What Freedom Means

1
First sentence submitted by Priya Velayudhan of Kochi, India.

And I stood there—on the narrow stretch between fear and hope—and that’s when I realized… I had better be strong. We knew some of us might die. We agreed to that risk. The previous night we sat in complete darkness, and I scanned across where I imagined their faces to be.

“The time to decline is now,” I said. “I understand if any of you don’t want to do this. We will all understand. But you need to decide now, and you need to keep your word.”

Not one of the eleven spoke. Not a single noise emerged. In the airless, lightless, concrete surround of our sleeping quarters—sulfurous fumes bleeding from chalky streaks of chemicals on the walls, twelve people crunched together on four dilapidated mattresses, exhausted from malnourishment and forced labor, haunted by whatever new trauma the guards had inflicted upon us—constant discomfort ate at us like scavengers at the dead, and in the throes of such anguish we were always stirring, always shifting, always coughing or itching or twisting ourselves about atop the groaning mattress springs, anything to occupy the restlessness of the souls encapsulated in our tormented bodies; so when I offered amnesty from our insane plan and was answered with such infinite silence, it sounded louder than if we had all screamed in unison and still echoes through my bones to this day.

I wasn’t sure what we were manufacturing. And I wasn’t sure how long we had been there. We kept tallies on the wall of our chamber. At the beginning of every day we scratched a spotty, white line with a steel bracket, but after six tallies we realized they were working us longer than full days, and they weren’t giving us full nights of sleep. There were no clocks or windows. There were only the parts that chugged down the conveyor belt – odd shapes of aluminum, glass lenses, and circuit boards sprouting legs of wires.

Farther up the line my fifteen-year-old daughter, Amelia, soldered the wires. It should have been a blessing to see her every day, but the guards didn’t allow us to speak or even look too long. They constantly watched us and prodded us, aroused by the unique brand of psychological torture they could inflict into the combination of a mother and child. They did the same to the Lovelace brothers until a guard impaled one of them against the wall with a forklift, his bones snapping like tree branches.

The surviving brother, Patrick, refused to work after that in hopes that the guards would kill him too, but they weren’t civil enough for that. They tied him to the same prongs that had harpooned his brother, still glistening with blood and chunky with guts, and they raised him above the manufacturing line where the rest of us stood. We had no choice but to watch him decay.

I tried to focus on other things like the fires in my hands that stoked with every compression of the aluminum components, the droning hum of the conveyor motor, and the waxy, metallic odor drifting from the fresh solder.

But Patrick was always still there, his jaundiced, bruised skin stretched tight to his bones. Random rattles of the prongs signaled his attempts to work into a different position. His face twisted in terrible ways as he struggled to escape the bed sores eating their way into his skin. We heard the occasional patter of urine as it soaked through his pants and rained into the mustard yellow puddle on the floor. The guards kept him well-hydrated, more so than the rest of us. They forced water down his throat four times a “day” in a coughing, sputtering mess of a struggle. They wanted him to live a while, up there in defeat, a symbol to the rest of us of what would happen if we refused to obey.

I cried myself to sleep every night, unable to choke back the constant guilt of knowing it was my fault Amelia and I were there. We would have been left alone if I weren’t a lesbian. Among Amelia and I were other gays along with foreigners and immigrants. Patrick, too, was a “faggot” as the guards had called him. I couldn’t imagine the torment plaguing him knowing his brother had died because of his own sexual orientation; at least the innocent victim of my circumstance was still alive.

America’s second Civil War started with the congregation of powerful men—oil tycoons, wealthy stock market aficionados, high-ranking officials, our newly-elected president—men with big plans and far bigger wallets behind the doors of a room hazy with smoke from only the most illustrious cigars. The election of 2024 was the last the United States of America will ever see.

These men—who foresaw what would happen to the global economy when the most influential country in the world went to war with itself—placed massive investments through wormholes of offshore accounts, and after that the boots of privately-funded militants suddenly marched the streets. The checks and balances of our three branches of government had no defense for truckloads of money in all the wrong hands at all the wrong times. Corrupted generals had enough influence and access to launch fictitious missions into the biggest cities in the country. And when the seed of a highly stigmatic term—Martial Law—was planted into the media it grew thick vines spiked with thorns that wrapped around the hearts of people with the right to bear arms and too much pride in liberty and freedom to allow such injustice, and so began the war between the people and their government. The line between them, however, was in such a confused scribble no one knew who to protect themselves against, so they protected against everyone.

Survival of the fittest engaged. Millions fled the country while doomsday preppers and extremists descended upon vital resources. Gas stations and fresh water sources turned to battlegrounds until the water swirled with blood and the gas stations burnt with the fiery gushes of explosions.

Flapping and flailing like one of our beloved bald eagles with a broken wing, our country shrieked all the way to the ground.

Amelia and I lay in my bed draped in the light of the moon through the curtains, dehydrated by the continuous leak of fluid from our tear ducts, and we mourned the disappearance of my wife, Penelope. She had left for food and never returned. Amelia and I heard a bang downstairs. Our arms snugged each other tighter. A crackle and crash followed, and the pound of several sets of boots across the floor and up the stairs. My bedroom door flung open hard enough for the knob to punch a hole in the wall which held it there.

There stood Cal, Penelope’s father, a hard-faced man in camo and canvas with sandpaper scruff on his face and a rifle barred across his hands. He had always blamed me for Penelope being gay. Her string of unsuccessful hetero relationships ended with me. I was her first woman, and though we had always hoped I would be her last and she would be mine, this was not how we had intended death to do us part.

“Get up, homo,” Cal said.

Then weeks passed, maybe months, in a constant redefining of what it meant to live in Hell.

And so I stood there—on the narrow stretch between fear and hope—snapping together pieces of aluminum, Patrick on the prongs above us “fags and terrorists” in a cloud of depression, piss vapor, and excrement odor, Cal’s heavy boots knocking against the concrete as he walked toward the assembly line—and that’s when I realized… it was time… and I had better be strong.

The chrome whistle that dangled from Cal’s neck swayed in the valley below his meaty chest and strobed with reflections of the overhead lights. His thick fingers wrapped around it and lifted it to his lips. His cheeks puffed outward, and the rattling shrill of the ball in the chamber and the air screaming through its thin slit drilled into my ears. Those who had not seen him coming jumped and then looked at their weathered shoes, because they knew what came next. But I watched him, partly because if I didn’t they would make me, but also so hate and adrenaline could continue to build within me as I wound tight enough to do what I needed to do.

The guards pressed some buttons. The conveyor halted. Amelia dropped to her knees. She used to resist, but after a few times she realized if she didn’t submit they would violently force her. Cal unzipped his pants and pulled out his member. She took him in.

He watched me while she did it.

He said, “You’re not gonna be a fag like your momma. You like this too much. I can tell.”

I wanted to beg to Amelia, “I’m sorry for putting you here. Be strong. We’re going to save you.”

Since Amelia and I were kept isolated from each other she was unaware of our plot. To her, as Cal clutched her matted hair and began his raucous, exaggerated finish, and as he slammed himself into her and held, and as she hacked and gagged against him, to her it was just another day.

Amelia fell back and lurched several more times. In the past when she had spit out his discharge he had beaten her nearly to death, so as he stared down at her with wide, expectant, anticipatory eyes, she forced herself to swallow. He chuckled, tucked himself away, zipped his fly, shivered into a taller stance, and walked my direction with heightened smugness.

Some of the others still wept in these moments, but I had grown too stubborn to show him my anguish. I peered through the top of my narrowed eyes, and the muscles in my jaw bulged against my skin with every compression of my top teeth against the bottom ones. I wanted him to see the hate. I wanted my loathe to be so potent he could taste it as sure as I could taste the constant odor of my unbrushed mouth crawling up the back of my nose.

The soles of his boots clapped louder, louder, then stopped. He stood before me and shoved his pupils like knives into mine. Mine pushed back. His irises a cobalt blur in my peripheral.

“It’s still in there,” Cal said.

I stabbed deeper into those soulless cavities. Four guards plus Cal, normal positions, I thought. Twenty feet. Yellow door. Go.

“That fire in your spirit,” Cal said. “I still see it in there.”

You have to go! He’s right where I need him to be.

“I figured you’d learn to accept this by now,” Cal said. “Your pretty little Amelia has. She goes right to her knees like a good girl.”

I’ll rip your fucking throat out, I thought. Mahavir, you promised you could do this! You gave us your word!

“Why so upset, Angela?” Cal asked. “Fair is fair. You spoiled my daughter, now—”

“Runner!” a guard yelled, and I heard behind me the swish of track pants and the bare feet of a skinny Hindu slapping across the floor.

Cal looked past me to see Mahavir who sprinted for the power distribution panel which fed electricity to the building. The big lever on the yellow door would kill it all. I curled my bony fingers into a tight fist.

“Shoot him!” Cal yelled and dropped his hand to his gun holster.

I brought my arm forth with the force of violin strings, day after day after day, winding the pegs tighter with every look at Cal, every drop of those boot heels, every ignorant, baseless discrimination, every snap of fucking aluminum; I brought it forth with the force of that tense off-key dissonance, screeching above the highest register, the bow dragging across impossibly taut strings, notes sharp enough to slit the throat of any oppressor; I brought it forth with that sound tearing through my heart and down the arteries of my arm and into my fist, and I used it to pound his testicles up into his stomach.

Coughs crashed out of Cal’s mouth as he doubled forward. I grabbed the back of his head. With a blast, a bang, rumbling, and heat we dropped into darkness. Mahavir had reached the switch and flipped everything to a singular, endless shadow. I felt Cal’s nose cartilage smashing into my knee again and again, heard a lot of noise around me, eleven others shuffling into action, one dark, orchestrated charge, and the intense ache of my joints, my refusal to accept the pain, again, again, my knee against his skull, again, again until the emergency lights thrust forth beams.

I stumbled backward. Cal fell sideways. Long shadows of machinery laid their bones across the floor. And then the flashes, like lightning – swift and bright and followed by the thunder of impacting bullets, sparking, banging. Screams. Battle-cries. We didn’t think about the emergency lights. My God we didn’t think about the emergency lights.

A man screamed, “The girl dies!” and slammed the frenzy to an instant stop.

I climbed to my feet and looked across the dim battlefield. I saw in the feeble bodies around me the same stirring they’d had for weeks, but now Death was no longer whispering to them. He was speaking. He was coaxing them forward to lay under his scythe.

“The girl dies if this shit doesn’t stop,” the man said.

My eyes found my way to him. He stepped forward, as did Amelia with her throat compressed under his forearm and her head straining away from the muzzle of his gun.

“Okay,” I said. “Look.” I gestured to the aftermath. “It’s over.”

The man was Trevor, Cal’s comrade and second-in-command. I met him years prior. Penelope and I stood holding hands on Cal’s lawn while Cal and Trevor sat on the porch and forbade us to enter the house. They drank dark liquor, smoked dark cigars, and dug into us with their dark, dark eyes.

“Trevor, please,” I said.

Trevor nudged Amelia’s head with the gun and continued to force her forward with every stride of his own, nearing me now. He stepped around a guard with eyelids stuck wide and blood draining from his ear.

“You bitch,” Cal gurgled from the floor. He snatched my ankle and ripped it out from under me. My body slammed against the concrete and sent pain jolting from my side to the inner tips of my ribs.

Amelia whimpered. She and Trevor stood above us as Cal began crawling onto me. Everywhere around us agony and regret drained from gasping mouths through slowing breaths – the regret of lives not fully lived.

“Cal,” Trevor said. “You need to know how sad I am that I have to do this, but what saddens me the most is knowing you’ll never feel sorry for what you’ve done.”

Trevor lowered his gun from Amelia’s temple, followed by ringing in my ears and a long flash of white.

When I woke I was propped against a wall. Amelia’s face gazed into mine. I saw her smile for the first time since Penelope had disappeared. On a blanket beside me, Patrick lay on his stomach with his pants cut away. The flesh down his thighs was spotted and eaten and oozing. Seven of my fellow oppressed sat around me in a semi-circle. Near the power distribution panel, its yellow door now twisted, black, and flung halfway across the building, Mahavir’s wife wept into the chest of his burnt, lifeless body. Farther up the line, the peeled open neck of Cal extended into an outward fan of skull and brain matter across the concrete.

Above me stood Trevor, backlit by the emergency lights so I could barely see his face.

He said, “I’m not going to try to explain or rationalize my thinking, because there will never be an excuse for the way we treated you – the way I treated you. I knew a long time ago this had crossed the line, but I was too much of a coward to stop it.”

Trevor slid his hand into the breast pocket of his jacket and extracted something. I couldn’t see it in his shadow. He handed it to me. I felt the fine threads of ribbon under my fingers, the cold press of metal with the ridges of an engraving.

“There’s food and weapons in the second story offices,” Trevor said. “Stock up and head west toward the water tower. Go until you reach the river and turn left, travel south. Follow it out of the city and down about ten miles and you’ll see a corn farm with three blue grain silos and a bunch of outbuildings.

“There will be guards,” he continued. “When you see them keep your hands high, all of you. Tell them Trevor Krass sent you to speak to David. They’ll search you, strip you of your weapons, possibly detain you, but then they’ll bring out David. When he sees that medal he’ll understand, and he’ll give you what you need.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“I don’t deserve your thanks. You should have never even been here. I’ve been passing judgment onto others my whole life, but judgment is not mine to pass. It’s God’s, and it’s time for me to go face mine.”

Trevor walked away, beyond the reach of the emergency lights which had fallen dim with weakening batteries. The rest of us stared at each other with shock holding us silent. We heard a gunshot and the collapse of Trevor’s body.

I lived in a place long called “the land of the free,” but I never understood what freedom meant. I’m different from society in a single way, a trait I can’t even control, and yet I’ve been harassed and outcasted for it my whole life.

Caged in prejudice, life has rarely felt free, and I’m not the only one. There are many others, including those who sat around me that day among a scattering of humans so sadly wasted, in the fading gloom of the dying lights.

I guess we’re free now. I guess this is what they meant.

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33 thoughts on “What Freedom Means

    1. It most certainly is. I think that very same thing when I finish the story and look back at the sentence, now seemingly written solely for that story, and remind myself that it could have been anything.

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  1. This is absolutely fantastic. I was pulled in right away by the prompt line in bold and then from there it was an easy, yet captivating read. Your writing is so beautifully dark, for this short story at least. Well done.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This was so strong….. You touched so many with this piece of art… I….
    The words held more than some of your other stories… I have read this twice with some time between, both times my first emotion was Moved….. Is that an emotion? This was Intense and Powerful and Strong and Moving…. the strength of a violin…. Wow! So many things you could describe strength with, I found this one….. Incredible… Truly! I’m standing and I’m applauding and the curtain has been closed for five minutes!!!
    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 🙂 Thank you, Dad. Once again the specificity and sincerity of your praise flatters me. I’m glad the violin metaphor hit hard, that particular paragraph was very gratifying to write. Thank you for such a wonderful ovation.

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  3. How do I put it?….this story took the soul out of me, gave it a good hard beating and threw it out. You’ve given a view of hell upclose. And the most frightening part is, we’re not that far from reaching there. The way the world is going, we should be there soon.
    I pray this story doesn’t turn out to be the pages of a history book for children in future. If there are children left, that is.
    Amazing piece of work, Steve! I am struck by how a single sentence made you stretch your imagination and create this fictional (as yet) world. Feels like this sentence cropped up in my head just for this exceptionally written story! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, Priya. Such a meaningful comment from the one who offered such meaningful inspiration. I agree, it does seem like your sentence was born for this story. To be honest, I had a completely different story for this in my head for a week or two, but it just never seemed to piece together quite right. Looking back now I’m very glad it didn’t. And you’re right, there is a sobering hint of reality below this. Hopefully with the right mindset we can help society change its course.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been waiting for a new story from you! This was such a heartbreaking yet powerful story! It’s amazing how you’ve managed to weave an evocative story from that simple first line 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I wish I knew how to explain it. That’s just kind of where my brain takes me. I get excited to be able to tell people how much of an inspiration their sentence was, because it truly does plant the seed. I just water it.

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  5. Powerful writing indeed. I get the single sentence thing. I always think of just the title for my short stories, and work around that, even if it’s just a name. I appreciate the follow of my blog, and wish you success with your writing.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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