I pressed my cheek against the cool white brick of the wall, my face burning with the effort of my mad dash. I gulped down air, my humiliation forgotten in my exhaustion. It was an unusually warm spring day, and the sun beat down on my small frame without mercy, causing me to swiftly unbutton my pinafore and cast it aside.
As my breathing slowly returned to normal, I let myself sink down into the soft dirt, lying still on my back. The wall loomed over me, tall and unyielding, glaringly bright in the hot sun. I had never noticed it before; my childhood had primarily been confined to home or the school yard. I ran my hand over the smooth brick, wondering at how it remained refreshingly cool to the touch on such a hot day. I felt the urge to explore it, to climb it, to discover its nooks and crannies. To my young mind, it was mysterious, wonderful.
'Baby? Baby?! Where are you, my darling?' A thin voice floated to me on the light breeze, and I called out in relief. Sister, my only true friend. She could make everything better for me.
'Oh, sweetheart...' She ran to embrace me, clutching me tightly. 'What happened? Why are you here? Why aren't you dressed?'
'I was in school and then the boys pulled faces and then teacher ran away and then I told Rapunzel and then teacher hit me...' I spoke with my mouth pressed into her shoulder, not caring to stop for breath. 'And then I ran here and it was hot and then I took my clothes off.'
'Oh.' Sister pulled away from me, her smile a mix of sadness and faint amusement. 'Get dressed, okay? You're already burning up.' She placed her hands on my back, and I winced, feeling the sharp sting of the sunburn.
It took me a while to notice the bruise on her cheek, so engrossed was I in my own drama. It was large and violent, the deep purple a sharp contrast against her fair skin. Her nose fared no better, having swollen to almost twice its normal size, and sitting crooked. I gasped, reaching out to gently stroke her battered face. 'What happened, Sister...?'
'He hit me.' Her voice was barely a whisper, as though she was scared to speak the words aloud. A visible tremor ran through her body. 'He hit me because of the book.'
I staggered back, her words hitting me like a blow to the stomach. The bruise, the swollen nose, the tears that fell freely down her cheeks: they were my fault. I had hurt my Sister, who had only ever shown love and affection towards me.
I was a bad person.
The full force of this revelation was too much for such a young child to bear, and I sunk against her, screaming in anguish.
'Hush, hush now.' Her gentle caresses and words did little to soothe my cries, and she raised her voice to be heard. 'It was not your fault. I should have told you. Books are not allowed to be read in this society, it's against the Leader's wishes. Books show us the world, and make us dream and yearn for life outside the walls. But he doesn't want that. He wants us to be his willing slaves, and obey his every command because we are scared of going to hell.' I was silent, listening with wide eyes.
'But if everyone knows that, why are they still here?'
‘Not everybody is as smart as you and me. Just promise me that you will never mention the book again, or we could both get in trouble.'
‘I promise.’ I placed my hand over my heart and nodded solemnly, drawing a small laugh from her. She reached down to hoist me into her arms, settling me on her hip and kissing my head. ‘Let’s go home.’
His rasping breath was the only sound that filled the darkened room. Inhale, exhale. Every breath was a chore. His lungs ached, as though a thousand sharp knives were thrust mercilessly into his chest, over and over again. A deep cough shook him to the core, and once again he hacked up bloody phlegm into his handkerchief.
He closed his eyes, fighting back the tidal wave of self pity that threatened to engulf him. He blindly felt for the papers on the desk beside him, and clutched them in his fist. There was no need to read them; he had long since memorized the contents. The death sentence of him and all he had worked for, spelt out in the cold, clinical diagnosis: lung cancer.
Inhale, exhale. He drew a packet of cigarettes from his pocket, and fumbled for his lighter. The flame briefly illuminated the room as he held it to the cigarette, sighing with relief as he drew the acrid smoke deep into his lungs. Sweet relief. Yes, he knew the habit was killing him, but it was too late to quite now. May as well enjoy it while he could.
He leant back, contemplating his fate. He needed a wife, and an heir. He had many followers and right-hand men, but he could trust none to continue his society the way he wanted. But a faithful, loving wife and son, dedicated to preserving his memory…
But, who? Many women would jump at the chance to bear his son, but they were mere floozies. There were a few solid, respectable women, but they were already married. Nothing he couldn’t change though, he thought with a smug smile.
But deep down, he didn’t want any of them. There was only one woman who he wanted by his side, who he wanted to caress and kiss. He had been trying to avoid it, to hide from reality, but it was time to face up to it: he was in love with her. The blonde haired witch, that she-devil. She haunted him, day and night. He needed her, loved her.
And she despised him.