Category B: Highly Commended (2020) Monash Short Story Writing Competition
Author: Audrey Suryadarma
Curled up behind a box of books, I shiver as a gust of wind ripples through my clothes. I risk a glance out the vent beside me and freeze, holding my breath as I watch a pair of shoes stop beside me, before sighing in relief as they start walking away again. My joints ache as I continue to hold my position for another five hours before the library opens for a new day.
A sliver of light cuts through the room as I start to get on my knees, moving closer to the door. Leaning against it, I strain my ears to hear any sign of movement beyond it before deciding to open the door. I quickly peer around the door and dash out, checking to see no one’s near me before closing the door behind me to pick a book off a shelf.
Making my way to the kids’ area, the only kids there are boys like me as only girls are allowed to go to school. As I choose my seat, I scan my eyes around the room to see that most of them are reading books about boys with brothers, back when having more than one boy was allowed in a family. I actually have a brother, Owen, he’s younger than me. He’s the reason why I’m here hiding out in a library. Not that I have anything against him, I was the one who persuaded mum to let me go, to give my brother an opportunity to live life. “I’ll be fine”, “It’ll be easy” I said, while giving my mum one last hug before disappearing into the night.
Now here I am, living off scraps from others, spending my nights in a musty old storage room. Is there really any point in life? I sigh as I bring ten books to the counter. “Hey you, you know boys can only borrow two books at a time,” barked the librarian. I pull my hood off to reveal long hair, “Oh I’m sorry, darling why aren’t you in school?”. Thankfully with my feminine features and long hair, if I keep my face slightly covered, I can pass as a girl. “I’m just not feeling too well,” I beam a faux smile before pulling my hood back up again.
Stepping out into the street, I shrink further into my jumper to try avoid being recognised by anyone. It isn’t possible for me to return home as my parents told the government officials that they killed me when they registered my younger brother, so I’m supposed to be dead. While walking through the city, it’s impossible to walk more than 100 metres without hearing a gunshot followed by wailing from a heartbroken parent. I turn into an alleyway and take a few more steps before vanishing behind a small, inconspicuous door.
Entering into a cosy, warmly lit room, I let a content smile slip onto my face as I amble across to a group of people at the back. “Hey guys, what’s up?” I say as I join their circle. “Oh hey Xavier, you got the books?” Michael, our group leader asks. Our group is mostly made up of people like me: guys who ran away from their homes, guys who have been left to fend for themselves, but also a few girls who have been shunned from their families for various reasons. This room was a safe place, a temporary haven for us. However, we can only meet here once every other day to avoid drawing suspicion. “Yeah, do you really think that we can win though? With homemade weapons and book learned war tactics?” I say, a grim smile on my face as the reality if our grim situation starts to set in. “I mean it’s our only chance, they start spraying in three days,” Michael shrugs.
The government had decided that to make sure no one was alive illegally, hydrogen sulphide would be sprayed throughout the whole country. Only people who were on the register could receive a gas mask, and it was impossible to leave the country in any way. The only chance of survival for us was to destroy the cannisters of hydrogen sulphide, or to overthrow the government.
“Ok let’s go through the plans again,” Michael declares. “Greg, did you find anything in the books that we could add on?”
“No not really, I think we should stick with the original plan.”
The next hour was spent running through the plan time and time again, Michael was determined to not have mistakes. “We‘re treading on thin ice as it is, we can’t have any other errors,” Michael insisted. He’s right I suppose, at least we’ll know the plan so well that we won’t even have to think about it. Michael gives a tired smile, “Guys I think we’ve got it, be ready to leave in 30 minutes, good luck.” The mood is somber as we pick up our equipment and get into positions. We head off.
Arriving at our destination, we say our goodbyes as it begins to darken, splashes of pink and orange coat the sky. As I crouch in a ditch with two others, we grimly nod to each other as we wait for the signal. A flare is fired, we start running. Bombs and rockets go whistling over our heads as we prepare to burst through the barricades. My mind is in a blank, my legs running on autopilot as adrenaline sets my heart racing. I make one final silent prayer.
Please let our plan work. Please let us survive. For the sake of the future generations of boys, that they won’t have to suffer like us. For my brother, Owen.