Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Autumn 2016 Results




Justice For John Dark

Copyright © Rachel Kirk 2016


It was difficult to get through the door with my costume on but I managed to squeeze through. Abby was in the front room, glasses on, books spread around her. She looked up.

"Stephen Ė what are dressed as? An overweight ghost?"

I drew myself up under the thick layers of sheets, papier machť, and stuffing.

"Of course not. Iím a tooth."

Abby looked at me sceptically.

"Of course," she said. "Sorry. Should have guessed Just out of interest, why exactly are you dressed as a tooth?"

"Iíve been protesting," I said. "Too long have we turned a blind eye to dentistry, an industry that values only whatís straight and white. Itís time someone took a stand."

"Huh," Abby said. "Howíd it go?"

"It was just me," I said. "But lots of people were looking at me when they walked past. I was definitely making them think. Challenging their preconceptions, you know."

"Glad it worked out," Abby said. "Do you want a hand with the costume?"

"Iíll be all right," I said. "I think I can just slither out on my own."

Abby sat back down between piles of books. When Iíd finally managed to get out of my big fluffy mess of a costume, I sat next to her.

"My afternoonís been a bit less eventful than yours," she told me. "Iím still working on my history paper."

"You should have been at the protest," I said. "You could have seen history in action. That's what can happen when the oppressed masses stand up, you know?"

"Definitely," Abby said. "Actually, you might find my paper interesting. Itís about Jeanne díArc Ė you know, the one who thought she heard angels speaking to her."

"Never heard of her," I said. "I actually donít believe in organised religion, soÖ"

"Right. Well, she told the heir to the French throne about her visions, she dressed as a man, she led his armies, and then, when the prince had finally won, she was sent to prison for wearing manís clothes and burned her at the stake as a witch. Thatís basically the ten-second version of her life."

She picked one of her books up, a serious-looking one with a black and white cover, and started to leaf through it. A few seconds later, she glanced across at me.

"Stephen? Are you OK? Youíre unusually quiet."

"This," I said, "is an outrage. So this girl with mental health issues wants to express her real gender and they killed her? Why is no one talking about this?"

"Well, I mean, it happened quite a long Ė"

"Iíll get her justice," I said. I stood up, the discarded tooth costume lying forgotten at my feet. "Iíll take a stand for her. Iíll get justice for John."

"You mean Jeanne," Abby said.

"Exactly."

* * *

Abby came in, fuming, and slapped a piece of paper down on the table.

"What exactly do you call this?"

"You took my poster down? Those took me all night to make!" I was furious. "How will people know about the rally? How will they know, Abby?"

She picked the poster up again and waved it at me. "You cut pictures out of my books to make these?"

I sighed, leaning back in my chair. "I had to. I needed posters, and you know I donít know how to use the printer. You should be impressed, if anything. Look at how beautifully hand-crafted they are."

Her whole face had gone an impressive cherry-red. I patted her hand soothingly.

"We all have to make some sacrifices," I said. "Itíll be worth it to free John."

She looked as if she wanted to say a lot more. Luckily, the doorbell rang, and I jumped up to get it.

Standing there was a tall, scruffy man, with patchy stubble tracing his jawline. A couple of girls were behind him. One had thick blonde dreadlocks.

"This is where weíre meeting for the rally, yeah? For John Dark?" the man said.

"Thatís right," I said. "Come in. Youíre all welcome here."

"I just think, yeah, that itís such an important cause," the non-dreadlocked girl said, stepping over the threshold. She was wearing a plastic rain poncho with 'Justice for Johní painted on the back.

I smiled humbly. "We all do," I said.

* * *

An hour or so later there were fifteen of us, filling the front room with the buzz of conversation and occasional shouted slogans. I stood up on the coffee table, waiting for the noise to die down.

"We all know why weíre here," I said loudly. "A girl named John has been wronged. Oppressed. Killed by people who didnít think theyíd be accountable for it. Well, weíre going to make them accountable. Weíre going to do it right now. Whoís with me?"

The cheer I got in response shook dust from the ceiling. Together, as one united front, we charged out the front door and down the street. I was in the lead.

Halfway there, the girl with the dreadlocks caught up with me. She had a little notebook out.

"So youíre Stephen Smith, right? The one behind this whole thing?"

I smiled proudly. "Thatís me."

"Wow," she breathed, her thin lips forming a neat O. "Would you mind if I interviewed you?"

"Go ahead," I said. "But just remember that Iím not the focus this movement. Weíre fighting for John."

She shook her head admiringly, tripping after me as she tried to write and walk at the same time. When sheíd caught up again she said "So where are we going exactly? What are we doing here?"

"Weíre going to the police station. Weíre going to confront them. Weíre going to ask them why they didnít do more to help John."

More frantic pencil scribblings. "And do you mind if I ask exactly what attracted you to this cause?"

I chuckled. "Itís simple. I canít help myself. Iím always moved by the plight of the oppressed. Society isnít fair, and weíre fighting back for those who canít do it for themselves."

I was leading my army. The scruffy man was striding on one side of me, the dreadlocked girl stumbling along on the other. I marched on with my head held high.

* * *

"I picked up this interesting newspaper today," Abby said.

I looked up from the sewing machine. She slid the paper across the table. Anarchy Today, it was called. On the front page there was a photograph of me.

"Itís a good picture," she said. "With the policeman pushing you and you holding your poster out. I like the bit in the article about police violence."

I smiled self-effacingly. "Well, people have to know."

"Of course, I was there, and if Iím honest, to me it looked a bit more like you tripped down the stairs and he was helping you up again."

"It was a very confusing moment," I said. "Iím not sure anyone knew what was happening. Thanks for the newspaper, anyway."

Abby peered over my shoulder. "So what exactly are you doing?"

"Just getting everything ready for tomorrow," I said. "Iíve got a big event planned. The biggest Iíve ever done. You'll see."

"Iím looking forward to it," she said. She flipped her long hair back and left.

A minute or so later she was back again.

"Thereís people at the door for you," she said. "They have cameras."

It was more than cameras. There was a woman with a microphone and a whole team bustling around behind her, all craning for the best view of me.

"And here we have Stephen Smith himself," she was gabbling, "the creator of the Justice for John Ė Stephen, Iím Fran Likely, with Channel Four News, and I was wondering what you have to say about the sudden popularity of this moment."

I took a deep breath in, then said, with quiet, impressive dignity, "I think what we see here is power of the people, Fran. Weíre seeing that we will not lie down when there are those among us are who are still being oppressed. It shows, in the truest sense of the word, the power of democracy."

"And what do you have planned next?"

"I canít tell you exactly what it is, but rest assured, itís something big," I said. "And if youíre in the city tomorrow at four oíclock tomorrow, youíll see it."

"Thank you, Stephen," Fran said, and waved a hand behind her. The cameras slowly turned away.

"On a personal note, I just wanted to say how impressive I think this is," she whispered to me. This close I could see how much makeup she was wearing, how her black eyeliner smeared out into the thin spiderwebby lines around her eyes. "Iíll see you tomorrow."

"You will," I said.

* * *

The back of the van was hot and cramped. It reeked of petrol and sweat. I shifted uncomfortably in my heavy cloth costume. Next to me, the scruffy man and one of his friends had bundles of sticks at the ready.

"This is it!" the driver shouted back at us. "You ready?"

Solemnly, I nodded. This was it. This was my big chance to make a difference.

"Justice for John!" I yelled, and the others yelled it back at me, the echoes bouncing around the metal compartment.

The doors were open. Sunlight poured in. The crowd was enormous. At least fifty people were out there. I walked out along the path that had been cleared through the cheering masses, the train of my cotton dress dragging behind me. At the other end I could just see the top of the stake weíd nailed together from wooden planks yesterday. It didnít look bad.

My friends had set light to their bundles of sticks. Together, we walked forward.

"This is what happened to John!" I shouted when I was underneath the stake. "This is what happened while people stood by! Justice!"

A roar back from the crowd : "Justice!"

I let myself be dragged up on the the wooden platform, in the middle of a big pile and paper and sticks. The girl who had been wearing the poncho tied my hands together around the back of the stake.

"Careful!" I hissed. "That hurts."

"Sorry," she whispered. "Iím trying to make it convincing."

She stepped back. I tentatively tried to pull my wrists apart. It was definitely convincing. My guards stood around me. Their burning torches were thrust proudly out in front of them. Before me, the crowd stared, open-mouthed. The news van was there. Even Abby was there, her arms folded, standing at the very front. This was my moment. This was my time to show everyone what I believed in.

"Iíve prepared a few words for the occasion Ė" I began.

The scruffy man had let his arm hang down while he watched me, and his still-burning torch was getting quite close to the paper and sticks around my feet.

"I Ė I just wanted to say that Ė"

He was still holding it there. The flames were bright. I hadnít noticed before that fire was black in the centre. It seemed hollow. I couldnít stop looking. The string around my wrists was too tight. I could feel my hands starting to go numb.

"I want to tell you that Ė"

The torch moved forward. It was just enough. A finger of flame leapt across and into the pile of kindling. I watched flame soar towards me along the edge of a piece of newspaper.

"Ė tell you that Ė that Ė help!"

My little army was watching me. The news team, with Channel Fourís Fran Likely at the front, gazed up at me. I was the centre of attention. No one moved.

And then Abby was there, kicking the pile apart with her big black boots. The fire fizzled and died on the concrete.

"I think you should all go home!" she shouted, cupping her hands around her mouth.

"Never!" someone else called out.

"We want justice for John!" I heard another voice yell.

"Sheís had justice, itís fine, she was pardoned," Abby shouted back at the crowd. Fran had her microphone out again.

"Fran Likely Ė Channel Four News Ė a new voice at the rally here today says that Johnís been pardoned, that the power of the people has, for once, won over those in charge. When did you say this was?"

"1456," said Abby.

"You heard it here first. John Dark was awarded justice at 2:56 p.m., earlier today. Letís talk to some people in the crowd," Fran said. She turned away, her team of cameramen racing after her.

Abby helped to untie me. I climbed down from the pile, skidding a little as I caught the edge of the dress on some of the kindling.

"Are you OK?"

"Iím fine," I said. "Itís just Ė I had them. For once. People were listening."

"I know," she said. "Do you want a hand getting the dress off?"

"No," I said. "I went to the effort of making it, I might as well wear it home."

We were through the crowd by now and out into the busy city streets. I hitched up the train of my dress and carried it over my arm. People were looking at me as I walked past. I made eye contact with a couple of them, nodding graciously as if to say, yes, that was me on TV last night, that was me you saw in the paper, fighting for justice. Most of them quickly looked away. One, though, approached me.

"I just wanted to say Ė er Ė I like the dress," he said quickly. His eyes were flicking nervously from side to side.

"Thanks!"

"Really. I Ė I wish I could be as brave as you," he said, and moved away again.

"That was nice," I said. Next to me, Abby was grinning from ear to ear.

"I guess you have made a difference," she said.

And there, in my cotton dress, sweaty from the sun, exhausted in my struggles for a noble cause, I knew that she was right.