Tenth Annual Popular Fiction Awards Thriller Winner: “Monday is Winter”

“Monday is Winter,” by Ann Stratton, is the First Place winning story in the thriller category for the Tenth Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with the Grand Prize winner and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2015 issue of Writer’s DigestAnd click here for more information about entering the Eleventh Annual Popular Fiction Awards.

In this bonus online exclusives, you can read Stratton’s winning entry.

Monday is Winter
by Ann Stratton

Monday is winter. Thursday is summer. We spend Sunday packing the week’s production into trucks for shipping elsewhere and being lectured about how privileged we are to help save the country.

We don’t look at each other when that comes up. We know how privileged we are. We think about it constantly. Even as we labor through the endless days of tightly managed climate control, tending the crops engineered for rapid growth and maturity, shipping the harvest out through gates none of us would ever pass through again, we think about it. When we collapse in our bunks at night, it is all we think about. We don’t talk about it. Anything we say with our mouths and voices only concerns the work we are doing and whatever responses we need to make to an order.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t plans under consideration. Everyone has their own plan to escape, or overthrow our jailers, or keep enough food back to do more than subsist. Most of them are doomed to fatal failure for lack of opportunity or patience or the presence of mind to formulate and carry through a working plan, doomed by the constant desperation and madness and stupidity. Everyone pays close attention to everyone else and takes whatever action is necessary to deal with problems before they became public. There isn’t much inquiry into quiet acts of murder. There is considerable inquiry into disturbing the peace or public violence. All suffer for the behavior of one.

My niece Melina had been born in the Marching Forward into the Glorious Future Re Education Facility. Her parents had been rounded up after the coup. Somehow they survived long enough to produce her. She wasn’t technically my niece, not by blood, but I had been the one to take her in after they died. I was the only parent she knew. The camp was up to its second generation and soon to be third. Lucy was only the latest in a long line of such victims.

But Melina was my responsibility, not Lucy. I’d done my best to keep her safe and teach her everything we’d had to give up when we came here. It has not been easy. I have no resources to work from. My memory is often fogged with fatigue and deprivation. Still I managed to raise her to a young woman, stunted by the lack of resources and health care, but otherwise whole of body and mind, despite an infatuation with that Nikolai, another camp orphan.

Nikolai managed to be darkly handsome and possessed of the passion of youth. He was also too much influenced by Vassily, who considers himself quite the revolutionary. Vassily would have been quietly removed a long time ago if he hadn’t ingratiated himself with the warden. The warden would notice if Vassily disappeared. It’s not good to be noticed.

But that did not solve the problem of Melina and Nikolai…

“The potting shed,” I said to her, passing her in the dining hall with my empty tray. The potting shed is a constant. The crops we grow are engineered for rapid growth and maturity, but they still take the usual amount of time to sprout. Everything has to be separately sprouted in the potting shed and planted by hand. Everyone takes turns in the potting shed. It’s a never ending cycle, sowing seeds into waiting planters, taking the seedlings out to be planted, bringing the empty planters in to be cleaned, filled with soil and reseeded again.

She stared at me, a small dark girl whose face was all eyes, bundled in the green sweater I had knitted for her out of the cast offs of far too many who didn’t need them anymore. “Why, Tia? It’s not my shift yet.”

“You can help me.” Extra help is always welcome, though no one is allowed to trade shifts.

“All right, Tia.” She piled her tray on top of mine. She gave them back to the dishwasher. She followed me out. She really was a good girl, despite her fascination with Nikolai. I might have approved, if Nikolai wasn’t fascinated with Vassily.

I gave the nod and finger flick to Dom. He followed us too. He would watch out for us while I told Melina what I had to. He’s a good man and a better leader than Vassily thinks he is, the center about which our small group pivots.

In the potting shed, I went to the cleaning station, where the used planters are cleaned with steam before being refilled and replanted. We can’t use chemicals—our produce has to be all natural—and steam sterilizes better anyway. It’s very dangerous to work with. We suited up before cranking open the boiler feed for the sprayers.

“What did you want to talk to me about, Tia?” Melina asked under the roar of the sprayers. “What has Nikolai told you about getting out of here?” A perennial topic. We all think about it.

She worked over a rack of planters for a moment, rather than answer me right away. “He says Vassily has some ideas.”

I have no doubt about that. Vassily is great for spinning ideas, but not so much for figuring out how to make them work. He leaves that for other people. I pulled up the next rack of planters for the sprayer. “Which one is Nikolai agreeing with?”

She bit her lip and looked down, as if the steam was getting to her. I knew better. “He wants to take over the warden’s office and negotiate with the government.”

I mopped my forehead. Negotiating with the government is what got us here. “He will get you killed.” Melina looked up in startlement and denial. “No! No, he wouldn’t! Not ever! This will work!”

“Cheryl was a pacifist, who never lifted a finger in violence toward anyone. She asked for increased rations.”

“Who’s–?” Melina began. She ducked her head as a guard walked past the wash bay. He only looked in, not wanted to get splashed or dampened by the hot steam. He watched us while we cleaned eight racks of the big planters. They’re heavy for a single woman to wrestle, but there were few men on the shift, and none in the steam room. No guard will move to help, no matter how overwhelming the task might be.

By the time he left, bored, Melina had figured out why I had mentioned Cheryl. I remembered Cheryl. I didn’t agree with her at all. She remained kindly adamant even as we disagreed. I mourned her passing.

Melina bit her lip. She shoved a planter half her size up on the rack. Between the two of us, we got it settled and balanced for cleaning. “It’s not like that. Nikolai says he can get us in to see the warden without trouble and once we have him in custody, we’ll be safe from the guards.”

“That’s been done, too.” That one had turned out even more badly. All the conspirators and few random passersby had been executed on the parade ground. Interrogations had lasted for months. Our production had lagged because of it.

“No. Nikolai’s too smart.” Melina shut the sprayers off. She banked the boiler. We peeled out of our protective suits, drenched in sweat. We hung them up to dry. The first planters we cleaned had cooled off enough to touch. We loaded them up on carts to take to the composter, where they would be filled with new clean soil again. “Vassily’s figured it all out—“

“Of course. Melina, you can do better.”

“But—“

“But nothing.” I handed the cart over to Dom. “Show her your tongue, Dom.”

He grinned her with his missing front teeth, top and bottom, opened his mouth to show the empty cavity. He’d been interrogated during William’s rebellion. Because he’d refused to talk, they’d torn out his tongue and half his teeth along with it. We’d almost lost him then. But he survived. He learned to talk again after a fashion. He’s hard to understand. Most people—read: the guards and staff of Marching Forward into the Glorious Future Re Education Facility—can’t be bothered to take the time to learn. I do, because I have.

“He was just standing there by the side of the road when William and his crew made their try.”

Melina stared at him, horrorstruck. She’s known him all her life. For most of it, Dom’s been effectively mute. Now she understood why. She’d been too small to realize what was going on during William’s rebellion. I’d sheltered her from the violence.

Dom smiled at her again, close mouthed. He began offloading the planters. Evie and Betty came over to help. Between the five of us, we had the cart unloaded quickly. Melina and I took it back for the next load.

“So, that’s why I am telling you, Melina. Nikolai is a nice boy, but he will get you killed. I don’t want you to die, Melina. You’re all I have left.” I didn’t look at her as I packed more planters on the cart. Dom wrestled the big ones off their racks. He added them to the load.

“But what can we do?” Melina whispered. “Everyone knows this isn’t right, even us kids who were born here. All you grownups talk about the way things are supposed to be. At least Vassily and Nikolai are trying something.”

“We are doing something,” Dom said in his strangled way. It sounded more like “wee aah ooi’ om’I’” but I knew what he meant.

Melina looked at him, eyes wide, then at me. “Like what?”

“Not here,” I said. “Help me push this cart.” Loaded with the big planters, it took all three of us to maneuver the cart into the composter bay. With five of us, the unloading went faster.

After all the clean planters had been taken to the composter, they had to be filled with clean dirt. Filled planters go to the seed bin to be planted. We moved the planted containers to the greenhouse to sprout. Since it was Monday, the sprouted planters couldn’t be taken to their eventual fields. They still had to be tended there in the greenhouse. Then there were all the other myriad little chores to be done before the dinner bell. One last lecture about how privileged we were, an inspection before lights out and we couldn’t say anything again until we were all in bed, huddled under our inadequate blankets.

Melina crawled into my bunk, all sharp little bones and icy hands and feet, bringing her blanket with her. “What did Dom mean, he was doing something?” she whispered in my ear.

“We are.”

“Like what?”

“Making plans to get out of here, a few of us.”

Melina shifted a little, trying to get into my warm spot. I let her, just a little. “I got that. Like how?” “It’s better you don’t know. Then they can’t make you talk.”

“I wouldn’t talk, no matter what they did to me!”

I managed not to cry, in the dark. I did have to blink back the tears. “I’ll take you with me, Melina. I won’t leave you behind.”

She snuggled against me for a moment, sniffling. “What about Nikolai?”

“He’s not part of our plans.”

She stiffened up. “Why not?”

I didn’t answer that. Nikolai was a liability. Vassily filled his head full of revolutionary notions. He was young enough and naïve enough and passionate enough to act on them too. He was too noticeable.

“Why won’t you take Nikolai?” Melina persisted. She leaned up on one elbow to stare at me in the dark. “Don’t you trust him?”

I couldn’t lie to her. “No.”

“…is it because of Vassily?”

“Yes.”

“But— Melina began, then shut up and lay down. Her body was tense with the thinking. She had lived

her entire life in the Marching Forward into the Glorious Future Re Education Facility. She knew what was at stake here. She’d seen enough people shot on the parade ground for minor infractions. She could guess what would happen if someone committed a major infraction.

I rummaged under my pillow, where I kept my few spare clothes. I pulled out the lumpy bug bitten apple I’d hidden there. Any produce that doesn’t fit the strict parameters of the production quotas has to be fed to the animals. That does not stop us from snatching what we can when we can. It doesn’t stop the guards from high grading the harvest either, but they’re not as likely to be beaten senseless or sentenced to the lockbox. I found her cold little hand. I put the apple in it. “Eat this.”

She wasted no time biting into it. She hid under the blanket to muffle the noise and smell. She ate it all the way down to the seeds and stem, which she hid in her pocket to take to the composter the next day. Melina curled up next to me under our thin blankets. She sniffled again. “I think you should take Nikolai.”

“Why do you say that?”

“He doesn’t deserve to be here.”

“Why not?”

Melina gestured under the blanket. “He’s meant for bigger things. This camp isn’t the place for him. I know you don’t like or trust Vassily, but Vassily says Nikolai is going to be somebody someday. But he can’t do it here.”

What could I say to that? Aileen in the upper bunk rolled over, reminding me that we weren’t alone, no matter how quietly we talked. “Go to sleep,” I told Melina. I pushed my pillow and spare clothes into a better support for my head. I got comfortable. After all these long years of sleeping on the bare planks of my bunk, it doesn’t bother me anymore. Melina never knew any better. None of us ever give up sleep time we don’t have to.

Melina knew better than to ask about escape plans. She didn’t say anything about escape plans at all. We were on separate work schedules that week, so we didn’t have much chance to talk anyway. I did see her talking to Dom. Nikolai was on my harvesting crew. He kept looking at me as if he wanted to say something, but he never did. Vassily held his intellectual meetings, but he never talked about anything other than his own grandiose plans for revolution.

It was two Monday winters later when Nikolai made his play. He and Melina, along with Omar and Lucy, petitioned to see the warden. When they were admitted, they didn’t do him any violence. In a surprising fit of maturity and reason, Nikolai asked the warden to release the second—and soon to be third—generation children. They had committed no state crimes to warrant their imprisonment. Whatever crimes they had committed were petty ones, such as fighting and hoarding food, none of which had anything to do with the state’s stable and continued existence. It was their parents who had committed the original crimes for which they were imprisoned. Most of them were dead (I think Omar had an uncle still alive then). Therefore the crime was expiated, leaving the children blameless.

I only got the story second hand, but I can imagine how it went.

The warden in his dark and close office, sitting behind his dark and heavy desk, leaning back in his dark and towering chair, fingers laced across his ample black clad belly, looking at these four thin and under grown children before him, standing on plastic so they wouldn’t soil his dark and deep carpet. An entire squad of guards, picked for their size and ferocity, each one easily as big as all these four thin and under grown children put together, all aiming their immense black guns at these four thin and under grown children.

No. Not children. Young people. Young men and women standing up for what they thought was right. Nikolai presenting his case, polite, respectful, passionate. I can imagine him standing there. He looks the warden in the eye, as he exercises the debating skills he’d learned at Vassily’s feet.

Melina, as straight and determined as her existence. Her head is held high. Her hands are clasped together to hide their trembling. She will not look away when the warden looks at her. I’ve seen that look. He would look away first.

Omar, more shy than Nikolai or Melina, but as determined as Nikolai. He wouldn’t be able to meet anyone’s eyes, but he will stand at Nikolai’s back no matter what else happens to him.

And Lucy, the catalyst for all this. She cradles her barely there baby bump. Her eyes are downcast. She is as frightened as a fawn, but she is as steadfast as the young trees in the orchard. Everyone knew her condition wasn’t her fault or choice. Most of us were quite willing to help her set that right, but she had made her decision and would stand by it.

The warden, sitting there, big and dark and well fed, backed up by his kill squad even bigger and darker and bulkier in their armor and uniforms. He listens to Nikolai’s politely worded request. He studies each of the young people in front of them. He looks especially at Lucy, half hidden by Melina and Omar. He doesn’t respond right away when Nikolai finishes his carefully thought out and planned speech. He toys with a pen or some other small thing on his desk. Nikolai doesn’t look away from his gaze. He meets it as if the two of them are equals talking politics over a cup of tea.

And then: “No,” the warden says. He sits up and folds his hands together on the desk. “The sentence was for seven generations. The crime has not been expiated.”

Nikolai and the others start to protest. The warden waves them away. “Lockbox. All of them. And increased work shifts, if they have time to deny their responsibilities like this.”

So. We had to get them out of there. Lucy, especially. We met after lights out, Dom and I and the rest of our tiny group. We’d had the plans already worked out. We just had to modify them slightly for the young people. Nobody else would know about it but the five of us. It’s better that way. The whole operation had to be done before the sun came up.

We got Lucy out before Thursday’s scheduled summer. The lockbox is bad enough any other day of the week, but Thursday is the worst. It is only secured with a pin through the hasp, since no one can reach it from the inside. Nobody but the guards willingly visit the lockboxes. Frank pulled the pin. Dom and I wrestled the door open. Georgina and Sue pulled Lucy out and carried her away. We closed and pinned the door and swept away our footprints, leaving no evidence anyone had ever been there.

Quickly and quietly we opened the other three boxes. Melina and Omar could walk by themselves. We had to help Nikolai. We accomplished it, hiding in shadows whenever a guard or searchlight swept by.

Behind Dom’s barracks, we gave them water and food and clothes. All of them were weak from the heat and dehydration and starvation. All of them were terrified at leaving the only home they’d ever had. All of them had the determination and fire of youth.

In hasty whispers, we told them what they had to do. Long years of observation and testing had given us a map of the camp. Questioning new arrivals let us expand the map to the surrounding lands. We had researched and planned every route away from the Marching Forward into the Glorious Future Re Education Facility. We put Melina and her party onto the one that would take them away from the camp’s associated town. A week away was a railroad where they could jump a slow moving train. Once they got to the city, they would have to find their way to the next country. They would have to forget this place ever existed. They had to mind every mannerism, every word, every thought they had, because the slightest slip would do more than bring them back here. If none of them failed, they would be free.

Melina hugged me tightly, tears pouring down her face. Neither of us could or dared to speak. We held on to each other for the last time.

“I will teach my child what freedom truly is,” Lucy whispered in my ear. Poor Omar shook so hard his teeth chattered, but Georgina and Sue braced him up with soft words of encouragement. Nikolai, trying so hard to be brave, solemnly shook everyone’s hands, but Dom pulled him into a back breaking hug and Frank kissed them all on the forehead in blessing.

And then they were away. The rest of us stayed long enough to make sure they made it through the perimeter. We swept away all evidence of our passage before returning to our cold and empty bunks. No one else in my barracks reacted to my return, but I knew they all knew.

The warden opened the lockboxes Sunday. I was on fruit packing duty when the sirens went off and the uproar began.

And it was quite the uproar too. We assembled on the parade ground and were counted. The guard swept all the buildings, the barracks, the equipment sheds, the hay barn, the potting shed, the greenhouse, the infirmary, the repair shops, the cannery and freezer barn, the packing houses, all to no avail. They beat the bushes and orchards and fields with dogs and night scopes and close order search lines and found nothing. Searches outside the perimeter turned up not even a track. Friday’s rain took care of that.

We were counted and lectured and bribed and threatened and punished in increasingly desperate ways. Nobody talked because no one knew anything. Of those of us who did know, Dom can’t talk. Georgina’s mental health renders her catatonic when faced with hostility. Frank is a holy man under vows of silence no mere mortal can break. Evie might look like porcelain and glass but there’s no one less likely to break. I too am made of such stern stuff. The warden got nothing from us. The warden got nothing from anyone except the government officials who wanted to know why production had fallen off so badly.

And so, we went back to work. It’s not so bad now. I know Melina is out of this camp. That’s all the freedom in the world to me.

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