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Fiction Fantasy Suspense

Only 3 hours of freedom left.

I sighed and squinted into the setting sun. Its warm rays fell over the town stretching out beneath me, blurring the sharp edges of the buildings and illuminating the dusty streets with its soft, ruddy light. It looked almost peaceful in that moment - the constant bustle and clatter of the streets could not be heard from my lonely perch on the mountain. It was easy to forget up here, in the still, clear air, the constant chaos of the town that would overwhelm me as soon as I descended. It was easy to forget the waves of dust rolling through the dirt streets, the sharp, bitter smells of sweat and garlic clinging to the throngs of people, their loud cries, always ringing through the crowded streets…

I closed my eyes. I wished there were some way I could stay here forever, never have to go back down. Descending into those clamorous roads would mean going home, and I did not like to think of what awaited me there. I knew I was being a coward, but I did not want to face what was ahead of me. I had a crucial decision to make, and I could not bring myself to do what I knew was right. 

In three hours, I would come of age and I would be declared the new head of the family. That meant I would have the final say in every critical decision; I would decide how our family would act on every issue. And I would inherit the family trade.

That was perhaps the crux of the entire dilemma that lay before me; quietly tolerating what my family did was hard enough - openly supporting and leading what my family did would be torture. 

My family had become the wealthiest and most influential family in Ithila because of their business, but every penny was poisoned to me. 

My family were slave traders. 

I had always vehemently, passionately hated what my family did. I could never understand how my beloved aunts, uncles, cousins, and parents, could be so loving and kind and joyful when we were together, and yet make their living off something as repulsive as the slave trade. They never seemed to see what I saw; when they looked at the hundreds of men, women and children they sold in the city’s market, they saw only a means of profit. I looked at these people and saw agony. In every face I saw the same lines of pain and suffering that I could never look at without feeling my stomach suddenly twist inside me. I always felt an intense sorrow that this was my family’s doing, and an even greater sense of guilt. I knew it was wrong, and yet I never did anything to stop it.

And in a few hours, I would have to swear to run the trade until my own son came of age. 

I felt a cold trickle of panic run down my spine. Life suddenly seemed to enclose me on all sides, reality was coming too near. I had always thought of this day as being very far off, and now it was suddenly upon me.

I had to make my decision, and although I loathed myself for being so weak, I knew I would give in. I would be declared the head of the family, with all the implied responsibilities, and I would not utter a word of protest. I would smile and give the correct words as if I longed to say them while my heart crumpled up inside me. Time would wear away, and I would spend every minute of it loathing myself, loathing my family, loathing life itself.

As terrible as this vision seemed to me, I could not bring myself to do otherwise. I was weak, always had been, and I would remain so. 

I looked up at the sky again and realized that the sun had almost sunk out of sight. Dusk was creeping up from behind the hills where the sun was slowly descending, and the air was growing cool. I stood, suddenly realizing how stiff I was, and began my descent. I normally loved to travel the long, lonely road winding over the red rocks of the mountain, but now I could find no pleasure in it. My mind was filled with what was ahead of me.

All too soon, I reached the city gates and passed into the town. The general bustle of the day had died down somewhat, but there were still some scattered merchants, the last of their wares spread out in a skimpy display. Something about the town at night always disgusted me; it wore such a weary, artificial air then. The people who had begun the day full of hope for what could happen now seemed almost discouraged. The merchants who still remained on the streets no longer called out with the same forcefulness, their voices rough and hoarse. I never liked to walk the streets at that time and witness the weariness that fell over the town then; it was sometimes too depressing to watch.

I increased my pace and turned the corner. Only a couple streets more...As much as I dreaded the thought of arriving home, I also didn’t want to stay outside any longer. 

As the tall facade of my house came into view, my mind once again began to think of what I should do. I was so absorbed in my thoughts that I never noticed the slave-girl in front of me until I had painfully collided with her basket and knocked it to the ground.

I looked up, startled, and saw a young girl, perhaps about my age, on her hands and knees, trying to collect the fruit that had fallen out of her basket. Her face was twisted into a tense expression I recognized all too well. She was bracing herself for the stream of insults and blows that she no doubt expected from a noble. 

Guilt wrenched through me. Was that what I really symbolized to her? Some monster who didn’t care at all that it was his fault that he had knocked her over, but would take out her annoyance on her? And if this was already how she viewed me, what would she think of me after tonight?

She glanced up at me furtively, catching my gaze for only a moment before dropping her eyes again. But in that one moment, I saw all the fear, the apprehension, the pain that I had put there. 

I knew then that I could not let myself be the cause of suffering like this every day. I could not live with myself knowing that I was the one who tore apart families, separated parents and children; I could not be the one who relegated so many people to a life of misery and hardship and despair. 

I bent down quickly to hide the tears I could feel pricking at the backs of my eyes and picked up one of the fruits. I straightened up and handed it to her.

“Here. And, um, I’m sorry - about knocking into you.”

She stared at me in shock, her fingers frozen on the piece of fruit. Then she smiled, a sudden wave of light dawning over her weary face.

“Thank you,” she whispered, and I heard how much emotion was compressed into those two words.

She bent down again to finish picking up the fruit, and I bent down as well. I knew the sky was almost dark by now, and that I would probably be late, but I didn’t care. In a few moments, all the fruit had been gathered up and mostly dusted off. She heaved her basket to her shoulder and with another quick smile at me, started walking off down the street. 

A sudden impulse took hold of me; I couldn’t let her go like that, not knowing anything about her.

“Wait!”

She turned around and stood respectfully.

“What’s your name?”

She looked at me, her face flushing a little. “Slave-girl.”

I stared back at her, aghast. I knew slavery was dehumanizing, but even to the point where they lost their names? 

“No, I meant your real name.”

Wonder and joy battled in her face for a moment before giving into a smile. 

“Helene.”

I nodded, feeling my own features crack into an answering grin. It seemed not everything I did was evil. She was about to leave, but again I stopped her.

“Whom do you work for?”

For an answer, she pointed up the street at a tall house. My house.

A thousand thoughts sprang into my mind at once. We owned this girl? We forced her to work for us? We directly caused the fear and distress that this girl lived through every day? Did we beat her? Starve her? 

I turned to her again, a foul taste in my mouth, but she was already gone, walking off towards the rear of the house. 

I watched her go, feeling the old struggle renew itself inside me. I could not give in, yet if I didn’t - 

I bent my head and trudged off towards the house.

****

The ceremony passed by in a blur. I went through the memorized words and motions without really being aware of what I was doing. I had a confused impression of the thick, sharp scent of incense, of my relatives chanting the customary words, their voices rich and full and certain, of the wavering candlelight that cast a surreal mood over the entire gathering…

I was aware only of the question that was beating itself into my head. Words poured around me like water, but I heard only my own thoughts. I was staring off into an abyss, reaching down and down and down into darkness, I could see no way out…

Sweat was pouring down my back by now, my fingers felt stiff and clammy, the room suddenly seemed to close in around me. I could not go on like this, I could not live in the suspense anymore. A silent scream was welling up inside my throat, choked down by the knowledge I could not let go in front of my relatives. They chanted on, blissfully unaware of the struggle building inside me. They did not know what I was thinking, did not know the agony-

Sharp bursts of thought, each one more painful than the last, fired across my brain. Images of tiny children torn from their mothers, an old slave-man beaten to death on the streets, Helene’s terrified face-

My uncle nudged me and I realized that for a moment I had completely lost track of where we were in the ceremony. I stumbled to my feet and looked across the room to where my father was standing with an ornately carved staff. I recognized it instantly; I had seen my father wielding it almost every day of his life to show his prestige and authority. 

It was a symbol born by the head of the family.

Time seemed to stretch out as I walked across the room to my father. On either side of me, I vaguely saw the beaming faces of my relatives, their hands clasped in excitement, all expectant of what was to come.

I stopped before my father and looked into his smiling face. He was so pleased, so immensely proud that he had such a son to pass on his power on to. How could I disappoint him and my entire family? Imagine the shame, the horror they would regard me with. The son who failed, the son who didn’t deserve respect.

They would cast me out on the streets - I would be alone, completely cut off from them forever. I hated the slave trade, but I loved my family. They couldn’t understand what they did was wrong, but they loved me passionately; I felt it in every glance, every gesture. I couldn’t let myself be estranged from them.

I came back to the present with a jolt. My father had run through most of the customary words and was on the climax of the entire ceremony: the words that would declare me the head of the family. Like our traditional weddings, the son was always asked if he agreed to take on this role, so theoretically he could refuse. But like a bride refusing her husband at the altar, this refusal meant shame and degradation for both the bride and her family. I could not refuse. 

My father was looking into my eyes now, asking the customary question: Did I agree to take on the role of head of the family? 

The world was silent, waiting for my answer. I was about to choke down all my revulsion, smile and say ‘yes’. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Everyone was waiting patiently, a little confused at the hesitation, but confident nonetheless. They were certain what my response would be.

I closed my eyes. I had to make my decision, had to make it now. Time was slipping past, each moment was making it harder and harder to commit to an answer-

And yet my mind was completely blank. I could not think, I was slogging through a thick fog of confusion, my mind was frozen-

And out of the fog appeared Helene’s face.

She did not know the decision I was making now, but it would affect her and thousands of others. I could choose to continue the reign of pain and fear my family had chosen, or I could refuse.

I opened my eyes, my head suddenly clear. I knew what I had to do.

I refused. 

November 27, 2020 16:07

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10 comments

16:08 Dec 04, 2020

I’m hooked on this and I can’t wait to read the next part. Great job, it read smooth and I don’t feel like I was caught up anywhere. Nothing slowed me down which makes it a good read. I’m not as much an editor as i am into story and content. Well done! Robert

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Grace Larson
16:39 Dec 04, 2020

Thank you!!

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Phil Manders
22:59 Dec 02, 2020

Hi Grace Great story. Really painted a clear picture for me. I felt like this was a bigger story so it’s tricky to make it a short story if that makes sense. Good work

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Grace Larson
17:45 Dec 03, 2020

Yas, I get what you mean! I ended it kinda abruptly, but that was on purpose. I have the aftermath of his decision in "Scales", which is part 2 of the story if you're interested:)

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Vonnie Kennedy
22:03 Dec 02, 2020

Great story! Your descriptions of the city put me right into the scene. Watch your adjectives; for example "time stretched out" instead of time 'seemed' to stretch will make the sentence stronger. If you're submitting Part II next week, you may want to leave the ending, "I refused" until next week. It will give the readers something to wonder about. Good job!

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Grace Larson
22:42 Dec 02, 2020

Thank you for the comments!! The point about the adjectives is super helpful and I will definitely go back and fix that! I agree that the last sentence would have been better to include in part 2. I was trying to follow the prompt, but honestly it probs didn't matter too much:) Thanks for noticing that!

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Soumya Garg
13:56 Dec 17, 2020

The narration was smooth, so beautifully described. My favourite part is the one where he (the son) has to make a decision whether he wants to continue the business or not, it is beautifully described and the example of the bride is too apt. Loved this work. I am excited to read the next part and was thinking all through the time that that he would accept his position and stop the slave business. Once again, this was so good, and well written. No any particular edits, since everything is just perfect according to my opinion but to be way mor...

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Grace Larson
18:17 Dec 17, 2020

Thank you so much for the kind comments!! Totally brightened my day:) And yeah, I agree about the word choice there! Will definitely go back and fix that when I have a moment:)

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John Del Rio
21:13 Dec 13, 2020

Well written and engaging are the thoughts that come to me first after reading your story. I will keep reading your stories and no doubt enjoying them as I do. I have to read the next installment because I want to know what happens. If he isn’t going to run the family’s business, then what?

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Grace Larson
19:55 Nov 27, 2020

Hey y'all! If you're wondering about the kinda unfinished ending, that's because I'm currently working on a part 2 that will be submitted sometime next week:) Happy reading!

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