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.”
“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?”
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.