My mother, Ezra—God rest her soul—was a proud Chippewa woman and an Ember sympathizer, so they say. I think she had just gotten tired of sending children to their deaths. Those who weren’t afraid to talk say that she had been part of an activist group, Free Embers. They had stood against Cinder City and the Authority, President Atlas Gold. She and twenty others had tried to storm City Center. They’d never even made it to the Golden Gates. All of them had been shot for treason. Forty bystanders had been killed on that same day by stray bullets. The City Controllers had opened fire on a square full of men, women and children. The Authority’s message had been heard by all. No one stood against President Atlas Gold and lived to talk about it. He’d sooner kill his own people than allow the faintest whisper of hope to spread. The Authority saw hope as a sickness and a bullet was the cure. Hope was harder to come by than grain outside the Golden City.
I was named after her, my mother, Ezra Larkin. I was the last person in all the Rings to be of my mother’s people—Chippewa. Even as a young girl, I understood that the Chippewa people could end with me. My father Cor—an Irish hothead with the temperament of a caged lion—didn’t speak much about my mother. Some said he was ashamed of her, but I think he missed her so much that it hurt him to speak her name. The odd times he did talk about her, it was usually about my stubborn nature being much like hers or how my laughter reminded him of her.
I don’t remember my mother. A part of me thinks of it as a blessing. The other part sees it as a curse. Not remembering her means I don’t miss her in the same gut-wrenching way my father does, but it also picks at my soul that I didn’t get to know my own mother. I was six years old when she was killed. I have a single photograph of us together— her, myself and my father, in front of the Golden Gates of Cinder City, but it did nothing to trigger even the faintest of memories. I keep it inside my pillowcase.
Every now and again I have a dream of her and me together. In my dream, she comes to sit with me and listens to me tell her about my life. In my dreams, I knew she was dead. She would always look like she did in her photo. Even in my dreams, the Authority could punish me, reminding me of what he’d taken from my father and me. Some folks in Limits—the ring where we lived—said my father was born and raised in Cinder City and fell in love with the woman who cleaned his family home. As punishment for loving a lower class, he had been sent to live out his days on the edge of the world he’d grown up in. I don’t think my father saw that as a punishment, given that he’d gotten the girl in the end.
Cinder City had once been called The Promised Land, or so that was what I’d read in my father’s old texts. It was nothing like that now, at least, not unless you were born on the other side of those gates with skin the color of snow and eyes as blue as the sky. The world—or what I knew of it—had been divided into two groups, the promised ones and those of us who scrubbed their toilets. We were called the Solvents and Insolvents—those who mattered and those who didn’t. At birth, the Insolvents were tagged with a small GPS chip. They said it was for our own safety, in case we needed help. I didn’t buy it and neither did anyone else. All it did was make it easier to hunt us. That tag was how they’d found my mother and killed her.
Every year, Cinder officials opened their Golden Gates and held the Ember Harvest. The Harvest was a test of the potential Embers. It is said that over three hundred years ago the Insolvents had grown tired of their treatment and had developed the ability to awaken deadly parts of their minds then had waged war against Cinder City. Now, as a precaution, every child is tested for the Scoria Singularity—remnants of the genetics from a time the world was almost destroyed overnight.
If someone showed the first signs, detected in a blood test, they were shipped to Ember Gates. They said that each generation burned almost as brightly as the generation that had waged war, and that is why they were called Embers. An Ember burns as hot as the fire which created it. During testing, the genetics of those who were Embers lit up like the Fourth of July, glowing hotter than anyone else.
The auditorium where the Harvest was held was smack dab in the middle of Cinder City. It held over eight hundred people in comfort, but for the Harvest it would be far too packed to consider it anything but sad and hot. That happened during Cinder City’s yearly Harvest of the Embers, aka taking children who were potential Embers and carting them off to an unknown location, never to return. I had been attending the Harvest since I could remember. It was mandatory for all citizens to attend. It was the only time I wore anything but torn jeans and sneakers. It was a rare occasion when the Insolvents mixed socially with the Solvents, where the color of our skin didn’t matter. Or at least, for one day, they didn’t point it out.
This time I’d be there as a potential Ember. It was an odd feeling. I never knew what happened to the Embers. After they had been named, they had been taken away. I only knew that they never came back. And now that I might learn what had happened to them. I would be content never finding out. The night would be a celebration. We would dance, enjoy spirits and foods that we Insolvents never had on the outskirts of Cinder City. Although many parents would be leaving in tears as they understood what was happening, I had always looked forward to the celebration following the Harvest. Aside from the dramatic build-up and muffled screams at the end, it had been a lot of fun. Thinking of it that way was better than facing the truth for most of us. The truth was, children were dying, all in the name of some debt Cinder City said we owed for a war we’d never started.
I would be attending with my best friend and ring neighbor, Zowie Tate. I had been friends with Zow for my entire life. That was how it was in our ring. It was small enough that everyone here knew everyone else and bonds were as long as life. Our parents had grown up together and I was sure our kids would too. Zow and I were only children, as it was for a lot of the families in the rings. There was a birthing cap of two in place for the families who couldn’t afford to purchase a license to have more, but most families could just afford one. If ever a son or daughter was taken to Ember Gates, the family could have another child if they wished. Such was the way of life here. We were all replaceable.
There were three belts around the pristine city of Cinder. The first ring was called Fringe. It housed those who worked in Cinder and had enough money to be considered well-off and never struggled for a meal. Those in Fringe could almost pass for Cinder, with lighter skin and hair. As the population grew, it was reshuffled to accommodate a new ring. The second ring was Boundary. It housed the lower middle-class and provided Cinder with their primary source of power from the rivers and falls. It held four hydroelectric power plants. Then there was Limits, last to be created. We were low enough on the pole to not have a class of our own. Limits provided the fruits and vegetables, grains and meats for Cinder.
Limits’ residents were all darker skin, like it somehow made us lesser people pushed to the edge of society. My father’s textbooks said racism had been abolished in the early twenty-second century, but being on this side of the fence, I called bullshit. Mankind crumbled generations ago in the exact spot where I was standing—segregation, death camps and hate. For every step humanity had taken forward, Cinder City had plunged it back fifty steps into a pit of xenophobia, death squads and armbands. I didn’t say it out loud. No one did. Well, no one who was still alive muttered such things.
Each ring of said ‘Promised Land’ was surrounded by a fence that no one was brave enough to scale, with four gates that opened in the morning and shut at the end of the day. With one exception, Harvest night, when the gates remained open for twenty-four hours. Being caught outside your zone after the gates had closed was a direct ticket to Cinder Cells. No one risked being tossed in Cells because no family had enough money to ransom their freedom. And on the edge of Limits stood a fence with no gates and no escape, patrolled by Cinder Controllers. There would be no arrest for trying to get out. You were shot and your family would be billed the cost of the bullet used. Genocide was alive and well. I don’t think it had ever really gone away—not for us, not for those who stood out like a dark shadow among white daisies.
At the promising age of eighteen, straddling childhood and adulthood, it was my turn for the Harvest, to see if I was an Ember. When I should be planning my future, being courted for marriage and a family, I was preparing for what could be my immediate death. This didn’t seem fair to me. My father had tried to prepare me as much as he could. He’d told me not to worry. Since the beginning of the Harvest, my family had always been safe. No one in our line had ever held the Scoria Singularity, but there was always a risk. I prayed to my mother’s ancestors for strength and for them to guide me. My father had promised my mother that he would teach me about her people, and every day since I can remember, my father has told me stories and taught me prayers.
My father had gone through the Harvest, just like every other soul in the rings. He said he had been a nervous wreck. But once it was over, it was over for good. After that, once a year it was just another party where someone else worried. Once he’d had me, his fears had come back tenfold. Now, he was scared of each Harvest and awaiting the unknown fate that hung over our family like a storm cloud.
To take my mind off the impending doom, I focused on the potential after-party. For those who weren’t named an Ember, it was a grand celebration. Now that I could be named, I realized just how great a celebration it could be. I would dress the part, in case I did get to go home, so if I didn’t I wouldn’t be dragged away in rags. I stood in front of my mirror, staring at my high cheekbones, and could almost see my mother staring back at me. I was dressed in a hand-me-down from a few houses up. They hadn’t needed it anymore. Their daughter had been taken to Ember Gates the past year and had never come back. I didn’t dare say it out loud, but this was one of the only perks to finding out someone you knew was an Ember. There weren’t many of those to be had around here, either. It was odd, how we’d just gotten used to saying thank you for bags of clothes from families of dead children. It was normal in the rings.
Tomorrow night would be the commencement rituals of the Harvest. We would be carted off to begin the first round of tests that would lead up to the event. Tonight, things in Limits were somber. There were no children playing outside and no screams of laughter. There was nothing. It was as if someone had died but not yet, though I didn’t know if Embers were killed or not. I was betting they were. It was said that once they went to Ember Gates, they waited until their maturity had completed and were not just murdered as I had suspected. Cinder doctors had found the age of eighteen to be the perfect age to take us. It was cheaper to do it at the height of puberty. They didn’t have to feed and house us for as long. If you didn’t display advanced signs of the Scoria Singularity, you were allowed to go home—or that was what we all were told during our Harvest Preparation classes. But no one ever came back. Not once. Never in the history of ever had someone returned.
I pulled off my armband with its patch that said ‘Limits’ and stared at it for a moment, running my fingertips over the red embroidered lettering. All of who I was had been reduced to a small black and scratchy armband. It told the world around me that I was at the bottom because my mother was Chippewa and my father Irish. My heritage meant I could die, but a possible death was not something I was interested in celebrating. I removed my pale-yellow dress and hung it up over my cracked mirror. Everything I owned was damaged or scratched or stained in some fashion. I had a fleeting moment of wondering what it had been like those many years ago when everyone’d had the same chance in life. My father had said there were no divisions such as this hundreds of years ago. And there had not been one Authority overseeing all. The world once had many leaders and laws that governed them. Not anymore. The Authority was the one and only law.
The first horn of the evening sounded. There were three hours left until the gates between the rings would be locked. Like clockwork, every sixty minutes another horn would sound, the final one being a long warning blast. I pulled my long dark hair into a ponytail, slipped on my ripped jeans and sneakers and climbed out of my window. I didn’t have far to drop. We lived in a single-story home, mostly built of rejected wood from Cinder. The windows were broken, and each time a fire broke out, my room turned into a wasteland for the lungs. Because my father was a carpenter, our home was one of the nicer ones in Limits.
Ten yards from the back of my house stood the fence of no return with red and white warning signs that were polite enough to let us know that the sign was the only warning we would get. A single bullet from a Cinder Controller would be the next step in their attempts at keeping us inside our ring. There had been times that children had found a way out of the fence. They had never been seen again. I didn’t know what was out there, but it couldn’t be good if it was eating up wandering children. The whole thing stunk. How does a person become lost when Cinder Controllers could punch in someone’s GPS information and find them in a fraction of a second? I suppose we just weren’t important enough to spare the manpower for a search.
Breathing in the evening air, I could almost smell the roses that grew along the metal fence. It mixed with the scent of warm bread cooking in Limits. That bread was not for us. It would be shipped to the Harvest celebration. It was torture, the smells of foods we weren’t allowed to touch. My stomach growled. I had eaten dinner but it hadn’t been enough. I was always hungry. Limits didn’t waste food or overeat, not when Cinder controlled every grain we used. We never risked running out. Cinder had a way of keeping us underfed, always forcing us to submit to their will. To prove this, the Authority would cut the rations in half every so often, as a reminder of who had the real power. I didn’t see why they bothered. We all knew who was in charge. No one questioned it.
I stood a foot from the rear fence with my gaze following the steel chain-link to the top. I had never seen a Controller walking the fence, but I was pretty sure they were watching in some way or another. Every twenty feet a metal pole stood cemented into the ground. Fixed to the top of each post were cameras and a walkway that attached to each pole. I had spent almost twenty-four hours watching the fence from my bedroom window and never did Zow or I ever see a Controller. I wasn’t brave enough to test out my theory of their nonexistence. To be wrong would mean death. I was curious, not stupid.
“Wait up, Ezra,” Zow called out from behind me.
Zow jogged from her house against the fence at the end of my block. Her curly black hair flowed out behind her. Zowie Tate was darker than the midnight sky but much more beautiful. Her silky hair was a froth of shiny curls, wild and free. How I wished she could be that way, too—wild and free and full of choice and life. Each night she and I ran the fence line until our legs shook and our lungs burned. I used to jog it with my father. Eventually, he had grown tired of running in more ways than one. Over the years, he’d become weary of many things, but he had never failed to make sure I was loved and ready for just about anything. He’d taught me how to trap rabbits, how to protect myself, build a fire out of nothing and if I had to, survive on my own. If ever I found myself on the other side of the fence, my father wanted me to be ready.
Zow, on the other hand, was a little slower to catch up. The Tate family had come from a long line of farmers. Not many of the ones in Limits had skills outside raising piglets and collecting eggs from their hens. They didn’t have time to be anything more. The Tate family was decent to the bone, as was Zow, but she wouldn’t survive ten minutes outside the fence. She didn’t have a live-or-die mentality. Her soul was far too pure for that. If love could feed a nation, I’d never starve near her.
Winded, Zoe nudged my shoulder as she jogged beside me. “Honestly, Ezra, do you think we’d ever be lost on the other side of the fence?”
“No, but better safe than sorry.”
Zow peered around me, looking out to the tree line on the other side and she shiver, probably at the thought of being out there without protection. Deep down, Zow was braver than she gave herself credit for, but no one knows what they’re made of until they’re put to the test. I hoped to hell her courage would never be tested.
“My father said that there’s nothing out there but the wild. After World War Four had destroyed all but Cinder, the rest of the world became a barren wasteland with wild animals and man-eating people.”
I picked up my pace, forcing Zow to breathe more heavily. Part of me did it to make her stop talking. I hated talking about the wars that had helped create Cinder and the rings. The thoughts were more than disturbing. They reminded me of a time long before we were caged animals ourselves. I was jealous. I envied the freedoms people had once had. The war that had started this all… I’d have killed for those freedoms.
After the last war, the fences had been built. Cinder and all their amassed power had created a world within a world. They’d created the rings. I didn’t feel safer inside the fences. I felt like a slave. We worked for them, nothing more and nothing less. In return, they protected us, fed us and housed us—or that was what they said. And each year, we sent our children to the Harvest, in hopes they didn’t have the Scoria Singularity—the cause of World War Four. The poor and starving waged war against the rich and plump—a history that would repeat time and time again.
“I don’t think there are cannibals out there, Zow. Wild animals maybe, but I don’t think it’s as scary as we’re told it is. I mean, where else are the rabbits I catch coming from?”
“Just the same, I’d rather not be unfortunate enough to find out first-hand.”
Zow and I were a lot alike, but some things about us were polar opposites. She didn’t rock the boat, never asked questions and never argued. She followed the rules and never thought there was a different way of life. She took what was given to her and never questioned it. I, on the other hand, questioned everything. I wasn’t content picking up where my father would leave off. I wouldn’t be a woodworker or laborer. I wanted more out of life and knew I’d fight tooth and nail to make my way out of Limits. I needed more. I craved knowledge and fact and fulfillment. One day, I knew my life would mean something more than building a house or raising chickens.
I grabbed Zow’s arm and lessened her pace. “Hold up.”
Zow slowed, following me to the fence.
“What?” Zow asked, her voice shaking from her speeding pulse.
My heart was hammering too hard for me to speak. I pointed to a cherry blossom tree. It was one of our markers. There would be another one in thirty feet, in full bloom. We would run to the fifth cherry blossom then turn back. The pink flowers were brilliant among the stark shadows and rich green foliage. This was my favorite time of year, when Limits looked pretty, even just for a moment. In front of the tree stood a child in a white hospital gown. She stared forward, unafraid.
“Hey!” I screamed at the child and slapped the fence to gain her attention.
“Is that…” Zow whispered. Her fingers gripped the metal fence. “Hey!”
“Go get help, Zow. Run. Get my father,” I said, not wanting to take my eyes off the girl.
Zow didn’t ask questions. She bolted from my side. I knew she would run flat out, screaming the entire way. The little girl with long black hair turned toward me. Her cheeks were blistering red. Her lips were plumped up, too full for a child. She tilted her head and smiled then turned and walked toward the thick bush.
“Wait! Come back. No, come back,” I screamed and pounded my hands against the fence again. “Don’t go in there. Come back.”
“Step away from the fence.”
From above me came the voice. I looked up. There was no one there.
“Step away from the fence. Last warning.”
At the top of the pole to my right, a small speaker box hung with a little flashing red light.
Just then my father grabbed my arm and pulled me back with enough force that I stumbled. “Ezra, get away from the fence. I’ve told you to stay away from the wall. They will kill you. Do you not understand that part?”
My father stood almost a foot taller than I did. He had an extra hundred pounds on me. On a good day, he could create fear so deep that it burned my soul. Today, at that moment, I almost vomited. My father had never yelled at me or handled me in such a way.
I tugged at my arm, pointing at the trees. “There was a child, a small child. She was out there.”
My father stopped dragging me from the fence and looked out to the trees. “There’s no one there, Ezra. Stop this before you get us all shot.”
Zow finally made her way back to us. She was not the runner my father was. “Did you see her, Mr. Larkin?”
“Who?” he asked.
“The little girl,” Zow said, looking back to the cherry tree. “Where did she go?”
“Home. Now,” my father commanded, giving me a look that said we’d deal with it there.
All three of us jogged back to my house. No one spoke a single word. Once home, my father didn’t want to discuss it. He said we were mistaken, that it must have been a trick of the shadows. I asked where the Controllers were and why they used a speaker box. Where were the guns to shoot us down? Where were the Officials to scare us into submission? It was the last of the conversation. My father shut me off and walked Zow home. He’d tell her family the same load of crap he had just said to me.
During dinner, not another word was spoken about the young girl, the Controllers or the fact that we both knew he wasn’t being truthful. He was wrong. There had been a child out there. I knew he was wrong and he knew it too. I think there have been many children, wandering around the outskirts of the rings, but someone had to have let them out. If the Controllers had seen me, they also would have seen her. Someone had let her go to her death on purpose. We gripped hands, said a prayer and ate in silence. Our meal wasn’t anything special. It was the same thing I’d had for breakfast and lunch—warmed grains and oats with a few berries. It felt like a brick when it hit my stomach, but I wouldn’t complain. It was more than most had in Limits.
My father checked on me before he went to bed. I could feel his nervousness in the air, like a hot breeze off a forest fire. I swore it blistered my lungs. I knew he was anxious about tomorrow morning. I’d be heading out and there was a chance it would be the last he would ever see of me, aside from the Harvest Ceremony itself. We would be picked up in the morning and taken to Cinder. We would remain overnight and meet again at the celebration. We were told that we would be given a checkup and that it was nothing to worry about. It felt as though a loaded gun was pointed at my temple and I was being told to calm down, that I hadn’t a need to worry. When my father tucked me in, his hands shook and he gave a muffled cry. He was praying to my mother and all her relations to protect me and bring me home. If he was worried, so was I.
I didn’t pray for myself. I prayed for Zow. I prayed she would have the chance to marry and have children of her own. I pleaded with whomever was listening to give Zow a ticket back to Limits. I prayed her children would never see the inside of Ember Gates. I’d like to think my prayers were an unselfish act, but they weren’t. If we both ended up at Ember Gates, it would kill me inside to see her there with me. Even if I wasn’t certain what happened there, I knew it wouldn’t be good. Nothing with the word Ember or Gate ever sounded like a thrilling location. If she were named along with me, my entire world would come crashing down. Then again, if she were named and I wasn’t, that would be the end of it for me. So I could only pray she didn’t go at all.