Esa, a teenage girl caught up in the mix of a secret war, finds herself in the hands of the corrupt government, OEP. Follow Esa to the edge of sanity and back again, as she digs deeply to tap into her inward strength to endure loss, torture, betrayal and the courage to make the ultimate sacrifice.
My feelings for Tye are confusing. They confuse him and they confuse me. I don’t know why I am so emotionally unstable, up and down, up and down. It’s painful. I want him. I want him so badly that it hurts, but then again, I don’t want him at all. I don’t want anyone. Indescribable rushes of feelings and frustrations constantly fluctuate inside of me. They threaten to tear down all the walls I’ve spent so many years building. I am guarded and protected. I can’t love him. I can’t lose myself over someone. But he isn’t just someone, he’s Tye. My Tye. These terribly wonderful sensations, oh how I hate them.
I know he loves me, he’s made it clear. I have to admit, his presence at my side makes me feel safe and maybe even happy. Maybe.
I follow him to the field on the other side of camp where the boys learn to shoot and fight. Where the camp has gatherings and dances for holidays that were once celebrated in the old world. Around the edges of the field are stumps, logs and even a few old rickety chairs that were salvaged from the rumble of surrounding Outskirts.
I take a defensive stance in the center where the long wheatgrass is sparse. Arms up and palms in, just like Tye taught me. He stops about four feet away from me.
“Ready when you are, squirt.” Tye teases and bends his fingers inviting me to bring my best. As always, I make the first move, jabbing at him. He dodges. He returns several punches but misses. I drop low, throwing my leg out to knock him over. Tye evades my ninja-style attack and counters by hitting me in the gut. I exhale with a grunt but instantly respond, striking his now unprotected jaw. He jerks back, trips, and tumbles to the ground.
“One to nothing,” I smile, wiping my mouth with the back of my arm. I return to my stance with a sneer, bouncing on the balls of my feet, ready to go.
Tye catapults himself from flat on his back to up on his feet. He shrugs his shoulders, pops his neck, and pushes up his sleeves. Yes. Now we can fight.
We spar back and forth for a while, focusing on accuracy. Every few minutes Tye corrects my stance, or my jabs, because he wants me to be precise. Accurate. Perfect.
Every hit has to count. He is much stronger than me but I am quicker on my feet. Speed is my only advantage. It's not easy for him to get me in his grasp, but when he does, I can rarely escape. His arms are like vices. Sculpted, tan, strong, beautiful vices. Focus, Esa.
Tye charges at me full force. I twist away, dodging his assault, but I’m not fast enough. He catches my wrist with his hands and yanks me back. In one swift motion, he swings me around, pulls my arm and locks it against my spine in a painful twist. I gasp. His clutch has frozen me right where I stand.
“Looks like we have an audience,” Tye says with his lips so close to my ear that it ignites those familiar flames in my body. I look up and see Seamus, Lenn, my solemn-faced little brother Finn, and some others standing nearby watching us. I'm not about to let Tye win this one today.
I inhale deeply and use his hold as leverage to push myself up. Then with what force I can muster, I use my legs and his grip to throw my weight in the opposite direction. I twist around and pull his arm into the same position that he had mine.
It takes all my strength to pull him down to the ground and I scramble to get my legs around his neck. He tries to knock me off but my legs are locked. At first he fights it. We roll several times, me doing everything to hang on and him doing everything to get me off. After a few minutes of struggling and tussling, he gives in.
“Give! I GIVE, you monkey!” He says in a choked voice.
I laugh and release him. When I get to my feet, I stick my hand out to help him up with a smile, but he grabs my throat and rams me to the ground, holding me still, crushing me with his body. His chest, his body, flattened against mine. Our hearts pounding against one another’s, our breaths mingling, I look up into his sea green eyes, and for a moment I am nearly swept away. My stomach flutters, my breath catches and my body begins to burn again. Unsure of myself and uncomfortable with this moment, I look away push against his weight
“Never give in, Esa,” He says puffing, as I struggle pointlessly against his weight. “The Patrol has no conscience or thought for human life. They would kill you instantly. Remember what I’ve told you. Remember their oath: No mercy. No fear. No shame. You may want to, or even think you should, but you cannot show them mercy or kindness.”
I finally get my knee free and ram him in the gut. He coughs and rolls over half moaning, half chuckling.
Tye had barely escaped from an OEP Patrol right before my siblings and I came to the camp. He hardly ever mentions it, but his experience was horrific. He was tortured in every conceivable and unconceivable manner, starved, beaten, humiliated. . . He still suffers from flashbacks and nightmares, which renders him plenty of sleepless nights.
We both lay back in the tall grass, catching our breath. I notice the small crowd of onlookers is finally dispersing.
Tye looks over and pushes the hair out of my eyes, but I turn my face away. After five years, I’m still fighting this. I’m still refusing to be someone’s girl, partner, wife. To give in to my feelings for Tye would make me vulnerable. I'm too focused on surviving and other important things. Aside from that, I already have two young siblings depending on me, the last thing I need is a boyfriend or children of my own.
Tye sighs at my reaction and gets up, brushing away the grass and dust from his backside. He offers a hand and pulls me up to my feet. I fall into his chest and I can’t help it this time, my eyes slowly move up, meeting his. His jaw clenches as his brow furrows into a serious expression. Oh God, his eyes are killing me. I’m bleeding out and with every second I hold his gaze I’m losing more and more of my self-control. My heart is nearly thudding out of my chest. How long till I can no longer resist my feelings? His arms are so warm, so strong, so comforting, so maddening.
It’s Tye that pulls away. My cheeks flush, embarrassed that I let myself get lost. I look down, turn, and head back to camp.
After a drink, I grudgingly make my way through the tents to help weave winter baskets with some of the other girls and women. I take a seat near Rae, who offers a sheepish smile but doesn’t meet my eyes. She hands me some extra materials, then goes back to her own work.
Tye walks up merely glancing my way and then speaks to one of the elder women. I catch Rae staring at him. She inspects the length of his body and her gaze stays with him until he turns back and disappears among the tents. She peers sideways over at me and lowers her head when she realizes that I am watching. Heat rises into my face. I don’t like it but what claim do I have? I will never marry.
Truth is, she would make him a good wife. I observe her gentle hands that are occupied with her delicate form of weaving. Her long fingers nimbly pull, loop, and braid as she weaves each piece carefully and precisely. Rae’s winter baskets are always impressively fancy. Mine on the other hand. . . Well, let’s just say they do the job. Nothing I do turns out ornamental or elegant like Rae’s. No matter what she is doing, her work is always more lovely.
I sincerely try not to resent her, but she is so perfect that it makes me sick.
I'm sure Tye, or any man, would be lucky to marry Rae. Most of the single men in camp would love to woo her into their arms.
A wave of agitation floods over me. I look down in disgust at my own hands: rough, blistered and scarred. I wasn't raised like the girls in the Community. I’m nothing but a farm girl from the Outskirts.
I was the oldest child, so I was always the one left to tag along behind my parents, learning to work with my hands and take care of the family.
My family grew crops, raised cows, goats, chickens, and even some horses all for the Community. I’ve never known the comfort of an easy life as Rae had.
Everything was handed to her. So easy. No hard labor involved for the privileged ones.
My family worked for every bite of food we ate. Many nights we went hungry. Many in our Outskirt died from starvation toward the end. Before the Civil Slaughter. I still remember the horror . . . the fire . . .
They took my father in for questioning. But Mom knew that he would not return. This is what they did. Gather up all the men leaving the women and children defenseless. But we were prepared. We had plan. If only it had worked.
I blink away tears. I try to avoid these painful memories. But they always creep back in. It's still too real, too vivid in my mind.
My mother shook me awake.
“Get up! Quick!” She whispered hoarsely. “ The Patrol, they’re here! It’s happening! Take your brother and sister and hide in the secret panel.”
“No Mom, you have to hide with us!” I said grabbing her arm. My mother was a delicate and beautiful lady, soft and sweet tempered. She took me into her arms, we embraced and she kissed my face.
“Esa! I've got Ani and Finn ready. Please don't fight me on this.”
I threw on my jeans, sneakers, sweater and my favorite jacket. I turned back and grabbed the wooden dragon my grandfather had carved me for my 7th birthday off the bed side table. I slid him into my pocket then rushed into the living room where mom and my siblings stood looking terrified. We could hear vehicle doors slamming. Soldiers shouting. Mom embraced us. We were too afraid to register what was really happening. She kissed us again and told us how much she loved us, then pushed us into the secret panel and shutting us inside the dark wall.
The only light came from a small gap in the paneling that let me see out into the living room. I watched silently, not daring to breath. Three loud booms at the door. Mom looked back at the wall where we were hiding and put her fingers to her lips, then went to the door.
“Are you Manda Culvant?”
“Yes sir, I am-” A gunshot rang out and we watched her body drop to the floor like a fallen bird, a bullet through her head. I covered Ani's mouth while she cried out. Finn, who was six at the time, stared out the crack in horror, not breathing or moving. The soldiers came inside and kicked her body out of the way. They were all in uniform body suits that covered them completely. Colors separated the ranks—gray for footmen, black for sergeants, green for commanders, and white for generals. All faceless. All heartless.
Trembling and still covering Ani's mouth, I tapped Finn on the arm and motioned for him to be silent.
“No one here, Sergeant,” said one of the footmen.
“Let's clear out and blaze this dump!” The Sergeant yelled. “I'll be glad when they’re all dead. After elimination there'll be no more damn Outskirters to worry about. We can finally start on the new assignments.”
My heart dropped. Elimination. There will be Patrol officers everywhere. How will we escape alive?
My mind was racing as I clung to my siblings. We were trapped and our options were slim. It was burn to death or be shot.
“Listen, listen!” I whisper. Ani was crying as smoke began to rise from the front of the house. “Cover your faces with your shirts and lay down on your bellies, like me. We are going to wait until the last possible minute.”
“We will burn to death!” Finn cried.
“No we won't! I won't let you die,” I said, shaking him.
I lay down on top of my siblings spreading my jacket over them, but in minutes the fire was blazing and I knew it would soon engulf us in our prison.
I tried to listen for any other sounds but all I could hear was the roar of the flames. In moments, I was beginning to choke on the smoke. Time was up, we had waited as long as we could. I tried to fit my fingers inside the crack but it wouldn’t budge. Panic engulfed me. We are going to die.
I leaned back and began to kick the panel with all my might. I kicked again and again and again. I rammed it with my feet until it gave. I was able to yank it down from the wall and toss it through the hole. I covered my face as I crawled out into the extreme heat then turned to the children and drug them out behind me.
Ani was limp and Finn was losing strength. We were quickly running out of oxygen. I threw Ani onto my shoulder and pushed Finn toward the back of the house. The flames were there too, the soldiers must have blazed both ends. I pushed Finn towards the only option, a nearby window. It was quite a drop but hopefully we would be fine. I went first, jumping with Ani still in my arms. My legs gave as I hit the cool damp grass and I felt a jolt of pain. It wasn’t enough to deter me. I laid Ani aside and turned back to the window.
“Jump!” I hissed up at Finn. Every second the flames grew higher and hotter.
“YES YOU CAN! Jump!”
I caught Finn in my arms and we fell back with a thud. I didn’t wait to see if there was any officers around, I grabbed Ani and took Finn’s hand and began to run.
Stumbling and coughing, we fled out into the misty light of early morning without looking back.
We slid under a gap in the perimeter fence that my family had dug years ago and kept hidden with brush. On the other side, we ran straight into the woods making for the hollow below.
I laid Ani down near the water when we reached the spring and washed the soot from of her little face and nose, but she wasn't breathing.
“ANI!” I screamed shaking her. I leaned down and blew air into her mouth a few times. Something my mother taught me. Seconds later, she coughed and gasped.
“Esa?” she said weakly, I lost control and sobbed when I heard her voice
“I'm here!” I pulled her into my chest. I had almost lost her.
“I had a bad dream,” Ani said coughing.
“Yes, I know. It will be alright, I promise. Everything will be fine.”
Finn sat with his knees drawn to his chest. “She's dead. Dead. They shot her. Mommy is dead…” Tears flowed down his face, and that was the last time he spoke to me. To anyone.
Whittling on a piece of wood with my pocket knife, I find solace in the depth of the forest away from the rest of the camp. Today’s fight was thrilling as always. Esa improves almost daily, if she were trained by a true fighter, I would hesitate to go up against her.
Small but quick, she can be as hard to grab onto as a snake. However, in a real life and death situation, she may not be able to keep her wits.
I try to think of other ways that I could help her to improve her force, strength, and mental capacity.
I chuckle as I remember her petite face, the picture of concentration and focus. The triumph in her eyes when she gets a punch in and her smile when she gets the best of me. . .
Her slender form, quick and agile. The way her body feels under my fist, the racing of her heart, the heat of her breath when we grappled. All I want is Esa...
Rae suddenly appears from the shadows of the trees. My smile vanishes and the warm flush that filled my cheeks, begins to cool. Rae smiles as her eyes meet my own searching my face, examining my hardened expression. She lifts her hand offering me a half wave. I merely glance at her as she approaches and nod for her to sit on the stump across from me. Then return to whittling.
“I just wanted to come tell you – Esa, has decided not to go with us when camp starts moving,” Rae had spilled her guts, as she usually did, to Seamus and I as soon as Esa had first confided in her about the plan to find her dad. As idiotic as this plan was, I found Rae's lack of loyalty to her only friend, disappointing and annoying. “She still thinks that she can rescue her father and I believe she’s going to attempt it. Soon.”
“Why do you think that?” I say, trying not to play into the game that she plays back and forth between Esa and I. There is no point questioning her motives for trying to come between us. Most everyone knows why.
“I can just tell,” she says, fidgeting, running her fingers through her long hair. She avoids my eyes, I wonder if she is lying. “She gets this look in her eyes. I can't explain it.”
“Yeah, I know exactly what look you mean,” I reply. “But that doesn't mean that she is going to go through with it, she would tell me first.”
“Are you sure about that, Tye?”
“Yes. But, I do think it's time to tell her the truth,” I mutter. Despite Rae and her meddling, Esa is stubborn. Too stubborn for her own good. Once Seamus learned about Esa's plan, he made the three of us swear an oath. An oath to keep the truth about Titus Culvant concealed from Esa.
Perhaps to spare her heart, or for whatever reason, Seamus wants it that way. Rae and I promised him that neither of us would breathe a word about it, but sometimes doing the right thing means breaking foolish promises.
“But we swore…”
“Would you rather wait and let her be captured and tortured? Or killed?” I say gripping the knife. “What’s more important, Rae? Her life or an oath? Or is it something else?”
“Sometimes it's best to let people find things out for themselves,” she says looking at me with a desperate expression. “You can't hold on to someone who doesn't hold on to you in return! When will you open your eyes? She doesn't love you but there is someone who does. . .”
“I don't know what game you’re playing, Rae!” I shout throwing the knife. She flinches as it spears the ground near her feet. “But I will never let go. And she will never go anywhere without me by her side. I want her, Rae. Get it?”
Rae averts her eyes that are filling with tears and stands up. She opens her mouth to speak, but then turns toward camp, leaving without a word.
I growl and try to calm down. This hogwash makes my blood boil. Rae is a fool.
I like Esa. No, I love her. Ever since I first saw her, I dared to let myself feel again. I couldn't help it. I would marry her in spite of the growing darkness. Rae knows all this and still she presses me.
My mother and father’s marriage was not a love union. They did not even know one another. OEP paired people together for marriage. My parents were not even my blood parents. All children were artificially inseminated and birthed in the clinics. Women outside the clinic did not bare children. They could not from birth. The communities may have been an easy life, but it was all a lie. We were not free.
My love for Esa is proof that the EOP has not yet won, and I embrace it. We are all not their robots. I will fight for our fragile world, a world that can't last much longer without a miracle.
I pocket my knife and toss the piece of wood. I need to see Esa and find out if Rae was being honest or merely being Rae.