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2nd Prize Winner - Group II - Secret of The Basement

March, 2015
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Secret of The Basement

“Ruby!” I hiss, peering at the dark expanse of the woods in front of me. Where could she be? I think of the consequences of her absence, wincing as my heart pounds frantically.

“I’m here, James! Be quiet!” Ruby’s clear voice cuts through the thick silence. The faint sound of rustling leaves reaches my ears as Ruby steps into the clearing. Seeing her familiar silhouette, I release the breath I didn’t know I was holding in.

“Did you bring the book?” 

The danger of being found melts away. She hasn’t changed a bit, I chuckle. Her black curls dance in the wind, and her eyes widen.

“Did you?” she questions, sidling up to me.

“Happy to see you, too,” I tease.

I relent to her promptings, rummaging through my backpack to deliver my fraying book to Ruby. She clutches the book in her pale fingers as her jaw lies slack. Her gray eyes are so bright they’re almost white. Her entire body seems to hum with an unseen energy that lifts her off her toes. I watch her with a small smile playing at my lips. She’s lost in her own world now; her eyes never stray from the crinkling pages of the book.

In our world, boys and girls aren’t supposed to interact. There are severe punishments for even exchanging a few words with the opposite gender. If anyone finds Ruby and me during our time together, we will be publicly humiliated and likely killed. I know our parents will do nothing to help us. They will only fix us with condescending, passive gazes as the government tortures us. Worst of all, I know they will be amused.

Ruby seems to be thinking about it. She wrings her hand and stares off into space, her lips pressed together. I lead her towards the path we forged to get to the creek. We are close. The sound of the creek’s gurgling waters, and the lingering scent of pines wash over me like a warm embrace. Ruby sighs, her forehead free of creases, and she settles down on her favorite rock. 

Ruby loves the books that I bring her. The Monitors forbids girls to read, but there are still a few girls who hold out hope. I’ve been bringing Ruby books for months, sometimes even several at once. That alone can get us killed. It is always the smile on her face and the twinkle in her eye that makes the risk worth it.

A lazy smile stretches across my face as a warm fog surrounds me. I close my eyes and let my mind wander. The day Ruby and I first met comes to my mind almost immediately, as if someone had sent it to me.

That day, I had been finishing some chores for Mom. Snowflakes drifted slowly to the ground outside. Dad was chop, chop, chopping away at logs for our stove. The sharp crack of separating logs resounded through the house. I brushed a cowlick of black hair out of my eyes, sweeping dust away from the corner. Then, I heard it.

Thud.

Thud.

Thud.

I had been hearing it for weeks by then. Every day at exactly 3:45 P.M., it starts.

At first, I didn’t think much of it. I assumed it was probably just the junk in the basement. However, as each week with the sounds went by, I grew suspicious. It sounded like a person down there. Starting from 3:45 in the afternoon and lasting till 5, there was the sound of crinkling pages.

Still, I never bothered to check. We kept lots of books in the basement. It’s probably just the wind rustling the pages, I had thought.

That day, I decided I was going to find out what exactly was making those mysterious noises in the basement. I thought that it would simply be some sparrows that decided our basement would be a cozy home or a community of rats that discovered the sandwich I had left there three years ago.

I’m about to find out. I crept up the stairs, doing my very best to stay quiet. Each rustle of paper was spaced evenly apart, as if there was someone reading the books. Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure that it was the wind, sparrows, or a community of rats causing those noises.

After an agonizing five minutes of crouching on the fourth step, I reached the basement door. The brass handle lay, still, on the wooden door, as if daring me to reach out. Tentatively, I laid a hand on the cold metal. I pushed the door open so that a silver of light shone through the crack. The rustling stopped. My eyes narrowed at the absence of sound and I swung the rest of the door open.

There, sitting on the bed I had outgrown, was a girl. She looked my age, with the brightest gray eyes I had ever seen and a book splayed across her lap. Her mouth flopped open at the sight of me. I brushed the dust off my arms and stared down at my feet. I still remember that I was wearing blue sneakers that day with black laces the color of my eyes. But my head snapped up as soon as the gruesome realization dawned upon me.

“What? How? You’re a… girl! You’re not supposed to read! Do you have any idea how much trouble you’re in if somebody finds you here? We’re not even supposed to be talking right now!” I had blustered.

“Yeah, I know! Please don’t tell anyone I’m here. I swear, I won’t come back here. I just… I’m sorry! I love the books here,” she gestured at all the books lying on the ground beside her.

I should’ve been furious. Scared out of my wits. Most of all, I should’ve kicked her out as soon as possible.

But I sat down next to her.

“You love books?” I raised my eyebrows.

“Well… I - I do. I just… lose myself when I’m reading them. It’s like I can enter the world written in these books and forget my worries.”

I look into her eyes. And I did what our society deems the worse act possible. Yet, to me, it felt like the right thing. “I…love books, too. Dad hates it when I read. To him, a man must chop wood and hunt all day. That’s why he leaves them up here. Out of sight, out of mind.”

“You…love books?” 

I gazed at the fluttering pages of the book in her lap. Then, I looked up and smiled at her.

“Yes, I do.”

The memory of our first meeting slowly fades away as I open my eyes to reality. I glance over at Ruby, expecting to see her fawning over her new book.

My mouth drops open.

The book lies on the ground next to her, forgotten. Silent tears stream down her face.

I stare, paralyzed, as she continues to sob. Her gray eyes had once shone with energy unknown to my naive mind. Now, her eyes are darkened to the color of molten steel. Who is this girl? I wonder.

“Ruby? Are you alright?”

She straightens, managing a smile. After five minutes of stony silence, her veneer of bravado breaks.

 “I’m - I’m… No, I’m not alright. I can’t live like this anymore! I want to go to school! I want to talk with you in public and I –”

BAM! 

Her words are cut off as a piercing beam of light hits the stream, and its placid familiarity transforms into a raging tiger. The light shifts onto my face, blinding me. The Monitors are here. 

The Monitors are the governors of our School. They guard the schools, reinforce the laws, and keep a strict tab on everyone.

“What are you two doing here?” the head policeman bellows with his face twisted into a cold sneer. 

Ruby stands defiantly as her hair whips around her. I catch her eyes, watching in dismay as they turn stormy gray. Don’t do it. Just give in. But she’s made her decision, one I know I can’t change. 

“Reading,” she states, arching an eyebrow rebelliously. One word, two syllables, yet it holds such importance, such finality. An audible gasp fills the clearing as the policemen catch each other’s eyes, momentarily unsure how to react to Ruby’s boldness. 

“Young lady, you know you will be shamed and even killed for this,” a young officer warns. His features are not hardened like the others and his eyes betray genuine concern.

“Repent.”

His words are punctuated by a stern nod.

“Professor Bruce, say no more, we shall see to the Headmaster for this. If you have any objections, you may report to me,” the head policeman snaps, his gaze burning into the young teacher. Professor Bruce opens his mouth as if to speak, but then bows his head and steps back, avoiding eye contact.

My heart falls along with each thud of his footsteps as he walks away.

The head monitor pivots to face us, clearly satisfied. He nods once, deliberately. A teenage boy slinks out from the shadows; a ring of cuts adorning his face. He raises a gun. 

I can hear Ruby’s sharp intake of breath from beside me.

I glance over at her, tears brimming at the side of my eyes. Despite our fate, she radiates with a confident, pure light. Beautiful.

All at once, everything slows. The boy’s fingers are poised over the trigger. He presses down. I know that in some subconscious part of me, I had already made up my mind. The bullet cuts through the air. It won’t touch Ruby. I know, because I leap through the air, throwing Ruby to the side.

You’re my best friend. I gaze at her. Oh, what I would give to say that to her…one last time. 

 

By Claire Quan

Shanghai American School

 

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