The boy stepped from his chair by the wall, making for the mirror by his bedroom door. He spent a moment taking in his reflection, combing aside the choppy hair from his eyes to see himself in all his glory. A boy, no older than 15 (but definitely older than 13) looked back, eyes empty chasms that should be filled with worry and grief, especially this time of year. He took note that the bruise on his chin had vanished.
He scratched his wrist and moved to the living room where a woman sat cross-legged on a recliner. She stared at a spot on the wall that was a bit darker than the rest, quietly muttering as she rocked back-and-forth. It was his mother, who hadn’t yet noticed the boy had entered as she looked up and jumped, startled by his presence. They locked eyes for a moment, a glossy tear streaming down her cheek before she shifted her gaze to the window where people moved forward down narrow streets to the center of their small town where destiny stood, waiting, laughing.
“Do you think it’ll be one of us?” Said the boy.
Her gaze remained fixed out the window, not sparing a look at her son. She tilted her head forward, stifling a sob.
The village where the boy and his mother lived was dry and barren with a simple layout that came to a single point at the center. This central square acted as the market most days of the week with people bustling and going about their day, selling goods and services. At the center of this courtyard was a pit of insurmountable depth (when the boy had thrown a rock inside, he never heard it hit the bottom). All the stands set up were set at a distance from the pit, maybe to avoid falling in and never being seen again. In fact, the boy noted that when he drew near to it, a cool breeze had tugged at the hem of his pants, but it did not pour out of the pit; it was a breeze that drew inward, beckoning things inside, making it simple for one to lose their footing and be pulled in by the gentle tug of the pit and its gravity. At the end of each day, each person in the village who had earned would toss a portion into the pit before heading home for the evening.
A rail had been erected years ago. Too many had fallen victim to the pit when making their daily sacrifice, stumbling upon an ill-placed stone and descending into the depths, never to be seen again. Some tried to hang on to the ledge, but none have made their way back up from it, no matter how fit or limber. The rail had even fallen victim to the pit’s call once, disappearing in the night a week after it was first established. Nobody witnessed how it had occurred; it simply vanished, leaving a few spare rocks in its wake for people to slip on while making their sacrifices. It has since been reinforced.
Today, everyone in the village would make their way to the pit first thing in the morning. Ma stood from the recliner and sturdied herself, not bothering to wipe the tears this time. She grabbed her jacket and made for the door.
“I . . . I don’t want to go this year, Ma.” The boy said. He stood behind Ma who held the door open, waiting for him to exit. The boy noticed her knuckles whitening on the knob before his vision left him, replaced by a deep pain on his temple. When his vision came back, Ma’s face was deep red, and her gaze pierced straight through him. He drew back, placing a hand to his head as a knot formed beneath it. He winced.
“Do you think I want to do this either?! This isn’t all about you--” The life from her words drained mid-sentence, the pale returning to her face just as quick as the rage had come. She slumped her shoulders and pulled the boy up to his feet, pushing him out the door before he had a chance to put on shoes.
The boy and his mother stepped into the crowd. The boy looked around, noticing the way everyone kept their gazes fixed to the ground, their eyes like the ones he saw in the mirror. He resolved to do the same but still couldn’t avoid the sound of immutable sniffing as those around him attempted to stifle the liquid dripping from their nostrils. He wondered why he didn’t feel the same as those people, hiccuping and sniffling about the inevitability of the day. He felt nothing. Always nothing. And why would he bother to feel more? What has life given him that would motivate him to feel any way about anything more than nothing? He didn’t bother searching for an answer.
They stood for several minutes, nobody making eye contact with one another, no conversations, just the sounds of sniffling. One person to the boy’s left whimpered; a child nearby asked what was going on to which his dad unconvincingly reassured him that everything was okay. Still they stood, waiting, the boy’s mom standing next to him in her wicker hat. He looked at his feet, bare and exposed next to hers as he noticed a bit of blood coming from his left foot. He knelt down and peered over his foot, noticing a small gash on the side. He didn’t notice the man approaching the mouth of the pit as he dabbed the wound with his shirt.
“Greetings those of Village 23!”
The boy jolted up at the sound of the voice resonating through the courtyard. He stood on his toes to see over the shoulders of the people in front of him to see a man standing at the center of the courtyard. The man wore a pinstripe suit and a bowler-hat that was one or two sizes too big for his skull. His large cheeks glistened in the sunlight as a bead of sweat dripped into his curled mustache, his nose blistered red from the heat. The cuff links he wore glistened as he held a blow-horn to his mouth that was adorned with the number “0” on the side, written in red ink. His other hand rested upon his bloated stomach, twitching every so often as he spoke.
“Welcome to the Yearly Sacrifice. I hope you are all well, it has been quite some time since our last get together. A year, to be exact. I know you have all contributed your part?” He looked out to the crowd with a smile and raised brows. They looked on in silence. “Now, I know many of you are feeling a bit apprehensive, but I assure you that this is a tradition to be honored and celebrated in a tremendous way!”
He gave another tremendous smile as a woman sobbed uncontrollably in the crowd. The hand on his stomach twitched.
“Well, without further ado, let us proceed with the formalities.”
He pulled a piece of parchment from a hidden pocket in his suit jacket and unfurled it, the blow-horn letting out a screech as he shifted around.
“This year, the village has contributed exactly eighty-nine thousand, eight-hundred and fifty-one dollars and twelve cents to the Sacrifice. Excellent work!” He clapped his hands and boasted a giddy smile even larger than the last. The woman in the crowd continued sobbing as he continued.
“With this being said, the amount due for the Accountability tallies up to . . . 3!”
He put his hands by his side and smiled at the crowd as what he spoke sunk in, their faces turning from empty apprehension to grotesque horror. The woman’s sobs grew louder and spread throughout the group, their volume rising in panic.
“3?! What do you think we are, pigs?!” a man said from the crowd. He pushed his way forward, face burning with rage. “You think you can come here and treat us like this? Like we’re nothing?!”
He ran forward from the crowd, drawing a rusty knife with a serrated edge as he approached. He took three steps before what the boy thought was an explosion rang throughout the courtyard. The man’s head jerked back, his body slumped to the ground, blood poured from the hole in his head like oil from a drum. The shot echoed through the courtyard until it gave way to silence; even the sobbing had ceased. The man in the pin-stripe suit wiped the barrel of his revolver with a cloth before stuffing it back into his pocket, returning his gaze to the crowd with a smile half as giddy as the last.
“Ahem- Anyhow, let us proceed with the rest of the Accountability without a hitch, shall we? I expect there will be no more, eh… interruptions, yes?”
He waved his hand towards someone to his right, gesturing them forward. A woman lurched forward pushing a cart with a large wooden box atop. The boy recognized her as Mrs. Peddleton, a woman who ran a market in the square each morning selling shoes she made by hand. She rolled the cart in front of the man before making her way back to the crowd, her gaze not once leaving the ground. The man rolled up his sleeve and wedged his pudgy hand into the box, rummaging for a moment before extracting it in a balled fist. He opened his palm, unfurling a single piece of paper as he raised the megaphone to his lips.
There was a moment of silence. A blood-curdling scream erupted from somewhere to the boy’s right as a girl stepped forward from the crowd. Her mother was being held back by two large men as the girl walked forward, her hands in a fist as she attempted to stop them from trembling. She looked to be the same age as the boy and wore a long-sleeve shirt and jeans. She set her auburn hair in a braid down her left shoulder. Adeline trembled with each shaky step as she made her way to the man in the pinstripe suit, yet no tear fell from her face. She walked as her mom wailed in the crowd, screaming profanities as her daughter took her place on the announcer’s side with a steeled gaze, her eyes dark and unreadable.
The man in the pinstripe suit nodded, shifting his gaze from the girl by his side back to the box as he plunged his hand in again, pulling out another slip of paper.
This time, no screaming ensued. The crowd parted as an old lady edged forward who must’ve been at least 80, stepping forward with the help of her cane. The boy had remembered her from when he was younger; every time he would pass her house on his way to school, she would be outside tending the dying flowers in the pots on her front porch. They never seemed to be thriving, but she stood out every morning watering them, waving to him, sometimes saying a kind word or two as he walked. He felt a tinge of guilt for not shedding a tear; the boy looked on as she took her place next to the man. The man in the pinstripe suit nodded once more and plunged his hand into the box, this time rummaging around for a while (maybe to satiate his desire for perceptual fairness). He withdrew his hand from the box and eyed the paper with his beady eyes. The crowd held its breath.
“Ahem- Andrew Fennbury.”
The world dropped from beneath the boy’s feet. His brain raced a million different directions, attempting to comprehend what the man had just said.
No, it couldn’t be. There’s no way.
Andrew’s heart seemed like it would burst out of his chest as he looked up at his mom with wide eyes. She returned his gaze, her eyes were wide too, only there were no tears like there were this morning. Her cold gaze pierced into his as she took his hand and lurched him forward to the front of the crowd. He stumbled and fell to his knees, looking back at her to see her face one last time. Her brows were furrowed, almost as if she pitied her son, but there was nothing else written on her face lest apathy. The crowd closed, cutting off his line of site from his mother, that last image of her burned into his memory.
A look of relief. Relief that he was gone.
Andrew got to his feet, not bothering to dust the dirt from his kneecaps, not feeling the blood that dripped from his scraped elbows.
He stepped forward into line with the girl and the woman, facing his back to the pit. He looked at the faces of those in the crowd who shared the look his mother had given him; a look of pity, but beyond that was nothing. Some hugged the ones next to them, glad it wasn’t them this year. The man in the pinstripe suit situated himself in front of Andrew, his jolly face peering down at him as he retrieved a red rope from his suit pocket that seemed to house a thousand things.
“Cross your hands in front of you, son.” He said.
Andrew extending his hands as the man bound his wrists together, tying it tight so as not to be undone. He then moved onto the old woman, then to the younger. Andrew looked over to see the girl his age, her beautiful hair in a braid down her shoulder. What a shame, he thought. I would’ve liked to get to know her. He shifted his attention forward again as reality took a second hit.
This is it.
His eyes welled up, but he did not allow a tear to fall. Why would he now? Why did he feel anything now? He had imagined this day before, on his darker days. He had imagined himself jumping at his name being called, ecstatic to be freed from the life he had been given. Anything could be better, right? So why did he feel dread?
Andrew shook his head and rolled his shoulders back as he stood, waiting for destiny to take its course. When the man finished tying his last knot, he turned around to the crowd once more, his back to the three standing by the edge of the pit. He dusted his jacket before raising the megaphone to his mouth for the last time.
“Thus initiates the Sacrifice of Village 23. I hereby decree that in the year two-thousand and sixty-six at seven forty-seven A.M. on July third, villagers, eh…” He unfurled the crumpled papers in his hand, letting out a huff as he scanned them for the names. “Ah, yes, villagers Adeline Beeley, Margaret Dettle, and Andrew Fennbury be Sacrificed today on behalf of the Accountability. Let it be done, lest it be done unto thee.”
He set the megaphone down and turned around, his smile fading into the same empty look that everyone else offered. Pity. The man locked eyes with each of the 3 as he stepped back, falling in line with the rest of the crowd. Andrew turned his gaze once more to the girl his age, only this time her eyes were looking back, fixated on his. They pleaded with him, begging for a way out. There was none. They both knew that. A tear fell from her eyes as he looked to her hands which were trembling harder than they were before. His were trembling, too.
Then the old woman fell backwards.
There was no yelling or screaming, no gasp from the crowd either. The pit simply consumed her, all of her. The boy and the girl looked at each other once more, knowing the consequences of not jumping in as he glanced at the dead man on the floor, the pool of blood around his head. Who will suffer next if I don’t do it? He nodded at the girl. She nodded back.
He clenched his teeth and squatted down before pushing himself backwards with all his might. He looked down to see the edge of the pit pass his feet as he began his descent. The girl lurched over the edge behind him. Together they fell, consumed by the cold darkness of the depths beneath.
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