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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.