There was only 100 of us left after the war. One hundred chosen people saved to replenish the Earth. We cannot fall victim to the atrocities that brought about our nuclear genocide. In order to avoid the traps that diversity brings, we must come together. We must be ... one.
One race. One woman. One man.
It is with this single mission in mind that we found, New Land. Otherness is forbidden by law. The sentence is death. Yet, there is one who dares to walk amongst us that is not the same. There is one hidden amongst us today, at this very second, who is pretending to be one, while plotting to be different.
I know this, because I am her.
“There,” I say stepping back to survey my brazen results in the mirror. My adrenaline, intermingled with fear, sends pricks of numbness to my fingertips.
I have dreamed about this day since I was eight years old, my defiant genetics continuing to harbor grand illusions of what it means to be truly alive. My mother warned me in my youth of the fatal repercussions that lay in wait for people like us. Generations of Scotts before me have been unable to overcome our ailment. So since birth doctors have decided that close monitoring and the proper dosage of prescribed medication should do the trick.
Unbeknownst to anyone, it is approximately six weeks since I’ve imbibed the mandatory elixir. Not even Ben is aware of my misdeed and for both of our safety it is best.
I take a deep breath and give myself a final once over. I am both frightened and thrilled, if ever a combination were possible. I click a hand on the touchscreen monitor embedded in the bathroom wall. The black screen comes to life and then a life-like image of me emerges on the screen. I zero in on the details and make sure I have the correct earrings for the day in my earlobes. I cross reference my bracelet and lipstick color. Both are correct. The only thing my ensemble is missing is stockings. I double click on the legs for the appropriate hue and the letters NUDE pop up in black block letters.
After smoothing a hand over my white floral dress with green straps, I blow a harsh breath from my lungs and trot out of the bathroom like a thorough bred doing its victory lap. I’m a smidgen smug and a lot of scared as I stroll past the bed, where Ben’s watching the morning news, to grab my stockings from the top dresser drawer.
I feel like I am walking awkwardly but quickly realize it is only my subconscious screaming, “Guilty! Guilty!” at the top of her lungs. Nothing about my walk would raise alarm to my crime. Oh no, that comes with further observation. For a moment I think about rushing back into the bathroom to repair the damage. But the rebel in me won’t allow it.
“Don’t you look beautiful,” Ben says, following me with his eyes.
The nerves in my gut make me want to wretch my morning coffee. I must play it cool. I give him a warm smile. “Thank you.”
He jostles his eyebrows. “I wish we could spend the morning in bed. But that is only for weekends,” he says reluctantly rising from the bed and coming toward me. “And I look forward to the next weekend.”
Ben pulls me against him and crushes his mouth to mine. I ignore his morning breath and kiss him in return. Despite my disability, I’ve come to care for him in my own way. He’s funny and kind and takes great pride in providing for us. My disobedience could lead to his death and I take no pleasure in that thought. I’ve tried to politely prod him to engage in the idea of living our own lives and he would have none of it. In fact, one night under questioning he became apprehensive and asked me if everything was all right. I immediately backed down and said it was. No sense in alarming him with hypotheticals. I could wind up dead before even getting my plan into action.
He moans as the smooch begins to deepen. He uses his pelvis to force me back against the dresser. My fingers are dancing over him when the weather girl on the TV screen does her 7:15 a.m. forecast.
“Shoot,” I say leaning away. “You have to be at work in forty-five minutes.”
“I’ll get there,” he says, forcing his mouth back on mine.
I indulge him for another moment and then gently press him back. “Shower. Now.”
He leans back and smiles. “I don’t know. There’s something about you this morning. I mean, you look amazing every day, but this morning …” He studies my face.
Yes! I want to scream it. Look at me, Benjamin. What is it about this morning?
Ben kisses my mouth again with wet a popping sound and stomps to the closet. “How did I get so lucky?”
I nod in the affirmative and get back to stepping into my tights.
“What’s the uniform again today?”
I look at the male anchor on the television. “Gray suit, white shirt and the salmon and navy striped tie.”
Ben pulls the clothes from the closet, throws it on the bed and disappears into the bathroom.
When I hear the shower turn on, I sit on the edge of the bed and stare back at the female co-anchor. She’s a little thinner than I am, so our floral dress shapes nicely around her breasts. The burgundy of our lipsticks looks a little better on me thanks to the couple of hours of sun I caught working in the garden on Saturday.
To the untrained eye, we are identical. Since the government began its genetic mutations back in the year 2050, they have finally worked out the kinks. There are only two types of people in New Land and they either look like me or Ben. Clones. The word has been banned, but my grandfather and I use it freely when we are alone. After planet Earth was almost snubbed out thanks to an international nuclear war, one hundred people were saved. My maternal ancestor was a part of the gene mutation scientist team and, subsequently, was granted asylum and a place in the new United States, New Land.
To avoid the problems that led to the war, each family is only allowed two children, a boy and a girl. The doctor implants the first male in the womb on your thirtieth birthday, the second female approximately three years later and each child is stamped with an identification symbol on their foreheads. It’s how we tell one another apart and operate within the economy.
I feel a sense of accomplishment as I watch the anchor read the morning headlines. I have upped the ante and fought back in a small way, however minute. I rise to look at my sign of freedom in the mirror. I can’t help but spread my lips in a revolutionary smile.
Sixth Street is buzzing with activity when I make my usual morning rounds. I find myself speed-walking through the crowd. What if someone notices? Again, I have not thought my strategy out enough but knew I had to take action.
I am trembling with fear when I step into the bakery. Amy is busy ringing up customers and the owner, Frank, is helping the couple before me decide on scones. I walk along the glass cases observing the decadent sweets on display. My grandfather, who I lovingly call Pop-Pop, lives for my tasty surprises. Last time I brought him chocolate croissants.
I stop when my eyes settle on coconut biscuits.
“That’s a great choice,” Frank says leaning on the display case. “Extra pinch of nutmeg. They melt in your mouth.”
I stand to look Frank square in the eyes. He’s a slightly older, chubbier and graying version of Ben. Though he’s lost the suit jacket, his unbuttoned at the collar white shirt and loosened salmon and navy tie still reflect the uniform of the day.
“Okay. Make it three.”
As Frank fulfills my order, I stroll over to the register where Amy is waiting to greet me.
“You look great today,” she says.
I stare back at myself across the counter and wonder why she even bothers with the daily praises. We look the same down to the tear drop earrings. Perhaps she is just being friendly? I need to get a grip. I force a smile and ask after her day.
Amy usually says fine. She leans toward me across the counter and whispers, “Good. Except for the Mrs. Trumdale situation.”
Vera Trumdale married into old money. Her estate sits on the top of the mountain just on the outskirts of the city. A major backer in the city’s rejuvenation after the war, the neighboring town has been named after her late husband.
Amy scanned the bakery for eavesdroppers. She says the obligatory, “not to gossip or anything” before she does just that. “Frank came in early to find her in her pajamas in the kitchen. She said her great, great grandmother used to own this bakery and she was in the mood for a pineapple upside down cake.”
“I take it that’s a bad thing.”
Amy makes a face. “Of course it’s a bad thing. Her pajamas weren’t the sanctioned set for the night. And pineapple upside down cake? That’s only served on holidays.”
“She broke protocol.” I say this surprised statement to myself more so than Amy.
“Can you believe it? The old lady must be losing her wits or something.”
“What did Frank do?”
“Call the police, of course. I mean, she was also putting him in danger baking that thing in his oven.”
My mind is becoming a jumbled mix of thoughts. I shake my head and try to stick on topic. “What happened to her?”
Amy puts my box of biscuits in a cute gift bag like she always does for my grandfather’s treats. “Don’t you watch the news?”
I don’t waste time telling her I was too absorbed in my own protocol breaking antics to pay attention to the news. When I don’t say anything, she lifts the registers scanner and sweeps it over the symbol in my forehead. The scanner beeps as the payment clears.
“Word is she was sent to Oak Ridge for an evaluation. It’s scary, right? Someone we know doing something like that? They say she hasn’t been taking her elixir for something like six weeks.”
I nod. “Yeah, a shame. Thanks, again.”
I grab the polka dot bag and rush toward the door with Mrs. Trumdale’s behavior echoing in my mind. What would make a ninety-year-old woman wake up in the middle of the night and forget the rules her very own husband helped set in place?
“Tessa?” Amy calls.
I turn back at the sound of my name.
Amy places her hand on the counter and winks. “There’s something about you today. The weekend must have done you good.”
Pop-Pop is waiting in the dining hall for me like he always does every morning at half past eight. He looks a little leaner today. While I can often look in another man’s eyes and see Ben, it is never the case with him. There is always a twinkle in his hazel-eyed gaze that is unique to him. It’s a sparkle of truth, of individuality. He is clever at hiding it when others are around, but once he sets his eyes on me the veil lifts and Pop-Pop, the real Pop-Pop emerges.
“There she is,” he says as I cross the dining hall filled with seniors getting their breakfast.
“How are you?” I bend down to kiss his wrinkled cheeks.
He grabs my hand and I watch the color drain out of his face.
A slow, wicked grin sneaks across his face. “Why you little …” Pop-Pop punches a soft fist in my gut. “Come on,” he says slapping his hands on the side of his wheelchair. “Take me outside to eat in the garden.”
I place the bag of goodies in his lap and push us toward the open double doors into the garden. I wind us down the brick path for privacy. He points toward a marble bench off to the side and the wheelchair fights me a bit as the turf changes to artificial grass.
I sit across from him. He glances around and then makes a face at the biscuits in the bag. I smirk and reach into my purse and place a single, unsanctioned cinnamon bun leftover from yesterday in his hand.
“Oooh shit,” he laughs. He gets to work on the treat quickly, smacking his gums and snatching any crumbs that fall on his salmon and navy tie. “This bun is almost as good as seeing that part in your head.”
“Shhh!” I warn, holding up a nervous hand to my hair.
“I knew it the minute I saw you.”
“Well, no one else has noticed and I would like to keep it that way for now. Everyone just keeps saying there’s something about me they can’t put their finger on.” I smile and enjoy a chuckle.
“It feels good, doesn’t it?” Pop-Pop says starting in on the coconut biscuits. “To be different?” He looks at me enviously.
I shrug. “I only parted my hair on the left. Nothing to write home about.”
He waves me off with his long fingers. “You have to start small. A part on the left instead of the right today, jeans instead of a dress tomorrow. Revolution takes time. It ain’t over night.”
The jeans comment makes me shutter. Something so blatant could get me shot dead on the street. The thought reminds me of Mrs. Trumdale.
“Do you remember Vera Trumdale?”
Pop-Pop puts down his biscuit and looks to the sky as if visualizing her. “Mmm-hmm. Stuck up old, bitch. What about her?”
“She was arrested this morning. She broke into Frank’s bakery to bake a pineapple upside down cake while wearing non-protocol pajamas.”
I watch as his biscuit slips through his feeble fingers. The bag of uneaten biscuits tumbles to the ground behind it. “What did you say?”
“It’s happening again.” I bend to pick up the bag and my blood goes cold at his expression. “The quirk in the system.”
“What are you talking about?”
He motions for me to come close. “Our ancestor Gerald Scott put a glitch in our family’s genetic code. He put a glitch in the three genetic systems. Every eighty years, the program goes haywire. History has revealed that the three families are the Scotts, the Trumdales and the Mancinis. That’s why those three families have been forced to take the elixir, to rid them of pursuing their dreams. Remember as a child when you spoke of a dream about a bridge. That’s why they began to give you the elixir right away. It can’t be coincidence that the very same day you decide to go rogue, Vera Trumdale did, too.”
My mouth goes dry. “Amy said Vera hasn’t been taking her elixir for six weeks.”
Pop-Pop bangs his fist against his armrest. “Maybe that’s it. Maybe the first part of the code malfunction is the desire to stop taking it. That means that today there is another one of you out there, Tessa. One of the Mancinis.”
That overwhelming feeling is crowding me again and I put my face in my hands. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
“Don’t you see,” he says knocking my hands away. “This is it, girl. Today is the day. My father told me to wait until it was the day, until one of our kin displayed the genetic code malfunction before I reveal that they must get to the bridge. His sister tried it and was killed before she could get away.”
I immediately shake my head. I want no parts of where he is taking this conversation. I only wanted to make a small show of freedom today with my hair. Nothing more, nothing less. His words remind me of the bridge in my dreams. Long, wide stone deep in the heart of some dark city. Pop-Pop talks right over me when I ask him to stop.
He wheels his chair closer to me and lowers his voice to a whisper. “It’s the George Washington Bridge. It’s in the wastelands formerly called New York City. North of here. On the middle of the bridge, if you climb down the side that faces east, right below the surface of the water there is a door. It leads to an underwater passage. Gerald said our kin is to make it inside.”
I can feel the hair at the back of my neck standing on end.
“Every 80 years, there is a window of opportunity for a Scott who is experiencing a code malfunction to get there.”
“One of our ancestors actually made it as far as the city line.”
“But what you just told me about Vera. Now I know why it’s never worked. A Scott was never meant to go alone. One person could never accomplish a feat like that. It’ll take all three of you.”
“No,” I say again with more aggression.
“Listen!” Pop-Pop shouts, taking me painfully by the shoulders. “I don’t have time for your bullshit. The clock is on, girl. Don’t you see? You were born for this very purpose. Now Vera is ninety and you’re only twenty-five. That means that the third person we’re looking for is probably somewhere between forty-three and seventy-two years old. Gerald was probably smart enough to make the glitch run in three different generations. I’m going to guess it’s a man.”
Tears prick my eyes as ice cold fear pumps through me. “What are you saying?”
“You have to find the third person before their act of freedom is noticed and they are killed. Then the three of you need to head to New York City and get to that bridge.”
I give an incredulous laugh. “And what? What am I supposed to do when I get inside this utility hatch?” I shake my head. “As if I’d even get that far.”
“Gerald is a nationally renowned figure in New Land. He’s no idiot, girl. If he left one of his ancestors as the trigger to stopping New Land, there must be something in there to do just that.”
I get up to pace away from him and his crazy words.
He tries to reach me with logic. “Us being forced to look the same, act the same. It ain’t right. It ain’t what God intended. If it was, there wouldn’t have once been different races, sizes, eye colors, shoe sizes.”
“Don’t give me anymore of your fairytales.”
“I swear it’s true. All people did not look the same.”
“All of those differences led to war. Maybe it is wrong,” I say angrily, repeating what I was taught in history class as a youngster.
Pop-Pop sits back in his wheelchair and watches me. “Yet here you stand before me with your hair parted on the wrong side.”
I toss him back a go to hell look.
“Gerald only went along with the gene mutation because he couldn’t figure out another way to save his family from extinction when nuclear war began to break out. As long as he was alive, the government needed his skills to make their dream of surviving war and bringing about one race a reality. He knew he couldn’t fight it then, but a part of him could in the future. You’re his future. You’re that part of him.”
I laugh at his ridiculousness. “I would be what, the fifth attempt?”
“Each time, the next generation gets a little closer. I told you my father’s sister made it to the city before she was killed by the police. They must have learned something each time. I’m telling you this is it. The key is the other two people. I can feel it.”
“How do you know? You have nothing but a bunch of old family wise tales.”
“That must mean the other families have the missing keys that we don’t. You won’t know until you find them.”
We hear voices in the distance. I turn toward them and look through the artificial trees. Policemen are talking to staff. I hear my name and my chest tightens.
“They’re here for me,” I whisper.
“Come,” my grandfather motions for me to push him. “You must get out of here.”
I push him further down the walking trail. “And go where? They’ll kill me.”
“Go find the third person. Mancini. You’re looking for a man, forty to seventy years old. Run a search. Go to him and then Vera and get to that bridge.”
My hands are trembling as he stops the wheels with his hands. “There’s a gate over there that leads to the street. Go!”
“I’m scared! I can’t!”
“It is your destiny,” Pop-Pop says squeezing my hand. “Go!”
I take one final look at him. He gives me a curt nod and I turn and run for the gate and away from the facility.
I realize I’ve forgotten my purse but keep going. When I turn the block, I stop and close my eyes. “Search,” I whisper and the symbol in my forehead warms. “Mancini, New Land, forty to seventy years old.”
A series of photos blink behind my eyes. I zero in on the two men. One is in his seventies and the other is in his forties. I go for the younger fellow.
“Jasper Mancini,” I say.
Text appears next to his photo.
Owner, Mancini Mechanics.
Old Hill Road.
Jasper Mancini is not where he’s supposed to be, which his employee states is unusual when he checks for him in his office and he is nowhere to be found.
“His truck is still here though. Maybe he’s gone up to the apartment in the back. Would you like me to check?”
“I can do it,” I say stepping back into the sunshine.
“It’s no trouble, really,” the mechanic says, wiping his hands on his jumpsuit and unzipping it to reveal his wrinkled gray suit.
“No, it’s fine,” I wave. Outside I pass the garage’s large bay windows where men in similar jumpsuits work underneath cars, their brightly polished dress shoes sticking out like sore thumbs in the otherwise dingy enclosure.
Just as the young man said, there is an in-law apartment with stairs and a long white banister with chipping paint. I climb the stairs quickly and knock. There is no answer and so I try again a little more incessantly but still managing to sound polite. I wait again. Nothing. I peek over my shoulder to see if there are any wandering eyes. When the coast is clear I try the handle and it turns easily.
There’s something wedged against the door. It won’t budge. I shoulder-check it and the door gives a little. I try it again and hear a man’s deep groan.
I step back from the door for momentum and charge with my weight against it. The door bangs forward and something drops behind it, blocking it from openly completely. This is how I meet Jasper Mancini.
I squeeze through the space in the door and he stares back up at me from the floor, a noose around his throat, his face a deadly burgundy.
“Oh my God! Are you all right?” I fall beside him, pulling the rope from his neck. A thin cord of torn flesh dots with blood and he takes one of his large hands to sooth it. “You, you were hanging?”
The crimson of his flushed face eases and Jasper stands, still gasping for breath. He eyes the symbol on my forehead. “I … I know you.”
The rasp in his voice is dark. It matches the gruff of his beard and the traces of dirt underneath his fingernails. He’s a tall man with a powerful physique and an equally formidable scowl. He’s the terminator version of Ben. And though he’s lost his suit jacket and tie, nothing about him looks like it belongs in the white shirt the wall of his chest is nearly bursting out of.
There’s no wedding ring or indentation of where one should be on his finger. I find this odd because it is forbidden to be single beyond the age of twenty-two. We are paired with our mates on our twenty-first birthdays and though divorces and affairs are illegal and once in a while a man or woman is executed for coveting another person’s mate, every man is given the birth right of his own wife.
I stand and dust off my knees, never taking my eyes off of his. It is like a string of energy has instantaneously tethered between us and I could not break contact if I wanted to. “No. I don’t think so.” I am uncomfortable under his scrutiny. “You … Were you trying to kill yourself?”
His eyes singe with a bit of anger. “Who are you?”
“My name is Tessa Scott. I’m …” I realize on the way over here I still haven’t comprised the right words to say anything short of sounding like a lunatic. “I found the shop address on the search engine.”
“The mechanic office is that way,” he says jutting his head in the direction of the door. He moves around me and pulls out a chair at the small apartment’s dining room table.
Nervously, I join him. “I thought I would have figured out what to say.” My heart ricochets against my sternum. “I’m going to assume you haven’t tried to kill yourself before.”
“Maybe the thoughts to do it … Maybe they started about six weeks ago? That’s around the time I started getting thoughts of being free.” I lean in to him to whisper. “Today is the first day I went through with the urge to break protocol. I’ve parted my hair on the opposite side.”
His eyes lift only briefly to examine my hair before their coldness refocus on my face. Something about him makes me squirm in my seat.
He continues to look disinterested but he hasn’t kicked me out either. So I forge ahead with the story of my ancestor Gerald Scott, what I know about his and why Mrs. Trumdale is another important facet to our story. When I’m sure I’ve shared it all, I lean back in my seat and wait for his response. It takes a while but a tiny chuckle comes, then another. And another until he’s bowled over in laughter so hard that the crimson has returned to his face. The very reaction I was trying to avoid.
“This is not a joke.”
“No, I don’t think that it is, but you must agree that your story is odd. I am amused.”
I despise being mocked. “You’re not amused. You’re suicidal,” I remind.
“Watch your step,” he warns lowly.
“If the authorities are after me, you can be sure they will be here for you soon, as well. Mrs. Trumdale’s episode put us on their radar. They know what today means.”
“And what does it mean?”
“That the three of us … I need to make it to the bridge and I think you and Mrs. Trumdale should come with me.”
“You need some elixir fast,” he says with a shake of his head.
“You take it, too?”
He cocks a brow.
“But not lately. Because you’ve had the same urge. The three of us have. It’s genetic. I know what you’re feeling. It’s always there in the back of your mind like a beating drum. It’s muffled, hard to hear. But then one day you wake up and the sound is so loud it’s deafening. You can’t talk to anyone about it. They won’t understand. Hell, they’ll turn you in. You don’t know why it’s happening to you. But everywhere you look you know in your soul it’s wrong. This,” I say motioning about the kitchen, “is wrong. And so today I wake up and want to revolt, Mrs. Trumdale wants to bake a cake and you … you want to kill yourself.”
A roar rips from him as he charges me, lifting me out of the chair and slamming me into the wall. “Shut your fucking mouth.”
Pain radiates through me, but it is chased quickly by a sudden feeling I don’t understand – desire. I watch it slip into his rage-filled eyes and we stare back at one another entranced. I don’t know this man, but yet I do. The sense is as sure as the mystifying urge I had this morning to change my hair.
I have not even felt such a blatant wantonness for Ben. So the want that pools in my belly and drips to my groin scares me. “Get off of me!” I shout, pushing his searing fingers off of my flesh. “Don’t touch me!”
I’ve barely managed to sway his statuesque build but he relinquishes me nonetheless. Jasper is as visually affected as I am by the sensation of our touch. He takes a menacing step toward me. “What did you do?”
I shake my head. “Nothing.”
“You’re some kind of witch.”
We don’t have the opportunity to discuss it further because we can hear a small commotion outside of the window. Jasper leans over the sink to part the curtain. There’s a squad of police cars parked at the shop and the man from the front desk is leading officers on foot to the apartment.
I back away from the window. “They’re here.”
Jasper snatches me by the wrist and pulls me into a small bedroom in the back. He grabs a duffel bag out of the closet and flings it out of the window, climbing out after it. I peer below and see that it is more than a two foot drop.
“Come on,” he says.
“Jump,” he orders.
“It’s too high.”
“I’ll catch you,” he says holding out his arms.
I can hear the kitchen door opening and have little time to contemplate breaking my neck as I leap out of the window into Jasper’s waiting arms. My body sizzles where our skin makes contact. I know the feeling isn’t lost on him as well because when he sets me on my feet and takes my hand, he grits his teeth so hard he is almost snarling.
We run across the back lot and he helps me hop the chain link fence that separates the garage grounds from other neighboring businesses. We hurry along the crevice of a building that leads out to the main road. The morning is like any other and there are no signs of the police on this street.
We scurry toward the center of town walking as quickly as we can without rousing suspicions. “They’ll see us.”
Jasper rolls his eyes. “We’ll blend in.”
“How? You’re not wearing your complete uniform.”
He curses and eyes a gentleman stepping out of a convenience store folding a newspaper under his arm. Jasper grabs him by the throat and pulls him around the side of the storefront. With one punch the man is rendered unconscious. Jasper lays him down and steals his tie. He doesn’t bother with the suit jacket that is clearly two sizes too small. I’ve never seen a person get struck before. Violence is a rare occurrence in New Land.
Any reports of it are usually shared over a news broadcast as a warning. The sight of Jasper’s actions gives me a jolt of excitement that recycles into shame. Isn’t that what led to the founding of New Land in the first place? The war. Country against country.
I’m thankful when Jasper points to a decrepit barn. We’ve been walking for more than thirty minutes. I follow him inside the hollowed out building. The horse stalls are empty and rusting equipment hangs on hooks along the wall. Jasper climbs a ladder in the rear and disappears from my view before reappearing in the open loft above. He throws down a small black bag.
“What is this place?”
“A barn,” he says returning to the main floor and rummaging through the bag.
I roll my eyes. “Obviously.”
Over his shoulder I see the bag is filled with canned goods and a couple of canteens. “It used to belong to my uncle. He left it to me when he died.”
I glance at the splintered wood and cracks in the roof. “Do you come here often?”
“When I want to escape.”
“Does your wife come, too?”
This earns me a nasty glare. He re-zips the bag and tosses it near the entrance. “What makes you think you’re supposed to go to this bridge?”
“Because I’ve dreamed about it off and on since I was a child. Whenever the dreams come in the night, the elixir erases them in the morning. But when I stopped taking it, the dreams became more vivid, more real. And with that came the urge to break protocol.”
“Do you ever have dreams?”
Jasper’s eyes sadden. I see a flash of pain in his expression. I step forward. “What are they about?”
His head dips wearily. For a hulk of a man, there is something broken about him. Before it was hidden in rage. Right now it is seeping out of him as his broad shoulders deflate in sorrow.
“You can tell me. We’re in this together. We have to be able to trust one another.”
He opens his mouth and I feel myself tense in anticipation.
The symbol in my forehead glows. “Shit,” I curse, stepping back as if it will cause it to stop. It blinks again and Jasper gazes at me inquisitively.
I close my eyes and see my brother’s name flash behind my dark lids. “Shit. It’s my brother Dennis.”
“Don’t answer it.”
I open my eyes. “I have to. It’s suspicious if I don’t answer.”
We stand glaring at one another for another moment as the pesky symbol in my forehead blinks on and off. I wave him off to the side and double tap my forehead.
The projector light beams out onto the floor and Dennis’s profile appears in a hologram.
“Tessa,” he says rushed. “Where the hell are you?”
I force a smile. “Hi, Dennis. Just out enjoying the weather. It’s a lovely -”
“The police are looking for you,” he whispers. “They …” Dennis looks away nervously. “I don’t have much time. They say you’ve broken protocol. I told them you would never but … they’ve shown me photos of your hair.”
I swallow. “That’s absurd.”
“Where are you?”
“Just taking a walk.”
“They’ve brought in Pop-Pop and they’re here for me. You need to run, Tessa. They’re going to execute you on sight. You need to -”
He’s distracted by something else in the room.
“Sure,” he says to someone off screen. “Ah, Tessa. I’m sure it’s a misunderstanding. I’m talking to her right now.” Dennis raises his hand to his forehead and switches the view of his hologram to landscape. His large office comes into view behind him. He doesn’t speak. Something has his attention. He looks back at me as my husband Ben walks into frame behind him.
“Tessa, my love,” he sighs. “There you are. Are you alone?”
“Yes, of course. What’s going on?”
“Where are you?”
“Out for a walk.”
“I stopped by to visit Dennis. Why don’t we pick you up? The three of us can do lunch like old times.”
Dennis forces a smile but says nothing. He would never interrupt his workday for lunch with me and Ben. His wife can barely get him to come home on time for dinner. As an analyst in New Land’s parliament, he spends long hours working on land expansion. The fact that Ben doesn't mention the police as Dennis just has is an unvoiced signal that my husband cannot be trusted.
I glance at my watch. “It’s still early? How about I meet you guys in an hour?”
Ben considers my question and then shifts his eyes to Dennis. “He told you, didn’t he?”
He yanks Dennis back by the throat, crushing his windpipe with his forearm.
“Dennis!” I gasp.
“Where are you!” Ben demands.
Dennis squirms against his hold, a glob of spit stringing down his chin as he fights to breathe.
“Stop it, Ben! What are you doing?”
“Tell me where you are?”
I shake my head.
“You’ve been a very naughty girl today, haven’t you?” Ben bares down on Dennis’ throat and I see an unfamiliar violence radiate in his eyes. “Tell me where you are or I’ll snap his neck.”
“Please, don’t! Don’t hurt him! God, Ben.”
Dennis stumbles forward with Ben glued to his back. “Run, Tess. Don’t stop. Just … go.”
“Ben, please. I -”
Jasper steps forward and puts the palm of his hand to my forehead, outing the projection.
“No!” I holler, swinging at him. I miss. His hands lock my flailing wrists down like iron. “My brother! He’ll kill my brother!”
“He’s going to anyway. No sense in you watching it happen.”
“Get off of me!” I scream, trying to wiggle out of his grasp. He lets me go so suddenly I nearly tumble on my bottom. “Take me back to town.”
He crosses his arms.
I need to get to Dennis. We have never been particularly close but I know that it has more to do with my illness than anything else. While he has never shown symptoms, he has been forced to take the elixir as a precaution. He has always resented me for it, but I would rather die than see him hurt for my decision.
“Fine! I’ll get there myself!”
I don’t even make it two strides before Jasper scoops me up by the waist and plants me back inside. “We can do this the nice way or the hard way. Your call.”
“Get out of my way! You don’t even believe anything I’ve told you. The only reason you ran is because the police showed up.”
“Is that so?”
“Move!” He’s blocking my way but I manage to dash around him before he grabs my arm and spins me around. “Fuck off!” I punch at him, but he blocks it effortlessly. I tug fiercely at his hard grip on my forearms. Our seesaw momentum jerks him forward and the force sends the both of us splaying on the ground. I kick wildly at his shins, causing a swirl of dust and pebbles to shower over us.
He rolls over me, pinning me underneath his weight and locking my arms over my head in a painful grip.
“He’s my brother!” I shriek, tears springing forward. “My brother!”
“Do you know why I came with you?” he growls.
“Let me go!” I rock my hips pointlessly. There is no way I can upend this beast of a man.
“I have dreamt of only two things since I was boy! Suicide and you!” I am startled still. “I have never met you a day before in my life, yet I could pick you out in a sea of women. You and me …” he pauses to regain some control. “Back there in the kitchen. You felt it, too.”
It’s back, the energy between us. It feels like burning lava where his hands hold me and it’s spreading like wildfire through my veins.
“I have tried to kill myself twice in the last six weeks. The gun jammed on the first attempt and a neighbor pulled me out of the pool and revived me on the second. Today seemed like a surety and then you showed up. I didn’t follow you because I’m afraid of the police. I came because I know this is where I belong … with you.”
He leans back on his haunches and when he releases me I scramble up on my bottom and move from underneath him.
I do not know what to make of his confession. I am worried about Dennis and this mysterious man and our perplexing connection adds another layer of chaos to the only morsel of truth I have – I am meant to get to the George Washington Bridge. I don’t know what awaits me when I get there and what I am to do after I get inside the utility door.
Jasper rises and extends a hand to me. With no other choice, I take it and allow him to lift me to my feet.
His eyes are hypnotizing. As he leans over me, I am cocooned in a bubble of transcendence. The world seems to fall away and I can feel the thudding in my chest falling into the rhythm of his ragged breaths. He only needs to bend slightly to bring our lips together. The realization makes me tingle. His eyes slink toward my mouth and every part of me begs for him to do it. The yearning to be intimate with this man is potent. I have known him no longer than an hour and even still I am sure that his touch will be as recognizable as my own reflection.
“We’ll leave when the sunsets,” he whispers.
Jasper makes us change into the black military clothes in his bag. He says it will help keep us hidden in the night and warm when we cross into the wastelands. They are a little large for me and he uses his belt to cinch the pants around my waist. He stuffs the toes of the boots with straw and ties them tightly at my ankle.
We wind our way down the dark, empty streets in silence. Our footsteps are the only sounds in the night. We approach Oak Ridge from the rear. A barbwire fence surrounds the four story stone building and the only entrance is a guarded gate manned by an armed security team.
We fall back against an adjacent coffee shop and hide in the shadows of its oversized awning. My nose catches the underlying scent of coffee grounds. I turn to see an arrangement of selections lining the restaurant window. Jasper lifts my wrists and sets the timer on my watch.
“If I am not back in fifteen minutes you use the map in your backpack and get as far away from here as you can.” I begin to protest and Jasper lifts up a “shut up” finger. “Do as I say.”
I make an annoyed sucking sound with my teeth. It is the only recognition I will give his command. With that he crosses the road and kneels at the metal barrier. He uses an object I cannot make out in the dark to cut a hole in the fence just large enough for him to slip through. He runs toward the building and I watch him until his dark figure merges with the night and I can see him no more.
My heart rate quickens. I search the shadows cast along the vacant street for signs of movement. There is no official curfew in New Land, but no decent citizen is out past ten. Most establishments close at nine and juice bars that cater to adults who want to unwind in the evening announce last call a quarter past nine. Mood altering substances like alcohol and drugs were banned after the war. Even coffee is no longer caffeinated.
For that reason, I know that anyone out here at this time of night is either an unsavory character or a member of the police. I prefer to avoid both. My watch says that Jasper has only been gone a little over a minute though it feels like hours. I can’t bear the thought of his capture, or worse, his execution. The thought of being alone is terrifying. The only familial tie I have left is Dennis’ young sons and I know the further away I am from them, the safer they will be.
Though parting my hair this morning was a conscious crime, I naively thought I’d have a while to figure out what to do next. Now I am forced to live and make decisions on a whim.
I tighten back against the building when the sounds of gunshots ring out. I have never heard the sound in real life. It reminds me of the annual fireworks during New Land’s Day of Liberation celebration. Adrenaline detonates within me and I beat back the urge to flee. Jasper has been gone four minutes.
Another shot fires. It’s closer. I strain my eyes toward the yard of the building where I think I see movement. This is worse than any nightmare. The boogeyman is often faceless. My monsters have faces and they all look the same. A solid figure emerges from the darkness. Jasper. I release the breath I’m holding. He dips through the fence and turns to hold the chain link apart.
An older woman wearing black silk pajamas and slippers crawls out clutching a red purse. The bright security lights of the building blast on in unison with a blaring alarm. Jasper takes Mrs. Trumdale’s hand and he motions for me to run as we dash down the block.
“That way,” Jasper yells to me.
We enter Celestine State Park and he leads us up a walking trail and then off track into the make-shift woods. Once the artificial trees completely shroud us and we can no longer hear Oak Ridge’s alarm, he slows the tempo and allows Mrs. Trumdale to fall into a leisurely gait for a while.
When she pauses to put a hand to her waist and catch her breath, Jasper helps her to the ground and hands her a canteen. She takes a few swigs, eyeing me over the container. She holds it out to me. I politely decline and scan the black outskirts. I’ve never been out this late at night. It’s creepy. Small spheres of light from the football field across the park float beyond the trees.
“Maybe we should keep going,” I say to Jasper.
“She needs a rest.”
Mrs. Trumdale nods at that and pats the rubber grass beside her. “Sit. You should rest, too.”
I take a seat and lean back against the plastic base of the tree. “This young man hasn’t had the time to explain just exactly why he has freed me from Oak Ridge. Do you care to explain?”
I rehash the day, skipping over the inconsequential components. When I’m finished she looks to where Jasper is standing on guard and then back to me. “And what’s supposed to happen when you get to this bridge?”
I shrug. I don’t tell her about the hatch. Mrs. Trumdale is as much a stranger to me as Jasper, but something in my heart tells me I can trust him. Her, I’m not quite sure about. Somewhere between knocking on his apartment door and springing Mrs. Trumdale from Oak Ridge, it has become me and Jasper versus everyone else. It’s not a choice I was conscious of making, but I’m aware of it now when I reply with, “I don’t know. We were hoping you could tell us.”
Mrs. Trumdale purses her lips. “I haven’t a clue. I’ve never heard anything about a bridge.”
“Do you have reoccurring dreams, Mrs. Trumdale? Are you also required to take the elixir like me and Jasper?”
Mrs. Trumdale holds up a hand. “One question at a time. I’m an old woman. Yes, I have dreams. Since a little girl I dreamed of farming. It is a pastime of my ancestors. My first dream was at age six and when I told my mother, the doctor prescribed me the elixir.”
“And you stopped taking it six weeks ago?”
“Hmm … that sounds about right. I can’t really remember.”
“Why were you at the bakery this morning?”
“Oh,” Mrs. Trumdale smiles and the lines around her eyes join in. “I wanted to try some of my recipes. I’ve dreamed up many of them. All the way down to their origin.”
“To their origin?”
“Yes, you know. How to plant the seed and grow a turnip from the soil.”
I’m confused. “We don’t have soil.”
“But we once did,” she said, opening her purse and retrieving a small notebook. “See,” she says opening it and handing it to me. “I took it from my family’s vault a few weeks back and added some of my own. There’s wheat and berry recipes.”
Jasper blows out an exasperated breath. “Sounds like we should have left her in Oak Ridge.”
“I’m not crazy,” she says pleasantly. “And they know that. My husband spent his life working on F.D.”
“Food Distribution,” Jasper answers.
“Our president is a very bad man. He’s lying to us. He knows the truth,” she says nodding her head.
Jasper paces a few feet away and looks into the dark. “We should get going. They won’t be far off.”
I ignore him. We have risked much to get to Mrs. Trumdale. I won’t be deterred. “And what’s the truth?” I say leaning in to her.
“I don’t know it all. Only what my husband admitted to me on his deathbed. Your brother -”
“What about my brother?”
“It worked. His --”
Mrs. Trumdale pauses in mid-sentence. She takes two, quick shallow breaths and then falls against me.
I scream when her head falls into my lap.
Jasper places Mrs. Trumdale on her back and checks for a pulse.
He begins resuscitation.
I’ve never seen a dead body before. When my father’s mother died, she was ash in a pretty silver urn by the time I saw her. As Jasper pumps away on Mrs. Trumdale’s chest, I keep replaying the sound of her taking her last breath over and over in my head. She was just talking to us two seconds ago.
Jasper stops. “She’s dead.”
“How?” I gasp.
“We have to keep moving,” he says in a final tone.
I put a hand to her face and smooth the wrinkles underneath my fingers. She is an aged version of me. “How can this happen?”
Jasper pulls at my arm. “We have to go, Tessa.”
“We can’t just leave her here,” I cry.
“We have to.”
I resist him. “No. She can’t just be left in the woods like a piece of trash.”
“They will find her,” he says forcing me to my feet.
He leans Mrs. Trumdale up against a tree and places her purse on her lap.
I keep my eyes on her as Jasper takes me deeper into the woods. I don’t understand what’s transpired. I realize I am still clutching her notebook when its edges pierce my palm. I manage one last peek at her sitting corpse before a bush obscures her from my vision.
We come out the opposite end of the park and jog along street corridors, trying to remain as hidden as possible.
Jasper glances behind us. “Go!” he orders. I turn briefly to see the beam of flashlights in the park.
My feet are in overdrive. They are past the point of pain and continue to move forward because it simply hurts too much to stop. We cross the road. The electric streetlights feel like they are casting an alerting spotlight on our position. We run down several streets, past neatly lined houses with glowing porch lights.
We continue past the last house on the street and walk across a field of artificial grass. The New Land neighborhood disappears behind us and flat open concrete meet our feet. There is nothing around us for miles. In each direction I see open terrain.
“We’re nearing the boundary line,” Jasper says. As we near the ending of New Land, a thick fence with barbed wire visualizes in the distance. “Stay behind me,” he warns.
I follow behind him in a single file line. The fence looks closer than it actually is. We walk another twenty minutes before it’s within 100 feet. Jasper removes something from his pocket and plays with it in his fingers. I see its metal reflect the moonlight.
A buzzing sound echoes behind us. It’s low at first and then rising in pitch and speed. We turn to see headlights racing in our direction.
“Run!” Jasper yells. He grabs my forearm and surges me ahead toward the fence.
Jasper starts working on it with the tool, cutting into the links quickly. A gunshot fires and Jasper curses, cutting the fence in double time. Another shot fires and Jasper slams into me. I scream as he and I fall backwards on the ground.
“Oh God!” I cry as his body goes still on top of mine.
The vehicle screams to a halt before us. And a man jumps from the passenger side of the topless Jeep. He races toward us and Jasper rolls over firing into him and whomever is in the driver’s seat.
The man falls to the ground with a thump. I’m hysterical when Jasper stands and goes to the parked vehicle. He fires inside it again. I put my hands over my ears. The noise is too much.
Jasper is searching the vehicle. He slings a rifle over his shoulder and rummages through whatever’s in the trunk. A blue flame flashes dangerously into the night from a canister and then goes dead. Jasper fires it and the blowtorch comes back to life with the sound of hotly blown hair.
Jasper shoves it, along with other things I cannot make out in the dark, into his backpack. He’s back by my side in record time. “Come on,” he says.
I go through the hole in the fence and he follows.
I backhand my tears and grab at his shirt. “He shot you!”
“I’m fine,” he says pulling me into a run. “He hit my vest.”
The further we go, the cooler the air becomes. Jasper stops so we can slip into the jackets he packed and snack on a can of carrots. We share the can, passing it back and forth, as we walk. The bland food fills the void in my belly and Jasper chases it with the decaffeinated coffee in his Thermos.
I am practically sleep walking as the texture of the road shifts to hard concrete with faded white dotted lines. On either side of us is a loose, dusty substance around it.
“What is that?” I say pointing beside the road. I put a hand over my mouth, unsure if it is safe to inhale.
Jasper’s gaze follows my pointing finger. “Dirt.”
I repeat the word. “Dirt.” Some of it is on the road and I stare down at it when it vanishes beneath my boots. It reminds me of the photos in my elementary school books of soil. “Will it hurt us?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Are we out of New Land?”
“Yes,” Jasper says.
“How can we be sure the air is safe to breathe?”
“We don’t have a choice.”
I know he is right but I am still apprehensive to breathe in oxygen of wastelands.
I begin to see the ridges of mountains replace the open terrain. Their dark, rounded edges act as a separation on the night’s horizon.
Jasper looks behind us intermittently for signs of the police. All I want is a bed with pillows. I have been awake for nearly twenty-four hours. My burning eyes are heavy.
“I know you’re tired,” Jasper says. His voice flutters my drooping eyes open. “But we need to get to those mountains before we stop. They’ll provide shelter.”
Jasper slows and measures his steps with mine, slipping his fingers between mine. The heat from his touch causes me to stumble a bit. He’s already looking at me when I meet his gaze.
“Just a little longer,” he assures me.
His linking fingers grip mine tighter and for the second time today I have the feeling that everything will be all right. I carry the thought with me as we forge on.
I’m grateful when the road carries to the base of a mountain. We weave our way up the left side of it.
The dried remnants of bushes spring from the dusty Earth. Jasper helps me climb up a wall of rock. It is jagged, yet smooth under my fingers. On the other side is more rock. We meander over the loose bits of gravel until Jasper stops.
“This is good,” he says, helping me out of my backpack. He lays it against a corner of rock. “Use it as a pillow.”
I don’t wait for him to lay down. I hit the dirt and adjust the bag underneath my head.
I dream of the bridge. It stands out in the dark of the night. It begins to crumble as I walk on it. I try to run, but the Earth is falling beneath me. I’m tumbling … I wake with a start.
It’s Jasper’s voice.
“How long have I been asleep?”
He is sitting beside me on guard.
“A couple hours.”
I rub my eyes to clear them. “What shall we do next?”
“I have a map of the wastelands. We will use it to get to the bridge. Get back to sleep. You’ll need your rest. It’s more than five days on foot.”
“Will we make it?”
He looks at me. “Yes.”
At sunrise we set out. I lose track of time. We walk and climb a lot. Jasper said its best to hide in the mountains for as long as we can. The route he takes us on is exhausting. We only stop for short bouts of rest and food. Jasper uses the time to teach me a few self-defense moves.
The brutal sun is torture but Jasper assures me we'll find reprieve tonight as we'll camp by a lake. The idea of bathing is satisfying yet as soon as I consider immersing myself in a body of water in the wastelands, I'm frightened it may be an unhealthy decision.
It's been dark for hours by the time we emerge deep into a batch of dying forest trees. I hold the back of Jasper's coat in fear as the lone beam from his flashlight guides us. Other than the sound of our footsteps and heavy breaths, it is quiet and the silence is eerie. Jasper mutters something and the forest clears, opening up to a sandy shore, a dark body of water spreads beyond it and a bunch of rocks close out the forest to our right.
“Stay here,” Jasper says. He heads toward the rocks and disappears into some kind of cavern. I use my arms to shield myself. I am only alone for a moment, but I use the time to wonder about Pop-Pop and Dennis. Are they safe? Frightened? “We've got shelter for the night,” Jasper says. “I'll just round up some wood, see if it is any good for a fire.”
I hurry alongside him. “I'm coming, too.”
“There's no need. I'll just be a second.”
“You're not leaving me alone.”
I can't make out his eyes in the darkness, but I'm sure he can read my body language clearly. He huffs and tosses out a “suit yourself.”
We don't go farther than twenty feet back inside the forest when Jasper starts stooping to collect twigs and shards of wood that he pauses to study with his flashlight. He hands me bundles to carry and when his arms are full, we return to the mouth of the cave where he busies himself with rubbing the wood together. I don't understand what he's doing. I just hold the flashlight for him so he can see. To my surprise the wood he's churning begins to smoke and crackle and in an instant a flame bursts.
“How ... How did you do that?”
“Military, remember? They taught us old survival skills for our safety. We would do excursions to the wastelands. They prepared us for everything.”
I continue to sit in awe as the flames dance and illuminate the cave. Jasper feeds it with more wood until he's satisfied. We share two cans of meat that Jasper warms over the fire. When we're full he leads us back outside.
“Let's bathe and then turn in.”
I look at the water and then back at him. "Together?"
“We need to do things quickly.” He makes a face when I cock a brow. "Obviously I will give you some privacy to undress and get in."
Regardless, I weigh the options. I've never been naked with anyone other than Ben. Despite knowing where my husband stands with me, I still feel a ridiculous sense of loyalty to him.
“Now,” Jasper orders. When he turns I quickly shed my clothes and hurry into the cool water. I swim deep and resurface feet away feeling refreshed.
“I’m coming in,” he warns.
I turn to allow him to enter. I hear a splash and then feel the water ripple as he dives underneath to swim. I watch as he swims laps back and forth and back again.
His long, muscular body cuts the water with precision. I know that I should look away but I cannot. I’m preoccupied with the way his muscle moves beneath his taught skin. When he’s tired of laps, he stops a little way off to stare up at the stars.
He turns, giving me his profile. “What’s the matter?”
I roll my eyes. “Where do I begin?”
I see his shoulders rise and fall in laughter.
“How long were you in the military?”
He’s quiet so long I think he won’t respond. “Ten years.”
“Did you like it?”
He shrugs. “It was a job.”
“Did you hurt people?”
“We trained to fight an enemy that never came. We spent most of our time exploring the wastelands, collecting various items for New Land. That sort of thing.”
He said it earlier but only now does it truly sink in. “You’ve really been beyond the borders before?”
“Yeah. Many times.”
“What’s it like?”
I swim to his side. “Tell me more.”
He looks at me, his face partially in shadow from the boulders above us. “It’s like they said. Everything has been destroyed. Buildings are either completely flattened or still barely standing. No one beyond New Land survived. They were eviscerated when the chemicals hit. We’d find old skeletons of people and animals during our searches. Some people were killed right in their beds. Adults, children – gone.”
I put a hand to his arm and both of us jolt from the interaction. “It must have been terrible seeing that.”
He nods. “But it wasn’t all bad. There were glimpses of what life used to be like. Photos on walls or in albums. People with different skin colors.”
I make a face. “Like red and blue?”
He laughs and says no. “All of us in New Land are of one mixed race. But many people before came in varying races and skin tones. Different shades of brown all the way to white skin tones. The pictures of the people – they were beautiful.”
As he continues to describe many of the photographs, I can see them in mind as clear as he explains it. “It sounds lovely.”
“Yeah. It was nothing scary like the crap our history books paint. They are lying to everyone in New Land. The people before the war weren’t monsters. They were free. I saw photos of people wearing all different types of clothes. With different shaped faces, eye and hair colors. When we brought back items for debriefing, we listened to some of their devices. And there was the most amazing music, Tessa. Songs with lyrics over musical instruments. All we have in New Land is our national anthem. But back then,” he breaks off to look into the distance as if he’s picturing it. “They sang about whatever they wanted to – a night on the town, dancing, love.”
I look at his bare ring finger as he hands flutter to keep him on the surface of the water and I feel an unjustified pang of jealousy. “Your wife must have loved to hear these stories.”
“My wife and I never talked about these things. It was against protocol and I had no true desire to break it prior to six weeks ago. Any inkling that I felt to do so was killed by the elixir.”
“She must miss you,” I hear myself say.
“Love is not something that can be forced upon people. Just because two people are required to exchange vows doesn’t mean they walk off into wedded bliss.”
“You don’t care for her?”
“I’m obligated by law to care for her. Loving her is another story.”
“What about your children?”
“We don’t have children. She miscarried the implants.”
“Don’t be. It was for the best. Children deserve to be born to parents who are in love. The old fashioned way.”
I grimace. “Through bodily fluid?”
He looks at me, but says nothing.
“It is forbidden,” I add. “Babies are to be implanted in the laboratory. It’s safer.”
“Do you love your husband?”
The question throws me off. “Um, yes. I guess. Sure. He is my mate.”
“I am confused after what he’s done, but we are bonded.”
I don’t like his tone. It's challenging. “Yes, we are.”
Jasper shakes his head and sends a dash of water skipping with his hand. “And here I thought you were in the search of the truth.”
“Yet you lie about this.”
“I am not lying.”
“So this,” he says taking my shoulders. “This is what you feel with him?”
I blink as heat blasts through me. I shake my head against the intensity of his touch. It’s blazing. I try to remove his hands.
“Tell me. Go on. Tell me this is what you feel when you’re with him.”
“Please stop,” I beg.
He takes mercy on me, thrusting me away. I move toward the shallow end of the water. I want to be away from him and the yearning that is building in me. “Do you mind,” I say over my shoulder.
He makes no attempt to look away. Well, I would never accuse him of being a gentleman anyway. The look in his eye makes me bolt from the water, naked or not. I cannot be near this man one more second.
“It’s no use,” he says as I hurry out. “I can still feel you … It's how I know you're lying.”
I snatch my clothes from the ground in a sprint. I am almost to the cave when he comes up hard behind me. I squeal at the feel of his erection in my back. Our slick bodies struggle as he turns me and covers my mouth with his.
I am insane at the feel of his tongue in my mouth. We are savage in the way we bring our bodies together. He lifts me and I wrap my legs around his torso. I curse when he drags his teeth down my throat. Jasper Mancini feels like home. That is the word that comes to mind when he lays me back on the small blanket in the cave.
He doesn’t give me sweet words like Ben. He is short of growling when I tug his hair at the roots. His tongue laps at my wet flesh, leaving a trail of goosebumps in its wake. He bites the tender flesh at my shoulder, marking me I am sure.
I shiver as he claims every inch of me with his hungry mouth, using teeth and tongue to cast blissful combinations of pleasure and pain.
I run my hands over the tense muscles in his back. I am not the only one quivering and I take pleasure in being able to return the favor. My body bows tautly at the first lick.
He leaves me no room to be shameful. My cries fill the tiny space around us. Who is this man that makes me feel like I belong to him despite the fact that I mated to another?
I can feel the pressure building low in my abdomen. It’s a sweet, torturous ache that gets poignant with each flick of his tongue.
Jasper glides inside of me and I orgasm with a force that startles me. He swallows my screams with his kiss and I become lost in the rhythm that he sets.
My breaths are coming from me in short, hard pants. I’m high from our lovemaking. I don’t know where he begins and I end and I feel him inside of my most intimate parts – body and soul. The heat I feel whenever we touch is at a fever pitch as he rides me relentlessly.
With the surety that I am supposed to go to the bridge, I become aware that I am foretold to be Jasper's. His heart is thudding riotously against mine. I wrap my limbs around him tightly to hold on for dear life. When his first swell of hot tears drips against my cheeks, I realize I am also sobbing.
What is happening to us? I call out to him.
Jasper wraps my hair around his fingers and pulls at the root. His thrusts are deep, fast and hard. That familiar, delicious ache returns inside of me and he is stabs into it so perfectly, I think I may combust.
Our tears are fusing in hot pools on my face. I release a sob from the confusing blend of heartache and love that is surging inside of my chest. Jasper takes my face in his calloused hands. “Look at me,” he orders in a hoarse voice.
He doesn't say it but I can feel his body tensing, his strokes increasing rapidly.
“No,” I plead. “It is forbidden, Jasper.”
I blink away the tears and stare back at him in the firelight. His eyes are practically glowing. “Nothing about you and I …” a moan is ripped from his chest and Jasper throws his head back in ecstasy. “Nothing,” he repeats. “Is … is forbidden. You are mine. I have loved you before you were born, Tessa.”
His words are my undoing and I tremble beneath him in exquisite orgasm. He curses when I tighten around him and I feel his penis go rigid. His fist tightens in my hair. His mouth locks over mine.
Jasper quakes above me as his powerful body locks around me. He pumps quicksilver strokes and I feel the immediate warmth of him spilling inside of me. The feel of him orgasming inside of me is an erotic and intimate act I have never experienced with anyone.
Lovemaking with Ben has never been like this. I feel sated. Loved. Safe. Jasper collapses on top of me and the full of weight of his naked body feels glorious. I lift my head to place a trail of kisses along his shoulder as he gathers his breath. It’s blowing hot against my ear and I love that he sounds as laid bare as I feel.
We lay that way for a while, me rubbing a soothing hand along the length of his spine. I never want to leave this very spot. Eventually he raises his head to look down at me in the dimming firelight.
“I’m sorry,” he says gently. “Did I hurt you?”
“You went all caveman in the cave.”
He dips his face against my throat and his laughter joins mine, vibrating through me. He kisses along my jaw and raises his hips, slipping from within me. The disconnection makes me pout.
Jasper throws a couple more logs on the fire and it roars back to life. He turns me on my side and pulls my bottom against him, wrapping his arms and legs around me. I reach back to feel the stubble on his face. I feel like we’ve laid like this a thousand nights. His body fits perfectly against mine as if it were indeed made for me.
“Jasper?” I whisper.
“It’s never been like that for me before.”
“Do I sound stupid if I say that I feel changed?”
“And I’ve never cried during sex.”
“But tonight you did.”
“I guess I did.”
“Because you make me feel things I cannot explain, Tessa.”
That makes me smile. “Jasper?”
“I think that makes you my bitch.”
His deep laughter fills the cave before he playfully puts me in a headlock.
I wake with a start. Jasper slaps his hand over my mouth. "Don't make a sound."
It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust. The fire is out and the cave is dark and when I look beyond Jasper's shoulders outside, it is still night. He's fully dressed and leaning over me. He motions for me to stay quiet and slowly lifts his hand from my mouth. He gives me my clothes and I dress quickly.
He leans in and puts his lips against my ear in whisper. "You don't make a sound or come out of this cave until you I tell you to. No matter what happens." I use my eyes to plead with him. He shakes his head and places a blade in my palm. I tremble as I fist its cool handle. Jasper motions for me to be quiet again and just like that, slips out of the cave and leaves me alone. I strain my ears to hear signs of Jasper or whoever may be about, but I am met with silence. I lean my back against the rock of the cave and take a few deep breaths to settle myself. Seconds pass, minutes. I fantasize that Jasper will join me any minute now when I catch the faint sound of movement.
I squeeze the handle of the blade and listen again. This time I am certain. It sounds like the lull of an engine. It's far at first and then closer and louder. I hear car doors slam. Gunfire. Deafening blasts bark into the night. I open my mouth to scream for Jasper and just manage to catch myself before I get out the first syllable of his name. I am to be quiet no matter what. It's a big ask at a time like this.
I gasp when I see a sliver of light dance past the mouth of the cave. I lean back against the wall even tighter, as if it makes me invisible. The light is suddenly gone. I am exhaling in relief when a beam of light blinds me, shining boldly on my face.
"There you are!" I recognize Ben's voice instantly and yelp as he approaches. "You bitch!"
"Stay back!" I holler, swinging the knife wildly in his direction. I take a retreating step. I can't see a thing. I raise my other arm to block out the glare of the light to no avail. "Leave me alone!"
The blinding light comes forward and the hard flashlight knocks against my hand. I almost lose the blade but manage to hold on to it. Ben charges me, knocking me back against the rock of the cave. I wince when the back of my head bangs against it. Ben's flashlight rolls to the ground, spinning illumination into the cave. I struggle against his might, he's trying to dig the blade from my hand, but I'm clutching it for dear life.
I take the nails of my free hand across his face and his deep growl echoes in the small space. He bangs his elbow against my face and I'm stunned. I'm not unconscious but I'm a hair away. I want to move but I can't. I can feel him rip the knife from my hand, hear his shoes crunching the gravel within the cave.
I'm drifting in and out of consciousness. I try to force my eyes open but they're heavy. I am losing the battle to stay awake when a fiery pain shoots through my scalp. Ben is dragging me by the hair.
“It took me long enough to find you. God, has there ever been such a disobedient wife?”
I'm fully awake now, as the pain sears through me, but my body is not yet working at its full capacity. I lift my hands to try to free his hurtful grasp as he pulls me toward the mouth of the cave. I dig my nails into knuckles.
There is a clicking sound, the pulling stops and I am instantly staring down the barrel of his gun. “Why are you doing this?” I plead.
“The question is why are you doing this? Didn’t I make you happy? I gave you everything you could ever want.”
“Freedom, Ben. You could never give me freedom.”
“Freedom to do what!” he roars, his eyes bulging wildly. “Before the war nearly 795 million people were starving yet two billion were obese. How’s that for freedom? It was imbalanced, Tessa. There was the rich and the poor. Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus. There were many races and ethnicities and people had weapons and they killed each other at whim. New Land makes everything fair and safe! Here we are all one.”
His words burn into me. In all of Pop-Pop's and Jasper’s stories of the old days, these things have never been shared. I am dismayed and feel manipulated, mainly by the psychopath that stands above me.
I look into his eyes. “Was any part of you and I even real?”
“I care a great deal for you. It wounds me to do this. Over the years I have grown to like you very much.”
“Like?” I scoff. “You like me? We have been together for five years and you can’t even use the word love.”
“Like him?” he shouts. “Did he tell you he loved you? Huh?”
I get a new found strength when I see Ben’s hands tremble at the thought of Jasper. “Yes. When he made love to me and spilled his seed inside of me, he told me he loved me.”
“Blasphemy, woman!” Ben says cocking the pistol.
“Do you envy him that?”
Ben pounces me and I side step him and race past. I scream when his gun fires. I am outside the cave when he smashes into me, sending us tumbling to the ground.
I hear a series of gun shots in the distance. “Jasper!” I scream. I can only hope those shots have not claimed his life. Ben uses the distraction to overpower me. I take another elbow to the face and this time I taste the metallic flavor of blood on my tongue.
“You rotten, bitch,” he snarls. He looks like a rabid animal. I no longer recognize the man I’ve shared most of my adult life with. Has this violence always been lurking just beneath his surface? Is this why despite our years together I have never been able to give myself over to him completely? Or is it because a part of my soul knew I have always belonged to Jasper? Jasper? The thought of him dying in the dark woods returns and I gain my second wind, driving my knee up into Ben’s groin like Jasper taught me.
An avalanche of blows rock me and I use my arms as best as I can to shield my head. Every part of me aches but I am brimming with a hatred that keeps me defiant.
When he sees I am subdued he stops and I look up at him with scorn. “Are you enjoying this? Beating a woman?”
Ben’s mouth splits in an evil smile. “I am only fulfilling my duties, love.” He stands and motions with the fun for me to do the same.
“I am doing what I was groomed to do. The president is aware of your sickness and so they came to my parents when I was a child with a proposition. I was ordered to watch you. Be their eyes and ears. Your family has a long history of mental illness.”
“Then why not just get rid of us,” I say scanning the area with my peripheral vision. I want to keep him talking. Get the answers I need until I am able to make a clean escape.
“It seems as ill as you all are; you are also gifted. Someone in your family is always responsible for the technological and medical advances New Land experiences in every generation. It's in your DNA. It’s a shame about Dennis, really. The new batch of grass seeds he planted just outside of New Land took. Grass, green grass like in our history books, is actually growing. Too bad he didn’t live long enough to see it. In fifty more years, that grass will be a small city.”
“You’re a liar! Everything outside of New Land is wasteland.”
Ben shakes his head. “Was,” he corrects.
“Then why kill him?”
“He couldn’t be trusted. He became the enemy the second he tried to help you. But we have his book of formulas. We’ll build on what he’s developed and by the time his son is in high school, we’ll recruit him to finish his father’s work.”
“No!” I scream, charging at him.
He knocks the butt of the revolver against my head and I see stars. I’m trapped in a murky interval of semi-unconsciousness. I can feel him dragging me again. I murmur as I feel my feet cross the threshold of the forest.
“Now, Jesse,” he says.
I struggle in his arms and try to find my footing. Something warm trickles down the base of my skull. I touch it and draw back fingers coated in blood. Ben tugs the hair at the crown of my head and a splintering pain vibrates through me. Suddenly a blinding light blasts my face as Ben yanks my head in its direction.
“Citizens of New Land,” his voice booms into the black night. “I have managed to catch one of the terrorists tonight."
I try to free his hand from my hair, but Ben forces me to my knees. I raise a hand to block the blinding light from my eyes. It is mounted on the top of a television camera. From here I can see the feet of the man positioning it in my direction.
“Contessa Blythe Scott. You have committed treason, first degree murder, armed robbery and a host of other New Land sins I cannot repeat on public television. For these federal crimes you must be executed."
“Fuck you!” I spit. Ben puts the pistol to the side of my head.
“Pop-Pop,” I pray. “I’m sorry I failed.”
I single, deafening shot rings out and Ben’s body falls to the dirt beside me. There’s another pop and a thud, and I can see the cameraman’s shoes peel over.
Jasper comes around the blinding light and lifts me to my feet. “Thank God,” I cry falling against him. “I thought you were dead.”
“How can I be dead when we’re going to the bridge, remember?”
His words are meant to be amusing. They don’t stop my body from convulsing in fear against him. “We need to get moving,” he says heading back for the cave. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.” I look down at Ben’s dead, open eyes staring into nothingness. I think of our Sunday morning pancake cook-offs and how he used to sing New Land’s national anthem in the shower. It is hard to attach those loving memories to the man at my feet. I bend over to close his eyes and place my wedding band in his coat pocket.
“Let’s go,” Jasper says coming out carrying our things. “We’ll make use of their van for now.”
I sit in the passenger seat as Jasper rips out all electronics. He checks the rest of the vehicle for monitoring equipment and I stare back out the window at Ben’s lifeless form as Jasper climbs in and drives us back down the mountain road. I’m experiencing a whirlwind of emotions. I’ve lost everything I’ve come to know in the last two days. I have no family left and I am risking my life – however much of it is left – to go to a bridge and do what, exactly? Open some hatch that leads to nowhere?
The only person I trust is beside me and I haven’t even known him long enough to decipher if he is truly worthy of that distinction.
“Hey,” Jasper finally says when we’ve gone more than an hour in silence. “How you holding up?”
I shrink away from him when he reaches for me. I can’t deal with the intensity of our connection right now. “How do you think I’m holding up? I just left my husband dead on the side of the road after he tried to execute me on live TV.”
“I’m sorry for the pain that he caused you but I am not sorry that he’s dead.”
“He told me that there used to be hungry people before the war. That there were poor people and murders … is that true?”
Jasper turns briefly to meet my eyes. “Yes.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that?”
“What good would it have done?”
“What good with the truth have done? I am risking my life for some goddamn freedom I still don’t understand. I don’t even have a choice in the matter as my ancestor saw it fit to program me against my will for this and you keep that from me?”
“I only know what I was able to gleam during my time in the military. Yes, there were prisons where people who killed people and those who committed other crimes were housed. There were sexually transmitted diseases and smaller scale wars, drugs and alcohol. People spanked their children and some were even homeless.”
His admittance causes me to dry heave. “Pull over.”
Jasper stops the vehicle at the side of the road and I open the door just in time to vomit. I haven’t eaten in hours so not much comes up. My stomach continues to roll and I lean my sweaty head back on the seat when the heaving stops.
I close my eyes against the dizziness. “Why on Earth would I want that? If that is freedom it is better kept lost.”
Jasper turns in his seat. “Look at me.”
I can’t because a new batch of tears threaten to fall.
“Look at me,” he demands.
When I do, as suspected, the water works release.
“There was also all of those other things I mentioned. All different types of animals. Concerts where people went to listen to live music and danced. People who chose their own mate and married out of love, had children who actually looked like them. They swam in the ocean and made their own choices. They had options. Thousands of them. They made their lives whatever they desired them to be. There is no good without bad. Even the day must turn to dark, Tessa. It is the way it was meant to be.”
He reaches for my hand again, and this time I let him take it. I feel the warmth of our good energy wash over me. “I am afraid that whatever we find at the bridge will bring about another destruction.”
“That is what living real life is – not knowing what the next day promises. Enjoying today for what it is and having faith that tomorrow will be an even brighter day. There is a reason that your ancestor programmed us to go to the bridge. He was at the brink of war when he did this. Why would he program another downfall? We must stay strong in our faith and know that whatever is there must bring a new life. A way out of this system. All of this can’t be in vain.”
He gives my hand a reassuring squeeze and I am comforted. I close the van’s door and he redirects the vehicle back on to the road.
We share some food from his bag and talk on and off, pausing to use the bathroom at the side of the road. We take turns driving and catching naps. “Just stay straight and drive easy,” he orders in that military tone that makes me roll my eyes.
Everything on either side of the road his dreary and dead. In the morning sunlight, the wastelands live up to their name. The forests are bare and the trees that stand are coated in gunk. Jasper said it is residue from the chemical war. We have no choice but to breathe the air. I drive for hours until Jasper wakes and he takes over the wheel. I sleep in intervals, sometimes peacefully, other times in nightmare about the bridge.
We pause to use the bathroom at the side of the road and Jasper drives well into the night. He wakes me to show me the map and I take up my post behind the wheel again and try to imagine what could possibly be at the bottom of that bridge. Soon Jasper's deep breaths tell me he is sleeping again. The road rises into a freeway like Jasper promised. A few abandon vehicles litter the highway and I maneuver the van around them. The night slips into dawn and with that comes the rising of the sun.
I wake him up when a large green sign over the road reads, "Welcome to New Jersey."
Jasper stretches his long limbs and looks out the window. On his side of the road is a blanket of woods, on mine a small creek and outlines of damaged, ancient homes.
“I have to pee.”
“Pull over up there,” Jasper says pointing to a small clearing on the side of the road.
The early morning air is slightly damp when we step out. It feels great to have my feet on solid ground. We’re making great time and still have more than a half-hour of juice left in the van’s powered battery.
We walk a few feet from the van and I squat to do my business. Jasper unzips and I look away, still shy about our new intimacy. “I could go for some scrambled eggs and turkey bacon,” I moan, knowing only trail mix waits for me back in the van.
“Don’t even do that to yourself,” he laughs.
The memory of the artificial food makes my stomach rumble. “Hmm … and toast slathered with melted butter.” I’m practically moaning as I re-zip my cargo pants. “With a hot pot of cof-” Jasper puts a hard hand over my mouth.
He is straining his neck toward the woods and I follow his gaze. I don’t see or hear anything but clearly he does. He is statue still and a cold chill works up my spine.
Jasper yanks me toward the van at neck-breaking speed and a spray of bullets dart across the van door, shattering the windows. He pulls me past it toward the opposite side of the road. Without warning he snatches me by the arm and the waist of pants and tosses me head first across the road. My shoulder bangs against the dirt and I cry out from the impact as I go rolling down an embankment.
I land on my side and Jasper is nowhere to be found. I hear more gunfire before he appears above me. He races down the hill and snatches me along. I scramble to keep up with his hellish pace. He pushes me behind a tree.
“Put this on!” I shrug into the backpack as he flings his on. He throws his rifle strap over his shoulder and yanks me into an agonizing sprint through the forest.
I was never much of an athlete and I’ve probably done more running in the last few days than I have in my entire life. The race through the forest is not fun. We are leaping over weak tree roots and slabs of rock. The cool morning is starting to meet the heat of the rising sun and the woods begin to fog around us.
The trees become sparse as the forest begins to open up. Jasper peers over our shoulder as he continues to pull me along. I want to stop. My legs feel like jelly. I’m on autopilot. I can’t see more than a hundred feet in either direction due to the fog. I continue to move because Jasper’s grip demands that I do. I’m not sure how many men we are fleeing or if we are running toward more danger. I put all of my faith in Jasper and trust that he will do whatever is best for us.
Jasper comes to a sudden stop, putting a hard arm out across my chest. I can barely breathe. “What is it?” I whisper.
“Shh. Wait,” he barks lowly.
Jasper disappears into the fog before us and I am left standing alone and blinded to whomever may be behind me. The forest seems to be a creature in its own right as its dying and chemically damaged trees hang over and around us. Broken limbs and jagged edges stare out from the ground. There is still some green and merged with the dying brown bushes and gray morning it looks like a twisted, demented version of Red Riding Hood’s forest excursion. Except these wolves aren’t pretending to be my loving grandma. They are blatantly hunting me.
Jasper hurries back to me and I release a relieved breath. “Can you swim well?” he whispers.
Machine gunfire blasts into the silent forest, shredding the bark of a tree near me. Jasper takes me by the nape and ducks my head, pushing me forward into the smog.
“The water could be polluted. You hold your fucking breath. You hear me?”
“What water?” I barely have time to get the question out when the fog clears and the edge of a cliff comes rushing toward me.
Jasper drags me forward, snatches me off of the edge and turns to fire. I don’t even have time to scream. I gasp as his bullets echo through the ravine and we freefall off of the forty-foot cliff toward the river. Jasper continues to unload on my right. I take a deep breath and close my eyes. I smack into the water and feel my world go cold as I sink like a stone. The water feels thick and dark around me. I swim back toward oxygen and feel Jasper take hold of my backpack as I break through the surface.
He tugs me behind him and I manage to catch a glimpse of the man that is floating face down a few feet away from us. “Get your ass across the river,” Jasper says. I turn and swim for the opposite shore.
Jasper fires behind me and I pause to look over my shoulder. Men line the top of the cliff. “Swim. Don’t you dare look back!” he hollers.
I’m gassed, but I do as he says. I scream when the water ahead of me ripples with bullets. Jasper returns fire. Somehow he is able to stay not too far behind me. I cry with relief when I feel the water become shallow. I all but collapse when my foot hits turf.
“No,” Jasper snaps, dragging me forward by my backpack. “We can’t stop. Move!”
“I can’t,” I cry.
I fall on all fours and Jasper drags me up the shore, wrapping my arm around his shoulder and lifting me to my feet. He half carries me into the forest. I trip over a branch and go sprawling forward, sharp branches cutting across my palms. Jasper throws me over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry.
He speeds through the uneven terrain quickly. I wish I could be as strong as he needs me to be, but I am simply exhausted from the run and swim. He sets me on my feet at the base of a hill.
“I know you’re tired, but I need you to fight through it.”
We scale the incline that’s mostly dirt and dead grass. I use my hands to crawl higher. I can feel the dirt caking underneath my fingernails. Jasper slows his pace for me and half lifts me by my backpack. He stops me just early of the top and rises to his toes to peer around. When he signals me, I join him and find that we are only a few feet from an abandoned neighborhood.
We cross the street and descend into a backyard. Jasper leads me close to the house. He’s in stealth mode – motioning for me to crouch, keeping track of the sounds and visuals around us. I would be dead without him. I hold onto his jacket as he hurries us along to the next house. Ivy has overgrown most of the faded blue siding. The windows are blown out and there is a dry green film settled over the structure. All of the houses on the winding road look like this. The homes vary in sizes. They are not identical and conservative likes the ones we left behind in New Land.
“Can we stop soon?” I whisper. My feet are screaming in my boots.
“Not yet.” His voice is cold. He’s in military mode. However, he reaches back and takes my hand again. I can feel the strength in him seeping into our embrace. The idea is so absurd I almost laugh out loud. If someone said something like that to me a week ago I would have given them a spoonful of my elixir.
Jasper helps me over the fence of a large brick house and checks the backdoor handle. It’s locked. He punches out the pane of glass and reaches in to unlock it. I follow him into the wide kitchen. Other than layers of thick dust that can be picked up like a coarse postcard, the house is in pretty good condition. Some of the windows are broken and shards of glass litter the wooden floors beneath them. A large dining room table separates the kitchen from the living room.
The table is set with fine china. I wonder if the people were about to enjoy a dinner when the war broke out. I pray I do not find a skeleton as I follow behind Jasper when he does a sweep of the property.
“It’s safe,” he says. “We’ll break for a bit.”
I don’t even bother with dusting off one of the kitchen stools. I fall onto it and reach for the laces on my boots.
“Don’t,” he warns.
“They’re killing me.”
“If you take them off now your feet will swell and you’ll never get them back on.”
“Fine.” Jasper paces the length of the wall checking out the window for signs of activity. “Was it them? The police?”
Jasper nods. "And the military.”
“How did they find us?”
“I was wracking my brain as we escaped. There’s only one thing we have not lost. It is the mark,” Jasper says turning. “It must be removed.”
The large blade in his hand catches the light of the sun and the gleam of its sharp ridges promises me indescribable pain.
“Jasper!” I cry.
“We must. They will always track us. It’s the only way to lose them for a while.”
I know he is right but I am rooted where I sit when he motions for me to come to him. Jasper comes to me instead and takes my trembling hand in his. He leads me out of the kitchen to the dining room where he wipes the table clear with one sweep of his arm.
He lifts me upon it and lays me down gently.
“Shh,” he whispers.
He leaves my side to kick out one of the pieces of the railing on the wrought iron staircase. He vanishes out of my view as he re-enters the kitchen. I stare at the ceiling as I think of anything other than what is coming.
“In this one reoccurring dream from my childhood,” Jasper says from afar. “You’re wearing this long white dress. Your hair is loose, blowing in the breeze. You turn to look at me, like really look at me, and give me this bright smile. It’s just so beautiful. Free. You look so free. I say something and you just start laughing.”
I fold my hands together and concentrate on the dusty ceiling fan. I accept his distraction. “What did you say to me?”
“I don’t know. But you just laugh and laugh and throw your arms around me. And we dance and I kiss you.”
I hear a forceful whooshing sound. The blowtorch. I feel like I may piss myself.
Tears spill down my temples. “Are we happy, Jasper?”
“So happy,” he says.
I hear his heavy boots on the floorboards before the glow of the iron appears above my head.
“Jasper,” I call.
“We make love under the stars, Tessa.”
His figure is a dark shadow beyond the walls of my tears. All I can see is the intense orange glow as it nears my face.
He uses his other hand to hold my head against the table. “In the moment we are one, Tessa.”
“Jasper!” I scream again.
“And I hold you in my arms and tell you how very much I love you.”
The scorching iron drops to my forehead and the room goes instantly dark.
I can’t breathe. The water is flooding my mouth and nostrils and my lungs burn as it plugs them to the hilt. I don’t want to die. The thought keeps me fighting, kicking, screaming.
“Tessa.” Jasper’s strong hands are around me rocking me gently.
I bolt to an upright position and see that we are both lying on the dining room table. It is still light outside but there is a tinged smell to the air. The throbbing in my forehead reminds that the scent is that of burned flesh.
“Don’t” Jasper says taking my hand before I can touch the wound. “You don’t want to infect it. I’ve put some burn cream on to soothe it.”
I shift to look at him. His nickel-sized wound replaces the spot where his identity symbol once remained. His, too, is covered with ointment. I lay back down on my side and face him.
“Are you okay?”
Jasper stretches out a hand to stroke my face. “I’ve done a lot worse to myself.”
I nudge closer to him and wrap my arm around his torso. The spark that ignites from our contact is becoming an addicting comfort. It is hard to imagine that I have lived this long without it. “Do you think your dream will come true?”
Jasper’s lips lift in a soft smile. “It already has.” He pulls me close. “Get some sleep.”
The heat of his large body washes over me. As I cradle against him I can already feel myself drifting.
“Jasper,” I whisper.
“Do you still have the urge to kill yourself?”
He’s silent for a space. He kisses the top of my head. “The strongest urge I have is to be with you.”
I listen to his breath for a while until it steadies, signaling that he is asleep. I tilt my head back to look up at him as the bite of fresh tears stings my eyes. His evading answer isn’t lost me and I cry myself to sleep in his arms.
Jasper wakes me after sunset. We share a can of beef stew, using our fingers as spoons, and wash it down with lukewarm water from his canteen. My clothes are still wet and move uncomfortably against my skin.
I feel better with food in my belly. We go into the old bathroom and use the toilet. He never leaves my side and I am glad because it keeps me from having to sound like a baby by begging him to stay close by. He seems to know what I need without me asking. He explains our plan of getting to the bridge on foot.
“We’ll be able to move easier in the dark,” he assures.
When we set out I lose count of the fences we scale and the number of streets we cross. We’ve been weaving in and out of properties for what seems like hours. The moon hangs bright in the clear dark sky as Jasper leads us toward our destination as if he has an internal compass.
Eventually we cross the city limits and Jasper leads us into the junky basement of some sort of abandoned building to huddle down.
We eat the remainder of his food stash in silence and I am thankful when Jasper initiates a bout of lovemaking. Touching one another both energizes and heals us. We come together with a sense of urgency. I am desperate to feel the pleasure that only he has been able to bring me since we've descended into this chaos. We race to completion, sagging against one another in triumph that we have wrangled yet another moment of togetherness that reminds us we have always been fated to love one another like this.
Jasper tells me when it is time. He takes my hand in his and looks at me seriously. "You stay close to me. You and I are going to make it to that bridge, understand?" I nod. "They are going to use everything in their power to stop us. Even if by some miracle they are able to separate us, you keep going."
"No," I cry.
"Yes," he commands. "You're fated to make it. You said it yourself. Your grandfather said each generation gets closer. Your last ancestor made it to the city line. You will make it inside."
"We will," I correct.
Jasper kisses me hard, takes my hand and together we slip out into the dark city, lit only by the moonlight. We stay concealed against the edges of buildings as we round blocks, taking us deeper and deeper into the maze of skyscrapers.
"What is it?" I whisper.
He looks up into the sky and yanks me into a run. I hear a slight whirring in the distance and look over my shoulder to see a fleet of helicopters heading toward us with blaring lights.
Gunfire chips the brick about us and I scream at the top of my lungs, the sound snubbed out by the loud choppers flying over us. Jasper returns fire and pulls me around a corner. I can't think, I just move. Between the choppers and deafening gunfire from all directions, my senses are on overload and I am discombobulated. I just go wherever Jasper leads us, ducking my head from the score of bullets coming our way.
Jasper turns to pull me down an alley. I only hear it for a second, the sound of something skittering across the pavement. Jasper registers the sound too. He pulls me forward by the back of my neck and throws his body on top of mine.
It sounds like an earthquake and I think the ground will open up and swallow us whole. The boom of the bomb rocks the buildings around us and its might blows us off of our feet. The ground vibrates from the chunks of falling brick banging onto the concrete.
"Are you alright?" Jasper says. It's his third time asking but it's the first time I am able to decipher what he's saying.
"Yes," I grunt out, even though my back feels like it's broken due to hitting the ground so hard. "Yes. I think I'm fine."
I sit up on my bottom and use the heels of my filthy hands to rub away the flakes of debris from my eyes. Jasper is crouching over me with his weapon cocked.
I can hear them approaching in the distance. “They’re coming,” I say.
Jasper pulls me to my feet and half drags me down the alley at lightning speed. When we reach the mouth of the entrance he pushes me into the shadows. I gasp. From here we can see the base of the bridge just before it begins to ascend over the dark river. Its close proximity spikes a new spurt of hope in me. We did it. We're here.
The sounds of the fleet begin to echo toward us from the opposite end of the alley. The whir of hovering helicopter blades rises in volume as it advances a gust of wind that tornadoes litter along the street in its spotlight. We are invisible to them at this angle but not for long. I look to Jasper and see something in his eyes that strips me raw.
“Jasper,” I whisper. “We got to go.”
He throws the rifle over his shoulder and grabs the collar of my jacket in his hands, nearly lifting me off of my feet.
“This is my purpose. This is why your ancestors never made it to the bridge, because they came alone.”
“What are you talking --”
Jasper puts a gruff silencing hand to my face. “My destiny is not to go to the bridge. It’s to make sure that you make it to the bridge. I'd misinterpreted my dreams. I am not meant for suicide, but sacrifice.”
I can’t help the sob that rips from me. He clamps his hand over my mouth and pulls the both of us down to our knees.
“They will kill us if we make a run for it. There are too many. But if one of us stays behind … as a distraction.”
“No,” I say shoving him. “That’s not true. We can make it together.”
Jasper squeezes my shoulders. “We both know why Trumdale died once she told her story. Her purpose was over.” A coat of tears sheens his eyes in the faint moonlight. “And now mine is, too.”
“No,” I beg, throwing my arms around him. “Please don’t leave me. I can’t make it without you.” Jasper holds me against him and I hate that my mind is racing to remember how this very embrace feels. I fear that I will never experience it again. “I’m scared,” I admit.
Jasper pulls back to rest his forehead against mine. “This is why you were born. “That,” he says rubbing a thumb along my jaw. “And to free me from my torment. You do not know how hard it has been to live while knowing I need to die.”
I kiss him then with everything I have as the helicopter spotlight swoops dangerously close to us. It is hard and desperate and our teeth knock together in a bid to feel the other. Jasper stands me up against the brick and shoves a pistol in my hand.
“Use those bullets only when you have to, only when the target is clear. When I give you the signal, run for the bridge.
Beams of flashlights shines in our faces.
“Fire!” a man screams.
“Wait!” I say as Jasper pushes me into the dark street.
“Go!” he hollers as bullets skid off of the brick around our heads.
I dash for the next building as Jasper shouts and waves his arms at the helicopter like a lunatic. The helicopter spotlight lands on him and I turn in time to see him re-enter the alley. Gunfire rings out into the darkness.
My hands are shaking uncontrollably as I cock the chamber on my pistol. Tears are blinding my vision. Bullets ping off of metal and I look up to see the helicopter is taking fire. It sways overhead as it tries to dip from Jasper's bullets. There are a few more pings and then I am knocked off of my feet as it explodes in midair. The powerful blast sends its parts careening dangerously in all directions.
I get to my feet and sprint toward the bridge. My lungs burn and my legs threaten to give out but still I run. The closer I get to the entrance ramp the faster I move my feet beneath me. There have been four attempts before me and I am determined to be the last. I will not let Jasper die in vain. So I use the last bit of gas in my tank to run for him, for my grandfather, for Gerald Scott and all of the innocent human beings that were forced to die because they were not deemed important enough to be a part of this new slave system.
As my feet cross the threshold of the bridge, I hear Jasper’s gut wrenching baritone scream, “RUN!”
I look over my shoulder to see the alley light up bright orange as the deafening boom of an explosion reverberates from the passageway just before the buildings surrounding it begin to crumble.
I shriek at the site of the alley disappearing underneath the wreckage and smoke. I’m crying out when my feet continue to elevate the bridge. I run blindly up the middle of the ramp littered with decaying vehicles. In the distance I can see new helicopter lights descending upon me.
My lungs burn badly. Every ounce of my body is begging me to stop. I fight through it, putting one foot in front of the other, concentrating on my pace. Run. Just run, I tell myself, as Jasper’s haunting scream echoes in my mind.
I see the east leg of the bridge approaching to my left and set my sights on nothing but reaching it. I tuck the handgun back in my waist and use my hands to crawl over the metal railing. I swing my legs over one of the metal bars and grab on with all of my might. I am beyond exhausted and my own weight feels like that of two men. One by one I descend down the structure, focusing on securing my feet and hands on each bar.
When I look out to check for the helicopters, that are still circling the city, I feel my equilibrium teeter off balance. I pause to close my eyes and take a breath. I am so high up the view is dizzying. I don’t have time to waste so I start moving again. “Right, left. Right, left,” I whisper.
I don’t stop repeating the mantra until I feel my foot make contact with the small piece of cement surrounding the base of the structure. I stay to the east of the cement and fish the goggles and small flashlight out of my backpack. I secure them around my face, put the small light in my mouth and test my foot in the water. It’s freezing.
“You can do this,” I say.
I kneel and brace my hands on either side of me and slowly slide into the frigid waters. My breath catches and I spend a moment letting the cool soak through my clothes. I count to three and slowly slip under the surface, the flashlight only illuminating a couple feet in front of me. I stay close to the cement structure and slide deeper, the pressure threatening to burst my eardrums.
The rusty cement is solid underneath my hand as I run it along the metal feeling for an opening. I don’t see anything. I swim a little to the left and find nothing. I try not to panic but the urge to breathe is quickly becoming unbearable. When I can hold it no longer I swim up to the surface and gasp for air.
The number of helicopters in the sky has doubled and some are now moving over the river in search. I swim around to the north facing part of the cement base. I take a new deep breath and again submerge myself in the dark river. As I move lower, my hand flitters over a handle. I can hardly believe it as I make a fist around the hard metal hook. I pull on it. Nothing. I brace my feet against the wall and pull with all of my might, straining against the weight and flow of the water. It budges. I am afraid that I will swallow water before I manage to open it.
I push off again with my legs and the square hatch gives way as water floods in. I rush in with it as it pours down some sort of hole, almost dropping me into the dark abyss. I manage to hook my foot on a wall ladder. Gulps of water rush into my mouth and nose. My heart is thudding in my chest. The force of the rushing water is strong and bending me backwards, awkwardly twisting the leg hooked in the ladder.
I reach for the inside door handle and yank it close. The water flow is cut off immediately and I grab at the ladder to keep from tumbling off into the dark below. I cough up gulps of water, struggling to breathe. As my lungs clear, air glides in and I hungrily inhale.
I descend the metal ladder but I do not feel ground as I hang from the last rung. I can hear water below. I shine the light below me and see that there is shallow water sloshing over a rusty looking floor. I let go and land on my feet with a splash. I’m in some sort of tunnel. I reach for the pistol and proceed cautiously.
Water sloshes with each of my steps. It barely reaches my ankle. I shine the light on the walls beside me. I have no idea what I am supposed to be looking for. Get here was my only order. The tunnel turns right and at the end of the corridor I see a metal door with a large wheel. I try to turn it to no avail. I holster my weapon in my waistband and use both hands to force it counter-clockwise. It screams as I turn it and opens to a blinding hanging lightbulb and voices.
I’m startled at the sounds and the voices cease. I palm the pistol, ready to fire and step over the metal partition and down metal stairs that open into what looks like a factory basement. The gun falls from my hands as I look over the railing into dozens of faces – white ones, brown ones. Some are thin, some are tall. Not one is alike and none look like me. There are babies and children and even a cornered off section with pigs and chickens. I fall to my knees at the sight. They are just as in awe of me.
“Oh my God,” a woman shrieks. “The prophesy ... it’s come true.”
A brown naked man carefully ascends the stairs and a white man follows him. “Stay back,” he orders to the others.
He lowers to his knees to reach my eye level. “It’s you,” he whispers.
My lips are trembling from shock and the everlasting chill of the river water. They cannot form words. I stare back at his dark skin with astonishment. It is a smooth deep brown. I reach a wet hand out to touch his cheek. He flinches a little but allows it. The flesh of his face is warm, but it feels no different than mine. His nose is a little larger and his lips are fuller. I trace them with my thumb.
He looks at me in disbelief. “We … we were told one day that you would come. I did not believe.”
The white man hands him a tethered notebook and the black man holds it out to me.
I look at it and then back at him. “What is this?”
“Our bible,” he says. “Here. Take it. It tells of your coming.”
I take it from him and open the first page. Glued to it is a laminated picture of me. Well, it's not really me but the woman all women in New Land are designed after, an ancient entertainer named Helen Lenoy.
“Our ancestors preached about you," he continues. "A woman and her child who would descend from above to free us from this place. To take us to a better world. A place where we can be free. A place with fresh air, blue skies and grass. They said you would lead us over the Hudson River and take us to a new land.”
I look out amongst the people as they begin to kneel naked in prayer and praises.
“Hallelujah! Our redeemer has come!”