The mood was festive around the small town in Montana. Every year at this time, the town was prepped by cleaning and cooking. It was a perfect day out, a near cloudless sky that was a cobalt blue. Birds sang in the trees that surrounded the remote town and the gurgle of the stream that ran alongside could barely be heard over the groups of people talking and the kids squealing.
Hope Jones came out of her house carrying some freshly baked bread, followed by her younger brother Peter. He was carrying freshly churned butter the two had finished earlier that morning. They carried the food along the short street and into the town square park where the tables were set up to hold the food for later on in the day.
Their mother Constance was there helping Peggy McKinnon arrange the food. Peggy was in a good mood as her husband Marshall had been selected as the Overseer for this year’s choosing. Constance told her children where to put the food on the table, and while Hope was helping Peter set the crock of butter among the other dishes already arranged on the long table, Suzy Nelson and her son Dean walked up.
“Peggy,” Suzy said, “everything looks wonderful. And you must be so proud of Marshall. His job is an important one.”
Peggy flushed at being the center of attention.
Quietly Hope’s mother said to her, “Help Dean place their food contribution and then Peter can go play with him if he wants.”
Hope knew that while the ones younger than ten were excluded from the choosing, they would also be exempt from most of the day’s chores and could play once the necessities were done. While she wasn’t excluded from the choosing, being only twelve had its privileges as well. She only had to help cook her family’s portion of the noonday food, and after putting it out, she would have the day free as well until time for the choosing.
Helping Dean place his food on the table, Hope told the boys, “You can go play, but stay close. You know today is an important day and you wouldn’t want to get into any trouble.”
With a squeal of excitement, the two boys took off towards the copse of woods not far from the square.
Hope was finished with her part for the day until cleanup time, so she looked around trying to decide what to do next. She spotted Ray McKinnon coming towards the tables, carrying food in his hands as well as under one of his arms. She smiled at the sight, and then went over to help Ray was a year younger than she was, but they grew up together, doing most things as a pair.
Ray paused seeing her, mouth slightly agape.
Hope abruptly stopped in front of him. “What?” she asked, hands on her hips and brow furrowed.
Ray turned slightly pink and closed his mouth, slowly shaking his head. “Umm, n-nothing,” he managed.
“That’s a lie Ray McKinnon,” she replied.
He looked down at the tray he was holding, not looking her in the eyes. “It’s... It’s just you’re wearing a dress.”
“Well,” Hope said looking down at herself. “Mother made me wear it. She said I was getting old enough to wear girlie things now on special occasions.”
Ray looked back up at her. “You look nice.”
She shot daggers at him. “Don’t you dare start acting weird on me! Just because I’m wearing a dress doesn’t mean I’ve changed. Now come on and let’s drop off the food so we can go play,” she said taking the big jar from under his arm and walking off to the table.
Ray followed and put the tray he was carrying down in the space she cleared for him. “That’s all of it,” he said to Hope who nodded in agreement.
“Mother, we’re both done now and are going to go and play,” she said towards the three women who were still standing by the other end of the table talking.
Ray’s mother looked at her, then at her son but said nothing.
Constance said, “Fine but don’t you get all dirty.” She looked stern but Hope noticed that Peggy looked somewhat amused. “And make sure you’re back in plenty of time for the choosing,” she added before turning her attention back to the other mothers.
Hope didn’t wait for more; she simply grabbed Ray’s hand and pulled him away before any of the other mothers could change their minds.
Ray didn’t protest, he never did, content to follow Hope around. Hope had a destination in mind but didn’t know how Ray would react, so she didn’t tell him, she simply led him along the street towards the courthouse.
As they rounded the comer Ray finally took some notice of where they were headed and only pulled her to a stop when he caught sight of the choosing box sitting on display in front of the courthouse steps and pulled them to a halt.
“Hope, I don’t think this is a good idea,” he told her.
“What?” she said innocently. “We’re only getting a closer look at the box. We’re included in the choosing and have just as much right as anyone. I just want to have a closer look.”
“Okay, but please don’t do anything to get us in trouble. Not today.” “Have I ever gotten you in trouble?” she asked rolling her eyes.
He looked at her like she had grown a second head, then said, “Uh yeah, plenty of times.” She shrugged and said, “Whatever. Now come on,” and pulled him up to the box.
It was a simple wooden box, painted red and worn with age. There was a hole in the top large enough for an adult hand, although the hole was covered by black cloth and slit so you couldn’t see through it. This was to attempt to stop anyone from trying to cheat the choosing. The box itself wasn’t that big, roughly three feet long and two feet high.
It didn’t have to be that big Hope knew, as only about a thousand people lived in town and only around three hundred fifty families, so the box only had to hold about three hundred fifty slips of paper for the choosing.
As they were looking at the box, someone placed a hand on their shoulders making them jump. “Well. well. What do we have here?” a voice that both knew asked.
Ray looked up over his shoulder at his older sister Crystal. He swallowed before answering, “W-we’re just looking at it.”
Crystal let out a little laugh. “I can see that little brother. Are you two excited about the choosing? Is that why you’re here?”
Ray looked at Hope but said nothing. “I wanted to see it up close,” Hope said to her.
The eighteen-year-old looked down at the skinny girl in the dress. “All dressed up for the event even. Trying to look pretty if you get chosen Hope?”
Hope frowned at that. “This wasn’t my choice. I was told I had to wear it.”
Crystal gave the girl’s shoulder a pat. “It’s okay. You look good in it, and someday you’ll enjoy wearing them even if you don’t now.” Someone called her name from behind them. “And Ray will enjoy it too,” she added with a laugh.
Ray blushed looking at Hope but smartly kept his mouth shut.
“Mike,” Crystal said as another older boy approached them holding a long thin branch. “Are you ready to go?” he asked the older girl.
“What are you kids doing down there?” a gruff voice asked from above them. They all looked up and coming down the courthouse stairs was an older man they all knew.
“Why Mr. Thompson, we’re just talking to these fine young kids who wanted to look at the choosing box,” Crystal replied.
“Don’t go messing with things,” he said to them in a snarky way.
Mike spoke up. “Why Mr. Thompson, don’t you think it’s about time that we started to change things? I mean, other towns have decided to end their choosing.”
Anger boiled up on Mr. Thompson’s face. “This is tradition. We’ve been doing it for generations. It’s a blessing and something that is done for the well-being of all of us.” He pointed at the choosing box and continued. “That box might not be the original, but it’s been used longer than I’ve been around and will continue to be used.”
Hope knew that Mr. Thompson was the town’s oldest person.
Mike just sighed but Crystal said, “But is that really fair? I mean, is the choosing really necessary? Aren’t we just singling out one person to be chosen, when the privilege isn’t really necessary?”
Mr. Thompson replied, “It’s as it should be. It’s been a tradition for generations, and it should continue on. We should cherish the old ways.” He peered through his rheumy eyes at the four kids before continuing. “What’s wrong with our youth these days?” he said shaking his head.
Crystal didn’t seem to be cowed by Mr. Thompson like the others and she replied, “There’s nothing wrong with us sir. You should know that through generations, traditions change. Maybe this is one that should be changed as well.”
Mr. Thompson started to say something, but only managed to mumble out a few words in his anger and those were sputtered. Hope and Ray were alarmed at the color that Mr. Thompson was becoming, and Hope reached out and grabbed Ray’s sleeve, pulling it as she quickly started backing up and away from the group.
When they were far enough away, she turned and ran, pulling Ray behind her. They ran through the streets, past other children and adults who were starting to gather in clumps, all headed towards the town square. She steered them away towards the wooded area, where they stopped just inside the edge of the tree line.
Both were bent over, hands on thighs, breathing hard. After a few minutes, their breathing slowed, and Ray straightened and looked at Hope. “You think Crystal will get in trouble?” he asked.
Hope thought about this for a moment. “I don’t think so. She’s allowed to speak her mind and she didn’t say anything blasphemous. She just said that maybe the tradition should be changed.”
Ray studied her trying to figure if she was trying to say something else. He finally asked. “Do you think it should be changed? I mean, it’s a person’s right as well as their duty to participate. And if they are the chosen one, then it’s good for everyone isn’t it?”
Hope looked at Ray while she tried to figure out what to say. She knew him too long to lie to him, but did he really want to hear the truth? She decided to dodge his question. “It’s a tradition that is said to be good for the whole community. I’m just a kid, so I don’t have a say.”
“But it would be something glorious if you or I got picked! Just think what it would mean to our families. Think of the blessings that come with being the chosen one. Or all the advantages and benefits their families get for that year. There’s even the benefit to the community itself.”
“Sure,” Hope replied, not really sure at all.
She bent down and picked up a piece of broken branch off the ground, swishing it through the air in front of her. This distracted Ray from the conversation, and he picked up a branch that was as thick as his thumb and was three feet long.
“This one should be a good one,” he said, slicing the air with it as if he was wielding a sword.
He let out a gleeful squeal and leapt at Hope, who nimbly dodged him and swatted his backside as she twirled around him. They continued their mock sword fight until they were both out of breath.
While they were regaining their breath and energy, a bell started to ring its loud metallic gong. “The church bell,” Ray said.
“We best head back so we’re not late. We’ll be in a world of trouble if we are,” Hope replied.
They both looked around and picked up a few more sticks for the other kids as they were leaving, and then they headed back through town towards the square and the park. Hope led them in a way that stayed away from the courthouse and Mr. Thompson in case he was still there and in one of his moods.
Once in the town square itself, Hope and Ray laid down the sticks they carried in the pile others had left before they got there, and then headed into the park where the town was gathering.
Hope saw her mother, who was still with Ray’s mother, and they headed over towards them.
Upon their arrival, Constance looked at her daughter and sighed.
“Young lady, you were supposed to stay looking respectable,” she said brushing the dirt off of Hope’s dress. Hope knew better than to argue with her mother.
“Alright everyone let’s quiet it down and get started,” Mr. McKinnon called out. The talking started to quiet, and he continued. “With everyone gathered, I’d like to call for two volunteers to assist me.”
The somewhat quiet died down even more until all that was heard were the younger kids squalling and birds singing.
“Come on now,” said Mr. McKinnon, “you all know how this goes. I need two volunteers to help with the choosing box and to watch over the picking.”
Still, no one spoke up, so Mr. McKinnon said, “Okay, how about you Mr. Hillsdale, and you Mr. Jones.” This was spoken not as a question, but as a directive.
Hope stiffened at her father being picked, and she looked up to see him standing there just behind her and her mother. She hadn’t realized he was there until he was called on. She saw him clench his jaw, but then he stepped forward with Mr. Hillsdale towards Mr. McKinnon, the crowd parting to let them through.
When they reached Mr. McKinnon, they shook hands, and then turned to face the courthouse together. Another man walked up to the three and Hope knew it was Judge Becker.
“Raise your right hands please,” the judge said to the three men and they did. “Do you swear to be honest in the running of this year’s choosing, to do your duty to your town and God and make sure that peace and harmony prevail here today?” All three men said I do and lowered their hands when the judge nodded his acceptance for their pledge. Knowing what was to come, the crowd parted as the three men walked off to get and bring the choosing box back to the park.
It didn’t take long, as it was a short walk and while the two men carried the box, Mr. McKinnon carried the table it was to be sat on. The table was set down, and the box on top of it, and Mr. Jones and Mr. Hillsdale stood on either side, looking inward towards the opening.
“Okay everyone,” Mr. McKinnon called out. “I have a list of the family names here. When called, please step up, and you will reach in and pull out one slip of paper. Please take your paper and keep hold of it until everyone has picked out one. Keep them folded until such time as I tell you to open them.”
This was nothing new and no one has any questions as to the proceedings.
Mr. McKinnon started calling out names and men came up and pulled out a slip of paper from the choosing box one by one. As there were only around three hundred fifty families, it didn’t take too long before all of the men who headed each household had a slip of folded paper.
Mr. McKinnon was the last, and he reached in, feeling around the box to make sure there were no other slips in it but the one that was to be his. Sure, that there was only the one slip, he withdrew it and held it up. “This is the last of the choosing slips. The box is now empty. When your name is called again, please come up and open your slip, showing it.”
Mr. McKinnon started calling names from the list again one by one and the men came up to the box, opened their slip and held it up for all to see. Blank slip after blank slip was held up high, with a breath of relief from the holder.
“Mr. Jones,” Mr. McKinnon called out. Daniel Jones, Hope’s father, was standing next to the box still, and he held up this slip and opened it, showing it before looking at it himself. He heard several gasps from the crowd, before looking up at it. He saw that in the center of the fold was the choosing symbol, and his family had been chosen this year.
Mr. McKinnon calmly said, “The Jones family has been chosen this year. Mr. Jones, how many members in your family?”
Mr. McKinnon knew the answer as the two families were close and had been for longer than Hope and Ray had been around, but it was required.
“There is me, Constance, Hope, Peter and little Joey,” Hope’s father replied.
“No!” Constance Jones wailed. “Daniel was a watcher. There has been some mistake. He couldn’t have been the one chosen.” The crowd tried to ignore the fear on her face.
“And are any of these family members under the allowed age of ten?” Mr. McKinnon asked ignoring the outburst from Mrs. Jones.
“Yes, little Joey is under ten.”
Hope felt some relief that her youngest brother Joey wouldn’t be chosen this year.
Mr. McKinnon nodded and retrieved three of the blank slips and held his hand out for the chosen marked slip, which Mr. Jones gave him. “Mr. Jones, please reach in the box and make sure it is empty.”
Mr. Jones did, and nodded to Mr. McKinnon, who refolded the four slips of paper and placed them into the box.
“As the youngest, we’ll start with Peter. Son, come up and take the first slip,” Mr. McKinnon said.
Hope watched as her younger brother took a step and looked at their mom. She reached out for him but instead of going to her he looked at his father, who simply nodded for him to continue. She watched as he went to the box, and Mr. Hillsdale lifted him up so he could pull out a slip.
“Take only one Peter. Make sure you pull out only one,” Mr. McKinnon said to him.
Peter pulled out one and Mr. Hillsdale set him down and Mr. McKinnon said, “Why don’t you hold on to the paper until it’s time Fred.”
Mr. Hillsdale nodded, and Peter gave the slip to him. “Hope, you’re next,” he called.
Hope swallowed as a moment of panic hit her. She didn’t want to be chosen. She also knew she had no choice, so she willed her feet to take a step, then another, until she was at the box. He father gave her a thin-lipped smile of encouragement and nodded slightly.
Steeling herself, she reached into the box and felt around for a slip and pulled one out. She wanted to open it right then, but knew she had to wait. Moving next to her ten-year-old brother, she waited in agony while this continued.
Her mother was next, crying out that this was a mistake all the way to the box, being moved by Mrs. McKinnon. She looked wild-eyed at her husband who stoically looked back at her.
With prompting by Mr. McKinnon, she reached into the box and got a slip, and a warning from Mr. McKinnon not to open it until told.
Mr. Jones was the last as the male head of the family, and he pulled out the last slip from the box. Mr. McKinnon reached into the box to make sure it was empty, which of course it was as there were only the four slips puts, and then pulled out, but it was a formality.
“Okay then, all family members have drawn. Mr. Hillsdale, will you please give Peter his slip, and Peter, will you please open it and show it.”
Little Peter did as he was told, opening it and showing the blank slip of paper.
Next came Hope, who was frightened that she would be the chosen one. Mr. McKinnon prompted her to open her paper and she did, holding it up with her eyes closed. There were no gasps, so she slowly opened her eyes and looked up at the paper. It was blank and she felt her relief.
“Mrs. Jones, you’re next please,” Mr. McKinnon said.
Hope looked at her mother who was visibly trembling and shaking her head. “Constance,” hissed Mr. Jones, “open it. Don’t embarrass us.”
Constance Jones sobbed and unfolded the paper, letting out a wail before dropping it to the ground. “No! NO!” she shook and sobbed in horror.
Mr. McKinnon walked around the box, and picked up the paper, showing the choosing symbol on it to everyone. “Constance Jones has been chosen this year. Let us all celebrate her in her contribution to our town.”
A collective sigh was let out by the crowd, and a few cheers went up as some men took Constance Jones by the arms and moved her towards the town square proper. She moaned and struggled but the men held her tightly as they moved her forward.
They walked her to the three stepped box and up it, where she tried to pull out of their hands with more vigor, screaming that there has to have been some mistake.
At the pole, they pulled her hands behind her and bound her and moved down the steps where others waited for them to clear the area.
Daniel Jones had taken his two younger children along behind their mother to watch as she was taken away. Hope has slowly followed.
Ray had run up in front and grabbed three of the sticks that he and Hope had gathered and returned to her, handing her and Peter and little Joey each one of them.
“Go on, put it on the stack. We want the fire big,” he said.
Peter threw the stick towards the mound of tender and kindling that surrounded the eight-foot wooden pole that Constance Jones was tied to. Hope cringed at the sight of her little brother Peter and the look in his eyes — excitement. Joey was too young to really understand what was going on and just followed the others.
Hope dropped the stick at her feet as the tender was lit under her mother, the chosen one, and the bonfire erupted. She turned and walked slowly away, feeling the heat on her back as her mother was burned alive while people were shouting praise for her sacrifice.
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