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Conform and live, dream and die; that’s how t he world works now. Get used to it.
Those were the words that had been drilled into my head ever since I was able to understand them, probably even before then. They were the words that everyone in Enigma County said at least once in their lives. They were the very words to which my mother had murmured softly whenever I came close to disobeying them, as if they were a proverb from the Bible. In short, those sixteen words had been the very basis of my upbringing, the sole theme to which my childhood had. Follow the rules. Do what you’re told. Don’t ask questions. Do those three things and you’ll be fine. Don’t and you’ll wish you’d never been born. It was as simple as that.
Until it wasn’t.
Everyone is assigned a barrack to live in and if you ever get caught outside of your barrack after dark, you’d be left to the mercy of an unsympathetic judge and his disapproving jury. If only Miranda Bonely knew that before she was sentenced to life in prison for sneaking out. To add onto that, everyone is assigned a number to identify themselves before any form of anything professional whatsoever. Insist people call you by your given name and you’ll wish you’d never been born. Andrea Mclaughlin, or should I say citizen number 2398, knew that much. The people you associated with had to share the same social status as you; and that social status was determined by the first number of your identification number, people whose code began with a one were at the top of the hierarchy, followed by the middle-class twos, and tailed by the poverty-stricken threes. And, naturally, one could only intermarry with people of their same caste, a number two wasn’t to even think of falling in love with a number one—and if you did, it was only a matter of time before someone found you out, and consequently, only a matter of time before your life rested in a jury’s hands. Only a matter of time before you were as good as dead.
But that didn’t stop me from loving Dylan.
I didn’t know why the forest had always set my teeth on edge every time I stepped within its earthy barrier. It wasn’t like there was anything living within the trees that could hurt me. I’d been going into the forest since I was just learning to walk. In that time I’d never seen anything more dangerous than a fox scuttling away from his hunting post when he saw me. It wasn’t like I was afraid of the dark either; my older brothers had locked me in my mother’s closet too many times for the dark to be much more than a blind nuisance. There was just something about the forest, something about the way the pine trees stared down at me, something about the way the branches cracked under my feet that reminded me of the fact that I shouldn’t be there. And yet, it was the one place I’d found myself visiting the most.
To eyes not as accustomed to the dark as mine, one would have a hard time distinguishing Dylan’s silhouette apart from the masses of pine trees and the disarray of their branches that stood in the way, but to me his features had been perfectly clear. He stood in the exact same spot as he always had, directly to the right of the pine tree whose bottommost branch had been hacked off. The stub that was left of it had each of our initials clumsily carved into it. Even in the dark, even two hundred feet away I could see the sly smile that began to play across his pale face. I too caught myself biting back a grin as I stepped closer, forgetting that we were hidden now, forgetting that I didn’t need to feign indifference with him anymore.
It was finally all I could take and I couldn’t help but leap into his arms and burst with laughter as I felt him catch me in his muscular arms and his soft lips gently touch my forehead. “It’s so good to see you again, Breanne—or should I say, citizen number 3729?” he whispered, pulling back a few stray strands of caramel-colored hair to kiss my temple.
“It’s even better to see you, 1352,” I nuzzled his chin as he hugged me closer to him. His grip was tight, as it always was; tight enough to make it known that nothing was going to come between the two of us, but just gently enough to let me know that I could pull away if I wanted to. But I never did.
It could have been seconds, it could have been years before we finally pulled away, I didn’t know. The only thing I did know was that however long it’d been, it hadn’t been long enough. There was a long pause before Dylan finally spoke, “Any news?” he asked as he reached for my hand.
I sighed heavily, “Selena’s in trouble again,” I said delicately.
“What did she do now?” Dylan squeezed my hand.
I hesitated, “She was caught painting again.”
Even in the dark I could see Dylan bite his lip and run his free hand through his hair, “She should know better by now,” he whispered, he bit his lip before continuing “So what happens next?”
I tried biting my lip, I tried not to grimace, I tried dropping his gaze, but nothing I did could keep the tears from welling up in my eyes, “Her trial is set for next Wednesday.”
“No,” he whispered as he squeezed my hand even harder, “No, that can’t be—she’s ten!”
“If she’s old enough to break the law, she’s old enough to bear the consequences,” I said sullenly, quoting the police officer’s words.
“They’re going to cut her hands off!” Dylan cried.
“They’re going to manipulate the jury!”
“She could bleed to death with how they do amputations nowadays!”
“I know!” I hadn’t meant for my reply to be as sharp as it was, but despite the fact that Dylan had let my hand fall out of his grasp, I felt no regrets for what I’d said. “I know what’s on the line,” I replied, more gently this time.
There was a pause in which I slowly drew closer to him. I tentatively laid my head to rest upon his chest. It took a moment for Dylan to finally wrap me in his arms once more, “So what are you thinking we can do about it?”
I sighed, “I’ve been thinking about that.”
“And?” Dylan pressed.
I hesitated, “Dylan—” I wanted to continue but my vocal chords had simply refused to make a sound.
I took a deep breath, “I’ve been thinking—”
“We’ve covered that, Breanne,” Dylan replied impatiently.
“Maybe it’s best—”
“We—” I started, I choked on my own voice “—took a break for awhile.”
If there was one thing about Enigma County a person needed to know, it was that life here was definitely different from other places. The government here was stricter, there were more cop cars lurking down Enigma’s streets than the rest of the country combined, a day without an arrest being made was a day that didn’t exist. In effect, the people of Enigma had to be more cautious when they bent the rules. The people here had become accustomed to constantly looking over their shoulder. People here had learned to keep quiet their daily activities just in case a government worker was around to accuse them of illicit activity. In short, the people of Enigma County had always been reserved.
Not to say that people here didn’t talk. People were never hesitant to spread the latest scrap of gossip. Everyone knew Jack Andrews was the masked man who broke windows in government buildings long before he’d been arrested. Everyone knew about Selena and her graffiti months before she’d been caught her first time. Needless to say, the people of Enigma were by no means were they silent. And if you ever did catch a silent Enigmite, you knew you’d done something irrevocably wrong.
Dylan’s hand flew to my mouth before I could continue; he gripped me tight by the waist and quickly swiveled around, as if trying to hide something from me—as if trying to hide me from something. But it was too late, the deed had been done, the husky figure and I had already made eye contact.
“I think that would be a fine idea,” the police officer yelled over the screaming sirens of the cop car. “If only it wasn’t too late, number 3729.”