Maria A. Perez (Freedom 2022)

Maria A. Perez
Freedom We Reap

JuanMa Beltran hates waiting in the water lines. Sweat floods his eyes. The acrid body odor of people who haven’t bathed in ages overpowers his sense of smell. He tries to distract himself by listening to the mundane chit-chat around him. Everyone is aware that their every word and movement is recorded and analyzed. JuanMa learned that lesson well at the age of fourteen when his vocal cords and tongue were cut. Three years ago, in the impetuousness of adolescence, he and a friend had repeated words they heard from older teenagers. He had been standing in this very line when he uttered, “Human freedom, now!” Those would be the last words he’d ever speak. Ever since the Morendai invaded Earth, they have shown little tolerance for any signs of dissent.

Besides carrying home jugs of water, he brings gossip. The Sandovar family is expecting their third child. Only two children are allowed per household. A new baby means the oldest child will be sent to the labor camps. JuanMa is an only child.
“You there!”
JuanMa hardly ever is caught by surprise. His senses are always on high alert. The walk home has its dangers. He whips around but doesn’t see anyone.
“Pssst. Here.”
JuanMa looks up, sees a man perched high in a tree, and points to his open mouth. The man nods. Having your tongue cut off is not an uncommon thing here. 
“You’re Manny’s son, right?”
JuanMa takes a moment to consider if he’s done anything lately that might spell trouble for his family. Nothing comes to mind. Losing his ability to speak has been an efficient lesson. He nods yes.
“My name is James Corell. Tell your father he owes me two potatoes and a loaf of bread.”
JuanMa’s face contorts in confusion. Even though bartering is common in these tough times, his father is a frugal man who is indebted to no one.
“And tell him, I expect him to pay me by midnight, tomorrow.”

JuanMa nods again and continues his way down the rocky path that leads to the shantytown he calls home. He takes a deep breath as he approaches the neighborhood checkpoint. A Morendai guard stands in front of him. JuanMa can’t remember a time when he didn’t hate the blue-skinned demons. The alien stands seven feet tall, and its red eyes have no sclera. JuanMa swallows his rage as the guard scans him using a handheld device. Carrying anything that is deemed a weapon wins you a one-way trip to the labor camps. The guard taps JuanMa on the back with his weapon signaling that he is free to go.

Upon JuanMa’s arrival, his mother, Lorena, hugs him. Every trip away from home can be the last one. She uses some of the water to boil root vegetables they have harvested from their small backyard garden. The family has learned sign language. As they sit around the tiny wooden table, JuanMa relays the message from the man in the tree. 
“Yes, I know James,” says his father. 
JuanMa starts to gesticulate faster. He has questions about the message, but his father cuts him off. 
“You’re coming with me tomorrow when I deliver what is owed.”
Lorena stops eating and glares at her husband.
“Don’t bring him into this. The boy has suffered enough already.”
“He’ll be a man soon. It’s time.”
“I’d like to go,” signs JuanMa.
“Good,” replies Manny.
Worry is plastered on Lorena’s face, but she knows there’s nothing more to say.

The next day, JuanMa and Manny head out just after midday. Manny didn’t speak more about the trip, but it’s clear to JuanMa that this will be a long trek. In addition to the two potatoes and loaf of bread, his father has brought with him water and leftover cooked carrots from last night’s dinner. 
At the first checkpoint, the Morendai guard asks in a robotic voice, “Where?”
“To the trading post,” answers Manny, offering his bag for inspection.
The guard lets them through. Father and son walk in silence. JuanMa tries to ignore the knot in his stomach. Where is his father taking him? He knows better than to ask, considering that they are under constant surveillance. Two hours after passing a third checkpoint, they hear an explosion. Manny grabs JuanMa’s hand and leads him off the road and into the woods. 
“We must hurry. The diversion will only gain us a few hours.”
Manny had never walked in the forest before. He’d been warned that it was a dangerous place with wild creatures and crazed people living on the fringe of society. By nightfall, they take shelter in a cave and eat the carrots. Manny also tears off pieces of bread and shares them with his son. He finally breaks his silence.
“JuanMa, I have never mentioned this to you before. My great-grandfather told me that this lush forest was once reduced to ashes.”
“The Morendai destroyed our planet,” signed JuanMa.
“No, son, we did that all on our own with our pointless wars. The Morendai arrived and took advantage of our divisions. They cleaned up our mess but took over. How do you feel about that?”
JuanMa pondered a bit on the question and then replied, “It’s time to forget about the past and get our freedom back, now.”
“I agree, son. That is why I’ve brought you here. Follow me.”
He leads his son deep into the cave through an intricate system of tunnels. JuanMa gasps when they reach a tunnel that opens to a large chamber. Electrical equipment and computers buzz in the middle of the well-lit room. Several older men and women stand in the middle with teenaged boys and girls by their side.
“Welcome.” The voice comes from a sound system that reverberates across the room. “You’ve taken an important step in reclaiming our planet. Your training begins tomorrow.”

THE END
***

Bio: Maria A. Perez was born in Yonkers, NY, and grew up in New York City. She also lived in Puerto Rico and now resides in Boca Raton, Florida. She holds a Bachelor’s in Business and has spent a successful career in Corporate America working in Accounting and Finance. Early retirement has allowed Maria to focus on her dream of writing and becoming a published author. She is married with two young adult sons and a labradoodle daughter. Maria enjoys reading all genres, although she’s partial to dystopian, space opera and romance series such as The Hunger Games, The Expanse and Outlander. A diehard “Trekkie” and Star Wars fan, she is fascinated with the possibility of what is out there in unexplored space and the potential of the human race.

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