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.
I begin to tremble as the reality of my present state washes over me. The soldier’s grip on my arm tightens as we leave the compound where I’ve spent the last few weeks and cross the yard. Brilliant sunlight and a wave of smothering humidity greets us. We veer right to avoid a tree stump, countless of them dot the yard, and scorched grass crunches like dead bones under his heavy boots.
I could run for it, right now. Just break away and run. No, I couldn’t. I couldn’t even muster enough strength to scale the fence and make it into the wild.
We get closer and closer to another gray building, smaller and boxier than the main compound. Our destination. I might as well be walking into a tomb.
For a moment, I see the angel of death standing near the door before us, cloaked, skinless, and terrifying. His bony claw gestures at the door as though welcoming me to my doom. But when I blink, he is gone.
I shake my head and blink again. I’m either going nuts or the effects of the illusion injections have yet to wear off.
I want to, but I don't struggle, there’s no use, I have no energy left to fight. They have broken my body, and maybe even my spirit. They’ll kill me, no doubt, but I at least I am resolved to tell them nothing.
We are through the door and back to the familiar scent and site of this blanched white world. Down to the end of a short hall, I am pulled through frosted glass doors into a white sterile chamber. The chamber contains only two things, a reclining chair with straps, tubes, and needles, known as a capture cot, and a single window. I crane my neck towards the window as they push me to the chair and am disappointed to see that it doesn’t look outside. Instead it’s a view into another room that appears to be a small control room. There are several panels of dials and knobs so I take it this is where they will control and observe my torture and death. The last thing I will see is the face of my murderer through a glass window. Great.
The soldier forces me down into the metal chair, and straps my ankles, right arm, waste, forehead, and neck. Then he fastens my left arm to a metal plate extending off the side of the cot. I wince as he pulls the clear straps so tight that they nearly cut into the flesh of my arm. The soldier then leaves me alone.
The metal of the chair is cold against my half naked body and I shiver uncontrollably. What now? Death. Pain. Agony. Death. Why am I so afraid of dying? Almost everyone I love is dead. I should be at peace, I’ll be with them soon. But I’m not. My mental world is crashing.
My stomach twists. What about my siblings?
Oh God, I pray that they are safe… I close my eyes and listen to the sound of the blood pounding in my ears and my own short raspy breaths.
A man in a white coat enters the room and halts when he sees me. His eyes scan me from top to bottom and I suddenly feel completely naked. His stern expression morphs into a look of surprise or maybe shock, but it’s only momentary, he instantly smooths his demeanor and continues forward.
“I am an officer medic and I will be administering the Talk Serum and studying you from the observation room. When you are ready to confess, you will press this.” he says tapping his finger on a small black switch that is connected to part of the chair that’s close to my right hand. “Please allow me to place this small pill into your mouth. If you don't, I will merely force it in.”
He pushed the pill into my mouth and it dissolves instantly, leaving a burning place on my tongue.
“W-what is the Talk Serum?” I ask through chattering teeth, my body still shivering from the cold.
“The capsule I gave you is designed to turn off the pain managing portion of your brain,” he continued, “you will immediately begin to feel the effects.”
“Was that it? Was that the Talk Serum? Hello? Please, I just want to know what's going to happen to me.”
He ignores my pleas and leaves.
Once the door slides shut behind him, I begin to shake. Not from the cold this time, but from panic. I’m not afraid of pain, I’ve suffered a lot in my short 16 years, but I fear the unknown.
Since I was a child in the Outskirts, I’d heard all those rebel legends about the secret weapon of One Earth Peace. They called it the ultimate information extractor. This must be it. Pain that does not stop. Agony with no pauses, constant agony. The form of torture that drives you mad or eradicates you.
Will they cut into my brain while I’m awake? Will they slice off my body parts one by one? Will they skin me alive? STOP! I can’t lose my head.
Ever so slightly, I notice things beginning to change. My body starts to ache as though I am coming down with a sickness, it hurts right beneath my skin. Discomfort envelopes me as things like the old scar on my forehead and the cavities in my teeth begin to twinge and throb. The deep bruises that cover me from head to toe take on a new meaning of pain, and I even feel the pinch of a splinter in my thumb. This must be from that pill. If this is it, if this is the Truth Serum, this isn’t so bad.
I flinch, as voices from the next room break the silence. I hold my breath and listen to the conversation that echoes from the other side of the misty glass.
“Commander, this rebel is a young girl. Should I slow the drip?” It's the voice of the officer medic. What does he mean by drip?
“No! She is dangerous. She killed nearly 30 of my men. I don't care if it is a five-year-old child, a rebel is a rebel. Remember your oath: No mercy. No fear. No shame. Do not pity them. They aren’t like us.” Comes the voice of the commander. “If you pity her then you can join her. Would you like to join her?”
“No, Commander,” the officer medic quickly responds.
“Good,” The Commander continues. “We need to get answers out of her and this is the only option left. Increase the drip if you must. I want the location of those rebels.”
Whatever they are about to do to me, is not going to be pleasant. I should be crying and begging for mercy but my emotions are dulled, and I feel unable to respond. It's almost like I’m beside myself, watching in horror. I can’t think straight. Maybe it’s that pill.
My mind can't help but return to my siblings, who are probably running through the forest as the camp seeks safety. I was supposed to meet them at the first gathering point. But now, I am certain that I won't walk out of this place alive.
I think of my last moments with my little brother and sister, the day I left them at the lake with Lenn and the rest of the camp. It seems like a lifetime ago. Now, all of my promises will be broken.
I think of Rae, the last words we shared weren't kind ones, and of Tye. I would have told him the truth, told him how I really feel, if only I'd known. . .
Our camp has been concealed from the Patrol for so many years since the Civil Slaughter. Somehow, we have managed to survive and thrive in spite of the obstacles, why is this happening now? How did they find us? How did they know where to find us?
It's all my fault, I think. If I had told Seamus the truth about Larna when I had the chance, we all might be all be far away, safe, together, and alive.
I clench my jaw and stare at the florescent ceiling. No matter the pain or anguish that I experience, I can't betray my family, my friends or those from of our rebel camp that are fleeing for their lives.
While the two strangers in the next room decide my fate, I allow my mind to drift back…
Two weeks prior
Miserable, that's the best way to describe our summers in the mountains of what used to be called East Tennessee. It's not just the heat, it's the suffocating layers of humidity beneath a thick, green canopy of oaks and pulp trees.
Yet, in spite of the streams of sweat that run down every crevice in my body, it's better than frostbite and hypothermia. Last winter, one of the children lost a few toes and an elderly man froze to death. That ice storm nearly starved us all to death. Yes, summer is bearable.
Sitting on the edge of a rock with my toes, all intact, dangling in the cool water of the river, I wait, like the other women, for the return of the hunting party, the men.
As I tend to my daily chores, which is mending clothes at the moment, I can't help but absorb the colors of summer. The vibrant greens both deep and bright in almost every corner of the forest, the dull browns of the muddy banks, boughs of the trees, and the left over dead leaves of winter, and my favorite, the blue sky above that fills every empty space, like a huge backdrop in a beautiful painting. Below me everything is reflected in the crystal water, like a living dream, a rippling image of reality.
I listen to the chorus of songs echoing through the trees above me, as the birds dominate the morning breeze. It must be nice to ride on the wind above the treetops where it’s cool. The sky seems to offer everything, freedom, happiness, no worries, no problems… no one world order.
I can hear the splashing of the small weir that tumbles over the first of the cliffs in this area. It’s only feet from the eastern most tents.
On the opposite shore a squirrel digs through dead leaves and dirt until he his head disappears inside the hole. Satisfied with his work, he shoves an acorn inside, then frantically covers it again. He peers over his little shoulder, left, right, left, to make sure no other critters are watching. Confident that he has securely hidden his treasure for safe keeping, he hops away happily.
I chuckle to myself. If only I could be as carefree as these animals wandering around the forest. I shrug and focus on finishing my work. I hate mending and the thought of spending the entirety of this beautiful day sewing up the butts of pants, makes me want to vomit.
Glancing up from my mending, I notice that some of the other women are watching me with disapproving glares. They eye me with disdain. My rolled up pants and my shirt that I’ve tied in a knot beneath my rib cage, what an indecent creature I am. Honestly, I could care less what they think, just sitting here on the forest floor is like being slow roasted in an oven. So if showing a little skin while trying to lower my body temperature earns their contempt then it's something I can live with.
At least I get a good laugh out of it. The fact that they manage to find time to be petty, in light of where we are and how we live, is humorous to me. We all have to deal with this unfair, unpleasant, and far from comfortable life in our own way. We all cope differently, we didn't chose it, it chose us.
At last, the men emerge from the forest, covered in sweat, grime, and my own envy. I loathe being stuck at camp with the women, mending, washing, making baskets, making meals. . . always waiting on the men. It isn't fair, and it isn't how I was raised. Most days I get so stir crazy and antsy that I could go mad.
I finish the last loop and knot a stitch in the dress I’ve been mending. After tearing away the left over thread with my teeth, I toss the dress to the finished pile and grab for another piece of clothing.
I'm an independent girl with no interest in womanly duties like needle work, cooking, washing nasty clothes, and taking care of children. I would give anything to go out hunting every day, like I did with my grandfather.
“Damn!” I stabbed my finger with the needle. I breathe in and exhale to calm my nerves. I just can’t stand this tedious needlework.
Our leader, Seamus, is obsessive about order and structure. Everyone has their place and is assigned where they are needed most. As he has told me, at least a thousand times, I'm not needed amongst the hunting parties, I would merely be in the way.
“Until our men are dead, our women will not be expected to do such things,” Seamus had said dismissively. He is a strong, proud man and with right. He and his wife went through hell to survive.
Seamus’ African American roots are everything to him, even though One Earth Peace took that heritage away when he and his wife were among the Outskirters in Arizona, he never lost his sense of self-worth. Which is more than many of us can say.
However, it wasn’t just people of different races that suffered. The OEP outlawed anything that resembled uniqueness, even race differentiation. Color, creed, ethnicity, anything that made one person unique or different was frowned on and in due time, outlawed. They demanded unison and equality, to a degree that was frightening. A lot was taken from the people when OEP took power. Blacks with blacks, whites with whites, no mixing of the races. They went through hell, we all did.
Nevertheless, Seamus was too proud at times. As in this instance, he didn't take into consideration that if the men were killed or injured in a Patrol raid, most of the women would die from starvation. The majority of these women don’t know how to do much of anything aside from needlework, gathering wild berries, and washing things in the river.
I watch as a few young girls bring tin cups of water to some of the men, most likely their fathers and brothers.
“After five hours, they only killed one deer for the whole camp,” I hear a young woman say to another as they pass by heading for the tents. That will not be enough for a camp of 71 survivors.
Tye, my closest friend, walks into the clearing with two dead pheasants, one appears to have been mangled by an arrow, but food is food. Tye isn't the best with a bow, but at least he usually hits something, unlike most of the others in the party.
However, I don't have much room to judge any of their hunting skills. I'm not mangling anything accept the seat in Chubby Charles' pants.
Tye tosses the pheasants to Seamus and then turns towards the river. His eyes meet mine for a moment, at least until I break my gaze. I watch him wash his arms and face in my peripherals.
I release a sigh and go back to mending. I just want to get it done. I can feel the heat of the sun beginning to intensify minute by minute as it climbs higher over the clearing.
At this time of day, the river is crowded with women washing clothes, and bathing young children. Young girls fill the earthen tents learning to sew and other activities that are beneficial to the camp. A few of the boys practice combat in the field beyond the camp but most make homemade arrows under the shade of the trees. At this point in the day, we are all just trying to keep cool.
The later it gets, the hotter it gets so we try to finish the majority of the work as early as possible. It’s a hard life but at least it is a life. The busier we stay, the more of our sanity we keep.
When OEP started gating Communities for those willing to give up their rights for the new world, they also created the Outskirts. Those of us who either held onto faiths, beliefs, customs, heritage or our own unique identity, or unwilling to cooperate were forced to live and work there, barely surviving.
My family’s farm was confiscated by the government, like everyone else's, but since it was a working farm, they allowed my great grandparents, grandparents, and their children to remain there to continue working it. All the crops and livestock benefited the Communities, my family got what was left over. Too many families starved to death, because there was simply not enough to go around.
Even though Outskirt living was hard, being out here in the mountains, away from civilization, and living off the land is a completely different world. Tough but peaceful. At least we no longer endure the abuse from the Patrol Officers who sought any reason to punish us, beat us, or just kill us.
Out here, away from OEP, we have become something else, something wild, ferocious, and at times frightening.
Dwelling deep in the mountains, we survive in caves during the winter and build wood and grass shelters in the warmer months. Seamus makes sure to move us around as much as possible with the changing of the seasons, in case the Patrol gets wind of us.
We live off game and what little food we are able to grow. Unfortunately, we can't sneak in and smuggle food out of the Communities. Though the food in the Communities is all free, the security is deadly and there are no markets or stores that would allow us to get the food without an IT, which is the Identity Tag.
After the Communities were built and established, the IT became mandatory and those who were unwilling to receive the chip, were banished from the Communities to the Outskirts.
An IT can be described as a small microchip, the size of the tip of a pen, placed in the right hand between the pointer and middle fingers. They usually cause a slight discoloration of the skin at the point of insertion and at some places that dark mark, is evidence enough to buy food, but not all. Now, one usually has to scan the hand bearing the IT.
The IT contains all of an individual's personal information, as well as medical records, criminal files, ancestry and a tracking device. With the IT, the government knows where you are at all times. It even contains something that can be activated to instantly kill its host. In the beginning, that happened to people who tried to remove the IT. . .
“Anyone say how hunting went today?” asks Rae sitting down beside me and breaking my thought pattern. Rae is more of a work companion than a friend. We rarely see eye to eye and on one side. Her views of life and mine are two separate ideas all together.
Even though she's been with us quite a few years, she is still adjusting. The scouts found her hiding in a tree nearly starved to death and rigid with terror.
Rae was from a Community but her family had been discovered trying to help Outskirters escape from T149. It was not a pleasant end.
It's apparent that Rae is Community born. Not just because she is weak and lacks stamina for hard labor, but because she is more civilized and manicured than the rest of us.
She is a slender form with lady-like qualities, and is quite beautiful. Her sea green eyes that almost glow beneath long waves of dark hair and freckles that barely kiss her tan cheeks.
Even her disposition oozes 'prettiness'. She has such a calm and gentle way with everything that she does, especially when it comes to the children. This means that she'll definitely be recruited as one of the mothers, those chosen to nurture children. If I were honest, I would admit that I am vaguely jealous . . . vaguely.
“Not so good,” I shrug and double loop my final stitch. “Tye says, that the Patrol has killed off so much of the large game that he doesn’t know how much longer we, or they, will have anything to hunt. At least not without venturing father away from HUB's and Community's. Maybe farther west.”
“While you were gone yesterday Seamus said that plan to begin the journey west to at the end of August is now definite,” she says brushing a stray hair from her freckled cheek. “He hopes we will make it to Alaska in a year or less.”
“Yeah, I heard.”
“You’re coming with us– aren't you?” She says after a moment. Her eyes watching me in anticipation. I sometimes get the inclination that she is at war with herself. Part of her wants to be friends with me but another part of her doesn't. But it’s a known fact that she is infatuated with Tye. So me being gone and out of the picture equals Rae having Tye all to herself. Girls…
“I don't know.” I reply, growing frustrated with the same conversation. “We have gone over this, Rae. The scout saw my dad alive, that means that there is hope for my family. A hope that I am not going to throw away.”
“Esa, that was months ago.” She stretches her arm out touch me but withdraws her hand, thinking better of it.
“You’re right, I'm not sure. No one is.” I say, breaking another thread with my teeth. “But if it were your dad, would you try to find him? Or would you just walk away to save your own skin? I don't know about you, but I couldn’t bear to be tormented by guilt and questioning for the rest of my pointless existence. I am going to find out if he's alive, or die trying.”
“Pointless? What about Finn and Ani?” Rae says softly, making me flinch. She knows how to pull my heartstrings. “You know it would kill them if you…if something happened.”
“They have Tye and Lenn,” I say, nodding toward the chief’s wife who is holding Ani's hand as they walk toward us. “Just drop it. Okay? I don't want to upset them.”
Ani is eight years old with beaming blue eyes and corn silk hair. From the day she was born she brought joy to my family. There is something so contagious about her wide grin and precious little laugh that she could almost make you smile about anything. Our mother believed Ani had a special gift, as do I.
My brother Finn is the opposite of Ani. Even though Ani and I look much like twins, Finn is more like me in disposition. Serious, dark, gloomy and a chip off the old negative block. But regardless, Finn has a strength that I have never possessed. They both help me to face each grueling day with hope and purpose. If something happened to them. . .
“Hey there, sweat-heart!” I say, pulling Ani into a hug and kiss. “What did you learn today?”
“I learned to cross stitch! And I made this!” Ani hands me a small blue cloth with E.C. sloppily embroidered on it. “It's for you to keep forever, so you will remember me.” Ani beams with pride.
“Wow, it's beautiful! You did a great job, kid! But I could never forget you, goof ball.” I tickle her belly that is thin and bony from malnutrition. “Now run along! I have work to do.”
“Seamus said hunting wasn't so great,” Lenn voices as we watch Ani join a few other little girls in the center of camp.
“Tye said it's only going to get worse,” I nod and reply. “They may have to risk going out farther with smaller hunting parties.”
“I think Seamus is beginning to realize that,” Lenn replies with a nod. “I talked to him about you hunting. He said that he would think on it. I told him that you weren't happy with the work you have.”
“Well…that makes me sound like an ass!” I laugh. “I know a little about it, though. My family hunted near here for years. We are actually hunting on portions of my great grandfather's land. Before it was confiscated. . .”
Lenn's eyes scan the surrounding forest. “Scouts returned while you were gone on your run this morning.”
“Any news of my Dad?”
She shakes her head. “I'm sorry. Our inside man has been looking, but nothing so far.” I nod. “There is the possibility that he changed his name, gave them false information. Or they may have – ”
“We don't know that,” I interrupt, twisting around to check that I have finished all the mending.
“Esa, I know what you've been thinking,” Lenn says looking back at me with her dark beautiful eyes. At times, I catch glimpses of the stunning young woman that she used to be. Her dark skin, long legs, and poised mouth, makes her look fierce and that is what he is. Strong, fierce, and unafraid. “We can't let you do it. It would put all our lives in danger. It's going to be a challenge to get him to allow you to hunt with the men, but he will never give in to you running off to the Patrol HUB to get yourself and maybe all of us killed. He will have you put in cuffs before he will allow it.”
“I don't know what you're talking about,” I lie. I gather my mornings work and take it over to the mounding pile of that days laundry and mending. “I’ll talk to you later, I’ve got things to do.”
“Esa. . .” I wave my hand dismissing her words as I walk away.
I wipe away the dripping perspiration from my face. The humidity is nearly suffocating as noon approaches as is this conversation. I know my logic seems crazy, but it’s my dad! My father. We need him. I need him.
I should stay and help the others with the rest of the laundry but instead I go to my tent. Right now, I don't feel like being social. Most days I feel like I am literally a ticking time bomb, it doesn’t take much to set me off. I try to be sociable.
No, I don’t. The truth is, I hate being stuck with these ridiculous people.
I duck and enter the tent I share with my siblings. In the spring and summer, new leaf tents are set up. They are all well-blended into the forest, covered in mud and draped with fern and tree leaves, dried grass and branches.
Inside there are three pallets of mismatched materials stitched, patched, and shoved together on top of a few layers of moss. In the corner is a woven basket containing the few items of clothing and an extra blanket. Over the past five years, I’ve collected an assortment of small sentimental things that I was able to salvage from the ashes of our home at the edge of Outskirt T151. It’s a dangerous risk to enter the Outskirts now, after the Civil Slaughter, but sometimes I just need to see my home. Or what’s left of it. I need to walk the land. Visit my grandfather’s grave.
I kick off my boots and stretch out on the make shift bed. Our new life here is simple and sometimes horribly depressing, but there can be serenity in it. I feel restless as I stare up at the foliage of the tent roof. When I'm restless, I usually run until I exhaust myself. Running helps me to avoid the thoughts of the past that haunt me by day, but I can't escape the dreams that haunt me at night.
If I just knew, I think. It would make everything better. Even if he is. . . dead. Knowing is better than this painful knot that constantly churns inside my gut.
“Knock, knock.” Tye's deep voice interrupts my thoughts. He stand with half his body in my tent. His sandy blonde hair is tousled and even though his full lips are scarred on one side, his smile always makes my stomach burn. “Hi there, lazy bones. Wanna get in some practice before you start your favorite part of the day?”
“Shut up! Weaving baskets is not my favorite part of the day. You know I hate working with the women!” I make sure to bathe my last words in contempt. “But yes, I’m up for kicking your butt.”
“Oh, you mean getting your butt kicked,” he points at me raising his eyebrows.
“Yeah okay, little girl.” I step into my boots, lace them as quickly as I can and run out close behind him.
A few times a week we practice hand to hand combat, just to keep our muscles flexible. Hunger does dreadful things to one’s body, but regardless, it's best to keep fit. Tye taught me to fight two years ago against Seamus' orders, but considering my fits of anger and tendencies to wander off, he convinced him that I needed a release and a distraction. Even if I am a woman—weak and helpless—fighting skills are a must in my book.