Please find below chapter 2 of The Compassion Prize. Chapter 1 can be found on my previous post. Thanks for reading! You can purchase the book here.
This was it. His whole future was sealed in the red envelope being handed to him.
It was strange. For a moment he wished he had never gone. He wished he had stayed away. But he knew they would have found him wherever he was. They had a way of knowing. How was that?
The flame red envelope felt like it was burning his hand.
An invitation to the competition, yet not an invitation at all if you wanted to be free from this place. It was a requirement to get out, the key to freedom and it was in his hand. Yet, he was still not sure if he wanted it or not. Freedom he wanted, but at what cost?
Suddenly the need to glean became urgent. If he was gone, how would his father survive? But with every eye seemingly focused on him in that moment, the only place he wanted to be is hidden away at home.
‘Thank you,’ he said with a dry mouth to the crisp- suited man, yet there was no change in the Tropolite’s countenance; his expression remained one of disgust.
He stepped away nervously, certain that there was little else to say but not knowing if he had been dismissed.
The alarm sounded again and the light flashed above the far archway.
He watched as the green clad gate keeper scanned the card and opened the turnstile. A girl, maybe his age but a little shorter, was released. She followed the worker to the suited man who handed her a red envelope.
‘Congratulations 43316, you have been selected to enter the competition for the Compassion Prize.’
He wondered if he looked that confident as he approached. He shook his head, certain that he hadn’t. She stood straight and looked at the crisp man full in the face. The contrast was stark. His over clean, elegantly cut apparel to her brown and encrusted oversized coat with sleeves turned up and hem cut roughly. But it was their faces that captured the attention. The Tropolite looked down at her, with much the same expression, Outsiders were lower than him, too low, but she, well she was different, her face was not fearful or desperate, or full of expectation like others that had gone to the competition before. She was confident, almost as if she expected today to be her day, as if she knew she would be here, receiving the post.
There was no way to get away. He felt intimidated already. The turnstiles were still busy with the queue of gleaners stretching beyond the them. He anticipated an agonizing wait.
Only a moment passed before he realised that he was not standing alone.
‘Are you going to glean?’ she asked.
There she was. Her long trench coat skimmed the ground, her red envelope clutched in her hand.
He knew he should answer. ‘I’m going home.’ For the first time he looked in her face. She had wide grey eyes, a small button nose dotted with freckles and a narrow chin. Her face was framed by thick black hair. She reminded him of a porcelain doll he once saw. She had an open face, not like his. Anyone could see who she really was just by looking at her. She reminded him of his mother. He did not want to go there – not there, not then, not ever.
‘Oh well,’ she smiled a little sadly, ‘I thought that maybe we could work together today.’
Together? Only semi functioning families worked together. ‘No thanks. I need to head home.’
‘Okay. I hope your father takes the news well.’
What? What did she know about him? He turned and faced her. ‘Excuse me! How do you know about my father?’
‘I’m sorry. Am I not supposed to know?’ she whispered. ‘I didn’t mean anything by it. I know he isn’t well and I just hope that the news gives him a little joy, that’s all.’
Outsiders stared as they trundled past.
‘It doesn’t matter.’ He waved his hand in dismissal. ‘See you at the gate.’ He hurried away and pushed through the tide of disgruntled Outsiders and out the arch. He had to get away.
The loud gulls called to one another as the barges arrived at the docks. Life happened behind him as he headed home, but was there life ahead of him too?
Reaching into his pocket he pulled out the red envelope. It was thick and heavy. He had never handled such a pristine object before. He frowned at the opportune yet hideous post. Shaking his head, he thought of the waste of paper, still, he could always trade it for credit.
His number was embossed on the rich surface and the flap was stuck down with some medieval looking wax seal. He broke the Tropolis T in half as he opened his post.
The card inside was the purest of white with artistically torn edges and fancy red swirls and swishes round the border. The Tropolite crest was printed in gold. There were very few words, but the ones that were there sent a shiver down his spine.
‘Congratulations 57124, you have been selected to enter the competition for the Compassion Prize. Tomorrow, Compassion Gate, 09:00.’ The time and location were printed boldly underneath. There really was no need for instructions, everyone knew what the red envelope meant even if you couldn’t read. But below, in small print was a short warning. ‘Consider wisely if you wish to enter the competition as there will be no option to return to Outside or be re-entered.’ It may have been short, but even that many words would have been a task for an Outsider to read. He thought, without arrogance and slight nervousness that he may be the only Outsider to receive post who could read the warning.
No option to return? What did that mean? The only way not to return was to be kept prisoner wasn’t it? Or was there another way to prevent return? He had never seen anyone come home again. He had assumed that they had either won the prize, their family collected and lived a wonderful life at Tropolis, or that they had been given a lesser compassion and been allowed to stay alone, perhaps given work, menial work but better than here. He had an awful feeling that perhaps he had been naïve all this time.
With the threat still buzzing in his head, he shoved the card back into his pocket and entered the maze of streets. The common use of tarpaulin and collected planks or bricks formed the main structure of most homes.
There was no litter on the pathways but there was still a smell of decay. Everything was useful or had a use. In the doorways to their shacks small children played with some Tropolis child’s rubbish.
He had to get out. There must be more to living than being someone’s cast off. Everything had use or is useful, well perhaps this was his time to be useful, perhaps he could get them free.
He had to travel deep into the maze and out the other side before the branch of shanty houses and shacks that were his neighbours came into view. Near to the edge, tucked into the rock face the fused plastic casings of multiple discarded goods that formed the façade of his home came into view. It had been his idea to move this far out, away from the docks, away from the lavish containers. They had needed a quieter, less hostile place to exist, although, these days there were few reports of violence, people were just too tired trying to survive to think about death.
He slid the door to one side, ignored his father and filled a mug of rain water from the container in the corner.
It was cool.
He could feel his father’s gaze but refused to turn just yet. He refilled the mug and then filled a second mug.
‘Want a drink?’ he asked as he put down the mug in front of his father.
The room was dark and his eyes were slowly adjusting.
He could see the frown and the question forming, but didn’t really want to answer.
‘Not much today,’ he added. ‘New book though. Needs drying.’ He carefully lifted the notebook from the bottom of his bag and laid it in a patch of sunlight. ‘Won’t take long. Just a bit damp on the edges.’
His father watched him. ‘Post day,’ he mumbled.
The boy sighed. He thought his father had forgotten like so many other things. ‘Yes. It is Post day.’ He pulled the red envelope from his pocket and put it down next to his mug.
His father’s head lowered and he let out a small gasp.
‘I got the Post today,’ the boy stated with as little emotion as possible.
‘Too young,’ he uttered.
‘No. I’m fourteen.’
‘Fourteen year olds have been selected before. There was another one just after me, a girl actually.’ He started to feel anger rising up. ‘I’m smart, I can do it.’
His father nodded because he knew that his son was capable. He took the mug in his shaking hand and tried to steady it before taking a sip. The man looked frail. His hair had fallen out in patches and he was dangerously skinny. ‘Why you?’ he finally asked. If anyone else had used such a small voice you would imagine them talking to themselves, but speech was difficult for this boy’s father. He wanted an answer.
‘It’s random. They pick out twenty at random. The odds are going down, there just aren’t as many of us as there used to be.’
‘What do you mean, not random?’
‘I don’t know what makes me so special! But it doesn’t matter. I could get us out of here.’
‘Nothing to gain if you win.’
‘Of course there is! We would get to be in Tropolis. Don’t you want to be free?’
‘Not freedom there,’ his father said weakly. ‘Not what you think.’
‘Well it isn’t freedom here.’ He snatched up the notebook and turned to leave.
He turned back. His father’s gaze was fixed on the damp notebook, but there was a faraway sound in his voice. His stomach tightened as he gritted his teeth.
‘Mother isn’t here anymore. She’s gone.’
‘That’s right,’ he sighed.
In that moment he knew he had to enter the Compassion Prize. He couldn’t do this by himself in this rotting place anymore.
‘I’m sorry Dad. I have to enter the contest. It is the only hope that we have.’
‘Only hope in the death room.’
‘What?’ He was so hard to understand sometimes. The faraway look even suggested that he was not in the room anymore. This place was killing his father and if he didn’t do something about it soon it would kill him too.
‘I’m not going to die. I will win. I need to.’ His father’s face softened and his eyes closed. There would be no more words from him for a while and the boy didn’t want to talk any longer. He went over to his bed, lifted the hatch in the wall at the end and climbed out. Tomorrow would come all too soon and he needed to make preparations.
The competition should be completed within the month, at least that was about the time the winner’s family were taken to Tropolis. He didn’t know that his father would be able to look after himself for that long.
There was little left of the vegetables to harvest. He picked the last marrow and inspected the pumpkin. It wasn’t quite ready but it would have to do. He thought that his father could live off pumpkin soup for a while and whatever else the credits would buy. He had doubts that he could leave him, but he knew that he would. It was for his father’s sake that he needed to do this. A niggling thought that rang loud: who was he trying to kid? He wanted to get out of this place, his father was just his excuse to go for the only escape route.
There was enough sun streaming through the clear corrugated plastic roof to the sheltered garden to dry out the pages of his find for today. He laid the notebook down, gently fanning it out to let the air circulate. The grey cover, though battered, still clung steadfastly to the wire spine. He could tell it had been used by someone, by the inked flower drawn on the front. It wasn’t a flower he recognised. He curbed his curiosity knowing it would do no good to finger the pages. He would give it an hour or two and then investigate.
Back inside, he tipped the carton holding the thick plastic credits out over the bed. There weren’t as many red as he would have liked to have seen, but plenty of brown. A quick calculation told him that there were 172 credits that could be redeemed; a balance that was being saved for the winter months. If he could budget it right, and get his father to agree, they could last until spring. The competition would be over, maybe within a month, so the credits would last longer than that if needed. With that grim, lingering thought, the boy knew that even with them his father would still starve, but it would take longer. There was no choice, he had to win or know his father would die.
Things would be different if his father would only glean but he had never seen him do it. With a desperate hunger, perhaps his father would get up and do something for himself rather than living off his son’s hard efforts. Never had he gone to the gates, never had he provided for his family, never had he been a father. The boy was essentially alone and living with a parasite. He paused and hung his head, wondering if other Outsiders had such putrid revulsion in their minds.
He shook his head and sighed.
Being an Outsider had made him like this. He reached for the envelope and ran his finger over the broken seal. He dreamed of Tropolis, to be without an empty stomach, to live in comfort and happiness. There really was no choice, he had to win to be free.