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   I surprised myself. What did they expect I would do? I'd spent decades of following the rules, staying on the narrow track, spouting the party line. I'd done what I was supposed to do, turning in the radicals and insurgents, the ones who questioned our leader growing girth, and the rumors that followed his wayward glances. But now my curiosity began to niggle at me. What was beyond the wall? I had spent so many years teaching children that it was full of monsters that would eat them, or quicksand, or poisonous gasses. I believed it, too, until my beliefs became shredded by my own observations. I had no idea what was beyond the enormous wall that encircled our great nation. I was getting older, finding myself unable, unwilling, to take all that propaganda for granted.

     I had to be careful, of course. If word got out, if someone, my neighbor, my colleague, even suspected, I would be locked away and intentionally forgotten. I lived two lives, one spouting propaganda, the other sawing a hiding place in the floor of my closet.

     From the great window in my corner office, I could see the wall. It was made of smooth stone blocks, and rose ten feet high. I would need a grappling hook, I thought, and sturdy sneakers. A rope was easy, and I might find some metal to fashion into some kind of hook, although I wasn't sure how. I was, however, good with a needle and thread, so I sewed pockets in my uniforms. I gathered my supplies and hid them away.

     As spring arose, I was nearly ready. My tools were roughly made, but they would suffice. I secreted extra clothes and food from the cafeteria, and hid it in my hideaway. From my office window, I studied the cameras and searchlight patterns, and the movement of the troops who patrolled the perimeter. I found several blind spots. Good.

     I avoided the patrols and made for the wall. My grappling hook held. I scrambled up the wall, pulled up my line, and climbed down to the other side. "Halt! Who goes there?" someone barked behind me.

     I raised my hands in surrender. At least, I told myself, I had gotten a glimpse of the world beyond the fence. "Maddie?" I heard. The voice was familiar. I turned.

     "Sarah!" I said, Puzzled. "How did you get here?"

     "I was sentenced to here." She smiled. "I can't believe you did this. Unreal. If there was anyone who wouldn't climb the wall, I thought for sure it would be you."

     I grinned and shrugged. "I got curious."

     Sarah nodded. "I don't blame you. I'm sorry I didn't know to trust you. You went to a whole lot of trouble, for a whole lot of nothing."

     "What do you mean?"

     Sarah said, Do you remember how I used to have my lunch on the roof? It used to bug you so."

     "That's why you were arrested, isn't it?" I asked.

     "Wait. I thought you turned me in?" She shook her head. "Well, I suppose so. I started watching the people over here. From the roof I could see what they did. I even recognized a couple of people, ones you turned in." She snickered. "You were such an easy mark. I could manipulate you so easily. When I understood that arrest meant exile to this place, well, then...." She smiled.

     "The thing is, Maddie, you would have been better off if you'd let yourself get arrested. I don't know what you are carrying in that pack of yours, but it won't be enough. I'd suggest you climb back over that wall and let yourself get captured. You'll be back here by tomorrow, with better boots, better clothes, and enough supplies to keep you going for a good six months."

     "Who's this, Sarah?" A man came up behind her.

     "Maddie. She's the one I used to work for, remember? I was just telling her to get herself caught. I would be better for her."

     "It would," the man agreed. He extended his hand. "I'm Tyler. Come with us. We want to show you something." He led me down a dirt path. We slipped through a wooden gate and entered a grassy knoll. Several large animals ran up and nosed me. "They're cows. They're just curious, nothing more. They won't hurt you."

     I shied away from the enormous tongue one of the cows used to licked me. The others snuffled me, and all of them followed us closely as we crossed the field.

     On the other side, Sarah swung open a gate and waved off the animals as Tyler and I slipped through. Tyler waited until Sarah joined us.

     We followed another path until a great red barn loomed into view. A number of people were engaged in digging in the soil, stirring giant pots, tending fires, and speaking to a circle of children.

     A man came from digging the soil. "I know you," he said. "I'm Michael. Do you remember me?"

     I did remember him. I had turned him in myself. He was my neighbor, once upon a time. He looked happier. The intense fear in his eyes had been replaced with amusement. "Maddie, is it? Interesting to see you here."

     "I am sorry if I hurt you," I told him. I genuinely regretted it.

     He raised a placating hand. "No worries." He grinned. "Are you kidding me? This is the best thing to ever happen to me."

     "Well, okay, then. What is that you are doing?"

     "We're putting in the garden. Right now I'm planting potatoes. Over there those women are sowing seeds for carrots and beans, and that fella over there is cultivating the strawberries."

     "Strawberries?" I asked, incredulous. Strawberries had been forbidden once the Leader's heir came down with an allergy. I hadn't tasted a strawberry since I was a little girl.

     Michael grinned. "You'll find we have a good life here," he said, offering his hand. I shook it, relaxing, as he said, "Welcome, Maddie. It's good that you're joining us."

     Tyler said, "We're going to return her. We hope she can bring in some supplies for us."

     "Oh? Like what?" asked Michael.

     Tyler said to me, "I wonder if you could fake having an infection. That way, they'll give you extra antibiotics.

     Sarah added, "You could also talk you way into getting some vegetable seeds and a winter coat and boots."

     "Good," said Tyler, nodding. "Will you do that for us, Maddie" It would really help."

     "I will," I said, eager to join the group. Already I was relaxing among these people.

     "You know," Michael added, "If you have some sort of infection, pain killers wouldn't go amiss."

     I smiled. "I can do that as well," I volunteered.

     I was assigned a small stall in the barn. I was sorting my supplied when Sarah came up to me. "Are you ready to get caught yet?" she asked, winking.

     "I guess. When do you want me to go back?"

     "How does now sound?" she said, smiling. She led me back through the cow pasture. This time I was not so frightened of the big animals. I let them lick me, and I scratched their heads and backs.

     As we returned to the wall, Sarah said, "Toss the grappling hood up and climb up, will you? And do us a favor, and drop the rope back this way."

     "How will I get down?" I asked, suddenly afraid.

     "Oh, don't worry. They'll find you. Just make it look good, okay? Pretend you got sick and you couldn't make it. They'll get you down. You'll go to trial tomorrow. Sell your story. When you get sentenced, ask them how they expect you to survive without food. Ask for seeds, and medicine, and don't forget the coat. Ask for good boots. Tell them you're always cold, and you don't have anything to work with for your sentence. You'd be surprised just how generous they can be. Okay?"

     I agreed. She took my sneakers and left me with the clothes on my back. I managed to scramble up the rope and dropped it back down to her. Once she had hidden herself, I called out for help. Immediately a troop of soldiers came to me. They brought forth a ladder and helped me down off the top of the wall.

     I spent the night in a jail cell, with a thick woolen blanket for warmth. The food was surprisingly good and generous. In the morning, I was fed real eggs and toast, and given a pair of sandals. I could keep the blanket, they said, and they asked if I was warm enough.

     I was led to an enormous room filled with people of all ages. We all wore cheap sandals and wrapped ourselves in our blankets. Across one wall, a huge desk towered over us. Three judges in black walls and styled wigs sat smiling down upon us. One by one, we were called to speak to them. One by one, each was led away.

      Soon it was my turn. I admit, I was a little nervous. All of my supplies were gone. I was trusting Sarah and Michael and Tyler to help me. I told my made-up a story of an infection, and how pain was maddening me. I begged for help.

     The middle judge nodded and said, "You are hereby sentenced to exile, and may the lord have mercy on your soul."

     "Please, your honors, can you give me a warm coat?" I begged. "Might I have a pair of stout shoes for the winter?" I pleaded, "May I have seeds, that I might grow food, and medicine for my chronic infection? The pain is horrible, your honors. Please, have mercy."

     The judges all conferred. Yes, they would do this for me, they said,  but I would still be exiled. Secretly pleased with myself, I followed the officers to a doorway. I was told to wait, as my supplies were gathered. I was stunned as a huge satchel full of seed packets and pill bottles was strapped to my back. I could keep my blanket, they said. My new boots fit perfectly, I was given extra clothes and socks to help me. And, over my shoulders, a great heavy woolen coat was draped. I almost staggered under the weight of my bounty.

     I sat alone in the back of the transport van, as I was driven down to the massive iron gates. The soldiers helped me down the steps of the van, and adjusted my heavy pack before I was escorted through the gates. Quickly, the soldiers returned inside the wall, and closed and locked the heavy gate with a clang.

     "Oh, well done!" said Sarah, emerging through a stand of trees. She hefted my new pack and fingered my coat. She nodded her approval.

     Tyler came up behind her. "Good job, Maddie!" he exclaimed. He took the heavy pack off of my shoulders slung it upon his own back. "Well, Maddie, I must say, you've done us a blessing. Tonight we'll celebrate this bounty. Well done!"

     "Thank you, Tyler," I said, grinning with pleasure. As we headed down the path I had to pull the coat off of my shoulders. The day was warm and sunny. "I want to help you guys," I said. "I want to have a job."

     "What would you like to do?" asked Sarah.

     "I don't know," I answered, shrugging. "I could help with the digging, I suppose. I would need instruction. I used to be a teacher, but I'm not sure you would want me to be around the kids."

     Tyler glanced back. He nodded. "Maybe the gardens, then," he answered.

"We can always use help with food production. I tell you what," he looked back to me as we entered the cow pasture. "Take the day, wander around, talk to people, and let me know what you think you might do. Okay? You can start your new job tomorrow. How does that sound?"

     That sounded perfectly fine to me. I spent the day sorting my new bounty inside my newly assigned stall. The seeds and medications had been taken away, but I still had my clothes and blanket. After I made my place comfortable, I wandered around, meeting people and shaking hands. So many people were generous with their time and conversation. I apologized to each and every one of them, even those whom I had not turned in. My life had been spent turning in my fellow citizens to the government, I explained, again and again. I thought I was doing the right thing; I thought I was a patriot. All by myself, I removed from our country hundreds of terrorists and radicals, and any anyone else who held my suspicions. I have a 100% exile rate, I told them all. My statistics had paid me handsomely.

     To my surprise, each and every one of the people wanted me to join them, to share a cup of tea or a chat. In fact, they all looked quite happy to see me. I relaxed, and enjoyed my visits with these people. Even the people I could remember, who I had so callously turned into the authorities, ruining their lives, were please to see me. They all said they were surprised to see my exile in this place beyond the wall. I explained my new curiosity. All of the people nodded gravely, made a point of forgiving me, and accepted me into their community. I had quite a good day!

     In the evening, we had all gathered inside the great barn. Sarah explained to me that there were terrible wind storms, outside of the wall. "That's why this barn is so well built," she explained. She said, "There are no wind storms inside the wall. That's why it is so well built. Well, we took a page out of the wall handbook," she said proudly. She pointed out the stout timbers that made up the skeleton of the structure, and the cross members that added extra support. I heard a great rush of wind beat against the walls of the barn, but she said, "See what I mean? This barn has held up for generations. There isn't anything to be afraid of. Come," she said, pulling me towards a great pot bubbling at the center of the barn. Families had gathered around it. Children chased each other in and out of the various stalls. Someone was singing, accompanied by a guitar. "We gather together like this when the wind blows," Sarah explained as we sat down next to each other. "It brings us closer together. It makes us feel safer."

     I felt myself swaying to the music of the guitar. Michael came to me, handing me a bowl of stew from the pot. The food was delicious, rich with gravy and chocked full of vegetables and meat. I ate, had a second bowl, and ate again, until my belly was full, and I was nodding, nearly asleep.

     I awoke in the forest. Both of my wrists were tied to adjoining trees. I was puzzled, but I felt strangely calm. I was alone, stripped of my clothes. I tugged at the bonds at my wrists, but I felt unconcerned. Perhaps I was dreaming, I thought. Perhaps I was safe in my little stall, tucked in my blanket, my belly full to bursting. I rocked to a tune in my head, a vestige of the guitar music I'd heard around the fire. I started to sing, nonsense words, just so mellow and happy.

     A great wind rushed towards me. Hot air singed my eyebrows.

The smell was acrid and rotten, like a piece of spoiled meat. I tugged at the ropes binding my wrists. Aroused, I sobered, and saw before me the giant spiky face of a dragon. "So you're the one," its rasping deep voice blew into my face. It eyed me hungrily with its yellow snake-eyes. "Interesting. Tyler said he had some food for me. Tell me, food, what did you do to deserve to feed me, hmmm?"

     This was all a dream, I told myself. I'd had too much to eat list night. I was tired. I was a newcomer. They wouldn't hurt me, would they? "I...I was forgiven," I protested. "I did what was expected of me. I did what I was trained to do, supposed to do." I said, proudly, "I was a patriot."

     The sun broke over the horizon. The enormous dragon towered over me, its size far bigger than the great barn. It's spiny tail flicked across its back, then curled over enormous, razor-sharp claws. It hissed, and lashed out its forked tongue to taste me. "I was a patriot," I said again, but only to myself.

April 26, 2024 16:26

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1 comment

Kritika -
21:11 May 01, 2024

I loved how this wasn't a generic "what's over the wall" story. It was so exciting and enjoyable. The supporting characters really added to the story and made it fun. The dragon was so unexpected. I was expecting everything to run smoothly for her. And then she got eaten. Really, well done.


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