2019 Summer Short Story Competition: The price of freedom

2019 Summer Short Story Competition: The price of freedom

What would you be willing to sacrifice for true democracy?

This story was written by Valerie Chan, 14, from Daughters of Mary Help of Christians Siu Ming Catholic Secondary School

Each week during the holidays, we will publish a story from one of the finalists of our 2019 Summer Short Story Competition. Our favourite entries will be compiled into a book, which each finalist will receive a copy of. The winning entry will appear in Young Post on August 31.


Get in. GET IN!

Blindfolded, and his mouth gagged, he was thrown onto the ground.

He felt the handcuffs being removed. He tried to turn around to punch the guard in the face, but to no avail. He heard the heavy steel doors close behind him with a BANG.

He lay there, battered and bruised on the rough concrete floor, helpless as a turtle flipped on its back, and for the first time in 20 years, felt hot tears rolling down his face. There he lay, crying, for God knows how long.

Hours passed before he felt he had the strength to stand up. He took off the blindfold and gag, and looked around. Through his two blackened eyes, he saw mouldy, peeling walls painted a sickening shade of brown, and a heavy steel door covered in locks, as if it were mocking him. There was a little, dirty cot that took up most of the space in the tiny cell, and in the corner, a pathetic-looking toilet that was buzzing with flies.

He laughed.

He limped over to the bed. This would be his home for the next 20 years.

***

Ralph Brown emigrated to Hong Kong from America when he was 15. His dad was a rich businessman with many clients in the city. Mr Brown never really talked to Ralph or his twin brother, Michael. He was a cold, distant man. Their mother had died when the boys were two. But they always had each other.

Ralph was an outspoken child. That was perfectly fine in the States where people had freedom of speech – they could openly criticise orange baboons that become president, and yell obscenities outside the White House with no repercussions. It was not so fine in Hong Kong.

Once a free city, Hongkongers were no longer allowed to speak out against the government. This posed a problem for Ralph, who wanted to become a journalist. Ralph loved writing. He was the editor of his school newspaper, where he wrote article after article about anything and everything that happened in the city.

He went on to study at the prestigious Hong Kong University, majoring in journalism, while his brother studied law. After graduating, he began working for a local newspaper. He covered politics, and was always truthful – but still, he kept things as neutral as possible.

Gradually, he made a name for himself among Hongkongers. Millions read his articles. The government kept a close eye on him, but he never crossed the line. Things continued in this way for years, until one day, something happened to make Ralph find his voice. He was soon silenced.

***

June 4, 2048. A writer had just been killed in extremely suspicious circumstances. He had been openly critical of the totalitarian regime in Hong Kong, and had written a social media post encouraging people to revolt. Within a week, he had been found dead in his home, a bullet lodged in his skull.

The government tried to force the media to cover up the news, but Ralph’s conscience wouldn’t let him go along with it. He knew, now more than ever, he had a responsibility to tell people the truth.

He wrote an article detailing the death of the writer, telling himself he would not focus on the government, as there was no proof they had killed the man – though everyone knew the truth in their heart of hearts.

A man was found dead in his home today, a bullet in his head …

The click-clack of the keyboard grew faster; as did the beating of his heart. He continued, the blood pounding in his ears.

He was a writer who criticised the regime …

Then something took over him. He was no longer in control. With shaking hands, he typed the incriminating sentence, the one that would put him behind bars for years, the one that would stop him from seeing his family again for decades.

Some people think that the government killed the writer.

He clicked “send” to his editor. Then he realised what he had just done.

***

That night, he heard a knock on his door. Chills ran down his spine as he told himself, “No, this is not happening, it’s just my brother. He looked at the clock on his bedside table. 12.03am. Most people would be asleep by now.

He heard a second knock. He was still in denial.

Then, he heard his front door crash open. He leapt out of bed, still clutching the covers, unable to comprehend what was happening. He heard the bookshelf crash onto
the floor and footsteps thundering towards his bedroom.

The door burst open, and a flashlight shone in his direction. Ralph saw four policemen, all dressed in black, one aiming a gun at his head.

“Mr Brown, you’re being placed under arrest for criticising the government and spreading false information.”

They were terrifying. But worse still was the look on the face of his brother, who had appeared behind them, still in his pyjamas, tears silently running down his face. He knew the nature of Ralph’s crime meant he would never get him a fair trial, no matter how hard he tried.

***

And here he was, trapped in this pitiful solitary cell for the next two decades. Months passed. His beard grew, and his bones became more and more visible, as two bowls of gruel were forced down his throat each day. His body weakened and he developed a cough. He had bruises that never seemed to fade. Every day, he swallowed down his pride before looking down at the skeletal frame he no longer recognised as his own.

Around a year passed before his brother was allowed to visit. They were separated by a glass wall and a phone, but it was still his brother. Their eyes watered at the sight of each other, and Ralph longed for an embrace as he picked up the phone.

“I’ve missed you.” He was surprised at his tired, raspy voice.

“Ralph. Listen.”

His twin took a deep breath.

“The people outside are rallying for you. The public is out of control. The government cannot handle it. Protest after protest is erupting. Riots, strikes, the works.”

Ralph’s eyes widened.

“They want you, your voice. They want you to speak out.”

“Are you insane? It’s not like I can just walk out of here.”

“No. Listen to me. I’ve bribed the guards to give you pen and paper tonight. You’re a writer, Ralph. Hand it to them along with your finished meal. Write to the people of Hong Kong. Tell them to fight for democracy, for their freedom. Tell them to fight for the next generation. Tell them to never give up.”

The brothers stared at each other.

“TIME’S UP!” Ralph was hauled back to solitary confinement, wondering when he would ever get to see his brother again.

***

Two weeks passed with no word. Ralph noticed that he was getting less and less food, and on some days, there was no food at all. He was getting even skinnier, if that was possible, and sicker each day. But he wasn’t worried about himself. He thought about his brother, and if anyone had overheard their conversation. He buried himself in his thoughts, playing out different scenarios, hoping Michael was okay.

Then, one day, the door opened.

A guard stood at the door. The two stared at each other with intensity, and Ralph gingerly stepped out of his cell. The guard said nothing.

He kept walking, through the damp, murky hallway, passing unlocked door after unlocked door, until he was outside the building. Most of the building was empty save for a few guards who turned away when he looked at them.

He breathed in the fresh air, and for the first time in months, felt the cool air brush against his face. His eyes devoured the lush greenery and blue skies he had dreamt of for so long. The taste on his tongue was sweet. The taste of freedom.

He laughed, but instead of misery, this time, it was full of joy.

***

A car was awaiting him. He ran towards it, glimpsing the slim figure of his brother seated at the wheel. Forgetting how fragile he was, he slipped on a piece of paper and fell flat on his face. Sighing, he picked himself up, only to spot a sheet of newspaper with his face on it stuck to his shoe. The car honked, but he didn’t care. He started to read.

HONGKONGERS FIND FREEDOM

by MICHAEL BROWN

The Hong Kong riots and protests have finally succeeded after months of trials and tribulations. It was a long and difficult journey, but we have finally conquered the horrendous government of Hong Kong.

Ralph laughed at his brother’s terrible writing.

All of you fought for what you wanted most – democracy, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. And we have found it. With the release of my brother, a new, democratic government has been established, and I hope all of you thrive in this beautiful, free city that is Hong Kong.

While in prison, during the riots and protests that he knew nothing about, Ralph wrote a letter addressed to you all. And this letter will probably go down in history. Most people have probably already read it, but here it is.

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE PEOPLE OF HONG KONG by RALPH BROWN

I’m not going write some inspirational message, but rather, tell you a story.

When I was around seven or eight, my father wanted me to join the school football team. I was more interested in taking dance lessons. My father scolded me and sent me to my room. So I did as he said, and to this day I’ve never attended a dance class. I lost something that I could’ve loved.

When I was 15, I had to choose my high school electives. As an aspiring writer, I wanted to study history and literature. No, my dad said, business is the only way to make it big. So I complied with his wishes and aced all my business classes, even as my heart grew heavier day by day.

At 18, I had to choose my university electives: global business, or journalism? I knew that did not have a single drop of passion for business.

The day I told my father my decision was the last time I saw him. I remember him getting angry as usual, but this time, I stood my ground. I walked out of the house, and never looked back.

It was a while before I had a real home again, but I was finally free to do what I loved.

When the things we care about are taken away from us very gradually, we often don’t notice the loss until it becomes a gaping hole. But that doesn’t mean it is too late to reclaim what we once had.

Nothing is ever handed us to us. We have to take it for ourselves. Sometimes, we have to defy those we are told to obey. Sometimes, we have to break ties with the past and start again.

I’m rooting for all of you, behind bars.

It’s a cliché, but it doesn’t make it any less true. As every Hongkonger has once said: “Add Oil.”

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
All in the pursuit of freedom

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