This is the 13th round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “M”.
Readers have until the publication of the next round of stories (about two weeks between rounds) to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.
In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the first of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “M” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2020 — E. J. D’Alise
(2,968 words – approx. reading time: about 11 minutes based on 265 WPM)
“The conversion failed once. There’s no reason to believe it would work this time.”
Tina, sitting at the top of the stairs, listened to the words of her father, her heart rate rising and her breathing difficult as she remembered the nine months ordeal.
Tina had almost broken twice. Even so, she was luckier than her friend Jack; he committed suicide three months into the program. She might have suffered the same fate if it hadn’t had been for Evelyn.
Subjected to the aversion therapy — more like torture, in Tina’s mind — that combined viewing the of same-sex erotic images with corporal punishment and nausea-inducing drugs, she remained true to herself because of Evelyn’s support and seemingly unshakable strength. Tina shuttered at the memory, wondering about the mindset and perverse dedication of the people making her suffer to turn her into a “normal” woman.
The first six months aimed to break her by associating same-sex attraction with adverse physical reactions. As bad as those sessions had been, the psychological attacks were, in many ways, worse for they had her question herself and wonder if indeed there was something “wrong” with her.
She remembered the feeling of worthlessness and the pressure to give in to self-loathing and doubt. Her tormentors knew that was key for the subsequent three months of religious indoctrination that would “turn” her identifying as, and accepting, her preordained role of heterosexual female.
“But shouldn’t we try again? Must we let her go?” her mother pleaded. “She’s free of corrupting influences, and we can help her make the correct choices.”
They meant Evelyn. She’s become Tina’s friend — and more — during the conversion therapy. It had been the second time around for Evelyn, but she had an inner strength that was no match for the crude, ignorant and abusive practices of the ministry.
And now, Evelyn was gone. No one spoke of it openly, but — like a few others “aberrations” before her — she had been “hired” by The Merchant. In actuality, she was bartered for goods, but no one called it that because it was technically illegal. But, it was not unlawful for a family to send one of their children to be an apprentice in some faraway place.
“Are we to give up on her? We raised her to follow the teachings of The Book, to see the importance of her role in society.”
Again, that was her mother speaking,
What hurt the most was that her mother had betrayed her confidence. Tina had innocently discussed her developing feeling with her mother and immediately was ousted to the ministry as an aberration of nature.
It wasn’t until she’d been exposed that a few others — females and males — had discretely come forth and advised her to keep as much as she could inside, to become a part of the non-descript background, to blend in.
But not Evelyn. She challenged, questioned, and raised her voice, demanding respect and equal treatment. She’d called for others to join her in solidarity, but none would, even when outed.
It was the threat of The Merchant that kept the others in line, afraid to speak, afraid to challenge, and hidden from the scrutiny of the ministry.
“What would you have us do that we’ve not already done?” Her father’s voice carried to the top of the stairs, an indication of a rare moment of anger.
Tina had always thought her father more sympathetic than her mother, more forgiving and accepting, but she was now hearing the truth of it; he was only concerned about appearances in the community, probably to maintain his position of authority.
“Are we to live with a constant reminder of our failure?” he continued. “Do you want to suffer the constant whispers and glances and see the pity in peoples’ faces?”
Despite her anger, Tina’s eyes welled up of their own volition, the stark truth of the words hitting home; she wasn’t their daughter; she was their failure, bringing shame to their family’s name.
Tina wiped the tears from her cheek as she struggled to hear her mother’s now quieter voice.
“I remember John’s and Rose’s ordeal with their son until . . .” she didn’t finish.
She didn’t have to. Their son had died in a hunting accident, finally allowing people to act as supportive members of the community and expressing their condolences for John’s and Rose’s loss.
“We have no other option but The Merchant,” her father said with finality as her mother sobbed.
The Merchant came once every three months or so. He brought items the community needed and took in trade foodstuff and some locally made items. And, occasionally, he would accept an apprentice as payment. No apprentice had ever returned to the community. It was rumored he fronted a sex slave ring. The thought of it filled Tina with revulsion and a desire to run.
Except, there was nowhere to run. Communities affirmed and strengthened their autonomy even as they paid lip service to the idea freedom. Within each community, people were commodities to be exploited, and it wouldn’t do for them to have choices. Not choices in where to live or where to work. And, especially, not a choice to be “different.”
Tina rose, mindful of the squeaky board on the landing, and made her way to her room. She fell asleep to the murmur of her parent’s voices, no doubt planning her fate. In one aspect, she was lucky. If one considered “lucky” that pious people had stopped outright killing the “different.” Now, they were to be “fixed,” and shown the right path. Failing that, sent away.
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
A ray of sunshine encroaching on her closed eyelids woke her. This whole week, her parents had let her sleep as late as she wanted. Today, The Merchant was scheduled to arrive.
Tina dressed, making sure the hunting knife she had taken from the shed slipped into the make-shift pocket she had sewn into her skirt. She checked herself in the mirror, satisfied the knife didn’t print, and headed downstairs.
Her parents were sitting at the kitchen table and looked toward her as she paused at the door. For a moment, she thought she saw her father’s features relax and give way to sorrow . . . before snapping back into an implacable and impassive mask.
Still, that gave her a jolt of courage, and she went to sit facing them.
“You don’t have to do this,” she pleaded. “I can blend in. People will forget about me and who I am.”
Her father gave her a long look, but she saw no sign of him relenting.
“It is what’s best for all,” he said. “You’ll have a chance to forge a new life with people who don’t know you. To that, your plan to blend in will have a better chance of succeeding wherever you end up than here.”
“But you’re handing me over to a stranger,” Tina said. “Neither you nor anyone else here would do that with any other daughter!”
Her parents just looked back at her without answering.
“He’s The Merchant. He’s been coming for years,” her mother finally said. “He offers opportunities to those who . . .” she looked away without finishing.
Tina’s anguish morphed into anger. “Like me? Like Evelyn? Like the others? Has anyone ever heard from them again? Ever?”
Neither of them answered.
“You know what?” Tina said. “Maybe it’s better that I go. Anything is better than staying here with . . . with . . . monsters! Yes, monsters. You all act as if I’m the monster, but it’s you who fit the part.”
Her mother opened her mouth to say something but decided against it. She rose, straightened her dress, and left the room.
Staring at her father, Tina pressed on. “You are the biggest Monster, father. All those years, you treated me as a treasure, and now, because I don’t conform to your ideals, you decide I’m nothing more than a worthless bauble to be discarded without a second thought.”
Her father’s features did soften, and he made as if to speak, but Tina interrupted him.
“Don’t!” she said. “Don’t you dare offer me platitudes. I heard you and mother speak and I know what you really care about.” With that, she turned and walked out.
“Tina, wait,” her father said, but she was already outside and running.
She ran to the road and went across into the hunting woods. Perhaps she too would suffer a hunting accident and be hypocritically mourned as if she suddenly meant something to these people.
She ran to the fishing pond and stood at the water’s edge, looking across to a deer that had stopped grazing when Tina had come onto the scene. The deer watched her for a few seconds before bolting and disappearing into the woods. “A metaphor for my life,” Tina thought.
She walked to the trunk of a fallen tree; the same trunk where she had sat with Evelyn, talking about the way things were and of a future when they would be judged on merit and not on sexual persuasion.
She sat there, alternating between anger and sorrow and threw in a bit of self-pity to stir things up. Seventeen years old, and she felt as if her life was over. It might as well be over because she couldn’t see a future for herself. She became aware of the weight of the knife at her side and took it out. Unsheathing it, she tested the edge on the bark of the tree. Her father took care of his things, obviously more than he cared about his daughter, she thought.
The edge was sharp, and the blade came to a strong point. For a moment, Tina envisioned killing herself. A quick slice of the wrists and she would quietly slip away into blissful nothingness. No more troubles, no more sorrow.
But, no . . . not because it was a sin, but because of something Evelyn had said:
“Don’t give them the satisfaction. Show them your strength is no match for their bigotry.”
Of course, Evelyn had been sold into apprenticeship late last year. She remembered it was her father, as head of the ministry, who arranged for her leaving after the second conversion attempt failed. Tina had assumed it had been Evelyn’s parents who wanted her gone, but now she wondered if her own father was indeed the one.
“Monster!” she voiced aloud.
And then she heard the bell in the town square. The Merchant had arrived.
She looked at where the deer had gone and wished that she too could disappear as easily and quickly. But, no. She sheathed the knife and put it back in its hiding place. No one was going to take advantage of her. If need be, she will defend herself from The Merchant and all others.
She stood and walked to her unknown fate.
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
She remembered The Merchant but had never really looked at him before. He was older than her father, but fitter. Unlike most of the men in the community, he was clean-shaven. His head of hair was cut short and peppered with gray.
He, too, was looking Tina over. They were sitting in his temporary tent, which doubled as his store while in town.
“What do you want to be?” he asked.
“Excuse me?” she responded, confused by his question.
“What do you want to study? What do you want to do?”
Still confused, Tina stammered an answer, “I . . . I don’t know.”
“What do you like, what are your interests?”
Tina had never considered such questions. Women in her community weren’t expected to be anything but women. Some worked helping in the field, or at the clinic, and a few even helped in the businesses, but always as a secondary chore to their primary role of wives and mothers.
“I like to write. I like machinery.” She had answered before remembering who she was speaking to.
“Both useful interests,” The Merchant said.
“By the way, my name is Brian. You’re Tina, correct?”
“Yes, sir,” she replied.
“No need to ‘sir’ me; we’ll get familiar enough before we get to where you’re going,” he said with a casual tone.
An innocent enough statement, but it sounded ominous to Tina’s ears, and she involuntarily pressed her elbow against the knife at her waist, drawing a measure of comfort from it.
“May I see your knife?” Brian asked.
“What knife?” she answered out of reflex.
“The one you’re carrying.”
Scared and confused, she hesitantly retrieved the knife and handed it over to the man.
“How did you know?” she asked.
“Your father told me,” he replied.
“Monster!” The thought came unbidden to Tina’s mind.
The man unsheathed the knife, hefting it for balance.
“Evelyn also carried a knife,” he casually said, and then handed the knife back to Tina who, even more confused, took it and held it in her lap.
The man looked at her for a few seconds before speaking.
“You don’t know.”
“Your father didn’t tell you, but I don’t want you leaving without knowing,” he said.
“I’m taking you out East to enroll at a university. There’s an organization that funds tuition for individuals in your situation. Your father and I have an arrangement; he contacts me when someone needs rescuing from the community, and I contact the organization and make all the preparations.”
Tina looked at the man, speechless.
“I usually don’t tell the person until we leave because their parents don’t know and can’t know, and most don’t want to know. Plus, your father would lose his position if anyone found out,” the man said. “But yours is a special case, and I know how much your father will miss you. He deserves a truthful goodbye but, and I can’t stress this enough, no one else must know the truth.”
Stunned, Tina could hardly process the information.
“I . . . I called him a monster . . .”
“He’s not. He’s one of the few men I know who has my respect and admiration. As a fellow atheist, I admire what he’s doing. I know I wouldn’t be able to live his life and do what he does.”
“He’s an atheist?” Tina asked, incredulous of the information.
“When I first started coming here,” the man said, “we would sit for hours talking about religion. I thought he was trying to convert me, but no; he was exploring his doubts.”
“But . . . why doesn’t he leave?” she asked.
“He loves your mother, and she’s a devout woman. And in case you’re wondering, he still sees the benefits of religion in the social context, but not the underpinnings and practices. Change from within, he calls it.”
Tina’s eyes welled up, anger changing to sincere sorrow, only now it was sorrow for her father and the life he was living.
“Evelyn!” Tina exclaimed, the information sinking in. “Is she . . .”
“She knows you are coming, and looking forward to reuniting,” the man answered the unfinished question.
Her tears freed from the restraint of anger, Tina cried. Without realizing, she stood, walked toward the man, and the man held her as her emotions played out.
“Thank you,” she said when her tears stopped flowing, and he let her go.
“The least I can do, is stand where your father can’t,” he answered.
“We’ll leave within the hour,” he added. “Your parents and a few of the elders will see us off. I know it’s difficult, but you must still play the part and can’t say anything about what we talked about, but . . . perhaps you might consider a hug for your parents before we leave.”
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
Her few belongings in The Merchant’s trailer, Tina stood beside the man’s truck as he took his leave of the assembled people. She watched as he shook her father’s hand and noticed the slight nod they shared, a nod that took in a different meaning because of the information she knew.
The handshaking done, The Merchant walked back to the truck and stopped in front of her.
“Say goodbye to your parents, Tina,” he said with an authoritative tone loud enough for the others to hear.
Tina walked toward her parents, who stepped forward to meet her. She saw the tears form in her mother’s eyes, and her own tears welled up.
“I will miss you,” she said as they hugged.
Surprised, her mother leaned back to scrutinize her face, and upon seeing the honesty of the words, she hugged Tina even tighter and whispered in her hear.
“Don’t hate your father,” her mother said. “He means well.”
When they broke the embrace, her mother stepped back, and Tina stood in front of her father.
She stepped forward and buried her face in his chest, her arms tight around his waist, her tears once again flowing. Hesitantly at first, and then in earnest, he hugged her back.
She lifted her head, and as he looked down at her, she whispered her goodbye.
“I love my big monster, now and forever. Thank you, for everything,” she said and smiled.
Surprised, her father’s face broke from the hard mask he wore, and although he tried to fight it, a few tears managed to escape his eyes.
“Be well, my daughter,” he answered. “I will miss you.”
They stood apart, and after a few seconds, she turned and got into the waiting truck. As they left the square, she vowed to return as an accomplished, confident woman secure in her identity, and a source of pride for her father, the Monster that wasn’t.
If you’ve already read the other two stories and are ready to vote, click HERE<<<Link and you’ll be taken to the voting poll.
If you’ve not read the other two stories, they can be found at the following links:
Martha’s Morals <<Link
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