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Beyond the Boundaries
In my dream I’m surrounded by white. Shards of ice and snow smother me with a dance, burning my skin and stabbing at my eyes like needles. I squeeze them shut and cradle my face in the chapped, raw skin of my hands praying for it to stop. There’s silence, even the wind is speechless, but it’s so loud that I believe my ears will explode.
I feel it before I see it. Blood, hot and wet, pooling in the palms of my hands. My body shaking violently, I pull them away from my face and watch as it drips into the snow, painting a shock of color on an otherwise empty canvas. Soon all I see is blood and it’s all I taste and I feel nothing. Nothing but pain.
I curl into a protective ball, hugging my knees to my chest, and wait for someone to come.
But no one does.
A flash of a woman, trembling with fear and pain and sorrow-
When I’m jolted awake the first thing I do is look at my hands. Holding my palms an inch from my face, I squint through the heavy darkness, searching for a sign of the hot, sticky blood that has recently overtaken my dreams. There’s nothing there, nothing but skin and a couple freckles, and I relax slightly, breathing a sigh of relief. Nothing’s scarier than waking up and expecting to find yourself drenched in your own bodily fluid. Nothing’s as gross as that, either.
I shut my eyes even though I know that sleep is light-years out of my reach and suddenly I’m there again. I’m in the storm surrounded by the white and the pain and there’s no blood yet but there will be soon. I don’t think I can deal with these images branded on the inside of my eyelids so I don’t. I open my eyes.
It’s three in the morning and everything’s dark. From across the room I hear Rosie and Dara’s deep breathing and know that they’re fast asleep. I’m waking up in the middle of the night, every night, but, hey, at least I can be comforted by the fact that, from the sound of it, everyone else’s dreams are plagued with little fluffy bunnies and colorful rainbows. The lump that is Dara shifts under the covers and sighs contentedly and I suddenly can’t stand to be in the same room with her anymore.
After untangling myself from the blankets, I swing my legs over the side of the bed so that my feet touch the floor. It’s freezing, but I don’t mind. There already seems to be a permanent chill stuck under my skin, raising goose bumps on my arms and legs, in spite of the heater.
I blame it on the dream.
I step into my shoes, grab my code-issue red jacket off the dresser, and slip it on, tugging the sleeve over the class cuff clasped tightly around my wrist. The cuff, the one that allows the FOA (figures of authority) to identify us by age and, if necessary, by name, is an inch thick and also red. I’d appreciate a less conspicuous color for my nighttime outings, but the need to get out of this room and away from Dara outweighs the desire to find another jacket.
Wary of the creaking hinge, I slowly pull the door towards me and slither through the opening. There are two rooms on the first floor and two on the second, each with three occupants and their own set of issues. I pass the other rooms with their sleeping bodies and before I know it I’m down the hallway and the dream’s behind me and I’m breaking out into the chilly night air. Free.
It still surprises me how easily I can leave the house. Sure, they do a routine headcount every night before bed but there’s nearly ten hours between the time we go to sleep and the time we wake up and more than enough opportunity. When we had the yellow cuffs and lived in the larger houses with the trees they’d lock the doors at night, making it impossible to escape. For most people. But, like I said, the larger houses had trees and they also had windows and if you’re as good a climber as I am then…well, you understand.
I kind of miss those days. Now it just feels too…easy.
I don’t linger on the steps. Instead I hurry away from House 17B, my hands jammed into my pockets and my head ducked against the wind, passing houses 17C and 17D. I step off the dirt road and stay close to the forest’s edge, knowing that somewhere beyond all those thick trunks and willowy stems is the fence that separates our community from the outside world, the world we don’t get to experience until we’re eighteen and taken away from this place in the long white vans with the promise of tomorrow.
The class cuff on my wrist suddenly feels too heavy and for some reason I imagine it constricting, squeezing my skin tighter and tighter and tighter until my veins pop and my bones snap like twigs and blood begins to pool in the stark white palm of my hand. It’s sick, I know it’s sick, but when you’ve worn this thing since you were a child, having it removed only once a year for a color change or, if you’re lucky, for the occasional technological malfunction, it starts to wrap around your subconscious like a snake. It starts to leak venom.
I raise my head to the wind and let it smack me in the face, beating my mind clear.
I have one more year. One more year. That’s what’s keeping me sane.
There’s a shift in the wind and I duck my head again, letting my dark hair fall forward to cover my ears, which are as numb as the rest of my body. I continue along the edge of the road, just out of reach of the tall spotlights, and then, when I come to the tiny opening in the trees that’s invisible to the untrained eye, I let my legs carry me towards the small clearing with the pond.
The pond. It’s no larger than my room and covered with a slimy layer of green algae, but it’s the only body of water I’ve ever known and it’s magnificent. After feeling my way through the dark maze of tree trunks and deadly roots, I sit on the large rock sticking out of the tall grass and fantasize about pushing Dara into the water, smiling as I imagine her shrieks of horror, her muffled cries. I watch the surface with keen eyes, searching for a sign of movement below.
And then I see it. A frog.
Barely disturbing the surface, his nose emerges from the water, breathing the cold night air just as I am, feeling the shock of the wind against the only part of his skin not encircled in the blanket of muck. I want to lean closer to get a better look, but I don’t dare move. If I move he’ll move and then he’ll be gone.
A particularly strong gust of wind ruins everything. It blows my hair across my cheek with the crack of a whip and it’s enough. The frog disappears beneath the surface leaving me with nothing but the rattle of the fence a few feet away and a strong desire to jump in after him. I sit there, staring at the spot, my chest heavy with disappointment.
It’s not long before my body begins to freeze.
I can’t feel my toes and I can’t feel my face and the frog’s gone for good so I take it as a cue that it’s time to leave. And I’m about to, but then I hear the all-too-familiar rattle and I can’t help myself. I glance at the fence.
It’s thick, chain-link metal as tall as the trees and every time I look at it my fingers begin to twitch. Suddenly I’m eleven years old again, sitting at the breakfast table, and Blake is double daring me to touch it.
“C’mon. Just a finger. It’s not like I’m telling you to lick the thing.”
“No way,” I say, because although I appreciate a good dare, I’m not stupid. I mean, how many times have the FOAs drilled it into our minds that under no circumstances are we allowed to touch the fence? Enough times for me to understand not to touch it, that’s for sure.
But Blake’s head is apparently too dense for the message to get through.
“Chicken. Since when are you such a girl?” he jeers, his lips twisting into a smile that’s surprisingly wicked for an eleven-year-old.
“Since I am a girl, idiot,” I snap. “You’re the one who still sleeps with his teddy bear.” Beside me Rosie laughs while the others stare at Blake, their faces blank with shock.
“Dude, you sleep with a teddy bear?” asks Nolan. His mouth twitches slightly, like he can’t decide whether to be disgusted or amused, and Blake’s face slowly turns a dark shade of fuchsia.
“Of course not,” he huffs, shaking his dark hair in front of his eyes. “She’s just trying to distract you because she’s a wimp and she’s too scared to take the dare.”
“I’m not a wimp,” I say, offended.
By now we’ve attracted the attention of the entire table – the table seating the girls in house 11B and the boys in 11D. We all wear the green class cuffs that signify our age and the same plain green uniforms that group us together like a bundle of celery stalks. I can’t wait for next year when we’re blue.
“So are you going to do it?” asks West, his eyes glinting mischievously.
“Or are you too scared?” mocks Blake.
“Of course she’s not going to do it,” says Dara, speaking up for the first time. As always, the first words that come out of her mouth are laced with disdain. “She’s not going to break the rules just because of some stupid dare.”
“Are you calling me stupid?” demands Blake, his hands curling into fists. The elevens are listening intently, straining to hear over the noisiness of the dining hall crowded with orange-clad sevens, green-clad elevens, and everyone in between.
“No. I’m saying that you’re an idiot for thinking that Noa would even consider doing something so completely stupid just because you dared her to. Even she’s not that dumb.”
Whenever Dara speaks I get this strong urge to cover my ears because I can actually hear how great she thinks she is just by the tone of her voice. It’s obnoxious as hell and Nolan must think so to because he catches my eye from across the table and gives an almost imperceptible eye roll.
But it’s not the tone of her voice that gets me angry this time. It’s the fact that Dara thinks she knows what I will and won’t do that sets a fire under my belly and makes me want to smack that smug look right off her face. Before I know it my mouth is opening and I’m saying the words, “All right. I’ll do it.”
“You can’t be serious,” she says flatly, staring at me as if I’m the most despicable creature ever to walk this earth. I ignore her look of contempt and turn to Blake, who’s now grinning from ear to ear.
“Dude, this is going to be so awesome,” says West, slapping five with Nolan over Blake’s head.
“So much better than the time we dared you to kiss Loser Luke on the mouth,” says Nolan, and I unconsciously wipe the back of my hand across my lips. What? He tasted like feet.
“Or the time we dared you to spit in Teacher Margot’s morning coffee.” I still feel guilty about that, although she kind of deserved it.
“Or the time we –” Nolan cuts off abruptly as an FOA strolls by our table, searching for a sign of the trouble we somehow always get ourselves into, and we all stuff our faces with food, trying to look as angelic as possible. It’s only after the FOA is out of sight that Blake glances up from his plate.
“Tonight,” he hisses, meeting my eyes across the table. I smile and nod because I’m so ready.
We’re gathered around the patch of fence at the back of the school and it’s dark, out of reach of the spotlight’s beam. I can’t tell whether it’s fear or adrenaline coursing through my body and settling in the pit of my stomach, maybe both. All I know is that I feel sort of nauseous.
“This is the worst idea ever, Noa. Like, really bad. We could get in so much trouble.”
“No one asked you to come, Dara,” I remind. And it’s the truth. Rosie and I were climbing through the tall window above my bed when Dara, who unfortunately shares our room, woke up and demanded to be taken along. Neither Rosie nor I, with half our bodies through the window and half stuck in the room, were in a position to disagree.
After dropping noiselessly down, we snuck over to the boys’ house, 11D, just in time to watch Blake fall out the window and face plant into the ground.
“I don’t know what’s funnier,” I hissed at Blake as Nolan and West climbed through. “Your gracefulness or the fact that you look like you just made out with a pile of dirt.” Blake mumbled something that could have been “We’ll see who’s laughing” and stalked off ahead of the group, vigorously scrubbing at his face. Rosie and I could barely control our giggles.
We avoided the spotlights and the sentinels with little difficulty. No, the hard part was going to be getting back into the building undetected, considering the doors to our rooms are locked after nine o’clock. But I wouldn’t worry about that now. Now I had to worry about the dare.
“Ready yet, Noa? Or have you brought us all this way only to chicken out?” demands Blake. He’s leaning against the brick wall of the school, arms crossed, eyes glinting, enjoying this way too much. He’s getting me back for the dirt comment, that I know for sure, and it’s almost enough to make me take it back. Almost.
Next to him, West and Nolan are snickering to each other, both probably expecting me to back down. But I never back down from a dare. I’m about to stalk forward and touch the fence when Rosie gently rests her hand on my arm. If it had been Dara I would have told her to back off, but Rosie’s a different story.
“What?” I ask. Even in the darkness I can make out the soft curls of her blonde hair.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” she asks quietly.
“The clock is ticking here!” calls Blake. I shoot him a glare and turn my attention back to Rosie. She glances at the boys.
“You don’t have to prove anything to them,” she says. “You know that, right?”
She’s wrong. I do have something to prove. Just not to the boys.
I don’t tell her that, though. Instead I gently extract myself from her grasp with an apologetic smile and turn towards the fence. The giant, unyielding, intimidating fence. I don’t give myself time to think because if I do I know I’ll hear an FOA’s command, or Blake’s whining, or Dara’s warning, or Rosie’s assurance, and I know I’ll turn right back around and admit a humiliating defeat. So instead I race forward, arm outstretched, Nolan and West’s cheering voices in the background, eyes squeezed shut, wide open, squeezed shut, heart racing, and set my finger against one of the metal links.
The effect is instantaneous.
There’s a buzz and a light and pain everywhere and just as I’m about to scream I’m thrown back against the wall of the school, my head slamming into the brick with a sickening crack. Somewhere somehow an alarm starts screaming and then people are screaming and I think someone’s shaking me but the pain is so heavy that my eyelids are weighted shut, flinging me into an agonizing, empty abyss. And when I wake up I try to move but I’m strapped to a bed and a person in a mask is shouting something to another person in a mask and there’s a pain in my body unlike any I’ve ever felt. I close my eyes and will it away.
It’s a long time before I open my eyes again. I don’t know how I know it’s been long. It just feels it. At first I think I’m fine, cured, a-okay, but then I shift my head and a pain shoots through my skull that’s so startling, I almost cry out. Tears in my eyes and a sob in the back of my throat, I take in my surroundings.
I’m lying on a bed. I’m lying on bed in a stark white room, completely unlike the ones we use for health checks, and I’m wearing someone else’s white clothes. There are no windows and the only dim lighting comes from the backlit ceiling. I am alone.
For the first time I notice that one of my arms feels heavy, one light. I lift up the light one, the one with my green class cuff, and examine it. It looks perfectly fine, flesh, blood, and bones, despite the wires and tubes sticking out of the skin at odd angles. With great effort I lift up the other, feeling a dull pain through my body as I do so, and let out a surprised squeal. It’s encased, from the tips of my fingers to my shoulder, in some sort of box. It’s only then that I realize I can’t bend my elbow, I can’t move my fingers, I can’t feel my skin. I can only feel the heaviness. With a start I remember that this is the hand that touched the fence.
The door opens and I quickly set the box that has become my arm at my side and try to ignore the pounding in my head. Impossible. It seems to be reverberating throughout my entire body. Footsteps enter the room and soon a woman whom I do not recognize, a woman with a pretty face, kind eyes, and blonde hair pulled back tightly into a bun, is smiling at me. I notice that her white teeth match her white lab coat.
“Hello, Noa,” she says, resting a hand on my good shoulder. Surprisingly, it doesn’t hurt. “I’m Healer Kristie. How are you feeling?”
“I feel like I’ve just been run over by a van,” I croak, my voice scratchy from disuse. “And what’s with the cereal box on my arm? I can’t feel my fingers.” If Healer Kristie is annoyed by my outburst, she doesn’t show it.
“Your arm, your hand, your head, all of it will heal. As for feeling like you’ve been run over by a van, it’s only to be expected.”
“What do you mean?” I ask dumbly.
“Well, Noa, your heart stopped beating. You almost died.”
You almost died.
A rough wind snaps me back to reality, nearly throwing me from the rock but clearing my head. Now is not the time to think about the past, not while I’m so exposed, so cold, and so close to fence. Ignoring the tingling in my left hand, I climb down from the rock, my shoes easily finding the familiar grips, and cut through the inconspicuous path in the trees leading to the edge of the road.
Emerging from the forest is like waking up from a dream. I ignore the glare of the lights and continue on the path back to House 17B and I’m almost there when I hear the footsteps behind me. I freeze, muscles tensed, thinking that maybe, just maybe, they’ll go away. They don’t. They come to a halt behind me. I stand there in the cold and I wait because there’s nothing else to do.
“You’re supposed to be in bed.”
I turn around to find myself looking up at Jude Hunter and I relax a little, though not much, because it’s not as bad as it could have been. As far as FOAs go, this isn’t a bad card to draw and I can’t believe my good luck.
Jude Hunter is one of the sentinels who patrols the roads and guards the gates and monitors our every movement. I remember being terrified of the sentinels when I was young, men who walk around with guns in their belts and expressions of steel, not only keeping things out, but keeping us in line. But they’re not here to hurt us, most of them, anyway. They’re here to enforce the rules, like the ten million different ones I’m breaking right this second.
“Well, I was,” I explain. “But I kept waking up and you wouldn’t think it, but Dara is just as annoying when she’s asleep as she is when she’s awake.”
Jude Hunter doesn’t respond and I don’t blame him. He is the newest sentinel and the only one who hasn’t personally met me, given me a warning, or dolled out a punishment. I hadn’t realized what a blessing that was until now because, youth and good looks aside, Jude Hunter is scarier than I thought. Over six feet tall with a hard jaw and cold eyes, he glares down at me like an angry god.
“What’s your name?” he demands.
“Noa.” I see the recognition in his eyes and know that my reputation must precede me.
“You know what the punishment is for sneaking out, don’t you?”
“Let me see. Is it twenty-four hours of solitary confinement without food and water? Because that’s what Sal will give me if you turn me in to him. But if you turn me into Vick, well, the punishment’s not as harsh, although he may get a little too handsy for my taste.”
Jude’s narrowed his eyes, like he can’t decide whether or not I’m telling the truth. The sad thing is that I’ve been in this situation so many times before that I’m actually not lying. Ugh. It’s like I can feel the weight of Vick’s thick hand on my thigh.
I must look pathetic or something, standing here with blue lips and chattering teeth, because for a second I see the tension leave his face. But then I blink and it’s all cold eyes and taught jaw and you’re in deep s*** and I know that I must have imagined it.
“So,” I say, trying not to cringe. “Lay it on me.”
Jude regards me for a second, and says, “This time, as long as you go straight to your room, I’ll let you off with a warning.”
“What?” I say stupidly. These are words I’ve never heard before. Like a foreign language. I’m never released with a warning. Not since all the FOAs in this whole institution found out about the incident with the fence. According to them I’m a troublemaker, a rule breaker, a contaminator of my peers, and I must be punished for things like breathing too loud or not sitting up straight or talking out of term.
“I said you can go with a warning,” he repeats. When I realize I’m neither dreaming nor hallucinating, I get this sudden, inexplicable urge to give Jude Hunter a hug. Thankfully, I stop myself. That would definitely change his mind. “Next time, just try to keep the teeth chattering under control.”
I blink. Was it just me or was that a joke? I don’t stick around long enough to find out. Instead, I turn on my heel and, without another word, scurry up the steps of house 17B, all the while feeling Jude’s eyes on the back of my head. As quietly as possible, I slip through the door, down the hall, and into my darkened room. It’s like I never left and for some reason I find that quite depressing.
Without even kicking off my muddy shoes, I crawl under the covers and fall effortlessly into a painless sleep.