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I am alone. When my eyes open, this is my first thought. I am lying on the ground in a smelly and torn blanket next to a river. Sitting up groggily, I shake off the remains of my disturbed slumber and assess my situation—the remains of a tiny fire lay five feet to my right, but no signs of any other human traces. My head is incredibly empty; the space my memory had occupied is now completely blank. I splash my face in the river to attempt to revive myself, and my hand catches on a necklace—a leather thong with a silver dragonfly pendant. That was not there before. I do not know my own name, but I know the necklace is new. Ben—suddenly the word appears in front of me, a revelation, a connection to the world of memory that is lost to me now. Ben, my brother, my brother whom I love…the memory floods my head and thrills me… Ben gave me the necklace, and wrapped me in a blanket, and probably saved me from whatever place I cannot remember. It was bad, I know. Someplace malevolent, which wanted me to forget it existed.
The cold water seems to clear my head. I submerge my entire face into the murky river, then stand up and begin to explore. What is my name? Where am I? These questions plague me, still unanswered. There is no food, but that does not worry me as I am confident of my own survival skills. Yes, this is a truth about me, whether it is a memory or just something I can feel. I am a survivor. I am alone, but I must press on. Ben, brother, protector, has fled and is not coming back; this is another fact I know just as absolutely and inexplicably. Thirdly, the place from which I came is evil. The details elude me, but I am frightened. I search faster, for a sign, for something to remind me who I am and where I must go. At last I find it, in the form of an oak tree with a carving on its young, smooth bark—a crude dragonfly. Seeing the carving brings the past back to me in a rush. It floods through my mind and body, a tsunami.
My name is McKenna.
I am a Third, a forbidden extra child marked for extermination by the Population Police because of a law passed that set two children as the limit. This was part of the Global Restoration Act of 2057, passed by the UN to return earth to its former “glory,” un-damaged by global warming, human construction, and the mass plague of overpopulation. It sounds like a nightmare, but this is the nightmare I wake up to today. I still do not know where I came from, but somehow I must escape from them. I am a fugitive. The knowledge does not surprise me. All my vague recollections of the past are filled with cloudy terror and pain. My mind spins…I must not dwell on these gaps, or I will go mad! But I am alive—this fact comforts me when the fear threatens to eat away at my resolve.
Ben is my adopted brother, another Third who always looks out for me. How I met him I do not know, nor do I remember any family or friends besides him. Without knowing quite why, I suddenly find myself crying. This feeling of tears is new, like the necklace, unfamiliar to me even in my foggy past because I am—I have always been-- a strong person. I think this is something I remember, or perhaps it is a trick of my mind to bolster my strength. Either way, one thing I am sure of is that as long as I am alive, the only safe place in the world for me is the Third City, to the east by the wild ocean. The sun is setting, and surely it is better to travel by night. McKenna is not afraid of the dark, only of my clouded mind and the painful memories it contains.
The City exists to the east by the sea, Ben had told me. Follow the river past the Great Falls, and once it flows into the bay, the City lays two days’ journey north. I will travel by night to escape those from whom I am fleeing.
Darkness falls swiftly like the sun is a fugitive too. I travel barefoot, and the nettles and thorns prick at my feet, which are protected by thick calluses. I wear a tattered jumpsuit, with a number on the front that I know by heart: 4739910. Had I been a prisoner? But Thirds aren’t arrested, are they? And so far I have not done anything illegal. That I remember, anyway…but after everything, why should I trust my damaged and nearly nonexistent memory? I continue silently through the forest, thinking to myself, I am excellent at this. I make no sound and damage few plants, hopefully making me difficult to track. Judging by the plants and the temperature, I appear to be somewhere in North America, probably the Southeast. It is fall, and I saw while exploring earlier today that the leaves are beginning to turn shades of flame; however, fortunately for me, the night is not yet cold enough to force me to seek shelter. I travel quickly through the trees. True to Ben’s instructions, I keep the river within earshot.
It isn’t until my stomach makes a noise like a dying elephant that I realize I have no idea when I have eaten last. To reinforce this discovery, my limited vision flickers and I start swaying, dizzy and weak. One of the disadvantages of traveling at night is that now it is almost impossible to tell which plants are edible. I will have to wait until morning. My stomach groans in protest, but exhaustion wins tonight as I drop to a bed of moss at the foot of an oak tree and drift into oblivion. Nightmares torment me, monsters poking their heads out of the foggy mess of my previous life.
At last, I am awakened at midmorning by a row of ants parading across my bare ankle. By now, I am nearly mad with hunger, but luckily I find some cattails nearby at the riverbed. I boil the potato-like roots over a rock slab on a small fire I make by rubbing sticks together. Next, I use the drawstring around the waist of my jumpsuit to make a noose, and by some divine stroke of luck about mid afternoon I catch a squirrel. It thrills me that I am such an expert at survival, and that I am able to skin, clean, and cook the squirrel over my fire. I am alive, and just knowing that lulls me into a feeling of security. I am alive, alive, alive. I bring the first bite to my mouth, but without warning am suddenly nauseated. This squirrel has been a fugitive, like me. I, McKenna, have hunted this animal, this living, feeling being, and killed it without a second thought. I, McKenna the unwanted Third, have laid a trap for it and exterminated it. I feel deep sorrow for ending this life, and the very idea of eating it now makes me sick. Despite this, I force myself to consume the meat anyway, knowing I cannot survive on mere plants.
And so I continue through the dark woods, carefully hiding myself, obtaining what rest I can by day, and traveling by night. Many moons rise and set, many small animals’ lives are ended by me, McKenna. The vegetation becomes more tangled and wild as I continue, and the river grows fast and deep. I lose all sense of how many nights are passing.
After unnumbered moons of travel, I discover with a shock that the river has suddenly turned into a massive waterfall. I have arrived at the Great Falls. Looking down with wonder, I stumble and come inches from falling into the churning water.. Despite nearly plunging to my death, I am heartened by the knowledge that the sea cannot be off from here. Unfortunately, it is impossible to navigate down the sheer canyon walls to drink, so I begin a frantic quest for water. It takes me most of the night to find some, and sometimes I unwittingly travel in circles, because the trees and occasional clouds block my compass of stars. At last I find a small, quiet pool, and I lower my head to drink. But before I break the surface, the bright moon frees itself from a cloud and illuminates my reflection in the water. I gasp. My hair is long and hopelessly matted; my face is filthy and covered in small scratches. I look more closely to see a brownish streak down my jaw line and mouth—to my shame I know it to be the blood of my small furry victims. Who is this girl? I know my name, but I still feel miserably drained of identity. My name is McKenna, and I am good at survival. My brother’s name is Ben. But I wonder, who am I, really? Whom do I love? Where have I come from?
These unhappy musings are abruptly shattered by the sound of a stick cracking behind me. This noise would not sound unusual to most, what with the noisy cicadas, small creatures, and birds, but I recognize the sound as human and therefore as great danger. I am aware that the Population Police, or PoPl, have outposts everywhere in the rogue forest, and that with even a simple bioscanner a Third like me could be detected running around. This jumpsuit I wear clearly labels me as a fugitive, but it will do me no good to remove the garment because of the giveaway tattoo on my arm: 4739910. I crouch behind a tree and hear a far-off radio beep, and more crunching. A search party, I muse. They have sent a search party to find me. One of the men is talking loudly, presumably into his radio. I pick out the words “capture or eliminate” and hear my number, “forty-seven three nine…” This is more than a search party from a local PoPl outpost, these are men sent to find me. Panic fills my veins like a drug, immobilizing me like in a dream when you try to run but cannot move. I had escaped from somewhere, with Ben’s help… A Camp, I think. I had escaped from a Dehabilitation Camp. I gasp, because those two words trigger a mass of painful and unwelcome memories. Memories of myself, strapped to a metal table, the IV in my arm feeding drugs into my body. The drugs would take first my mind and then my body. If not for the immediate danger, I would have dropped to the ground and cried. But I know they are close, too close, so I hide the best way I can—I grab a hollow reed growing by the edge and dive swiftly into the cold pond. All that is left visible of me is a couple of ripples, and an imperceptible reed barely poking above the surface of the pond.
I focus on controlling my breathing through the narrow plant stem. The cold water is terrifying. I breathe in, out. It is so dark in here. My feet sink into the muddy bottom, filling me with strength-sapping horror. I have no idea what kind of creatures could be lurking in this Godforsaken water, but I fear the human creatures pursuing me above far more. This I tell myself, over and over, trying to force myself to believe it.
I am alive. This knowledge comforts me when all else seems to fail. But this small relief grows insignificant against my misery, and I start to panic, hyperventilating through the thin straw. My bodily functions are no longer under my control. Enemies are above, but just as I am about to choose them over the dark mire, Ben’s voice comes to me. “McKenna.”
I do not know where the voice came from—whether a powerful memory or some unknown deity, it calms me and triggers images of fleeing through the woods at night, holding his rough hand, running to safety because he had rescued me from bondage. That one word, my name, is enough to remind me that I am human and that I must survive. I close my eyes and calm my breathing, at peace.
After twelve eternities, I can function no longer. I explode above the surface of the water, gasping. They are gone. They are gone, I breathe in relief. However, I quickly realize, I don’t know which direction they went so I cannot leave this area. Miserable and soaking wet, I shimmy up a tall tree and collapse across the fork of two massive branches... My stomach growls, but I remember that the human body can go forty days or something without food. I’ve had enough water to last me a month, so I will be okay. I will be okay. Of course I will be okay, after surviving through the events of tonight. I watch as the sky begins to turn pink, but then my head spins and everything goes black.
My hunger wakes me late afternoon, but mercifully I find a hollow in my tree where a squirrel stashed some nuts sometime in the past. I eat them, despite their nasty taste. I dream of cooking delicious food one day, in a white and spotless kitchen. Bored and lonely, I think of Ben and instinctively touch my necklace.
Dragonflies—the insects always symbolized hope to me. A sudden flashback of chasing the majestic creatures as a child rushed through my mind, and a tear falls unwanted on my hand. I used to run and spin in circles, chasing them—never catching one but never giving up. And now, this dragonfly hope of mine is all I have left to survive on.
With the tip of the silver pendant, I carve a dragonfly into my tree, wondering where Ben is. I am lost, have no idea where the river is, and am terrified of running into my pursuers again. Without that stroke of incredibly good luck, I would be a prisoner strapped to the table now. Then again, I wonder, how lucky was I really, to have only delayed the inevitable? But I am alive; I am alive, and I have been sitting in this tree too long. It is time to find my way again. Thanks to the sunset, serving me as a compass, I find the river by nightfall. I travel far, and miles pass like birds flying overhead. The great rapids come and go, indicating I am on the right route. My feet are blistered and painful, and the rest of my body is not in much better shape, but I have not seen any sign of the PoPl, the Population Police. I hum a song to myself and press on. When sunrise occurs, I sleep until afternoon once again in a tall tree.
Many days and nights pass until I am so deteriorated I feel more animal than human. I am an animal, and a starving one at that. I am dirty, matted, bitten by insects, and ravaged by hunger. But I keep walking by night. One afternoon I decide to bathe in the river, to make me feel human again, and a brilliant blue dragonfly lands on my hand. I take it as a sign, and sure enough, by the next night I reach where the river flows into the bay. Two days’ journey east from here, Ben had said, and I will make it to safety. I can survive for two days.
Gazing now at the grey, tormented ocean, I recognize that I have never felt so small before, not even in the darkness of the lake. A giant boulder rests a little distance from the water, and I climb it to acknowledge my place in the world.
On the top of the rock are a small engraved dragonfly, and a message: “I love you. See you there. --Ben.” For the first time in my memory, I smile.