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To Stand in the Line of Fire
I lean over and pick the gadget up off the ground, careful not to break it. I rub my thumbs over its glossy white fist-sized part where a handle projects out of it, perfect to hold in yer hand. At one end of the device, two metal stick or skewer type things jut out of it parallel to each other. They reach out about four inches and then break off into more metal sticks which then curve back down and join again at the end of the skewers. I can pull these metal sticks out of the white, plastic, bulky part with a twist and a turn. There’s also a switch on the plastic part with writing underneath it, but that ain’t important. I couldn’t never read anyway.
I don’t know what the heck it is, but it could be useful, so I drop it in the burlap sack along with the rest of the whachymacallits I’ve collected in the past few hours.
I look back up at the land that lies before me, the land littered with junk and treasures and violence and sorrow and longing and even a few dead bodies that haven’t been gathered up and buried yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if they never do.
I hope I never end up like that—killed and left alone to decompose with my friends’ and family’s and neighbors’ and enemies’ trash.
That’s exactly what happened to my pa when he was executed by a sixteen-year-old boy, or rather, a man eight years ago.
I know; it sounds real bad, doesn’t it? Real violent? But that’s normal here in what the older folks say used to be a place called Texas within another place called the United States of Amerlicka…? …Amorica…? Something like that. Yet two more things I don’t know one heck about. Why ain’t it still the USA, you might ask? That, I ain’t totally sure of, but from what’s been hear told I reckon this place, or this entire buggin’ world rather, used to be a thriving planet mostly full of wealth and happy people and peace, real, living, breathing peace, but all that went to hell now didn’t it? Eventually, people got greedy and wanted to be right and nations wanted things their way and wars started and diseases, hunger and poorness spread and it was all downhill from there on. In a nutshell, the whole world broke apart. But anyway, that was, like, two hundred years ago, so it don’t matter no more.
A lot of things don’t matter in this world ruled by anarchy and scorched with violence and war, but what few things do matter matter like a fish needs water. One of those things would be the ability to protect yerself. I can’t even begin to tell you how important that is, but I figure it’s pretty self-explanatory when you have to live every minute of yer life wondering if there’s somebody hidin’ behind you with a knife raised and you fall asleep at night to the sound of gunfire, sometimes in the distance but most of the time way too close for comfort. That’s why everyone spends their childhood up until they’re sixteen learning from their folks everything from how to shoot a gun and wield a knife to less direct things like how to skin and gut animals and build a decent shelter and grow yer own food. When you turn sixteen, you have to prove to yer friends and neighbors and the rest of the Stone Fists (that’s the name of our people, one of the largest group of survivors) that you sure can protect yerself. You prove that by killin’ a person, usually a prisoner, and you have to do it in front of everybody.
This is why I’m out here just beyond the outskirts of the camp, the Grey Land as it’s been unofficially dubbed, where the remains of an old civilization lie. I wanted some alone time, which I reckon ain’t a good idea since I’m spendin’ it here where anything could happen, where anyone can pop out and jump me at any time. So why am I here, yer wondering? Why would I risk all this just to get some precious alone time?
Because tomorrow’s my sixteenth birthday.
“Where in God’s name have you been, young lady?” Ma asks me when I walk into our shack, her voice seething with anger and the slightest bit of panic.
“First of all, I’m practically a woman, not a ‘young lady—’” I drop the sack in front of her and its contents jangle with metallic clinks. “—and second of all, yer welcome.”
Ma plants her withered, dirty hands on her hips. “And what should I be a-thankin’ you for, may I ask?”
“I been out scavenging all day. Found loads of useful old crap.” I gesture towards the burlap sack on the shabby board floor.
Ma picks up the bag with a look of curiosity and the still lingering annoyance on her face. She reaches her hand in and the sack swallows her almost all the way to her armpit. After fidgeting around in it, she pulls out the white plastic and metal thingy and inspects it.
“I couldn’t figure out what that is,” I say, looking at her looking at it.
Ma giggles a little like she just heard some inside joke that I don’t know about. “It’s a hand mixer,” she says.
“A what? Wouldn’t that be a spoon?”
“Kinda…” she starts, flicking the switch on the hand mixer on and off. “You know what a whisk is, huh?”
I nod, recognizing the slight similarity between a whisk and this thing. I also remember times when we used to have a whisk and the rare instances when we’d use it to mix batter or prepare scrambled eggs. I think we traded it for grain or somethin’.
“Well, a hand mixer is kinda like that, but electric.”
Useless, I think. There ain’t been electricity for over a hundred years, just like peace and love and anything sane.
“Now, back to my first question whicha still haven’t answered.” She drops the hand mixer back into the bag. “Where’ve you been a-findin’ this stuff? You weren’t in the Grey Land, now were you?”
I try to keep eye contact with her but fail miserably and end up looking behind her.
“For God’s sake, Vemira! You know better than to go out there all by yerself!” She crosses her arms and the furious snarl returns to her face. “You coulda been killed!”
“I can protect myself, Ma. You know that and everyone else’ll know that tomorrow,” I argue. “In fact, that’s why I was out there. I needed some time to think about things… You know, ‘bout my birthday and all.”
Ma’s expression softens a little and I’m a bit unsure and scared of what’s coming. “I’m worried about you, Vem.” I don’t say anything to that ’cause I’ve heard it way too many times before. “You know how you are; all, ‘this killin’ is unfair’ and ‘why can’t we all just try to get along?’ You have such strong beliefs, and I’m afraid…” She looks me right in the eyes. “…I’m afraid you won’t be able to kill.”
“Yes, I can,” I shoot back quickly. It’s not that I want to do it, but if I don’t, the consequences are brutal. I’ll get thrown into prison definitely and possibly killed. And if I go to prison, I could be used as a person to kill in the ceremony if I don’t get released. And physically, I can defiantly do it. Sixteen years of physical and mental training really does a number on yer body, ’specially mine. Ever since I was old enough to train, I’ve grown a near five inches taller than the average sixteen-year-old girl. “And if it’s not for me,” I continue. “Then I’ll be doin’ it for Pa.”
It’s true. Even though Pa was killed because of this insanely inhuman ritual, he wanted me to have a good future, or at least one where I’m actually alive. He told me to do it, to kill the person no matter what. He wanted to be sure I’d live with dignity and honor.
Well, we’ll see what’ll happen tomorrow.
The sun is rising.
It’s what’s most hoped for; most awaited by every person that’s livin’ on this cruddy planet. It’s the one thing that’s constant and good, the one thing we all can count on to happen.
But that’s not the case for me. Not today, at least.
The butterflies fluttering in my stomach get more intense as the grey sky grows lighter and lighter, and with each passing minute, the time that I’ll be escorted out of my home inches closer.
Eventually, they come, two bulky men whom I’ve seen round camp but never actually met. I reluctantly pull myself outta my bed (bed meaning a pile of tattered quilts and blankets on the dusty floor) and trudge towards ’em. I’m already dressed in the clothes that I wear practically every day, so all I do to prepare for my outing is pull my straggly, dirty blonde hair back into a ponytail.
Ma mutters a sullen “Happy Birthday,” to me before us all head out the door.
We’re lead to the “arena”—and I use the word arena very loosely because it ain’t really no more than a circle of cleared ground in the middle of camp with a lazily-thrown-together wall of boards surrounding its perimeter. There’s no one here yet besides the town’s important men and women, though there will be. Everyone will be here to watch me kill one of their fellow human beings.
My ma’s here along with my little brother, Apothem, but there’s still somethin’ missing. Someone, rather. I wish Bruno was here, too. Bruno’s my boyfriend, but I ain’t been able to see him lately because of some certain circumstances. He’s in prison, you see. He didn’t do nothin’ wrong, though—all he did was help his family, in an unjustifiable way, though. It’s a long story, but I guess I’ll have to tell it to you later because here they come—my fellow Stone Fists begin to filter into the area in groups until the whole arena is surrounded by everyone. Me and the two guards standing at my sides are in front of the crowd, positioned at the entrance of the arena.
Everything is ready. All that’s left to do is wait for my time to come.
I feel like I’m gonna throw up.
“Ladies and gents—” The announcer, a middle-aged man who’s lived and traveled with the Stone Fists his whole life, Montoine Alventelli, bellows with his announcing voice, silencing the egger, hungry crowd. He stands in the center of the shabby arena. “—Today we got one lucky lady who’s ’bout to cross over from girlhood to womanhood.” Mr. Alventelli looks over at me, his dark eyes smoldering with twisted anticipation. “Her name is Vemira Wickle. Why don’t we all wish her a happy birthday?”
Every Stone Fist hollers a fervent “Happy birthday, Vemira!” Like it’s the cheeriest, most important day of history.
The phrase sounds completely wrong today.
“Miss Wickle…” Montoine strolls over to me and holds out a sharp, vicious looking dagger—the same blade that’s been used for years in this ceremony.
The same dagger that’s stabbed and killed dozens of people.
I take it in my hands.
Montoine continues, “…it’s time for you to prove yerself to the Stone Fists.”
He leads me to the middle of the arena, plants a firm pat on my shoulder, then leaves and joins the rest of his people.
I look all around me at all the people—people old and young and too young; people I’ve known, and in some cases, loved for my whole life. Now these people’s eyes bore into me like a surgeon’s tool to the brain, searching me out to see if I possess what they desire.
In a dark corner of my mind, which I hide very carefully from these people, I hope that I don’t.
But then I see a friendly face, the face of a man I truly love, pushing—no, being pushed—through the crowd. He reaches the front; the edge of the circle, and I see that his hands are bound behind his back. The man guarding him unties his wrists, and now free, he runs towards me and I run to him.
I can’t think. All I can process is that it’s him and he’s here and I love him and I’ve missed him…
Oh, I’ve missed you so much, my Bruno, my darling.
“Vemira!” he splutters, gathering me up into his arms and pressing his parched lips against mine.
“You don’t know how much I’ve missed you,” I mutter between kisses and tears.
He cups my face in his hand, his expression turning sad and grave. “Vem, I—”
Before all of his words can leave his mouth, the earsplitting crack of a gun being fired cuts him off and Montoine yells a phrase that finishes Bruno’s thought anyway. “No contact with the prisoner!”
That’s when I remember why I’m here—and what Bruno, the prisoner, must be here for.
Oh, God no.
Bruno is yanked away from me by one of the guards, then the guard leaves the ring and shuts and locks the gate behind him. Everyone begins to roar and howl for me to…
…for me to kill Bruno.
Bruno never did anything wrong; he didn’t deserve to go to the prison. His family was starving—went for days without barely any food. In a fleet of desperation, Bruno stole some of another family’s food. All he did was help his family and anything that was needed to be done in order for that to happen, and just like that—BOOM!—he’s thrown in jail.
That happened about a month ago, and we weren’t never allowed to see each other since then. This is the first time I been able to see him for that long, and, ironically, it’s also gonna be the last.
Bruno kneels down in front of me and lifts his head back, offering up his throat. I hadn’t noticed how frail and run-down looking a month in prison has made him till just now. His once stunning, olive skin has been drained to a sickly, pallid paleness mottled with smudges of dirt and bruises which I hope not to find out where they came from. The sticklike bones under his skin show through like the veins of an elderly person. His dark brown curls of hair have grown much too long and have faded to a lifeless, muddy color. His vibrant hazel eyes have turned grey like the gloomy, forlorn sky above us.
Those eyes look up at me now, filled with sorrow, telling me that it’s all over; that both of us have lost; that I might as well save myself. “Just do it,” he mutters through tears. He pushes his neck out towards me. “Please, don’t make this harder than it already is.”
I clench my teeth and my fists, feeling the knife in my hand—an awful reminder of what I’m sposed to do. I have to make a decision. It’s either my freedom or his freedom; my life or his. I guess it’s the best thing to go through with it, whereas if I don’t, I’ll probably be killed and eventually Bruno will be killed too, almost definitely. I lift the knife in my hand and look at it, its ferocious, serrated teeth looking back up at me like a hungry dog beggin’ and pantin’ for food. It would slip right through Bruno’s throat and it would end right then in that second, the least amount of pain for Bruno.
But I still can’t do it. I can’t do it because of that little voice in my head screamin’ and naggin’ at me that this is all wrong, that I just need to face my fear of voicing my opinion and open my mouth for once, no matter the consequences.
“I can’t,” I whisper to Bruno. I start talking more loudly and turn around, looking at all my spectators. “I can’t do this. This is wrong.” I make my gaze look fiercer. “This is twisted and malicious! Ain’t we learning to protect ourselves because of the violence in the world? Then why are we promoting murder?”
All of a sudden I don’t feel nervous anymore. Up until this day I never woulda dreamed of telling anyone how I felt about all this, let alone the entire camp. But that’s because up till this day, I think I’ve been living behind a big glass window, just watchin’ all this war and violence roll on around me and preparing for a future in it, but till now; till I’ve had to face the killing of my lover, by me, I was never actually part of the bloodshed. It was always just beyond the glass window, seemingly unreal.
Now that glass has shattered, and I’ve been stained with a dose of bitter reality.
“You know what I think? I think you all crave this violence.” I rotate around the circle, boring into everyone’s gaze. “Well I crave peace. The only protection we need is from ourselves.” Then something slips out of me that I never intended to say, along with tears. “My father was a victim of you. He was a kind, gentle man who’s made a few mistakes in his life, but haven’t we all? That don’t make him a bad man, a man that deserves to die, does it? Because if it does, God help us all.”
I look into a few of the Stone Fist’s eyes, eyes that are beginning to reflect reconsidering thoughts.
Am I getting through to them?
Montoine raises his rifle at me. “You best shut yer nonsense rambling trap, girl,” he sneers.
“Oh, so now yer gonna kill me for being the only one brave enough to try and put a stop to this?”
“Shut up! Now!”
“Yer a MONSTER!”
Montoine clenches the trigger—
The last thing I hear is the bang of a gunshot and the last thing I feel is a pang of victory.