I’ve grown up knowing that one day, before my eighteenth year, I would be chosen to sit in as a Decider for the execution of scourge delinquents. Life or death, at my disposal. Today is that day.
I know it won’t be easy, deciding someone’s fate, but it is a requirement to join the ranks of the Executioners. A role carefully chosen for me at birth. My entire life, I’ve been training for this moment.
“The Executioners are an invaluable asset to this colony,” my father said this morning as he handed me my invitation. “Our survival depends on them and their fair and just decisions. The scourge delinquents must be eradicated.”
It’s a speech I’ve heard more times than I can count. I rolled my eyes and pretended not to hear him, but his words have burrowed deep into my mind. Invaluable. Survival. Eradicated.
“It’s too much for a boy,” my mother said. My mother has colored my hair blonde since infancy. Ginger haired boys are not accepted among the colony. She’d never admit it, but I believe it makes her feel that I am weak. But after today, I’ll no longer be a boy. I will be a man. An Executioner. I will make them both proud.
I take my seat along with the six other boys in my class, making us a total of seven. Seven Deciders, an odd number so there can be no chance of a tie. But there won’t be a tie. There’s never a tie. We’ve never been told as much, but every one of us knows what is expected of us. When they bring in the delinquent, we will hear his case, then hold our thumbs in the air and turn them down. Down, for death.
The trial is merely a formality. Something left over from the old world, before the Colony. I know this, and still I feel a sense of pride to be sitting here in this room, with its gold pillars and intricately carved archways. Like being chosen as a Decider, the step before Executioner, means something great. It is a privilege, my father would say.
Barron Berg leans over and whispers to me, “Do you think we’ll get to see it?”
“See what?” I try to spot the Executioners from across the room, and I think I see the toe of one’s boot, just outside the door.
“The actual death.”
I turn to face him then, expecting to see a childlike glee written in his features, but instead I see fear. Dread. Barron’s eye’s, usually full of mischief, are white and wide, and sweat shines across his brow.
“No,” I say as I rest my hand on his shoulder. “We’re only here to decide the fate of the delinquents. Not carry it out.” Not today.
Barron looks a little more at ease as he slides back into his chair. “Thanks, Cam.”
Just then the Judge walks in, surrounded by half an army of Executioners. Their uniforms are designed to intimidate, and I can feel my pulse surging at the sight of them. Sleek, gray, and sharp. Every angle crisp and perfect. I feel myself slide forward in my chair and I sense a similar reaction from Barron.
The proceedings begin, the opening speech by the judge, the rules given by the head Executioner. And then they bring in the first scourge delinquent. He’s a middle-aged man with dirty clothes and unkempt hair. I wonder if they’ve brought him in this way, or if he’s been detained somewhere below the courthouse.
“What do you think he did,” Barron asks.
I shrug. It doesn’t matter what he did. His fate has already been sealed. The Colony does not tolerate rebellion of any kind. He could be a thief, a gambler, an addict. We hear his case, thievery, and we all turn our thumbs down. The executioners carry him away to have his hand amputated. He’ll spend the rest of his life in a five by five cell beneath the courthouse. And with no anesthetic or medical care, his life will be short-lived.
I tell myself to feel no remorse, and mostly it works, but then I think of how my life would have turned out, had my mother not hidden my hair. The Colony requires its citizens to fit into a specific mold. Blonde hair. Blue eyes. Medium build. Anything less is considered rebellious.
Two more cases follow the thief. Both young men. Both rebels. Both defeated, weak, and dirty. Thumbs down without a second thought. One more, and we will have completed the first of three days of trials.
Whispers filter through the courthouse below the deciding booth. I can’t make out what anyone is saying, but I hear the words girl and rebel. It is rare to find a woman among the scourge delinquents. Our women have been taught since childhood to be meek and compliant. Mothers. Wives. I’ve only ever known one girl who didn’t fit the Colony’s mold. In public, she was perfect, but in private, I knew her better.
My thoughts drift back to my childhood, and for the moment I’m distracted. I don’t see the doors open, or hear the judge call her name. But I feel Barron tense beside me. His fingers bite into my wrist. When I look down at the floor, I see her. Shoulders held high. Head raised. Eyes fierce. Completely fearless.
I was eleven, Annabelle ten, and we raced barefoot across the farm complex, stealing tomatoes and pelting them at one another until our skin turned red. We didn’t stop to think what could have happened had we been caught. I didn’t think. I don’t think Annabelle cared.
“C’mon, Ginger,” she’d said. Annabelle was the only person who knew the real me. All of me. She knew me better than I knew myself. “Come and get me.”
I still remember the feel of her in my arms. Fragile, like a small bird, but more fierce and wild than any scourge delinquent. Annabelle, my Annabelle.
She kissed me, the last summer that I saw her. Before they told me she’d died of some long-eradicated disease brought over on the slave ships. She’d climbed the apple tree faster than any boy, perched on the thickest branch and waited for me to catch up. She was always waiting for me to catch up.
Our feet dangled below us, and we stole apples and ate them like the world was ours.
“Do you want to kiss me, Ginger?”
I choked then, on a piece of apple, and nearly fell from the tree. When I looked at her, her blue eyes were shining brighter than the summer sky. Hopeful. Happy. Alive. And I was frozen, mesmerized by her. She grabbed my ears and pressed her lips against mine. I still had apple in my mouth.
I taste it now, the kiss and the apple, as I look down at the girl I once knew. Annabelle is not dead. She’s very much alive, and more on fire than I’ve ever seen her. It takes three Executioners to hold her, though she barely seems to be straining against them. She’s grown-up, and even though the situation is a tense one, I can’t help but notice how incredibly beautiful she’s become. Like nothing I’ve ever seen. Again I am eleven years old, and I am mesmerized by this girl.
But this time her life, and mine, is on the line.
The judge reads her name, tells the court what she’s guilty of. The list is long. The longest we’ve heard so far. Thievery. Resisting arrest. Assault. Breaking and entering. Corruption of a minor. Kidnapping. Murder.
My breath hitches at the last charge. Murder. There can be no absolution for her. My stomach twists. My muscles tense. I close my eyes and feel her lips. Smell her skin. Hold her against me, like I’ve longed to do all these years.
“Cam,” Barron whispers. I nod and he doesn’t say anything else.
The room falls silent. The eyes of the Executioners, the judge, all focus on us, the boys in the deciding booth. I can’t stop staring at Annabelle, half wishing her to not be her, and completely hoping that she will remember me. That she will see me and all those memories will flood her mind. Give her something to think about besides what comes next.
Barron nudges me, and I realize I should be holding my thumb in the air. As I raise my arm, her eyes meet mine. They don’t scan the courthouse. They just find me. My chest tightens, and my breath stops.
She recognizes me, I know because she smiles and her lips move. Ginger.
The judge orders, “Decide.” And as one, the boys turn their thumbs to the floor. I feel Barron hesitate, but he follow suit, until only my thumb remains undecided.
I twist my wrist, and point my thumb toward the summer sky.
Thanks for reading! We'll be back next week with a new tangle started by Natalie!
Welcome to Tangled Fiction, where three YA writers collaborate to complete one story!
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday one TF writer will post a piece of the same story. Each of us will be responsible for one beginning, middle, and end in a single month. The fourth week will be full of surprises, we're sure, and we'll share them with you when we know what they are.