As soon as I pass the threshold, I hear Ryder stand to follow me, the hay adjusting to the removal of his weight. There are only a couple steps before they stop. Micah must have stopped him since it isn’t long before I hear his voice. I’m a few feet away from the hut when I hear my brother calling out to me.
“Al!” he yells. “Alora, stop!”
His voice is loud, which tells me he’s quickly closing the distance between us. I’m about to sprint away from him, put as much space between us as possible, when I feel a hand tighten around my right bicep and flip me around. Dizzy, Micah grips both my biceps to keep me from falling over. I stare him straight in the eyes, pushing all my anger into my glare. Ryder is standing just outside the hut, watching us intently. Watching me, rather; ready to save me and take me back to gateway and Geha the minute I even look at him the right way.
“I’m sorry,” he insists. I wait for his grip to loosen even a little so I can dash away, but today isn’t my lucky day.
“Go jump in a boiler,” I spit, rage radiating off my skin. Micah stares at me in utter disbelief.
“What did you just say to me?” he demands, his grip tightening. Now he’s angry, too, but for a completely different reason.
“You heard me,” I breathe.
He turns his glare on Ryder, knowing full well who taught me the phrase. Ryder looks away, pretending to not pay attention to Micah or me. He even leans against the doorframe of the hut, and kicks the dirt at his feet. Micah growls and turns back to me. Ryder stops kicking up dust and goes back to watching me.
“Look,” Micah says to me. His tone is calmer, but he is unable to get the anger completely out of his voice yet. His apology is sincere, though. “I’m sorry.”
“Why should I believe you?” I accuse, my tone already softening. I don’t want to believe him, but it’s difficult to deny the sincerity in his eyes.
“You know me,” he insists. “I never once lied to you as children.”
“As you’ve told me, a lot has happened since we were children,” I goad. Part of me is projecting knowing I lied to him about our parents, but I can’t help myself. “Lying could be one of the many bad habits you picked up over the years.”
“Look into my eyes and tell me that I’m lying.”
Micah removes his hands from my arms, letting them fall to his sides. A gesture which begs me to listen, and says that he’s given up on trying to keep me here. I’m free to run back to Geha if that’s what I want. I can’t, however. Although I’ve been looking him in the eye this entire time, it’s only now that I see the honesty within them. I see his 16-year-old-self looking down at me with the love in his gaze I saw every day when we were small. Especially the day he was taken away – the day he had his Rite. There’s no denying his intentions. I let go a little of my anger and resentment to listen to him, but it doesn’t take away the heartache thinking he may not have missed me over the years as I did him.
“Fine,” I concede. “Talk.”
“Al, I tried to get word to you,” Micah urges. He even takes a step toward me to emphasize his desperation to have me believe him. I immediately take a step back. He deflates a little, disappointed I feel the need to keep distance between us, but maintains his urgency to have me understand as he speaks. “On more than one occasion I begged and even tried to bribe Loyals to give you a message from me. Not one would comply even though I had known every one of them my whole life, and they knew me. They either laughed in my face or hit me to show the other Unfavorable what would happen if they tried what I had.”
“I am so sorry for the distress I’ve caused you over the years,” he continues. “I’ll let you go back to Geha if that’s what you want, but I hope that you stay a while longer. So that I may spend some of the time with you I’ve missed these last six years, and explain what happened and why I’m here in the first place.”
Tapping my right foot on the dirt, I take my time deciding. Give him a chance to explain or not? I pout, not sure what to do. One the one hand, he hasn’t shown a whole lot of relief or happiness seeing me here. It’s like I’m just a connection to what he had before. On the other, he’s trying hard to talk to me. Why would he want me to stay if all I meant was a connection to a life he doesn’t seem to want in the first place? Whatever his reason, I can’t leave my only brother on a bad note. Who knows if I’ll ever have the time to visit him again once I start my career path in Geha? Decision made, I cease the foot tapping and speak.
“Okay,” I announce, pouting. “You have five minutes. Five minutes to explain what happened the day of your Rite. If I haven’t heard anything logically sound by then, I’m going back to Geha for good.”
Marching past Micah, I stomp back into his hut without another word. He follows me, practically bouncing on his toes. Ryder re-enters last, shutting the door behind him. He retakes his seat on the couch next to me, but closer this time. As if he’s trying to protect me. What could he possibly be trying to protect me from? Micah goes back to the table, leaning back a little in his chair to keep some distance between us.
“Well,” he starts. “To put it bluntly, my Rite was rigged.”
“What?” I ask, wrinkling my nose in confusion. “That’s not possible.”
“It happened, Al,” he insists. “I was never told why, but I can guess.”
“Are you going to tell me, or what?”
“Calm down,” he teases. “There’s a whole story with this. It’s a lot more complicated than that.”
“Good. I went into my Rite that day with two kids ahead of me and one behind me. When I woke up in the recovery room, there was no one else there. There should have at least been the boy that went in before me, and possibly the girl who went after, but no one was there. It was me alone in the room. I watched my test tick away on the percentage bar go up anxiously. I was relieved to see I had scored well above average in both Loyalty and Healing – healing just a hair higher. I was so excited. I thought I was going to be a great Healer, like mom.”
“Instead of the nurse coming in to let me go home, Loyals came,” he continues, grabbing his half empty cup and swirling the leftovers in circles as he talks. “I had no idea where I was going or what was happening. I wasn’t even sure there was such a thing as Unfavorable until I was brought down here. There were whispers and rumors, but I never paid them any mind. They took me to a room down the hall from the recovery room. There were no windows, no chairs, and no table. Just an empty, gray room.”
“Why would they do something like that?” I query, getting slightly annoyed. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“I pissed off the wrong person,” Micah admits, “and it cost me my life in Geha. I wasn’t able to watch you off to your Rite because of it.”
“Who could you have possibly upset enough to get your Rite rigged?”
“Cloudore?” I ask incredulously. “As in the current Governer, Cizius Cloudore’s only daughter?”
“Yes,” Micah nodded, sullenly. He places the cup hard on the table and pours himself some more tea.
“What did you do to upset her so?”
“It’s more her father. Her and I were happy.”
“You and her?”
“Yeah, that’s what I said.”
“Why didn’t you ever tell me you were interested in anyone?”
“You were 10-years-old, Al. You wouldn’t have understood.”
“I suppose. I still thought we shared everything.”
“We did. Everything besides that.”
“So, what happened?” I encourage. My agitation subsides. I never knew that Micah had any other girls in his life besides Mom and me. It makes me want to know more. Everything he’s saying makes sense. Upsetting the leader of our city would definitely get him kicked out and labeled Unfavorable. Governor Cloudore has the power to do that.
“Before my Rite, I was trying to court her,” he explains. “I didn’t care that the Mainframe the Developers created would choose a mate for me. I wanted her. She wanted me, too. We loved each other, Al.”
“I’m so sorry…” I mutter. I’m not sure what else to say, so I wait for him to continue.
“We had gone to him a week before my Rite. Hers wasn’t for another month. We had discussed it, and figured that if anyone had the power to overrule the Mainframe so we could be together it was him. We presented our case to him. It was very business-like. Although he said he would think about it, we left that meeting feeling like we had won. We thought we had convinced him to let us be together.”
“When my Rite came, Skylark and I were both excited. Ecstatic, even. We didn’t think anything like this would ever happen. We were so sure that we would be together…”
“I waited in that small room for half an hour before Cloudore decided to show up,” he continues without stopping. As if the thought pained him too much to think about for longer than a few seconds. “He was beyond livid. I have never seen a man’s face so red, nor his eyes so bulged. I was afraid that they would pop right out of his head at any moment. He cornered me before telling me that he knew that I wasn’t a fit mate for his daughter, and that my Bleeding Rite had proven that. I argued that my grade was spectacular and that my score showed promise, but he wouldn’t listen. He called me a liar. Screamed at the top of his lungs that I had failed in every single category possible. I was below average in everything and had to go. My punishment for loving his daughter was to live as an Unfavorable, and never to see my family or Skylark every again.”
“Wow,” I whisper. My head is going a mile a minute trying to think. “That story is so farfetched, but I believe you. He can’t do that, though, can he? There has to be some sort of checks and balances system so the Governor doesn’t abuse his power.”
“He holds all the power,” Micah sighs. “As long as the citizens believe that what he’s doing is reaching for Geha’s ultimate goal, the Loyals do whatever he wants.”
A heavy silence pours over us. My head begins to spin from all the new information I obtained. I had always believed that our system was perfect. Finding out now that it has been corrupted is heartbreaking.
“I really did miss you, you know,” Micah acknowledges, breaking me from my intense reverie of the future I have ahead of me. “I didn’t just try to get word to you about still being alive and well. Every year before your birthday I tried to get a Loyal to help me pass along a gift for you. Every single year.”
“You aren’t serious,” I accuse. I hadn’t even done that for him…
“I am,” he nods. “Come. I’ll show you. I’ve kept every single thing I’ve made for you over the years in the hope I would be able to give them to you someday.”
Micah stands from his chair, and I follow. He walks hastily toward the back of the hut, where the short hallway branches into two rooms. Choosing the right side, he opens the door and leads me to the far left corner where a beautiful wooden chest sits. It isn’t large, but would be heavy on my lap. It’s so heavy that Micah struggles slightly to lift it from its spot and onto his small, hay bed. With a sigh, he opens it. Inside are six different items. One for every year that he was forced to miss. Two stuffed animals that look like they were handmade – he probably bought it at the market – with one a teddy bear and the other a bunny rabbit, three hand-carved wooden animals – all ones I recognize from my school books as a bear, lion, and chimera – that he must have made himself, and a gorgeous quilt that reminded me of the trees with how many colors are scattered about it.
“If you can’t stay here,” Micah starts. “Then I want you to take these with you, back to Geha.”
“What do you mean?” I inquire, knowing full well what he insinuated, I just can’t bring myself to say it. “What are you asking me, Micah?”
“I want you to stay with me, Al,” he clarifies. He looks up from the contents within the chest, and looks at me with tears gathering in his eyes. “I’m asking you to stay in Landow with me, outside of Geha. I’ve missed you these last six years, but it didn’t hit me how much until realizing you’ll have to leave. I can’t stand the thought of never seeing you again. Not after everything that’s happened.”
I bite my lower lip in an attempt to keep myself from crying. I want to respond, but I’m unable to form words without a sob escaping. He talks more, taking my silence as a sign that I haven’t made up my mind either way yet. He isn’t wrong.
“You’ll be so much happier here than in Geha,” he persists. “There, everyone is judged by their talents – their strengths and weaknesses. Out here? In Landow and the other villages around the area, we are all celebrated for who we are, no matter how average. I don’t want you to suffer through an unhappy life, forced to be with someone who you don’t love and doesn’t love you in return. It kills me knowing that’s what awaits you.”
“Your offer is very generous,” I sniffle, reigning in my sorrow over leaving long enough to respond. I essentially recite the same words I gave to Ryder when he asked why I wanted to go back. “It’s not about being happy, though. It’s not even about tradition, it’s about the greater good and being able to advance everything we have. We all have a responsibility to continue the design that Geha started. Everything he set up for us with our ancestors when they first arrived on this planet. I can’t just abandon that.”
“You know that’s a huge pile of manure, right?”
“Even so,” I sigh. “It doesn’t make it any less true.”
“I suppose,” he exhales, running his left hand through his scruffy brown hair.
“And I can’t take those with me,” I admit, solemnly.
“I can barely sneak back and forth with just myself to carry, I would never make it unnoticed with a huge wooden chest in my arms.”
“I understand. They’ll be here whenever you want them. I’m not going to stop making you gifts, though. You and Skylark are the only two within the walls that still matter to me. I’m not going to stop caring.”
“I don’t want you to.”
He smiles and gives me a hug. It feels unimaginably good having his arms around me in a tight embrace. It’s as if nothing had changed between us. I’m home. Our love and care for each other is obvious. I feel it in his touch, and I squeeze him around the middle in return. This may be the last time I ever see my older brother.
“Bye, Micah,” I sniffle again.
“Bye, Al,” he replies, his voice quivering.
I let go, and rush out of the room and out of the hut without stopping or turning back for one last glance. Tears are flowing freely down my cheeks, and I don’t want me crying to be the last thing Micah remembers about our brief time together. Unsure why, Ryder catches up quickly and walks at my side. He doesn’t say a word, and that’s okay. I don’t need him to show me the way back anymore, but I don’t want to be alone right now, either. I want to be able to say goodbye to him as well.
The walk back is peaceful, but somber. Ryder is unusually quiet. There isn’t one snarky remark, and none of his usual cockiness or confidence. Logically, I’m aware his mood is a direct result of my impending final departure. I try to talk to him about it but he doesn’t answer me, only grunts. It makes for a real lonely walk. He doesn’t even look at me. His gaze stays glued to the dirt while we walk. It isn’t until we start seeing the Boilers entrance that he shows any sign of recognizing I’m there. I’m at the threshold between the outside world and the red clay underneath the city when Ryder stops me. He grabs my right hand gently in his, pulling it towards him so that I’m facing him. Still, his eyes stay lowered. This time they stay on our hands, and how neatly mine fits into his.
“Wait,” he breathes.
I barely hear him with how softly he speaks. If there had been even a slight wind, I never would have heard him at all. His right hand stretches out for my left, and I give it to him. He holds them tenderly, rubbing his callous thumb along the tops of my hands. It’s comforting and melancholy.
“It’s really difficult for me to talk about how I’m feeling,” he begins, anxiously, “mainly because I’m not sure how to. I’ve never felt like this before. All I know for sure is that the thought of never seeing you again scares me.”
He pauses. I can feel him shaking just from holding my hands. Taking a deep breath, he steadies himself before continuing.
“I want you to stay in Landow, too,” he admits, squeezing my hands gently. “I can’t explain why, though I wish I could. It makes me angry knowing that you’re going back to a life where you won’t be happy and won’t fit in. Where no one will ever appreciate everything you have to offer the way you deserve. You aren’t like them. I don’t want them to corrupt and change everything that is different and wonderful about you.”
His voice breaks on the last word. As if choking back tears. Never let go of my hands, he slowly lifts his head so that our eyes meet. There is unmistakable anguish and a need in his gaze that makes it unbearable to look away. I want to take it away so he doesn’t have to feel any of it because of me. All I wanted was to find out what happened to my brother after he disappeared so long ago. I wasn’t expecting to meet anyone, let alone care about someone who wasn’t blood related to me. It’s only been a few days, and this all feels so surreal. What I’m feeling and he’s saying is hard to comprehend, but I listen. Take it all in as much as I can. I want more than anything to stay and keep him from feeling this way. I don’t want him to feel the need to say any of these words. It’s absolutely heartbreaking and not even close to what I expected when I set out to find Micah… Ryder searches my eyes before speaking again.
“Stay,” he quietly pleads. “If not for Micah, then for me. I know you feel a pull to me, too, the way I feel with you. The injustice done to your brother should be more than enough reason for you to abandon that society, but if it’s not enough…then do it for us, too.”
I stare into his eyes, stupefied. When Micah asked, I wanted to say yes and forget all the negativity and pressure of Geha. I just didn’t have the courage or audacity to forgo millennia of tradition and foresight for my selfish needs and wants. Now, with Ryder asking me to stay, I can’t say no.
“Will you meet me in the blueprint room in an hour?” I ask eagerly, excited. I have a plan, but I need him to be here.
“Does that mean you’ll stay?” He inquires, confusion lining his brow. Cautious anticipation shines in his eyes.
“Can you meet me?” I insist. All will be revealed in time.
“Yes, of course,” he confirms. “I’ll wait all night if I have to.”
Without hesitation, I lean in, wrapping my arms around the back of his neck and pull him close. Our lips touch and passion ignites. His arms slink around my waist and pull my body against his. Every single cell in my body vibrates from the energy his kiss brings me. It’s tender and sweet. Loving even. I never want it to end. It fills me with so much joy. I’ve never experienced so much before, and there’s more when I think of my future with him.
I want to do kiss him all night long, but if I don’t let go and head to Geha soon, I’ll never finish my plan. And it has to be done tonight. I pull away reluctantly, and jog to the gate. I make my way through it, up the stairs, and back to the house I grew up in without looking back.