In Him, We Know Freedom

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Warning: This story contains graphic violence.

The mirror showed a reflection that wasn’t my own. It was a boy with smooth skin and cheeks creased from smiles. A certain sheen glinted in his eyes, the kind that only came when the sights presented to them were joyous and the sorrows few and fleeting.

Or so I imagined.

No, I knew that wasn’t me.

(Image created by Erik Homberger using an image by DIY Team from Pixabay)

I glanced back down at the commemorative mirror, a handout from the Victory Day Parade. Look down, we were told, and you will see the Leader looking back. We are all the State. One heart, one mind, one glorious march.

This time, as I squinted at the glass already smudged by my beggar’s fingers, I saw more than the impostor smirking back at me. I saw the air around him, free of feasting flies and smoke from burn barrels. A sidewalk lined with soft green grass and a perfect street beside it, not a pothole or rubble pile in sight.

Some other time, I might have paused to wonder how a mirror could reflect another world. But I hadn’t eaten in two days, and the pangs gripped my stomach with new ferocity. I could barely trust my own senses, much less ponder the oddities of some cheap propaganda piece.

For all I knew, this “mirror” was a trick. Some illusion engineered by the State scientists to make the lies pouring from the loudspeakers into reality.

Look, they would say, do you not see the bright future before you? That is you, flourishing in the revolution we have all sacrificed to achieve.

The thought made me want to smash that damned mirror against the bricks. But, inches from destruction, I found my arm no longer cooperated. As if the Leader had personally intervened to make my muscles seize up.

Instead, I pocketed the mirror and embarked on my latest glorious march, stumbling down the alley a few blocks from Soldier Square. Here, away from the cameras and buses of foreign tourists, the paint cracked and fell away. Orphans haunted the corners, hands held in perpetual pleas to quench their thirst. But the wells they turned to had never held water.

“Sorry,” I muttered as I passed one, her face smeared with the dirt and ash of sleeping on the concrete and keeping warm by piles of burning garbage.

She glared back, accusation making my skin ripple.

Her thoughts entered my own skull through those eyes. He has muscles on those arms. His spine is mostly straight. He must eat, but he will not share.

“If only you knew,” I wanted to respond to those unspoken words. “If only you knew how I stayed alive.”

Instead, I turned away and resumed my limping march.

The pocket that held the mirror now felt oddly warm, but instead of staring at the false image again, I blinked and saw a glimpse of my father rounding the next corner.

The State cares for us, and we must care for It, he had loved to say as we sat down to a table with half-empty bowls. Sacrifice strengthens us all. The food we save goes to feed the brave men and women protecting our borders.

The echoes made my jaw clench so tight I swore my molars cracked.

“You loved sacrifice so much you fled at the first opportunity. The soldiers you wanted to keep fed were the same ones that gunned down half my family,” I wanted to scream into the alley.

Instead, I rounded the corner to find only dust and yet more oppressive silence.

I hated him. Hated him for escaping. Hated him for leaving me behind.

But most of all, I hated him for getting my sister and mother killed.

Not because of any great love for them, but because he had left a trail of blood with my two dead family members. A trail that led back to me.

They had torn my fingernails out to make me reveal fellow conspirators I knew nothing about.

They had tied my hands to the back of a truck and dragged me through the street.

They had thrown water on me and made me work the fields from sunrise to sunset in the deepest part of winter.

They had made me lie flat on black asphalt in the worst heatwave in State history.

Worst of all, they had made me tear out that guard’s throat.

After all, it was them who pushed me into the deepest, darkest cage a man can ever know.

And in that darkness, I had heard the voice. Ancient, deep, the kind we have long been deaf to until there is no single source of comfort, no release from our agony. Until we can drown it out no more.

The voice told me to embrace the pain. Embrace who I really was.

In that moment, when the guard turned his back to me, when my teeth closed around the side of his neck, I learned the voice’s truth.

Now, a fugitive, I hid out in the Leader’s very own capital.

After all, where better for a wild beast to hide than in the jungle?

Every time I thought of my father, I heard the voice again, muttering deep in my chest. If I listened close enough, I’d hear his counsel.

“I’ll kill him,” I promised it. “One day, I’ll kill him.”

And then the voice and I would share the spoils of our hunt. After all, I owed the voice everything. It was how I had survived the camp and all that came after.

The mirror had grown so hot that the pocket grazing against my skin caused me to wince. So hot that smoke should have been billowing from my tattered pants. But the heat vanished the second I reached down, allowing my hand to close unburned around an impossibly cool surface.

The boy that stared back somehow looked even fuller and happier. Bluebirds cartwheeled through the sky behind his head as the breeze ruffled his straight and even hair. For a moment, I saw mockery in his easy smile and full cheeks, as if his joy meant my suffering. I felt the overwhelming desire to destroy this portal and bring his dream world crashing down around him.

Don’t, the voice spoke, louder than it had ever been.

I stood riveted to the spot, mirror half raised in my hands, but not so high that I had missed the boy’s lips move. How—

Look, he and the voice commanded together. Look and understand.

I sank back against the brick wall that formed one side of the alley, staring all the while. The longer I examined, the more I noticed. His world had grown brighter, but he had grown stronger, too. What was the source of his newly formed muscles?

Finally, understanding washed over me.

Blood trickled from the side of his mouth. But it was not his blood.

My eyes followed the outer curve of the mirror. One of our many slogans was inscribed along its flimsy balsa wood handle.

In Him, we know freedom.

The State, this world they had built, was insanity.

For so long, I had known the voice but kept it at arm’s length, promising it that one day I would take it back into the fold. Heed its counsel once more.

This was no way to repay the one who had saved me from the living death.

In Him, we know freedom.

The Leader claimed to liberate us. But the only way to know freedom in the State was through death.

The slogan meant to keep me quiet, placid. I had walked these streets, keeping my rage dammed. Exactly what the State wanted.

I had clung to sanity in this insane place.

In Him, we know freedom.

These words had carried a truth after all, but not the Leader’s truth. The voice’s truth.

It was time to embrace that freedom once more.

I looked down toward the end of the alley. Another member of the revolution had led their last march and laid down the torch on the asphalt.

I suppose I was meant to carry this emaciated form’s torch.

I hoped he would at least be partially satisfied knowing he served a different purpose as the voice rang out loud and clear.



This story previously appeared in Vocal.
Edited by Erik Homberger


Stephen A. Roddewig is an award-winning author from Arlington, Virginia. For more thriller books and stories, stop by