I’ve always been told that there is nothing else beyond our town, that the rest of the world is like an empty black hole, just sitting there, waiting, and part of me wants to believe it. Part of me wants to be like everyone else, to have the same beliefs and values, but there’s something strange about them. There’s something strange about this place in general.
Everyone’s the same. They follow the rules. They’re perfect, and I should be too. We all wear identical clothes, a uniform of sorts—sky blue dresses with white flats for the girls and royal blue dress shirts with slacks for the boys. I hated it. I couldn’t run or jump or be myself in general. Except when I was in the woods.
At some point in all of our lives, someone told us the Legend of the Deep Forest: there once was a boy, driven insane by our customs, who ventured into the woods, seeking adventure. At first, no one worried because he was known to cause trouble. Three days passed. He didn’t show up. Four days. Five days. Six days. A week. A month. Nothing.
Eventually, someone sent a search party, and sure enough, two hours later, they returned, dragging a body behind them. His body. The boy was dead. He died in the woods. So, the government went haywire; they didn’t let anyone escape the town’s boundaries. They didn’t let anyone travel more than a hundred yards into what was now known as the “Deep Forest.”
And here I am, Amelia Walker, just trying to understand why my world works the way it does, standing less than a foot away from the boundary the separates me and the mysteries beyond.
I woke rather groggily the first sliver of sunlight peeking through my bedroom window. It was Tuesday August 5th, the first day of my sixth year in school. I was fifteen, and I graduated at seventeen. At this point, we were all counting down the days. And by we, I mean my twin brother Faun. He and I weren’t alike. At all. He had my mother’s blonde hair, blue eyes, and talent for charm, and I was the opposite. My curly brown hair flowed well below my shoulders, and I had to concentrate not to trip over my own feet, but then again, I had never been graceful.
I rolled out of the bottom bunk of our wooden bed and tiptoed to the dresser, careful not to wake the rest of the small log cabin in which we lived. We made a home for ourselves in the outskirts of town, where the grass grew above our knees and the snakes prowled for their meals. I remember when one of them mistook Faun’s leg for a squirrel. The venom seeped into his blood as my father carried him four miles to hospital in The Square. This was where the wealthier people lived. A few years after the incident, my father left us to join the army. Sometimes, I have nightmares about Faun leaving too, as most boys do when they turn seventeen, but he has never mentioned it.
I grabbed a pair of my father’s old combat boots, my brother’s pajama tee-shirt, and some of my mother’s worn out black leggings from the dresser’s top drawer, unbraiding my hair and leaving it hanging below my shoulders. Later, I’d have to French braid it, but for now, I enjoyed the freedom.
The woods have always been the one place I truly belonged. The cool, wet grass tickling my fingertips, the morning air offering a gentle breeze to my cheeks, and the leaves rustling high above my head. I climbed up the hill that led to the town’s border and noticed a snake preparing to clamp its poisonous teeth around my wrist. I threw a rock near its head and watched it slither away into the bushes.
I walked a few more feet before noticing the “CAUTION” signs and the barbed wire fences that surrounded the forest. A few years ago, when I first started coming up here, I used a club to tear a hole in the wire, just small enough for me to crawl through. No one ever noticed. And then I was in. The sweet smell of pine erupted in my nostrils. Mockingbirds chirped in their nests. The woods were calling to me. Suddenly, I wondered how a place so beautiful could possibly be bad.
I didn’t know how long I’d been in the woods before I heard a rock fall to the ground. The signal. My brother was here. He was giving me my school clothes, the clothes I’d been wearing for fifteen years: that horrendous blue dress. “I don’t know why you don’t just come inside,” I groaned, Faun coming into view, “It’s not dangerous, and I wouldn’t have to walk back so far.”
“You’d have to walk anyway, Amelia.” he said, frowning. His strawberry blonde hair was gelled perfectly to the top of his head, and his pants swept the Earth, just as they’re supposed to. If he didn’t already have a girlfriend, I’m sure all the girls would stare at him. I took the clothes, disappearing behind a sheet I’d placed on a nearby branch to change. When I finished, I placed my old clothes in a bag, swerved into the hole in the fence, and followed my brother out of the woods to The Square.
The school was located next to the old office building that my father used to work at before he left. Hundreds of children ages nine to seventeen crowded the entrance, and three separate buildings branched off from the original. My mother says they established the education system to help people understand why we live the way we do, but I don’t believe a word. I’ve been in school for nearly six years, and this town is still a mystery.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Shimmer Black, Faun’s girlfriend, pushing her way through the mass of people. Her sleek dark hair gleamed in the late summer sun, and her tanned skin shined. She was a half year younger than us, just old enough to be in our grade. I didn’t really have a best friend, but Shimmer acted like one. “How are you doing today, Amelia?” she smiled, showing her perfectly straight teeth.
“As good as I can be with school starting back,” I scowled, and Faun shot me a look of disapproval as he took Shimmer’s hand, squeezing it so tightly that her knuckles turned white. I looked away because I had mixed feelings about my brother displaying affection towards other girls. I wasn’t familiar with the concept of love, especially with my father gone.
Eventually, an older looking man quieted the crowd. Our leader. He looked more tired than the last time I’d seen him. His hair was graying, and there were enormous bags under his eyes. “Good morning, students,” he said, “please separate into single file lines, one for boys and another for girls.” I sighed, squeezing between two people with backpacks on their shoulders. The tests happened on the first day of every school year; government officials checked to make sure people were wearing the correct attire and made them look acceptable.
We walked robotically in separate lines to the buildings designated for each gender. The girls’ tests would take place in the cafeteria, and the boys in the gym. I glanced at the person next to me. With no expression on his face, Sam Peterson pressed forward. I’d had a crush on him since I was ten, but he was sixteen, turning seventeen and graduating this year. He had a blank look in his eyes and tended to keep to himself. His brown hair was barely gelled, not as the laws required, but streamed well below one of his bright blue eyes.
I first saw him in the woods. He wore old sweatpants, a t-shirt, and a pair of worn out dress shoes with holes in the toes. I gaped at him, bewildered that someone else had the nerve to hike this close to the border. He looked back at me, staring, and then ran through some bushes that led to the fence.
We entered our separate buildings, filled with hairdressers and makeup artists and nail salon employees. I was directed to a reclined chair somewhat like a dentist’s. The woman who would be administering my test had black hair with a pink streak, so her braid was different colors. Her ear was lined with piercings, and her nails were painted a sleek black. She wore an apron over her dress, which was so long it covered the cluster of tattoos on her leg. Her breath reeked of something foul, and her skin was bright orange from a spray tan. The woman was a government official, because they were the only people who had access to so many accessories.
“Oh my, these cuticles are just horrendous,” she said, frowning at my fingers, “and your hands shouldn’t be nearly this strong. You’re a lady, not a superhero.”
I frowned but didn’t say anything. I’d gotten used to people criticizing me. She began to clip my ragged fingernails, which took a while. I leaned back on the headrest, the roar of conversation lulling me to sleep.
I didn’t know how long it had been, maybe twenty minutes or an hour, when someone shook me awake. “Amelia, you have to get up right now! Get up!” Everyone was screaming. Crying. Chaos. The government lady wasn’t standing next to me. My vision was blurred at the edges, and my body still carried the weight of sleep.
“What is this?” I asked, “What’s happening?”
“Someone escaped the border,” I glanced at Faun. He was pale-faced, worried, probably thinking it was me. But, it wasn’t. As much as I wanted to, I didn’t escape.
Logically, only one other citizen had been in the woods with me. Sam Peterson. He’d done it. He’d succeeded in doing the only thing I’d ever dreamed of. Sam Peterson defied the woods.
I supposed this perfect little town wasn’t so perfect anymore.