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Authors: Rachel McClellan

Escape to eden

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To Ashlyn

who has the strength and courage of a thousand ninjas.

The world is yours.

Imay be the dumbest person in the world. That’s what I think, anyway, when I see these awkward hands resting on my stomach. Awkward because I don’t recognize them when I should; they’re attached to my body. But the lone freckle just beneath my third knuckle is as foreign to me as my name.

Clueless as I am, I’m still able to process my surroundings. I am in a small room with a single door opposite me. A bedside table with a lamp on its top is to my left. There are no windows, at least not that I can see. There are a couple of large plastic squares on the wall that may be covering some, but I can’t be sure. Everything in the room, including the walls, is painted a bright white, which makes me think of snow. I can make that connection, so I’m not stupid, but why can’t I remember my own name? That seems like it should be an easy enough thing to remember. I also can’t remember where I’m from, or how I got to this wintery place.

What I do know is that a few minutes ago I was sleeping. When my eyes opened, I discovered a thin white sheet draped over me that provided little warmth. I’m wearing a light blue gown. I’m young, probably sixteen or seventeen. And I’m a girl.

My first thought was that I was dead, but when I move my arms to my chest, my muscles are stiff. I’m pretty sure dead people don’t have sore muscles. So I’m alive, which is good, but I still don’t know what’s wrong with my mind. I wish I could look inside my head or move things around to see if anything is broken, or if my brain has turned to mush. Then I would be dead—all that mashing around. Maybe I am dumb because I’m thinking aboutthis stuff when I should really be trying to figure out where I am and why.

I bring my knees up, my feet sliding across a hard mattress beneath me, and turn my head slowly. My neck is stiff too. On each side of the bed is a metal rail with white buttons at the top. One of them has an arrow pointing up. I press it, and the top of the bed rises, moving me into a sitting position.

Was I in an accident? I try to remember, but my mind is as blank as the walls.

There are no sounds and the room smells like . . . a chemical, but I can’t recall which one or why the scent is familiar. I don’t like it, so I open my mouth to breathe.

Another button on the bedrail draws my attention. At its center is a black image of two people. I press it. Images appear in a big square on the wall opposite me. This I do remember. It’s a Wall Television. I’ve seen it before, but don’t remember where, which frustrates me something awful, because if I can remember a stupid WTV, I should be able to remember my name.

On the screen, two people talk—a man and a woman. I stare at the woman first, because she’s both striking and strange-looking. She doesn’t have hair on her head, more like fur. It’s long and red, like a fox’s tail. Her face is white, so white it’s almost translucent. A blue vine-like line beneath her skin pulses across her forehead, but what’s odd is it looks like the vein has been strategically placed to look like some sort of a crown. Despite the peculiarity of it, the woman is beautiful, like an antique doll.

At first, the man next to her looks normal. He’s not. His black hair is too shiny, too fine looking, like spider silk, and seems to float above his head, swaying slightly whenever he moves. And his eyes—they are a sickly pale yellow, though his tanned skin tells me he’s healthy. His whole appearance contradicts itself. He, too, is strangely handsome.

I think I’ve seen them before, or at least others like them.

I touch my own hair. It’s plain brown and hangs straight to my chest. There is nothing remarkable about it, maybe a bit wiry, but I don’t think that’s a good thing.

The couple’s lips are moving. I inspect the metal rail and findanother button with the image of a speaker. I press it. The woman’s voice, deep and sultry, breaks the silence.

“—biggest event of the year. It’s where we give back to those who are suffering.”

The man nods. “And there’s been a lot of suffering. The president himself has given up his portion of oDNA for a week.”

“So generous. A true leader. Meanwhile, he asks all of us who are able to give up a one-week supply of oDNA. This may frighten some, but we have to remember that this is for the poor who can’t afford it. The Institute is making this event bigger and better than ever before. In fact, they plan on auctioning off a new serum that’s rumored to enable men to live to the age of thirty-five. Can you imagine?”

The man chuckles. “That would be something indeed.”

A clicking draws my attention to the door. I shut the WTV off and place my hands in my lap. It’s then that I notice the edge of a deep purple bruise showing beneath the sleeve of my cotton gown. It looks fresh, but I don’t have time to examine it before the door opens.

A frighteningly thin woman walks through the door, and I choke on a breath. She is tall, almost as tall as the door she just came through. More disturbing is her forehead; it sticks out at least three inches past the rest of her face, overshadowing her dark eyes. Someone else might try to hide this with bangs, but this woman wears her hair short to her chin, parted in the middle, accentuating her strange bone structure.

The woman makes eye contact, and her tight lips twist up. The motion is not friendly. Her long fingers hold a paper-thin silver pad. “You’re awake.”

I speak, and my voice cracks as if I haven’t spoken aloud for a long time. “Where am I?”

She comes to my bedside, looking me up and down. “What do you remember?” Her voice is colder than the room.

I try to think, but something blocks my thoughts, especially when I try to gain access to personal information. “Was I in an accident?”

I stare at her head, which I do know is a rude thing to do, butI can’t stop. Something tells me, an instinct perhaps, that I need to be nice, even flattering, to this woman who shows off her odd forehead.

The woman presses buttons on the silver pad, then her eyes meet mine. “You’re staring.”

“I’m sorry, it’s just . . .” I try to figure out where I should go with this. “. . . you must have a really big brain. It’s beautiful.”

The words just tumble out, and they feel right, so I don’t question them. I hope this isn’t me being dumb.

The woman smiles, a genuine one, and her chin raises. “I’m extremely intelligent.”

“You must be. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Of course you haven’t. You’re an Original, an oddity that shouldn’t exist.”

This alarms me, and I forget the flattery. “An Original? What’s that? And who am I?” I begin to think maybe I shouldn’t be here in this place that looks and feels like winter without the snow. “Who are you?”

The tall woman moves to the foot of my bed. “You may address me as Ebony Branson. I’m the chief Techhead here at IHRD in Boston.”

“What’s IHRD?”

“The Institute of Human Research and Development.” She clicks on the pad again. The action is silent, but there’s something about the way she moves her fingers, all sharp and clicky, that I don’t like. I don’t think this woman is a nice person.

“How did I get here?”

She doesn’t stop clicking. “My people found you in the woods, abandoned and starving. It’s rare to find one of you, but you’re lucky we did and not others.”

“Why?”

She gives me a look but doesn’t stop poking at the silver pad. “Because you’re ugly and unremarkable,” she says matter-of-factly. “People don’t like your kind. You’re a reminder of what mankind used to be—weak and unremarkable. Do you understand?”

Something tells me to agree, but what I really want to do is ask for a mirror.

“Yes, ma’am.” I resist the urge to touch my face to feel for a deformity or maybe a patch of scars.

My response pleases her, and she smiles and tilts her head, like she’s about to do something she wasn’t planning on doing. “I would like to show you someone. Please tell me if you recognize him.”

I sit up. “Where?”

Ebony presses a button on the pad. The white wall to my right shimmers a bright blue until it turns into a giant glass window. On the other side is another room identical to mine, except sitting cross-legged on the floor is a boy with blond hair. He looks young, his face toddlerish with smooth pale skin and big blue eyes. But his height makes me think he’s older, maybe eight or nine. His gaze drops from the ceiling and turns toward me. He stands slowly.

I pull back the sheet covering my legs and move to the side of the bed, wincing as I do so. My muscles ache bone-deep, but I want a closer look. I stand, take an unsteady step, and then another. I manage to make it to the glass wall.

“Do you know him?” Ebony asks.

He is a beautiful boy, but very thin and almost sickly-looking. I try to recall anything familiar about him, but I can’t. “No, ma’am. Who is he?”

“We don’t know. We found him close to where we found you. He’s like you, but even less intelligent.”

I flinch at that.

She stares at the boy. Her nose turns up like the room smells bad. “He doesn’t speak, and his brain appears,” she pauses, “broken.”

I look back at the boy. He is moving toward us. He stops directly in front of me, only an inch of glass between us.

Ebony steps back as if she might catch whatever she thinks the boy has. “It is a shame that he has been allowed to live.”

I don’t say anything, but I raise my right hand to the glass, spreading my palm against its shiny coolness. The boy stares at me for a moment before his eyes go to my palm. He raises his arm, and for a second I think he’s going to mirror my action, but then he points at something on my hand.

Ebony clears her throat and the wall shimmers again into a solid white.

“What will happen to him?” I ask. I turn my hand over where the boy had pointed.

“He will remain here for study and tests until we can make a decision what to do with him.”

In very small letters the wordNowis written on the tip of my right pinky.

“And me?” I ask, afraid of the answer. “What will happen to me?”

“No harm will come to you. We only need to study you. Ensure you are healthy and well.”

Carefully I turn over my left hand so Ebony doesn’t see.

My left pinky has a word on it too. It saysRun. I turn my hands inward until my fingertips are touching. Together the words say:

RUN NOW.

Run now.

My pulse races reading these two small words. Is it my handwriting? I don’t know. It could be, but even if it isn’t, I feel strongly that I should follow the command. Another instinct.

I turn my gaze to Ebony. “It must be difficult for you.”

“What’s that?”

“Being around someone like me.” I nod toward the wall. “And him,” I say. “It must take great strength.”

“It is difficult. But one grows used to it. We must remember that charity is an important human characteristic.”

“You are very kind.”

She clicks a few more times on the pad that seems to be an extension of her hand and then looks up. “I must go now,” she says and then hesitates. “Do you need anything?” she asks. The words seem difficult for her to say, like they’re too big for her mouth.

I lower my head. “I am a little hungry.”

Ebony clickety-clacks onto the pad again. “It is not your scheduled dinnertime yet, but perhaps a little pudding. Would that be nice?”

“It would make my day,” I say with my face turned down, hiding my expression.

“Tomorrow we’ll see if you can’t have a cookie.” She seems pleased with herself as she strides out the door, which closes firmly behind her.

I put my fingers together again.Run now.

A whirling sound captures my attention, and I turn around. Next to my bedside table, a small white panel in the wall hasopened. Just inside the space is a cup of chocolate pudding and a rectangular plastic wedge for a blunt spoon. As soon as I take them, the wall’s panel snaps closed.

I abandon the pudding and the wedge on the table, wondering why I asked for it in the first place. And why did I feel it was important to flatter Ebony?

I sit on the bed and ponder my situation. I can’t remember anything personal, yet I feel a familiarity to things around me. And I’m not actually as shocked as someone in my situation should be. I think of the words on my fingers. I think of the way I handled Ebony, and I think of why I wanted something to eat. The world around me makes no sense to my foggy brain, but something deeper, my instincts, seem to know something I don’t—what to do.

So I surrender myself to them.

I glance around the room, this time noticing two security cameras in the corners. There’s nowhere to hide. I pick up the plastic wedge and pudding and climb back into bed. I eat it there, the thin sheet pulled up to my waist. As I eat, I pretend my eyelids are growing heavy, and by my last bite I feign exhaustion. I lower the top of the bed, pull the sheet to my shoulders and close my eyes. The empty pudding container and spoon are covered with me, like I forgot about them.

Pretending to shift in my sleep, I sneak the wedge into my hand. It’s a slow process, but eventually I manage to snap it lengthwise, giving me two pointed shards. I slip one into each hand, then wait several long minutes before I move. When I do, I turn over and open my eyes and yawn widely.

Sitting up slowly, I keep my hands close to me, away from the camera’s view. I rise and walk around, appearing to be bored. I stop near the door and sway back and forth like I’m dizzy. Without warning, I drop to the floor. I make my arms and legs shake; saliva drools from my mouth.

Like I expect, the door opens within seconds. Although my head shakes as if I’m having some sort of fit, I take in everything I can about the young woman who comes in to check on me. At first I think she’s like me, plain and unremarkable. I feel a sparkinside, and my chest swells like I might cry with joy, but I don’t have time to wonder why.

The woman is different, or maybe I should say normal. I’m the odd one. I see the unusualness in her dark purple eyes, which tells me something, but only my instincts know what. I wish they would be a little more helpful like jogging my memory of who I am, but my instincts seem hardly compassionate. I know this because they are telling me to maneuver the sharp point of one of the wedges face up in my right hand.

The woman lifts my head, trying to get it to hold still, but I make sure she can’t get a good grip. She’s yelling for someone to help, but says it so fast, it’s like one giant new word. I can tell she’s never dealt with the problem I’m giving her, and she’s about to have a major anxiety attack because of it.

That’s when I strike. I hit her hard in the back with the point of the wedge, a blow directly to her lower spine just above her pelvis. It won’t kill her, but it will temporarily paralyze the lower half of her body.

While the woman collapses to the floor, I jump up. “Sorry,” I say, because I do feel bad that I hurt her (she may be a very nice person after all), and I rush out the door. A cold breeze blows up my skimpy gown.

I’m at the end of a long, wide hallway the same white as my room, but the ceilings are significantly higher. I take note of this. For some reason it makes my stomach churn. I dread finding out why.

A woman in an all-white dress with a black sash around her waist sits at a desk. Two tall male Techheads—they have the same peculiar forehead as Ebony—are approaching the woman’s desk, but are still several yards in front of me. Just beyond them is a tiny woman walking with the boy who had been in the room next to mine. She’s a good inch shorter than him and he’s small.

An alarm goes off. Red lights flash on the ceiling. All eyes go up—then focus directly on me. I run. I run the only direction I can go and hope my instincts will continue to act as my brain, which really could be mush at this point.

The tall Techheads stretch out their arms to trap me, but Idon’t slow. Instead I grab a stack of papers from an empty desk with one hand. With my other hand I grab an electronic pad similar to the one Ebony had earlier, and I am mindful to keep my fingers pressed together on the plastic picks.

Just before I reach the Techheads, I toss the papers into the air. The muscles in their long, expressionless faces pinch and tug, and their eyes dart around. They are all about order, not chaos, my instincts say. One yells in frustration and begins grabbing at the falling papers. The other Techhead does the same. They’ve lost sight of me.

I rush past them and focus on the nurse now standing behind her desk. Her hair is long and black with silver streaks. I suck in air, fear clenching my chest. I don’t know why. I just know she’s dangerous.

The woman stares at me, concentrating. Her pale gray eyes begin to light up. My instincts tell me I don’t want them to get brighter. Something very bad will happen if they do.

I raise the silver pad and flip it hard. It twists through the air and hits the nurse square in the eyes. She screams and covers her face. I am surprised by the accuracy of my aim. I keep running.

The dwarfish woman and boy are standing still, watching the scene play out. I have no fear of them and sprint past, toward the exit ahead.

The boy makes a sudden noise, like he’s hurt. Over my shoulder I see his eyes are wide and full of fear. My mind, not my instincts, tells me to keep running, but I stop. I look from the boy to the exit. Going against all rationale (but what is rational about anything that is happening right now?), I return and snatch the boy’s arm. Now we’re both running, but he’s not as fast and trips. I scoop him up. He wraps his arms around my neck, his legs around my stomach, and buries his head into my shoulder like he’s done this a million times before. I run fast, grateful that the boy is small and light

I’m almost to the exit when the floor begins to shake underfoot. There are two closed doors ahead. One of them is huge and tall like the ceiling. I slow just as the door explodes open, spraying debris everywhere. I screech to a halt and stare at the massivefigure before me, understanding now why the ceilings are so high. This man, this creature, wouldn’t fit otherwise. He is not only tall but wide, almost touching each side of the hallway. The black shirt he’s wearing barely contains his muscles. If he shivered, his shirt would tear. He has thick red hair like a doormat, and his black eyes are too close together. He laughs, staring down at me as if I’m about to be his new chew toy.

“Where you go, Ugly?” His voice booms out each word deep and loud. He is definitely not one of the Techheads. And he’s rude.

My thoughts race and spin as they try to figure out what to do next. I worry that my instincts seem to be hesitating.

The massive man has a small head with a red face on top of boulder-like shoulders, and long arms that extend down to chubby fingers. The zipper on his pants is open and yellow beehives are printed on his black underwear. Then I notice his legs, which I expect to be like tree stumps, but they are much smaller than the rest of him.

My thoughts come to an abrupt halt. I know his weakness.

When he takes a step toward me, I race straight for him, holding the boy tighter to my chest. His arms swing to grab me, but I turn sideways and slide on the floor directly between the creature’s legs, coming up behind him.

He can’t bend well—that’s his weakness. He glances over his shoulder, confused. A surge of triumph races through me, but then I remember I still don’t know who I am or why this is happening to me. I just know I need to run.

I slam open the EXIT door. Stairs lead up or down. My instinct tells me to run up, so I do.

The alarm blares loud enough that I can’t hear my own breathing. My chest heaves up and down, and I start to feel the weight of the boy. The further up I go, the heavier he becomes.

There’s movement in the stairwell beneath me.Hurry. My legs burn, yet somehow I block the pain and keep going, as if I’ve done something like this before.

I reach a door with a long sunlit window. I stop and set the boy down, my eyes searching all around the doorframe—for what, I don’t know yet. I open the door and look up. That’s when I findwhat I’ve been looking for. At the top of the doorframe is a small black box no bigger than the end of my thumb. In its center is a pin-sized glass circle.

I remove the makeshift plastic pick from between my fingers and wedge it into what I now recognize as a sensor. Anyone who comes after us won’t be able to open the door because the covered sensor will think that something or someone is on the other side. The bad people coming after me will have to wait for security to turn off the alarms altogether, allowing them to manually open the door.

I call them bad people, but I could be the bad one—I’m the one escaping. But I don’t feel like the bad one. I took no pleasure in hurting those two women.

I pick up the boy. He wraps himself around me again as I close the door tight. Turning, I am accosted by the bright sun overhead. I raise my arm to shield my eyes. The rooftop resembles a city park. Groups of trees, many of them cherry trees with branches full of pink blossoms, and green grass give way to paved walking trails. Benches and wooden tables have been placed next to the trees providing shade to whoever might want it. No one’s wanting it right now. It’s about 2:00 in the afternoon by my quick calculations.

I sprint across the grass to the ledge of the building and peer over a four-foot stone wall. We’re very high up, maybe eighty stories. A six-lane, black-as-night road weaves between buildings far below. Small, sleek automobiles glide across its smooth surface, barely making a sound. The structures nearby are the exact height of the building we’re standing on. They are full of windows, broken up by lines of silver metal, creating a large grid.

Their roofs are similar to this one: landscaped parks with cherry blossoms and metal benches. The buildings are too far to jump to, however, and when I look to my left, I discover a metal walkway crossing to the nearest building. Beyond, similar walkways connect the entire city.

The door I just came through rattles loudly, and the boy clings tighter to my neck.

“It’s okay,” I say and take off running toward the metal path.The pounding grows louder on the door. They mean to break it and not wait for security. I have only moments.

I stop before crossing the walkway. I realize they’ll expect me to go this way. Others will be waiting for me on the other side.

“We’re going to have to hide,” I say to him. “Can you do that?” He doesn’t answer but he moves his head in agreement. This little boy is smarter than I think. Any other child in this situation would probably be frightened and cry for their mother, but he seems to know how much harder it would make our escape.

A few trees are close by, but they are much too small to climb, let alone hide in. I keep looking. Dotted across the roof are rectangular aluminum boxes about my height. I sprint to the nearest one and set the boy down. The glass front displays food and drinks—not what I’m interested in at the moment. I run my fingers all around the back of it. At the bottom is a panel. I discover a metal button on each side and push it. The panel pops off, giving access to some kind of electrical box inside. The space isn’t big, maybe a foot deep and three feet high. Room for one small boy.

I turn to the boy and place my hands on his shoulders. “I’m going to hide you inside here. Do you understand?”

His blue eyes aren’t looking into mine; they are looking just above at my forehead. His expression is blank, giving me nothing to go on about how he might feel being stuffed in a small, dark space. Out of time, I simply pick him up and place him inside. He hugs his knees to his chest and rocks slowly.

“I’ll come back for you.” I smooth his blond hair. “I promise.”

As I slide the panel back into place, my heart lurches painfully. A child this young should not have to go through something like this. I hesitate by the box until an explosion and plume of smoke billows from the rooftop access door. I’m on the run again.

I sprint to the suspended bridge, praying I’m not seen, but I don’t run across it. Instead I jump over the edge and flip beneath the long walkway. I resist the urge to scream, unsure of exactly what I’m doing, but underneath my hands grab onto two long cables running the length of the bridge. I wrap my arms around them, then my legs, my back to the ground.

I tell myself not to look down. I fail. Hundreds of feet below me is the smooth black road, a steady stream of cars skimming across its surface.

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