The grass is scratchy-soft beneath me, tickling the back of my neck whenever I turn my head. Lying flat beneath the morning sky makes me feel rooted to the ground, like a tree. I squint at the sun to determine how long I've been out. It can't be much past eight.
I run my fingertips along the turkey wing bones, satisfied that I've fitted them properly together. Probably this is the best turkey call I've made, and I'm proud of it. When prime hunting season starts, I'll be ready.
Then I remember that I might not live here anymore, come hunting season. That everyone else in New Arrington might be gone, too. The turkeys will be happy about that, but nobody else will.
I roll my lips inward and place the narrow end of the bones between them. The call is clear and authentic, and I smile before calling a second time.
"Perfect," I say. Then I lie still and listen to the sounds of summer.
"That was helpful, Eric," Dad says, his shadow crossing my torso. "Hard to find you when you're lying in the grass."
I rise slowly. "Sorry. I was going to head home in a bit."
"This couldn't wait."
I brace myself for the bad news I can already read in Dad's eyes. He raises his hands like an empty offering, but no words follow.
"They're coming," I say. "Right?"
He sighs. "The City delegates will be here in three days. There's nothing we can do."
The summer warmth drains out of me, leaving me cold. "The petition…?"
"Denied. On the grounds of Pariah threat."
"I knew they'd say that." The Pariah are the main reason the City has finally closed in, demanding the shut-down of New Arrington and the transport of its citizens to the City. "A liability", they deem. "A risk to your safety that will be eliminated once you're behind our Wall."
"Can't say we didn't try." But Dad's words lack conviction. He knows as well as I do that everyone has given up too easily.
I open and close my fingers around the turkey call. It would have lured a good-sized fall flock-plenty of breast meat for stewing and leg meat for broths and barbecue. Now I'll never get the chance to try it.
"It's so stupid," I say. "We don't need the City to protect us from the Pariah."
"I know," Dad says. "But you have to admit it's been hard. They've been worse lately."
He's right-our neighbor's best goat was stolen just last week. Anyway, we've had this discussion a dozen times over the last few months. There isn't anything new to say.
I hate the Pariah almost as much as I hate the City.
Most folks in our settlement have ended up believing the City will win. Truth is, it always has. I've watched three neighboring settlements disappear in the last three years, forced to a City "for their protection". Dad's family is among them-Papaw and Grammie, Uncle Tom and Aunt Jamie, cousin Timothy.
I'm not even sure which City has taken them. We've never heard from them again.
Lis fingers the locket-a gift from Grammie that always hangs from my sister's neck, heart-shaped and tarnished with age. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"What have we got to lose?"
It's a last-ditch effort, and I know it. They say it's impossible to escape once you're inside a City, but I refuse to believe that. And once I do escape, I'm going to need to find my way back home. I shift the weight of the small burlap sack on my shoulder, and my heart hitches.
The seeds within are the result of years of effort. From the age of twelve, I've immersed myself in the study of botany, in the hope of learning to produce heartier, quicker-growing medicinal herbs and flowers. Now, almost five years after I began, the variety of arnius spetina I've developed has been in high demand throughout our settlement. It grows quickly, resists drought, and self-seeds multiple times during a growing cycle. Its flowers make healing teas, the milk from its stalks soothe a host of ailments, and the roots are a known cure for lung congestion.
Even the seeds are useful for medicine-but right now I'm more interested in their heartiness. You can drop them on even the shallowest, driest soil, and they'll grow.
Which is what I'm counting on them for tonight.
In the damp warmth, we walk barefoot in the grass alongside the lane. I want to imprint the sensation of wet grass onto the soles of my feet, to bring it with me and savor it inside my shoes. I catch Lis's gaze and know she feels the same way. We head toward the luggage transport, which is waiting like a dark sentinel to claim our belongings.
It looms before us, a hulking mass against the darkness of the sky. Small, round lights dot its perimeter at even intervals, so the length and height are apparent from across the field. It's huge-what a jetliner must look like-and instead of wheels, it rests on sturdy metal feet that I guess are retractable.
"It's a hover vehicle," I whisper. I've never seen one before, but there's no other explanation.
"It's enormous," Lis whispers back.
I stare at the thing, disbelieving. Clearly I've been wrong to doubt that anything could hold the possessions of four hundred nineteen people.
Not far from the transport, the approved belongings lie clustered in groups, waiting to be loaded. I can't see from this distance, but I know that every box and bag in those piles has a "Citizen of Emporia" label, just like the ones affixed to my family's things. Rumor says that people in the City are no longer aware that the City and everything in it belongs to Emporia, ever since its peaceful takeover of the Northern Continent several generations ago. Which makes the labels seem pretty useless.
"Come on." My words are mostly air. I gesture with my chin toward the transport, willing Lis to follow.
We cross the field; I'm hoping the cloudy night will keep us hidden. Several people move around near the transport at even intervals, like the lights. I wonder if they're armed, if they actually think they need to protect the transport from people who know more about farming and the history of the Northern Continent than technology.
Then again, it might be the Pariah they're worried about.
I tighten my hand around the strap of my bag as we near a stand of trees not far from the back end of the transport. I hold out my arm to stop Lis, and we duck beneath the cover of the low branches.
"They're guarding it," she hisses into my ear. "How will we even get close enough?"
"We'll watch from here," I say. "Figure out how we can cut through without being seen."
We move between two trees for a better view. I'm snapping an errant branch when a hand grabs my shoulder-hard-and Lis screams.
I suck in a hot breath as I turn to see that someone's arm is locked around Lis's neck; her scream is cut short when he presses his hand over her mouth. Whoever's got ahold of me tightens his grasp and leans close to my ear.
"What's in the bag?" he asks.
I've never been this close to Pariah. I stare at the one who's got Lis; a dark hood obscures most of his face, making it impossible to meet his gaze. But I'm focused on the terror in my sister's eyes.
"Let her go." My voice wobbles.
"She screamed," Lis's captor says. "Do you want the City rats to find you out here?"
"I asked you what's in the bag," the second one says.
I swallow. "Seeds."
His laugh is gruff and throaty. "And why would you want to sneak around at night with a bag of seeds?"
"Let her go and I'll tell you."
I don't expect them to comply, but the one holding Lis slides his hand from her mouth. She looks from the Pariah to me, her eyes wide in the shadowed darkness.
"They're yellow spetina seeds," I say. "I want to affix them to the back of the transport so they'll leave a trail."
The Pariah exchange glances. For a moment, neither speaks; the taller one-the one who grabbed my shoulder-breaks the silence.
"Know what happens when they catch you messing with their transport?" he asks. When I don't answer, he says, "They shoot. No questions. Think your family would appreciate that?"
Lis makes a soft, strangled noise. I square my shoulders and shove my fear a mile beneath my skin.
"I wasn't planning on getting caught."
"Then you're stupid as well as wasteful," the tall one says. "Those are valuable seeds. We can make good use of those."
He's going to steal them. Panic sweeps through me and I tighten my fingers around the strap. "I need to find my way back home. The seeds will germinate quickly and create a trail of flowers for me to follow."
"No seed germinates that quickly," the other Pariah says.
"These do." Lis has found her voice. "Eric is a genius with plants. He created a drought-resistant hybrid."
"That so?" The tall one pushes his hood back; he has a dark beard and a nose that looks like it's been broken once or twice. "We could use someone like you in our clan."
Revulsion washes through me. "You're Pariah."
"Real Pariah," the other one says. "Not bought out by the City to terrorize you."
My world shifts. "Bought out..." Words get stuck in my throat, and I stop.
"I'm Spencer," the tall one says. "I was born in New Arrington. We're not your enemies, Eric."
"Don't listen to him," Lis says.
Spencer ignores her. "Come with us. You can teach us what you know about plants-and we can make sure you never get dragged into a City."
Something swells inside my heart-a fierce, driving sense of hope that, moments ago, wasn't there. If I stay with the Pariah, I'll be free. And if I'm free, I can find a way to get everyone else out of the City-Lis, Mom and Dad, even Papaw and Grammie.
Maybe Spencer is lying. Maybe he'll end up taking my seeds and killing me. But it might be a chance worth taking.
"Someone's coming," the other Pariah says.
I peer through the branches-three uniformed figures are heading across the field in our direction. It's now or never.
"I'll come with you," I say.
"Eric, no!" Lis grabs my arm and wraps her own arms around it.
"Let me go," I say gently. "This is the chance we thought we'd never get."
"But what will I tell Mom and Dad?"
"Tell them your brother went missing," Spencer says. "We'll make it look like a Pariah attack."
Lis's expression is stricken. "I can't do this."
"You can." I cup her cheek, the way I used to when she was a curly-haired toddler. "And you'll be my link to the inside. You and me, Lis-we can bring this City down."
She closes her eyes and opens them again. Then she releases my arm and yanks the locket from around her neck. "Keep this," she whispers. "Remember to come for us."
She kisses my cheek. Then, without another glance, she darts from the trees and starts screaming.
"Help! Someone help! They took my brother!"
Spencer claps me on the back. "Let's go."
He takes off with the speed of a bobcat, the other Pariah on his heels. I curl my fingers around the locket and follow them. The night swallows us like a hungry predator.
I don't look back.
About the Creator
Jillian is known to the online writing community as Authoress, hostess of Miss Snark’s First Victim, a blog for aspiring authors. She is the author of two YA fantasy novels published by Tor Teen: STORMRISE and THE STOLEN KINGDOM.