Chuck Wendig laid out his weekly flash fiction challenge from Terrible Minds: Subgenre Frankenstein. The writer is to randomly pick two of the 20 literary genres he provided and drop 1,500 words on it. My two were Low Fantasy/"Grimdark" and Fairy Tale. This may be the most disturbing piece I've ever written.
Thomas woke up laughing and was slapped across the face.
The boy was startled into full consciousness, rubbing the rising welt on his left cheek. The joy and magic he felt in his fading dream were gone, replaced by the awareness of where he was.
“Always something funny with you,” Zach said. “Always laughing, always smiling.”
He slapped Thomas again, this time rocking the boy's head back with such force, he struck the wall behind him, making a dull thud that could be heard throughout the barracks-style room.
Zach was slender, but had a wiry strength to him, the kind of muscle that comes with growing up hard. He also loved to inflict pain on the boys. He wasn't above a well-placed kick to some of the girls, either, but he had another method of showing displeasure to young women placed within The System. Thomas knew the worst for him was a beating; for the girls, the punishment was much longer and sadistic.
The System was a federally-operated institution where the children of illegals were sent. The Illegal Minor Education Act of 2019 stated that undocumented foreign nationals who came to the United States and had a child there, were to be immediately deported while their child was to be taken by the government and placed within the Arpaio School for International Youth or The System, as it came to be called.
The institution was built to house and educate these children to become hard-working Americans. Unfortunately, employees within The System weren't paid well and were barely educated. Many never had positions of leadership, much less among children, so the excess of power more than compensated for the lack of pay. Several were former prison guards who treated the children the same as they did the convicts at their previous jobs.
Thomas, ten years old and small for his age, now began rubbing the back of his head, struggling not to let the tears fall. Zach hated seeing kids cry because he felt impelled to beat the remaining tears out of them.
“I'm sorry, Zach,” he said. “I didn't mean to.”
“I don't like you, Tommy. I don't like you at all,” Zach said, leering with a disturbing glint in his eye. Thomas felt fear awaken in his gut; it was whispered that, sometimes, Zach punished some of the smaller boys the same way he punished the girls. Thomas knew he couldn't fight Zach and also knew he may not survive the older boy's sweet tooth.
To Thomas' relief, Zach turned, leaving his bedside. Other boys casted knowing looks at Thomas, all of them having felt Zach's heavy hand before. Although he knew they felt for him, Thomas also knew they were glad it was him and not them. He understood that. He felt the same way two days ago, watching Zach belt whip a boy younger than Thomas across his bare back. Zach hadn't stopped until his arm was sore, which was five minutes after blood was drawn. The little boy was taken away and hadn't been seen since.
A speaker in the ceiling emitted three short electronic notes, alerting the children it was time for morning announcements.
“Good morning all!” a baritone voice said jovially.
No one was quite sure whose voice addressed them every morning and evening, but inmates of The System (or “residents” as the school called them) didn't think it was anyone in charge. None of the kids within the school had met anyone who sounded so nice. The only time people sounded friendly here was when something bad was about to happen. But even then, boys like Zach, standing at the front of the room, monitoring them in his role as Dorm Boy, never sounded nice. He was angry all the time. Thomas nearly snickered at the idea of Zach trying to smile, but his throbbing head silenced him.
“And now,” the pleasant voice said after going over the day's menus, class changes, and activity schedules, “it is time for our morning prayer. Everyone please bow your heads!
“Our God, who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name, please watch over us all, the supervisors, the teachers, the school staff, and our beloved little residents who will someday be great Americans like our President! And, oh Lord, be especially with our President, who battles evil in Your name his every waking moment and provides a place for the children of the lawless and lost to be raised like the good Christian he himself is.
“In Jesus' blessed name, amen!”
All the children murmured “Amen”, though truth be told, the majority had long ago lost faith in a God that would leave them here, while the few who did still believe wondered what they had done so wrong in their young lives to be banished to Hell.
Thomas got out of bed, removed his pajamas and began putting on his regular clothes. During the week, the boys' uniform consisted of red polo shirts (each dorm was assigned a different color; Thomas lived in the Red Dorm), khaki pants, and brown shoes. He went to the community bathroom, brushed his teeth, singing “Happy Birthday” in his head twice, once for the bottom teeth, once for the top, washed his face, and returned to make his bed and put his nighttime clothes away. He stood at the foot of the bed, ready for Zach's morning inspection.
A boy older than Thomas, five or six beds down, gasped audibly as Zach kicked him in the shin for leaving a sock on the floor. The boy, Miguel, didn't say anything, but was still breathing heavily. He was new to The System, arriving last week. He had injured his leg before he came here and Zach knew it. Miguel had just learned a valuable lesson.
Zach grunted his approval at the remainder of the beds until he got to Thomas. He stared at Thomas until Thomas looked away, the younger boy too smart to force a battle of wills. Zach's hand shot out, grabbed Thomas by the hair, and forced Thomas' face near the pillow.
“What the hell is that, Tommy?!” Zach yelled. “What is it?!”
Stunned, his face buried in the bedsheet, Thomas stammered, “Wh-what, I don't...”
“Are you fucking kidding me? You're lazy and stupid? Come with me!”
Zach, still clutching Thomas' hair, jerked the boy's head up and marched him towards the front of the room. Thomas could again see the combined look of terror and relief on each boy's faced as he passed. The fear Thomas felt earlier exploded into ice-cold panic. Warm urine flowed down Thomas' legs as he saw where he was going.
He was being taken to the Dorm Boy's office.
Any time a resident was taken to the Dorm Boy's office by Zach, that resident was either never seen again or beaten so badly, they weren't recognizable. The last time it had happened, a 12-year-old girl was drug in there by Zach and another Dorm Boy and held for more than an hour. She cried and begged for help that never came the entire time.
Thomas was thrown into the dark room, consisting of an old metal desk with a computer monitor and three paperwork bins atop it, a filing cabinet, and a dry-erase board with writing he couldn't make out. Thomas tried to turn around to face Zach, but was grabbed by the back of the neck and forced face first into a corner.
“I don't fucking like you, Tommy,” Zach growled in his ear, his grip tightening on Thomas' neck. He no longer cared about controlling his tears; they streamed down his cheek as he began crying. “Always smiling, always laughing. Well guess what? I'm about to take your smile.”
Thomas heard Zach unzip his pants with his free hand and began screaming. He screamed until he felt as though his throat would shatter. Zach leaned closer, his breath loud in Thomas' ear. Thomas heard Zach's pants drop to the floor. He screamed louder as Zach leaned into Thomas' back and--
He woke up, covered in sweat, a shriek for help dying on his lips as he sat upright in his bed.
“Thomas, my prince, what is the matter?”
The boy looked up to see Gorma, the winged gnome who had been Thomas' nanny/constant companion since he was born. He looked around, no longer in a small, dark office, but in his open, light-filled bedroom, one of nearly a hundred rooms in the Land of Kizdom's Royal Palace. Seeing Gorma's face, lined with worry as it was, began the calming process for Thomas.
“I'm OK, Gorma. It was just a bad dream.”
“The same one? Where you are imprisoned in that bad place?”
Gorma shook her head. “I don't know why you have such terrible dreams, my prince. You always go to sleep so happy and full of laughter.”