His mother’s voice cut right through Oliver’s day dream. He had been staring directly into his bowl of cereal for who knows how long. It seemed his mother had started to worry about her son’s sanity and so disturbed his cereal gazing.
“Were you planning on going to school anytime soon?” she inquired.
Oliver shrugged and said, “I suppose, if you want me to.”
His mother gave him a stern look. “I want you to finish that cereal first. Then you’ll go upstairs and wash. And after that, you’ll hurry off to school. You’re late.”
Oliver had showered the night before and his mother knew that. Still, upon leaving, he dutifully went upstairs and turned the shower on. Oliver did not get in, however. Instead he opened a hatch beneath the sink and pulled out The Book. He opened it at random and found himself reading from the Gospel of Matthew.
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up his cross and follow me.”
That’s easier said than done, Oliver thought. When he had finished reading, he retrieved his beads from the hole and began to pray. It was a Friday so he prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries. Upon finishing the rosary, Oliver put everything back, closed the hatch, and turned the shower off.
Oliver’s family was Catholic. This meant Oliver’s family had a lot of secrets. Secret hatches, secret code-words, secret books and beads. They even had secret places they went on Sundays. It was no easy thing, being a Catholic. Not after the war. Not after the Purge. Oliver hadn’t been alive then. Oliver was only seventeen and it had been forty years since all religion had been outlawed. His parents had been small children at the time but they had told their children of the terrible persecution that had followed what Oliver’s history books called the Last Great War. His books and his teachers all claimed religion had been the cause of that war. And so, the government had taken it upon themselves to rid the world of the danger. Religion and freedom went hand in hand, it seemed.
His little sister was waiting for him when he came downstairs. She held her bag in both hands and stared at him expectantly.
“Is it time for school now, Olly?” Margaery asked, eagerly, her lisp as apparent and charming as ever.
“I believe it is, Munk,” She had gained that nickname when she was a toddler. Oliver had come up with after she kept escaping their mother’s hand to chase after chipmunks every time they went out in public. Margaery was only a little thing but she was quick and clever enough to catch one from time to time.
She giggled at that and ran to say goodbye to their parents. Margaery was only seven but it seemed she was the most liked of the family. Between her lisp, those bright blue eyes, and that mischievous grin, she charmed near everyone she met.
Oliver followed her up to their parent’s room and bid them farewell. Once they were outside, he took Margaery’s hand and began the trek to school. The sky was dark and as they neared the school building raindrops began to fall. Margaery pulled on Oliver’s hand, urging him to go faster.
“What’s the matter, are chipmunks afraid of water?” Oliver teased.
“Come on Olly, the rain will ruin my braid!” Margaery was far from vain. Normally, she cared little about her appearance. She was just as likely as any boy to roll around in the dirt. But when their mother braided Margaery’s hair, she protected it fiercely. She did not stop tugging on Oliver’s hand until they were safe inside the school building.
School seemed to pass slowly that day, more so than usual. Oliver sat and stared at the wall and listened to his teachers drone on, as he always did. Oliver loved to learn. He would spend hours poring over writings of the saints or the history of Catholicism. But at school the only thing they seemed to teach was that the government was inerrant and should not be argued with. Every subject led back to this, in one way or another.
The only class Oliver truly enjoyed was Latin. The Latin instructor’s first name was Francis and he urged them to call him such. Somehow, Latin did not help to explain why the government was always right. Oliver’s love of the class was not shared by most of his classmates, however. There were only a handful of students and most of them paid little attention to Francis.
When Oliver finally made his way to the Latin room, however, he found a portly man with a moustache sitting in the teacher’s desk.
“Where’s Fra—Mr. Darvill?” questioned Oliver, barely stopping himself. They were not supposed to use a teacher’s first name.
“Sick, poor fellow. It must be this weather. I’m filling in. My name’s Mr. Casen,” the man replied. Mr. Casen looked not unlike a walrus.
It turned out their substitute did not know a lick of Latin but instead gave them a worksheet to finish by the end of class. The translations were fairly easy; Oliver finished within minutes. He sat staring at the clock impatiently, his leg bouncing.
When the final bell rang at last Oliver met Margaery outside of school and took her hand again. He let her babble on about her day on the way home. She was in the middle of telling him angrily about the girl in her class who had tried to ruin her braid when Oliver stopped dead in his tracks.
There was smoke rising from their street.
“What is it, Olly?” she asked, confused.
Oliver didn’t answer. Instead, he picked Margaery up and began to run towards their house as fast as he could manage. When he finally reached their street, Oliver fell to his knees.
Their house was enveloped in flame. Huge red trucks were parked in the street, dousing the structure in water but it did no good. The flames just rose higher. There was an ambulance there, too. Oliver felt Margaery begin to shake in his arms as she buried her face in his shirt and sobbed. She did not know what the flames meant, she could not. She cried because she was scared, not because she knew what they had really lost in those flames. He felt tears fall from his own eyes as well. But before he could even truly weep, someone grabbed Oliver from behind and pulled him and Margaery into the woods that surrounded their house.
Oliver gave a shout and nearly hit the attacker square in the jaw before he recognized the man behind the glasses.
“Francis? What the hell are you doing here?” Oliver demanded, incredulous and suspicious all at once.
“Keep your voice down,” the sentence was commanding but Francis’ voice was half-hearted. His face was wrinkled by a frown and there was pity in his eyes when he looked at the two siblings. “I’m sorry Oliver. There was nothing I could do. They’re gone.”
“What are you…?” The realization came over Oliver the same time the grief did, fresh and stinging. He had been hoping against hope that his parents had somehow escaped the blaze. Perhaps his mother had gotten held up at the office or his father was working late on some car. But when he looked into Francis’ eyes, Oliver knew. “Why?”
“You know why, Oliver,” responded Francis. “You know what crime they were guilty of.”
“Crime? They weren’t criminals!” Oliver nearly shouted, suddenly angry. “They were Christians!”
“Keep your voice down,” Francis repeated, this time stern. “Tell that to the man who burned your house down. Tell that to the government who ordered your parents murdered.”
He was right, Oliver realized. What had happened to his parents was unfair and unjust but shouting about it would only put Margaery in danger. This had been a risk all along. He had heard whispers of it happening to other people. Names he’d never heard of from places he’d never seen. But he’d never imagined it would happen to his own family. He’d never imagined he and Margaery would be orphans.
“We need to move,” Francis said suddenly. “By nightfall, these woods will be searched.”
It took them awhile to rouse Margaery. Oliver did not quite remember putting her down; she must have tumbled to the ground when he’d tried to hit Francis. Fortunately, it did not seem as though the fall had hurt her. She had curled up in the dirt and weeds while they’d talked. Eventually, Oliver took her into his arms again, her tears soaking his shirt.
And so they ran. They ran through the trees and bushes as fast as their legs could carry them. Oliver didn’t know where they were going. Francis led the way and he seemed to have a destination in mind. All Oliver could think about was that for once in his life, he knew what it was to hate. He didn’t know who was responsible for his parents’ deaths but he knew he wanted them to know his pain. He would not rest until he had seen the end of this terrible persecution.