Prompt: You receive a letter in the mail. It reads: “Congratulations! You’ve just won…” Finish the sentence and tell the story of what happens next.
Right vs. Might
Whistling through my teeth, I jumped over the garden wall. Father hated me doing it – said it ruined the roses on the other side – but I missed the damned flowers this time, so he couldn’t have a go at me for that.
As I reached for the front door, I paused, my hand resting on the door handle. I leant forward, and pushed my ear up against the tinted glass, hearing what I thought I would – silence.
The gnarled wood, familiar against my palms, creaked loudly as I turned the handle and stepped over the threshold. I opened my mouth to announce my entrance, but chose instead to shut the door as loudly as I dared without slamming it.
Turning into the kitchen, I dropped my school bag on the floor, my heart beat so loud in my ears I thought the organ would burst from my chest.
My parents sat side by side at the table. A peach-coloured envelope seemed to cover the entire surface, and I averted my gaze from it. The tap groaning, I filled up a glass of water, and sat down opposite them. Footsteps thudded down the stairs, and my brother, older by three years, appeared at the door.
“Well?” he asked. “Are you going to open it, or stare at it?” My parents exchanged a glance as I reached for the envelope.
“Leanne,” my father said, reaching over the small gap for my elbow, grasping it lightly, “no matter what the letter says – no matter what – we’ll still support you and love you.” He nodded as if pleased with himself, taking his hand away slowly and adjusting the farmers cap that perched crookedly on his head.
Breathing heavily, my stomach twisting into knots, I took a sip of the water. It was a shame it wasn’t alcohol, but, then again, I was 16 and technically not allowed to drink. Still, what my parents didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. I only drink whiskey, and then in tiny amounts.
I slid my thumb underneath the sticky seal, ignoring my other father’s shaky gasp. “It’ll be okay, papa,” Alfie, my brother, said, resting his hand on papa’s shoulder.
Carefully, I pulled the letter from the envelope, tugging as it got stuck. “I can never open letters,” I half-joked, my throat catching. Papa and father smiled.
My eyes skipped straight to the main body of the letter, despite my trying to slow them down. I wasn’t quite ready to know where I was going in life.
‘Congratulations!’ it said, in a fancy text I could barely read. ‘You’ve won the right to…’
“Kill,” I whispered, almost inaudible to my own ears.
“What?” Alfie cried, snatching the letter from my hands. I stared, in shock, at a coffee stain on the mottled wood. He read the words, shaking his head. “I-it doesn’t mean it’s final,” he said, “you might have the right but it doesn’t mean you have to do it.”
It was all right for him. He’d won the right to practise medicine. He’d meant to leave for university the week before, but he’d wanted to see what my right was.
Papa stood, and made his way around the table. He rested his hands either side of my shoulders, then wrapped them around me and gave me a hug. “It’s okay, Leanne. It’ll be okay,” he soothed. But from the mirror opposite me, now visible where papa had vacated his seat, I watched him exchange worried glances with father.
“Leanne,” father said, leaning forward, “you must listen to me.” I blinked, focusing my eyes on his bald, shiny head. Alfie collapsed into the seat next to him. Papa took his comforting arms away, flicking the kettle on behind me.
“Leanne, you must not tell anyone what your right is. Make it up if you have to, but you must not tell anyone. That goes for all of us.” He stared pointedly at Alfie who nodded solemnly.
“I won’t,” he promised, “I won’t tell anyone.” Resting the letter on the table, he stood and helped papa with the teas, his fingertips brushing my shoulder as he passed.
I wasn’t aware of the tears rolling down my cheeks, until Alfie started dabbing at them with a tissue. “I can do that,” I snapped, and he flinched away, dropping the tissue. “No, no!” I said, holding his shoulders. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be so harsh.”
He just nodded, bending down, resting his forehead against mine. “I am not a killer,” I told myself. Alfie kissed my forehead, and papa planted a tea on the table.
“We know you’re not,” papa said kindly. Father just took a sip of the beverage, his eyes downcast.
Papa sat back next to father, and Alfie tugged a chair over from the other side of the table, wrapping his arms around me. For a moment, no one spoke. We just stared at the letter, until the words began to squirm on the page like an infestation and all we needed to do was find some pesticide to destroy it.
“What do I do?” I asked to no one in particular. Father twisted the stick I hadn’t noticed leaning against the table. Papa avoided my gaze, reaching for father’s hand instead. I leant against my big brother. He would know, surely? The intelligent one in the family, he always protected me from the bullies. But if I had the right to kill, would that mean he would expect me to do the protecting now?
“What do I do?” This time, I wanted an answer. We’re expected to live up to our rights, exploit them and use them for our career – such as father’s right to farm and papa’s right to work with animals. The back of the house was like a freakin’ zoo we had so many beasts.
“Anyone?” I knew, of course, why they weren’t answering me. In my lifetime, I’d only heard of three other people with the right to kill. It was a rare thing, and so those people were locked up by those with the right of physical restraint. They were feared because of what they could do. Often, slaughtered in the name of ‘national security’ by those with the right to defence. Surprisingly enough, I couldn’t muster up the urge of wanting to die on my 16th birthday.
“I don’t know,” father eventually sighed. His voice was quiet, but the tone clung to the room like a warm wet blanket, suffocating us and forcing us to hold our breath because it might be our last.
“I can just forget it, do something else; right?” The word mocked me. Right. We all had the right to the basic stuff: life, food, water, shelter. But the right we won was meant to be how to dictate our futures.
“You’d become rightless,” papa reminded me softly. I contemplated the two sides. I could either be rightless, and be scorned by those on the streets, mocked at and forced to work in a labour house every day. Or I could use my right to kill, and become, what, an assassin? A murderer? Paid to take souls and hand them over to the other side, paid to ruin families? Words I’d been taught to fear hovered in front of my eyes, taunting me like the tyrants whose mugshots appeared on the TV, most often with a sobbing family in the background.
The thought I could become those things was almost too dreadful to comprehend.
Because then I thought of people who terrible things had happened to. People with the right to steal taking an entire family’s possessions, casting them into a workhouse. The rightless who were exploited by those with the right to take charge of those less worthy. Even those with the right to defence sometimes used it against their native home. With my right, I could help those victims – at least put their minds to rest at the thought of it happening again.
Between being one of the disappointments of the world, or one of the ones who could use their right – no matter how terrible – for something good suddenly seemed an easy pick.
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