We didn’t look back. We moved quickly toward the sound of running water somewhere ahead of us. Behind us we heard shouts and gunshots; flames licked the black night sky. The damp, slippery ground was uneven under our feet.
Elsa began to cry, a piercing sound that cut through the silence of the forest. My heart raced. Would the Enforcers or the Gatekeepers hear her?
David stopped and handed Elsa to me. She curled into my arm and I let her suck on my finger. David took the boy’s hand—it looked so small and fragile. The boy, clutching his bundle of clothing tightly, worked hard to keep up with David.
The unfamiliar sounds of the woods were ominous: rustlings in the grass, branches creaking, and our own rapid breathing—raspy and harsh. I heard the strange hooting of a bird. What kind of bird makes that noise? No time for questions. We had to travel as far and as fast as we could.
Back in the Compound someone rang the bell that signaled a half hour till dawn. Fools! The place was on fire and still they rang bells. Soon the Citizens would stand together and say the pledge: I pledge allegiance to the Earth and to the animals of the Earth . . . making the circle sign on their foreheads, their thumb and forefinger touching.
Dawn was our enemy. It would steal our blanket of darkness. But I soon realized that sunrise doesn’t come to the woods like it does in the Compounds. It creeps in, wrapped in soft gray. The leafy branches overhead kept us shaded from the early light. We took advantage and kept scurrying downhill, slipping on the damp leaves, tripping over roots and rocks.
David and the boy were a few steps ahead of me. David looked back at me, then pointed ahead. I saw the silvery reflection of a wide stream through the trees. We walked faster. David began to run, pulling the boy by the arm as he went.
David tripped and fell, his full weight smashing against a rock, our bundle of supplies rolling ahead of him. Clutching Elsa, I ran to him. Blood seeped through the sleeve of his uniform. He groaned, sat up slowly, and cradled his right arm with his left. The boy ran ahead and retrieved our bundle. I knelt beside David and brushed some dirt from his face.
“I’m okay,” he whispered. But I could tell from his voice and the look on his face that he was in pain. He struggled to stand up, and then gingerly tested his right arm.
“It’s not broken,” he said. “Let’s keep moving.”
He started walking and we followed, each of us more careful with our steps, until we finally reached the bank above the water. I had never seen water like that before. I had only seen it in our ration bottles—confined, measured, limited. This water danced and twirled over the stones, rippling, turning, moving with purpose. Mother had told me about lakes and rivers; I had even seen her map that revealed vast blue oceans. But this was the first time I had seen so much water with my own eyes. Overwhelmed, I stood and stared, realizing all at once that I wasn’t prepared for what the real world looked like. I wasn’t prepared for how big it was.
David slid down the bank and stepped into the stream, moving from stone to stone along the edge, then into deeper water, pushing forward to the other side. The boy rushed to catch up with him. With every step, David looked back at me, beckoning me forward. He dipped his injured arm into the water, letting it flow over his sleeve, washing away some of the blood. Halfway across, the water was up to his knees. The boy held onto David’s uniform with one hand and, with the other, held our bundle high over his head. He was wet to his waist.
Could I follow? What if I fell and dropped Elsa? The boy looked back at me and motioned with his head, urging me to come. David stopped and called my name. “Emmeline.” His voice was pleading; he risked being heard. They had faith in me; they needed me. I slid down the hill, sitting, and the wetness of the earth seeped through my clothes. At the bottom, I stepped into the stream and gasped at how cold it was. But I didn’t stop. Step by step, clutching Elsa tightly, I walked forward. The current pushed against my feet, my legs. I was so focused on not falling or dropping Elsa that my temples throbbed and I could feel my pulse in my ears like a drumbeat.
David and the boy waited for me on the other side and together we scrambled up the steep bank, grabbing at whatever strong plants or branches we could use to pull ourselves up with using our free hands.
Finally, we were all together at the edge of the forest. We looked below at the stream that separated us from the Compound, then turned and walked into the dimness, surrounded by the tallest trees I had ever seen. Most were straight with thick brown trunks and leafy branches reaching up. But one had green needles instead of leaves and the branches sloped down so low that they brushed the ground. David pushed the branches aside and motioned for us to crawl into the space underneath them. It smelled sweet and clean in that small, cramped space. I took a deep breath, filling my lungs with the fragrance. A few ferns grew in the dark soil, graceful in the dimpled light. I had seen ferns growing along the bicycle path in the Compound but I’d never seen a tree like this.
“We’ll rest here,” David whispered. “When it’s dark, we’ll move on.” He nodded his head toward the boy. “Who is he? Why did you bring him along?”
I glanced at the boy, worried about how he’d react to David, but his face was flat, expressionless. “I’ll explain later,” I said. “Let me see your arm.”
He rolled up his wet sleeve. The skin was ripped from his elbow to his wrist in a long, shallow gash with uneven edges. Dark red blood, thick and sticky, oozed from it. “It looks deeper than it is,” I told him. “We just need to keep pressure on it. You’ll be okay.”
He quickly rolled his sleeve back down, twisting it so it was tight against his arm. “It’s time to sleep.”
The ground under the tree was covered with fallen needles but it was surprisingly soft. The sun had fully risen; warmth was wrapping around us, soft and moist.
In spite of his wet clothes, the boy curled up, using a roll of diapers as a pillow, and was asleep almost instantly. David sat propped against the tree trunk. I leaned against him, my head on his chest. I could hear his heartbeat, strong and steady. Elsa, pink and warm, was safe in my arms.
“The boy,” I whispered, “was awake one night at the Village. He was near tears. Said his belly hurt. Seems that he wanted to use the washing-up area but couldn’t. Said it was against the rules.”
“The rules? For the washing-up area?”
“Yes. The children could only go when the Caretakers said they could. No other time.”
“That’s ridiculous.” David whispered.
“Right. So I gave him permission to break a rule. I let him go. After that, he told me he always wanted me to be with him. He said I was important because I could break the rules. I told him he was important because I broke the rule for him. He trusted me. I couldn’t break his trust. I had to bring him.”
“I understand.” But David didn’t look like he understood. He sounded worried because we were now responsible for two children. Little did David know that I wished I could have saved more of them from their cold world. All of them.
We didn’t talk anymore. We needed to sleep.
I put my free hand into our bundle and tried to guess how many diapers and bottles we had. I knew there weren’t enough of either to last for very many days.
We spent our first day of freedom huddled under that tree, listening for the sound of footsteps in the forest and waiting for darkness so we could move on. But move on to where? Was any place safe?
I thought back to the old photograph that Mother had kept hidden in her mat. I treasured that picture of her holding me, both of us smiling into the camera. Behind us in that photo was a sturdy home, a loving place. A safe place. Every fiber in me longed to return to that home, to a new beginning free from punishment and rules and Gatekeepers and Enforcers.
I had the first pangs of hunger, but worse, I felt the sharp chill of fear. What if we couldn’t find a safe place to call home? Would we die out here alone in this forest?
I laid my head close against David’s chest to better hear and feel his strong, steady heartbeat.
Finally, I fell asleep.
Agenda 21: Into the Shadows
It was once named America, but now it is just “the Republic.” Following the worldwide implementation of a UN-led program called Agenda 21, the once-proud people of America have become obedient residents who live in barren, brutal Compounds and serve the autocratic, merciless Authorities.
Citizens mainly keep their heads down and their mouths shut—but Emmeline is different. When the Authorities took her mother away, she started questioning the world around her. What happened to her mom? Why is everyone confined to grim living spaces and made to eat the same food cubes every day? Why was her own baby taken from her to be raised in the Children’s Village? And are those who got away during the Relocations—the so-called shadow people—merely a rumor?
When Emmeline’s questions lead to the realization that she will never see her child again, she decides to escape the Compound. Fleeing the armed enforcers of the Earth Protection Agency, and facing the unknown for the first time in their lives, Emmeline and her partner David run into the shadows in the desperate hope of finding something they’d only heard stories about from those who’d lived before the Relocations: freedom.