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Betsy Price, MS1

He feels as if he’s been stabbed in the toe a million times, microscopic needles rummaging through his flesh and twisting away at his nerves, when he tests the river’s temperature. Sheets of ice float lazily along with the current—he didn’t know what he expected to feel. A curse leaves his lips but the word lacks conviction, sounding empty and hopeless to his own ears. He hates himself and how easily he has been molded into their plaything. He hates them.

He can’t feel his foot. He’s used to the cold, of course. He lives here, after all, and isn’t worth the effort to be kept warm in their eyes. He’s adjusted to the discomfort. Even the thought of discomfort is odd to him, because how can one understand the opposite of a concept that’s never been introduced in the first place?

The woods behind him felt much safer than where he stands now, uncertain, out in the open. He’s so close to freedom he can taste it—as if the scent of the China air drifting towards him on the breeze from across the river is drastically different from his home. The idea seems silly. Air cannot be so different, divided by an invisible wall hovering over this water.

But it is.

The air across the river doesn’t reek of death and fear and all the things that have been so familiar. Instead, there’s the clean emptiness of hope and opportunity. Tiny wisps of it coil and twist their way to his senses and he feels like he might have a shot at something more, after all. There’s only one thing in his way, in theory, and it’s that freezing water, rushing past him with a sound not unlike the static that plays on the government radio between meaningless announcements—he’s heard it a few times, from the guardhouse where his captors sit idly, uncaring, in luxury with guns at their sides.

It’s likely he’ll be too cold to swim once he makes the leap.

It’s possible he’ll be swept away by the often underestimated current, now only intensified by the ice melting. It’s spring, but he’s never known the happiness that comes with the first flower of the season or the satisfaction of a successful spring cleaning. Spring means little to him—only as it relates to the crops he’ll be forced to harvest, but not allowed to consume or profit from.

There is no profit in his world, but there might be out there.

His eyes lock with longing onto a tree on the other side. There’s nothing unique about the tree, nothing about it that looks any different than the forest of the ones behind him. He’s memorized the forest and all of its paths and secrets, planning this for years. There are stories about the success of others, but he’s never spoken with one who’s been there and back.

He has, however, watched with a flat expression the public execution of all those who have failed. He’s sure that the number of failures greatly outweighs any success that may or may not exist.

But he wants something else for himself. He’s too smart, too adventurous, too independent to continue so complacently with his life. He’ll be shot on sight, if he’s seen, but he’ll be a difficult target in the water, at least. There are so many things against him, and only one thing going for him—his hope.

He is brave, he decides. He dives.