Wilkes’s head shot up at the mention of his name, and he tried to hide the phone, which was considerably smarter than its owner, in his lap. Mr. Rassmussen held out his hand, palm up, and waggled it impatiently. Wilkes hung his head and handed the phone over to the teacher.
“Ahh, good. We have our priorities straight,” said Mr. Rassmussen, shaking his head as he pocketed the expensive phone. “Anyone else?” He looked around the room. I could tell that he was growing angry and frustrated. Rassmussen had lost a son in the war. I knew this because his son had served and been killed with my own father. There were things worth dying for, but he’d have traded most – maybe all of them – to have Duncan back. I knew my mom felt the same about the father I barely knew.
I raised my hand.
“Yes, Miss Kellerman?”
“Hmm. Yes, the easy answer. Freedom. Did you know that most people won’t kill or die for freedom, Miss Kellerman? Oh, they speak of it as if they would – but in the end, they will submit to almost anything, provided someone gives them shelter from the cold, a filling meal, a bit of water to slake their thirst…” He leaned over my desk. “There’s surprisingly little anyone’s really willing to die for, when it comes right down to it,” he said. Our eyes met. I looked away first and was grateful to be saved by the jarring buzz of an electric “bell.”
That was six months ago.
Before the Saunessans advanced on Trellock, burned down the school, and turned our little neighborhood into a barracks. Rassmussen had been right. People fell all over themselves to house the Saunessan troops, grateful to be allowed to keep a room or two and a little food for themselves. Grateful that the Saunessans hadn’t cut off, or poisoned, the water tower. Grateful when their sons and daughters were merely ogled and ordered about like slaves, not taken to serve in the makeshift brothel the Saurian commander had set up in the old Baptist church to reward the restless, battle-weary soldiers under his command.
Mr. Rassmussen came by the house, once, to see my mother. He brought her a parcel, hastily wrapped in thick brown butcher paper and tied up with twine. “Give it to the girl,” he whispered. “Then send her to the old library on County.” Mother nodded. Neither of them saw me standing there. I assumed “the girl” meant me.
“Liz,” said Mother, walking into my room without knocking. “I need you to deliver something for me to Commander Siiva,” she said, just a tad too loudly. The walls had big ears.
Still addressing the walls, she said, “It’s very important, I’m told. Documents for his eyes, only.” She handed me the parcel and a handful of travel documents that looked official enough. “Careful, child,” she whispered. “Library, old County Road.”
I nodded. The package was marked in big, red, Saunessan characters. I couldn’t read Saunessan; they didn’t believe in educating the conquered. I hoped that it was a strongly-worded “keep out” to everyone between me and the library. I wasn’t sure, but I got the impression that what I was about to do could get me killed. I could think of worse fates, but death still held no particular appeal. As a runner, I was fit for courier duty and hadn’t been conscripted to serve in the “church.” Even the dull-witted Wilkes had landed a coveted spot as one of the Saunessans’ errand boys; his mother had humbled herself at the boots of a Saunessan colonel in exchange for a few special privileges for her son. I supposed they never figured him for much of a threat, anyway. Mother had cut my hair short and ragged, dressed me in old and frumpy clothes, and tried to make me look as unappealing as possible. So far, it had worked. I’d begun to feel as dull and sexless as I looked, though, and a sullen boredom had settled in like a fog on my brain. The worry in my mother’s eyes grew with each passing day; she knew, but was powerless to help.
My mother pressed her palms to my cheeks and pulled me forward to kiss my forehead. “This is no life, Liz. Don’t come back here.” Her words were soft and quiet as a baby’s breath on my skin, but they punched me in the gut like a prizefighter’s fist.
“Shh.” She put a hand over my mouth and shook her head.
The boys that hadn’t been conscripted to the church or employed as errand boys were kept in the county jail. No one was certain of their fate, but hope kept their parents servile. My mother’s eyes told a different story; she had lost hope and was done being servile. There was a smoldering fire in her dark eyes, and I could hear the fierce growl of a mama tiger in her throat. “Don’t come back,” she warned. “No matter what.” I walked by the courthouse complex with my head down, eyes on the pavement. My steps quickened, but it was best not to run or draw attention my way. Old County Road was ten miles away; the library another two. A car would have been nice, but ours had been commandeered and we were not trusted to drive ourselves around town, anyway. I wore my old hiking boots and wool socks beneath a skirt and blouse that would have been fit for a scene from Little House on the Prairie. The package I carried wasn’t heavy, but it seemed to grow in bulk with each mile I traveled. It would soon be dark.
I passed each checkpoint without incident. I had learned to slow my heartbeat so that they could not sense the fear in my pulsing carotid artery. I had learned to feign respectful boredom. The respect was an act; the boredom, mostly, was not. Even as a courier, I was rarely required – or allowed – outside the immediate neighborhood. I was more of an errand girl within the barracks. “What’s in the package?” asked the officer guarding the main road out of town.
“I wouldn’t know, Sir,” I said. “Just following orders, Sir.”
He took the package and squished it, shook it, grunted, and handed it back. “Hurry up then, don’t make Command wait all night,” he said, gruffly.
“Yes, Sir.” I took the package, gave a slight bow, and continued down the road, turning onto Old County.
An hour later, I stood at the door to the abandoned Library. It was unlocked. I let myself in, and turned on the flashlight Mother had tucked into my skirt pocket along with a sandwich. “Hello?” I called out softly. There was no one here. I could have screamed at the top of my lungs – the nearest neighbor was at least three miles away. I sat down on the floor, between depressingly empty shelves that once held hundreds of books, and ate my dinner.
Most of the books had been stolen by the Saunessans, who had used them as firewood. They had no use for our books, our language, our history. I thought of Mr. Rassmussen. The Saunessans had nothing but contempt for education and no use at all for teachers. They had put him to work in the town dump.
“Miss Kellerman.” The voice brought me to my feet like a puppet jerked off the stage.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Mr. Rassmussen?” He nodded and put a hand over my light.
“Not here. They’ll see.” He was right; if anyone patrolled Old County Road, they’d see the unexpected light and find us immediately. Rassmussen took me by the hand and led me to the back staircase. “Down here.” He put my hand on the metal railing and urged caution as he led the way.
I inhaled the familiar, comforting scent of leather, old paper, cardboard, glue, and ink. The dust. The oil from fingertips turning pages. The odor still clung to barren walls, and it smelled of home and reminded me of school. I had loved school, no matter what I might have said just to sound like a normal teen. I missed it all.
Once we were safely ensconced in the darkness, with thick doors shut tight behind us, Kellerman flipped on a powerful flashlight that illuminated the library’s basement. I gasped. The Special Collections room still held shelves of books. Shelves buckling under the weight of precious books. Collections of historical documents, philosophical treatises written two hundred years earlier. I smiled to think of Mr. Rassmussen as their guardian and protector. History’s last stand. “Open the package,” he said, gruffly. I tore open the wrapping. Inside, I found a set of army fatigues with the name Rassmussen sewn on the pocket. “I don’t understand.”
“You said, once, that you thought freedom was worth dying for.”
“Yes, but you said–”
“Do you still believe that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Your mother does,” said Rassmussen with a hint of impatience and irritation. “She’s risking her life for your freedom.”
“I didn’t ask her to!” I cried. “We were surviving–we were together–I didn’t ask for that!” I felt tears slide down my nose.
“So you admit that you were wrong, about freedom being worth dying for?”
“Yes–no–I don’t know! Why are you doing this?” Such an outburst. Mr. Rassmussen would never have stood for it in class. But he just lifted a finger and brushed my tears away like a kindly grandfather might.
“Put that on.” Rassmussen turned his back to give me a little privacy, and I did as I was told. Confused as I was, angry as I was, terrified as I was, I still trusted Mr. Rassmussen – and my mother. This is what they wanted. Oddly, I had never really asked myself what it was that I wanted. But I sure as hell couldn’t go back, now. I put on his son’s uniform.
“Freedom isn’t worth dying for,” my teacher explained. I wanted to argue with him, but I’d seen, first-hand, how true that was for all of us. All of us, except maybe my Mom. I wondered if she would survive the night, let alone remain free, when the soldiers realized I was gone.
Mr. Rassmussen handed me a pack containing a hunting knife, some boxed MREs, and a water filtration system. A tired, straggling few of my classmates emerged from behind the stacks where the special collections were held. Wilkes was not among them. All were dressed as soldiers; all had packs and supplies. It hit me, then. It wasn’t the books – we were Mr. Rassmussen’s “special collection.”
“Nothing is worth dying for, Liz,” he said, rage and weariness in his voice. “Not even these…” Rassmussen stroked a leather-bound volume he’d laid on the table to read for the fourth or fifth time. “What would be the point? But we aren’t meant to live life in a cage, serving our captors. LIFE is certainly worth living and – when the time comes, as it always does, dying for.”
Story #6 for the September 2015 Story a Day Challenge. This one’s got a few elements from the prompt at Sept 6 — Abandoned, but then again – some things here are anything but “abandoned.”
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