A Hero's demise By Grace Yoo

Albuquerque, New Mexico — March 18, 2089 6:00 am, at dawn

The man set his glass upon the table with a loud thunk. His once-handsome face was set with lines of rage, his perfect teeth were now yellow and crooked. His breath was rank with the smell of whiskey, and his lips were permanently contorted into a scowl. Even his eyes, which were once deemed the most beautiful eyes in the whole world, were dull and bloodshot, for they no longer had any life in them. And they remained so, even as the man began to pour himself another helping of whiskey. Wine, it seemed, would no longer satisfy the wounds that forever scarred his heart. He scratched at the stubble on his chin, which proved to be just as dirty as the room he was in.

The weak light cast by the rising sun threw back the shadow that hid the room from closer observation. Muck caked the windowsills, making it almost impossible to open the windows themselves. Dust covered nearly every surface it could touch, for the man had not made any effort to improve the state of his living quarters. His bed lay in a state of disarray, once-spotless sheets wrinkled and splattered with unidentifiable stains of past meals. A large collection of torn, out-of-date newspapers covered the wooden floor, serving as an unofficial carpet. Many green glass bottles of various alcohol brands were pushed to the side, many of which were empty. Both the man and the room stank of the smell of squalor.

Despite the filthy state of the man’s humble abode, the New Mexican prairie had never been more beautiful. The amber stalks of the many-acred grassland softly rustled in the wind, so realistically it was as if the earth had hair. Bushes shook and trembled with the comings and goings of small sleek creatures. The sun gleamed gold as it exchanged pleasantries with Earth and it’s people. And yet, like a flower way past its bloom, it was quite evident that the prairie had seen better days. It was as though the prairie reflected the mood of the man who resided in the house on top of the hill.

The man had been drinking his third sitting by the time a shadow, dark and foreboding, fell over the curtain that covered the entrance. Tap, tap, tap. Someone was knocking on the doorframe. A dangerous gleam entered the man’s eyes as he lurched to his feet. He hastily grabbed ahold of the bottle of whisky he had been feasting upon only moments before. The flask’s neck in hand, he broke it’s bottom over the table with a violent crack. Ice-green glass shattered with the impact, forming jagged, sharp erosions on the edges of the bottle. With this makeshift weapon in hand, the man slowly advanced upon the door.

“Who’s there?” he growled. The figure behind the door shifted slightly, but gave no answer.

“Show yourself I say,” he hissed. “Or I’ll make you.” Yet the shadow remained as quiet as ever. Taking the shadow’s silence for obstinance, the man made up his mind.

“Well, you asked for it,” he spat. Wielding the glass instrument the way someone would hold a baseball bat, he launched himself at the door, howling in fury. But to his surprise, the figure began to cry. First softly, then louder, and louder, and louder, until the person was positively sobbing. Confused, he stopped. The stranger showed no sign of surrender, not even fear. Just— sadness. And more importantly, that cry. Feminine and lyrical. He knew that voice. He swallowed and squinted into the now sun-filled doorway.

“Who the hell are you?” he asked, trying to hide his uncertainty. Then he added, “It would be nice if you could stop that incensed crying, too. Come out now, stranger.”

“But I'm not,” the person— woman, he corrected himself— finally spoke. “I'm not a stranger. Not to you anyway.”

“What d’you mean?”

The woman laughed a little, though not very long. Her silhouette stepped into close proximity, grabbing hold of the sheet that limited the man’s sighting of her. In one swift, clean move, she tore the sheet off the doorframe. The room was instantly filled with the shining yellow light. The man cried out and shielded his eyes from it; he had not seen daylight for a very long time. Agony subsiding, he stared at the woman standing at the door. He had gone pale and drawn, shock resculpting the angry features of his face. The lady smiled weakly.

“Now Juan, is this really how you greet an old friend?” she asked.

He was too surprised to answer.

~

“How are you still alive?” he asked.

The two were sitting on a white stone bench situated outside of his filthy home. All around them the scent of life swished by with every coming breeze. The outdoors seemed to be having a good effect on him; he was looking and acting more and more like his old self. The woman smiled sadly.

“After the Fall, the enemy had me and Lukas taken to the most guarded, high-tech prison they had,” she explained. “They took us to separate interrogation chambers and tried to torture your whereabouts out of us. They were careful to go easier on me, because of my status as the daughter of the prime minister. But Lukas… I'm sorry, Juan. He- he didn't make it.”

“Say that again,” he said numbly. He couldn't be dead, he couldn't be— Not Lukas, not the man who had stayed with him, fought with him, and sacrificed himself for him— His best friend… No. He couldn't be dead.

“Juan… This hurts me just as much as it’s hurting you,” she whispered. “But, no matter how much I wish it wasn't true… He’s gone. He's not coming back.”

“STOP!” he shouted, taking his head into his hands. Then, taking a deep breath, “Please stop. I just want to be… alone for bit.” A nod, then the sound of feet padding away.

~

Juan had been a member of an organization called the Resistance, a group of elite individuals banded together against the corrupt government of New America, fighting for the simple dream of freedom. He and his friends Lukas, Callì, Drew, and Regina had been recruited at the young age of 13 and had protested in the name of the Resistance ever since. Under the meticulous mentoring of their superiors, the five had quickly become the most talented initiates the Resistance had ever seen. Rumors of their skill and deadly accuracy spread across the continent— igniting sparks of hope and rebellion in the hearts of many.

Although the government had branded the five as criminals, to the citizens, this wasn't so. To them, they were the fire of the nation. Over time, this became their name.

For awhile every mission assigned to The Fire had resulted with victory. The Resistance had become much closer to overthrowing the government than ever before. But it had never occurred to them that the government knew much more about them than they gave them credit for. Their years of success had made them a bit reckless and overconfident. In the end, this became their fatal flaw.

Of all the members of The Fire, Juan was the strongest and the smartest. He was their team spirit and their leader, so they naturally depended on and looked up to him. He had appeared to have no weakness, and this was what the government had been afraid of. But unbeknownst to the Resistance, there was a spy in their midst, placed there by the government. Not only that, the spy was a member of The Fire itself.

For years, the spy had passed on information about the Resistance— as well as possible leads about Juan’s weaknesses— to the government. And after months of painstaking guesswork, the constantly whirring minds of New America’s twisted government came to a conclusion. Juan’s weakness was none other than his friend Regina Gonzales.

Regina was the offspring of an illegally immigrated Mexican couple, who had crossed the border to New America back when she was only a few months old. After her parents’ deaths, she had been taken in by Juan’s parents, who grew to love her as if she was their own. Juan became her best friend.

Although the two were not related by birth, they behaved as a normal brother and sister would; fighting and playing, loving and hating. At the time, they understood nothing about the outside world and it’s dangers, for they were only children. But as they grew older, they became more and more aware of their unjust country and the lies it told. Eventually their frustration morphed into agony, the agony melted into resentment, and that resentment gave way to rebellion.

At 13, the two made an important decision: they were going to join the Resistance. That same night, they ran away from their old home, for fear of somehow hurting Juan’s parents in the process. Their friend Lukas joined them.

Ever since then, the Resistance had become their home. There, they had met their future teammates: Callì Robinson, daughter of the prime minister of New America, and Drew Horowitz, a boy with an unknown identity.

As the years wore on, it had become quite obvious that Juan was closer to Regina than he let on. In fact, it was a nationwide suspicion that their years of friendship had finally blossomed into something much more. The suspicion was confirmed when Juan announced his and Regina’s engagement in 2084. The whole Resistance rejoiced at their union, and so did the government. At last, they had a legitimate clue to act upon.

On the summer of 2085, the government made its first move. Under the veil of darkness, their sentries tracked the location of the Resistance’s HQ, which was situated in the Black Hills of South Dakota. They kidnapped Regina in her sleep. Any evidence of their intrusion had been erased, except for a cryptic note left in Regina’s bedroom. The note had read:

You might have noticed the disappearance of Ms. Gonzales.

Do not be afraid. The girl is safe. However, we cannot guarantee her ultimate safety unless you, the Resistance, agree to these terms.

First, the remainder of The Fire must report to the central square of Phoenix, Arizona by noon tomorrow.

Second: They must come alone.

If they are accompanied by other Resistance fighters, Ms. Gonzales’ life will be put in immediate jeopardy. And from what we know, that would not be to your benefit. Altogether, we hope that you will be wise in accepting our terms. Of course, if you choose to disobey our commands, the consequences will indeed be engaging. Either way, we believe you will be receiving special attention from us.

We are looking forward to our meeting. Unless you don’t show up at all.

This is an order from the prime minister of New America.
As the prime minister had intended, the news of Regina’s kidnapping affected Juan badly. Despite the advice of his superiors, he immediately headed for Phoenix with the others, Regina’s safety the only thing on his mind.

What awaited them was a massacre.

The authorities had been waiting for them. The government’s troops had closed in on them, the numbers too great for even Juan to defeat. He remembered seeing Regina gagged and held back by police. He remembered the sudden realization that it had all been a trap. That one of them had betrayed them. He remembered Lukas screaming at him to run, run, run… And he had, like a coward running for his life… He remembered Regina’s devastated face…

He remembered stumbling into an unknown town after running for days… He remembered seeing the Fall of the Resistance being announced on the news… He remembered guilt, endless guilt... Guilt for leading his friends to destruction… Guilt for running… Guilt for being alive…

He had tried to forget, to let it go. He had even dared to try to drink away his sorrows, drain the memories that threatened to crush his heart. And for a while, it had seemed as though it had worked. Until… Calli had come back, bringing the news that he had dreaded…

Oh, Lukas… he thought. What can I do without you, now that you’re gone? I’ll never forgive myself for what I’ve done to you. To all of you… After what seemed like forever, he finally allowed himself to cry.

"Rest in peace, My friend."

~

Callí stood at the end of the path, watching Juan weep. She herself was feeling more guilt than Juan was. The reason for that would be discovered in due course.

Presently, she noticed a slight change in Juan. He had stopped weeping, and was now peering in her direction in a strange way that made her gut twist. As if he had figured something out.

With a feeling of dread, she watched him rise from his seat, eyes still pinned on her own. Slowly he made his way towards her, never losing eye contact with her the whole time. At last he came to a halt in front of her. He was quiet for a moment. Then he spoke.

“Calli,” he said. She nodded.

“Remember what I asked you earlier?” he asked.

“No,” she answered uneasily, shaking her head. She had no idea what he was talking about.

“Since you don’t seem to remember, I’ll remind you,” he said, an unusual steel wrapping around his words. “I asked you how you were still alive. But you answered the wrong question. You told me what happened to you after the Resistance fell.” Here he paused, chewing his lip slightly.

“Callí… I didn’t ask you that because I was glad to see you. Which I was. I asked you that because I knew that almost every single person that belonged to the Resistance was rounded up by the authorities and got terminated. Even if you were the daughter of the prime minister, you would still be considered a traitor by the face of today’s law. They wouldn’t have spared you even if you knew where I was, because like I said, you would still be considered a traitor and criminal. So there was a nine out of ten chance that you would have died too. So I’m kind of at a loss. You’re hiding something from me. What’s going on?”

Callí stared at him. She had hoped to avoid a confrontation, but it looked as though her time was up. She balled her hands into fists.

“Juan…” she finally said, guilt flushing through her cheeks. “ ...I’m sorry.”

Juan looked as though he had been punched in the gut. “You mean…” he whispered, eyes widening.

“Yes!” she shouted. Then she said, in a quieter, defeated tone, “It was me. I was the spy.”

In that moment, a myriad of emotions flooded through Juan’s face. A mixture of grief, shock, anger, and betrayal contorted his face beyond recognition.

“I trusted you,” he seethed. Blinded with anger, he seized Calli’s throat. He began to squeeze. Unable to breathe, she gasped for air. Juan didn’t seem to notice. “I believed in you. I blamed myself for the Fall of the Resistance. For the deaths of all of my comrades. For Regina. But I realize now that I wasn't the one to be at fault.”

His eyes cut through hers like a knife cutting through flesh. “It was you,” he spat. “You deserve to die.” Callí’s eyes bulged, her face turning red from the deprivation of air.

“J-Juan,” she wheezed. “P-please—” At the sound of her voice, Juan released her abruptly. Callí fell to her knees with a thump, inhaling air vigorously. Slowly, she looked up at Juan.

His eyes were smoldering, like burning embers. She had never seen him so angry.

“Don't call me that,” he growled. “I lost that name when you betrayed the Resistance years ago. Leave. I don't want to see you ever again. Be grateful you didn't lose that filthy life of yours.” He turned to leave.

“Wait!” she cried out, holding on to his arm.

“Let go!” he said with as much fierceness he could muster, trying to shake her off. It didn't work. Callí held on fast.

“Please,” she begged. “Just hear me out.”

“Hear you out? Hear you out?” he shouted, an unseen volcano erupting inside of him. “I've had enough of your lies. Because of you, I lost Regina—”

“You didn't!” she interrupted. “You didn't lose her!”

“What do you mean by that?” Juan asked despite of himself, feeling his mind spin with shock. “Regina’s dead.”

“She's not,” Callí whispered. “Regina— she’s still alive.”

For the third time that day, Juan felt as though he had been jostled violently from a long nap. At the same time, he wondered if this was another lie.

He opened his mouth, about to voice his doubts about Callí’s trustworthiness, when Callí cut through him yet again.

“Juan, why do you think I came here, looking for you?” she asked. “I came here because my father wants you on our side. And he knows your weakness is Regina. He wanted me to find you— and tell you that he has a job for you. Once the job’s done, he says that this time, he really will send her back to you.”

Juan thought for a moment.

“How do I know that you're not lying?” he asked, skeptical.

“Because I was the one who changed his mind,” she answered. Then, meeting his confused and surprised stare, she continued. “His original plan was to track you down using Regina, then kill you both at the last second. In the end, I convinced him that that wouldn't be to the government’s benefit.

…After what I did to the Resistance, that was the least I could have done.”

He stared at her, as silent and still as stone. It was as if he was trying to see through her soul, and this made her feel uncomfortable. After what seemed like hours, he finally spoke.

“Fine,” he said in a toneless, expressionless voice. “I'm in.”

“Really?” Callí gasped, seemingly delighted. “Oh Juan, you have no idea how much this means to me. Why, it’ll be just like old times—”

“No, it won't be,” he interrupted flatly. “Because back then, you were my friend. Now, you’re nothing but a dirty cheat who only says what others want to hear.”

He took a few steps down the path, then came to a temporary pause.

“One more thing,” he added.

“Yes?” Callí asked, trying to hide the fact that Juan’s words hurt her more than she cared to admit.

“The only reason I'm going along with this is because Regina’s involved. And remember, if this is another trap…”

“...you’ll kill me,” Callí finished, her heart breaking with despair. “I understand.”

“Good,” Juan nodded. “You can come for me tomorrow morning.” He made as if to leave.

“At least that hasn't changed,” she murmured, mostly to herself. Juan stopped, but didn’t turn around.

“What do you mean by that?” he asked, voice suddenly quiet and vulnerable. Calli smiled sadly.

“Haven’t you noticed?” she asked. “You’ve changed so much. So much that I almost couldn’t recognize the man in front of me. I thought for a moment that the Juan I knew was gone for good.” She paused. “But I was wrong. There is one thing that links your old self with your new one,” she continued. “Your love for Regina. I was just- glad to see that that hadn’t changed.”

Juan remained still for another moment. Then he opened his mouth. “Callí… You’ve changed just as much as I have. But I think… For you, there’s no link left.”

“Juan….”

“As for the last thing you said… Well, maybe you’re right. I’m glad to see it hasn’t changed. If anything, it’s gotten stronger. Goodbye, Callí,” he choked out, holding in tears. He didn’t want her to see him cry. “Tell Regina… Tell her that I’m coming back. Tell her to hold on. Just a little bit longer.”

And he walked. Away to the house on top of the hill.

The End.

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