“Can I ask you a question?” his little voice echoed through the darkened corridor while they inched their way forward.
“What is it, buddy?” the man asked the boy, more afraid of his inability to answer the boy’s questions than what lay ahead. They stepped softly through the corridor along the tile floor, avoiding the puddles and rot as best they could. After a pause, the boy reached up and grabbed his hand. The man obliged, gripping him tight.
“Why are we doing this?”
It was the exact question he’d feared coming from a young, inquisitive mind. A mind that could see things clearer than anyone else and understood the absurdity. Their sept pushed the idea of transformation above all else. That sacrifice to find the One mattered above all else. Without that One, who could lead them to the bright, promised future? It meant everyone else suffered.
“Because this is how we do things,” he said. “Imagine if you’re the One.”
“I don’t want to be the One,” the boy whined. “Can’t we just go home?”
“Not again, no.” That wasn’t the whole truth, or at least it wasn’t for him. The boy could never go home again, at least not as he understood it. The rite was about sacrifice, and understanding your place in the sept if not deemed the One. Both failure and compliance were the only expectations. Those who didn’t comply were never seen again. He’d done all he could to ensure he prepared the boy for that inevitable failure, and how important it was to listen, but a part of him couldn’t steal everything from his childhood, allowing him to keep some of the wonderment. Now, while they approached the end of the hallway, it was clear how crucial of a mistake that was.
“You mean I can’t ever go home?” he asked, stopping dead in his tracks.
“It all depends on what you find here,” the man said.
“What did you find?” the boy asked.
“I… that doesn’t matter right now. What matters if you find it? I wasn’t the One, but maybe you are.” He knew his words were hollow, remembering back to when his father led him through this hallway and how it felt to be the boy. The only difference was he didn’t dare ask the questions that simmered in his mind or show the fear and uncertainty he felt. Things were different now, or at least the boy was different, which scared the man. Being forced to stare down your own existence, your infantile hopes and dreams destroyed before you was enough to break his spirits as a child. Now he could just hope the boy was stronger than him.
Stronger than all of them.
“I’m afraid,” the boy said. “What if it hurts?”
“It’s different for everyone,” the man said. It was only a half lie, because everyone had unique experiences, although the end result remained the same. “We need to keep walking and get to the room already.”
“Has anyone ever been hurt in the room?”
“I can’t answer that,” he said, losing his patience. “Look, yes? Of course, people have been hurt in the room. It hurt me, but… I don’t know, maybe it’ll be different for you. Who knows?”
The boy broke down crying, tears streaming down his ruddy cheeks in fat streaks. A few fell onto the man’s hand, sending a shiver down his spine. He crouched down, gripping the boy by the shoulders and trying to make eye contact with him, the boy keeping his eyes clenched shut. All of this was wrong. His own father had dragged him through this hall, down to the room, and left him there for his uncertain fate. After that moment, nothing was ever the same again. He never trusted his father again, and whatever innocence or creativity he’d harbored dissipated into a begrudging understanding of the world and its ugliness.
“Buddy, this is how things are. It’s how things have always been and I can’t do anything about it. I can’t protect you forever,” the man fought back tears of his own. “I’m doing the best I can. I… I swear, I fought this, challenged it and I said this wouldn’t be what happened to my boy, but it’s bigger than me. In the face of the sept, I’m nothing. I’m sorry I failed you like this, but now we have to deal with this.”
This didn’t help, the boy only crying harder, unable to understand the depths of the man’s misgivings. He was only five, there was no way he could understand the rituals, or the importance of finding the One was to the sept. For generations they’d searched for the One, understanding that when they found the One everything could be different, and no longer would anyone need to be subjected to the horrors of the trial. The man couldn’t help but feel guilty for not doing more to prevent this, to change the hearts and minds of those in charge that this didn’t need to happen anymore.
“If you don’t do this, we can’t go back,” the man said. “You know that.”
“Why not?” he sniffled through the tears. “I just want to go home.”
“Nobody’s ever done that before,” he said. “You either do the trial, or you leave and never look back.”
“No,” the boy said, stomping his feet. “I won’t.”
“That’s not how this works, you can’t just—”
“Come on,” the boy took his hand again and tugged. “I want to go home.”
“But if we…” The man took a deep breath, his stomach in knots. He stared down at the boy, who was resolute in his decision, wiping his tears away. With a swell of pride, he stared down at the brave boy and smiled. “Okay, buddy. Let’s go home.”
Dave Walsh resides in the high desert in New Mexico, a former combat sports and entertainment writer who focuses on the surreal instead now. Author of the Trystero and Andlios series and member of the SFWA and Codex. Find him at dvewlsh.com and everywhere else as @dvewlsh.
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