Authors: Sara Grant
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #General, #Law & Crime, #Science Fiction
LITTLE, BROWN AND COMPANY
New York Boston
To my parents for teaching me the sky’s the limit and to my husband Paul for giving me wings.
I’m standing in the dark, not the gentle gray of dusk or the soft black of a moonlit night but pitch-black. My heart batters
my ribs like a bird beating its wings against a glass cage. I wave my hand in front of my face. I can’t see it. I never knew
it could be so dark. My edges are merging with the inky blackness around me. My dad would finally be proud of me. I’ve blended
Someone touches my elbow. I jump.
“I’m right here, Neva.” It’s Ethan. By my side, like always. He’s here but not here. I grope his arm, his shoulder,
his neck, and touch his face. He guides my fingers to his lips and kisses them. “Follow me.” I feel his words on my thumb,
his warm breath, the nudge of his lips as he forms sounds. He pulls me to the floor. Every cell in my body ignites with the
thrill of possibilities. In this nothingness, anything can happen. Maybe I can find what I’ve lost with Ethan. Tangle my body
with his and only feel, not think, not see.
But we all agreed: No sex. Not just tonight. No sex until we’re sure we won’t create another generation like us.
I take a deep breath and exhale slowly. I clear my mind as we crawl toward the nest of pillows we piled in one of the corners
earlier this afternoon. I try not to form pictures in my head. That would defeat the whole purpose. We are supposed to be
escaping in the dark, but I am a hostage to my fear. Any time the lights go out panic grabs me by the throat. My skin sweats
and stings like blisters forming after a burn. I’m tired of being scared all the time.
I can do this.
I grit my teeth and try to ignore the rush of blood in my ears.
I bump into a pair of feet. Pointy-toed boots. Braydon Bartlett. I see the red leather in my mind’s eye. That’s how I think
of other people. I distill them into the defining features they have created for themselves. Braydon always wears those shoes,
shiny with no creases or scuffs. All most of us have ever owned are hand-me-downs with other peo
ple’s footprints. We shouldn’t have invited him. Even though he’s got the right last name with a direct genetic line to one
of our founding fathers, there’s something about him that I don’t trust. But my best friend begged me, the girl with the jagged
scar, a rosy S still healing on her cheek. She told her guardians that it was an accident. But I watched her sketch the letter
before she carved it permanently with the knife. She shouldn’t have done that. Anyone with an identity mark gets hassled more
by the police. But that’s Sanna.
I move forward and stumble over her bare feet. She rebels against any constraints, including shoes.
“Sorry,” I say. She steps around me and whispers something to Braydon. Then I hear soft squeaks as their lips meet. I’m glad
it’s dark and I don’t have to watch.
I sweep my hand back and forth across the floor. “This way,” I say to Ethan, whose hand is touching my ankle. We move together.
The darkness gives us the illusion of solitude, but we’re the opposite of alone; my friends have gathered for a little experiment
before we go our separate ways.
We’ve been planning this for weeks, a Dark Party. One final rebellion before we take our place as respected members of society.
It was another of Sanna’s brilliant ideas. We want to discover who we are without the burden of sight. It’s easy to believe
we are the same inside because we look so similar. Sanna says only in the dark can we know the truth, but I’m not sure. Darkness
Sanna wanted me to host the party. A Dark Party at the Minister of Ancient History’s house. That’s how she talked everyone
into it. The greater the risk, the greater the thrill.
I’ve known most of these people all my life, but they’re Sanna’s friends. They don’t trust me, never have. I’m the Minister
of Ancient History’s daughter—guilt by association.
Sanna convinced everyone to pitch in. Nicoline brought black plastic bags. Ethan found towels to tuck under the doors. Sanna’s
brother gave her three rolls of duct tape. We never ask how he gets the things we need.
It took us an hour to make my living room lightproof. We taped black bags to the windows. We switched off the lights. After
a few seconds, our eyes adjusted, but we could see each other in shades of gray. Not good enough. We attacked every point
of light and doubled the bags on the windows.
We could still see outlines, silhouettes of ourselves. The small red light on the backup generator seemed to illuminate the
entire room. We unplugged everything. When I switched off the light again, there was only pure, dark, silence.
Now I hear the hum of hushed voices and the rough-and-smooth sounds that bodies make when coaxed together. Maybe we’ve made
a mistake. We hoped we would find ourselves in the dark, but instead we are tempting our celibacy.
Ethan and I finally find our pillows. We lie side by side, our elbows and ankles touching, yet he feels miles away. Darkness
dips its icy fingers under my skin, but I refuse to give in.
I try to erase all thoughts and images. Don’t think of the color of the pillowcases or the holes in their lace ruffles.
One image—no matter how small—leads to an avalanche of pictures. First I see the living room with its worn leather couch,
the fireplace and its fake flames, the bookshelves crammed with dusty volumes of our approved history. But now, as if lifted
by balloon, my vision expands to include my square brick house, which blends with the dozens of similar houses in my neighborhood.
As I float upward, I see the green and concrete squares of the City, which is multiplied a thousand times to create a haze
of gray that is Homeland. I let the image blur and fade to black.
“It’s okay,” Ethan says, and slips his arms around me, which makes me colder somehow.
My eyes ache for shape and color, but the blackness surrounding me seems to have substance. I roll up on one elbow to face
him. Don’t think of his name. His name conjures up the images I’m trying to escape. His skin the same color as the milky tea
we drink. His ears are the same shape as my father’s. His short brown hair a confusion of waves like everyone else’s. I see
myself around every corner—every minute—like living in a maze of mirrors.
My grandma told me once about a time when we were different, a long, long time ago. Stories handed down through the generations
in whispers about life outside the Protectosphere. A time when we could leave and were allowed to return. I still see her
every day, even though she’s long gone.
“Once upon a time, my little snowflake,” she’d say, “people were the most beautiful colors. Everyone was unique.”
That word made me giggle. “But it was too hard to be different and equal.” She told me fantastic tales of wars caused by differences—different
religions, different cultures, different skin colors. “We shut ourselves off. Now each generation grows more alike.” Grandma
was breaking one of the government’s many unwritten rules. There’s officially nothing before The Terror and the sealing of
the Protectosphere and nothing outside it. She made me promise not to repeat her stories.
“What can it hurt, telling me?” I’d snuggled in closer. She’d stroked my hair.
“You’re different.” Her words tickled my ear; she always spoke them so close, as if they were a secret prophecy.
I’m the only one who remembers her. One day she was tucking me in and the next day every trace of her was gone. Not even her
son, my dad, will speak her name.
“Neva,” Ethan whispers, and brings me back to the present. I lie my head on his chest and I hear the steady
of his heart—a rhythm I know well. Sanna and I have begged him to create an identity mark, but he says he can’t. My mark
is still healing, red and raw from hundreds of pinpricks. Sanna helped me etch it into the valley between my stomach and hip.
A small snowflake falling toward my pubic hair.
He gently rolls me on my back and lies on top of me. We kiss as if choreographed. I realize I am tensing the muscles in my
arms and drawing him closer and closer. I urge my body to respond like it used to. We linger here in this timeless place.
Ethan’s hands race over my body. His breath
comes in short, sharp pants. He fumbles and I pretend I still love him. In this void, I feel even more alone.
Someone clears their throat. It’s Sanna. I know it is. A new panic flashes through me. She’s really going through with it.
We talked about it for weeks. This secret scheming is what’s kept us sane, but it’s not like skipping school or dying our
beige graduation robes pink. The government could erase us—like her dad and my grandma—for unpatriotic acts. I’ve got to stop
her. I sit up, knocking heads with Ethan.
“Ouch,” he says, and then lowers his voice. “What’s going on?”
“Sorry, Ethan.” I need to find Sanna. We were wrong about finding ourselves in the dark. Maybe we are wrong to believe we
can change anything. “I’ll be right back.” I stand and shuffle forward. I am lost. The darkness provides no orientation. Up
could be down, left could be right. My chest tightens. The dark closes in. I struggle to breathe.
“Can I have your attention?” It’s Sanna. I’m too late. My body pulses with the pounding of my heart. “Sorry to interrupt whatever
I’m interrupting.” Her voice is soft and apologetic as if she’s trying to disguise it. “I’ve got something to say.” We agreed
she would be the one to talk. It’s hard enough for me to be in the dark, and I am taking a big enough risk hosting the party.
My dad would freak if he knew. He disapproves of anything that even hints that Homeland isn’t perfect. Mom promised to keep
Dad out late tonight. She thinks my party is for celebrating our graduation. I haven’t told her about our plans. I haven’t
“We’re sixteen.” Sanna pauses and everyone cheers. The weight of what we are doing overwhelms me. “They tell us, we are adults
now.” I concentrate on Sanna and try to calm down. I notice a slight tremor in her voice. “It’s time we make a stand.” We
expected cheers at this point, but the room is deathly quiet. “Okay then,” she seems to say to herself. There’s a long silence.
“The Protectosphere is killing us,” Sanna blurts.
Someone gasps. No one says things like that out loud. Her words hang in the air like crystals searching for sunshine. “We
all know it. The government is squashing our future. Fewer choices. Fewer resources. They keep us trapped with their lies
about what’s outside. We have to do something.”
My heart swells, I’m so proud of her. If only I was as brave.
Sanna continues, “Stay, if you want to join us and demand they open the Protectosphere. We deserve to know what’s outside.
We deserve a future.”
My grandma believed there was still life outside the Protectosphere. Knowing there’s something beyond our electrified dome
is like my faith in life after death. I want desperately to believe it.