This story was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest.

I sit on the floor and hug my knees, heart aching. I’m going to die here. Soon. For days there has been only darkness and the long wait for death. In my cold fear, I keep seeing her green eyes and apple cheeks. My empty arms ache to hold her small body in the same way she squishes her pink stuffed elephant. I just want to go home.

The screeching sound of metal scraping against metal startles me. I crawl into my corner and hope for strength. The door opens, casting light into my padded room. The bright glare momentarily blinds me.

“Hurry up. He’s waiting,” a voice says, deep but filled with concern.

He helps me stand, hands soft like a woman’s but thick like a man’s. Cold metal cuffs clasp around my wrists. Me, in handcuffs. I wobble in the heels I still wear and follow him, my vision clearing.

We’re not alone. A few familiar faces scatter the narrow hallway, their eyes wide. Burning hatred rushes through my veins. It’s their fault. All that talk of being saved, their secret meetings, banned books, and prophesies have led me here.

“Line up.”

Like sheep, we do as we’re told. I’m third in line. A hand touches my shoulder from behind and I wince.

“Don’t be afraid. Death is just a temporary sleep,” a woman whispers in my ear. I brush her fingers off and stare ahead, heart pumping with rage.

“Let’s go.”

We follow the guard, our new-found shepherd until we reach one long hallway.

“Oh, God,” the man in front of me says, blue jeans growing darker as he relieves his fear. Bodies of other prisoners line the floor. Thin white sheets cover the once living souls, big and small. Crimson bleeds onto the color of innocence, staining the cloth like sin. Dread burns my chest; we’re next.

My breath quickens like it’s trying to capture as many shallow gulps of air as possible before my end. The first person in line wails, her shoulders moving up and down with sobs. The doors open, and we step over the corpses and into the last place we will ever see.

It’s stunning.

Gold decorates the room in elegant swirls and petals. The high dome ceiling is filled with paintings comparable to Michelangelo’s with colors and details so intricate it makes me want to live longer just to stare at them. Yet the beauty is marred by the small black cameras floating around us.

Still, more brilliant than this room is the man standing at the end of it. Our Leader, president, king of the global community and god in human form leans on a rectangular shape covered with silk. Billions of people would sacrifice their lives just to touch his hand, yet here we stand, cuffed and grimy. Traitors waiting to die.

“Come,” he says in a voice that makes you want to follow him to the end of the earth. For once we don’t move.

He purses his lips, then grins and walks toward us. He wears jeans and a white t-shirt. Too casual perhaps, but his statue-of-David-like physique and the way he moves makes the simple clothes seem beautiful. Magnificent even.

“I know you’re scared. A traitor’s death is shameful,” he says, words like honey.

“But don’t fear, My children. Today, you get a second chance. It’s all up to you,” he tells us and the cameras. Are we broadcasting live? My cheeks redden.

The young woman in front sobs with relief. I could go home.

“All that’s required to stay your execution today is a simple tattoo, not much more than a stamp really, but filled with incredible technology. It will allow you to access your bank accounts and help us locate you in case of an emergency. Plus, it declares your loyalty and praise to Me.” His smile shows off one dimple.

My heart freezes. It’s the mark, just like they warned me. My hatred for the prisoners melts away as I realize everything they promised is true.

The Leader expects joy but receives none. Not a sound. His mask falls for an instant showing the beast within. The shepherd-guard stands to the right of the Leader, waiting to mark us.

“Join Me now.”

Silence.

He sighs. “I guess the world does need to separate the wheat from the chaff just like your ‘good book’ prophesied.”

He smooths his hair and looks into my eyes as he removes the purple silk. A steel blade marred by streaks of blood sits within the frame. He pulls a lever and the metal slams to the curved headrest. It’s a guillotine.

“Oh God, oh God,” I whisper and clasp my hands together. My head shakes as if to say No, tears gushing down my cheeks. Then I remember the cameras. I imagine my husband and daughter sitting on our white couch crying with me. I clench my fists and stand still.

He turns to the young woman in the front of the line.

“Will you declare your loyalty to Me, Marian?”

She falls to the floor in praise, hands trembling on cream marble. The Leader smiles.

“No,” she says and looks straight into his gaze, voice firm.

He swallows back tears but nods to our guard. No longer sweet, he pulls Marian up off the floor and toward her death.

“All I wanted was to care for you, My child.” A tear escapes and floats down his face, a shining diamond.

Marian shakes as she lays her neck on the headrest, curly hair falling over the side.

“Don’t look away,” he says to us, hand over the lever.

He pulls it.

“Praise G — ,” she begins. The blade rushes down.

I scream, my strong façade gone as her beautiful head thuds against the floor. Her body shudders, heart still trying to pump life and lungs trying to catch air. Blood pours down onto the stone below, dark and bright red as the cursed Nile must have been.

Someone in the crowd vomits, the smell sour.

“Joe?”

The man in front of me stands firm. I prepare for more gore.

Joe’s eyes dart between the body being moved aside and the guillotine.

“I’ll take it. I’ll praise You and declare my loyalty.” His lip quivers.

In one swift movement, our guard places a gun against Joe’s head and pulls the trigger. It hums, then is done. The man’s forehead is forever marked with three numbers.

The cuffs are removed, and he walks out the door. Free.

“Liz?”

My turn.

“Don’t you want to see your little Anna? She’s watching you and cuddling her pink stuffed animal.” He’s so close I feel his breath on my cheeks.

I fall to the floor and hug my knees once more, searching for air. Oh, Anna. I can picture her curled up against Daddy, crushing Elly the Elephant like always. I need to squeeze her. To smell that scent created just for her mother. For me. I want to go home.

There has to be a way.

I take a deep breath, maternal adrenaline helping me move faster than I ever have before. Removing one stiletto, I jump up and shove it into his god-like neck. He bleeds, blood pouring onto his white shirt. The Leader pulls out the heel stuck in his artery, skin stretching, then slumps to the floor.

Our shepherd-guard watches, unworried.

“I killed him,” I think, then feel his lips touch the skin on my ankle. Like a prince, he replaces my shoe. The Leader stands once more, taller and more glorious than before.

“Time’s up. What do you choose?” He asks, calm and healed with blood on his clothes.

This cannot be happening.

“Child?”

It’d be so easy. No pain, just a simple mark then home. But, accepting means I’d choose hell, never to see God. And worse, if I take the mark Anna may make the same choice.

Never.

“No,” I growl, thinking of my daughter’s soul.

The guard grabs my arm, leaving bruises that will never show and shoves my head onto the wet wood. Fear turns my limbs to stone and bites my heart. My neck itches.

Please take care of my Anna. Let my husband and daughter find You, even if they must meet the same end.

I sigh. A calm peace and piercing love stronger than I’ve ever felt, more powerful than my fragile human heart can handle, fills my spirit. I know with God-given certainty they will be alright. That I will see my family again.

“Thank You,” I whisper, as my last seconds countdown.

The lever is pulled. The blade falls, tossing me into eternity and home at last.

Visit Jewel at Write away, Mommy.