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The Price of Innocence
By Joaquin Monterrosa
Genre: Fiction Level: 7th-12th
Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest

I could see the immense desperation in the rough man’s brown eyes as he exasperatedly struggled to maintain his grip on the cold steel bar - the only thing keeping him from plummeting into the water a few meters below him. This was his test: he had to hang onto the steel bar long enough for all the water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool to be sucked down the pool drain. If he failed, he would fall into the pool that was electrified by a 4,000 watt cable snaking across the bottom. The man would have to wait until every last drop of water was drained before he could drop. The buzz of electrified water, crackling loudly, ended abruptly with the gruesome noise of the grown man’s unnatural wails as his rough hands slipped from the bar and he dropped, sending 4,000 watts of electricity surging through his body. No sympathetic words followed, not even a silent prayer. No one cared. No one but me.

What had just happened was the doing of the Corazones Muertos, one of the most corrupt, deranged gangs in the city of New York. The Corazones Muertos were founded by a ruthless Mexican drug dealer who made his way to the U.S to start his own illegal splinter group. Throughout the years, the title of leader has been passed down to the firstborn son of the previous leader. This generation the soon-to-be heir is me - Lorenzo DeReal. This infamous title is honored and cherished by all Corazones Muertos. I can even enjoy the advantages that accompany it - the money, the power, and the girls. I have it all, but it comes at a price, a price that any other Corazon Muerto could easily cope with - the price of innocence.

 All I’ve known since my first day of life has been death. Cold, vicious, demented death. Corruption, drugs, and scandal have shrouded my life. Even as a young child, my father saw to it that I was a direct part of the gang, whether I was forced to watch him torture his helpless victims, or helping him light the match that would set an innocent family’s home aflame. Nevertheless, every night I would find a way to fall asleep, until my 12th birthday. My 12th birthday was the day my father told me it was time to become a Decider.

Of all the sick, twisted gang jobs, by far the worst was being a Decider. Deciders were inhumane cretins who decided how to “creatively” kill a man, leaving the likely victim with just the slimmest chance for survival. The most intolerable part of being a Decider wasn’t just deciding on how a to end the precious life of a random individual. Rather, it was the praise you received from other gang members for the “entertainment” they watched. To these animals, being a Decider wasn’t just a job - it was art.

I was only thirteen when I Decided the death of my first “customer” – that’s the term our gang used. I remember it all too well: the fear and devastation as the man desperately tried to find his way out of the incredibly complex glass maze that was quickly filling to the ceiling with icy, cold water. He had unknowingly made it to within 40 feet of the exit when I remember him slowly sinking down, eyes still open as his last bubble escaped his mouth. That night was the first night I couldn’t fall asleep. I thought my guilt might slowly ease as time passed, but that has not been the case. A year has gone by now and my guilt has only worsened. My life is now just a slew of sleepless nights.

I woke to the sound of raspy shouts echoing from downstairs. Just a usual conversation in DeReal house, I thought. I groggily rose from my bed, exhausted from only three hours of sleep. The wooden floor creaked as I bent down and reached under my bed, searching for my most cherished possession - my only cherished possession - the picture of my mom. I gazed at her face for a while, as I did every morning, noticing her long, beautiful brown hair and her coffee-brown eyes. No matter how bad things used to get, she always used to remind me, “Lorenzo, look on the bright side”. I longed to see her just one more time, but I knew I probably wouldn’t. Father always told me she had just walked away one night. I didn’t believe him. Not because of the countless other lies he’s told me before, but because I knew mom wouldn’t walk out me. Maybe on him. But never on me.

“Lorenzo! Get down here and make some breakfast!” demanded my father in his low, gravelly voice. I quickly threw on some clothes and headed downstairs to start the coffee maker.

“Walter failed to pay his dues last week.” It was Lucio, one of my father’s favorite gang minions, addressing my old man. “What should we do?”

Lucio gave me a sneer as I set his coffee down next to him, for he despised me. He, like most others in the gang, hated me because they saw what my father had never seen—my  sympathy towards those we mistreated.

“We do what we always do,” answered my father. I froze as I heard those words, because I knew what was coming next. “Lorenzo, we’ve got another customer for you,” my father informed me cheerfully. “He will be dealt with tomorrow, so you have the day to think about what games you might play.” I stiffened up, only to be brought back to reality by the ding! of the toaster.

For the rest of the day, I sat in my room thinking. Thinking about what I was going to do. Every Decision got harder and harder, and the more Decisions I made, the more I hated myself. But this time was going to be the hardest, because this time was the first time I would have to kill someone I knew. Walter was a baker. A great guy. On my worst days, I would visit his bakery down the street to get the cupcake with the white frosting and little silver beads sprinkled all over it. How perfect - today is one of the worst days I’ll ever have, but I can’t even go get myself a cupcake. How could I handle Walter’s cheerful greeting, knowing that tomorrow I have to kill him?

As the sun slowly descended, I knew my father would be waiting for an answer from me. He loved to know exactly how the chessboard would be set up. I walked downstairs as slowly as possible, procrastinating on each step. When I reached the last step, I saw my father waiting for me at the dining room table, which was laden with all sorts of delectable dishes prepared by one of my father’s many five-star chefs. But the delicious scents didn’t arouse any appetite in me. Nothing would.

I sat down at the opposite end of the table, waiting for my father to ask me what I had decided on for tomorrow. “Eat! Eat!” insisted my father.

“I’m not hungry,” I answered, slightly irritating my father.

“So, what’s the plan for tomorrow?” questioned my father anxiously. “Whatcha got up your sleeve this time, maestro?”

My jaw clenched, and I said what I had wanted to say for years, but never had. “There is no plan,” I answered plainly.

“What do you mean there’s no plan?” asked my father angrily.

“I mean I’m not going to Decide,” I calmly responded.

“You are weak! Just like your mother!” yelled my father.

At those last four words, something snapped. I stood straight up, throwing my chair back,

“Mom was not weak, and neither am I! The only weak one is you!”

My father got up and threw the 200 pound table aside like a paper cup. He stormed towards me, grabbed my neck, and pulled me into the kitchen, where he threw me against the refrigerator with such force that I couldn’t breathe. He slowly bent low and whispered in my ear, “There will be consequences.” Then he walked off, disappearing into his office.

I sat there on the floor, trying to take in what had just happened. Then I remembered Walter. Just because I wasn’t going to kill him didn’t mean someone else wouldn’t. I quickly got back on my feet and rushed out of the house. I ran down the street, not giving a second thought about the many cars blasting their horns. I only had one thought on my mind: Warn Walter!

The little welcome bells jingled as I blasted through the bakery’s front door. I quickly spotted Walter and ran over to him. “What’s the rush, Lorenzo?” asked Walter in his usual happy voice.

“They’re coming for you! You have to go!” I pleaded with him, breathing heavily.

“Who’s coming for me?” asked Walter, bewilderedly.

“Los Corazones Muertos!” I replied. I could see in Walter’s eyes that he knew what I was talking about. He quickly gathered a few things and threw them in his bag. Then, with a quick thank you and goodbye, Walter left.

I exited the bakery and trudged down the street. Not back to the house. Not to anywhere, really. I just walked, the cool night breeze chilling my face as I went. I rounded a corner into an alleyway and froze.  

In the moonlight was the silhouette of a man. Not just any man, but Lucio. I turned around and started to run, but it was no use. Lucio was upon me in a matter of seconds, his cold arm wrapped around my neck as he forced a cloth over my mouth. I didn’t struggle, for I knew my efforts to escape would be senseless and wasteful. Instead, I inhaled deeply and allowed the chemicals to render me unconscious.

My head throbbed as I opened my eyes and slipped back into the conscious world. I took in my surroundings. I was at a table - my dining room table - tied to a chair with gang members all around and my father at the head. I understood what was happening. It was a gang meeting. I’d seen a few throughout my life. My father and other gang members would sit around a table and decide what to do with a disloyal gang member. Of the few meetings I had witnessed, all of them ended the same way - with the gang member getting killed.

“I think we should treat him just as we would any other gang member,” Lucio suggested to my father. There was a pause. My father glanced at me. Then back at Lucio.

“It is only fair,” he answered.

“How should we do it?” asked one of the gang members.

“Hanging,” suggested one.

“Shooting,” offered another.

“Poison,” added various gang members.

“Shut up!” yelled my father, bringing a halt to Sharing Time. My father thought for a moment before continuing. “He will have to endure his own brainchild - the glass maze he created for his first customer more than a year ago.”

The table was quiet for more then a minute. Then Lucio got up, grabbed the back of my chair, and hauled me upstairs, where he threw me in a room and locked the door. I sat in fear for hours, thinking about the impossible task ahead of me - the glass maze. The man I sentenced never had any idea where the exit was. I sat tied in that chair for seven nights, eating only one meal per day, while they readied the maze.

On the eighth day I awoke to the sound of my door creaking open. I looked up and there was Lucio, standing there with a cloth bag. He hastily made his way over to me and forced the brown cloth knapsack over my face. He carried me out of the room and out of the house. The smell of exhaust suggested we were approaching a car. We climbed in, and after about an hour of driving, Lucio took me out of the car and pushed me into a building. The air smelled of chlorine; I was near a swimming pool. Hours passed. Finally, I heard a man walking towards me. He picked me up, carried me to another room, yanked the knapsack off my face, untied me, then left.

I got up and stretched, relieving all the cramps that I had accrued during the seven nights I was tied. I looked through the window of the dirty little office where I’d been transported. Through the window, I saw what looked like an empty, abandoned public swimming pool. Inside the empty pool was an enormous glass maze. But the Corazones had built more than a maze. They had built a spectator arena, complete with bleachers packed by gang members, all wanting to savor every delicious moment of my death.  Studying the maze from a distance, I saw that the maze walls were made of opaque shower glass so I couldn’t see the exit, which was lit up like a grand prize with bright lights shining down on it. In the center of the maze, on the floor of the empty pool, was a one-foot diameter hole in the middle, where the water would come up. A clear glass ceiling with one entrance and one exit sealed the top of the entire maze. When the water rose up and touched the glass ceiling, I would suffocate. And all these jackals would witness and enjoy my death.

Three muscular men wearing wife beaters grabbed me aggressively by the arms, dragged me out of the office, and threw me down through the entrance of the maze. They closed the entrance, locked it, and left swiftly, striding back to the cramped bleachers. I reached my hand out and touched one of the maze walls. It was slightly bumpy, the exact texture of the shower door at home. As I took in all of my surroundings, a huge roar erupted - the sound of all the gang members cheering in unison, probably signifying the start of water flowing up into the maze.

My brain raced, desperately trying to think up different strategies. I thought about finding differences in the walls and using them as landmarks, but as I looked around I realized every wall’s texture and appearance was identical. Blindly, I took off into the maze, turning corners and heading down puddled passageways, every time ending up at a dead end. After many minutes of thoughtless wandering, I looked up to see joyful faces of the gang members as they watched me struggle. I could see some people eating and talking and posing for pictures - to them this was no more than good entertainment. Angry that I had wasted time feeling sorry for myself, I started running. I turned left, which led me to a fork. I opted to turn right. After about a minute without reaching a dead end, I felt good. I kept on through the maze still without a dead end in sight! I was on a roll! Just as I started feeling invincible, I hit another dead end. The crowd cheered lustily. The icy water was now up to my calves and I was completely lost. I reached another dead end, so I turned around and headed down what I thought was a different path, only to find myself encountering yet another dead end.

An idea struck me. “If I only take right turns then I should go in a circle,” I thought to myself. “And if I only take left turns, I should also go in a circle. But if I zig-zag right-left-right-left, I should bear straight.”

I started off again using my newly-devised strategy. Right-left-right-left. It was working. Even though I’d hit a dead end every now and then, I could follow the swim center’s ceiling and see that I was going straight. I turned right, then looked around and realized I’d have to turn right again. So I did. But then I had to take another right. And another. I was circling, and there were nothing but dead ends. Right-left-right-right. I tried to remember every turn I made, but it was useless - the indistinguishable walls were too confusing. I looked down at the water level. It was now up to my belly button. I could still walk, but I could no longer run. I started to panic, but quickly stopped myself, for I knew that panicking would squash any miniscule chance I had of living.

Walking was getting harder and harder as the water level rose; within minutes I was forced to slosh at quarter-speed as the water slowly crept up to my ribcage. Right-left-left-right. The constant cornering and wheeling around had me nauseated, but there was no time to rest and settle my stomach. I kept pushing, disregarding my inability to feel my toes. Aisle after aisle, turn after turn, I was exhausting myself, and in order to conserve my energy - I stopped. I had hit a dead end and realized the severity of my condition. The water was above my shoulders, slowly creeping up to my chin. I looked up, this time not at the crowd but at the glass ceiling. I realized that the ceiling didn’t offer much room; there were only three feet above my head and four feet above water – for now.

I half-swam, half-walked through the maze, struggling to maintain my strength. The water level continued to rise, forcing me to tiptoe with an outstretched neck through the complex labyrinth. As more fruitless minutes passed, the water started to touch my lips and I knew my only choice was to start swimming. I swam to an intersection where, as I was deciding whether to turn left or right, I looked over my shoulder and halted everything. I squinted at what had previously appeared to be a dead end, but as I looked more carefully, I realized this wall differed from the others. In fact, it wasn’t even a glass wall at all - it was the side of the pool. And the glass ceiling had a small square frame above it. I had found the exit! My heart raced as I kicked my legs, propelling myself towards the exit. I had made it!

I reached the exit and reached for the door above me with a wide grin on my face. Immediately, my heart stopped and my grin disappeared as I realized my mistake. This was not the exit that I had greatly longed for. This was the complete opposite - this was the entrance where I had started!

Rage swept through my body! I punched the glass until my fists bled, screaming in pure frustration! I was done - done with this torment, done with this maze. I was sick of the water and the walls and the countless dead ends, but most of all I was done with the insidious men of Los Corazones Muertos who were responsible for my wretched fate.

My rage and frustration soon gave way to sorrow and sadness. Tears ran down my hot cheeks as I swam, helplessly trapped. I longed for my mother. I knew that if she were here, she wouldn’t have let any of this happen. She would have always been there for me. I recalled how she would always tell me to look on the bright si……That was it! I had to look on the bright side! Although not much was visible through the shower glass walls, there was one thing that could shine through them - light! If I simply followed the light illuminating the exit I could make it out!

Only about a foot of space remained between the water and the glass ceiling above. I had to backstroke in order to breathe and keep my eyes on the light. But with such little clearance above me, I couldn’t fully windmill my arms. This was a blessing in disguise, as I soon discovered that I could propel quickly through the water by kicking my legs and repeatedly pushing my hands off the glass above me. Even better, I saw that with each push off the ceiling, I left a fresh set of bloody handprints. Like Hansel’s and Gretel’s bread crumbs, I soon had a trail to follow that showed me all the paths I’d already tried. I continued to hit dead ends, but with my newly acquired confidence I swam calmly and purposefully, following the blood and the light. My mind was set. I wasn’t going to die here. Not for the entertainment of these soulless gang members.

My nose was now scraping against the glass ceiling. Staring cross-eyed down my nose, I saw that the airspace had shrunk down to a mere two inches. I knew I was close – there were only a few bloodless routes left - but I couldn’t waste a second more. I took a deep breath and dove underwater. My arms and legs ached as I freestyled as fast as I could, twisting and turning through the maze. As I rounded what seemed to be the last unexplored corner, I stopped. There it was, down the long corridor. The bright, colored lights shown down upon it like the end of a rainbow. The real exit.

Craning my neck and extending my lips, I slurped in a slurry of air and water. I jerked my head down and thrust myself towards the exit, knowing full well that I had just taken the last breath of air that my lungs were going to get. My legs kicked liked pistons as I raced down the corridor. I needed more oxygen; I couldn’t hold my breath much longer. My eyes blurred and my head throbbed, but I was almost there, my lungs burning and heart ready to explode as I reached up for the exit hatch.

I looked up through the glass ceiling. My father stared back at me in disbelief. Lucio’s mouth was agape, his shoulders slumped. The bleachers full of filthy gangsters, who just moments ago were a cacophony of hyenas, had fallen completely silent. They all knew the same thing: that I had won.

My head pushed up on the exit door, ready to crack the seal and inhale a breath of fresh, wonderful air that I had so longed for…when I stopped. As I looked up at the heartless, sickening faces of the dastardly men standing above me, I realized that I hadn’t a single reason to emerge and take that breath. What did I have to return to? A life of crime and violence? A father who made a living killing people? A job in which I would be forced to take the lives of the innocent?

I had nothing. There was no bright side – at least not here. I flaoted away from the exit and stared at the monsters I had conquered. As my final breath bubbled slowly to the surface, I was finally at peace. Best Decision I ever made.  

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