The Runner

He ran. Arrows thudded all around him and still, he ran. The rich tones of the warning bells permeated the wind and rain bustling past his ears and he did not divert. An arrow whirred before his face and he did not slow down. Indeed, each arrow seemed to fuel his speed and strengthen his resolve. It was these moments, and these moments alone, when he felt free. While the others rushed to find shelter in their ever-shuttered houses, he sped through the fields. The fear and uncertainty and hunger and loss melted away from his stride, and he was left alone with his race amongst the corn. Like a master artisan of old finding renewed purpose with each stroke of the brush, the corn fields were his canvas, the rain was his palette, and his feet were the brushes.

In the citadel, rain never ceased even with the sun shining. Sometimes it was just a drizzle, other times a storm. It was always present and had always been so; he knew of no time when it did not rain. The winds were loud and furious at times, but most often calm and tranquil, and he took pleasure in walking through the peaceful drizzle of the most common days with the sun on his face. This was one of those pleasant days. When the arrows stopped falling from the sky and the warning bells subsided, his run came to an end, and he took a leisurely stroll back to his home. He knew what awaited him.

His father was waiting in his room, as usual. Father stood there with his steel face while wringing the belt between his hands. No words needed to be spoken. He dutifully took his position and awaited the inevitable. It didn’t matter in the end. The consequences were irrelevant to the freedom he found in his races through the corn. The hunger he felt later as he lay in bed would give him pause in his disregard of the consequences, but he knew that his pause would be forgotten at the first sound of a warning bell.

He lay there unable to sleep because of his hunger. His thoughts turned to the door; the door with the three locks. Every house in the citadel was the same. Sometimes, they were different shades of stone as if they had been painted, but even the differences were all the same shade of drab. All were small square houses with solid steel doors and permanently shuttered windows. Two bedrooms were upstairs and one bedroom was downstairs along with a kitchen, a main room, and a small privy in the back. Every kitchen had a sealed door of which no one would speak. His house’s door was sealed with three locks all down its side, approximately in the same locations as the hinges would normally be located but on the opposite side.

He had no idea what was behind the door. None of the children in the citadel knew, or they just weren’t telling. It was forbidden to ask and doing so was only met with harsh consequences. Nevertheless, he had asked his parents no less than five times. Not knowing what was behind the door was far worse for him than any amount of hunger, belts, or time-outs. He had tried other adults only to be met with looks of horror and further punishment from his parents. He had begged the other children to ask their parents (mostly their mothers since there were so few fathers left in the citadel), but the other children had little interest in asking and would turn up their noses or, more often, turn up his nose in the form of a fist to his face.

He was determined to find out, however, and he had a plan; a rather bad plan, but a plan nonetheless. The locks were all of various shapes and sizes, but they were all tumbler locks, and likely made by the citadel’s locksmith (may he rest in peace.) He had studied them whenever afforded the chance. The keyholes were mostly the same shape, but for some minuscule differences, and he had a rough idea of what the keys should look like. The real problem was the massive amount of keys in the citadel. Keys were everywhere. The locksmith had made hundreds, maybe thousands of locks, all with different keys (he’d heard that the locksmith had been appropriated for the locksmith’s lock-making prowess and forced to live in the citadel, but that was neither here nor there), and the keys had seemingly been scattered all over the place. In his own home, he had located twenty-nine keys that might fit those particular locks; nine on his father’s key-ring and twenty in various cabinets, cupboards, and hiding places throughout the house.

He was the youngest in the citadel and felt almost certain that many of the other children knew what was behind the doors. Why was he so excluded? And for that matter, why did he feel so shunned? The children and adults avoided him and he could hardly get a word out of any of them, even a simple greeting. He would often see them chatting together, sometimes with a smile or a laugh, their downtrodden faces and lifeless eyes notwithstanding. Yet, they never failed to shy away from him. Even his own mother walked in silence and would not even hazard a glance in his direction as they made their way home from the fields after a day of work.

But, it didn’t matter. His runs gave him freedom and the thought of discovering the mystery behind the door gave him excitement — a rare emotion that only he seemed to know. He had a plan. Father’s keys always hung in the same place (in the kitchen no less!) and he spent the next few weeks trying the keys whenever he was certain he could get away with it. One of them worked! He almost shouted with joy upon its discovery, but he managed to stop himself just before; this was too important to give away.

A retaliation meeting was to be held soon. All of the adults attended. It seemed pointless as they rarely actually did anything, but he was glad for it. He planned to quietly slip the working key off his father’s ring the night before the meeting, but his father never returned that evening and did not do so the following day until it was time to fetch his mother for the meeting. He had a backup plan, though, for just in case a key didn’t work. Rust would be his ally.

He set his plan in action as soon as they left for the meeting. First, he gathered the keys. He darted from cupboard to cabinet to hidden places in the walls to underneath beds. Then he began the arduous task of trying them one by one. He tried the first key: nope. He tried the second key: no again. He tried the third key: nothing. The fourth key jammed a bit when he tried to turn it, and so on and so forth until finally! The first lock was open! Then he began on the second lock, and after he felt for sure he had found the right key, he had some trouble getting it to turn all the way. It had rusted inside. After it opened, there was no way it wouldn’t be noticed, so it was all or nothing at this point, and he set to work on the last lock.

He picked up his hand-axe and wedged it between the rusty gap of the latch and the door, then picked up the smith’s hammer, and with a mighty clang! attempted to drive it further in. The force of the sound made him take two steps back; it was far louder than he had expected. He wondered if anyone had heard. Then he thought it best to change his method.

He grabbed a large metal spatula from the other side of the kitchen, raced back, placed it flat against the door, placed the hammer’s handle between the spatula’s handle and the door, and drove the spatula far between the axe and the door. Then he set to work wiggling the hammer back and forth and slowly driving it upward. This was all too loud, as well (though not nearly as much as his first hammer strike), and was certainly loud enough to be heard outside.  But it was too late to stop, then.

After many long minutes of working the hammer upward, he finally managed to get it underneath the butt of the axe-blade, but he could no longer move the hammer! With a hushed cry and sore muscles, he pulled the spatula out and the axe and hammer both crashed to the floor. But the latch had definitely pulled further away from the door! His heart raced at the progress he had made, and he set to work again. After a time, the tools crashed to the floor yet again, but he did not stop for even a moment before he picked them up and tried again. The end was in sight! The latch was coming loose! Soon he would know what was behind the door!

“Stop! Do not open that door!” his father exclaimed as he rushed into the kitchen.

Father’s eyes turned down and swelled as if he might begin to cry. He then took a few steps closer, and in almost a whisper said, “That is… that’s where we keep our hope.”