“Let’s go Ester. On your feet!” Luke said to his former coworker. “The GM just pulled up out back.”
Ester had once secretly enjoyed a deep, painful crush on the handsome young man, one so severe she often found it difficult to effectively do her job in his presence. Now she found herself repulsed by his authoritative and demanding tone.
As the meek young girl rose in obedience to the command, the overhead lights flickered before extinguishing completely. The odor of spent diesel fuel continued to fill the space, but the droning hum of the generator fell silent. Sporadic spats of gunfire could be heard in the distance, causing Ester to grieve the loss of the machine’s numbing sound more than the electricity it provided. The world around her had so quickly spilled into chaos that denial had been her only defense. Each crack of gunfire stabbed like a needle into her brain, acting as a deadly tool, seeking out and killing any pleasant memory or glimmer of hope.
From a store room behind the counter that had once been so enjoyable to man, “You’re getting a mark if you don’t get back here in Three, Two…”
Ester immediately reacted to the command, more out of relief from the impending doom that was creeping into her head, then the threat of a public flogging she would receive if she accumulated another mark. Luke, along with the other youth that had been deemed loyal to The Authority, had been given this system of merit to reward and punish those that had not earned their level of rank. Most of the Squad Leaders choose to utilize the latter aspect of the program to keep their subservient troops in line.
A stack of empty cardboard boxes tumbled from a nearby shelf as she moved hastily into the cramped room. The bags of coffee beans were quickly scurried away during the initial riots, but a slight hint of their aroma could be detected. For a moment, Ester envisioned herself doing what she had done countless times before, retrieving an item from the storeroom, then swiftly returning to the counter to serve the waiting crowd that had often filled the once bustling coffee house. She saw herself as she had looked just a few long days before. Her tall thin fragile frame, clothed in clean garments that were protected by an equally pristine apron, was crowned by a tightly formed ponytail. Although she rarely wore a smile in this previous state, her recollection added this feature of happiness to sweeten the memory.
Luke, now more out of concern for himself than demanding, grabbed Ester behind the arm and aggressively pulled her to him. “You better get your shit together. My ass is on the line too.” Luke easily yanked the slender girl toward the back door, where he paused and issued one additional threat. Before opening the portal he commanded, “And clean yourself up. You look like shit which reflects poorly on me.”
Her once kempt hair now hung in straggly uncombed lengths down past her shoulders, more out of protection than a reduction in vanity. Luke had forgotten, or more likely never noticed the mark that now lay hidden under those once lovely locks. A traitorous symbol under the new regime that had once been nothing more than a passing fad, a mistake even, that had only been done to impress a more rebellious boyfriend from an innocent era that would never again exist in Ester’s world. The four tiny stars and a single crescent moon she had tattooed behind her right ear would immediately seal the young woman’s fate if discovered by The Authority.
Luke straightened himself, removed the iron bar that had been placed across the door, and pushed it open. Light poured into the darkened space causing Ester to squint to receive it. A dark form began to materialize and fill the threshold. Ester had dreaded this encounter, intuitively understanding it signified the end of any chance of a return to the normal life she had never appreciated, and now so desperately desired.
The man was tall, inhumanly so, and had to bend to clear the doorway. He was handsome, well groomed, and almost perfect in every physical way. The remarkable appearance of the expected guest magically enticed Ester to feel a momentary sense of the relief. A row of perfectly straight white teeth peeked from behind a set of taunt lips in a smile that seemed strained. This realization snapped Ester out of her trance, and the insanity of the man and what he represented engulfed her malnourished mind and body causing her to faint.
She awoke in the man’s arms and struggled to move away. Her efforts did not sway the powerfully built man as he spoke in a soothing voice, “Easy, easy dear girl. I know things have been tough since the rebellious uprising. Easy.” He gently rocked the girl as he sat crouched with her on the storeroom floor, his mass filling the space that was now dark yet again. Her mind pleaded with Luke to open the door, scared to voice the request in the presence of the man.
A box the man had brought into the room sat nearby, from which he removed what appeared to be an oversized coffee mug. He brought the mug to Ester’s lips, depressed a button on the thick handle, and tilted it towards her to drink. “I thought you may like this,” he whispered as Ester registered the familiar smell of coffee. This time not the weak and aged lingering smells from the storeroom, but a robust and fresh aroma rose from the mug on tiny trails of steam, through her nostrils, and into what remained of the pleasant depths of her mind. As the warm bitter beverage crossed her tongue, Ester closed her eyes and savored the coffee. Unaware that the beverage was fortified with the nutritious components her weakened body required, she greedily grabbed at the heavy vessel, turned it up, and emptied its contents.
The man stood, pleased with Ester’s reaction. His long, black leather trench coat hung open menacingly as he towered over the tiny girl who lay at his feet. One shoulder touched the wall and the other pushed against a shelf on the opposite wall. Luke was completely hidden behind the giant man. The nourishment that had coursed through Ester’s veins now felt more like guilt than sustenance. Concerned that her compliancy signified acceptance of the evil that was being forced upon her, Ester rose with new found physical strength to confront the man. As she looked up into the man’s eyes with resistance on her breath, she connected with an unseen eternal evil that caused her to refrain from her opposition. She paused for an instant, allowing her bravery to flee, causing her to cower before the man and await his instructions.
Recognizing the servitude he expected in the humbled girl, the man voiced to Luke without turning, “I expect the cases of mugs to be organized and ready for distribution by nightfall.” The large truck parked out back was packed with boxes, and an immediate calculation led Luke to conclude that the task required several more able bodied assistants to meet the deadline. “Is there a problem?” The large man continued with a subtle yet easily identifiable threat before Luke was able to answer.
“No sir,” was all Luke was able to muster, himself also intimidated by the leader. The man accepted the assurance without response and exited through the backdoor. Luke rushed to Ester and begged, as opposed to ordered, “Go get help now!”
Ester had not ventured outside since the beginning of the conflict as her and Luke had boarded themselves up inside the coffeehouse. Rebels had ransacked the store during the first night, but representatives of The Authority had arrived before dawn the following morning and began restoring their form of order. Luke had snuggled and comforted Ester through the initial night as they hid in a void beneath the stairs. For those few hours, she actually embraced the calamity outside and the potential for Luke’s love she had so desperately craved. That affection was instantly destroyed as The Authority empowered Luke with his current position among their ranks.
Luke labored at the far end of the long narrow building as Ester peered through a gap in the boards that protected the front door. Dirt and grime had covered the glass, to her surprise that still remained, giving the visible town an even more desolate and destitute feeling than its destroyed physical reality projected. “Let’s go Ester! For Christ’s sake. I’m a dead man if we don’t get this done! Get some help!”
Ester’s fear of the unknown waiting outside, trumped her concern of any potential punishment that loomed hours away. As she hesitated, the approach of leisurely conversations and muffled footfalls caused her to abandon her post and drop to the floor to avoid detection. After a short moment, the sounds advanced out of earshot. Ester moved quietly to one knee, as she stole a glance back through the crack, she was shocked to see the upper portion of a face starring back at her. She shrieked reflexively, revealing her location to the unknown person outside who had not seen the girl through the filthy glass of the door.
A loud set of bangs rapped at the door, freeing dirt that rained down on Ester. As her heart pounded in her chest, a set of demands entered her fortress, “Open up! Under the command of The Authority I order you to open this door!”
The voice was strong but youthful. Ester knew she had to oblige, but still paused to access her options as Luke raced up to her side. “Well open the damn door,” he said somewhat cheerfully, knowing members of The Authority would help with his task. Luke pried at the boards, and after a few moments he had the entryway cleared. During this effort, the entire troop had rallied at the entrance. Ester counted a half dozen disheveled young men as they poured into her sanctuary, each bearing the markings of allegiance to The Authority. Each of the soldiers looked at her with hungry eyes, causing her to wrap her boney arms around herself as she backed into the nearby corner. One of the men raced through the broken chairs and toppled tables, behind the counter, and into the back rooms. After a moment he yelled, “Clear!”
Luke began to hastily explain the situation, but was quickly cutoff when a final man entered from outside. He was tall, thin, and more composed than the ragtag group that had initially stormed the building. The man, having not long ago been referenced as a boy, disregarded Luke and walked directly to Ester. The anxiety that had consumed her melted away as the handsome leader stood confidently, yet unthreateningly in front of her and offered his apology. “Sorry for the intrusion, but we have to be careful during these times.” And then to Luke, “We were sent to assist you. How can we help?”
After a quick rundown of the task at hand, and a few hard hours of work, the group soon had the cases of mugs neatly organized. They then set about removing the barricades, righting the scattered furniture, and completing some needed cleaning of the space. For a moment, Ester recognized a semblance of the coffee shop she had once adored. This feeling evaporated as the General Manager walked through the front door.
“Great job everyone,” he complimented to the group as a whole. Everyone but Luke seemed to gloat in the praise, preferring instead to exhibit signs that he expected individual recognition for his leadership. The GM felt this treasonous emotion that was breed more from exhaustion and hunger than disrespect. The giant man reached inside his coat, and as he drew his weapon, the world around Ester grew silent. As she watched, the man leveled the pistol towards Luke, she glimpsed his perfect human form transform into that of a malevolent creature the likes of which she had never encountered in her worst nightmares. The weapon fired, echoing through the long narrow building, exploding through Luke’s chest, causing his body to crumple lifeless to the floor.
Ester trapped her thoughts, knowing the GM had somehow read Luke’s mind, trying to bury any disagreement she harbored for the murder that had just occurred.
The evening progressed without a hitch. Long lines had formed outside the coffeehouse that Ester assumed must have wrapped around the block. On occasion arguments, scuffles, and gunshots would bleed into the coffeehouse from rows outside. These incidents were immediately quelled by the GM as he would appear and extinguish all parties involved.
An appointed representative of the distribution program continued a mantra through the night, expressing the positive attributes of the mug. While Ester hurried about, busying herself picking up litter and straitening the space, she surmised that the mugs were simply a way for The Authority to control the population. Each mug had to be registered to a thumbprint, which would activate and allow the cup to function properly. Once operational, a person could simply depress a button on the handle and the mug would fill with the flavored beverage of the user’s choice. The beverage would contain all the hydration and nutrition needed for a citizen to survive. Little did the new citizen know, the mug also tracked their location and conversations, in exchange for this supposed gift.
The night progressed, and each person that entered the space seemed more and more desperate. A rumor passed through the ranks that the mug supply was running short. The orderly line soon transformed into an aggressive mob that spouted people into the already cramped space. The group of soldiers that had assisted with the setup, abandoned their security posts and fought their way to the entryway. They punched and shoved their way through the angry horde, trying their best to close the front door. The last memory Ester had was recognition that their leader, the man she had an instant affinity for, was not in the fray.
Months had passed and Ester had grown accustomed to her blindness. The structural damage from the bombing had long been repaired, and the only reminder that remained was the gaunt blind girl that whiled away her days from a small desk in the back of the coffee house. A deep despair accompanied the darkness that now shrouded her world. The Authority had assigned her to employment back at the coffee shop where Ester spent her days listening to the empty conversations of those afraid to speak any real truth. A moralist from The Authority had spent several weeks working with Ester to try and recapture the character of the coffee house prior to what now was commonly referred to as The Rebellion. While the rebellious forces wreaked havoc on the outlying areas, The Authority worked tirelessly to project stability throughout the major cities.
It was on this evening that the first event was to occur. Ester sat alone, not facing the performance, as what sounded like a young woman strummed a guitar and hummed a song. The tune was a patriotic one that The Authority had begun using as their unofficial anthem. Ester pictured the woman in her mind as a beautiful star that had once been famous. She relished this delight as the woman paused in preparation for her next act. The woman began playing, this time much louder than before. Ester recognized the song immediately as chairs backed away nosily from tables near where the woman performed. It was a banned song that honored the efforts of the rebels. Commotion broke out on the stage where the woman played and she screamed out in protest. Ester could tell that the woman was being pulled from the building and as someone apologized at the microphone for the outburst, a single gunshot was heard outside. Ester wished she was the recipient of medicine the woman just received.
Several other acts ensued. The only performance of note was an attempt at comedy that bolstered the benefits of being a citizen of The Authority. As the night trudged along, a man took the stage and began reciting a heartfelt poetic verse. Within moments she recognized it as the voice of the leader who had shown up to assist with the distribution. The man’s voice boomed through the microphone as he worked his rhyme to a crescendo. Before the allegiance police could stop him, he switched the tone of his rant to that of rebellious prose. To exclaim his final point, he grabbed the mug from Ester’s hands and smashed it on the ground. Heavy machine gun fired as Ester felt a powerful set of arms wrap around her and drive her to the floor. Almost immediately, the savior ushered her out the back door and into an awaiting car.
Paved roads soon ceased and gravel peppered loudly against the vehicle’s wheel wells. Overheard conversation led Ester to conclude that two people accompanied her in the car, neither of which was her hero. Assuming he stayed behind to assist in the attack, Ester found herself praying for his safety. As the time passed, she envisioned a romance with the man that she played out in her mind. After several hours, the vehicle pulled to a stop and she was gently ushered from her seat. Having asked no questions during the journey, Ester knew not where she had ended.
Sounds were soon heard and Ester quickly began forming a mental understanding of her surroundings. A smell soon caught her attention, reminding her of a field trip she had taken as a child to the northern regions of the country. A short shrub called sage had emitted the same odor she now recognized, leading her to believe she was somewhere in that same desert she had visited as a child. As the cool wind blew at her face, tiny particles of sand could be felt chewing away at her exposed shins. After a quick pause, her guides ushered her into an enclosed area that smelled heavily of canvas. She waited inside the tent in silence, elated, and without fear of her future.
At some point throughout the exhausting evening, Ester had rolled onto her side and slept. She was in this position when the familiar voice woke her from her rest. A hand brushed gently against her neck, pulling back her hair. “I have been working for some time to rescue you.” Then after a slight pause, “My name is Ely.”
Ester pulled herself upright, gazing with eyes closed at her savior. Sensing her comfort, the man continued. “I knew I had seen the mark on your neck…” Before the man could complete his statement, Ester wrapped her arms around him and sobbed. Ely comforted the girl, soon tired, and lay beside her for the short remainder of the night.
When they awoke, Ely described their surroundings as he walked Ester through the camp. She could have followed unaided, but instead walked with her arm hooked around his elbow. As they strolled through the encampment, Ely explained that the rebellion was a way of life, dictated by religious conviction that determined every effort the group pursued. He continued to convey that the location had been hard won, but was now reasonably secure. This had led to small cultivations of vegetables with which Ester would assist. She felt proud to able to contribute and was eager to get started.
“Ok,” Ely said. His tone had altered and Ester could not detect the reason for the change. Handing an object to Ester, he described the purpose of the tool, while placing the rough wooden handle into her palm. The sharp crescent shaped blade glinted in the mid-morning sun, unseen by Ester. “This is very sharp, so be careful. You will use this to cut the pumpkins from the vines. It is time to harvest and we need your help.”
Ester reached up with her free hand to inspect the weapon. Ely intercepted her hand and adjusted her approach. “Here,” he said, running her finger along the flat side of the blade to orient the girl with the device. “The task is quite simple,” he said. “You simply locate the head, lift it up, and slice it away.”
Ester had never heard a pumpkin referenced in this way, but disregarded the statement as a colloquialism. “Ready to give it a try,” speaking this time with what Ester felt was unneeded enthusiasm.
“Sure,” Ester responded, realizing this was the first time she had spoken since leaving the coffee house. Ely walked her a few steps further. Ester could sense several other people in their presence which she assumed were other field workers.
Ely moved her into position, grabbing one leg and physically moving it so she straddled an unidentified object. He positioned himself behind the girl and placing his hands on her shoulders, forced her to a sitting position.
Prickly vines and leaves jutted between her legs as Ely gently placed his hand onto the one in which she still held the knife. He then instructed her to reach out with her free hand and locate the, “Head.”
She reached around what felt like a moderate sized pumpkin and pulled it toward her seated body. “It’s ok, now go,” Ely instructed. She moved the knife down, and with one slow motion upward, the razor sharp blade cut through the vine. To her surprise, warm liquid sprayed onto her hand, causing her to stand. With pumpkin still in hand, light started to become visible. Ester blinked her eye lids heavily and slowly her surroundings came into focus.
“It’s, it’s a miracle,” she said excited. As she adjusted to the change, it was then she realized it was no pumpkin she held, but a severed head grasps firmly by the hair. The weight of the head pulled itself from her grasp as she released her hold, falling to the ground with a thud. As she followed its decent, she noticed the blood that churned from a decapitated body into the sandy soil at her feet. She fell backwards as she tried to escape, then attempted to stand only to stumble over her own feet and land onto her side.
As she scooted away from the body, she understood she had been rescued from one horror, only to be placed into another. Still reeling from the atrocity she had just performed, Ely moved to her side and in a soothing yet insane voice explained, “For your sight, you must serve. Remove heads, release the spell.”
She looked past the horrific monster and understood she was not in the desert, but on a beach. Rows of men in orange jumps where positioned prone, with hands bound behind their backs for as far as she could see. She now knew there was no escaping the barbarity of the civil war that shrouded the world around her in insanity.
She walked towards the next prisoner with tears streaming down her face. The man muttered through his gag and wriggled his body in protest to the death that was about to be served. As she ran the blade across the man’s throat, for a moment she thought of turning the weapon on herself. As blood spilled from the torso, meeting the water that lapped up from the ocean that extended out before her, Ester’s vision cleared further. The suicidal thought soon slipped from her mind, never to return, as she bent down to introduce herself to her next victim.
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