This month’s story is When Freedom Rings, by Michelle Francik. To download a printable .pdf file of the story, please click here.
When Freedom Rings
by Michelle Francik
The clanging of the bell reverberated through the building, startling me out of my reverie. Chairs squeaked and feet hit the floor as the team prepared for their mission. The group of ten headed for the exit, pausing at the front entrance for a head count and to don their gas masks.
“Everyone ready?” Sullie’s voice cut through the noise and heads nodded–faces eager, yet sober. “All right then. It’s time to go. Remember to stick with your buddy at all times. If you get separated, stay put and reach out to our Captain. We’ll find you and bring you home.”
I watched as the teams headed out, their ruby red uniforms a stark contrast to the gray surroundings. The air was thick with smoke, the ground littered with debris. Paul slipped on a pile of loose rubble, but his buddy, Leo, grabbed his arm and kept him on his feet. My eyes met Leo’s as he glanced back, and I nodded my approval.
“You okay, Steph?”
I turned to my partner, Sullie, with a nod. “I’m good. Any last words of wisdom?”
He laughed and shook his head. “Just the usual. Let’s do this, baby!” He kissed me on the lips, smiled his slightly crooked smile, and barely donned his own mask before heading out the door.
I sighed. That man would be the death of me yet.
I settled in behind the communications desk, eyes scanning the eight monitors for any threats. The cameras couldn’t see much with the air so thick and heavy, but something was better than nothing. Fifteen minutes later I announced, “Comm check.” I listened as each group responded in the affirmative, then signed off. “Thank you, team. Keep your eyes peeled and stay safe out there.”
Now was the hard part. The waiting. I hated sitting around waiting. But someone had to do it and I was good at seeing the big picture and making the hard calls, so I’d been elected Captain.
I stood up and stretched. I might as well do a security sweep. My headset would keep me in contact and even at the farthest point in the building, I’d be within a minute of the comm station. I headed for the kitchen and turned on the tap. Rust-colored water spurted out into the sink and I cringed. Even after two years it still grossed me out. I let the water run and moved to the far side of the room where a vase of flowers sat on a small, round table. I smiled and shook my head. I had no idea where Sullie had found them, but after disappearing for an hour the previous day, he’d returned with a handful of Larkspur blooms. As usual, when I asked him, he shrugged and said, “I’m a man of action, not words, babe.” The water was running clear now, so I re-filled the vase with the fresh-adjacent water and set it back on the table.
I checked all of the windows and the back door before returning to the front. “All secure,” I said out loud. As I sat down again, I noticed that one of the cameras was picking up some movement. I leaned in closer to the monitor for a better look.
“Holy hell.” I opened comms and called out to Sullie.
“What’s up, Captain?” The cheeriness of his voice had me smiling in spite of myself.
“I need someone to take a look at Liberty Square. The camera’s picking up something, but I can’t get a good look. It’s moving, though, so we can’t waste any time.”
I heard his deep intake of breath and imagined the look on his face as he considered his options. “Okay, Captain. I’ll grab Leo and Paul and we’ll head over to the bell.”
“Be safe. And let me know when you arrive.”
“You got it. Over and out.”
My heart beat faster as I checked out the monitor again. Whatever it was, it was big. I sent a quick prayer to keep everyone safe then called for another comm check. Once everyone checked in, I felt a little calmer. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad was about to happen.
We were a team called the Liberty Minders. We’d been tasked with the job of keeping what was left of Old Sylvia safe from looters and zombies. Not real zombies, although I guess there’s no such thing as a real zombie after all, but people who made their livings stealing other people’s organs, especially their brains.
America had become a wasteland. The beautiful cities and vast forests had been decimated. The seas were full of trash. Electricity had to be hacked and there were only a few radio stations still functioning, if you could even find a radio that worked.
The world had gone mad. Hate and violence had become the name of the game and once that rat had been let out of its cage, it was nearly impossible to put it back in. By the time the minority realized they’d been used and duped, it was too late. The people with power made sure the general public had none. And they slowly stripped everything away until they were left with nearly nothing. Evil was rewarded. Hate won.
Or so the story goes.
In reality, the majority had fought back and was still fighting back. Even with no internet, no TV, no grocery stores, and no hospitals, people still helped one another. Small pieces of art, books, old magazines, journals and coloring books were hidden in walls and under floors. Songs were sung and music was played on home-made instruments, albeit very quietly. People fell in love. Babies were born. People still found ways to see beauty in each other and in the world.
Organized groups were formed. Skills were assessed and duties assigned. Choices were made and priorities set. Teams were assembled and people were proud to serve.
Our group was blessed with a medic, a gardener, a seamstress, a cook, and a soldier. Our seamstress had offered to repair another team’s footwear and bedding in exchange for the fabric she used to sew our uniforms. At first, the ruby red color had seemed too bright. Too garish. But in a world gone sad and gray, the color reminded us that we were still alive. I can’t speak for the others, but for me, it was a symbol of hope.
But there was also a lot of despair. Once hate and violence had been unleashed, many people found it difficult to control their rage. They were too afraid and embarrassed to lash out at the people who rightly deserved their anger, the wealthy, powerful people, so they attacked the weak and sick. They set out to destroy anything that gave anyone else any pleasure. And they destroyed anything or anyone that stood in their way.
That’s where the zombies came in. The instigators hadn’t really thought things through. Since they’d facilitated the demolition of the hospitals, schools, governments, roads, and life as we knew it, there were fewer and fewer options when they got sick or needed something. Since the ranches and farms had been torched by the angry mob, nutritious food was hard to find.
One of the few scientists who’d been allowed to live had determined that he could use human brains, livers and kidneys to synthesize certain proteins and nutrients that were no longer available organically. So, the zombies were born. And the powerful were forced to pay high prices and rely on whatever the zombies could find.
Our team was housed in what used to be Independence Hall in Pennsylvania. There wasn’t much left, but we were proud to protect what remained, nonetheless. Most of the old cities had been given new names. Pennsylvania was now Old Sylvania and New York was called Old Porky. Don’t ask me why, I didn’t name it!
There were three teams in our district, and we took turns patrolling the area around the Hall and protecting our citizens. We’d fixed the cracked Liberty Bell, and someone rang it every 6 hours, signaling the change of the guard, if you will.
The comm crackled, bringing me back to the present. “Stephanie? Can you hear me?”
“Yes, Sullie. Go ahead.”
“We found what the cameras picked up. And we’re going to need some help. Can you have the other teams meet us here, on the south side of the bell?”
I felt a lump form in my throat. Sullie’s voice sounded strained and he wasn’t cracking jokes. “Is everything okay?” I asked.
“We’re safe for now, but we need help. I can’t explain right now. Just ask the teams to hurry, please. Over and out.”
“Copy that. Hold tight.”
I took a moment to breathe. I couldn’t remember ever hearing him sound like that and even though he said they were safe my racing heart wasn’t buying it. I called the other teams and sent them to his location. When I tried to let Sullie know, he didn’t answer his comm. In a panic, I called Leo. Leo was our soldier, so I knew he’d answer a call from the Captain, as long as he drew breath.
“Leo, are you okay? Sullie’s not answering me,” I gushed.
“He’s a little busy right now, Cap, but we’re okay. Are reinforcements on the way?”
“Yes. They should all be there soon. What’s going on?”
Leo hesitated, sending my pulse racing. “This is something you’ll have to see to believe, Cap. We’re okay. We just need a little more manpower. Be there soon. Over and out.”
It felt like an eternity before Sullie called. Part of me wanted to scream at him while the other part wanted to cry with relief.
“We’re coming in hot, babe. Can you make sure the doors are opened and be ready to slam them shut?”
“Roger that,” I replied.
There was a pause, then, “I love you, Steph. You’ll understand in a minute.”
Guilt tore through me and tears filled my eyes. I had to swallow hard and clear my throat before I could respond. “I’ll be ready. Over and out.”
I ran up to the front doors, grabbing two heavy pails filled with sand along the way. I set the pails behind the doors so they could be shoved in front to hold them open. I ran back to the monitors, but all I could see was smoke and gray dust.
“Sullie, let me know when to open the doors, okay. I can’t see a thing.”
“Copy that. I’ll whistle when we arrive.”
“I’ll be ready,” I responded.
I took a spot near the doors, ears perked, ready to move. My heart beat pounded in my ears, but Sullie’s whistle pierced through the din and I pulled open the left door, kicking the pail in front, then yanked open the right door and did the same. Suddenly, the doorway was filled with people. Leo was first in, carrying multiple bundles under his arms and across his chest. Paul was next, then the rest of the team, all laden with bulging bundles and carrying bags and boxes. Several people I didn’t know stumbled in, holding onto each other to stay upright. Sullie brought up the rear and as I prepared to slam the doors shut, Leo and Paul appeared. When Sullie nodded, they each grabbed a pail, lifting them out of the way. I slammed the doors shut and fitted the bars to secure them.
I followed the men into the back room and stopped in my tracks, mouth agape, eyes bulging. “What the . . . ?”
Leo grinned at me. “I told you you’d have to see it to believe it.”
The room was filled with children. I counted five babies and three kids that looked like they were about ready to walk. And four teenagers.
Sullie walked over, wrapped his arms around me and planted a sloppy kiss on my astonished mug. “Honey, we’re home.”
“I can see that. But I think I need a little more information,” I replied.
He shrugged. “How about we get some food and water in them, and maybe change some diapers,” he grimaced. “It’ll be easier to talk when we get them down for naps.”
I peered up at him, squinting my eyes. “Who are you and what have you done with my partner?”
He chuckled and kissed the tip of my nose. “I’m a complicated man, babe. But you love me anyway.”
Choked up again, I nodded. “I do love you, you crazy man.”
I contacted the Captain of Team Two and explained they’d need to take over their watch early, then we tended to the children. The teens were exhausted and injured, so our medic, Sarah, examined them first, while our cook, Tommy, whipped up something suitable for babies and toddlers. The team pitched in to change diapers, ugh, and wash the children as best they could. A couple of hours later, when everyone had been fed and tended to, the teens and adults moved to the front room and left Leo and Paul watching the sleeping babies.
“So, what’s the story?” I asked.
One of the teens cleared her throat and stood up, wobbling slightly. “My name is Janice, and this is Cezar, Mikail and Lily.” She gestured at the other three as she named them.
Janice started coughing and Sarah rushed to her side. The two women spoke, and Janice shook her head, crossing her arms over her chest. The medic turned to me with a concerned look on her face but shrugged her shoulders. “She says she wants to continue but I think she needs rest, so if we could cut this short, that would be best.”
I nodded. “Just the basics, Janice, if you’re up to it.”
“I am,” she responded. “Cezar’s dad was one of the people who got sucked into the lies. He gave the grifters all of the family’s money, little by little until their savings was gone. Then when the truth came out and he realized what a fool he’d been, he started drinking. He’s an angry drunk and started taking out his anger on his family. He’s been getting more and more violent, and when he nearly beat Cezar to death, we knew we had to get him out of there. We couldn’t take him to any of our homes without his dad finding out, so we decided to run away together.”
She started coughing again and had to sit down. A skinny young man with patches of hair missing, a broken arm, and a bloodied, bruised face stood up slowly, obviously in pain. “I’m Cezar,” he said, his voice soft. “When my friends came up with this crazy idea, I told them no. I didn’t want to drag anyone else into my problems. But they insisted, and I’m very grateful that they did.” Tears filled his eyes and he ducked his head.
The room was silent while he took slow, deep breaths and tears rolled down his cheeks. I felt my heart twist in my chest. How could someone abuse this precious young man? I felt myself clench my fists, wishing I could take a few shots at the coward who’d done this. When he was ready, he continued.
“We walked for days and days, finding places to hide during the day and traveling at night. A few nights ago, we stumbled upon a zombie nest.” There were several gasps from my team and Sullie reached out and took my hand in his. “We were going to run away, but then Lily heard something and turned back.”
The other young woman, Lily, stood up to continue the story. “I wasn’t sure, but it sounded like a baby,” she said. “I couldn’t leave if there was a baby there. We’ve all heard stories about what the zombies do to people. I couldn’t imagine what they’d do to a baby, so I started back.” She turned and looked at the others. “Mikail grabbed my arm and tried to pull me away, but I refused.” She smiled and the young man’s face turned bright red. “I whispered to him that I’d heard a baby. He stopped for a moment, then picked me up and carried me off. I was so angry,” she continued, “but as soon as we were a safe distance away, he set me down and told me he’d be back in a few minutes. He ran off into the night. I explained what I’d heard to the others and we all hunkered down, waiting for Mikail and wondering what he was up to.”
“He returned about 30 minutes later, pale and with a determined look on his face. He said I was right about the noise I’d heard, but it wasn’t a baby. It was several babies. We were all in shock and nobody said a word for several minutes. Then I stood up and took his hand. Cezar reached out, he wasn’t able to stand very well yet, and Janice did, too. We knew what we had to do. We found a safe place to sleep and got our rest. The next day, we came up with a plan.” She sat down and Mikail took up the story.
“What I saw that night will haunt me forever. And there was no way I could turn my back on those children. Cezar was too weak to join the raid and Janice’s asthma made it risky to take her into the camp, for fear she’d start coughing. So we found a hiding spot for them that was far enough from the camp that they wouldn’t be heard, but close enough for us to move between them and camp. Lily and I emptied our backpacks and waited for the zombies to go to sleep.
“When we could hear the men snoring, we snuck closer. I left Lily just outside the camp and did a quick recon mission to see where everyone was. When I returned to Lily, she’d found a loose flap that led right to the babies, so we used that for our first foray. She grabbed two babies and I grabbed three, nestling them in our backpacks so our hands were free, in case we ran into resistance. As we crawled out under the flap, I heard a noise behind me. I turned, ready to fight, but it was another child, looking at me from a cage along the far wall. I was afraid to move, but Lily reached out and grabbed my arm. I held up a finger to the child, like saying just a minute, and backed away.
“We ran to the hiding spot and handed the babies off to Cezar and Janice, then discussed what to do about the other child. We knew we couldn’t leave him but going back a second time was much riskier. Lily told me if I was too afraid to go back, she’d do it herself,” he chuckled. “So, we went back. We peeked under the flap and didn’t see any movement, so I crawled in. Lily followed me and kept an eye out while I reached for the child. We were heading outside again when there was a commotion behind us. We froze in place, hoping we hadn’t been spotted. One of the zombies stumbled through the camp, headed for the outhouse. As he passed us, we heard a small cry and the zombie stopped. He turned to another cage we hadn’t seen and kicked it. The noise stopped and the zombie laughed, then kept going.
I handed the child to Lily and gestured for her to leave, but she wouldn’t, so I gave up trying.” He looked over at Lily who was shaking he head, arms crossed over her chest, then continued. “In the cage were two more children. I opened it and grabbed them by the hands, helping them out. I led them to Lily and we all snuck out through the flap. Once outside, I picked them up and we ran for it. I’ve never been so scared in all my life.”
Cezar’s soft voice chimed in. “At least not until we heard the commotion in the camp.” The others nodded. “Someone noticed that the kids were missing, and all hell broke loose. We’d prepared for this, so we pulled branches and debris over our hiding spot but were terrified they’d find us. More zombies arrived, apparently the boss zombies, and there was a lot of screaming and cursing. In the end, they shot two men who were supposed to be guarding the camp and threatened the other three men. We could hear them screaming that they’d better find the babies, or else. But once they’d left, the three men decided to cut their losses. They ran off in the other direction.”
“We were tired and hungry, and the kids were heavy, but we didn’t dare stay where we were. We knew there were people guarding Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, so we headed here, hoping to find sanctuary,” Lily said. “When we arrived, we found the square, but didn’t know how to contact you. We jumped up and down, trying to get your attention.” She turned to me with tears welling up in her eyes. “I hope you’ll help us. We couldn’t leave Cezar in that situation and we certainly weren’t going to leave the babies with the zombies. Are we in trouble?”
Sullie and I looked at each other. I frowned, but before I could respond Cezar stood up. He helped Janice up and the four of them stood there, glaring at me. “We did the right thing and nothing you can say or do will change that. On the way here we decided that we were going to keep on raiding zombie camps and saving children until our dying days. We named our group, Freedom. So, if you have to turn us in or put us in prison or whatever, we don’t care. We’ll find a way to stand up for what’s right. Nothing will stop us.”
I stood up; hands raised in a gesture of surrender. “Nobody’s in trouble or going to prison. What you did was very brave and commendable. You’re safe here. You have my word.”
“What’s going to happen to the babies?” Lily asked.
Again, my eyes met Sullie’s. He smiled and nodded. “We’ll find a place where they’ll be safe and cared for. We’d keep them here, but it’s not a safe place for children. You’re welcome to stay with them or stay with us. At least until your rested and healed. If you don’t want to stay, we’re not going to make you.”
Lily nodded. “Thank you for helping us.”
“Of course,” I said.
And Sullie added, “When Freedom rings, we’ll always answer.”
© 2023 Michelle Francik. All rights reserved.
Since this year’s Story of the Month short stories are supposed to relate to the month, I’ve been enjoying doing research about the months I’ve been scheduled to write. I’ve tried to incorporate as many small details as possible into each story as I write it.
Some facts about July and how I used them in my story:
- July’s birthstone is the ruby, which symbolizes contentment, love, passion, energy, and success and is believed to protect its wearer from evil. “Ruby” is derived from the Latin rubeus, which means “red.” The ruby, along with the related sapphire, is the second hardest natural gemstone, with only the diamond being harder. **Their suits are ruby red which stands out against the sadness and smoke, and brings hope to Stephanie**
- July’s birth flowers are the Larkspur and the Water Lily. Larkspurs, especially white ones, generally indicate lightheartedness, while water lilies symbolize purity of heart. **Sullie gives Stephanie Larkspur blooms and one of the teens is named Lily.**
- The zodiac signs for the month of July are Cancer (until July 22) and Leo (July 23 onwards). **I couldn’t find a way to work Cancer into the story, so I named the soldier Leo.**
- July was named in honor of Julius Caesar. Caesar is responsible for the year as we know it having 365 days, and for the existence of a leap year. **I changed this up a bit and named the teen Cezar. He’s also the catalyst for the teens leaving home, so to my mind, that can be considered taking a “leap!”**
- Letting Freedom Ring means to exercise your freedom clearly and openly by standing up for a just cause in a nonviolent way. **Self-explanatory**
- I also thought my story should include the Liberty bell and Independence hall in Pennsylvania, so I included them. The liberty bell is a symbol for freedom and independence, which are both celebrated in July in the U.S.
I hope you enjoyed this month’s Story of the Month! Thank you for reading!
Michelle Francik writes cozy mysteries and paranormal cozies with a touch of romance, as well as a children’s fable series. She hosts Short Story Writing Challenges and publishes anthologies. She also creates and sells printables like planners, journals, posters and more. She loves cats, heavy metal music, reading, and helping people make their dreams come true.
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