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.
I look down at my wrist in stunned silence, hoping that I had simply recollected my number incorrectly, that I was not being called, not so soon, not when I had to find Lucy.
It’s the same.
My eyes jerk up to Therese who looks just as devastated as I feel. Her lips are parted, and her dark eyes widen with fear. I turn my head, edgily, locating the assistant who called my number.
Addison. She looks at me expectantly with those crystal blue eyes and lips spread in a wide smile. Her black, silky locks frame her pale face.
I recognize her instantly. She is the assistant who cared for me after I had a mental breakdown during a test. I hadn’t seen her since.
I return to look at Therese, who slowly rises from her seat and pulls me into hug. “It’ll be okay,” she whispers in my ear, “Good luck.”
I nod and swallow thickly, pulling away. “Watch out for Lucy,” I tell her before approaching Addison.
“Garrett,” she beams, “It’s good to see you,” but I notice her smile falter a little as she pulls her clipboard closer to her chest.
“Yeah,” I scoff.
A single dimple shows as she squeezes her lips together. There’s no mistake she’s uncomfortable. “The Secretary wishes to see you.”
“I know,” I say, and for the first time, I lead myself out the door with the assistant in pursuit.
Addison jogs up beside me, catching up with my pace, moving down the corridor towards Project Eden’s front and employee offices.
We push through the double doors. The contrast always leaves me startled. Concrete floors to carpeted ones. Bare walls to those evenly placed with framed landscapes. The smell of blood and chemicals to a very welcoming aroma I can’t quite identify. Maybe cinnamon vanilla.
“It’s this way—“
“I remember,” I snap back coldly. I know why she’s here. Why she is the one taking me to Paracot, but I have no intent in humoring either of them.
My anger and Addison’s visible aura of discomfort distract me from the inevitable dread I only then begin to feel as I stop feet in front of Arthur Paracot’s office door.
Edward Gild’s interview. Abel and Joe’s punishment. Escape. So much has happened in this room, and a chilling thought whispers through my mind, telling me the room still has much more in store.
I swallow, and take a deep breath through my nose, trying to stifle every hateful emotion I have for this man. Behind his gigantic ego, he just might be reasonable. He just might let Lucy go.
Addison brushes past me hesitantly, and glances once over her shoulder before pulling open the door.
He is sitting at his desk, scribbling what seems to be signatures into a file of paper work. Every movement he makes is methodical and well-practiced. Head lowering and raising to scan over documents. Arms slowly and carefully moving to separate the finished paperwork from the incomplete. Every once in a while, he licks his index finger to better leaf through the pieces of paper.
Addison clears her throat, “Mr. Secretary…”
His head snaps up, bearing the speed of reptilian reflexes. His incredibly dark eyes pierce me, and I can’t help but feel so small, so powerless.
He smiles crisply, and that’s when I force myself to take a steadying breath, my head already beginning to swim.
“Garrett,” his brow raises, and he drops his pen, absently shoving files to the side of his desk. “It would seem the roles have reversed. It seems like almost yesterday I had come to visit you.”
I remain silent, slowly gathering my resolve to build up a mental wall between us.
He chuckles dully before turning his sharp gaze to Addison, “Thank you for showing him here. You may wait outside, Addison.”
“Yes, sir,” she murmurs. She looks me straight in the face with wide eyes, before hastily taking leave and closing the door quietly behind her.
“Please,” the Secretary motions to the chair in front of his desk, “Take a seat.”
I clench my jaw and breathe through my nose before finally obeying. The room looks just the same as I left it, except for the newly replaced window behind the man. The walls are a neutral cream color and the carpet contains some sort of dark pattern I’m too anxious to name, and impersonal and irrelevant items sit in shelves and at his desk as if this room were simply being showcased to sell instead of actually already belonging to someone for quite some time.
“Can I get you anything to drink?” he asks me, clasping his hands together on his desk, looking me dead in the eye.
“Coffee?” he suggests when I don’t respond. “Tea? Water?” his smile widens, “All of the above?”
“No,” I finally grit out, glaring in his direction.
“Suit yourself,” the man shrugs before taking a sip of his own coffee mug. He pauses to look at me, dark eyes glinting with sick mirth, “How are you?”
“How the hell do you think I am?” I hiss through a knotted jaw. Keeping my composure is going to be a lot harder than I thought.
“We were very worried about you,” the Secretary explains, ignoring me. “After you disappeared, we sent many of our most skilled, ah—rescue teams to find you.” His eyes narrow to focus on my swollen jaw, “I see you’ve already been…acquainted with a few.”
Instinctively, I clamp a hand over the side of my face, grimacing.
“I was very relieved to hear you found your way back safely,” He gives me a polite nod and smiles.
“How did you find us?” I want to know as blood warms my cheeks.
“Oh, it was rather simple, really. Once Mr. Gild had tipped us off about your approximate location, it was just a matter of digging through possible places two teenagers would go. VitCorp’s site in Marysville seemed the most likely given Bernard’s mention of your peculiar interest in the company.”
My stomach flips at the familiar name, “Bern?”
Arthur Paracot’s eyes brighten maliciously, “Is that what you called him? It does have a nice ring to it, I must say.”
Part of me wonders how the Secretary managed to blackmail the already blacklisted doctor into betraying us, but I realize to my disgust, the man is enjoying this conversation a little too much and prefers to focus on the trivialities of the situation rather than what I want to know. I have to direct this exchange myself.
“Where’s Abel?” I demand, “What did you do to him?”
“Mm, Abel? I don’t…oh, yes. After you abandoned him in an alley—“
“We helped him recover from his injuries, and he was sent into an extensive test. He should complete it in a couple of weeks.”
“What kind of test is it?” I ask, chest tightening. I shift in my seat, uneasily.
“Oh, I’d rather not say. It’s a newly developed test by one of our most brilliant, and I can’t help but think it’s very promising.”
“You son of a bitch!” I jump from my chair, fists clenched and breath ragged.
Arthur swivels in his seat slightly, watching me with a wretchedly vile innocent expression. He raises hand in front of his face, “Ah, ah. Let’s not be crazy about things.”
We stare at each other, challenging. Begging the other to make a move. But it’s a stand still, and I know I have to be the one to relent. I fall back in my chair, nausea curdling my stomach. “He doesn’t deserve this,” I whisper, deflated.
“You still don’t understand, do you?” he cocks his head at me. “We’re in no position right now to deserve anything. We have to take.” he lifts his hand before swiftly curling his fingers into its palm, “Don’t you get it? We’ve lost our deserved right to die, our deserved right to live. A privilege so utterly natural, and yet it’s gone.” His raised hand opens up like it just released something from its clutch. “We have to take it back.”
“You’re thinking about it wrong,” I exclaim. “Just because something’s changed doesn’t mean it’s not still there.”
The Secretary smiles at me appreciatively, “You’re smart, Garrett. I just wish you were a little less naive. Without death, consequence is gone. People are more reckless now than ever. Life sentences and capitol punishment are now meaningless. Mankind has lost its compassion, any sense of moral direction. Because does anyone really care about their actions, if it doesn’t somehow lead to death?
“Do you know why pain exists, Garrett? It is used to let the body know that it is in danger. In danger of dying. People no longer care for feeling it or causing it now that it leads to no consequence.”
“So you admit that you’re no better than the rest of us,” I retort.
The Secretary laughs mirthlessly, “I never said I was above humanity. But I know what it’s suppose to be like. You wouldn’t know. You weren’t alive before the problem. But humanity is not suppose to look like this.”
“But it does now,” I insist, “Why can’t you just accept that?”
“I can’t accept it because I can’t forget. Everyday, I look in the mirror, and I remember: what I could have been, what I could have been doing, and the same goes for everyone else.”
A very small part of me pities the man. Someone who believes his life has no purpose without death, who can’t move on, but is stuck in this warped mindset of normalcy. Because I have seen the evil in the world that the Secretary wishes to end, but I’ve also seen people brave, and kind, and happy and inspired. I have seen people like Lucy, and maybe he hasn’t, maybe that’s why he doesn’t understand.
“Mr. Secretary,” I begin, “It’s been twenty-five years with the entire world trying to figure it out. And nothing. Why can’t you just…move on?”
He smiles at me, “Why? Because of you, Garrett. When you fell into that coma, you gave the entire world hope. I will not ignore the opportunity staring me in the face.”
I shiver against the thought that I am still responsible for everything that is happening to these people trapped here. “A coma does not mean death,” I grit out.
“No, it doesn’t,” he agrees easily, “But it’s the closest thing to it. And I’m not going to allow this breakthrough to go to waste.” He presses a button on his telephone.
I swallow the acidic fear rising in my throat, “If you think, that by shooting me, I’ll die, you’re wrong. Since the coma, I was shot again, by one of your men, and I’m still here.”
“Your confidence is something to be admired,” he says smoothly, “But so is mine.”
I am flustered with how impossible this man is, “You’re being ridicul—“
The door behind me opens, and two guards enter the room, pushing Lucy into the room. My eyes widen at the sight of her, sandy hair covering half of her face, and resentment covering the other.
“Ah, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Miss. Wright,” the Secretary rises from his seat, approaches her and holds out a hand.
Lucy eyes it warily before shrugging helplessly, her wrists locked together behind her back.
Arthur Paracot smiles welcomingly, before turning his gaze towards the guards, “That is all, thank you.”
The guards bob their heads dutifully, and exit the room.
“What is she doing here?” I demand, beginning to feel my face and hands tingle with icy, hot flame.
“I’ll get to that in a minute,” he says, raising a finger, “But let’s find this darling girl a seat, first.”
Lucy glares at him, but allows him to escort her to his own desk chair when he puts his hand on the back of her arm.
“There,” the Secretary sighs as if he has just achieved a great feat. He rests a hand on Lucy’s shoulder, standing alarmingly close behind her. “You were saying, Garrett?”
I can hear my heart thudding frantically. He brought Lucy in the room…for what purpose? Does he know I want to ask for her to leave? Or is he just trying to mess with me? All I know is that I have to tread carefully, now that Lucy is on the line as well. “Why did you take her?” I start out with.
“Why did I enter Lucy into the program? I thought Benjamin was clear. We were in need of another female volunteer.” He replies coyly.
“No,” I retort, “Why her?”
The Secretary’s fingers clench into her shoulder, and Lucy sucks in a breath. “Why not her?” he asks, “We needed you, and she just happened to be right there with you like a package deal.”
“But you’ve never taken someone that might be missed. That’s why you take convicts and…addicts off the streets. That’s why you took me.” It’s hard to keep my voice steady, but I manage with barely a tremor, my eyes refusing to leave Lucy’s. “She has a mother…and Edward.”
Lucy’s jaw clamps down adamantly, “No, I don’t.”
“Lucy, shut up,” I plead softly, cringing at the thought of her pride ruining her chances at freedom.
She glares mildly at me instead.
“No, no, Lucy. Garrett’s right. I don’t doubt Edward will come for you eventually. And I am willing to return you to him, eventually.
“But Garrett’s right about a lot of things,” The Secretary releases his grip on Lucy’s shoulder and takes a step back, and another to the side. I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath. “He truly deserves more credit. Yes, he may not have the eloquent wit that our dear friend Edward has, or the calculating finesse of Bernard, and maybe not even the heart you carry, Lucy. But he is wary. Unable to trust, always suspicious. Now this seemingly inhibiting quality of his, well, in a world of facades and smoke and mirrors, he is the wiser of the few.”
I swallow. I don’t know what he’s getting at, but I can tell by his clean smile that it’s not good. Lucy turns toward him, struggling to shift around her handcuffed wrists. “So you brought me here not just out of convenience. Okay. But does that really mean anything?”
“My dear,” he says, acidly sweet, “It means everything.”
I’ve learned to know this man over the past weeks, and that’s why my breaths grow shallow, and my heart beat quickens. He’s reaching his climax, the grand finale of this show of his.
Arthur Paracot steps forward and pulls open a drawer in his desk. He reaches his hand in, and what he grabs is…it’s…it’s a gun. Black, and thin, and shiny—recently cleaned, and equipped with a silencer.
“Did you know that Garrett has an interesting…relationship with guns?” he asks, carefully cradling the gun with two open-palmed hands.
My eye is trained on it, as it rocks, slowly, back and forth between his grip. My hands are becoming sweaty.
“It’s actually a rather severe fear. A little irrational, I say. The first time a gun was pointed at him, he nearly went insane. The second time, he fell into a coma; the first there’s even been since the Problem began. Don’t you think it’s rather peculiar, Lucy? I do.”
When Lucy realizes he won’t continue without an answer, she blinks, “I—Yes, but that doesn’t mean anything. A coma does not—“
“—Mean death,” The Secretary finishes, “I know that, I realize this. But tell me, do you actually think that this means nothing?”
“Yes,” Lucy bites out.
The Secretary’s calm face contorts into a sneer, “I don’t believe you.”
The Safety disengages.
Lucy’s face pales while she stares at me with fear-ridden eyes. Nausea swells in my gut. Sweat trickles down my spine. I struggle against burning fear, and with wobbling legs I rise to my feet and lift my hand to him in appeasement.
His dark eyes narrow in on me, and his face softens.
“I get it,” I manage to grit out, “Nothing will change your mind, no matter what we say. So if shooting me makes you feel better, fine. Have at it. But don’t do it here…” my eyes wander down to Lucy’s still frozen face, “Not in front of her. Just let her go. Please. And then you can shoot me as much as you want.”
He looks at me thoughtfully as if he is considering my proposal. A flicker of a smile crosses his lips. “A cute idea,” he admits, “But not exactly what I had in mind.”
I barely have time to blink before the barrel of the gun is rammed into the side of Lucy’s head, and the trigger is pulled with a whispering Pweeft, followed by a soft thud as the bullet hits into the wall.
A scream of loss dies in my throat as she falls to the side, slipping out of the chair and onto the floor.