Courtesy Panoramio
Courtesy Panoramio

To conclude The Cooperative Cliffhanger I chose to finish the story started by Jessica called Counting Down.

Time is relentless. The seconds never stop ticking away, inching us closer to our destinies. Anise reflected on this as her mental countdown towards the execution got shorter and shorter. Two minutes, ten seconds. She looked at the back of the man in front of her. Will this make any difference? What will happen next?

The sirens began to sound and the raggedy man broke into the grin she’d seen before.

“Hear that? They finally noticed we’re not where we should be.”

Anise stayed close behind the man her grandfather sent, breathing mostly through her mouth, lest the smell of the drainage pipe crawl up her nostrils. She cast her eyes upward, as if she could see through the stone to the courtyard they now bypassed.

“Does this mean the execution won’t happen?”

“Oh, it’ll happen. Just not now. You’ve bought those men at least another day. See? You’re saving lives already.”

Anise didn’t feel like she was saving lives. She didn’t know how she was supposed to feel. Above her, the hangman’s noose meant for her neck hung empty. Soon, men and dogs would be scouring the prison for her. This was the reasoning behind the man using the drain; the stink of living waste and dead bodies would hide her scent. Or so he thought. Anise wasn’t sure. Dogs had powerful noses. And they knew how to track.

“Just a little farther.”

“How do you know your way through here?”

“This isn’t the first time I decided prison life wasn’t for me.”

It occurred to Anise that it was possible the man was a liar. That he wanted to keep her for his own nefarious purposes. But if that was the case, how would he have known about her grandparents? Or her real name? She shivered, drawing her grandmother’s shawl closer around her shoulders as they walked.

‘Just a little farther’ was another fifteen minutes of slow, careful, smelly trudging before he stopped by a small alcove in the wall. He went first up the metal rungs sticking out of the brickwork, towards wan sunlight filtered through a manhole cover. Gently, he pushed the metal plate up and aside, hauling himself through the hole. Anise followed, finding his hand waiting for her to help her up onto the street.

The city had grown organically which meant the prison was situated in the middle of some residential areas. Anise winced at the full brunt of the sirens coming from the high walls topped with barbed wires. The man beside her took hold of her shoulder, even as the crowd moving to and fro around them looked at them or towards the prison.

“Come along. Let’s get you safe.”

Anise stayed close to the man as they moved through the streets. Everywhere she looked, Anise saw faces of people devoid of hope, dressed in clothing stained and torn by their hard lives, eyes downcast to avoid the posters of propaganda and any sentries on the rooftops. They wove their way through the byways and alleys to reach a ramshackle rowhome several blocks from the prison.

Other men and women waited inside, and they greeted Anise with quiet enthusiasm. None of them were her grandfather, and the more she looked, the more worried she became. Finally, the man who’d freed her pulled her aside.

“I’m sorry he isn’t here. We have to keep you separate for now. It’s too dangerous otherwise. But there’s a way you can help him, and help all of us.”

Anise nodded. She was lead upstairs and sat at the desk. A woman adjusted dials as she waited. When she couldn’t stand it, she looked up at the man and asked.

“What’s your name?”

“Call me Mickey.”

“Mickey… what do I say?”

“Whatever is in your heart.”

She took a deep breath. The woman nodded to Mickey, who bent over Anise to turn on the microphone.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt your regularly-scheduled government-mandated programming for a special announcement.”

He looked at Anise and smiled. Anise took another breath and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she began to speak.

“My name is Anastasia. Six months ago, I was a princess. I lived in the palace on the hill. The one that’s been dark since the Duke and his allies in the military stormed it. My mother and father did not survive this attack. I managed to escape, changing my name, moving from place to place until I was captured and sentenced to die.”

She paused.

“I was sentenced to die because I was born into the family that has looked after this kingdom for 300 years. From what I understand, we were a prosperous people. Not always happy, but prosperous. You were taken care of. Some went hungry but others helped. Now, look around. Look at the kingdom now. More are hungry. Fewer are around to help. Families have been put to death and the streets run with the blood of the innocent in ways that have not been seen in centuries.”

She looked at Mickey and the others in the room. A crowd had gathered. Some were weeping. She went on.

“If you can hear my voice, know that you are not alone. You are not forgotten. In their grab for power, the Duke and his allies have forgotten that the first office of a ruler is to care for the people under their rule. The Duke doesn’t care about you. He doesn’t care if your children starve. I do.

“And mark my words. Your pain will not be forgotten. It will be visited upon the Duke and those that stand with him tenfold.”

Somewhere in the distance, something exploded. More sirens sounded. Mickey took hold of Anise’s arm, but she kept her finger on the microphone’s button.

“Please. For my sake, for the memory of my parents, your king and queen, do not give up. Never give up. We fight for a better tomorrow. All of us must fight. Mother, Father, I’m coming home!”