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After men declared war on women, the world fell apart.

In a not-so-distant future, women outnumber men 7 to 1, and no one can explain it.

Threatened by this mysterious phenomenon, the government impulsively passes new abortion laws and strips women of their rights.

Meanwhile, eighteen-year-old Eve Malum watches the riots and protests through her television screen, terrified of the America she no longer recognizes. Unlike her mother and sister, however, she doesn’t have the courage to go out there and demand freedom for all women.

She isn’t like them. She isn’t a fighter.

But when something tragic happens, Eve becomes someone else… someone who will stop at nothing until justice is served, even if that means getting blood on her hands.

Chilling, twisted, and frighteningly vivid, Eden will draw readers into a dark dystopian world like no other.

SAMPLE READ

PROLOGUE

 

 

The pistol’s grip feels hot against my clammy palm. I glare down its rear sight, having a hard time aligning it with its front sight because my hands are shaking. That’s when I realize I’m only two feet away from this bastard—I don’t need to aim my fucking gun.

He looks terrified. Big beads of sweat drip down his face, darkening his blue collar and red tie, but I don’t care. I’ve been waiting too long for this. And now that I’m here, it all seems so surreal, like I’m not even the one holding the gun.

Yet it is real… I am holding the gun, and I am standing in the Oval Office of the White House with a gun pointed at the President of the United States of America. His jet-black hair is combed to one side and although I’m sure it’s gelled over with some expensive hair product, it looks greasy like he hasn’t washed it in weeks.

Maybe he hasn’t.

But then again, I doubt even a war would get in the way of his personal needs.

I regrip my gun, remembering why I’m here, remembering everything he’s done.

“P-p-p-please,” he begs, raising two sweaty hands in the air, and I revel in it.

The sound of a heavy artillery drone suddenly flies overhead, and I know I’m running out of time.

I cock the pistol and press it into his temple.

Everything is about to change.

 

CHAPTER 1 – EVE

 

 

Eve – Present Day

 

“What happened next?” Scarlet asks, her honey-brown eyes gazing up at me with such fascination.

I smile and gently brush her golden hair away from her porcelainlike face. Behind her, a dozen little girls, no older than eight years old, form a crescent moon in the grass, listening intently to every word I say. Their mothers, too, are drawn to my story, even though I’ve told it countless times.

“It was a dark world,” I say. “A world you wouldn’t want to live in.” I make eye contact with some of the mothers—they know; they remember. “Men ruled the world.”

I see grimaces appear on some of the little faces. Scarlet, the young girl at my feet, sticks out her pink tongue and giggles. “Boys? In charge?”

I smirk down at her. “Strange, isn’t it?”

She nods quickly, and the other girls follow suit.

I stand and pluck a large bright red Fuji apple from the tree behind me, then sit back down, rubbing my thumb against its waxy skin. “See this?”

More rapid nods.

“This used to be available in something called a store,” I say.

“A store?” one child asks.

“What’s a store?” asks another.

They’re too young to know or remember the old world. Two children begin bickering back and forth, but their mothers intervene and tell them to pay attention.

“A store is a place where a person would go to buy food,” I say, “like this apple. I would have had to buy it in the store, with money.”

“What’s money?” one girl asks.

There are subtle smiles on the mothers’ faces. What an unusual question. What’s money?

“Money is something men enjoyed using,” I say. “Something that caused a lot of bad in the world.”

I know they’re too young to understand the concept of greed—of power hunger and pride—but I hope that by describing money as bad, they’re able to comprehend that it doesn’t belong in our new world.

“So, did you destroy the stores?” Scarlet asks, her eyes round, eager to hear more.

“A lot was destroyed,” I say. “A lot of people got hurt.”

Their smiles slowly turn upside down. These girls know nothing about pain.

“Sometimes,” I say, “sacrifices have to be made for good to happen.” A butterfly with purple wings suddenly flickers by my face, and Scarlet reaches to touch it. I grin down at her. “That butterfly used to be a caterpillar, you know.”

Several girls gasp.

“That little caterpillar had to sit in a tight cocoon for a whole two weeks before growing those beautiful wings.”

Their eyes remain glued to me.

“We fought hard—your mothers and your grandmothers—to give you a life full of happiness and peace.” I extend a hand out toward the bountiful trees, the multicolored flower bushes, and the cool grass—as vividly green as a granny smith apple—that surround us.

“You fought the bad men?” Scarlet asks.

I admire her bold and inquisitive personality—although only four or five years old, she’ll make a strong leader one day.

“We did,” I say.

“And you won?” another girl asks. “No more bad men?”

I tilt my head and intently glance at the children’s mothers.

“There are still bad men out there,” I say, “but that’s why I created Eden—a place without any men at all.”

 

Eve – Flashback

 

“We can’t… we can’t explain it,” the fat man says, loosening his collar. Sweat drips from his dark hairline, soaking his tight white collar. He tugs at his suit cuffs as if stretching his sleeves might help him better fit into his blue overcoat that looks better suited for a kid. It’s obvious that television interviews aren’t his forte.

I turn up the volume on the touchscreen remote and lean forward.

“Do you think this poses any sort of danger?” the interviewer, a slender, doll-faced woman asks. She looks so out of place, too, with her three pounds of makeup and her light hair so done up it looks like she used an entire bottle of hairspray on it.

The man shakes his head, but not the I don’t know kind of shake. It’s more of a We’re doomed kind of shake. “We have several hundred research facilities trying to determine the cause, but where’s that getting us? They’ve been studying this phenomenon”—he does an air quote on either side of his double-chinned face—“since 2042. That’s twenty years of research since they noticed the change in statistics. And we still can’t figure it out. I mean, for the longest time, nature’s kept things pretty balanced. You know, fifty-fifty. How the hell”—his eyes dart at the camera, and he clears his throat, no doubt realizing the limitations on the words he can use—“how is it that the ratio’s been thrown off by twenty percent in only three years? Here we are, twenty years later, and seventy percent of the world population is now women. Scientists are speculating that the figure will continue to rise and jump to eighty percent in the next few years.”

At the bottom of the screen, there’s a black bar with white font that reads, John Gordon: Former Director of the Federal Statistics Department.

I’ve been hearing about this since I was a kid—how women are going to take over the world. It’s always been a bit of a joke in school, but over the last few years, it’s been getting serious. There’s worldwide panic, and every time I turn on the television, that’s all I see. It would be nice to get a break, just once. I swipe the remote and change the channel.

“Hey!” Mila says.

I wave a loose hand, urging my sister to keep quiet.

I land on a news channel, where a big red bar is floating at the top of the screen. I’m about to change the channel again, when Mila says, “Wait!”

The banner reads: “New bill to illegalize the abortion of male embryos.”

I swing my head around and look at Mila. She’s sitting forward with her elbows on her knees, looking the same as she always does on Saturday mornings—with a messy blond bun at the top of her head that’s much lighter than her roots and a pair of blue jogs and a white tank top with the same coffee stain she’s had for months. Her Caribbean ocean-colored eyes are popping out from behind her thick black-rimmed glasses, so much so that I wonder if they’ll smudge the lenses.

When she’s freaking out this much, I almost don’t notice her birth defect—a triangular-shaped dimple above her right eyebrow. It’s around the size of a penny. Kids in school used to make fun of her for it, but I think it adds character. She always wears her hair down in public to hide it, but when she’s home, she ties it up. Hopefully one day, she’ll stop caring what people think.

Right now, I know exactly how she feels—she’s terrified and enraged. The skin of her forehead creases into rolls, and she’s breathing hard through big nostrils. I feel the same way. Is this truly happening? I heard about the bill only a few months ago, and I thought it was some big joke—I thought President Price was simply being President Price. I didn’t think he’d actually do it.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Mila spews. She throws her pencil at the wide, holographic television and it goes right through. Dissatisfied by the lack of impact, she tosses her homework all over the floor. “I feel like we’re living in the goddamn twilight zone. How is this happening? How does the government have the right to tell a woman she’s not allowed to abort based on the baby’s gender? This is insane.”

I give her the stink-eye. She’s thirteen years old going on thirty. Where did she learn to talk like that?

“What?” she says, her thick lips parted. “Don’t you see what they’re doing? They’re trying to gain control of us! They’re scared because we’re outnumbering them, and they’re trying to regain control!”

I know she’s right. I can’t even argue. I change channels again.

“Is it true?” the news anchor asks, her eyes fixated on the camera. “Is the government considering illegalizing the abortion of male embryos to bring balance to this whole male-to-female ratio?” I can tell she’s upset by the way her pointed nostrils flare out. She continues, “And what about female embryos? Are the rumors also true? Is the government planning on reinforcing female abortions in certain states?”

I can feel the heat radiating from my sister beside me.

The screen flips over to a different setting: there’s a silver-haired man in a gray red-speckled suit holding a microphone. Other suited men walk behind him and enter what appears to be a hall or a government building. He doesn’t respond for a few seconds, then nods his partly bald head and presses a stubby finger against his earpiece.

“Rest assured that the government is doing everything it can to bring about balance in the safest way possible,” he says, his voice a deep rumble. “We’re currently investigating several approaches to remedy this situation—”

“Remedy?” Mila shouts. I brace myself for a loud bang, but she doesn’t throw anything this time. “What is there to remedy? Men are the reason this world is going to shit! Little pussies can’t handle there being more of us? It’s not enough that they’re already in control? Bet you if it were the other way around, though, they wouldn’t be panicking like this. They’d be having a field day!”

“Mila!” I growl, my eyes glued to the television. “I’m trying to listen.”

She sighs, leans back against the couch’s soft plush cushion, and crosses her arms.

“Mr. Paril,” the female anchor says, her pencil-thin eyebrows coming close together, “could you please answer the question? Is the government considering the option of labeling the abortion of male embryos a federal crime?”

There’s another pause as the screen switches over, and he stares at the camera like an idiot before nodding again. “As I’ve said, Elizabeth, the government is currently investigating—”

“That’s not what I’m asking you,” she cuts in. Her nostrils are flared, and her brown skin is pulled back tight on her face.

The screen is now split in half, offering a visual of both the upset anchor and the arrogant man in the suit.

“I’m not at liberty to discuss the nature of the actual investigation,” the man says.

“You’re not at liberty?” says the female anchor. “You’re not at liberty to discuss stripping women of their rights? Abortion has been a controversial topic for decades, and now there are rumors that the government may be stepping in and regulating abortions by illegalizing specific ones only? You do realize that this also means that all women will be obligated to undergo invasive procedures to determine the gender of the baby at an early stage, right? These are human beings, we’re talking about.” She’s glaring into the lens of the camera, a combination of disgust and hatred all over her face. “Who has the right to say it’s okay to take a life over another because of its gender? Do you realize the message this is sending to little girls around the world?”

“I understand your frustration, Elizabeth,” the man says, and all I want to do is smack him across the face. He’s so careless, emotionless. “Rest assured…”

“Rest assured?” she slaps a hand on her desk and points a finger at the screen, but everything suddenly goes bright blue, and there’s a white font caption that reads:

We are currently experiencing technical difficulties and are working to resolve the issue. We thank you for your patience.

“What?” Mila bursts out. “She was about to tell him off!”

“Exactly,” I say. “Come on, Mila. There aren’t any technical difficulties.”

She stares at me, and then at the blue screen, her jaw clenched. She digs her fingers into her veiny temples and lets out a low grunt. “I don’t understand. This can’t be happening.”

I’m too in shock to say anything. Government-regulated abortions? Basically, population control. In layman’s terms: the government plans to kill female babies and allow only males to be born to tip the scale.

How are they getting away with this? How can they possibly sign off on this? I’d understand if this were happening, say, several hundred years ago when we didn’t know any better, but in 2062?

This can’t be real.

My heart is pounding, and my palms are clammy.

The news channel flickers back on, but it’s an aerial shot of Washington, DC. The sound of helicopter blades echoes out of the speakers, and a caption slides across the screen:

Thousands of women gather around the White House in protest of Bill Z-24.

Flags and signs are popping up everywhere. The camera switches angles, and the television offers a close-up glimpse on the ground, where gathered women are angrily waving their homemade signs in the air and shouting over each other. It looks like something out of a movie.

Another capture slides across the bottom of the screen:

Two dead and three in critical condition as riots continue in Washington, DC.

“Can you—” Mila says, flicking a hand in the air. “Just turn it off.”

I sigh and hit the power button, the holographic screen flickering twice before disappearing entirely, leaving only a thin silver frame over our blue-painted walls.

Mila lets out an exaggerated breath. “Where’s Mom?”

I cock an eyebrow. “How should I know?”

“Weren’t you supposed to work tonight?” she asks, ignoring my question.

I stare at her. God, is she ever hormonal. I don’t recall being so full of attitude four years ago when I was her age.

“No,” I say sharply. “I had my final exam today. And I already told you, I don’t work at Choco-Café anymore.”

She lowers her head and stares at me from above her black-and-gold-rimmed glasses. “So, you don’t have a job?”

Why does she care?

“I haven’t had a job for six months, Mila.”

She snorts and leans back into the sofa. “That explains a lot.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

She smirks up at me, and I want to ask her if she’s stopped taking her Trisnol—a new drug she’s been prescribed to treat her bipolar disorder. But I know if I say anything, she’ll snap on me.

“You buy good food,” she says, almost embarrassed.

I wasn’t expecting that. For a second, I see my little sister in there, somewhere far beneath that teenage demon.

“Mom buys all the cheap shit,” she says.

I give her the look—a silent gaze that warns her to be appreciative of the things she does have. We don’t have much, and I know my mom does her best to support us. The only expensive thing we own is our television, and I spent years saving up to get it.

“I know, I know,” she says and raises two open hands on either side of her face. “I liked it when you did groceries, that’s all.”

I know she’s coming from a good place, and I can’t be upset with her for sharing her feelings. Instead, I take it as a compliment and smile at her. “I’m looking into starting work at Marshall’s this summer. Stacy said they’re hiring cashiers, which is pretty awesome considering nowhere else wants human cashiers.”

She gives me a crooked smile and looks down at her homework all over the living room.

“Until that happens, though, be thankful Mom’s even bringing any food home. You know she makes minimum wage,” I say.

“I don’t know what you’ve been smoking, Eve, but Mom hasn’t been to work in two weeks. She thinks I haven’t noticed, but I followed her the other day. She’s been going to those riots—you know, with all the feminists.”

 

CHAPTER 2 – GABRIEL

 

 

Gabriel – Present Day

 

Adam is running his mouth again, teaching these goddamn dogs that women are the reason the world’s fallen apart. Most days, I picture grabbing his prickly bald head and smashing it until there’s nothing but shards of bone hanging from loose flesh.

But he’s established himself here, among the few remaining men, and to turn against him would be suicide. He’s wearing a torn, sleeveless shirt, and his tattooed biceps bulge as he animatedly talks to the crowd in front of him, like he’s Jesus Christ himself surrounded by a herd of brainless sheep.

He’s sitting on an old foldable picnic table—a plastic piece of garbage he seems to think of as his throne. Even from here, I can see the veins in his forehead popping. It’s like he’s on drugs when he goes off like that. He looks like the type of guy who would take drugs, too. He’s scrawny but has a lot of muscle definition. His crazy blue eyes sit in the middle of two dark circles, and the skin around his eyelashes is all red. He has a cracked tooth at the front, but to be fair, most survivors have dental problems. Right now, he’s sitting there wearing what he’s been wearing for the last two months—a pair of black cargo pants he pulled off a military man, and a white long john shirt that looks like coffee’s been spilled on it at least a hundred times. He always keeps his shirt tucked in, and I assume it’s because it makes it easier for him to swing his rifle from around his back.

I’ve never hated anyone more than I hate Adam.

When I’m not fantasizing about beating the living daylights out of him, I’m usually fantasizing about leaving the Rebels. I don’t belong here, but I know there’s nothing left for me out there.

We’ve traveled hundreds of miles across cities, hoping we might find other survivors, but everything’s become a giant wasteland. So many people died of starvation, disease, and violence. And I’m an ex-marine. I’ve seen it all, but this world… It’s a lot to take in.

What gets to me is these guys. I know what they’re looking for, and the thought of it makes me sick to my stomach. For years, they’ve been hunting for women. It’s been said that a certain group of women found their way to some haven. These pricks think that if they find them, they’ll get to have their way with them.

Why couldn’t I have ended up with a bunch of good men? Who in their right mind thinks about sex in a post-apocalyptic world?

They’ve already admitted to raping women during the rebellion. In fact, they’re proud of it. What kind of sick piece of shit owns up to that? Brags about it?

If I speak up, they’ll kill me. All I can do is hold on to the idea that one day, I’ll get my chance to take them out, or I’ll find a way to run.

“Yo, Gabe!” Adam shouts, leaning his bony elbows on his knees.

I cringe at the sound of his voice. It’s an exaggeratedly masculine growl. It’s like he’s forcing too hard to sound tough.

I make eye contact, but I don’t say anything.

“Why aren’t you over here?” he asks, pointing his eyes down at his little followers—a bunch of burly men dressed in blood-and-dirt-stained clothes and beards growing out past their Adam’s apples. Some try to groom with their knives, but most let it grow, because they just don’t care and because they think it makes them look more intimidating, which it probably does.

I look around and realize I’m the only odd man out. I’m sitting against an abandoned schoolyard’s rusted chain-link fence, my back to the sun. It’s warm on the skin of my clammy neck, and I’m content here.

“Think I caught something,” I lie and rub my stomach.

He makes a stupid face at me and keeps preaching.

We’re twelve men in total, including me. We used to be sixteen, but two got sick, and two were shot dead by Rebels from a different crew. That’s the funny thing about us men—we like to say that women are the reason for this war, but we’ll kill each other over territory.

Sometimes, I wonder if it would be easier if I were like Adam’s men. Maybe I wouldn’t feel so alone. It’s an indescribable torture to feel like you don’t belong to your own gender. Because in reality, there’s a bunch of them and only one of me, so maybe I’m the freak. Maybe I’m too sensitive.

I run my fingers through my long curly black hair and sigh. Any minute now, Adam will get up, hop off the table in his big leather combat boots, and start walking.

Because that’s all we do—walk.

Walk, sleep, eat, scavenge, and kill. I avoid the killing part, but some of the men have started giving me weird looks. It’s like they’re onto me, and they don’t like it. They can’t stand anyone who isn’t exactly like them. Anyone who isn’t ruthless and primitive.

I see no point in killing those who aren’t part of our crew. It’s barbaric. Self-defense—fine. But to kill a group of men to take their food? Their clothes?

I look down at my own leather nine-hole boots. I’ve been wearing these for years, and although the stitching is starting to come undone, I’ll wear them for as long as I can before I steal a dead man’s pair. But some of these men wear a bunch of clothes they don’t even need. It’s like they’re proud of themselves for having killed someone. I see no pride in that.

I shift my attention to Masterson. He’s probably the heftiest out of all of us, with his slimy belly hanging over his belt and his flabby arms creating pools of yellow stains under his arms. He’s munching down on a stale granola bar from one of the expired batches. We raid abandoned stores and buildings whenever possible and only if they haven’t already been cleared out by other survivors. Some of the stuff we pick up is expired, which doesn’t matter when you haven’t eaten in three days, but Masterson tends to abuse his eating privileges.

We just finished going through the school across the field. The sign in front of the school, a molded slab of metal, reads Jackson High. It’s amazing what you’ll find in high school lockers. There’s a lot of stale weed, but most of the time, it’s food so rotten it looks like a pile of brown mush and the stench is enough to make me want to run out of the school. Today, we managed to find a few granola bars, chips, chocolate bars, and candy. The rest is pretty much mush. Even sandwiches (I’m assuming they were sandwiches) look like brown soup swirling around in ziplock backs.

I wonder: if we were to run out of food, would the men turn on Masterson? Would they resort to cannibalism, given he’s the fattest of the bunch? I pray we don’t reach that point, but it’s something I have to think about because we’re all just a bunch of civilized animals. If cornered in a life-or-death situation, man will always choose life.

Adam suddenly lunges to his feet and spits out a glob of snot. “Let’s go find us some pussy.”

God, I wish I still had my 9mm. I’d pop one right at his face. Now that the men are fed, they’re ready to hunt. Because that’s all they can think about—sex. In a postapocalyptic world, they’re still thinking about sex.

What a joke.

Don’t get me wrong: I miss it, too. A lot. But I wouldn’t go hunting innocent women for it. When I think about rape, it puts a nasty knot in my stomach. I couldn’t do it… can’t imagine myself holding someone down and forcing them to feel pain so I can get off. It’s disgusting. Women aren’t toys to be played with by men. They’re human beings.

These guys probably used to pick up prostitutes. I can see it on their faces. They’re entitled pieces of shit who think the world is owed to them. They think because they’re genetically bigger and stronger, they should be in control.

I’m genetically bigger and stronger than Adam—do you see me trying to take his place? I’m not an animal. I have nothing to prove. If I ever do kill him, it won’t be out of a desire to be in control or to lead the group. It’ll be out of a need to cleanse the world from his worthless, acne-scarred skin.

Masterson shoves what looks like a Twinkie into his mouth, and I cringe because I know that the cream inside is probably all clumpy, if not rock hard. He hops on his feet and laughs like he’s crazy or something.

“Yeah!” he says, his mouth grossly full. “Let’s find… s… puss…!”

Was that even a sentence? They’re like cavemen. What are they going to do if they find a woman, anyway? Knock her out and take turns?

Remember, though: “women are the reason the Earth’s gone to shit.”

Gabriel – Flashback

“Madre, let me help you with those,” I say.

My mom likes to think she can handle everything on her own, but she has a bad shoulder, and the least I can do is help. I pluck the grocery bags out of her stiff hands and bring them into the foyer.

“I could’ve done it just fine, my Gabriel,” she says, her accent not having improved in the slightest since we moved to the United States.

“I know, Mama, but I like to help,” I say.

She brushes her fingers against the scruff of my beard and looks at me with her dark chocolate-colored eyes. “How did I get so lucky?”

I smile at her. My mom means everything to me. She’s always put me first—always sacrificed her own dreams to give me a life worth living.

 

Sometimes, I wonder what life would be like if my father hadn’t been killed at war when I was five. Would I have done father-son stuff? Would I be out playing baseball with him right now? Would I have steered clear of the marines?

Could be I’m still searching for him. My mother hates that I’ve joined the Black M, or Black Marines, a new division in the US Military, but ever since he died, I’ve felt a gravitating pull, an indescribable desire to follow in his footsteps, even if it means putting my life on the line.

I feel awful for my mom, though. She lost her husband, and now, her only son is leaving on a mission in a few days.

“I’m gonna miss you, Mah,” I say.

She swallows hard a few times, the skin on her neck stretching with every gulp. I don’t mean to hurt her—I just want her to know I love her.

She looks at me, and I can almost hear her heart shatter. “Why do you have to go? Why do you want to fight when your father died doing the very same thing?”

I cross my arms and bow my head. “Mah, you know this is something I have to do.”

She taps me gently on the cheek, and her fingernails tickle me. “You won’t find your father out there.”

“I know that.”

She smirks, knowing all too well that this is an old song, then walks into the house. I remove my shoes, pick up the bags, and follow her inside.

“Go sit,” I tell her. “I’ll put this stuff away.”

She squeezes my forearm and goes to her favorite recliner chair, where she sits down and picks up a blue-and-black novel sitting on her coffee table.

My mom’s not frail in any sense of the word. She’s a petite forty-two-year-old woman with olive skin and wavy black hair she keeps tied in a small bun at the back of her head. She has a heart of gold but the temper of a wildcat when provoked.

I pull the bag of milk out of the grocery bag and place it into the fridge’s bottom drawer, where my mother always likes to keep it. I personally don’t like reaching down to grab milk, but at her height (a short five feet), she doesn’t seem to mind.

I put the remaining groceries away and join her in the living room. She still has the same sofa I used to sleep on as a child. It’s an orange-and-brown-colored fabric couch that’s rough to the touch. It’s hideous if I’m being honest, but it’s incredibly comfy.

As I look around, I realize that everything is exactly as it has been for the last seventeen years. Nothing’s changed. At least, nothing that I can see. She still has her old, yellowwood bookshelf with glass doors cornered by the window, and the walls are still a candy-apple red. Bronze and golden plates hang above the brick fireplace, something my mom’s always loved to collect, especially when she goes to Argentina to visit her family. I’ve tried to introduce her to all the new technology the world has to offer—from holographic televisions to small interior drones that help with household chores—but she wants nothing to do with it.

I glance at her, and she slides off her reading glasses, places her book down, and smiles up at me.

“Are you nervous?” she asks.

“About what?”

“About your mission,” she says. “Where are you going?”

She’s always been so inquisitive. “You know I can’t tell you that, Mah.”

Her lips curve up and her eyes narrow on me. “So secretive. I’m your madre, for heaven’s sake! Who am I going to tell?”

I rub my forehead, my smile turning into a grin. I’ve always had such a hard time keeping anything from my mom. She’s taught me the importance of honesty, integrity, and respect since I was very young.

But I can’t tell her. It’s part of my clearance. It’s part of the mission. She can’t know where I’m going.

“Is it San Diego again?” she presses.

“No, Mah, that was my training.”

“You’re too young, Gabriel. You’re too young to go to battle.”

I lean forward, my eyes fixated on hers. “I’ll be fine, I promise.”

She shakes her head and pouts. “That’s what your father said before he left.”

There’s a moment of silence, and guilt starts to set in. I’ve been away for two years on a mission in North Korea, and now that I’m back, I’m leaving again. My poor mom didn’t know where I was for two years, and I’d rather keep it that way. Not only for her safety but for mine. I don’t want to talk about what happened. I don’t want to relive any of it.

“Master Sergeant Diego seems to think I have a lot of potential,” I say, hoping to make her proud.

“Potential for what?”

I shrug. “To move up. To make something of myself. Mah, if I move ranks, I can take care of us for the rest of our lives. You know that, right?”

“Money doesn’t matter to me,” she says. “I want mi hijo to be safe.”

I lean back into the sofa and rest my arms up on the headrest. “I’ll do everything in my power to stay safe, I promise you.”

She doesn’t say anything. That’s one thing I hate—when I upset her. But every time we talk about the Black M, the mood turns sour. I don’t blame her. I understand where she’s coming from and wish I could make things right.

“Can you talk about him, Mah?”

The skin on her face tightens, and her eyes light up. “About Camille? Your father?”

I nod. I’ve heard the stories time and time again, but when she speaks of him, it’s like he’s here with us. I want to hear it again before I leave.

“He was as handsome as you,” she starts. “Curly black hair. Beautiful big blue eyes with long eyelashes. You look so much like him. You’re as big and strong as he was, too. And that deep voice of yours… You got that from him.” She stares at me as if she’s seeing me for the first time. “He was funny. So funny…” She raises both hands in the air. “But also such a gentleman. You get that from him. Did you know that? Your father had so much respect for women. He was kind and fair. Sometimes I wished he’d never joined the armed forces.”

I’m about to stop her and tell her that we don’t have to talk about him because I can tell the story’s turning dark, but she continues. “It changed him. Made him hard. But the Camille I knew before he went to war…” Her features light up again. “He was one in a million.”

She stares off into space, and I sit quietly, letting her enjoy the memory.

“He was so…so…” She quickly glances up at me. “What’s that word? Chivalous?”

“Chivalrous?”

She laughs, a full set of white teeth now visible. “Chilavarous,” she tries to repeat. “Men aren’t like that anymore. But you”—she points a stiff finger at my face—“you were raised to be chilavarous. To be kind. To be gentle with women. You know better than to ever lay hands on a woman. If I ever catch you—”

“Mah!” I cut her off. “I’d never hit a woman. Come on. You taught me better than that.”

“I also taught you to open doors for women, and men, too. You show respect to everyone, and you get respect back.”

She’s still pointing at me. A prominent crease forms between her brows.

“I open doors for people all the time, Mah. I help people when they drop their belongings. I smile at strangers. Going away for thirteen weeks hasn’t changed that.”

She slowly lowers her hand and raises her chin. “Good.”

“You taught me something else, too,” I say, inching forward.

She tilts her head and doesn’t let go of my stare. “What else?”

“How to cook. Now, what can I make you for lunch?”

 

CHAPTER 3 – LUCY

 

 

Lucy – Present Day

Nola is tightening the back of my fluffy, overlayered dress and going on about how beautiful I look.

I’m lucky even to be wearing this dress. It has a corset-like design at the front, with a silky material on the waist that’s creamy blue. Then, at the back, there are white ruffles and frills that puff out. It makes me look older than I am. It looks like the sort of dress I used to read about in history books.

In Eden, a girl can step foot inside the Preparation Room only once. It’s a big, office-sized space that was designed specifically for Graduation Day. There’s an old wardrobe at the back corner, and although it’s full of cobwebs on top of it, the dresses inside are probably worth thousands of dollars. Well, in the old world, anyway. They were found in an abandoned boutique on our way to Eden. I can’t remember the name of it, but to this day, women are still wearing clothing they found there.

The mirror I’m standing in front of looks like something out of a movie. Its wooden frame almost looks gold, and it’s huge—way bigger than the mirror I have in my room. Then, beside the mirror is a red velvety-looking couch with big yellow buttons on its cushions. I wish my room were as fancy as this one.

“You look just like your mother,” Nola breathes.

I know she’s right, but I don’t want to say it. I’ve seen pictures of my mom at my age, and it’s like I’m staring at her in the mirror. My eyes are a sage green right now, but they change depending on my mood. My mom’s eyes did that, too. I could always tell when she was upset because they’d turn a bright pear green. My hair’s way longer than hers though, but the color is the same: a dark cherry red that goes light in the sun.

If I look so much like my mom, I wonder if I’ll be as tall as her. I’m already Nola’s height, and she’s already taller than most women in Eden, but I don’t know if I’ll grow much more.

Nola says she knew my mom, though sometimes I wonder how well she knew her. I doubt they were even friends. Nola’s a bit too outspoken for my mom, who never much liked being around overly opinionated people.

“Are you excited?” she asks, her red-lipped grin nearly reaching her ears in the mirror’s reflection. She wraps her fingers around my shoulders, and her round face nearly touches mine. Her sandy-brown hair is as frizzy as it always is in this humidity, and it tickles my ear. I can see her body behind mine because she’s shaped like an hourglass, so her curves are sticking out. Today, she’s wearing a purple dress with black meshing at the front. Nola seems to have an obsession with dresses.

A lot of women wear dresses here in Eden, but they don’t have to. Anyone can wear whatever they want. I think dresses are more comfortable for a lot of people. Personally, I prefer wearing pants and a shirt.

“Excited about what?” I ask, and I pull away a bit because I hate having sweaty skin against mine.

She lets out a forced laugh and slaps me lightly on the shoulder. “Always a jokester like your mother.”

My mother wasn’t much of a jokester, especially before the war, so I don’t know what she’s talking about.

“My little Gracey would be graduating like you next month,” she says, but she quickly turns away.

I try to remember that Nola lost her daughter during the war. I’m convinced that’s the reason she’s overly attached to me. She always wants to do my hair, dress me up, or meet me in Eden after I’m done with class. She’ll never replace my mom, but it’s nice to have an adult looking out for me. Her elbows float up beside her shoulders as she wipes her big, almost oversized eyes, and she swings back around with that goofy grin on her face like nothing happened.

“So,” she says excitedly, “what’s it gonna be?”

“What’s what gonna be?”

“Your choice, silly,” she says. “You know how it works. The day you turn sixteen years old, you make your decision.”

I know what decision she’s talking about and already know what I want to do for a living. I want to work with the Technicians. Realistically, it’s the most useful trade now that the world has fallen apart. If I need to get away, I’ll know how to fix a car and potentially save lives.

“Same thing as yesterday,” I tell her. She knows what my answer is, too, but for some reason, she doesn’t like it. She might have encouraged her daughter to take a different path, and now that’s falling on me.

She makes a disapproving face in the mirror and pulls my long dark hair back behind my shoulders. “Sweetie,” she says, “are you sure you want to get your hands dirty like that? It’s a dirty job.”

I shrug. “I like that.”

She looks up at the ceiling and shakes her head. “I can’t tell you what to do.”

No, you can’t, I think, but I don’t say it.

She tucks her fingers around my hair again and starts combing her fingers through my knots. I’ve never cared for its upkeep the way most girls in Eden do. I know it tangles often, but it doesn’t bother me. I suppose that’s why I don’t mind becoming a Technician; getting dirty has never fazed me.

“You’d look so beautiful if you braided your hair, Lucy,” she says.

Is she trying to say that I’m ugly otherwise? That’s not too nice. She must have noticed my reaction because she giggles uncomfortably and says, “You’re always beautiful. But you’d look so special. You know—for your big day. Can I braid it for you? For this special day?”

I almost roll my eyes, but I remember that she’s looking at me through the mirror’s reflection. If it’ll make her happy, then I don’t see why not.

I shrug and force a smile, my lips feeling like a piece of stale licorice.

She lets out an excited cry and claps her hands over my head.

“You know,” she says, separating my hair into three long pieces, “I’ve braided your mother’s hair a few times, too.”

Is she telling the truth? I stare at her in the mirror and find it hard to think of any reason she’d have to lie about something like that.

She offers me a sweet smile. “Her hair was as red as yours but not as thick.”

My head nods back and forth as she braids my hair behind my neck and down my back.

“What about your dad?” she asks. “Did he have red hair, too?”

My eyes meet hers, and I can’t help but wonder: if she was such good friends with my mom, how come she didn’t know anything about my dad? Why would she even ask me that?

She must know what I’m thinking, because she rests one hand on my shoulder and says, “She never talked about him, you know.”

I believe her.

My mom didn’t like talking about my dad. She said he left us when I was a baby. Now that I’m not a little kid anymore, I don’t think she was telling me the truth. But I don’t know… There’s something she never told me, and now that she’s gone, I’ll never know the truth.

I glance at my reflection, seeing my mother’s face in mine: her almond-shaped eyes and her plush lips, her dimple that’s barely noticeable on my chin. If there’s one thing I can do to honor her memory, it’s continue to hide her secret… Whatever it is.

“He had red hair, too,” I say, even though I’ve never known my dad.

 

Lucy – Flashback

 

My mom stands in line, tapping her foot and checking the holographic wall clock over and over again.

I look around the store to see what she’s so stressed about. I don’t see anything.

“Lucy, sweetie, come here,” she says and reaches out her hand.

I hate it when she tries to grab my hand in public. “I’m seven, Mom. I’m not two years old anymore.”

“Then stay close to me.”

“Is that everything?” the cashier asks.

She’s a pretty lady with black hair and a silver nose ring that looks a bit too big for her little nose. She’s not smiling, but I don’t think she even realizes it. I think she hates her job. My mom looks at the black treadmill-looking mat that automatically moves all your items to the cashier. It’s empty, so that means my mom has nothing left to buy. She gives the cashier a weird look.

The lady rolls her eyes, pops her bubble gum that smells like cherry, and asks, “Do you need a bag?”

My mom looks around quickly, then nods and twirls her finger in the air that I think means, Yeah, yeah, hurry it up.

“That’s a dollar more,” the lady says.

“That’s fine,” my mom says.

She’s so impatient. I don’t get what her problem is.

“Mom…” I try, but she waves a hand, so I shut my mouth. I know better than to annoy her when she’s in a bad mood.

The lady pops her gum again, and I can smell the sweet cherry from here. “Twenty-three thirty-eight. Chip or tag.”

My mom doesn’t believe in getting the payment chip. Apparently, they put it under the skin of your wrist and you can use that to pay. I think it’s freaky, and I’d never get it either. There’s a beep when my mom taps her key tag in front of the payment machine, and she snatches her bag before the machine even makes the beeping noise. It’s a beep that lets you know the receipt’s been sent to your tag. Uploaded… I think that’s the word.

“Do you want—” the lady says, but my mom’s already hurrying through the store’s front doors.

“Mom…” I try.

She grabs my arms and starts walking faster. “Get in the car.”

Am I in trouble? Did I do something wrong? Why’s she acting so mean?

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

She doesn’t answer me. I climb into the car on the other side of our old two-door Jeep, and my mom goes into her side. She starts the car before I even have time to close my door.

Her eyes are moving around all over the place, so I know she’s not mad at me. If she were, I’d know about it right away. She’d be looking at me instead of everywhere else.

“Can you please tell me what’s wrong?” I ask.

“Ophelia! Is that you?”

There’s a woman standing beside my mom’s window. Her hair is bigger than her head, and there’s a goofy smile on her face. My mom looks annoyed. She pushes the window’s automatic button and forces a smile at the lady.

“Hi, Susan. So sorry, I’m late for an appointment. We’ll catch up later!”

The lady is still smiling, and she’s about to say something, but my mom puts up her window and pulls out of the parking lot. The tires make a loud squeal noise.

“Mom, please,” I try again.

“Put your seatbelt on,” she says.

I keep my mouth shut and buckle myself in.

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