Chapter 1

IN PERFECTION THERE ARE VERY FEW THINGS I KNOW ANYMORE. THE WORLD I’VE KNOWN FOR EIGHTEEN YEARS OF MY LIFE IS A LIE.  MY FAMILY IS A LIE.  MY HOME IS A LIE.  MY BOYFRIEND IS A LIE.  THE TIRAN HAVE BEEN CONTROLLING US AND I NEED A WAY OUT.  AND I’M NOT SURE EVEN THAT’S TRUE.  MY NAME IS ASHTON TRAVERSE, I’M EIGHTEEN, AND THIS IS MY STORY.

 



 

Chapter 1







 

I was six years old when it happened.  Six years old when my entire world changed.  Six years old when everything truly began.  But I wouldn’t know it until I turned eighteen.  

The sun hung high in the mid-September sky as a breeze whistled through the trees around us.  In my hands rested a thick piece of rough paper, and before me was a newly formed table. Tools hung from the walls, and a thin layer of sawdust was everywhere within my reach.

       “Hold the sandpaper like this, Peanut.” My dad wrapped my delicate hands in his and I could feel the callouses that were so familiar to me. “Now just run it along the table until it's smooth, see?” He guided my hands along the table doing all the work for me.  When we finished he rubbed his hand against the wood and grinned, “You did it!  Wow, Peanut, you're a better carpenter than I am!”

I covered my mouth with my dirty hands and giggled.  He always loved the sound, so he pinched my side to make a second giggle escape me.  I batted his hands away and giggled again, “Daddy! Stop playing, we have work to do!”

         His eyes were gentle and his smile light, “I think we’ve done enough work today.  I’ll finish the sanding tomorrow, then you can help me stain it.”

“But I have to go to school tomorrow!” I whined.

But dad only chuckled and touched a finger to my pouting lips.  I pulled away and scrunched my face together at the taste, making him laugh louder. “I have plenty of other furniture to work on tomorrow, I’ll save this one for last so you can help me finish.”

       I pointed a tiny finger at him from the stool where I stood. “Promise me,” I ordered.

He raised his arms and laughed again, “I promise.  I would never cross you.” I nodded my little head and jumped down, taking his calloused hand in mine. “Will you walk me home, Sweetie?” he asked.

        I giggled again.  “Of course I will, daddy!”

       Down the road we walked from the shop to our home.  I sang songs from my favorite cartoons and he sang along, making up the words as he went.  “You’re singing it wrong daddy!” I tugged on his arm.

       His thick eyebrows pulled together and he looked down at me, “Am I?  I was sure those were the words.”

        “No!  It’s macaroni and cheese, pickled spinach for me, please!”

    Daddy scrunched his nose at me, “Pickled spinach?  What’s that supposed to be?”

        “I don’t know!”  I laughed, “But that’s the song!”

      “Okay, Peanut, I’ll try again,” he promised. But when I started singing again his words were all wrong, “I want some chips!  Bring me candy please!”

           “No daddy!” I squealed.

      He started to argue as we rounded the corner, but stopped short.  In front of us, a man held tight to a woman’s arm, but she fought him. “Leave me alone!” she screamed.

           I scooted closer to him, “What’s happening, daddy?” I whispered.

He looked back behind us. “There was a Guard back there, we need to tell him what’s happening.”

        The man said something and the woman jerked her arm from his grip. “No!” she screamed.

           “We have to help her!”  I whispered.

           “No.  We need to get the Guard.  Come with me -”

          But I pulled away from him and ran to the woman, my little feet quietly slapped the hard ground.  “Ashton, no!”  Dad ran after me.

         The man faced me, turning his back on the woman.  Faster than I could see, she pulled a knife from his waist and swung.  The man cried out and wrenched the knife from her hands, knocking me over as I came crashing into him.  I hit the ground hard, and my head smacked against the asphalt, light bust in front of my eyes.

           “Ashton!” daddy screamed.  He threw himself against the man and landed on top of him, then stopped.

           Just stopped.  

         So, so slowly, the man pushed my daddy off him and ran away.  Daddy rolled onto his back, a long shard of glass stuck out from his chest and blood rushed down his side.  The woman screamed and ran away too, leaving me alone with my dying father.

        I could barely see past my tears as I crawled to him, “Daddy!” I screamed.  I tried to shake him but he wouldn’t move. “Daddy!” I pushed him again, covering my hands in his blood.  

        A Guard came around the corner with a gun in his hands.  He aimed the barrel at me, then lowered it almost immediately.  The Guard spoke into his radio then rushed to my side. “What happened?” he asked. His eyes were wide and his hands hovered over my dad’s unbreathing figure.

I looked up at the Guard’s wide eyes and back down at all the blood on my hands. “Daddy.” I whispered.

Chapter 2

Twelve years later.



 

I whipped the mop of curls out of my eyes as I stomped through mom’s office.  It was a mess in there, the only place she didn’t even try to keep clean.  But she was an artist, a true artist, not like me, and when inspiration hit her there was nothing that could slow her down. Especially not taking the time to put things in order.   

Looking back now, the argument I had with Salah that morning was petty, but no one could set me off like she could.  I pushed a large spool of fabric over and kicked a box out of the way, not bothering to be gentle with her things.

“Come on Ashton, I’m gonna be late!”  Salah’s nasally voice tore through me like a jagged knife.  

I whipped my head around, aiming my words at the ground. “Then get up here and help me, Salah!” I cringed, hoping mom hadn’t heard me.  She hated when we fought.

“Mom said it’s on top of her paint cabinet,” Salah called from the bottom of the ladder.

I let out a breath, and pushed my hair back again.  “Then why did you send me up here to get it?” She snickered below.  

Leave it to Salah to make me do something that she could do ten times easier just because she didn't feel like doing it.

I found the crate mom kept her thread in and tipped it upside down, allowing the spools of thread to fall with the rest of the mess.  Even standing on the crate, I had to raise on my toes for the tips of my fingers to touch the fabric mom had sent us after.

“Do you have it yet?”  I ignored my sister’s nagging and reached a little higher, but still could barely touch it.  

I opened the cabinet door and used a shelf to propel me higher, but then the world started to slide beneath me.  Crash!

Salah’s shrill cackle sliced through my chest as I lay on the floor, buried beneath a mound of fabric and thread.  I shifted and shimmied, trying to escape from underneath the cabinet, because obviously my hyena of a sister wasn’t going to help.

When I was free, I dug through the heap until I found the fabric mom needed and threw it down the opening in the floor.

“Ouch!”  Salah yelled.  I grinned at my luck, then cringed at mom’s disaster of an office.  

At the bottom of the ladder, Salah stood scowling at me. “You could have looked before you dropped it down here,” she whined, rubbing a spot on her head.

“I did,” I lied, “I was aiming for your eye though.”

But she didn’t rise to my bait.  Instead, her scrutinizing gaze dropped over me as she pulled a hair tie off her wrist and flicked it at me. “Do the world a favor and tame that mop, would ya, sis?”  She spun around and stomped down the hall.

I scowled but obeyed, pulling the thick tangled mess out of my eyes.  I had stopped trying to calm my wild curls a long time ago and accepted that my lion’s mane would never be as silky smooth as hers.

Salah and I looked nothing alike; my freckles and drab, yet perpetually out of control red-blond curls made me look about five years younger than I really was, while Salah’s jet black hair that fell to her waist and slanted eyes gave her a mature look that I’d never have.  And though she was several inches taller than my tiny five-two frame, she was also much rounder.  

But of all the things that made the two of us so different, the only thing my older sister and I had in common was that we were both Non-Perfects.  

“Oops!”  I heard it and laughed before I even got to the kitchen, it was like mom’s catch phrase.  My parents were giggling like kids when I rounded the corner, mom was cooking breakfast while dad swept the now empty bag of flour from the floor.

“We’ll need more flour from the store, Xavier,” mom said as she flipped the bacon.  Her elbow knocked a bowl of eggs onto the floor where dad had just swept, “... and more eggs.”

Dad pulled her into one of his signature hugs. “I’ll pick them up on my way home today,” he said, then checked his reflection in the mirror hanging from the wall.  

He pulled at his clothes and brushed flour off the shirt that hid the deep scar right next to his heart, the scar from a wound that nearly took him away from me twelve years ago.  The bags under his eyes were a new addition, one that had only been there for the last few years, ever since he joined the Tiran - the people who lead our country.  

He caught me watching him and winked.  Out of the corner of his mouth he mumbled, “I heard a little noise coming from upstairs, everything alright up there, Peanut?”  

I grinned back at him, “The fabric was up high.”  

“Ah.  That would explain the yelling I heard too.”  His eyes lit up in a silent laugh.

“You don’t think mom heard do you?”  I murmured.

The wrinkles around his mouth tightened at the wider smile, “I think the whole neighborhood heard you.”

I sighed and bobbed my head, “She doesn’t understand, she’s a Perfect.” I glanced over at mom and Salah talking over the crimson fabric.

Dad wrapped an arm around my shoulders and I leaned into him, his arms were my home. “I know dear, just try to get along for mom’s sake.”  Then after an exasperated look from me he added, “At least when she’s around.  Then you two can bicker for all of Perfection to hear.”

“Thanks dad,” I said and flipped the bacon that mom had long forgotten.  It was true though, mom loved everyone, it was impossible for her to understand Salah’s and my relationship.  

That was pretty typical of the Perfects, they were a selfless, kindhearted people that loved everyone.  Even the Non-Perfects.  I have no idea why the Perfects are so much better than us, or even where they came from.  They’re like some super breed of human that just appeared right about the same time that our whole atmosphere got destroyed and our world became unlivable.

All I know is that my great, great, great, great, great grandparents, or something like that, somehow found Perfection and the Perfects let them stay.  Other than that, I only know what everyone else knows; the Tiran make sure we’re taken care of, and we’re not allowed to leave Perfection.  Ever.  Just follow the law and don’t ask questions.  That’s what’s expected of all of us.  And that’s what we do.

I listened to mom coo over the fabric while I reached for a pan above my head. “This color will be exactly what Mrs. Dabney is looking for in her den,” she was telling Salah. “She doesn’t know it yet, but I know when I show it to her, she’ll beg me to make her curtains with it.  It’ll really tie everything together.”

“Well you would know better than anyone, mom,” Salah agreed.  Even I had to admit she was right.  Mom could design a home like no one I had ever met.  All her clients loved her.  She loved the work so much that on her slow days she would redo a room in our home.  The kitchen we stood in was her most recent experiment; it was decorated in several shades of blue that swirled in a way that made the walls look like a tidal wave washing from one side of the kitchen to the other.

“She just doesn’t see the vision yet,” mom sighed. “She says she isn’t a fan of reds, but when she sees this complementing the browns in her furniture I know she’ll change her mind - oh let me help you Ashton.”  She reached over my head and plucked the pan from the shelf.  “All my clients trust me explicitly except Mrs. Dabney, but just wait, when she sees this everything will change -”

“David!”  Dad called.  I jerked my head around to see dad clapping him on the back.  

David.  His beauty shook me even after knowing him for years.  His solid muscles that peaked through the sleeves of his thin t-shirt, his strong jaw, and the perfectly messy chestnut hair that framed eyes that were always smiling.  Those eyes that pierced right through me.  David was a Perfect and he was mine.

Mom nudged me, jerking me back to the moment.  She winked and took the spatula from me.  I grinned back, unashamed.

David stole a glance at me before answering dad, “Good morning, Mr. Traverse.  Sports and entertainment or news and opinion?”  

Dad scratched his chin, “I think I’ll take sports and entertainment today, I’m tired of the news.”  David shot a wink in my direction while dad separated the paper and passed him the thicker half.

“How are things at the shop, David?”  Dad asked over his paper while mom and I laid out the breakfast.

“Great,” David spoke to dad, but he watched me, “Perfection’s a big country, but Rick has the best auto shop around so we always have plenty of work to do.”

“That’s good.  I want to make sure my girl will be provided for,” he said loudly.

“Dad!”  I whined, but he just grinned.

David’s eyes didn’t budge from mine, “Oh don’t worry about that, I’ve been setting aside money for quite a while for our future.”

I pulled back. “You have?”  

“Of course he has, Ashton,” dad answered for him, “I was ready to buy a ring for your mom by the time I was seventeen!”  Mom pecked his cheek before she sat down next to him.

I rolled my eyes, “Sure, but you met when you were fourteen.”

“And married by eighteen,” mom chimed in.

After breakfast, dad left for work at the Kwaad - Perfection’s main building, Salah went to work at the bakery, mom went to Mrs. Dabney’s house with her fabric, and David and I started our walk to the school.  

I let my hands slip through the velvety leaves as we walked down the paved road.  Soft as silk, one of my favorite feelings in the world.  I had tried to paint the texture a million times, but I could never capture the true beauty of Perfection.

Trees lined the path we took to my school each day, some towered higher than buildings while others were no taller than my knees.  And the colors! Vibrant yellows, brilliant purples lined with red and gold, baby blues marked with silver, every color I could imagine was captured in these plants.

David held my books in one arm and wrapped the other around my waist. “Have you picked your job yet?”  He asked in my ear.

I sighed, “No.” It felt like I’d had this conversation a hundred times in the last few weeks.  With my dad, with my friends, with teachers, with strangers on the street.  Everyone wanted to know what I had chosen.

David drew me in closer. “Ash,” he urged, “you don’t have much time left.  Your senior graduation is only a few months away, and you have to make a decision by then.”

“I know the way it works,” I snapped, then sighed again, “I’m sorry.  It just seems like everyone’s pressuring me.”

David squeezed my side. “Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but you only have a few months left to decide.”

“I’ve heard that somewhere,” I teased, “It’s just such a big commitment.  I mean, I’m not allowed to change my job again for two years?  Who made that rule anyway?”

“The Tiran,” David answered unnecessarily, “and it’s a good system.  The two year contract gives businesses security in their employees and it assures us jobs.”

“Whether we want them or not,” I mumbled.

“Come on, Ash.  You’ll find a job you’ll love.”

“That’s just it,” I confessed, “I can think of plenty of jobs I’d be okay with, but nothing that I want to sign up for two years!”

Rather than pushing me, he pulled me in and kissed the top of my head. “You’ll figure it out, Ash.  You’re just too passionate to settle.”

“What am I passionate about though?”

He handed me my books and grinned, “Your family.  I’ve never seen you look at anyone the way you look at your dad.  And you practically threw a fit when Max married Tiffany.”

“Well, she isn’t good enough for him,” I huffed.

“See?  Your family means everything to you.  Maybe do something with that.  I’ll see you after school,” he said and walked to the auto shop just across the street.  

I started to argue with him just to make him stay, but someone caught my eye.  A man stood forty feet away, watching me from a cluster of blue-green trees.  

The bell rang behind me, calling me to my first class.  I glanced at the school then back to the stranger, but he was gone.  There were Guards around, but none of them seemed to notice the man.  With one more glance into the trees I scanned the ID chip that was embedded in my wrist across the sensor, gaining access to the building, and headed to my first class.

 

~~~

 

David got off work shortly after my last class so I didn’t have to wait for him long.  He met me ten minutes after class with grease smeared across his hands and face.  I never failed to notice the other Non-Perfect’s whose heads turned as he crossed the street, though he always did.

“What do you think of that one?” David asked, pointing to a purple home shaped like a dome.  

I stuck my tongue out and shook my head. “No.  I like that one.”  I pointed at one down the road that was painted so that it blended in with the trees around it.

“But you can barely see it!”  David laughed.

I grinned, “Exactly.  I like my privacy.”

Finding our favorite houses among the unique architecture of Perfection was one of our favorite pass times on our walks home.  It had been two years since David first walked me home from school.  We had never spoken before that day when he ran up to me, calling my name. “Ashton!”  It was one of those precious memories that you went back to as often as you could, “Could I walk with you?”

“Sure?” I had said it like a question.

“I’m David,” he said, grinning nervously.  "I was wondering if I could borrow your economics notes."  Something about that shy smile made my heart race like a fangirl meeting her idol for the first time.  

I fumbled through the papers. "Here, let me help you," he said, reaching to take the mountain of books.  His hand brushed mine and my stomach leapt up to my throat.  When I found the notes I passed them to him, careful not to let our hands touch again.  He would tell me months later that he never needed those notes.  

As I reached to take my books back he shifted them again so they were out of my reach and continued to walk.  "So," he said as if all this were completely normal, "you like to paint?"  

"Yes," I said slowly, "how did you know?"  

He smiled again, and for the first time I noticed his lips rose up a little crooked.  "I saw some of your work in art class.  It's really good."  

"Really?"  

He laughed, “Well yeah, our canvases are right next to each other.”

I could feel the heat rising in my cheeks. “Oh.  Sorry, I kind of get lost when I paint,” I explained, “I don’t really notice anyone in that class.”

“I love that.  What else do you paint?"

And that was when we connected.  We laughed and talked until he stopped walking.  I was in the middle of recanting the time Salah and I got into a paint war that took us days to clean up, when he pointed to my door.  I hadn’t even noticed how far we had walked.  

He flashed another nervous grin and handed me back my books. "Would it be alright if I stopped by in the morning and walked you to school?  I'd love to hear the end of your story."  

My cheeks burned and I mumbled something that sounded like "Gehrg" then ran into the house.  Thankfully he had taken that as a yes and was at my door the next morning.  From that day on I never had to carry my books again.

David pulled me back to the present when my house came into view. “Are we still on for our date tonight?”  

“Yes, I’ll meet you at the docks at seven, then I’m meeting Tosha at nine.”

David kissed my cheek, “See you then.”

When I came into the house dad was working on dinner at the stove.  “Where’s mom?”  I asked.

Dad smiled sheepishly, “Mrs. Dabney didn’t like the red fabric.”

“Oh no.”  I took a pan from the cabinet and started heating some oil. “She won’t be down for hours will she?”  

“She’s not going to leave that office until she has the perfect solution.  We probably won't see her until nightfall.”

“I’ll set some food aside for her then.  What are we making?”

He pulled my hair from its ponytail and ruffled his fingers through it, pulling my curls loose into a frizzy mess. “You tell me, Peanut.  You're the chief of the two of us.”

I giggled and pushed my hair back from my eyes. “You mean I’m less likely to burn something.”

“Non-burnt something.  Sounds like dinner to me!” he announced.

He hustled around the kitchen while I called out orders, making the recipe up as I went. Dad set the sauce creation on the counter and asked where the mixer was. “Over there.”  I pointed and knocked the bowl to the floor, splattering the sauce everywhere.  

Dad shook his head and held back a grin, “You get your grace from your mother.”

“And I get my size from you,” I shot back.

Dad pointed a finger in my direction. “Watch it,” he laughed.

An hour later Salah set the table for three.  “What’s for dinner?”  She asked.

Dad laid a plate before her and called out in a regal tone, “Introducing... something!”

Salah smiled at our dad, “You don’t know what you just cooked?”

Dad winked and tickled her ribs, “Nope, but I know it’s not burnt.  Ashton was in charge.”

As the three of us ate dinner, dad acted as a sort of buffer between Salah and I so that there was very little bickering.  I tried to bite my tongue when she would bait me, but really only for dad’s sake. I knew it wore on him and I didn’t want to be responsible for one more wrinkle on his perfectly Non-Perfect face.

After dinner I helped dad clear the dishes while Salah covered a plate for mom.  Dad nudged my side and grinned down at me, “Wanna help me try to coerce your mom from her office?”

I laughed at the boyish grin that covered his tired eyes. “Even if that were possible I couldn’t, I’m meeting David at the docks.”

“Well then let me drive you.  Salah and I will tackle the mom dilemma when I get back.”

It had to be a trick of the fading light, or maybe just paranoia, because even though I wasn’t thinking of him, I saw the stranger out of the corner of my eye when dad and I walked to the car.  But when I spun around, he wasn’t there.  

David was already waiting for me when dad’s car pulled up to the marina a few miles from our house.  He waved a loaf of bread in each hand as I ran to him.  “I stopped by Sam’s Bakery on my way here and he gave me a couple loaves of stale bread.  I thought we could feed the ducks.”

He handed me a loaf and we tossed chunks into edge of the water.  David quacked along with the ducks until I shoved my last slice into his mouth.  One of the ducks pecked at his toe and quacked angrily until David dropped the bread for him.  David took my hand and led me down a path we had discovered a few months ago, while the ducks followed along in the water quacking for more bread.  

There was a lightness that rested in my chest when the two of us were together, regardless of how great or awful a day had been, he had a way of making it better.

After a few minutes, we came to a peak where the trees cleared - our spot.  He sat down and he pulled me onto his lap.  I rested in his arms where we talked until darkness fell around us.

“I’m serious!” David shouted, “This isn’t a joke.  A rogue deer came to my house and stomped on my foot, then it stole my lunch and ran away.  Paper bag and all.  In fact, I think the bag might have been his main goal.  He won’t know what to do about the tuna sandwich that was inside.  Stop laughing!”  

“You just said it was a salad in the bag, you liar.  You’re making this up as you go!”

His eyes went wide and he gave an over exaggerated gasp, “I went hungry that day!  This is a serious offence and I honestly think we need to inform the Tiran so they can put a stop to this madness!”

I rolled off his lap, clutching my side. “Madness is right!”  I choked between laughs and snorts.  

“Fine,” David stood, “believe what you want but there’s no way I’m letting you out of my sight until this beast has been apprehended.”

I stood up too, brushing the grass and leaves off me.  “Oh I think you’re asking far too little of me, I think you shouldn’t let me out of your sight until all the rogue beasts have come to justice.”

David picked a leaf out of my hair, “If I had it my way, we wouldn’t ever have to be apart.  Not for a second.”

I looked up into his eyes as his knuckles brushed my cheek. “You know I was serious about what I told your dad this morning, I really am saving up for our future.”

I had known for a long time that David and I would probably get married, I’d loved him for over two years.  Non-Perfects always fell in love with Perfects, and for some reason Perfects always fell for us too.  Our future together was obvious to everyone who knew us, but this was the first time he had said it to me.  

I narrowed my eyes, “Do you really mean that?”

“I’ll love you forever, Ash,” he whispered, “If you’ll let me, I’ll never leave your side.”  He kissed me gently, then with more strength - more passion, until his hands were on my waist, pressing me closer to him. My fingers wrapped themselves in his soft hair and a groan slipped through my lips.  Far too soon, his kisses slowed, then he pulled away.  I tried to close the gap again but he grinned and showed me his watch, “Tosha’s waiting for you.”

I groaned and pulled his lips closer to mine. “Can’t she wait?”

David laughed, his lips brushing against mine, “I don’t think she would.  Knowing her, she’d come find us and pull you off me.”

I took a second to imagine that scene and grinned, “Yeah, that’s exactly what she would do.”

Tosha was at the docks only a minute after David and I emerged from our hiding place.  She pointed at me as she walked up. “You have a leaf in your hair.  What have you two been doing?”

David picked the leaf from my curls but I brushed him away, matching her tone, “We were on a walk, why were you late?”

Her eyes gleamed at the challenge, “I was here on time but there was a cute guy over there so I thought he needed my number.”  

Tosha Jones had been my best friend since I was three years old and in all that time we’d never had a single fight.  She, of course, was a Perfect.  Her skin was a honey color, her eyes were so large they seemed to take up half her face, and she had the smooth, sharp, and yet graceful features that all Perfects had, making it impossible for even the best looking Non-Perfects to look anything more than mundane next to them.  

“What are you girls doing tonight?”  David asked.

Tosha grabbed my arm and pulled me toward her before I had a chance to answer. “Dancing,” she said, “wanna come, Wiles?”  She asked, using his last name.

David chuckled.  “No thanks, Jones.  I have a feeling you two will be a bit much for me.”

Tosha eyes went wide and she drew her hand to her chest. “Whatever would make you say that?”  She asked in a cheesy accent.

“Because you usually are,” he teased.

Tosha shrugged her slender shoulders.  “Fine.  Ready, Ashton?”

“You don’t mind do you?”  I asked David, but he shook his head.

“I’m fine, Ash, you go talk about more subjects than I could ever keep up with. And don’t forget you’re helping your brother in the morning so try not to stay out too late.”

Tosha was pulling me away before I could answer, so I settled for a wave before turning to follow her through the well-lit streets.  

“So,”  Tosha swung my hand as we walked, “have you picked out a job yet?”

I let my head drop dramatically. “No!”  I groaned.

“You need to make a choice!  You’ve gotta be the only senior who hasn’t made a decision yet.  I knew I was going to be in clothing design when I was a freshmen!”

“Of course you did!  You were making your own clothes when you were like, five.  I don’t have anything like that.”

Tosha looked up to the sky and tapped a finger against her chin, “Let’s see, what’s something you’ve been doing since we met? Something that you're passionate about? Something you love doing… hmmmm?”

“I know you think I should paint but -”

“Painting!  What a great idea, dummy!  You should do something with art since you’re and artist!”

“I can’t make a career out of that.  The law requires me to do something to contribute to our country, not art.  I can sell paintings on the side, but that’s not considered a job.”

“No, but you could do something in graphic design.  You could work with me on clothing, or work in maintenance somewhere and paint walls - are you expecting someone?”

“What?”  I met her eyes for the first time.

“You’ve been looking around since we started walking, you’re totally unfocused.  Is someone supposed to meet us or something?”

“Oh, sorry,” I said looking down. “It’s just that I keep seeing this guy around today, it’s really creepy.  I thought he might be following me.”

Tosha didn’t bother looking around. “Ashton, what are you talking about?  There’s practically no crime in Perfection.  Definitely nothing serious.  And look, you can’t go anywhere without being surrounded by Guards.”  She pointed out three standing within earshot.  “Have you ever heard of a law being broken in Perfection?”

“No, of course not,” I said.

“That’s because they aren’t.  The laws are here for a reason, and the Guards make sure they’re kept.  No one’s following you, you're being ridiculous.”

“You're right,” I conceded, but I looked over my shoulder.

She rolled her eyes. “You know what’ll help you calm down?”  She asked.

“What?”

“Picking a job!”

I sighed as Tosha slid her wrist over the sensor outside the restaurant and it beeped in response to the ID chip under her skin.  When she opened the door the music from the band inside washed over us.

It was well past midnight when Tosha and I left the booming music behind us.  When we separated for the night I kept close to the massive wall that surrounded Perfection, separating our lush country from the barren wasteland on the other side of it.

My eyes had just started to sag when I heard a voice behind me.  I jerked my head just in time to see the same strange man slipping out of sight.

Fear flooded my veins as I picked up my pace, practically running, searching for a Guard.  

Another noise, closer this time.  

I knew if I just got to a main road there would be plenty of Guards, so I pushed myself to move faster.  

The noise was so close now.

I broke out into a run, panic clouding my mind, and fell hard against the ground. The skin on my hands and down my left arm ripped open and pain seared through my pores, stealing my breath.

I bit back a scream and pushed myself back to my feet when I heard a second voice close to me.  

Too close.  

Then a calloused hand took hold of my uninjured arm and another closed around my mouth. “Don’t scream and I won’t hurt you.” came a rough voice.

I meant to scream.  I should have screamed.  The Guards had guns, they could have saved me if only I had screamed against his hand.

And yet, the fear that coursed through my veins left me mute as the man roughly pulled me through an opening in the wall and down a narrow path.  A second man slipped behind us, blocking my way out.  

The man that forced me away had rich brown skin and dark hair cut close to his scalp.  He smelled of ash and mint against my nose.

At the end of the path, the dark man faced me.  His eyes were as dark as his skin, but it wasn’t just the color.  Even in the low light cast by the moon, his eyes were hard, making him look as dark on the inside as he was on the outside.  “You’re Ashton Traverse right?”  He asked in a gravelly voice.

“No,” I lied, “you’ve got the wrong person.”

He sneered at my feeble attempt, “Don’t lie,” he ordered, “I know who you are.”

The second man stepped from behind me and stood next to the other.  He had a boyish face that came to a sharp point at the jaw and was dressed in the same all black clothes as the other, but he looked much younger, and rather than a scowl he wore a broad smile.  “I’m Eddie Miner,” he said excitedly, “this is Kaleb Shouse.  We’re here to save your life.”  He grinned even wider but Kaleb just looked irritated.

I drew myself up and forced strength into my voice. “I don’t need saving, thanks,” I said and tried to push past them.  

Both boys sidestepped to block my way.  “You’re not leaving that easily,” Kaleb sneered.

But Eddie just held out his hands, “Just hear us out okay?  We aren’t from here, we live outside of Perfection -”

“There’s nothing outside Perfection.  The world out there’s destroyed,” I blurted.

Kaleb scowled but Eddie didn’t seem to mind the interruption. “I know you’ve been taught all your life that Perfection is all that’s left, but it’s a lie.  There was no catastrophe that destroyed the rest of the world, there’s an entire civilization living outside these walls and your leaders are keeping it from you.  Kaleb and I are a part of a camp of people called the Keuse. Our life’s mission is to inform you Non-Perfects of what’s really happening here; the lies, the corruption, the dangers.  We start following you when you turn eighteen, it’s the age we figure you’re mature enough to make the decision for yourself.”

Eddie smiled as he tore my world apart with words, as if this were somehow good news and he was doing me a favor by delivering it to me.  I shook my head, “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Kaleb took a step closer to me and I stumbled back.  “Here’s what you need to know,” he said, his deep voice jarring me. “Your leaders have been lying to you for a long time.  Perfection isn’t real.  The Perfects aren’t real.  All this -” he gestured at the wall, “- is designed by your leaders to keep you content so they can keep you here, and so you won’t ask too many questions.  But you’re a prisoner to this world and a prisoner to your leaders.  There’s a life outside these walls and it’s a life of freedom.  Just follow us and we can show you.”  He offered me a calloused hand, as if the word of a stranger could possibly be enough.

“No,” I said.  

A shadow crossed Kaleb’s eyes but Eddie stepped next to him again.  His voice was cautious as he leaned closer to me, “Just think about it, Ashton.  Doesn’t Perfection seem… too perfect?  Have you ever gotten into an argument with a Perfect?  Have you ever had a run in of any kind with anyone but a Non-Perfect?”

“Well, no,” I said, “but that’s because the Perfects are -”

“Experiments,” Kaleb interrupted.

“Kind,” I said firmly.

Eddie pressed on, “And you don’t find it odd that they’re always agreeable?  That they always know the right things to say and do.  That doesn’t seem… rehearsed to you?”

I shook my head, but he didn’t stop, “And if you’re the only people left in existence, then why the wall?  Why is there no way out?  If this place is so safe then why are there Guards posted everywhere?  And if there are people breaking the law why don’t you hear about it?  Where are the lawbreakers going?  If there’s no one else in this world then why must you swipe a keycard to enter a building?  To buy anything?  Why are you so closely watched if there isn’t something you don’t know?”

“Stop.”  It was all I could choke out, my voice sounded breathy and distant but Eddie held his tongue.  My mind couldn’t keep up, it was like a fog was covering my brain. “I’m not leaving.  Perfection is my home and I’m staying.”

Kaleb spoke next, his voice a deep contrast to Eddie’s, “You don’t understand, your leaders are lying to you -”

But I cut him off, “How do I know you aren’t the one lying to me?  The Tiran protect us, you dragged me down an ally!  Why should I trust you?”  My voice was getting stronger, louder.

Eddie stayed calm though, “You have to realize this world seems fake, mechanical… rehearsed.  Really think about it, if you tried to leave here, would the Tiran let you?”

I knew the answer, but I wouldn’t satisfy them by saying it.  “The laws are set in place for our protection,” I said.

“Protection from what?”  Kaleb asked.

I had no answer for him.  I didn’t have an answer for any of it.  But I wasn’t going to give up everything I had ever known so easily.  Not like this.  “I’m not leaving,” I said again.

Kaleb’s jaw clenched. “Fine,” he said, “but understand that this is your only chance.  We aren’t coming back for you.  Not ever.  So you’d better make sure you’re making the right choice.  I know you see the flaws in Perfection just as well as we do, but if you insist on living in these lies then be my guest.”  He swung his arm out and stepped aside, leaving a wide opening for me to pass.  Eddie stared at his friend, his brow furrowed, ruining his boyish features.

If I were being honest, I didn’t know anything in that moment, but the stubbornness inside me refused to let them know how confused I was.

I took a step and when he didn’t try to stop me I continued.  And they let me go.  When I saw the closest Guard a block away I didn’t stop to tell him what had happened, the strangers would be gone by then anyway.  It wasn’t until I reached my house that I finally stopped and threw myself into bed, fully clothed.  

I lay in bed for hours, unable to get their questions out of my head, unable to believe it wasn’t true.

Chapter 3

Eddie and Kaleb visited me in my dreams that night.  They came through the window, pulled me out of the house, and down the street to that same narrow opening in the wall.  I pushed and screamed but there was no one around to hear me, not even a Guard.  

Kaleb’s voice, hoarse and gruff, wrapped around me like air, “We’re getting you out, I won’t let the Tiran hold you against your will.  You don’t have a choice” I tried to get away but his grip on my injured arm was like a vice as he dragged me deeper into the dark.

They pulled me down the passage until we found a dead end, and hidden against the edge of the wall was a small handle.  Eddie pulled on the handle and the wall opened up.  Flames were everywhere, the heat pushed against my face, stealing my breath.  Eddie faced me and screamed over the noise, “We’re protecting you, you have to get out of Perfection!”

I tried to fight them but my strength was gone, they inched me closer to the flames.  It was so hot, smoke filled my lungs, I begged them to let me stay but they pushed me harder.

“Ashton.” Salah was there.  I couldn’t see her but I heard her voice.  “Ashton.” The flames roared and tossed me back and forth, “Ashton!”

Salah stood over my bed, shaking me by the shoulders.  I pushed her off me and sat up.  I was covered in sweat even though chills ran through me.  Salah crossed her arms as I drew the covers tightly over me.  She scowled, “You slept in.  How late were you out with Tosha?”  

“Leave,” I spat.

“What?”

“Get out so I can get dressed.”

Her eyes flashed.  “Fine.”  She spun around but when she touched the doorknob she shot over her shoulder, “We’re leaving in five minutes.  Hope you weren’t hungry”.

I flinched as the door slammed behind her and scowled at the wooden frame.  A minute later my wet feet padded across the glass floor on their way to the closet.  

My room was unique, just like the rest of our house.  I kept it decorated in earth tones because I’d always found them soothing; deep brown walls, a grey ceiling, with an earthy green splattered on the walls and on my bedspread.  I painted the walls myself but the patterns changed often.  Every few months I’d take paint to the walls and give myself a fresh slate to start all over again.  The thing that really made my room unique though, was the fact that the floor to my room was completely glass, exposing all the way down to the ground.  Our house was square, but each of our bedrooms jutted out from the side of the house so we could see clearly what we were standing above.  

I dressed quickly, checked myself in the mirror, and sighed.  There was no time to attempt to tame the beast that was my hair, so I just pushed it away from my eyes as I climbed down the ladder to meet my family in the kitchen.

They stood by the open door, mom was gabbing to Salah about patterns while dad watched the clock, but when I came into the room his attention - and his grin - were focused on me.  He wrapped an arm around me, “Hey Peanut, sleep well?” he teased.

I pushed against him. “Not really,” I admitted.  

Before he could answer, mom’s scream cut across him, “Ashton!  What happened to you?”  Mom grabbed ahold of my arm and new pain shot straight to my chest.  I had forgotten to treat my raw and bloodied arm.  

“Oh,” I said, “I uh, tripped.  You know how clumsy I am.”  It couldn’t really be considered a lie, more of a half -truth.

Mom clicked her tongue and drug me away from dad.  Her masterful hands worked quickly to clean out the dirty wound and placed a bandage that ran up my arm.  “Ashton, I know you’re clumsy but you couldn’t have gotten scrapes this deep from a simple fall.”

But Salah’s irritated whine saved me from another excuse, “Should I let Max know we’ll be late?”

“No, no.  I’m finished,” mom said as she put the supplies away.

Max and his wife Trinity met us at the door of their blue and yellow home, shaped like a slender tower. “Thanks again for helping us with the nursery.”  I heard his milky voice as soon as mom stepped in the door.

Her answer came before I could see either of them, “Now you know that it could be a very long time until this nursery gets used, right?  Even though your dad is in the Tiran, it could take years before you receive a child.  It took your father and me three years until we got you and four more for Salah.  Ashton came quickly after that but that’s not the norm.”

“Yes, mother,” Max said in mock exasperation, “but we want to be ready just in case.”  Max grinned at me as soon as I saw him.  He looked a lot like me in ways; untamable curls and a splattering of freckles across our nose and cheeks.  He was slender like me too, but several inches taller.  As plain as I looked in the mirror, Max managed to look stunningly handsome with his simple features.  Max was a Perfect.  And even though we had that one glaring difference it was rare for families to look as much alike as the two of us did.

Dad was the last one through the door. “When did you put your application in, son?”  He asked.

“Last week.  We requested a boy but I really don’t care what we get.”  Max wrapped an arm around his new wife who was, of course, a Non-Perfect.  And who, in my opinion, had a horsey face and a pumpkin shaped body.  “I’m just so happy the Tiran are making a way for us,” he said, hugging his wife closer as she flashed her massive teeth.

It was the one thing in all of Perfection that wasn’t perfect; we couldn’t have children.  They say it’s because of whatever destroyed the rest of the world, but that’s all anyone’s ever told me.  So we’re left to rely on the Tiran to provide our children for us.  I’ve asked over the years how the Tiran do it, but I’ve always been told to just be thankful that they found a way.  It was a common response around here.  No one seemed to question that the Tiran knew what was best for us.

“Okay.”  Trinity snapped her fingers, forcing our attention on her, “Cecilia and I will go out and buy the decorations while Xavier and Max build the crib.  Salah and Ashton will be on paint duty.  I picked out a green since we won’t know the gender until the baby comes.”

Everyone seemed happy with their assigned jobs except Salah and me, who would rather work with anyone but each other.  We got started on the tall walls in silence, making a point to work on opposite sides of the narrow room.

About an hour into our work, the walls were covered in primer and we still hadn’t spoken.  Without looking at me, Salah called over her shoulder, “Pass me that paint can, would ya?”  

I started to bring it to her, but something made me pause. “Salah?”  I started, already questioning my decision, “Have you ever met anyone outside of Perfection?”

She jerked to a stop but kept her eyes to the wall. “Why would you ask me that?” she demanded in an unnecessary whisper.

A rush pulsed through me. “Was it when you were eighteen?”  I asked quickly.

Salah rounded on me, her eyes looked wide and glassy, “Ashton, just drop it okay?”

But I just spoke faster, “Did they tell you there were a bunch of them living out there?  That we were all being lied to and controlled?  Did they talk to you about our walls?”

Salah’s mouth hung open but she didn’t speak.  I started to ask again but she held up a shaking hand and looked over her shoulder at the open door, then back to me and dropped her voice below a whisper, “Fine.  When I was eighteen the Outsiders came to me too.  They told me the same stuff about the Tiran lying to us and the Perfects not being real somehow.  But I didn’t go with them, I went home and told dad what they said.  He was furious.  I’ve never seen him so mad.”  

Her eyes glazed over at the memory but I didn’t have time to wait. “Outsiders?”  I pressed.  Her eyes narrowed and she jerked her head toward the open door.  “Sorry,” I whispered.

“That’s what dad called them.”  She stopped to listen again then continued even faster, “After that, dad started spending a lot more time with the other Tirans, and then people started disappearing.  I don’t know what dad had to do with it, but I knew it was my fault somehow.”

I leaned into her words, practically drinking them from the air.  Salah watched me. “Ashton, if you don’t want people to get hurt then please just stop.  Forget everything they said to you, pick your job after you graduate, marry David, and never talk about any of this again.  To anyone.”

“But -” I tried to argue but she cut me off.

“I don’t know who they are Ashton, or where they live, but they’re bad people.  That’s all I know.  Just stay away from them.”  She turned her back to me and continued to run her roller along the wall even though it had run out of paint.  

I wanted to ask so much more. I wanted to force her to tell me everything she knew, to get answers for once in this country.  But I knew it was pointless, Salah stared wide eyed at the wall, lips pressed tightly together, shutting me out.

Hours later, the walls were painted, the clothes had been bought, and the crib was nearly made.  I followed Salah down the many flights of stairs and out the door, dragging myself like a zombie, only half aware of my surroundings while my mind twisted itself into knots.  

Mom’s voice came from what sounded like a distance, “Are you sure you don’t want us to come back tomorrow?”

Max’s laugh was cheerful, but sounded just as far away as mom’s, “I’m sure mom, we can finish everything tomorrow.  Thanks for all your help.”  His hug caught me by surprise, “Thanks for coming, sis,” he said in my ear.  I held him tight, acknowledging how real my Perfect brother felt.

When we got back to the house I launched myself out of the still moving car and up the ladder into my room.  I laid on my bed and massaged my temples, all this new information threatening to break through my skull.  I didn’t feel sure of anything.  The only thing Salah had proved to me was that the Outsiders were reaching out to more than just me and that for some reason dad would be angry if he found out what had happened.  

Who they were, where they came from, whether they were dangerous or not, none of that was clear.  

I got up and paced the room, looking at the paintings on my wall.  Salah was right, I needed to forget everything and move on with my life.  I had turned the Outsiders down anyway.  They wouldn’t be back.

 

~~~

 

The next morning came far too soon after another fitful night where Eddie and Kaleb haunted my dreams.  But since breakfast was my responsibility, I forced myself out of bed.  When I got to the kitchen, mom was already making the biscuits. “Morning honey,” she sang as she passed me a cup of coffee, “Max already called, he has the crib finished and Tiffany is putting everything into the nursery as we speak.  I hope they get a baby soon!”

I grimaced into my mug as flashes of yesterday flashed through my mind, but I pushed them down along with a gulp of steaming coffee.

“How long did you say it took to get Max after you and dad applied?”  I asked.

“Three years,” she chimed. Her smile lit up her already beautiful face.

“And… you didn’t know if he would be a Perfect or not, right?”  I hedged, bringing her the pan.

“Of course not.  It’s impossible to know that before the baby comes, just like the gender, but I really didn’t care.  I know it’s considered a blessing to have a Perfect, but I love each of you the same and I know your father does too.”

I helped her shape the biscuits, chewing on her words.  “But where do you think they come from?”  I asked, checking to make sure my voice was low.

“Who, dear?” she asked absently.

I dropped my voice to almost a whisper, “The babies.  Where do the Tiran get them?”

But mom just tapped me on the nose with a dough covered finger, “You know better than to ask a question like that, honey.  The Tiran know what they’re doing, that should be enough.”

I knew that would be the answer, it always was.  Though when I had asked it in school several years ago, I had to sit with my nose in the corner the rest of the day.  Mom’s discipline was far preferable.  I quietly chided myself for pushing the subject and chose, yet again, to just forget about it.

“Oh, Ashton!”  Mom said excitedly as she put the biscuits in the oven, “I think I found the perfect material for Mrs. Dabney!  I want to see what you think.”  She pulled her oven mitts off and tossed them over her shoulder.  They hit the flour bag just right and knocked it to the floor, spilling the fresh bag everywhere.

A soft chuckle came from the doorway that instantly calmed my nerves.  “Good morning, ladies” dad chuckled.

“Good morning, Xavier,” mom said as she fanned a deep green curtain out on the table, “we’ll be needing more flour, I’m afraid.”

Dad grinned and lightly pinched my side. “A day at the office wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the store on the way home,” he teased.

After dad and I assured mom that this time Mrs. Dabney would love the fabric, Salah made her way down to the kitchen and mom refocused all her attention on displaying the fabric to her oldest daughter.  Salah had just convinced mom that she believed the fabric would be perfect when David walked in and it all started over again.  By the time David praised the fabric, the long forgotten biscuits were ruined and we were all running low on time.

With toast in hand, David and I walked to school, joking about what kind of house we would have someday.  Then David assured me that I was doomed to be the same kind of cook as my mother.  

“I’m a great cook!”  I stamped my foot as the school came into view.

“Yes you are.  But you inherited your mother’s clumsiness.  Watching you in the kitchen is like a beautiful mess.”

“Hey!”  I hit his solid arm but he didn’t budge.

“I mean, who else would scrape themselves so badly just walking home?”  He gestured toward my wrapped arm and shook his head while I focused on not looking guilty.  I had given him the same half-truth that I gave my mom in my attempt to drop the issue of the Outsiders.

“What are you looking for?”  David asked me.

“What?”

“You keep looking behind you, did you forget something?”

Eddie and Kaleb.  I was looking for the Outsiders.  Even though I had promised myself I’d forget it all, a small part of me still expected to see them.  And a large part of me was disappointed every time I didn’t.

 

~~~

 

David met me shortly after school let out, the dried grease on his hands covered him in a scent that I had grown to love.  He took my books right away and wrapped an arm around my waist.  “My mom asked me to stop at the grocery store on the way home, do you mind?”

“Only if you buy me a chocolate bar,” I smiled.

“Do you even have to ask anymore?  I know that’s just a requirement with you,” he smiled.

When we got to Perfect Goods, the convenience store on the way home, I decided to wait outside.  As soon as David disappeared behind the sliding doors I caught sight of my dad getting out of his car.  Even though Perfect Goods was not on his way home, he always choose this store above the others because he liked the owner.

I smiled and waved, but a car pulled up behind him, stealing his attention from me.  A Tiran dad worked with came out of the car and said something quietly, then led him around to the back of the building.

I smiled and crept after them, excited to surprise him when he wasn’t expecting me.  I slid along the wall quietly, ready to jump out and hear his burst of laughter.  I covered my mouth to hide my giggles.

“What is it Trevor?” dad’s voice drifted around the corner.

“We found another group about a mile outside the northern side of the wall,” Trevor said, “they’re hidden behind a hill, we think there might be ten total.”

I froze.  Outsiders. “Were there any children with them?”  Dad asked.

“Yes, three.  But Xavier, a young girl overheard us talking about it.  She was cleaning in the next room, we didn’t realize she was -”

“You know to be more careful than that, Trevor!” dad whispered harshly.  I flinched against the wall, he rarely raised his voice.

“I know,” Trevor snapped, “we made a mistake. It was a rushed meeting.  We need to act fast but we need a unanimous decision.”

Dad waved his hand absently, “Yes, of course, we’ll find their camp and kill them all.  Gather the others and meet me at the office.  I have to get some flour for Cecilia then I’ll meet you there.”

“What about the girl that overheard us?”

“Kill her too,” he didn’t hesitate, “take care of her and I’ll meet you at the office to help with the rest of them.”

I took off as quietly as I could back around the building before I could be seen.  Dad wanted to kill the Outsiders.  That had to mean they were evil.  Right?

“Ash?”  I jumped at David’s voice.  He frowned at me. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I lied.

“Okay,” David said, still frowning, “I didn’t know what you wanted so I got you a couple different kinds.”

“What?”

“Chocolate.” He held out several chocolate bars.

“Oh,” I mumbled. “Thanks.”

By the time we got home dad was already gone and mom and Salah were making dinner.  “You just missed your dad,” mom said, “he went back to the office, he has to work late.  David, would you like to join us?  It looks like we made too much.”

“Thank you Mrs. Traverse, but I have to get these back to my mom.”  He held out the bag of groceries.

I went straight upstairs after dinner and paced over my clear glass floors.  I could rationalize what he wanted to do to the Outsiders, they must be trying to harm Perfection, but what about the girl who had overheard them?  What had she done to deserve this fate?  I looked out my window in the direction of the Kwaad, where the Tiran offices were.  She was probably already dead and I had no idea why.

What would happen to me if dad realized what I had heard?  Would he kill me too?  I shook my head to clear my thoughts.  My dad would never hurt his family.  But there were too many questions to ignore and I knew I wasn’t getting any answers from anyone here.  If I was going to figure out what was going on, I had to visit the hole in the wall from my dreams.  Tonight I would find the Outsiders.

 

~~~

 

I waited up that night until dad came home and everyone was in bed.  When I was sure everyone was asleep I crept out of the house and through the darkness until I found the opening the Outsiders had pulled me through.  I ran my hands along the wall, looking for the lever Eddie had pulled in my dream, but there was nothing there.  I pulled on every crack I could find, and when nothing opened, I took to poking it with a stick.

After hours of trying to persuade the wall to open, I had still made no progress, and I started getting desperate.  I drug myself home just as the sun was starting to peek over the wall and promised myself I’d be back the next night and every other night until I found a way to get to the people who had the answers.

Over the next week I went out every night searching everything I could touch in the path the Outsiders had taken me on, but every night there was no evidence it had ever even happened.

By the sixth night I was ready to give up.  They had said they lived in hiding, of course I couldn’t find them.  For all I knew, the Tiran had killed them all and there was no one left to be found.  I threw myself into bed after yet another sleepless night with no more answers than I had the day the Outsiders kidnapped me, and fell into a fitful sleep.

Dad found out what I knew and put me on trial in front of all the Tiran.  I tried to explain myself but they wouldn’t listen to me.  He sentenced me to death.  I tried to run but the Guards caught me by the arms and dragged me to the flames on the other side of the wall.

Then the phone rang.

The abrupt chirping jerked me awake.  Moaning, I rolled over and picked it up, “Hullo?”  I groaned into the phone.

“Tell me you’re not still asleep.”  Tosha’s voice came through the speaker, “You promised you’d be here by now!”

“What are you talking about?”  I yawned.

“My sister’s birthday party!  I’ve only been talking about it for the last three weeks.  Come on, Ashton!”

“Your sister’s… Wait.  How old is she turning?”  I pushed myself up, the light though my windows blinded me.

Tosha huffed into the phone, “She’s turning eighteen.  You know that Ashton, she’s your age.  Are you awake yet?”  Eighteen.  The Outsider said that was the age they started following us.  This could be my only chance.

“Ashton?” Tosha said through the phone, “Are you coming or not?”

“Yes.” I threw my blankets to the floor. “What time does it start?”

“It’s already going on!  Can’t you hear the noise behind me?  The party’s at the docks, get here as soon as you can.”  

I rushed out the door, flattening my bed head as I went.  As soon as I got there I scanned the crowd for Tammie, Tosha’s sister, and attached myself to her side for the day.  Tammie looked nothing like Tosha, just like any other families in Perfection.  Seeing them standing together at the party, the difference was almost humorous.  Tammie, a Non-Perfect, had white-blond hair and pale blue eyes that were a direct contrast to her sister.  

I stayed close to Tammie throughout the party, searching for an Outsider the whole time.  When the party came to an end I started to pan, I thought this was my chance, but it was proving as fruitless as everything else I had tried.

Several hours later, I was the only one left except Tosha’s family.  “You know you really don’t have to help clean up.”  Tosha told me when I started clearing plates.

“No really, I want to,” I said, half looking at Tosha, half keeping an eye on Tammie.

Tammie dropped her pile of plates and turned to her sister. “I’m going inside, I have to use the bathroom.”

“Okay,” Tosha said, then stepped in front of me, blocking my view, “honestly, Ashton, you don’t have to -”

“Okay,” I said, shoving the plates into her hands and rushing after Tammie.  I was just about to call after her when I saw them, two figures crouched in the shadows.

I stopped and hid behind the building until Tammie disappeared inside. When she was out of view, I waved my arms to get their attention.  

“Ashton?”  One of the figures half stood, there was no mistaking Kaleb’s gravelly voice.  He motioned for me to come to where they were hiding.  I only hesitated for a second before following them into the shadows.

“I’ve been looking for you everywhere,” I whispered harshly, “I heard the Tiran say that they found you.  I was afraid you guys were hurt.”

A smirk broke across his lips and I instantly wished I could take my words back. “You were worried about me?”  He asked.

“That’s not -” He cut me off with a raised hand and gestured back to Tammie, who was leaving the building.

Kaleb faced me and I realized how close we were standing. “I have to talk to her, but just wait here and I’ll come back as soon as we finish, I promise.”  He motioned to his partner who I only just realized wasn’t Eddie, and they were gone.  I watched them grab her from behind and pull her out of site and a feeling of dread washed over me.

What was I doing?  They could be murderers.  They could be hurting her right now.  Why was I just standing here, waiting for them to do who knows what?  I sank against the tree trunk, forcing myself into a calm, and watched the sun slowly dip in the sky.  I was an idiot.  But just when I was about to run again, my heart leapt so hard it hurt.

“Ashton.” I spun at the sound of his voice.  Kaleb stood alone, leaning against a tree with his arms crossed and that annoying smirk still on his face.  Rather than hiding in the shadows like me, he stood out in the open, apparently confident that no one would see him.  In the light of the day, the smoothness of his features and the strength in his chest and arms struck me.  For a Non-Perfect - or whatever he was - he really wasn’t ugly.  I guessed that was a difficult thing to notice when one was being kidnapped.

“How do you move so quietly?”  I hissed.

But instead of answering me, he repeated his last question, “You were worried about me, huh?”  The arrogance that mixed with his low voice caused a cloud of aggravation to roll in my chest.

“I wasn’t worried.  I was… Concerned.  About people dying.  One of us died because of it too, you know.”

His smirk fell in an instant, “Who died?”  All the entertainment had dropped from his voice.

“I’m not sure,” I said slowly.  His reaction caught me off guard. “It was someone who was cleaning in the Kwaad and overheard the Tiran talking.  They - they killed her before they came for you.”

Kaleb slammed his fist against the tree trunk.   “It wasn’t your fault!”  I said quietly, trying to calm him down.

He stepped close - too close - and searched my face.  I itched to step away but I held my ground.  “You don’t understand,” he said, “we didn’t kill her but she died because of us.  A loss of life is a loss of life, we never take that lightly.”

I ducked my head. “Were any of you hurt when they attacked?” I mumbled.

He smiled darkly, “No.  We saw them coming so we were prepared.  When they saw us ready to defend ourselves they retreated.”  He sneered, “They don’t like a fair fight.”  I pushed that information down, still unsure if I could trust him.  

“I have questions for you,” I said.  

He lifted his gaze to mine, his eyes hard as stone, “Oh?”

“Yes.  I’ve been searching the area where you first -” I racked my brain for a way to say “kidnapped” without offending him.

A smile played on his dark lips. “Warned you?” he offered.

“Yes.”  I said, grateful for the help, “I’ve been trying to find a way to get to you. I’ve been looking for holes in the wall that would make it open up and -”

A noise cut me short.  A laugh.  He was laughing at me, really laughing.  His whole body shook when he covered his mouth and a burning surged in my chest. “What exactly do you find so funny?”  I demanded, “I haven’t slept in a week.  I’ve searched for you every spare moment I’ve had.  I’m standing in the trees with a complete stranger, questioning everything I know, and you're laughing?”

Kaleb forced himself to stop but a smile still played across his lips. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh, but did you really think we would have Warned you at our entry point?  You’re dad’s a Tiran.  What if you told him about us and he found our way in?  We couldn’t risk that.”

I refused to acknowledge my stupidity.  Instead, I really just wanted to hit him.  

Kaleb took another step closer - far too close. “I’m sorry,” he said again, “I didn’t mean to make you mad.”

Instinctively, I stepped back, wanting to define boundaries with the stranger. “Fine,” I said, “I have more questions though.”  The corners of his lips raised and he stepped closer again, obviously enjoying how uncomfortable he made me.

I narrowed my eyes and took another deliberate step back. “I want to know about everything you tried to warn me about.  What are the Tiran doing?  Why do they want to kill you?  Why aren’t we allowed to leave?   Where’s Eddie?  Who’s that new person you’re with?”

He raised an eyebrow, “You really want to know all that?”

“Yes.”  I said it without hesitation.

“Alright, but I have to warn you, once you know the truth about Perfection, the Perfects, and the Tiran, you won’t want to stay here.  You’ll want to leave as quickly as you can and you’ll never want to come back.”

That made me hesitate.  Surely nothing could be bad enough to make me want to leave David or turn my back on my family.  No, I just wanted answers.  “I want to know,” I said firmly.

Kaleb smiled again, “Ok.  I’ll come by tomorrow and we’ll talk.”  He turned to leave.

“Wait, why can’t you tell me tonight?”

“Because you have to get back.  They’ll be wondering where you are.” He nodded his head toward the party.  

“Fine.  Where should I meet you?”  

“Let’s meet where I first Warned you at noon tomorrow.  It sounds like you’ve had a lot of late nights, I don’t want your family to get suspicious.”

I would have to cancel my plans with David.  “Okay.  Noon tomorrow.”  

He nodded and I turned before he could leave first.  I let a smile slip past my lips, I was finally going to get some answers.

Chapter 4

I woke up early the next morning to call David and fake a cough and a fever.  After convincing him that I was too contagious for company, all I had left was to watch the hours tick away.

I stared at the clock for what felt like hours but it refused to move.  I tried pacing until my feet ached, then gave up and went back to staring at the unmoving clock. After checking the batteries four times, I decided to hide away in the one thing that kept me calm no matter what - painting.  

I dressed in an old shirt that was two years too small and a pair of black leggings and got to work.  I decided to paint Perfection; the hills, the trees, the colors, the textures.

With each stroke of the brush my mind eased, my shoulders lightened, and my chest relaxed until the mural was almost done and my eyelids were heavy from so many nights without sleep.  I stretched out on the floor and closed my eyes, it was only a little longer before I could leave to meet him.  I lay there thinking… dreaming.

“Ashton?”  Mom’s honey-like voice lulled me from my sleep.

“Yes?”  I slurred the word.

“Do you want any dinner honey, or should I just put it in the fridge?”

I jerked up and forced my eyes to focus on the clock.  8:00. No.  My heart plummeted to the pit of my stomach.  I missed it.  I had one last chance to find the truth and I slept through it.  My body fell limp back to the floor and angry tears welled up in my eyes.  How could I have missed my second chance?

“Ashton?”  Mom poked her head in from the doorway, “David stopped by earlier, he said you were sick.  Have you been sleeping all day?”

“Yes,” I moaned, that one syllable drug out with the aching in my chest.

“Do you feel like eating?  I could make you some soup.”

“No mom.”

“I’ll bring you some bread and soup anyway.”  And she was gone.

I let the silent tears fall freely down my cheeks and onto the cold glass floor and barely noticed when mom brought the food in a while later.  When there were no tears left to cry, I left the paints open to ruin and drug myself into bed.  I stared at the ceiling and listened to the seconds on the clock tick by, wishing more than anything that I could somehow make them tick backward.  But nothing changed and eventually I fell back to sleep.

A sharp tap jerked me from my sleep.  I opened my eyes and pushed myself out of bed when another tap came.  Night had fallen outside and the house was quiet but another tap sounded from beneath my feet.  With a rush of excitement I looked down and saw him through the glass floor that exposed all the way down to the ground… all the way down to Kaleb.

He raised a finger to his lips, then pointed to the only window in my room.  Quietly, I tiptoed to the window and pulled it open.  I stuck my head out to whisper to him, but he was already scaling the outside of the house.  Within minutes he swung himself through the window and into my room.  

The relief of seeing the dark stranger was so severe that I threw my arms around his broad shoulders and breathed in the mint on his breath.  He pulled me closer, burying his face in my hair.

Then I realized what I was doing.  I jerked away and stared at my toes, too embarrassed to meet his eyes.  When I was sure all the heat had left my cheeks I turned back to Kaleb, who I was shocked to see was drinking me in.  I suddenly became very aware of my too tight painting clothes and shifted my feet, wishing I had chosen to wear something else.  Anything else.  The movement caused his eyes to snap back up and - surprisingly - a light blush rose to his cheeks too.  

“How did you know where I live?”  I asked the first question I could think of.

He raised a finger to his lips and watched the door before he answered.  His voice came quietly, forcing me to lean in, “When a Non-Perfect turns eighteen we start following them.  We learn where they live, where they go to school, where they hang out with their friends, everything.  That way we know how to catch them alone to Warn them.”

Despite my gratefulness that he had found me, the violation of my privacy disturbed me.  “So you’re a kidnapper and a stalker?”  I asked, a little too loudly.

Kaleb watched the door again, but when no one came his eyes swept over my room, “So what happened?” he asked, ignoring my question, “I’ve been waiting outside your house since two o’clock.  When I saw you lying on the floor through the glass, I thought you might be hurt.”

I crossed my arms and allowed a cocky smile to slide across my lips, “You were worried about me, huh?” I mimicked him from the day before.

A shadow crossed his eyes and when he spoke his voice was hard, “I told you, it’s dangerous here.  Think of the girl who was killed by your leaders just a week ago.  You’re a Tiran’s daughter! If anyone found out you were meeting me…”  He held my arms and squeezed, begging me to understand.

I jerked my hands away, “I’m not hurt!”  I whispered, “I just fell asleep, it’s like you said yesterday, I’ve had too many late nights.  It just caught up with me.”  

Kaleb shook his head and again I was struck by his value for life.  Then I heard his stomach give a loud roll.

“You’re hungry!”  I whispered.  I took the opportunity to put distance between us and rushed to the food mom had left on my nightstand.  True to her nature, she had overdone it in her attempt to take care of me.  On the tray sat a large bowl of potato soup, a turkey and cheese sandwich, a few slices of homemade bread from yesterday, and a pitcher of water.  Plenty for the both of us.

“No, I’m fine.”  He argued feebly but his eyes were on the food.  I sat on the floor and split the meal between us, realizing how hungry I was too.  

I reached for the bread, but he grabbed ahold of my wrist and a stab of pain shot straight to my chest.  “You’re hurt,” he whispered, his eyes gazing over the dirty bandage running up my arm.  

I pulled back. “It’s from when you kidnapped me.  I tripped when I tried to run away.”

“I remember that,” his eyes stayed on my arm, “I didn’t realize you had hurt yourself so badly.”

I shrugged, “It’s not that bad.  I hurt myself all the time.”  

He kept his gaze low as he tore the bread, giving me half and shoving the rest in his mouth.

“Where do you live?”  I asked.

His mouth was still full but he answered anyway, “We set up camps all over the place, there’s so much land once you leave Perfection.  We usually keep to about ten to fifteen people to a camp, but we meet with other camps all the time.  We move locations every few weeks to keep the Snatchers from finding us.”

I couldn’t help it, the sight of this man sitting cross legged on my floor and talking past a mouthful of bread about camps of people living in a wasteland was too strange for me to handle.  I let out a giggle despite myself.  He arched his brows as he chewed his food.  Good.  Let him be confused for once.

I ignored the question in his eyes and asked the question that stood out the most to me, “What are Snatchers?”

He swallowed, “That’s what we call your leaders.”

“The Tiran?  Why do you call them Snatchers?”

He shook his head, “Too hard.  Start with something else.”

“But you said you’d answer my questions!”  I objected quietly.

“Too hard,” he repeated, then took another great bite of potato soup.

“Fine,” I huffed, “Where is Eddie and why didn’t he come with you when you kidnapped Tammie?  Who was that other person with you yesterday?”  

Kaleb leaned back and chuckled quietly, it was a kind sound that I wouldn’t have expected out of someone so guarded.  “All of Perfection and those that live outside of it and you ask me that?”

“Well you denied my first question.  Are you going to deny me this one too?”  I was beginning to get annoyed again.

Kaleb shook his head, but this time he answered me, “Eddie is who I usually go on Warnings with.”  He met my eyes, “Warnings.  Not kidnappings.  That’s what we call it when we tell you the truth about Perfection.  Each camp is assigned about three people a month usually - there are a lot more of you than there are of us - then those three are split amongst the camp.  We follow you to learn the best way to approach you.  The guy I was with yesterday is Nathan.  His partner was sick so I agreed to go with him.  We always go in pairs in case we’re caught.  It’s easier to fight if someone's got your back.”

“Who are you afraid of catching you?”

“The Snatchers.  Or Tiran for your benefit.  They’ve caught some of us in the past, they do evil things to us; torture, murder… then worse.”  Kaleb put the bowl of soup down and grimaced.

“My dad would never torture someone,” I whispered.

Kaleb met my eyes but didn’t argue.  I put down the sandwich I had been eating, suddenly I wasn’t hungry anymore.  

“Ashton,” his voice was barely a whisper, “I’m not supposed to be here.  I’m breaking every rule by coming back.  We’re supposed to Warn you once and let you make your choice, if you choose to stay we don’t contact you again.  Not only that, but coming here alone… and to a Snatcher’s house!”  Kaleb jumped up and ran a hand over his short hair, I got up too and walked around the tray of mostly eaten dinner.

Kaleb grabbed ahold of my arms, he was too close again, “You have to understand, you aren’t safe here.  I’ll tell you everything but please, just come to our camp.  We can keep you safe.”

My breath caught in my throat, “You want me to leave?”  I asked.

“You already know enough that you should want to get out!  Think of what you overheard your father saying, think of the girl who died!  I’ll explain everything when we leave, I promise.

“Can I come back if I don’t want to stay?”

Kaleb let go of me and stepped back, “I can’t just bring you back and forth Ashton, it’s not safe.  What if you let something slip about where we live?  Or what if someone sees us together?  What if your dad realizes what you’re doing?  It’s too dangerous.”

But I still didn’t know if I could trust him.  All I had gained today was a hundred more questions and I still couldn’t believe that my dad could be capable of what Kaleb accused him of.

I shook my head, trying to clear the mess inside.  Kaleb stepped closer again, but a knock on the door silenced him.

“Ashton?”  Salah’s voice came from the other side of the door.

Kaleb grabbed my wrist and pulled it gently toward him. “Come with me,” he urged.

I looked back to the door. I couldn’t just give up everything at the word of a stranger, could I?

Before I could answer, my hand dropped and Kaleb was gone.  I turned back just in time to see him slip through the window.  Along with him went my last chance.  Again.

“Ashton!”  Salah stomped into the room, her arms crossed tightly against her chest.

“Yes?”  I said in a dead voice.

“I heard voices so I came to see what my sick sister could be doing in her room with a visitor,” she spat.

“I was on the phone.”  I lied numbly.

“Then why could I hear a man’s voice too?”

“Speaker phone.”

Salah’s eyes flashed. “Then tell me why I just saw a man climbing out your window!”  She hissed in a whisper.

I just stared at her.  It didn’t matter to me what she thought.

“Are you meeting with an Outsider?” she whispered, rage dripped from every word. “I told you that people would get hurt over this and you brought him into our house?  What were you thinking?  I told you they were dangerous!”

“I don’t think he’s dangerous -” I started, but Salah cut across me.

“You don’t think he’s dangerous?”  She repeated, her eyes turned wild, “People died last time Ashton, and you showed him where we live?  How could you put us in danger like that?”

“Someone died this time too Salah, and it wasn’t the Outsiders that killed her.”

“What are you talking about?” she snapped.

I let my voice drop even lower, “I mean why is dad ordering people’s deaths?”

Salah drew back, “You think dad’s the bad guy here?” She had never looked at me like that, as if I had betrayed the one man we both trusted with our lives.

I shook my head, “No.  I mean - I don’t know.  I know dad isn’t bad, I just mean that there’s a lot we don’t know and -”

Salah leaned in, “Who cares if we don’t understand it all.  Haven’t the Tiran always taken care of us?  Hasn’t dad always been there?  And you’re ready to turn your back on him for a guy you met five minutes ago?”

“No!”  I said a little too loudly.  I knew she wanted more of an explanation but I just didn’t have one.  I didn’t understand anything anymore.

Salah stepped back, “If you meet with the Outsider again I’ll tell dad,” she whispered.

“Dad would kill him.”  

“Then he would have a reason and I wouldn't question him for it.”  Her face was set.

I drew back, shocked that she didn’t care.  Then let my head drop. “It doesn’t matter anyway,” I said to the floor, “I told him I wouldn’t leave with him and he said he couldn’t come back.  I’ll never see him again.”

Her face instantly softened, “Really?”  She asked.  She didn’t try to hide the hope in her voice.

“Yeah,” I said.  The defeat had returned to my voice.

“Good,” she sighed, “Whatever he said to you was a lie, Ashton.  You’re better off now that he’s gone.”

“Sure.”  I said it just so she would leave.  And she did.  Once again, I threw myself on my bed fully clothed, and sobbed.

Chapter 5

The days moved slowly, sliding from depression to hope that I would see an Outsider again, then back into depression when they never came.  Every day I hoped that Kaleb or Eddie would give me one more chance, but that hope was slowly suffocated by the passing of time.

That weekend dad stopped me as I drifted through the house. I didn’t hear him at first, I didn’t really hear anyone anymore.  Perfection felt so distant.  But he spoke again and I was forced to pay attention.  “What do you think, kiddo?”

I blinked slowly at him, trying to remember what he had just asked me.  Dad smiled patiently and repeated himself, “Your mom says it’ll be another hour before dinner’s ready. What do you say you and I sneak out for a bit, just the two of us?”

“I don’t know, I’m not sure I feel like going out tonight,” I said, already thinking of how comfy my sweats sounded.

Dad’s voice was soft, “Come on Peanut, it’ll do you some good to get out.”  

Really, I had no reason to argue, and that was the only reason I agreed.  Dad grabbed two thick blankets on his way to the door and I smiled at the dead giveaway of his plans.  He kissed mom on the cheek before leading the way to the car where we drove to the point furthest north in Perfection - an area that was left empty for eventual expansion.  It was the place he had taken me to look at the stars since I was a little girl.

We lay side by side on one blanket and I wrapped up in the other, he had learned a long time ago to bring an extra blanket for me.  

Dad pointed straight up at the brightest star in the sky, “Sirius,” I recited without hesitation.  It was his favorite star so it was always the one he pointed out first.  His finger drifted slightly up and to the right and rested on a neighboring star. “Rigel,” I said.

“Good! And what about that one?”  He pointed to a star not far away from the first two.  

I smiled.  That one was my favorite. “Betelgeuse,” I recited.  

When I was young he would point to each of them and tell me their names while I memorized every word, desperate to share his love for the stars.  Now that I was older he would quiz me until he was satisfied, then we would watch the stars and talk for hours.  Since he joined the Tiran we didn’t find time to go out as often, but when we did, they were memories I would delicately tuck away to a place that couldn’t be lost by time.

Dad pointed again, this time to a light far away from the others. “And which star is that?”  He queried.  

I laughed, “That’s the Andromeda Galaxy, dad.”  

Dad chuckled with me, “Too quick for this old man.”

“You’ll never get old,” I told him.

“It’s a part of life, Peanut.  And someone else will take my position to lead and protect you and your children.”

I rolled my head and studied his wrinkles and greying hair.  “You’re proud of what you do, huh dad?”  

He kept his eyes on the stars, “Of course I am, Peanut.  I work hard to make sure that my wife and my children are safe and happy in a country that thrives.  I’m a part of something great.”

I nodded and returned my gaze to the stars.  He quizzed me on a few more, each of which I knew without thought, before we headed back home.  David came over shortly after we got back and ate dinner with the family.  

Afterwards mom, dad, Salah, David and I played board games late into the night.  We all laughed, dad cheated, mom caught him, Salah and I got into a fight, then David made a bag of popcorn and the five of us watched a movie we had all seen a dozen times.  I snuggled into the couch between my dad and my boyfriend and realized that even though I didn’t understand everything, I was happy with the life I had.

Drowsily, I stumbled to my bedroom and seriously contemplated falling asleep in my clothes again.  The moment the door shut behind me a sharp tap sounded at my feet, jolting me awake.  

My heart froze.  Surely not.  It wasn’t possible.  I slowly searched the darkness beneath me, not daring to believe it.

Then I found him.

Dressed in all black, Kaleb stood in the bushes and pointed to the window.  Quickly, quietly, I tip toed to the window while he scaled the outside wall.  It struck me how easily he pulled himself up.  I stepped back to let him in, but he shook his head.  I moved closer and he whispered, “I can’t risk it again.  Meet me where we first met tomorrow morning.”

He started to lower himself again but I called after him, “When?”  I whispered.

He slid down quickly. “As early as you can,” he said, then hit the ground and ran into the darkness.  

 

~~~

 

I woke before my alarm when the air was still crisp and the sun was still low.  I tiptoed to the ladder that took me down to the front door.  

I worked hard to keep my step light and my face calm.  It was almost painful to move so slowly.  After nearly forty-five minutes at a pace that felt like a crawl, I crept to the place where I had first heard the two men on my way home.  With a quick look around I confirmed that I was alone and slipped into the hidden gap that opened to the narrow path from before.

Almost instantly, I heard him behind me, “You came this time.”  There was humor in his voice.  It was a direct contrast to the milky smooth voice I was used to hearing from David, but it was a comfort to hear in it’s own way.

Kaleb leaned against the wall with his arms crossed, a whisper of a smile played across his dark lips.  The smile softened him slightly.  It seemed odd to see him without such a harsh guard and yet, the jab sent a spike of heat down my spine.

I crossed my arms too, “Yes, it must have been so hard for you to have had to wait for me that one time after I searched for you every night for a week.  I do feel bad for you.  Of course, next time you want to meet, you could just kidnap me and hold me against my will.  That seemed to work for you in the past.”  I rolled my eyes to emphasize my anger.

Kaleb’s brows knit together and a frown pulled at the corners of his mouth.  “Why do you do that?” he asked.

“Do what?”

“Get so defensive?  I’m just here to help.”

I dropped my arms but tried to hide my embarrassment.  Amazingly, it even irritated me that he had called me out. “Sorry,” I mumbled.

Kaleb batted my words out of the air, “Its okay, you probably only hang out with Perfects anyway.  You wouldn’t be used to people challenging you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”  I asked, careful to watch my tone.

He shrugged, “Perfects will let you do what you want.  I bet you butt heads with any Non-Perfect you have to interact with, huh?”

I thought of Salah and most of my classmates.  I settled on the only Non-Perfect that I loved. “My dad’s not a Perfect,” I said.

His eyes narrowed in an expression I didn’t understand, then vanished quickly. “Well, I’m glad you came,” he said.

“I’m glad you gave me another chance,” I said.  With a single massive step he closed the gap between us and towered over me.  Scared, I tried to step away, but he caught my arm and raised it, exposing the cuts that still hadn’t been cleaned since mom had doctored them. “You really need to put some medicine on that,” he muttered, then dropped my arm and turned his back.

I exhaled and looked past him.  Suddenly I realized where I was; in a part of Perfection that no one seemed to know about, too deep for anyone to hear me, with a man that I didn’t know and that my father clearly didn’t trust.  

“Why didn’t Eddie come with you?  Or the other guy… Nathan.  I thought you said you guys didn’t come into Perfection alone.”

Kaleb sneered, “The other’s don’t exactly support my decision to keep meeting with you.  As a general rule we don’t keep pursuing someone after they’ve decided to stay.”

“So we only get one shot?  What happens if we realize we made a mistake?  Has anyone else ever found you after you Warned them?”

“No,” he said. “Listen, Ashton, I know you have a lot of questions, but would you be willing to go outside Perfection to talk?  It’ll be a lot safer for us both that way.”

I froze.  I had expected him to ask me to leave again, but not this soon.  I still didn’t have a single question answered.  

But Kaleb seemed to read my thoughts. “Let me clarify,” he said. “I’ll answer every one of your questions and in the end, if you decide you want to stay here, I’ll bring you back.  I promise.”

“I thought you said you weren’t allowed to do that?”

Kaleb shook his head, “I’m already breaking a ton of rules here.  What’s one more?”

I smiled and surprisingly, he smiled back.  “You know you look much less intimidating like that,” I said.

His lips dropped into a frown again so I explained, “When you smile.  It’s nice.  You almost don’t even look like yourself.”  

His lips twisted into a scowl.  “Ah,” I smiled. “That looks more like you.”

Still angry, he stalked to the edge of the passage and peaked around the wall. “Follow me closely okay?” he whispered. “And try your hardest to be quiet.”

“You should have heard me coming here today.”  I said proudly, “As long as I move slowly, I’m almost as quiet as you.”

He raised an eyebrow and smirked.  “You were not quiet.”

I felt the sharp anger rising in me again but I bit my tongue.  Trying to keep my voice even, I whispered, “How would you know?”

“I got here before you did and waited in the trees.  I wanted to make sure no one followed you in.  Even though you moved slower than a turtle,” he looked pointedly at me, “I could hear you stomping and tripping long before I saw you.”

“I wasn’t stomping!”  I whispered furiously.  Though I had tripped a few times.

“Okay, Munchkin.  I’ll take it slow for you.”

“Munchkin?”  

He turned back and raised from his crouch, my head only reached to his shoulders. “It’s cute,” he said, then disappeared from our hiding place.  I bit back a retort and followed him as quietly as I could, suddenly aware of every snapping twig under my feet.  Somehow, he managed not to make a sound even though I followed his path exactly.  

He weaved us in and out of secrets in the walls and pathways through the trees, rarely in a place where anyone could have seen us, even if they had been looking.

I spoke for the first time when he led me into a tree that opened into a tunnel.  “How do you know about all these secret paths?  I’ve lived here my entire life and never noticed any of them.”

“You’ve never looked for them have you?  Our ancestors have been using these for decades.  Some of them they found and some they made.  Now quiet, your feet are loud enough without your mouth moving too.”  He threw a smile over his shoulder and I reminded myself that it was probably supposed to be his version of a joke, even though I didn’t find it funny at all.

Distracted, I tripped over a stray root and fell to the floor of the tunnel, slicing my hands open on a rock.  Kaleb was crouched beside me before I had time to blink.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, “I know that was loud.”

He ignored me and turned my hands over in his.  He pulled a cloth from his pocket and wiped the dirt from the biggest gash.  Great.  Another lie to tell my family.  

Without a word, Kaleb pulled a small vial out of the same pocket and poured a couple drops over my palms.  I tried to pull away from the sting of the liquid, but Kaleb held my arm in place.  His skilled hands quickly wrapped the cloth tightly around the gash and knotted it in place.

“Don't’ take this off okay?  It’s dirty down here and I don’t want it to get infected.  The last thing I need today is to have to cut off your arm.”  

I watched his too close eyes and the mint on his breath tickled my senses.  His eyes were lighter than usual even in the dark tunnel.  Suddenly uncomfortable, I pushed myself up and followed him again, careful to notice every bump and divot in the ground.

Several minutes later, I nearly ran into Kaleb when he came to an abrupt stop.  He lifted a finger to his lips then pointed to a Guard standing a few feet from us.  My stomach clenched.  

The Guards worked in the Kwaad with the Tiran, if a Guard saw us it would mean the Tiran would see us.  Surprisingly, when Kaleb faced me he was smiling.  He pointed to me, then to the Guard, then winked.  I knew what he was asking.

I stepped out of our hiding place and walked straight to the Guard, “Excuse me,” I said as I sidestepped, forcing the Guard to turn his back to Kaleb. “Could you tell me where the bakery is?”

The Guard looked me up and down and it struck me how I must look; disheveled, dirty, and with scraped and bandaged hands and arm.  No one in Perfection looked like me.  Kaleb slipped from the tunnel and soundlessly moved behind the Guard as he gave me crude directions.  When Kaleb was safely behind another opening in the wall I thanked the Guard and walked in the direction he had pointed me until I was out of sight.  Then I waited.  As if on cue, Kaleb poked his head out of a shrub and motioned me to him.

I followed him through the bushes, making far too much noise.  Finally we stopped again, much deeper into the brush than I thought the parameters of Perfection would allow, at a wall that was completely covered in vines.  Kaleb ran his hand along the vines until he found a few that swung freely.  He swept away the vines that had seemed as firmly attached as the rest, exposing a small opening at his feet that would have been impossible to find unless one knew where to look.

Without a word, he laid down on his stomach and scooted through the opening.  When he was out of sight, I looked around and followed him through the carved out dirt tunnel.  The tunnel was much longer than I ever thought the walls would be, probably to keep people from doing exactly what we were doing now.  

When the tunnel finally came to an end, I straightened up and gasped. In the world that I had been taught was nothing but a wasteland, was a lush green forest in every direction.  Next to me, Kaleb smiled.

“Beautiful isn’t it?”  He asked quietly, even though no one in Perfection could hear us so far out.

“Amazing,” I whispered too.  I hadn’t expected the fire from my dreams but I never would have dreamed of anything like what I saw.  It was the most beautiful, life filled place I had ever seen.

I tried to take a step but stumbled right away.  Kaleb scoffed and offered me his hand. “You're a danger to yourself,” he teased. “Come on, I’ll answer your questions while we walk.”  

I considered him for a moment before taking his hand and letting him lead me through the trees.  There was no path that had been forged for us, he seemed to move around the trees rather than expecting them to open for him.

We ducked under some low hanging branches as he began, “I should probably start by telling you about us.  You seemed pretty interested before.”  He glanced back at me for confirmation and I nodded, happy to have an explanation.  Kaleb returned his gaze forward and pulled me along, “That’s all pretty simple so we can talk about it while we walk.  Once we get to the camp I’ll tell you about Perfection.”

“We’re going to your camp?”  I asked.

“If you don’t mind, some of the others really want to meet you.”

“Of course!  I want to see where you live.”

He squeezed my hand as he led me deeper into the forest.  I couldn’t help but smile at how relaxed he was now that we were on his turf.

“We stay in what we call ‘camps’,” he continued, “It’s usually ten to fifteen people to a camp.  If families grow, moving our numbers above fifteen, we split so we won’t be easily noticed.  But we’re not isolated to our camps alone.  We meet together regularly with other camps and a few times a year everyone gets together to celebrate a child’s first birthday.”  He waved a hand over his shoulder, “But we’ll get to that later.  We can change camps any time we want and some people change often, while others stay in the same camps their whole lives.  It’s like living in different parts of town, except the towns are constantly moving so you don’t always know where everyone is.  But we always find each other.

“My family’s been in the same camp for about three years now.  We’re really close with the people we live with.  Of course, we have to move the location of our camp all the time.  Sometimes we’ll be in one place for a few days, sometimes we’ll stay for a couple weeks, but never longer than that.  The Snatchers look for us constantly, so we have to stay on the move.”  He looked back at me and I nodded to let him know I understood, though my mind was working fast, trying to take it all in, while my feet tripped over every rock.

Kaleb paused as he held a branch back for me.  I took advantage of the silence to explain my confusion, “I’ve lived in the same house my entire life.  I can’t imagine moving every other week.”

“It was hard sometimes when I was young and it can be difficult on new mothers, but for the most part it’s not difficult at all.  We’re pretty minimalistic and we take our homes and all our things with us when we go, so it’s really not like the kind of move you would have.  We’re leaving nothing behind and we consider it exciting to be able to explore another part of the land.  You would be shocked how vast it is outside of Perfection.  And it’s all real so it has a beauty like you wouldn’t get where you live.”  His body seemed to relax and his voice softened, “I never get tired of it.  And no matter where we go, I’m always in awe of the beauty.”

A calm came over me too and I wondered what else could be out there.  “Why did you call it ‘real’ here?  You make it sound like you don’t think Perfection is real,” I asked.

He shrugged and my arm rose and dropped with his. “It’s not,” he said without bothering to look back, “But it would be better if we wait until we get to the camp before we get into that.  You’ll want to hear everything at once.”

I huffed.  Wasn’t that why I was here?  To get answers?  But he ignored me.  “We have a pretty great life you know,” he continued. “We live more simply than you do but we’re happy.  We’re free.”  He looked back and grinned before continuing and I knew it meant that he wouldn’t be explaining that either.  Frustrated, I tugged on his arm a little.  If he wasn’t going to explain it then why bring it up?  “We live well together even without Perfects.”

That surprised me, “So all the Outsiders are Non-Perfects?”

Kaleb stopped suddenly, making me stumble again on the uneven ground, “Outsiders?  What do you mean, ‘Outsiders’?”

I blushed and for the first time I realized that they may not call themselves something that made them sound like rejects.

“Is that what you call us?”  He grinned wider than I had ever seen from him.

“Yes,” I said timidly. “That’s what the Tiran call you.”

Kaleb’s laugh came out in a burst.  I drew back instinctively, in the time I had known him he had been a quiet, reserved man and ever since we left Perfection I hadn’t been able to keep up with his changing temperament.  Out here he was so… relaxed.  Kaleb bent over and braced his hands on his knees.

Alright, now I was annoyed.  

“Well it’s not as if you ever gave me a name for yourselves!” I defended, kicking at the dirt beneath me.

He straightened and laid a light hand on my shoulder.  The touch was casual but it felt too intemant.  “I’m sorry, Ashton,” he said, I fought the urge to step back. “I’ve never heard them call us that.  Outsiders!”  He laughed again but this time at my dad’s expense, which bothered me even more.

I shook his hand off. “You know you don’t have to laugh at me every time I open my mouth.  I’m here for answers, so naturally there’s going to be things I don’t know yet.”

He held his hands out in mock surrender. “You’re right, I’m sorry,” he said, but his grin made him look far from repentant. “The funny thing is that to us, they’re the outsiders.  I guess they’re so caught up in their own world that they see themselves as the new normal,” he scoffed at his own joke.

I opened my mouth to ask one of the million questions I had but he stopped me again, “I know I’m probably raising more questions than I’m answering, but I promise I’ll get to it all.  We just need to get to the camp first.”  He evaluated me for a moment before continuing, “We have quite a bit more walking to do.  Do you think you’ll be okay on your own or do you need my hand again?”  He held out a hand for me to take.

If I were being honest with myself he had been really helpful in keeping me upright as I tripped and stumbled over every root jutting up from the ground, but I didn’t want to admit that to him.  He wiggled his extended fingers and grinned.  I decided it was better to be humble than to have yet another gash to hide when I came home.

I took his hand and he led me deeper into the forest and through so many twists and turns.  It seemed impossible that anyone could actually know where they were going in the dense trees.  

When we had walked a while longer Kaleb picked up where he had left off, “We call ourselves ‘Keuse,’” he explained. “We don’t have labels like ‘Perfect’ and ‘Non-Perfect’.  We’re all called Keuse.”

“But you do have Perfects there, right?  You just don’t call them that?”  I thought of David and my mother.  If I decided to stay they could come too.

“No,” Kaleb said. “We don’t have any Perfects here.  We don’t want them.”

“Why not?” I demanded and jerked my hand from his.

Kaleb scowled, “They aren’t like us, Ashton.  They don’t belong in our lives.”

“You just said you don’t categorize.  That you consider everyone Keuse!”

“Not the Perfects.”  His face was hard again but I didn’t care, I was mad too.

“Why do you hate them?  All my best friends are Perfects, my mother and brother, my boyfriend –”

“Your boyfriend is not who you think he is.  It’s not healthy that you have no friends like you.  It’s not healthy that none of you want to marry your own kind!” His deep voice rang through the trees and his hands balled into fists.  I knew it was a mistake to push the man that was my only way out, but I was too angry to stop.

“My own kind?  Why shouldn’t I be able to marry who I want?  Who are you to tell me who I can and can’t marry?”

“Uh, you’re so ignorant!” Kaleb threw his arms up.

“Whatever you have to say won’t change my mind on this,” I said quietly.  

Kaleb’s almost black eyes narrowed.  “Then maybe it was a mistake bringing you here.”

I almost stepped away from the sting of his words, but I wouldn’t let him see me flinch.  “Then maybe you should take me home,” I whispered.

He closed his eyes and pressed against the arch of his nose.  “No,” he said, “I’m sorry.  I forget how little I’ve told you.  It just gets to me when you talk about the Perfects like that.  When you talk about your boyfriend -”

“Why would it bother you when I talk about David?” I asked.

Kaleb looked up and searched my eyes. “You really don’t know?”

“No,” I said, drilling him with a stare, willing him to explain something to me.

He sighed again, “Well that’s even worse.”

“Why don’t you explain it to me then?”

He wrapped a finger around a lock of my hair and tugged.  I resisted the urge to bat him away.  “Not yet,” was all he said then held out his hand again.  I sighed and took his hand, letting him lead me deeper into the forest.

"So," he said in a would-be-casual voice, "tell me about your family." 

"What do you want to know?" I asked. “You already know about Perfection and how we live, what would you find interesting about my life that you don’t already know?”

He smiled, "Just tell me about them."

I huffed, "Ok… Well, my oldest brother, Max, is a Perfect.  Of course we can't have children ourselves, so we have to put in a request with the Tiran -" Kaleb’s whole body went rigid and a shadow crossed his face again.  He wasn’t angry, he was livid.

"Did I say something?"  I asked.

"No.  Go on," he said in a strained voice.  

I paused, his mood swings were wearing me down. "Ok… so Max.  He looks a lot like me, which is uncommon…"  I stopped myself before I upset him more. Obviously the fact that our children were provided by the Tiran was on the list of things I couldn’t discuss yet. "Anyway, he looks like me but he makes it work.  His curly hair, his freckles, it's all so magnificently beautiful on him rather than how awkward I manage to make it look..."

Kaleb watched me critically, "You really think that about yourself?"

"Well… yeah."  I shrugged then tripped, but Kaleb caught me easily. 

He laughed loudly, made sure I was stable on my feet again, then took my hand and said, "Go on, you have a sister next right?"

"Yeah, Salah.  She's a Non-Perfect and pretty much the worst part of my life.  She’s incredibly stubborn -"

"Ah, so you two are the same that way," he interrupted.

I pulled on his arm. "If you want me to tell you about my family you'll probably need to stop interrupting me with insults," I argued.

"I'm sorry," he chuckled, "go on."

"Fine.  So Salah is stubborn and she knows about you.  She saw you that night you were at my house, you know."  He stiffened again.  I knew it was a low blow but I felt like he deserved it.  

"So she knows you might be out here today?  She could tell your dad where you are?"

He stopped walking and I cursed myself for causing another mood swing. "No!"  I urged him, "I told her you wouldn't come back for me.  I really thought it was true at the time, so I know she believed me.  She might be suspicious, but I know she won't say anything unless she's sure.”

"I don't want to keep putting you in danger," he said. 

"I'm safe. Salah won't say anything useless she's sure.  I promise."

He nodded and continued walking, though I could still feel the tension radiating from him. "Your mother?"  He asked over his shoulder.

I breathed a sigh, this conversation was so up and down. "My mother is a Perfect and she’s incredible.  She’s always happy.  Always.  She’s really artsy and really messy,” I laughed. “She’s always trying new things with food or decorations.

"And then my dad.”  Every muscle in my body relaxed, “He’s my hero.  He used to be a carpenter but he got attacked and almost died when I was six.  He joined the Tiran after that to make sure Perfection was a safe place for us.  He’s taken me stargazing since I was a kid, He knows all the names and constellations, though he has less time to do that now that he’s a Tiran.  He always makes time for us though.”  I looked up at Kaleb, willing him to understand, “He really is good.”

His eyes were soft when he squeezed my hand. “I can tell you care about them.”

I wasn’t sure how much farther we walked but my muscles ached from tripping over everything I stepped on.

Finally Kaleb stopped and turned to me, standing a little too close again. “Okay Ashton, we’re really close to our camp, but I have to tell you a few things before we go in.  First of all, what I did, coming back for you, going in and out of Perfection alone, giving you all this information about us, showing you an entry point we use… all while knowing that you could go back and tell them everything - it breaks every rule we have.  A lot of Keuse don’t support my decision to do this, no one’s ever done it before.”

Unable to think of the right words to express my gratitude for risking so much, I nodded mutely.

He started to walk then stopped himself, smiling. “Oh... and don’t call us Outsiders,” he teased, a light smile playing across his lips.  

I exhaled to calm my nerves.  He tickled his fingers against the hand he held and winked. “Are you ready, Munchkin?” he asked.

Stifling a scowl, I nodded once and took my first step into the camp of Keuse.