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.