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By @Val


97 days to banishment

My eyes flash open. I can feel the beating of my heart. It pounds hard against my chest and throughout my body, so hard I can feel it even in my fingertips. Desperately, I fight the covers until I am free of them. The bed is damp with the same sweat that lines my flesh. It pools at my hairline, small drops trailing down across my forehead as I make my way huridley to the faucet.

I fill a tin and throw it back quick, coughing slightly as it empties down my throat and soaks the front of my nightshirt. Ruth stirs at this. I hear her groan from her own bed, shifting uncomfortably from sleep to wakefulness. In the blue sim light I can see her body, unwrapping from the tight ball she sleeps in. Her eyes find mine through the darkness and I sense she recognizes my panic. I must look frightening in this light, shaking and shadowed.

“What happened?”

Ruth sits up, fully awake. Her face is no longer lined with sleep, but alert at my shocking appearance. She beckons me towards her with a simple gesture of the hand. I am surprised at this invitation, but not opposed. She so rarely allows contact, fearing the punishment if we were found out.

I am welcomed into my sisters bed with a stiff embrace, but this soon relaxes as I begin to cry silently into her arms. She consoles me gently, stroking my racking shoulders with each sob that escapes. Her body is warm. Warm and safe. It is not long before I am soothed and still once again. Ruth does not rush me, but waits until I am calm before asking again what happened.

“Oliver,” I whimper, unable to explain anything beyond a name. I feel Ruth’s hair against my cheek as she nods.

“I know.”

I cry out once more. “You know?” My lips are wet with tears and snot, and the words come out as a gurgle. “How?”

She pats my head, smoothing the short curls that went astray in sleep. Pulling from me slightly, Ruth examines my face. Using her own nightshirt, she wipes away the snot from my nose and pushes back my tears. “Walt told me at dinner.”

“But Walt can’t know this. He can’t.” I am crying once again, unable to hold back while this nightmare unravels around me. It has been only a short few hours since it started, and now I face the first of Felle’s retaliation.

Ruth gives me a concerned look. “Of course Walt knows,” she says. “He’s a nurse. Who else would have her information?”

My crying staggers. “Her?”

“Ellie.” Ruth’s grip on me tightens, her expression quizzical as a relieved smile escapes me. She pinches my arm. “She’s dead.” It is a statement, but Ruth speaks it with a questioning tone. She is unsure if I know.

“Walt told me already,” I say through my sniffling. Freeing my hands from Ruth’s hold, I wipe my eyes. Already I feel silly for having broken down. It is clear that she does not know. From her face I read only confusion.

“Then why are you -”

“It’s Oliver,” I interrupt.

Ruth nods. “Yes. Yes, you said that already. I thought you meant -” she pauses, realizing. “You told him?”

I nod, sniffing loudly the last of my dripping snot. “I had to.”

Her face arranges in disbelief, then quickly shifts to anger. “Johanna.” She says my name firmly, her fingers squeezing even tighter on my arm. It is constricting no longer to comfort, but to the point of pain. “Why would you do that?”

I shrug, as though it is obvious. “I had to.”

“That isn’t your job.”

“It wasn’t a job.” The word comes out as a hiss. I could not help but become venomous at the sound of it. Ruth said it so mechanical, as though the news of a lost loved one is not something that requires emotion. In this way she is just like Walt, who through his time as a nurse has seen enough death to become numb to it. This is why he could not tell Oliver, and why I felt so strongly that it had to be me who did. “It was supposed to make it easier on him to hear it from me.”

Ruth gave pause to consider this. “It didn’t work?” She sounded as though she knew it already, though I detected beneath her wise persona there was a touch of grief for the comfort Oliver did not take.

“No,” I mutter, remembering vividly the events of this night. “It did not.”

She allows this to sink in, mulling over the ways to respond. There are angry words she wishes to say for putting myself in the middle of things. She does not approve of foolishly taking a position in this grim event, but in the end Ruth detects what I have yet to say. She feels the tear soaked sleeve of her nightshirt. “Tell me.”

I had promised myself I wouldn’t. Promised that these events would never leave my lips. That they were a secret between myself and Oliver for as long as we breathed – if the sentry permitted it. There was no saying whether he would find the kindness to shelter us or simply go to the Commander without a second thought. He had the power to end life – Oliver’s and my own.

Oliver knew his act of grief was wrong, knew it the second he laid hands on the sentry, but by then it was too late. Overwhelming loss had controlled him. It led is fists into the sentry’s flesh, seeking revenge for the life of his love and the child he never met. Over and over, it led his fists back until the man was bleeding and my cries brought back his senses.

As I retell this to Ruth, she too lets out a fearsome shudder. Her arms wrap around me, squeezing tight. This was not to calm me, but to feel my heart and my warmth one last time if that is what this embrace becomes – our last memory of each other. Her hand cradles my head, shaking a little with the force of fear.

“If he goes to the commander,” she pauses, interrupted by a gasp. Her breath is hot and lips fluttering against my ear. “If they come for you…confess.”

I can hardly breathe. “Confess?”

She nods, her head rising and falling against my cheek. “If it comes to trial, confession might just save your life.”

“But Oliver -”

“Oliver doomed himself. That was his choice. You don’t need to die for him.”

The waiting is brutal. It is what keeps me up even after Ruth falls asleep, her arms still loosely around me. I remain beside her until the sim lights begin to rise, shifting from blue to white. It is dim at first, but soon our room is flooded with bright replication of early morning rays. We have no windows, but I know even without seeing it that Gratis remains dark. That does not matter in Felle. A grubber’s day begins long before the true sun rises. First there must be breakfast, and then preparation for a day’s work, and at last the examination of every deviant body before the sun has shone its first ray. Only then, when light has come, are we allowed to begin our trek.

I separate myself from Ruth, her eyes opening groggily at the changing sim. This day begins with anxiety for what waits beyond my door. Though no one came in the night to collect me, I fear they have only waited for morning to do it publicly. To make an example out of Oliver and myself.

Slowly, I slip from my nightclothes and pull into the same thing I wore yesterday. No one will notice this as strange. Yesterday had been a waiting day, and today will be the same – assuming they do not take me away before I have done my work.

I have only fifteen minutes to make my way to the cafeteria if I want breakfast. My stomach tightens and I remember the dinner I skipped last night, too unsettled by Oliver’s actions to eat and too afraid for my life to show face in the cafeteria. Instead I had fled to the greenhouse, seeking comfort in its warm shelter. Part of me wishes to go there now and perhaps wait out this day. Instead I only wait out Ruth, lingering in our room as she passes with a sympathetic pat on my cheek. She leaves me knowing there is nothing else to be done.

When time is nearly up, I too enter the long hall and make my way to breakfast. There are a few other latecomers besides myself. I see Annita ahead of me, jogging half dressed towards the smell of cinnamon oats, and at the stairwell I find Even paused to tie a shoelace. He does so quickly, stammering a hello when I join him on the stairs. I respond gruffly, my voice not yet broken from its morning thickness. We say nothing else, and I make no effort to keep up with him. Soon I am alone again, taking the stairs one at a time in a defeated pace.

At the final landing I am met with a similarly devoid face – Oliver’s. Beyond the doorway is food and a swell of deviants, but Oliver stops me here where we can talk in private. I can tell he has slept no more than I did, his eyes bagged and features slack. “The Commander knows.”

This is all he needs to say. The rest is unspoken, but understood. If the Commander knows, it can only mean that she has seen the sentry’s broken face. The fact that we still stand free tells me something else – it tells that we were not given away. For whatever reason, this abused sentry has spared us our lives. I cannot explain it, but somehow I must thank him for whatever time his silence has given. The Commander will discover us on her own, one way or another, but for now we are free to live.

I leave the stairwell first, Oliver waiting to follow. Ruth’s words come back to me now: You don’t need to die for him. I think of her instructions to confess, to save myself but give up Oliver. It would have to be now, before the Commander discovers on her own who was in the courtroom past sunfall last night. It is the only sure way to secure my life, yet I know I will not do it. Oliver’s life for mine would hardly be a fair trade.

Venturing through the cool steel cafeteria, I retrieve my oats in silence and return to the general gathering space. This commons is a calm place, its atmosphere of warm conversation and complete ignorance to the secret between Oliver and myself. Only Ruth knows, and she gestures to me softly from where she is seated. I can choose between a number of plush chairs and cushioned seats, but I retire beside my sister at our usual place on the long table. The wooden bench rocks as I seat myself on its uncomfortable surface, and I am greeted by the surrounding deviants. Though a plowman myself, this table is filled mostly by grubbers. Kat sits on Ruth’s other side, and across from her are Jem, Michael and Dale. Each offer a kind good morning, though they are familiar with my poor morning mood and suspect nothing when I reply only half heartedly.

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