Premise: In this young-adult dystopian novel, people can no longer die. But they still feel pain, and suffer--and it's maddening. Because of the chaos that ensued, the US Government created a program to figure out how to kill people. When Garrett, a teenager, falls into a coma for weeks as a result of an experiment, the Program sets its malicious sights on him.
Once we exit the Courthouse with our hands pulled behind our backs, Eden’s guards load us into the helicopter. The look Sara gave us, the secretary, is cold indifference. The guard holding Lucy had pulled out the key card from her pocket and returned it to her before we left.
My face is still hot with anger. We barely manage to strap ourselves in before the helicopter takes off, launching into the sky. Lucy sits across from me, her face unnaturally pale and covered with a sheen of sweat. Her eyes are wild as she presses towards the window and away from the guard sitting beside her.
My limp arm holds my injured middle, and I lick away the trickle of blood slipping down my chin. My head still throbs from when Gray Eyes, who later introduced himself as Benjamin, hit me. He now sits beside me, whistling, his fingers glossing over a sleek, electronic tablet.
I meet Lucy’s gaze and grimace, knowing that if I don’t think of something, Lucy will join the ranks of the people tortured by Project Eden. Lucy, who’s only sin was trying to protect me.
“Please,” I try again, my voice still hoarse from the smoke inhalation, “Please let her go.”
“Garrett,” she looks at me with sorrowful eyes and shakes her head. And that makes my resolve strengthen, for Lucy, sweet, innocent Lucy, is the only person left I care about who isn’t already locked away.
“She’s done nothing wrong,” I add before clutching at my aching jaw.
Benjamin sighs, flipping over his tablet. “Maybe so. But I’ve told you, it’s not up to me.”
“Please,” I beg, “You know this is wrong. You can’t sentence her to…” I nearly choke on the swelling guilt in my throat and can’t meet Lucy’s eyes, “To this.”
Benjamin shifts, so that his gray eyes stare at me critically, “What would you suggest I do?”
“Let her go,” I say, forcing confidence, “Say she got away.”
“That wouldn’t make me look very good,” he admits with a mirthless smile, “A bad choice.”
“You can’t do this to her!”
I feel a warm and gentle grip on my knee, and her green eyes are practically glowing with intensity, “It’s okay. Just…you need to calm down.”
“I’d listen to her,” Benjamin replies gruffly, returning to look at his tablet. “Get some sleep.”
My jaw tightens, and I turn to look out the window, down at the grassy plains and strips of highway as night takes over the sky. “I’m sorry,” I say to her, my voice cracking.
I slip into a merciful sleep, shutting everything else out.
The jerky landing of the helicopter on the roof of Project Eden jolts me awake. I wipe my eyes, bleary-eyed, removing the still present haze of sleep. The sky is dark, smudged with a rich purple, like a bad bruise.
“Welcome back,” Benjamin says, before hopping out of the helicopter once the propellors slow to a stand still.
Lucy exhales shakily and pulls herself out of her seat belt. With the help of the safety light glowing down at us from the ceiling, I can see her face holds a green tint. I quickly un-do my own seatbelt and follow her out of our transport. And before she can even turn her head to face me, I have her hand in mine. She smiles weakly at me, grateful.
Benjamin is talking into his walkie-talkie while the other guards wait for his orders. Lucy and I look out into the distance, towards the glittering skyscrapers and red tail lights of cars racing by on the nearly empty streets. A soft wind brushes through our hair.
“It’s pretty,” she decides without looking at me, “It’s a lot like Chicago.”
My throat closes up around my breath, and I feel that stinging sensation in my eyes again, like little pin-pricks. “Lucy.” My voice comes out a whimper, and I squeeze her hand, “I—“
“The Secretary will be meeting with you tomorrow,” Benjamin approaches us after reattaching the walkie-talkie to his belt. “So tonight you’ll be checked in and put up in sleeping arrangements.”
I frown worriedly as Benjamin claps his hand on my shoulder, and then heads towards the door that leads to the staircase. We go after him, slowly, with the rest of the guards walking behind us, besides the two that remain with the helicopter. I doubt they’ll make an exception for us, as much as I want to be with Lucy her first night here. But at least I know, with the same-sex arrangement rule, she’ll be paired with Therese, and I trust that she’ll take care of her.
We take the steps all the way down to the first floor, landing us into a hallway adjacent to the lobby. Benjamin escorts us to a room I easily remember, a cold chill running down my spine. Two female assistants are expecting us, and greet us with a stale smile.
“Welcome to the Program,” one of them says. My jaw clenches, knowing that’s the line where the niceties end.
I glare at Benjamin as he leaves, hoping that somehow he’ll change his mind about Lucy. He doesn’t. But he waves.
“Lucy?” the younger of the two smiles up at her, after glancing over her clipboard. “I’m Jenny. If you will follow me, please, we can get everything sorted so you can get some sleep.”
“I’ll find you tomorrow,” I promise her, steeling myself against the fear in her eyes.
“O-kay,” she stammers, and her shoulders tremble, “Goodnight, Garrett.” She follows Jenny, up through a corridor and into a room.
My assistant, who calls herself Ursula, brings me to a small room in the opposite corridor. I take a seat in the chair in the middle of the bare-walled room, tapping my foot uneasily. Ursula runs through the guidelines of Project Eden quick, already knowing I am very familiar with them. After finding a uniform in my size in one of the cabinets, she rests it on the counter and draws open the curtain, revealing the shower. Every person enrolled in the Program is required to take a shower before entering since there could be traces of unknown variables on our skin, thus clouding the results of the tests…or something like that.
The shower is hot against my aching skin, washing away the dried blood and soot crusted on my face. Ten minutes later, and I’m dressed in my new uniform, water still dripping from my hair.
“Perfect,” Ursula mildly claps her hands together. “Let me take you to your room.”
When I enter the room, it looks the same as I had left it. The lights are off, making it difficult to see, but the sound of Peter’s snores point me in the right direction to our bunk, and I carefully climb up the rungs of the ladder and fall on my back, muffling a groan as I pull the pillow close to my head. Peter stirs below me, pulling at covers and shifting around.
“Who’s there?” he asks groggily.
“It’s me,” I reply quietly, knowing the walls are paper thin, “It’s Garrett.”
“Garrett?” he echoes, not making a move to get out of bed and check for himself. He must’ve had a bad test today. A hard chuckle rolls off his tongue, “Weren’t gone for very long, were you?”
“No,” I grimace sourly, pulling the worn sheet up to my chest making my toes poke out the other end. It’s true. I’ve only been gone for a week and a half, but it feels longer. And that only makes me miss it more.
“Too bad,” Peter decides after a moment.
“Yeah,” I say. Concern weighs down on my heart, and I have to ask, “Peter? How’s…how’s Abel?” The last time I had seen him was when I was forced to leave him in an alley, with a bullet in his gut.
“He’s not with you? I haven’t seen him since you two ran off,” Peter confesses.
The realization hits me slow, but hard. “No. He…he was caught right after we got away.”
“Well. Then either that’s punishment or it’s a long term test. I don’t know.”
Either option doesn’t sit well in my stomach. I swallow against the growing lump in my throat, “And Therese?”
“She’s good,” Peter says to my relief, “She missed you though.”
And I will see her in a few hours.
I stare down at my tray, twirling my spoon in my cooling oatmeal. Entering the Recreation Room had been a little unsettling. Prisoners murmured to each other with hushed confusion and surprise, some welcomed me back sarcastically as I brushed past them to find my seat, away from them all. John, whose left eye was now swollen shut, greeted me with a slow applause, a twisted grin on his gaunt face.
I can still feel their icy stares prodding at my back, but I force myself to ignore them, and swallow a scoop of the stale mush. The fact that I’m back here, in this hellish pit, and brought Lucy…well. I’ve been trying to ignore the cold, achy feeling rising in my limbs. I wiggle my toes against the tops of my shoes which I guess, subdues the sensation temporarily. That will have to be enough. Or I will go crazy.
I jerk my head up to see Therese and Lucy running up to me. My eyes quickly turn to focus on Lucy. There’s dark circles under her eyes, and her hair is slightly tangled, but other than that, she looks fine. I exhale and smile at her right as Therese wraps her arms around me, her burnt, crusted skin chafing against my own.
“Therese,” I say, finally managing to return the embrace. For it is good to see her. Therese and Abel were the only two people to make this place endurable.
“It’s good to see you,” she says, pulling away, “Well. Not good to see that you’re here, but…you know what I mean.” She smiles, and my gaze is drawn to her warm dark eyes and then to the new scar of shiny pink skin running down from her lip to the end of her chin.
“I get it,” I reassure her, forcing a chuckle. I look over her head at Lucy, concerned, but she nods, signaling to me that she is okay. For now.
That’s when I notice all the rest of the prisoners staring at her, almost hungrily. In a way, I can’t blame them, for she still has the warmth of life flushing in her face and glittering in her eyes. But I also know that she is a pretty, young girl that is not trying to kill them. Something the men of this place haven’t seen in years. I pull her into my side, in a half but completely protective embrace. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Therese’s smile falter.
“Garrett,” Lucy sighs, pushing away from my hold on her. “I’m fine, alright?”
“Hey, Luce,” Therese speaks up, “Imma go get us some breakfast.” She gestures to the cart of oatmeal.
“Thanks, Therese,” Lucy beams as she walks away.
“Luce?” I raise an eyebrow, leading her over to my table. I sit her down beside me. “You two besties now?”
Lucy purses her lips, turning towards me, “Yeah, well. It was easy to bond over how annoying you are.”
“More like how much you love me.”
“More like no,” Lucy retorts, smiling.
Therese returns soon after, carrying with her two bowls of what looks to be cream of wheat. She sits opposite of us, pushing one of the bowls to Lucy who bobs her head in thanks.
“Garrett,” Therese shovels a spoonful of goop into her mouth, before looking up at me, “How are you? Lucy…” her face darkens, “She told me what happened.”
“Then I guess you already know how I’m feeling,” I reply, grimacing. The oatmeal now looks twice as dissatisfying—if that’s even possible.
“Yeah,” Therese mumbles, looking back to her bowl. “I’m just mad that it was all for nothing. Like the guy who was suppose to help you, betrayed you.” She blinks and looks at Lucy, smiling out of embarrassment, “Sorry.”
Therese is right in one thing. The purpose of my escape was to get help from Edward Gild to end the Program and to run from the Secretary’s sudden and ominous interest in me. In both counts, I failed. But it wasn’t for nothing.
I reach for Lucy’s hand under the table.
And she smirks, filling her spoon with hot cereal before lifting it towards her mouth—and that’s when I see the tattoo on her wrist.
Not the mark of a Corpse.
The mark of a prisoner.
I feel hot anger surge through me, bubbling in my gut. They made her property. Permanent property. Not something to keep around to make sure I behave myself, but to actually use her. I was still clinging to the hope that eventually the Secretary would release her, but that is tugged away: He has no intent in letting her go.
“Garrett,” Lucy chides, flattening her wrist against the table, for she’s seen me staring. “It’s fine. It’s just a tattoo. Okay?”
But I can tell by the hardened look in Therese’s eyes that she’s thinking the same thing as I am. And it scares me.
“What a great surprise: Garrett’s back.”
I groan internally, knowing the voice, but not knowing if my temper is strong enough to deal with the person it belongs to. I look over my shoulder to see John standing there with a yellow smile and swollen eye twitching.
“And you’ve brought a friend,” his glinting eyes focus on Lucy, and he holds out a frail hand.
“Hi. The name’s John.”
Lucy glances over at me before taking his hand, “Lucy.”
“You’re a pretty one,” he says, looking her up and down.
That’s when I jump to my feet, stepping between them with an angry glare in my eye, “You lay a hand on her, and I will kill you,” I threaten, my voice barely audible.
He cocks his head at me, smiling slightly, before looking over my shoulder at her, “Nice meeting you.”
Only when he’s sitting down at a table far off, do I exhale deeply, lowering myself back into my seat.
Lucy looks at me with concern, “You okay?”
“Yeah,” I say too quickly, staring down at my still clenched fists.
“You don’t have to do that,” Lucy chides, “I can take care of myself.”
“No, you can’t,” I snap back heatedly.
I look across the table to see Therese shrinking in on herself, her lip twisting out of discomfort. Lucy tugs on my sleeve, forcing me to look her way.
“Since when. Have I ever needed your help?” She growls out, hurt coloring her face pink.
I recoil, my own face flushing, because I know she’s right. I try to take a steadying breath, realizing that we’re all on edge… “Lucy. Most of everyone here are criminals, with no one to fight for them or notice them gone. Nothing to lose. These people, these men, will hurt you. You may think that we have a common enemy, a common goal, but that means nothing when you’ve been stripped of everything but that one primal urge to—“
“I’m in here because of you!” She screams at me, eyes unnaturally moist.
I flinch, and I feel like I’ve just been slapped in the face. Because not only do I know this, but Lucy knows this too. That I have doomed her life. I should have made her stay with Edward, but I was selfish, I couldn’t let her go, but now it seems I won’t have a choice. I will see everything stripped away from her but that one primal urge to survive.
“I’m in here because I—“ her voices catches in her throat, and chin lowering she says hastily, “Sorry. I—I need to—“ she gets up and leaves, walking out of the Recreation Room to her own bedroom, most likely.
This isn’t the first time Lucy has walked away from me. But it’s the first leave that is painful, aching deep in my chest. It is also the first that feels so final.
“Hey,” Therese grabs for my hand, and I let her take it, too stunned to avoid the touch of her burned flesh. “It’s this place. It brings out the worst of us. She’ll come around.”
“She’s right though,” I explain feebly, “She shouldn’t be here. I should have never left.”
“Garrett,” she’s smiling at me, and for the first time cursed with her scars, she looks beautiful. “Don’t you see? Before, you didn’t give a damn what happened. I could see it in your face every time I saw you. But with Lucy…she gives you a purpose. Something to fight for,” she shakes her head, but her smile remains, “I’m not saying it’s good that she’s here. It’s not. But her being here, it’s given you something back, well, it’s given you—“
“My humanity,” I murmur, glancing up at her with widening eyes.
Therese nods. That’s when I rise to my feet, ready to run to Lucy’s room, thousands of thoughts running through my mind begging to be said to her.
And that’s when an assistant calls my number.