By Ekta R. Garg
Prompt: In a quiet town in the middle of nowhere, a peculiar landmark rests at the center: a stone tower that goes so high, you can’t see the top. It is said to contain countless riches and powerful monsters.
Elder Rockwell folded his arms tight across his chest as he stared at the tower. He’d only presided over a tower Opening twice in his entire adulthood. Neither had ended well. If he let himself get still long enough, he could still hear the screams from the woman involved in the second one.
Still, this was the way of the town.
Footsteps of all weights and rhythms approached behind him. A clanking sound disturbed the sound of his people, and he swallowed hard. Took a moment to rearrange his features to appear calm. Like a leader. Like an Elder. He didn’t understand criminals, and the two who had come before had clearly not understood the town either. Thus the edict.
He turned around and put his hands on his hips. The people coming toward him saw what he wanted them to see. A man prepared to make a pronouncement.
Two burly men held the criminal’s chains, although the criminal didn’t seem the least bit interested in running away. He kept his head bowed, staring at the ground, and moved when his guards moved. He stopped when they stopped. If Elder Rockwell hadn’t seen the evidence of the crime himself, he would have though the young man a timid, shy man who couldn’t even blink without permission.
But Elder Rockwell had seen the evidence.
The townspeople who chose to come today fanned out as the guard brought the criminal to a stop a few feet from the elder. In a half-moon shape, the townspeople would be able to hear every word. Elder Rockwell wouldn’t need to use any aids to elevate his voice.
“You come here accused, tried, and sentenced of a crime against the town,” the elder said in a neutral tone that was also firm. “Are you prepared to accept the consequences of your wrongdoing?”
The criminal said nothing.
“The town’s edicts require you to respond. We will not allow you to enter the tower until you acknowledge the validity of the claims against you. Do you?”
Not a word.
Elder Rockwell sighed. The previous criminal had also held out. She sat strapped in the chair for three days before realizing no one would pity her. No one would argue in her favor. She only had one choice: acknowledge her sentencing and enter the tower.
She’d accepted the sentencing, but when the tower door opened her screams began.
Elder Rockwell forced himself back to the present moment. He asked two other elders to bring the chair, a complicated—and, in the elder’s opinion, antiquated—method of holding criminals in place. The men, almost as burly as the guards, dragged the chair out from behind the tower. They looked disappointed at having to use it. No one liked to watch a criminal cry and plead for any length of time for water or food, for facilities to relieve themselves.
As the elders prepared to stake the chair to the ground, the criminal’s head flew up and he looked at Elder Rockwell.
“Do you believe this is really the only solution?”
“I do,” the elder said, not even bothering to look at the criminal.
“Even though I’m not the first person to do this?”
Elder Rockwell’s breathing became a touch shallow, but he would not let the criminal bait him. Nor would he tolerate taunting. He looked over his shoulder for a third elder.
“Bring the muzzle.”
“No,” the criminal said in a hard voice. “Leave all of your preparations. I’m ready to face the consequences of my actions.”
“Of your crime,” Elder Rockwell corrected.
The criminal shook his head. “No. What I did was no crime. Not if others have done it. Not if you’ve done it.”
A gasp zipped through the townspeople. Elder Rockwell strode forward and smacked the criminal as hard as he could. The criminal’s head jerked to the side but he didn’t cry out. Instead, he turned back and narrowed his eyes.
“You know it’s the truth.”
Elder Rockwell balled his fists to keep himself from harming the criminal. Instead, he forced all of his emotions and thoughts about this day, about this criminal into a funnel in his mind. He reminded himself of all the times the criminal had disappointed him, including the crime itself. No one in the town would be allowed to break the edicts. No one.
“You know you’re a disappointment for a son,” Elder Rockwell said. He turned to the guards. “Open the tower door.”
The criminal opened his mouth to protest, and the elder got a glimpse from the boy’s past—the way he’d opened his mouth in just that way to protest some childhoods slight—before shutting down the memory. He ignored the boy’s protests and threats to haunt him. Instead, he turned his back on the tower, on them all, and went home.
The last thing to reach his ears was the boy’s call for his mother. Then the door to the tower clanged shut, and the screams began. Soon after came the roar of the monsters that inhabited the tower.
Elder Rockwell squared his shoulders and continued on his journey home as a single tear trailed down his face.