Nelia was the poster-child for Neo-Eugenicism. Well, not actually the poster-child. Aurora James was the poster-child, at least in Pen’s province. But Nelia could have been, easily. She was average height, had a slim but toned figure, raven-black hair, and the palest, UV-free skin you’d ever see. And she was smart. Pen, on the other hand, was as far from Nelia’s perfection as one could get. His skin was fair, too, but more susceptible to damage from the sun. His hair was white-blond, which was also desirable. But he was tall, too tall. This wouldn’t have been so bad if he wasn’t so skinny. His mum had fed him three times as much as any other child, but it didn’t stick to his bones. This was a sign of unhealthiness, of a defect.
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He had measured fine when the Panels came for his yearly tests until he turned twelve. That year he’d shot up like a reed, as his dad said. This didn’t cause too much concern. Many boys did this, apparently. What did cause concern was that he didn’t stop shooting up, and he didn’t start filling out. He was put on the Watch List when he was fourteen. At fifteen he began Elimination Counseling. At sixteen, if he hadn’t gained enough weight to be considered healthy, he would be Eliminated.
But despite all this, Nelia wanted to be his friend.
Pen followed Nelia out of the schoolyard. They set off in the opposite direction of Pen’s neighborhood. She was walking briskly and Pen, despite his long legs, had to hurry to keep up with her. In all the years he’d known her, he’d never been to her family’s apartment. She had invited him today, after school, for the first time, and he had accepted. He wasn’t often invited to his classmates’ homes, at least not recently, so he didn’t pester Nelia about why she was inviting him now, after all this time.
No one wanted to be friends with an Anomaly. They were revered, yes, for their sacrifice to society, but never befriended. Nelia, however, liked Pen from the very first day of their first year at school when they were ten, and she didn’t stop liking him even after it became obvious that he was an Anomaly.
She was shy, though, and didn’t talk to him as much as she wanted to. Pen, newly outcast from society at the age of fourteen, no longer made efforts to converse with anyone, especially someone like Nelia. He knew his role in life was a solitary one, but it was also dignified.
That’s why he was so surprised when, in their fifth year, Nelia began to talk to him. Really talk to him, not just the conversation necessary to interact with a classmate. At first Pen had been wary, but he soon relished the attention, and their friendship had been a close one for the past year.
They passed a few respectable-looking neighborhoods. At each one Pen expected Nelia to stop at the gate and enter the code, but she kept walking. They reached Willoughby Park, where they’d gone on a nature excursion in their first year, but Pen hadn’t been back since then and he certainly couldn’t remember ever going any further than the Park. Indeed, when Nelia and Pen had passed the Park, they entered a part of the city that Pen was sure he had never seen before.
The buildings seemed to be made of solid steel. There were no trees—no grass, even. Everything looked dirty and old and, well, unhealthy. It was the only word Pen could think of that even came close to describing the way he felt as they walked through the almost desolate streets.
Pen was surprised when Nelia stopped abruptly at a corner. He had assumed that this was just a part of town they had to get through to get to Nelia’s building—a building in a normal, green, gated neighborhood like the one that he and everyone else he knew lived in.
Nelia pointed at a building down the street that looked hardly different from those surrounding it. “There.”
“That’s where you live?”
Nelia nodded. “You wait here, though. I’ll go first and make sure it’s clear, then I’ll come out and signal for you to come.”
Before Pen could solidify even one of the questions in his head into words, Nelia had whisked off toward the building she had pointed to. Pen couldn’t imagine what kind of jobs Nelia’s parents must have in order to warrant this type of secrecy and isolation. He thought back to the career day they had had during their second year when all of the parents had come and explained what their jobs entailed. Pen tried to remember what Nelia’s parents had said they did, but he couldn’t even differentiate their faces from all of the other parents who had spoken that day. It had seemed so unimportant back then, how parents earned a living, what adults did with their time. Now he wished he had absorbed it enough to remember it.
Nelia had reached the door of the building, which was at the top of a few cement stairs. She fumbled with the knob for a moment, then disappeared inside, closing the door behind her. After about three minutes, the door opened again, and Nelia stepped out and waved to Pen, giving him a thumbs-up.
Pen half walked, half jogged to Nelia, who was glancing up and down the street rather nervously. When he climbed her stoop, she reached out and grabbed him by the arm, pulling him inside quickly. She closed the door behind them and locked it.
Pen looked around. He was confused. Something—something other than the fact that they were in a remote, unhealthy part of the city—felt wrong. It seemed that they were in a single room. In the back right corner was a small twin bed, the kind Pen had slept in when he was a little more than a toddler. In the back left corner of the room was a small refrigerator and dilapidated stove, with a rickety table pushed against the wall and a lone chair beside it. The entire room was no more than four square meters, at the most. At the back, between the bed and makeshift kitchen, was the only other door in the room. Pen assumed that the rest of the apartment—Nelia’s bedroom, her parents’ room—must be behind that door.
“Have a seat,” Nelia said as she took off her coat and hung it on a hook next to the front door. Pen looked back and forth from the bed to the single chair in the kitchen, the only two seating options in the room besides the floor. He decided the chair was the safest bet, since he didn’t know who the bed belonged to, if it was even functioning as a bed.
“Do you want some tea?”
“Sure.” Pen watched as Nelia pulled a kettle out of the cupboard and filled it with water from the tap. It was already whistling by the time Pen broke the silence.
“So when do your parents get home?”
Nelia took the whistling kettle off the stove and brought it and two mugs to the table. She poured one mug and slid it over to Pen. He blew on the liquid, causing tiny dimples in the brown surface, before taking a sip. Nelia leaned against the wall beside the table and took a sip from her own mug before saying, “They’re not coming home.”
“Are they on vacation?”
“A business trip?”
“No.” Nelia set her mug down. “They’re dead, Pen.”
“Oh.” Pen moved his eyes from her face to the scratched surface of the linoleum-covered table. He didn’t know what to say, and he was afraid to look at her.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” he said to the tabletop.
“It’s okay. No one does,” Nelia answered, and picked up her mug.
Pen was surprised that she had never told him this. Not that many of his classmates talked about their parents too often, but dead ones seemed to warrant some sort of comment, and Nelia was his friend.
Pen hesitated before he asked, “How did they die?” But Nelia’s face didn’t betray her sadness, if she was feeling any. In fact, she looked oddly resigned. When she didn’t answer after a few moments, Pen said, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No,” Nelia said. “You should have asked. That’s why I brought you here.” Pen didn’t understand what she meant, so he said nothing.
After a deep breath, Nelia said, “They were Anomalies. Both of them.”
“Anomalies?” Like me? Pen asked in his mind. Pen had never heard of an Anomaly being allowed to have a child, much less two Anomalies together. The thought made him shudder. It was almost repulsive.
“Yeah. Anomalies. They were both en queue for Elimination. In fact, they met in the waiting room at Elimination Counseling. Their scheduled Elimination dates were only a few months away when my mum found out she was pregnant. That’s why they went into hiding.” Nelia stopped and took a drink of her tea.
Suddenly Pen realized something. “Wait. Your parents were on the list for Elimination? You mean, they were our age?”
“A year older. Maybe two. The Elimination deadline was eighteen back then.”
Pen’s thoughts raced. As an Anomaly, he had been taught that he could never marry, never have children. Romantic interest of any sort was discouraged. It was part of his contribution to humanity: the withholding of his seed, the prevention of further anomalies. Were Nelia’s parents not taught this?
“They were allowed to marry? As Anomalies? At seventeen?”
“No, Pen. They weren’t.” For the first time in the conversation, Nelia blushed. Pen looked down once again, embarrassed—for himself and for her. He was relieved when she spoke again.
“I was a month old when their Elimination dates arrived. The Panels hadn’t even realized they were gone until then. But they started looking. They’d had to move often, so the Panels couldn’t find them. After a while, though, they got tired, or realized it wasn’t any kind of a life for a kid, or something like that. So they left me with my mum’s parents and gave themselves up.”
So she lived with her grandparents. No wonder Pen couldn’t remember her parents at career day. Grandparents didn’t come. Grandparents were retired and not required to think about their careers any more.
“My mum’s parents had known about the pregnancy. They were liberals, though, and wanted to save my parents—and me, I suppose. They helped them go into hiding, and warned them when the Panels were on their trail. So they took me in willingly when my mum left me. They were good to me, and they loved me. I was happy, and I believed that life was good. I didn’t remember my parents. They were just characters in a story my grandparents told me. Mythical ancestors I owed something to, but not people. When I was nine, though, my grandparents died.”
Pen couldn’t believe that Nelia had lived through so much, that she had this heritage, and that he hadn’t known about it until now. That he’d never suspected it. He had assumed she lived a normal life, and said so.
“So does everyone else. You’re supposed to,” Nelia replied.
“Wait. If you don’t live with your parents, and you don’t live with your grandparents, who do you live with?”
“You live alone?”
Nelia nodded. “It has to be this way.”
“They don’t want anyone to know the truth about me.”
“Why not?” Pen couldn’t understand this, why the Panels would let Nelia live alone, why it had to be that way.
“Don’t you get it? I prove their theory wrong. I’m the child of two Anomalies. I am the combination of two sets of defective genes. And I’m not an Anomaly.”
Pen was silent. He realized that he was having difficulty breathing. He felt sick to his stomach, and he clutched it to keep his tea from coming up.
“It’s really a good thing my grandparents died when they did,” Nelia continued. “I would probably be dead by now if they were still alive.” Nelia chuckled, and it surprised Pen out of his stupor. He looked up at her as she continued. “The Panels didn’t know what to do with me. I was the daughter of Anomalies, but every year I had measured well in every area. They had debated over my fate until then, never feeling pressured to make a decision, but I was going to enter school soon. People couldn’t know that I lived with my grandparents, couldn’t even know who my grandparents were. My parents’ Eliminations were not hushed up. They were broadcast to the entire city as an example, to prove the Panels’ ultimate power. If I went to school as the granddaughter of the parents of Lucia Knight, everyone would know. Would know that I was a child of Anomalies. Would know that the system was broken, the theory was wrong. If my grandparents hadn’t died, I would have been Eliminated before I ever entered my first year.
“The day my grandparents died, three Panelists came to me that I’d never seen before, two men and a woman. They brought me here, and told me that I couldn’t tell anyone who I was, or where I lived. My name was no longer Nelia Knight, it was Nelia Dorrit. I was to enter school and lie about my parentage. My school records would confirm the lie. I would not be found out.
“I never saw them again, the three Panelists. But I know they watch me, to make sure I don’t break protocol. There are twenty pounds on my kitchen table every two weeks, enough for food and clothing. So I live as Nelia Dorrit, daughter of the nonexistent Paul and Barb Dorrit, here. Alone. In constant fear of discovery and Elimination.”
Pen thought for a minute, then asked, “So why did you bring me here? Why did you tell me all this, and risk getting caught?”
“Because you deserved to know.”
“So you’d understand why I’m going to help you escape.”
Escape. The word had an abstract meaning for Pen, and he couldn’t understand what Nelia meant by it. “Escape” was something you did narrowly, that he knew. The football team might narrowly escape defeat at the end of a close match. A child might narrowly escape punishment if he could lie well enough to his mum. But what it was Pen needed help narrowly escaping, he had no idea.
“Escape? What do you mean?”
“I mean leave. Leave the city. Leave the island. Escape Elimination.”
“Elimination? Why would I want to escape Elimination? It’s my one contribution to society, the only great thing I can do as—”
“Shut up, Pen!” Nelia whispered fiercely, and she slapped a palm over his mouth. He mumbled loudly in protest.
“Shh!” Nelia whispered, and pointed at the front door. Pen heard footsteps, and saw the doorknob turn slightly to the left.
Nelia pulled him up out of the chair by his arm and dragged him to the back of the room. She opened the door that Pen had thought led to the rest of the apartment and shoved him inside.
“The window,” she mouthed to him before she closed the door between them. Pen heard the front door open and the murmur of voices. He looked around and realized he was not in a hallway, but in a small bathroom. This was it. This was all there was to Nelia’s apartment. One room and a privy.
Suddenly the voices outside the door got louder and he heard a deep male voice shout angrily, “Where is he?”
Pen remembered Nelia’s mouthed words and looked around for the window, but he didn’t see it.
“I said, where is he?” The voice was louder. Pen opened the shower door and found the window on the back wall. It was small, but it slid open easily and he thought he could fit through. He hoisted himself up onto the ledge and stuck his legs out first.
“Dammit, Nelia, stop lying!” The voice was right outside the door. It was more than a few feet from the window to the ground, but Pen had no choice. He leaned back and slid out the window, falling onto the cement ground at an awkward angle. He stood and tried to run, but his ankle had been twisted in the fall, maybe even broken. He gasped at the sudden pain and stopped to take his weight off it. He looked up at Nelia’s bathroom window just in time to see a chiseled, angry face peer down at him. He took off at a dead sprint.
“Jones! He went out the back! Go around the back!” the man yelled as Pen shot down the street. They weren’t far behind him, he could see as he looked back. On an instinct Pen turned down a side alleyway. He knew he would probably get lost, but he hoped that he would also lose them in the process. The alley he had chosen was dark and stank of rotten food and human waste. The alley ended abruptly and Pen darted to the right. He was on a new street, even more desolate and decayed than Nelia’s, if that was possible. He shot down another alley along this street, and continued running despite the excruciating pain in his ankle. After a few turns, Pen didn’t hear their footsteps behind him anymore. He stopped to catch his breath behind a trash bin.
He didn’t dare stay in this part of the city for much longer. The sooner he could get back to the center of town, the sooner he could lose himself among the crowds. The throbbing in his ankle told him he wouldn’t be doing any more running, though.
He started off in the direction he thought they had come from and hoped it was the right one. Sliding from building to building, he stayed in the shadows and listened for footsteps or voices. None came.
He made it all the way to Willoughby Park before he saw them. They didn’t see him though, or at least he didn’t think they had. He hid quickly behind a large tree and peaked occasionally to see them looking in the direction of the old part of town, talking into their walkies. He must have gone so far out in his confusion in the ruins that they didn’t expect him to come from the direction he had.
When their backs were to him, he ducked out from behind the tree and made a beeline for the Park’s entrance. He was almost to the gate when they spotted him, but he was too far ahead. He crashed through the turnstile out of the Park and passed two neighborhoods before the sidewalks began to be heavily populated. When he neared the school he saw two groups of kids around his own age hanging about in the yard, and one group across the street lounging on the curb. After a moment’s hesitation, he chose the group closest to the school and scurried over to them. He wriggled into the middle of the group.
“Yo, mate! Whaddya think your doin’?”
“Sorry.” Pen whispered his apology. The Panelists had caught up to him now. They were standing in the street between the two sets of groups. They looked from kid to kid, hoping to find him, expecting to see someone tall, but Pen was crouched down on his haunches, and there were at least four kids obscuring their view of him. After two minutes or so, the Panelists continued running in the direction they thought Pen had gone, leaving him behind.
Pen felt a kick in his shin.
“Hold on,” he whispered. The group was muttering angrily, but he waited until the Panelists were out of sight before standing up.
“You runnin’ from them?” A black-haired boy a little younger than Pen pointed in the direction the Panelists had gone. Pen nodded.
“What the hell’d you do, mate?”
Pen didn’t answer. He shoved his way out of the group. As he limped away he heard whispers that sounded like “anomaly,” but he wasn’t surprised. Or even offended. It was true, after all.
Nelia wasn’t at school the next day. This gave Pen time to worry, but it also gave him time to think. He realized, with bitter resentment, why Nelia had befriended him. It wasn’t because she liked him, or even because she pitied him. Nelia would have befriended any sorry Anomaly who had crossed her path, because she had an agenda. An agenda that had nothing to do with Pen in particular.
When he walked into his family’s apartment that afternoon, his mum was leaning against the kitchen counter holding a bottle of sunscreen. Pen already knew what was coming.
“Did you put this on this morning?”
Pen ignored her and plopped down on the sofa in the front room.
“Did you hear me?”
“And did you put this on this morning?”
“No,” Pen mumbled under his breath. His mum sighed.
Pen shifted slightly and avoided his mum’s worried look. He stared at the symmetrical fibers of the green sofa he was sitting on and tried not to think about the slightly raw feeling on his cheeks from the sun.
“From now on, will you please just do it? For me?”
“What difference does it make, Mum? My destiny has already been decided.”
“I know, I just . . . Just promise me, okay?”
Pen nodded to placate her and left for his room. He took off his shirt and threw it on the floor. Standing in front of the full-length mirror that was mounted to the door, he examined his lean, lanky figure. Every single one of his ribs was visible through his skin. It was right that he shouldn’t pass on this skeletal deformity to other members of society. Or the freckled complexion. He gingerly touched the pink skin on his cheeks. His mum had seemed so upset about the sunscreen. He hadn’t really thought about how his Elimination might affect her. He had always assumed she would be proud of her son for doing the one thing he could do for society—and she probably would be, but she would probably also miss him, he realized. It almost didn’t seem fair that she would have to suffer because her genes had produced an anomaly. She wasn’t the one who had turned out deformed. Why should she be punished?
Pen pushed the unsettling questions out of his head. I’m probably just miffed about Nelia, he thought. She’s the one who’s made me angry. No need to take it out on our country.
Pen’s anger hadn’t really dissipated when Nelia called his apartment later that afternoon, but he answered anyway.
“They don’t know,” she said. “They didn’t get a good enough look at you to tell who you are. Your height might be a problem, but there are plenty of men as tall as you. Let’s just hope they didn’t notice your lankiness while you were running.”
Pen merely hmmmed into the phone. Nelia didn’t seem to notice his apathy.
“They made me stay home. They questioned me all day. I think they think you’re just a boyfriend, or something. That I wanted to bring you to my place for some fun.”
Pen blushed and was glad that she couldn’t see him.
“I don’t think they even suspect what we’re really doing.”
“And what exactly are we really doing?” Pen asked angrily. He didn’t know what Nelia had planned, but he didn’t want to serve as some slave to her personal vendetta.
“Pen, I told you. I’m going to help you . . . you know . . .”
“Yes, I know. You’re going to help me escape, whatever that means.”
“No! Don’t say that! Not even on the phone. I don’t think they’ve bugged it, but you never know.”
“Okay, Nelia. I’m sick of this. You drag me to your apartment in the middle of Grimeville, you tell me secrets about your past that could get you killed, and now you want to rid me of my destiny? Where do you get off—”
“Pen, please. We can’t talk about this now. Not on the phone. Can you meet me tonight, at the place we first met?”
It took Pen a second to remember where he had first met Nelia. His immediate thought was school, but then it came to him. Nelia had been standing behind him and his mum in line at the supermarket one day when he was eight or nine. She had asked him which kind of gum he thought was better, bubble or spearmint. He’d said bubble.
“Yes, I can meet you there in an hour.”
Nelia was standing outside the supermarket when Pen arrived. The sun was just setting and the glare from the store’s window front made it difficult to see, but there was no doubt that it was Nelia. Before he reached her, she turned and headed toward the side of the building and turned the corner without looking back.
Pen sighed. But he followed her.
“So, do you want to tell me what’s going on?” he asked.
“What’s going on is that I’m going to save you.”
“But I don’t want to be saved.”
“Yes, you do.”
Pen sighed again and folded his arms. She was bent on this idea, he could tell.
“Pen, you just think you want to be Eliminated. That’s what they want you to think. But you won’t really be helping humanity.”
“Yes, I will, Nelia. The withholding of my seed will prevent further anomalies, for the betterment of mankind.”
“It doesn’t work that way. You know that now. Remember who my parents were?”
Pen didn’t speak. Nelia’s brow was furrowed with concern.
“You’re not an Anomaly. You are person. A human being. And you deserve to live. You deserve to love and to have children. If Anomalies were created they way they thought they were, why do they still happen? You are not the child of Anomalies. Your children may not be Anomalies, like me. Any other person is just as likely to produce an Anomaly as you are. Why should you have to be sacrificed?”
“They really should have killed you when you were ten.”
Nelia looked stricken. She backed away from Pen. “Wh- what?”
“They were afraid that you would prove their theory wrong, but what they should have feared was you figuring out that their theory is wrong.”
Nelia realized what he was saying. Realized that he was finally believing her.
“No one else would ever have seen you as proof that it’s wrong, that it’s all wrong,” Pen continued, “because no one else lives like you do. Everyone else is happy with his life, happy with the system. You are the one person who is not, the one person who would want to believe that they are wrong.”
Nelia said nothing for almost five minutes. Pen wasn’t sure how he’d gotten here, gotten to this point. Not twenty minutes ago he was furious with Nelia, sure that she was selfish and crazy. And now here he was, agreeing with her.
“Then you’ll do it. You’ll let me help you escape.”
Pen knew what the word meant now. “Yes.”