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.