. She stood until he motioned her to sit; she didn’t intend to but when one of the officers struck her face she did sit.
“You should not have let them post that picture of you, Ana. That was stupid. Someone recognized you.”
“It was a risk worth taking. The fact that you are here to silence me is only further proof that the article spoke true. You killed your own family Samuel.”
“They were not my family.”
“You might pretend otherwise but they adopted you; they loved you. And you had them killed for a power you would not have held otherwise. And you claim they were corrupted.”
“It seems our rehabilitation program manager did not think clearly when he released you. Did you sleep with him as you did with my brother? Your own little access to power?”
“I loved your brother Samuel.”
“You did. You loved him.” Understanding hit her in the guts. It couldn’t have been about that. Surely not! It took an immense effort not to retch. “Well back to rehab; under my supervision this time.” She blanched at. “Oh… I know they let you out because of the boy.” Terror then. “He’s in your car, right?” She bit her cheeks to blood staying silent as the guards surrounded her and manacled her wrists behind her back. “Should I take him in and raise him as my son? I could be his father. The streets? A centre? Interesting possibilities. You’ll never know. Your attitude might even influence his future.”
He laughed at the look of pure loathing she threw him. They pulled her out of the house in front of neighbours, friends who turned away that they wouldn’t be associated with her disgrace. She couldn’t blame them and yet she was furious. It would only take a spark. Someone please. But no one said anything and soon she was secluded in the dark van attached to the floor. There was no hope left after all. The article had been useless and her son was lost either way. She cried then.
When the door opened she blinked; her eyes no longer used to the light hurt badly.
“Anastasia Swift?” A man’s voice asked.
“…” Parched, she could not speak. She nodded instead.
“Water?” Again she acquiesced.
Suddenly it felt like life came back as the cool liquid dripped into her throat.
“Thank you.” She whispered.
But he didn’t answer; when she looked up tears were streaming down his face. He held her up embracing her with a gentleness she didn’t understand.
“Ethan?” He nodded in turn. He had grown. “How long?” She murmured breathless.
“Ten years.” Despite the tears he sounded happy, elated. “But we’re free. He’s gone. There was hope after all.”