Here is the final chapter of The Compassion Prize I will be sharing with you on my blog (chapters 1 and 2 are on previous posts). The full book is now available to buy (on amazon) in kindle and paperback versions. Thanks for reading … please share your thoughts.
He woke very early. The same dream still lingered as he rubbed his hands over his face and eyes.
The thought came rushing. Competition day today.
‘Blast! I forgot the notebook.’
He reached over to the hatch and clambered out. The sun had not risen fully or broken through the clouds that threatened rain. The book was still there although the pages were a little damp from resting on the moist ground. He still couldn’t see if it was worth keeping or worth trading.
He went back inside, shivering slightly from the damp morning air, and draped the blanket over his shoulders. There was no chance of sleep so he laid the notebook on his bed.
He had so little time left in this shack that he would risk the emotions. Carefully he took the most precious of his books down from his cubby hole. It wasn’t a book that had helped him to survive, as it didn’t contain knowledge that would change the way he lived. It was just a simple children’s story. His mother used to read it to him. He gently stroked the cover, remembering times when they used to pour over the illustrations, picking out the details and repeating the story over and over again. With it she taught him the extraordinary gift of how to read. For a year and a half she would read chapter after chapter to him, re-reading the book countless times. The cover was battered with wear and the pages yellowed. It was probably not worth more than a half credit, but priceless to him.
He missed her most when there was something he needed to talk about.
She would always be ready to listen. She didn’t always have the answer but was able to take the burden.
He wished she was here to take it now.
Even if she were, he was not sure if he could put into words how he was feeling. But she would know.
He missed her.
She would often congratulate him on his ‘Good Choice!’ He felt right now, that he had no choice left. That option had been taken away from him.
He needed to take his mind off her. He needed a distraction.
It was still a little too delicate, but he could be careful and that would help take his mind from his mother.
The flower on the cover was so unusual and had been hand drawn. Five petals, like elongated hearts had a hint of pink in them. In the centre, it looked to have a split stigma, surrounded by a twist of filaments. It reminded him of the faded green botanical book his mother used to have. The illustration style was very similar. Not helpful. He needed distracting.
He almost ripped the cover off in his haste to get away from studying it.
Page after page were full of numbers and letters in columns. Some were crossed out while others were underlined. They meant nothing.
The drink can ring was still caught in the damp pages. He gingerly peeled them apart. This page was different. In neat handwriting was written:
Compassion – testing
Death room = danger
Today, of all days to see that word again. Compassion. He knew that the Compassion prize was awarded to the one who wins the competition so testing makes sense. But to see death room written down. Didn’t his father mention that yesterday? He didn’t understand so he eased apart the next pages looking for answers.
There followed half a dozen pages with various two letter combinations next to six digits and then four. The system and pattern seemed familiar but he couldn’t put his finger on it. The same number sequence assigned for several letters then it changed, but only slightly.
He adjusted the blanket to sit more snuggly around his shoulders.
The last few letter number chains were incomplete. Then that was it. Nothing else. Over half the little book empty.
He turned back to the notes. The word compassion glared at him.
He sat, staring at that page for quite some time, fears, hopes and unknowns rushing through his head. On a whim, he decided to add it to the bag with the few possessions that would be going into Tropolis with him.
He picked up the credits that were bunched together with elastic bands and called to his father to wake up. He grunted.
‘I’ve got to go. Wake up. You need to listen for a moment.’
His father turned over and looked up sadly. He remembered what day this was.
‘When they come to collect you, I want you to bring all my things, do you hear me?’ His father nodded. ‘I’ve split these up into weeks,’ the boy said as he showed him the bundles of credits. ‘You’ve got to be careful not to overspend.’ His father nodded again. ‘I mean it.’
‘Yes. Keep safe.’
‘Don’t worry about me.’
‘Love you, Luca.’
Luca turned and left, frowning at such an outburst.
He didn’t want to think about loss. He bit down on his lip as he remembered his bitterness that had surfaced the day before.
Saying goodbye made it too final. Instead he found comfort in his use of his name.
Names were never used. No one officially had one. His mother used to call him Luca and she would not respond to his father unless he called her Willow. She would say, that just because they lived as Outsiders, doesn’t mean they cannot be given the dignity of a name as it costs nothing. But it did cost. Soon after his mother was gone, there was a shut down on the use of any names, even nicknames. If a Tropolite worker heard the use of a name, there was trouble. There were stories of severe beatings circulated after insider information had been given, but Luca had never seen any evidence. The habit of using registration numbers then became natural and friendships died out. Names were reserved only for the Tropolites.
Luca’s bag was hardly stuffed full, but weighed heavily on his shoulders.
The streets were full of Outsiders heading for the docks. Luca joined the silent throng as they threaded through the narrow passages.
He could hear voices up ahead and strained to see what the noise was about. The group were nearing the gate. Luca’s last journey with fellow outsiders is almost done.
People were calling out and a solitary voice female answered each time.
‘Thank you … I’ll do my best … Take care of yourself … Look after each other … I’ll miss you!’
There she stood. Number 43316 in her oversized trench coat. She answered the calls of Outsiders as they wished her well. How did they all know her? The Compassion contestants never got a send off like this. Luca saw a younger Outsider run to her and get lost in the folds of the coat. 43316 bent down, whispered in the little one’s ear then kissed them on their cheek. The mother stood a short distance away and blew a kiss as her child dashed back to her.
Luca shuffled to one side feeling uncomfortable. His people did not act this way.
As the Outsiders left her, they chatted to one another. The silence was broken. One smiled at another.
Luca held back to listen to the conversation.
‘You know her too?’
‘Oh yes! The sweetest girl.’
‘I shall miss her.’
‘How do you know her?’
‘You know what, I don’t recall! But she is always so …’
‘Like no one I’ve met.’
‘Mind you, who have we ever really met?’
‘That is true.’ They laughed together.
‘You gleaning green today? Do mind if I join you?’
‘Yes, why not!’
Outsiders were choosing to talk, choosing to be friends? Luca rubbed his eyes once again thinking that he must be imagining it all, but he glanced round to see another couple shaking hands, a group of three were laughing together and even more were indulging in chatter.
He backed away from them.
He didn’t understand.
He found himself in the only place where there were no Outsiders, near to the Compassion Gate and next to the strange girl.
She continued to call out, waving and smiling at so many of the Outsiders as they filed past on their way to the port.
It wasn’t long before they were joined by eight others. All were taller, older and more menacing than Luca. Suddenly, this little girl seemed like the only one that Luca could beat in this competition. Even more come wandering over and soon there was a silent crowd.
Luca had a brief moment of doubt. He thought he should run while he had the chance.
The sound of booted footsteps alerted Luca to a new arrival behind him.
Luca spun round and came face to face with the same Tropolite man that handed him his invite. His crisp clothes and white shirt were uncrumpled and his stern face remained unchanged as he scrutinised the group.
‘Missing two already.’ he stated with no emotion. ‘Hold out your wrists.’
The others lined up. Luca shuffled to the end of the line, thinking of breaking free.
‘I’m glad you’re here. I was hoping you’d come.’ She had a clear voice, even in her whispered tone.
‘Are you talking to me?’ Luca asked.
‘Of course I’m talking to you! You said you were coming, so I decided I would too.’
Luca was debating whether he had what it took to escape and was just about to make a run for it when a dark skinned boy with a faded black baseball cap planted himself next Luca.
‘You nearly missed it!’ The girl said as she leaned around Luca.
‘You said I should be here, so I am.’ he answered back, pushing the cap up away from his bright eyes.
The suited man approached the girl, ran the scanner over her wrist and then held it up to take her picture. She stood as tall as she could and smiled.
Luca was so taken aback by her pose that he failed to move. He ran out of time to escape.
‘Wrist,’ the crisp Tropolite man commanded.
Luca held it out. He was scanned and photographed and was sure that his image was nowhere near as confident as hers.
‘Ah! A late comer. You nearly missed your chance.’ The stern face almost became a sneer.
‘Not gonna happen,’ the boy in the black cap said, adding a lopsided smile to the photographic collection as he hummed.
There they were, nineteen out of the twenty. The competitors for Compassion.
‘Follow me,’ the Tropolite commanded.