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Speculative Suspense

As always, we gather for the circle, but something is different. There is tension in the air. It tugs at us.

Our faces, the parts not hidden by craggy shadows, reflect our fear, our anxiety, our relentless hope. We cannot stop hoping.

Children still whisper and giggle among themselves, and the hidden rats still chitter and gnash their teeth, but it seems quieter, somehow. I imagine the rats are hoping too.

The Leader steps into the center of the circle, emerging from the darkness as she always does. I wonder, as I bow my head respectfully, if she feels lonely, standing while the rest of us kneel, in the center of the candles. I wonder if she welcomes the power she is given, or if she bears it as one would a heavy boulder, with regret and resignation.

We remain silent, waiting for the signal; the Leader makes us wait before tipping her head back to face the heavens, and we take a deep breath as one, preparing.

We intone, our voices mixing in harmony and in pitch, forming into one great, seamless noise. I notice I am not the only one, this time, whose eyes flicker restlessly around the circle as we speak in low, reverent voices.

"Mother Eternal, Leader of Few, grant us your praise."

Silence.

"Mother Eternal, Leader of Few, grant us your praise."

Nothing.

"Mother Eternal, Leader of Few, grant us your praise."

A bit of fear colors our collective voice as we repeat it again.

"Mother Eternal, Leader of Few, grant us your praise."

As our voices fade away, hers rings out at last, a clarion call. "The praise is granted. You may sit back."

Obediently we rock back onto our heels and sit, waiting for her to speak. The children stare up at the Leader with round eyes and half-open mouths- the rest of us dutifully keep our eyes on her feet. We do not deserve to look higher.

The Leader begins to pace. It is slow and measured, not a step out of place, a perfect circle.

"I returned from my journey only a little time ago; I brushed off your concerns and your questions. I wish to address those now. I wish to tell you about the things I experienced."

I knit my fingers together and tug- the tips turn white at the pressure.

"In my absence, the Mother Eternal took care of you, as she did me. For three days, I was protected from the hungry beasts and the treacherous falls. There is nothing I do not owe her."

"Nothing we do not owe the Mother Eternal." Our reverent whisper echoes around the silent bunker- the candles sway with the breath of our collective voice.

"There is nowhere I did not go. I explored countrysides, and mountains, and fields, and rolling hills. I did not see another soul. The Mother Eternal stayed true to her word- we are the last Few, the only ones that have stayed loyal."

A rumble of consternation echoes around our circle. The Leader paces- as she passes each one of us, we fall silent, dropping our gazes to the concrete below us.

"As I explored, he Mother Eternal watched. She spoke to me, as I hiked along lands of all types, and she affirmed my decision. She caressed me, as any mother would her child, and she purged my heart of the doubt riddling it. The healing she granted me only increased the debt we owe her. The debt that can never be expunged. The debt that increases in size every day."

"The debt that can never be expunged," we murmur.

"And as she held me, I came to a realization. The Mother Eternal granted me this epiphany, so I could realize what a flawed Leader I have been, how far off the Good Path we have gone."

"The Good Path? The Good Path?" Our concerned whispers flutter around the circle like blundering moths. The Leader continues on, her pace slower, a bit sadder.

"For a long time, I could not face my own flaws. I strayed far from the Mother Eternal- I was as lost as a wandering sheep, far from their shepherd. In my blindness, and in my ignorance, I led you, the Few, astray.

"In the epiphany the Mother Eternal finally allowed me to see, I fell to my knees; I sobbed as a newborn babe might. I was born again. And I wish for us to be born again- I came back a new Leader, freshly determined to serve the one true Mother Eternal, and to protect her at all costs.

"And so-" Her voice falters for a moment, and she comes to a stop. The candles in the center of our circle flicker more violently, as if they can sense her hesitation.

"And so, the Mother Eternal and I have put this decision into play so that we may continue on to the Good Path, and live in peace and prosperity forevermore."

We wait, with baited breath. A flame around the side of the circle evaporates, leaving only trailing smoke.

The Leader bows her head. The candlelight catches in her eyes, and I wonder if I am imagining the wetness I see in them.

"For years, we have waited in this place for a sign from the Mother Eternal, and it has come. Our punishment is over."

She lifts her chin and stares straight at me, her eyes dark and smoldering. I shiver.

"Our time has been served. It is time to go and serve the Mother Eternal out in the world. It is time to open the doors. It is time to go out. It is time to try living again. The Earth is beautiful, my children, and the Mother Eternal wishes for you to see it."

In the shocked silence, a puff of wind sweeps through the small hole to the outside, extinguishing the candles in one fell swoop.

The bunker goes dark, and in the darkness, I smile. I imagine the rats are smiling too- for the first time I can remember, they are silent.

March 12, 2021 01:51

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3 comments

Topo Yi
22:07 Aug 17, 2021

I like it. The atmosphere that is created, with the dark place, candles and even the mention of the rats, which seem to be treated as partners in the "punishment" , is my cup of tea.

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23:42 Aug 18, 2021

*sip* *sip* *sip*

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01:54 Mar 12, 2021

it's chunky again!! i really can't seem to hit the limit with these. a thousand words exactly... jeez, i haven't struggled this much to submit something since my first story. comments?

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