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East is Up

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Tyler first saw the man as he returned from his evening duties. He stopped in his tracks as the man approached from the opposite direction. The man wore the same grey jumpsuit Tyler did, with Bishop Nico’s symbol emblazoned on the chest, but something about his appearance was wrong.

It was wrong because Tyler knew every single person in his District and had since birth. This man wasn’t one of them. Tyler looked around to see if any of his fellow citizens had noticed. As was expected of them, however, they kept their gazes straight ahead, intent only upon their destination.

Notice nothing.

It wasn’t one of the official Tenets of Dema, but it might as well have been.

Tyler wasn’t particularly good at not noticing things. He noticed the stranger; noticed the man’s dark curls that were just long enough to be too long; noticed his chestnut-colored eyes that swept left and right, as if in search of something. When the stranger caught Tyler staring at him, he stopped in the middle of the pathway.

The others, doing their civic duty, obediently pretended there weren’t two men standing in the middle of the path. They jostled Tyler and the stranger in passing until the men stood face-to-face in the center of the stone walkway. A strange flutter started in Tyler’s stomach. The emotion that caused it eluded him.

Tyler thought back to his childhood studies of Emotions to Overcome. Fear? No, he still struggled to overcome that one, especially at night when it came time to fit the blackout DreamTaker over his head. No, not fear. What then?

“Hello,” the stranger said, interrupting Tyler’s thoughts. His voice reminded Tyler of morning meal; smooth honey poured over the rough crunch of oats and nuts. It made Tyler’s stomach clench.

Hunger?

No, not that emotion either.

“Hi,” Tyler breathed. Questions jumbled over each other in a rush to get out of his mouth. “You’re-”

The man reached across the distance that separated them to grab Tyler’s hand. “Joshua. I’m very happy to meet you.”

Excitement, that was it! Tyler tried to remember what the Bishops taught about excitement. Excitement is a danger because it leads to... The rest wouldn’t come. It was impossible to think with the stranger’s strong hand around his.

The man who called himself Joshua pulled Tyler in close. With his lips pressed to Tyler’s ear, he said, “We can’t speak now. The Watchers.”

He released Tyler and took a step back. “Until we meet again, citizen.”

With that, Joshua stepped back into the queue. He didn’t even look back. Tyler knew because he watched until those dark curls were out of sight.

The Watchers.

Tyler looked up to walls that surrounded their District. Of course the Watchers were there; it was their sole duty. They watched everyone and everything, always. The Watchers were clothd in robes similar to the ones the Bishops wore but were white in color and had no veils to see through. As far as Tyler knew, no one had ever seen a Watcher’s face. Or, come to think of it, spoken to a Watcher. They never descended to eat or sleep but kept their vigils unwaveringly.

Fear.

Yes, the Watchers frightened Tyler. That, of course, was part of their role. The Watchers weren’t there simply to ensure the proper behavior of Dema’s citizens; they were there to strike fear into the hearts of anyone who might think to invade the peaceful sanctity of their dear city.

Tyler didn’t know if anyone had ever actually attempted to invade their city but, if they had, he almost felt pity for them.

Pity, while a weaker emotion, must also be overcome because it can too easily be exploited.

They came for Tyler, as he knew they would, in the quiet hour between evening meal and darkness. Two trainee Acolytes in black jumpsuits stood outside his dormitory. Tyler nodded in greeting. He’d been waiting for them.

The trainee Acolytes led Tyler to the Hall of Questioning where he took the sole seat in the center of the room obediently. Three black-robed figures entered the room. Real Acolytes. Tyler did his best to suppress the shiver than swept through his body at the sight of them. Unlike the Watchers, the Acolytes weren’t intended to be figures of fear. Tyler, though, had been in that very room too often not to fear what came next.

Tell the truth.

As long as he told the truth, the Questioning would be short and mostly painless. It was only when a citizen tried to deceive the Acolytes that it became a prolonged, painful process.

Pain.

Pain is one of the few emotions that can never truly be overcome. One must always give in to pain and to the lessons pain teaches.

Tyler had no intention of telling the truth.

If he told the Acolytes the truth, they would find the stranger and... being found outside his District? That could only end in Joshua being smeared. Tyler didn’t want to imagine those chestnut eyes losing their gleam. He didn’t want to see darkness creeping up Joshua’s neck.

So, when the Questioning began, Tyler shoved all thoughts of the brown-eyed man deep inside where the Acolytes couldn’t touch them. He looked the Acolytes in the face and he lied.

It was the longest night of his life.

***

Tyler made his way from the Hall of Questioning directly to the wheat field he was scheduled to work that day. The Questioning had been, as he’d expected, brutal and lengthy. They’d given him no time to rest or take meal with his fellow laborers. It was all part of the process. The Acolytes would come for Tyler again that evening, hoping in his weakened state, he would reveal things he had previously managed to conceal.

Fear.

He was afraid they would succeed.

Exhaustion dragged Tyler’s shoulders down. His limbs were heavy as he took up his tools and made his way to the fields. No one called out to him in greeting as he passed. They had eyes only for their work – as he should have. With a weary sigh, Tyler hefted his tool and-

His feet were swept away from beneath him. Tyler fell. A hand clamped over his mouth to stop the shout of surprise that tried to escape. Panic made Tyler’s blood pound in his ears – until he realized the hand over his mouth was familiar. It belonged to Joshua.

Tyler found himself staring into the rich brown eyes that had landed him in so much trouble. Joshua beamed, perfect white teeth gleaming in the sunlight. He held a single finger to his lips to ensure Tyler’s silence, took Tyler's hand, and crept through the tall blades of wheat.

He allowed himself to be pulled through the field. Excitement replaced fear, but his pulse still raced. When they reached the edge of the field, Tyler hesitated, fighting against Joshua’s hold. He shook his head and pointed up when Joshua looked back. Tyler knew the other man would understand the motion. Everyone in Dema knew up meant Watchers.

Joshua grinned back at Tyler, eyes twinkling with mischief. He mouthed two words, “Trust me.”

Trust?

Tyler wasn’t familiar with that one, if it was an emotion, but Joshua didn’t look concerned and truthfully, Tyler found his presence oddly comforting. He nodded and let himself be led into the open.

Their trek had taken them to the wall. Tyler glanced up but could only see more wall. All wall, no Watcher. He looked around quickly. There were no other Watchers in sight.

“We’re too close,” Joshua told Tyler, releasing him. He walked confidently up to the wall and plopped down against it. When he patted the ground next to him, Tyler moved forward without thought.

“Won’t they hear us?” he whispered.

Joshua shook his head. “They just say that to keep us from talking about things were not supposed to know.”

Tyler frowned. “What aren’t we supposed to know?”

The other man laughed, an unreserved sound of mirth that seemed unnaturally loud against the silence of Dema. It made Tyler’s stomach tighten in a funny way.

“Another day, kid,” Joshua told him, bumping his shoulder gently.

Tyler had so many questions he didn’t know where to start. Joshua beat him to it.

“Why did you stop?”

“Hmm?”

“Yesterday,” Joshua continued. “Why did you stop when you saw me? Everyone else walked right by – but not you.”

Tyler pressed his lips together as he considered his answer. “Well,” he said, “you were… different. No way I could pretend I hadn’t seen you.”

Joshua smiled but said nothing.

The question freed the torrent of questions tumbling around Tyler’s mind.

“What District are you from? How did you get permission to pass between them? Why are you here?”

He stopped when a thought occurred to him, sending a trill of panic along his nerves. “The Watchers!” he exclaimed. “When they see I’m not in my field, they’ll send someone-”

Joshua caught Tyler’s arm when he would have bolted. “Calm down,” he said in a soothing tone. “The Watchers don’t always see what they see.”

Tyler didn’t understand but, before he could say so, Joshua rose to his feet, pulling Tyler up with him. “Look,” he said.

At first, Tyler didn’t understand. All he saw were carefully planned wheat fields, wider on one end to fit neatly into the city’s circular shape. He watched as one scythe after another rose into the air, then came back down in an arc.

“Oh.” He saw it. Every field was being tilled. Even his own. “But who…”

Joshua sat back down, and Tyler followed. “A fellow Bandito offered his assistance.”

Confusion pulled Tyler’s lips into a frown. “Bandito?”

“Another person, like me, who made it out of Dema. Someone who comes back to free as many people like you as we can.”

“Free me? From what?”

Joshua gave him a sideways glance that was both patient and a little sad. “I’m from Keons,” he said, answering Tyler’s original question instead. “I don’t have permission to travel between the Districts. Like I said, I’m here for you.”

I’m here for you.

Happiness.

He’d had very little to be happy about, but Tyler recognized the emotion. It wasn’t an Emotion to Overcome – the Bishops wanted citizens to be happy in their work – but many found it elusive. The Bishops had no emotions of their own. They couldn’t force their citizens to mimic happiness because they didn’t know what it was supposed to look like.

If they’d seen Tyler at that moment, they would have learned.

“For me?”

Joshua nodded. “I knew you were different,” he told Tyler. “I wanted to get you out before they could break you.”

“Get me out?”

Joshua turned to face Tyler, sitting cross-legged. Tyler, a little nervous, followed his lead. Their knees pressed together in a way Tyler found comforting.

“Have you ever thought about what’s outside of Dema?” Joshua asked. His eyes blazed with an intensity Tyler couldn’t quite comprehend.

“Outside? Why would I want to think about that? Dema is home.” Tyler parroted the words he’d been taught from birth without thought. He stopped when Joshua shook his head. Tyler got the impression that Joshua was disappointed with his answer. Embarrassment made heat rise to his cheeks.

He thought hard. Outside? What was outside of the wall? Tyler couldn’t picture anything but more of the same and he said so.

“It’s so, so much more!” Joshua said excitedly. “It’s endless.”

His excitement was infectious. “Tell me more.”

But Joshua shook his head again. “The Acolytes will be back for you tonight,” he told Tyler. “You should rest.”

Joshua was right; they would be back for Tyler and he was exhausted but… “Rest? Where?”

“Here.” Joshua patted his lap. “I’ll keep an eye out. You’re safe with me.”

Trust.

Tyler was starting to get an idea of what trust meant. When Joshua told him he’d be safe, Tyler believed him completely. Stretching out on the hard ground, Tyler laid his head tentatively in the other man’s lap. At first, he was too nervous to sleep. Then, Joshua started stroking his hair and the motion lulled Tyler into a deep sleep.

He woke on the bunk in his dormitory. Disorientated, confused, and afraid, Tyler’s heart pounded painfully in his chest. How had he gotten there? Where had Joshua gone? He scrambled up in a hurry and scanned the room. Everything looked exactly as it should, except…

Stuck to the back of the windowless door was something Tyler had never seen outside of the Halls of Knowledge: a photograph.

Tyler found himself pulled toward the strange object. His fingers traced a crease down the center. The image was a mystery to Tyler and contained many things he didn’t recognize. One was a small stone structure with a low, flat roof. He plucked the photograph off the door and turned it over. A single word was scrawled across the back.

‘Home.’

He heard a soft step in the hallway. Hurriedly, Tyler pressed the photograph back to the door and took a step back. When the knock came, he was able to greet the trainee Acolytes with a smile.

***

Tyler and Joshua laid on their backs on the ground alongside the wall, their feet pointed in opposite directions, heads close together. That day, Tyler had been assigned to work a cornfield. A Bandito dutifully performed the chore instead, giving him time to bombard Joshua with questions about the outside world.

“I don’t understand,” he said, earning a smile from his friend. ‘I don’t understand’ was Tyler’s favorite phrase lately. “If rain is a worldwide phenomenon and happens everywhere…” he waved a hand “why hasn’t it ever rained here?”

Joshua turned his head to give Tyler a brilliant smile. “That’s my boy,” he said, making Tyler blush. “You’re finally asking the right questions.”

He sat up and urged Tyler to do the same. Reaching into the pocket of his jumpsuit, Joshua pulled out a graphite stick. Tyler gasped in shock. Though he was aware of the existence of the Banditos and was slowly learning to question the Tenets of Dema, he was still surprised to see such careless disrespect for the law.

Joshua offered Tyler the graphite stick, but Tyler shook his head vehemently. He wasn’t ready for that.

“Alright,” Joshua started, “this is Dema.” He drew a circle on the ground, divided it into nine sections, then drew two more circles around it. Inside the middle circle, he drew tiny little flowers. In the outer circle, he drew the symbol for death. That was where all citizens went at the end of their lives to be disembodied.

“Now, what time is morning?”

Tyler didn’t even have to think about his answer. “Six AM.”

“What time is night?”

“Nine PM.”

“Where does the sun rise?”

Tyler pointed to the very center of the drawing, where the Tower of Worship stood.

Joshua caught his hand and gave it a squeeze. “Everything you know is wrong,” he said. With their joined hands, he wiped away the walled city. In its place, Joshua drew several globes and started the arduous process of explaining the solar system.

Tyler’s head swam with all the new information. Too much information.

“I don’t understand,” he said finally. “If that’s true, why does the sun always come up in the same place, at the same time? Why does it disappear all at once, instead of gradually? Where is the moon?”

He felt close to spiraling out of control. It was too much to take in. Joshua’s hand fell on his knee, grounding him.

“That’s exactly the problem,” he told Tyler. “It’s all fake. All of it. That-” he pointed to the glowing orb in the sky “-is not the sun. That’s just an enormous light source fueled by… well, let’s do that another day, okay?”

Fake. It’s all fake. Tyler’s world was crumbling all around him – and it had started the day he’d first laid eyes on Joshua. He tried to build a new world with the ashes of the old but they were flimsy and wouldn’t hold.

“Where is the sun?” Tyler asked in a small voice.

The solar system disappeared and Dema reappeared. “The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.” Joshua drew an “E” next to Nico’s District and a “W” beside Sacarver’s.

“Remember this,” he told Tyler urgently, “it’s the most important thing you’ll ever hear.”

Tyler nodded solemnly. Joshua pointed to a spot between Nico’s District and Andre’s District. “Remember: east is up.”

“East is up.”

“Promise me you won’t forget.”

Tyler promised. It didn’t make any sense, but it seemed important to Joshua, so he’d remember. He thought for a moment. “Joshua?”

Joshua was busy erasing Dema again. “Mhm?”

“Where have the Bishops hidden the sun?”

The other man’s laughter surprised Tyler. He ducked his head, worried that he’d asked one stupid question too many.

Joshua used one finger to nudge Tyler’s chin up. Tyler was unfamiliar with whatever emotion made his friend’s eyes bright, but the same emotion made his insides go all funny at the sight.

“You are so much cleverer than you know.”

Tyler blushed and dropped his eyes.

“That’s exactly what the Bishops have done,” Joshua explained. “But they haven’t hidden the sun, they’ve hidden Dema.”

“I don’t-”

Joshua held up a finger to silence him. “If you can’t see the sun, moon, or stars and it never rains, where are you?”

The answer didn’t immediately come to Tyler, but the other man didn’t rush him. He let Tyler work it out. When he finally did, the blood drained from Tyler’s face.

“Underground,” he said in a terrified whisper. “They’ve buried us underground.”

“Yes.”

Tyler’s mind railed against the thought. No. No, no, no. They couldn’t be underground. Living things weren’t buried. He couldn’t breathe. His vision swam.

“Hey.” Joshua was beside him in an instant, wrapping an arm around Tyler protectively. “It’s okay. It’s scary, I know, but it’s okay. I promise.”

Trapped. He felt trapped. Tyler had never felt trapped before. He’d always looked up into the sky, felt the sun on his face, and felt a kind of safety. Now… he didn’t think he’d ever feel safe again.

Even Joshua’s embrace didn’t feel safe. Joshua was the stranger who’d come in and turned Tyler’s life upside down. He was the one who’d shattered everything Tyler thought he knew. He’d destroyed Tyler’s safe little world and put something enormous and terrifying in its place.

Trust?

Tyler didn’t know if he could trust Joshua, didn’t know if he could trust anything.

“I- I have to go.” Tyler pushed at Joshua’s shoulders. He scrambled to his feet and, using the wall for support, stumbled away.

“Tyler!”

Tyler ran. He ran all the way to his dormitory, slammed the door, and slid to the ground. The photograph, shaken loose by the movement, fluttered to land at his side. He picked it up, studying it for the first time since the night he found it.

A house. He knew now the small building was a house, set into something called a mountain. The house was part of a community of similar buildings, all filled with people who lived together in things called families. Tyler squinted hard at the photo and found the tiny ball of light in the sky that was the sun. It was low, near the ground. The proof had been there all along. Joshua had given Tyler the clues he needed and left him to work it out.

Home.

Tyler crumpled the photo into a ball and raised his fist to throw it – but couldn’t. The anger that had driven him away from the only friend he’d ever known ebbed as quickly as it had risen. It left Tyler feeling empty and even more afraid. He clutched the photo, the only piece of Joshua he had, to his chest and let himself cry for the loss of his ignorance.

It seemed like both forever and no time at all had passed when the night bell rang. Tyler rose mechanically to remove his jumpsuit and climb onto the bunk. Picking up the heavy DreamTaker, he fit it over his head and waited for the sleep gas to be released. It wasn’t.

When Tyler took off the helmet to inspect it, he nearly screamed. There, beside his bunk, was a dark figure.

“Please don’t scream,” Joshua said.

Tyler was so relieved to hear the other man’s voice he nearly burst into tears. He reached out through the darkness to grab hold of Joshua, to prove to himself that he was really there.

“I’m so sorry,” Tyler said in a rush. “I didn’t mean to- to-” he didn’t know exactly what he was apologizing for, only that he was ashamed of his behavior.

“It’s okay,” Joshua said again. He settled on the edge of Tyler’s bunk. “When I found out, I was so mad I kicked a beam and nearly brought down a whole mine shaft.”

Tyler had forgotten Joshua was from Keons’s District. He couldn’t imagine Joshua’s beauty hidden away in a dark, dirty mine day after day.

“But, you did cause a bit of a ruckus, you know,” Joshua said without even a hint of accusation. “We have to leave. Me, and the other Banditos. It won’t be safe here for us for a while.”

Guilt burned through Tyler. Tears did prick his eyes then. He let them fall.

“I’m sorry…”

“Shh… I know,” Joshua pulled Tyler into an embrace and held him while he cried. Safe? Yes, Joshua made Tyler feel safe. How could he have thought any differently? But, soon, Joshua would be gone.

“Do you have to leave?” Tyler asked when the sobs eased.

“I do. But, you could come with me, if you’re ready.”

Am I ready?

Tyler didn’t know how to answer. Joshua took his silence as rejection. He pulled away, rising from the bunk. Before Tyler could beg him to come back, Joshua leaned down and pressed something against his chest. It was small but heavy. Tyler closed his hands around the item.

Without warning, Joshua pressed his lips to Tyler’s tear-streaked cheek.

“Imprisonment is easy. Freedom is hard.” He pulled away.

Tyler got the impression Joshua was studying his face, but it was so dark in the room it was impossible to tell for certain. “If you chose freedom, it will be hard – but you won’t be alone,” Joshua said. “You’ll never be alone again.” With that, he was gone.

“Joshua? Joshua!”

Tyler practically fell out of the bunk in his hurry to go after him. He’d barely taken a step when he knocked something over. Groping blindly in the dark, his hand closed around a cylindrical object. He fumbled with it until, pressing a raised button on the side, light erupted from the device.

He swung the beam of light around the room, but Joshua was nowhere to be seen. Tyler’s heart fell when he realized Joshua was really gone – and he didn’t know when he’d ever see him again. If he'd ever seen him again.

You could come with me, if you’re ready.

How could he be ready? How could he ever be ready? Besides, it was too late. Joshua was gone. Joshua was gone, and Tyler was trapped inside Dema. How had he ever thought of the place as home?

The crumpled photograph lay atop the woolen blanket on his bunk. Tyler picked it up, smoothed it out, and stared at it. Home. Dema wasn’t home – but maybe, just maybe, he could make himself a new home. Or, could have, if he’d been smarter, sooner.

Sadness.

Sadness is a crippling, useless emotion. It does nothing but stop one from acting. Banish it.

He would never find his way out alone. Sadness filled his chest, making it feel too full for breath.

Tyler pointed the beam of light at the thing Joshua had passed him and saw it was a book. His heart sank when he saw which book it was, the only book allowed outside the Halls of Knowledge: The Tenets of Dema. Why would Joshua leave him that? Was it a cruel joke, punishment for nearly getting him caught?

Lost in thought, Tyler absently flicked through the pages. He stopped when a bright spot of color caught his eye. It was a single word, highlighted in a color that wasn’t supposed to exist within Dema.  

‘They.’

He touched the word with a finger and was surprised when it came away the same color. When he lifted the finger to his nose and inhaled, Tyler found it smelled of the growing things he spent his days among and something else, something he should know. It was familiar, but distant, like a half-forgotten memory.

A memory... a memory of...

Dandelions!

He’d been a child, too weak to be of any use as a laborer, too restless yet to join the older children in the Halls of Knowledge. For a brief time, Tyler had been allowed, as all toddlers were, to totter around mostly unsupervised on chubby little legs. After all, what harm could befall him in the safety of their walled city? Plus, there were always the Watchers...

Most of his companions opted to play in the lush, carefully tended gardens of the Glorious Vista where they darted merrily between the crimson-tipped Camellias, Amaryllises, and Calla Lilies the Bishop favored. Tyler, on the other hand, was drawn to the sunshine-colored flowers that grew in wild abundance beside the path that led to Nico’s tower at the heart of the district.

Tyler lifted the book to his nose and inhaled. Definitely dandelion. The smell woke an unpleasant memory that had been slumbering within him for some time. He couldn’t say exactly how old he’d been at the time or, honestly, even how old he was now. Time was an afterthought in Dema.

That day, Tyler had walked solemnly behind adults as they passed on their ways to and from work details to meals and back again, mimicking their carefully measured gaits until he grew bored. Which hadn’t taken long. At that age, walking had seemed so much duller than running. So, Tyler ran. He ran until he collapsed, sweating and gasping for breath, among the sunshine flowers.

He soon learned he could transfer the pigment of the flower to his skin by rubbing one vigorously against the other – an endeavor he entered into with great enthusiasm. Soon, his face and neck were stained the same color as the flowers and tiny petals clung to his sticky fingers. It was like being kissed by the sun.

Why would the other children prefer the controlled order of the Vista where the blooms were the colors of blood and darkness when they could roll in sunshine itself? Strange... Tyler couldn’t remember ever seeing a flower the color of sunshine in the Vista...

Bishop Nico passed by on his way to the Bishop’s daily Gathering. Tyler, too naive to know the value of reverence, called out to him.

“Excuse me, sir?” he said.

The Bishop paused, turning to regard the boy through the thin vein that protected his face from the sun. He didn’t speak.

“Um...” Tyler grew nervous under the full force of the Bishop’s stare. “What color is this, sir?” He held out his hands.

Bishop Nico looked to one of the three Acolytes who always accompanied him. The acolyte leaned in and whispered. Tyler didn’t think he was supposed to hear the Acolyte’s words but he often heard things he wasn’t supposed to hear.

“It’s yellow, Your Reverence. They’re dandelions, a weed.”

The Bishop stared at Tyler a moment more before resuming his journey. When Tyler was released to roam the grounds the next day, the dandelions were gone. Fresh patches of poppies rose in their place.

It was my fault, Tyler remembered. If I’d remained silent, the dandelions would have remained. A small piece of sunshine had died that day. Tyler stopped running after that.

But, looking down at the book in his hands, Tyler realized there might still be dandelions in at least one of the other Districts. For some reason, that made him happy. He wished, for the first time, that he could move freely between the Districts, to hunt down those tiny balls of sunshine.

Like a Bandito.

He brushed the word on the page once more as he puzzled over its meaning. Why would Joshua use dandelion to highlight “they”? It seemed illogical – until Tyler began flipping through the rest of the book and found other highlighted words. There were no writing utensils or paper in Tyler’s dormitory, of course. Those were only allowed in the Halls of Knowledge. With no way to mark his place, Tyler briefly considered turning down the corners of pages but quickly dismissed the idea. Defacing the holy book carried heavy punishment.

The book has already been defaced.

Even so, Tyler couldn’t bring himself to commit such an infraction. Instead, he whispered the words aloud as he found them, repeating them until they fell into order in his mind.

They. Can’t. See. Yellow.

East. Is. Up.

Tyler spent a sleepless night thinking about those words. It wasn’t until he rose, tired and bleary-eyed, to begin his day that Tyler realized the book and electronic light weren’t the only gifts his friend had left behind. Just inside the room, on the floor, lay a jumpsuit. It was exactly like the one Tyler wore every day but, instead of standard grey, it was yellow. Brilliant, dandelion yellow.

He clutched the jumpsuit to his chest. Joshua’s parting words came back to him.

Imprisonment is easy. Freedom is hard.

Tyler thought of the way Joshua had pressed his lips to his cheek. He lifted a hand to touch the spot.  

If you chose freedom, it will be hard – but you won’t be alone. You’ll never be alone again.

Could he do it? Could Tyler reject everything he’d ever known for... for freedom? He wasn’t sure he even understood what the word meant. For what, then?

For a man with dark curls and eyes the color of chestnuts?

For a glimpse of real sunshine?

For home?

The bell calling citizens of Dema to take morning meal rang out, interrupting Tyler’s deliberations. Not that it mattered; he’d already made his decision. When Tyler left his dormitory for the last time, the holy book and photograph were tucked in his pocket and the zipper of his jumpsuit was pulled up high to hide the yellow one he wore beneath.

He went about his business as usual, careful to give the appearance of being the same as the mindless drones that filed past him. Tyler had nearly reached the place where he’d first seen Joshua, at the very edge of the district, when he saw the Acolytes. One raised a black-robed arm to point at Tyler and his pulse raced. If they caught him now, it was all over. He’d be smeared for sure.

Looking around wildly for any form of escape, Tyler noticed a door set into the wall that separated Nico’s district from Andre’s. He must have passed the door thousands of time in the past, but he’d never noticed before that it had a wide swath of yellow paint across it. Citizens moved aside for the Acolytes, who moved very deliberately toward Tyler.

East is up.

A picture in the dirt, marking the boundary between Nico and Andre as East.

Dema, buried underground.

East is up.

The answer came so suddenly it was as if a blindfold had been lifted from Tyler's eyes.

They can’t see yellow.

The Acolytes stopped, looking back over their shoulder. Tyler craned to see around them and noticed a flash of red. Bishop Nico. Fear drove Tyler to drop his tools and reach for the zipper of his jumpsuit. There were a few gasps from citizens near him as he revealed the yellow jumpsuit beneath. He wondered how many of them would spend their nights in the Hall of Questioning - but not for long. Tyler didn’t give himself time to think about anything as he pulled the jumpsuit’s hood up over his head. Throwing one last look of defiance at Bishop Nico and the Acolytes, Tyler made a break for freedom.