Chapter 22 Toby's Last Stand

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Mr. Sandburn took it upon himself to personally escort Toby to dinner that evening. Toby was unable to keep his eyes off the TV screen as he followed Mr. Sandburn to the table in the far back of the cafeteria. With a senior staff member present, the rest of the boys behaved like saints. But Toby barely noticed. He was too busy nervously awaiting the list of Penitents, as they had been called for years now. He was torn between feeling morbidly hopeless and desperately optimistic. And though Mr. Sandburn had spoken previously as though he had compassion for what Toby was going through, he didn't seem to care what Toby was about to experience. Either that, or he had forgotten, which wasn't much better in Toby's mind. The news focused on the continuing drop in crime throughout the nation, the record high employment rate, and most of all, all the good things the Imperial Church and its leader, Emperor Caesar, had been accomplishing for the great American Empire. Toby couldn't help but think that anyone with half a brain had to be able to see through the obvious layer of propaganda. But he had watched many people, children and adults alike, sit drone-like as the TV told them how to think about their mighty Empire and its God. Even some of the smartest people he had met in his life bought into the belief that their role as a citizen was to help keep America holy and pure from what the Emperor called the iniquity of liberty.

"Coming up after the break, what you've been waiting for all week. The list of Penitents is in, which, as always, brings about the perfect time to praise our great Emperor for the safety that we all share, and to remember what happens to those who do evil deeds and live sinfully within the walls of the holiest nation on Earth," the news anchor said sternly. The break consisted of a ten-minute-long sermon performed by the Emperor himself, on the virtues of attending the weekly Imperial Church services and drinking the weekly communion, which the Empire claimed would not only run your cup over in the happiness department, but would also help to spread patriotism and holiness throughout the land. The sermon ended in prayer and Toby was forced to bow his head with all of the other boys and staff members. When it was over, the news anchor returned to the sound of triumphant orchestral music to read off the names and the offenses of the Penitents who had died the night prior.

"Jared Rodriguez, 19, who committed the robbery of a Gainesville, Florida grocery store. Roger Compton, 36, who committed the murder of a Columbus, Ohio man," and the list went on as Toby heard nothing but meaningless words, waiting for the cue that his father's name would bring. But suddenly, as if he had awoken from a trance, Mr. Sandburn stood up from his seat and strode toward the TV hanging from the upper wall. Toby sat paralyzed, unsure of whether he really wanted to stop him or not. But James Henderson wasn't quite so unsure. He moved quickly up to Sandburn, attempting to take his attention from what he was doing. Toby couldn't hear what the boy was saying, but he could tell from James's expression that he was laying it on thick as an innocent query of the utmost importance. Sandburn lingered for only a moment and motioned for James to talk as he walked with him towards the television set. Then without hesitation he turned off the TV as the name "Alex" and a last name that Toby thought started with a "C" was being listed. As Sandburn was focused on what he was doing, James gave one glaring look at Toby.

It didn't seem a stretch at this point to think that it was probably James who had left him his death threat that afternoon. He thought about how he should feel about that. He certainly didn't have the strength to fight, but he still had enough hope that he did not want to just lay down and die. Even though he wanted to know the truth so badly, he was sure that if he had heard the rest of those names, his father's would have been listed, and that little glimmer of hope would be completely gone. He wanted to hold onto it, no matter how impossible it seemed. When Mr. Sandburn returned to sit beside him again, he apologized to Toby for forgetting about the program and offered to pray with him for his father's soul. In any other situation Toby might have been angry with the man, but he had to give Mr. Sandburn credit for turning off the television, and whether purposely or not, helping to retain what little hope Toby had left.

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