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All That It Takes (3rd Prize, Category 3)

April, 2014
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‘One day’ cries the dove, high in the sky

‘One day’ grins the blackbird, a gleam in his eye

One day, they agree, is all that it takes

To blacken a soul, to reveal a snake


I drum my fingers against a grimy tablecloth, calming myself with the easy repetition. The threadbare fabric is cool against my skin as I breathe in and out. As long as I keep breathing, everything will be okay. Someone begins to twist my fingers, contorting my knuckles until I scream out in pain. Then I realize that I was doing the twisting. My anxiety is getting the best of me, and I can barely control myself.  

Shoving my hands under my thighs, I shiver and wonder where Kyle is. My watch blinks, and I see that it’s already 11:42. It’s the middle of autumn but it feels like winter, so I silently curse Kyle for making me wait this long. “Veritas” reads the sign above me, and I remember that this used to be a bistro. It was lovely once upon a time, but the health department shut it down a few years back. It’s not surprising; filth cakes the unfinished floors and cockroaches scale the walls. Nonetheless, the rusty wrought iron chairs and cracked stained glass suggest an air of gentle sophistication, even through the destruction.

Kyle’s still not here, and I’m beginning to worry. What if something’s happened? The polluted sky is beginning to lighten to a grey morning glow, and my lower lip is gnawed into shreds. I run my fingers through my hair and close my eyes, eyelids pushed down by the weight of many sleepless nights. Just as I start to fall into the warm embrace of unconsciousness, the sweet relief of sleep, a tremor jolts through my body. Someone is running towards me, so I instinctively jump behind a nearby counter. Ever since the Keepers took over 34 years ago I’ve learned to keep alert. My parents used to tell Kyle and me stories about Before, when the Keepers didn’t exist and safety was expected.  There were problems, but society wasn’t the tangled mess it is now. The people weren’t broken; they had hope for a better future.

That was when my parents were still optimistic about our situation. Now, fear has whipped them into submission, and it breaks my heart to see the dullness in my mother’s eyes, the solemnity in my father’s words. Their generation has given up; they have accepted that the Keepers are an all-powerful, autocratic force that cannot be stopped. The Keepers said they would help us, solve our problems and restore proper order to our society. Naïve as we were, the rest of us accepted their ‘help’ with gracious arms, and gave them power. Unfortunately, all they did was make everything worse. The Keepers believe in the re-establishment of our society. They want to wipe out the entire community and start again, with their cult as the leaders of us all. The rest of us are used to build their new community, until time deems us useless and we are sent into the far edges of our planet. They have the whole world under their thumb, and they constantly destroy our lives. We live in pigsties, and scramble for bits of food. Countless rebellions have fizzled and died; the Keepers have too much power. There are some of us, like my brother and I, who still don’t accept our fate. Kyle’s nineteen and lives by himself, but we’re meeting tonight so he can take me to the headquarters of the rebellion. He has to sneak out of the cell where he’s being held for ‘disloyalty to the Keeper movement’, but Kyle’s confident that he’ll be able to fool the guards. I’m confident in him too, but my ragged fingernails would beg to differ.

The running I heard intensifies, until I can clearly see a figure sprinting towards me, legs like lightning, eyes like thunder. Kyle comes into view, stark blonde hair at contrast with his abundant black clothing. At least he’s not cold, I think as I tug on my thin cotton dress.  

  “Alima, I’m sorry for being late,” Kyle pants as he approaches my pillar. “Couldn’t get out as planned, had to improvise.”

“I should be mad, but I’m willing to let this one go,” I reply with a teasing smile.

“You should’ve seen me, Alima! I destroyed the guard with my own hands, before he could even throw a punch!” Kyle is growing excited, a sharp gleam in his eyes. He gesticulates and his eagerness is obvious. Kyle’s excitement is contagious and I start to smile too, until I process what he said.

“Kyle,” I say slowly, “You don’t mean that you…that you killed this man, do you?”

My brother’s eyebrows furrow as his ecstasy dissipates. He opens his mouth to speak, but his stuttering silence tells me everything.

“Kyle! How on earth could you do something like this? It’s reckless and unnecessary and a pointless risk and–,” I draw in my breath and start to back away. “You didn’t have to kill him.”

“Alima, I had to. This is what they want to do to our entire population! An entire planet of people, berated and robbed of dignity. They’re insane! Everyone knows it, but no one’s managed to gather enough power to stop them. Alima! Listen to me! I’ve assembled a group of thousands, and they’re all ready to fight. Collateral damage is necessary. I know that you hate the idea of taking a life, but we have to do this for the greater good. Please, please understand.”

So here I am, caught between my brother and my morality. I have no idea what choice I will make, but I know that I’ll regret it either way. I could go back home, and live out the rest of my life passively, retaining my innocence. Or I could go with Kyle and risk losing my moral compass altogether. Unfortunately, I don’t get to make a decision, because a bullet flies past my head and shatters a window behind me.

“Run!” screams Kyle, and we take off down the alley. Gunshots fly past us as we dodge upturned carts and boxes.

“What’s going on?” I shriek as I narrowly duck past some falling metal pipes.

“Someone must have seen me, escape,” replies Kyle. “Come on!” 

I follow him through a series of open windows and doors until we arrive at an underground passage. Kyle knocks seven times and the door opens. We’re greeted by a stout man with light stubble and severe amber eyes. His eyes widen when he sees us, and he turns to the rest of the group with a shout.

“He’s arrived! The leader is here!”

The next few hours are some of the most hectic of my life. I learn that this is the rebellion headquarters, where Kyle is the leader, and that their big attack is happening in just a few hours. Kyle has brought me here to keep me safe, but I’m also expected to go on the mission. They are going to bomb the Keeper governmental center, taking out some weaponry and many officials. This is a risky plan, and has never been attempted before. Many people are going to die.

“It has to be done,” says a tall girl with a pointy nose. She seems quite young, and I wonder if she ever had the chance to make the choice for herself, or if she was born into this.

“There’s no other way,” declares an old man who reminds me of my father. His tissue paper skin seems too delicate for a man intent on murder.

“Collateral damage,” repeats Kyle, his hand on the small of my back. “Try to understand,” he pleads.

I bite my tongue and nod, staring at the ceiling above me. The building is small, but efficient and robust. The perfect hiding place for a rebellion of this sort: a plan to dispose of murderers by becoming murderers. I understand that the Keepers have to be stopped, but why is death always the answer? Kyle and this whole rebellion, they’ve become selfish and they seek revenge. The Keepers want to do horrible things to our people; the Keepers have no humanity; the Keepers are evil in its purest form. I know for a fact that this isn’t true. No matter how twisted, how grotesque, how hidden, no human being in pure evil. We all have morality, and we all deserve another chance. The Keepers, in a way, are just like us. They’re scared for their future, fearful for their children, and they want to ensure the safety of their friends and family. I’m not saying that their methods are in any way justifiable. But what are we, if we murder them all in cold blood? We are worse than the Keepers, worse than anything they have done. It’s just not fair.  

I suddenly realized that I’ve said this all out loud, screamed it to the far corners of the room. Air is pressing down on me, and the walls are closing in. My anxiety is acting up and I start to scratch my arms, filling my fingernails with dead skin and dirt. I have to stop this. This can’t happen. I have to stop this. This can’t happen. I have to stop this. I have to stop this. I have to stop this. My arms are bleeding and my fingers are responsible. Skin hangs off my body like cobwebs, and I look like I should be in an asylum. Maybe I should. I start to stand up, crazed and frantic, but someone grabs me from behind and shoves me down. A blow to the head knocks me unconscious, and the last thing I remember is Kyle’s face, his eyes sad and confused as I lay on the ground screaming at him like a maniac. 

I wake up by myself in the headquarters four hours later. Everyone else has gone out on the mission. They’ll kill anyone in their way. Hundreds will die, and thousands of rebellion members will have lost their morality altogether. I smile softly, because I now know what I have to do. They were right, there is no other way.

I thought that I was the peacemaker, the one with ethical principles. Turns out I’m the raging catalyst, the one who can make things right. I am the only one who can execute the perfect solution. The Keepers will be gone, but the rebels wont have to live their lives knowing that they killed hundreds of people. It’s perfectly fair. I laugh with glee, wondering how I didn’t think of this before. The original plan was to sneak into the governmental center, set up the multiple bombs, then come back here and detonate them via this computer. It’s a seamless plan. But it’s not fair.

The rebels should have set up the bombs by now. I’m sure that right at this moment they are moving through the building. They smile as they think of the people that will die tonight. Yesterday, I would have despised their joy and pleasure in murder. But now, I think I almost understand it. They have been wronged, and they want justice. They want it to be fair.  

I grin sadly as I stand up and walk towards the computers. I’m a different person that I was twenty-four hours ago. I understand now, the necessity to end all this madness. But it has to be fair. So I’m content with my actions as I place one hand on the keyboard and one on a knife.

I whisper, for Kyle, “Collateral damage,” as I detonate the bomb and plunge the dagger into my gut.

‘One day’ cries the dove, high in the sky

‘One day’ grins the blackbird, a gleam in his eye

One day, they agree, is all that it takes

To blacken a soul, to reveal a snake



By Tara,

14 years, Dulwich College Shanghai


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