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Authors: Elisa Nader

Escape from Eden

BOOK: Escape from Eden
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ESCAPE FROM
EDEN
ELISA NADER

Avon, Massachusetts

For Brent and Cici

“A fool’s paradise is a wise man’s hell!”
Thomas Fuller, 1608–1661

Contents

Title Page

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Acknowledgments

Copyright

Chapter One

“False prophets!” the Reverend Elias Eden yelled into the dented microphone. “False witnesses! False apostles!” With every furious word, sweat flew from his brow, disappearing into the blinding fluorescent lights overhead.

He’d begun tonight’s prayer service as he did every evening, scowling down at the congregation as we sat on hard wooden benches under the protection of God and a sloped tin roof. Beyond the pavilion’s pillars, the sounds of the jungle at night came to life: the chirping of frogs, croaking of toucans, and the incessant buzz of insects.

“Move over,” Juanita whispered to me, placing her hand on my shoulder.

Her skin was cold. A welcome shock in the soupy heat. I glanced up at the Reverend. His eyes were now squeezed shut in passion, arms thrown out from his sides, momentarily blind to his Flock below.

“Deceitful workers,” the Reverend said in a low voice. “Deceitful accusers of true faith … ”

“Mia, move,” Juanita said, eyes flicking around the pavilion, and to the stage.

As I scooted to my left, a splinter lodged in my thigh. I swallowed down a yelp. The last thing I wanted was the Reverend’s full and pious attention on me during evening prayer. With a wince, I lifted the hem of my skirt, plucked the splinter out, and threw it on the wooden floor. A bead of red blood formed.

Aliyah plopped down between Juanita and me, out of breath, and bowed her head. She smelled of thick grease and bleach. She was late because of dinner cleanup duty.

“False brethren,” the Reverend said and opened his eyes. “And even false worshippers. How do we detect a truth from a falsehood? How do we avoid deception and lies and allow the true light to shine on us?”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. I had endured six years of sermons and preaching. Six years of being told what was right and what was wrong, and the Reverend was never in the wrong. Under the harsh lights, the Reverend’s doughy face looked even paler than usual, highlighting the broken capillaries that spidered across his nose and cheeks like a web. A perpetual sheen of sweat slicked his brow. Why he had a full beard–a wiry ginger beard–in the middle of the jungle I couldn’t guess. Although I’d imagined countless times how I’d draw him, mapping the page in slivers of intricate lines, I never did. My sketchbook was sacred.

And I suspected the Reverend Elias Eden wasn’t as sacred as he believed he was.

“Mia,” Aliyah whispered to me, “I got the call.”

I turned to her. Her black hair was pulled into a series of ponytails with colorful holders like gum balls placed at the base and end of each. We’d known each other since we were little girls, and in the six years we’d been friends she still had her nine-year-old hairstyle. She peeked at me through her braids. Her brown eyes were alight with excitement.

Because getting the call only meant one thing.

“The Reverend invited you to Prayer Circle?” I asked.

Juanita’s head whipped toward us, a flurry of dark curls falling across her face. “What?” she whispered.

“In ancient times,” the Reverend boomed, “in the great city of Ephesus, the people were tempted to worship Diana, the goddess whose temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world … ”

Aliyah bit down a smile and nodded. “My dad got the invitation right after dinner.”

“But there were all sorts of dark things in the shadows of this temple. Magic, sorcery, astrology! Sexual immorality and crime … ”

Juanita met my gaze over Aliyah’s head. For the Flock, it was a coveted invitation, an invitation neither Juanita nor I had received yet, even though we were a year older than Aliyah. Secretly, though, I was relieved. Initiation into Prayer Circle opened up a new chapter in life at Edenton: courting with a person chosen by the Reverend, which would end in marriage and proliferation of the Flock. I didn’t want to be with anyone, though. I only wanted one thing, and an attachment to another person would get in the way.

The Reverend raised his hands, as if fighting off invisible forces. “False idols tempt us—they are present in everything. Money is idolized. Beauty is idolized. Churches themselves can become idols! A church is a gift—a means to an end, but churches become idolatrous when made ends in themselves … ”

“When do you go?” Juanita whispered. Her eyes, the color of the blackest peppercorns in the Edenton kitchen, expressed a mix of envy and concern.

“Thursday night.” Aliyah grinned, her teeth white against her ebony-pink lips. “Will you help me make something pretty to wear?” she asked me.

“Uh, sure—”

“Ssssh,” Bridgette hissed from behind us. Loud enough for the Reverend to tear his divine focus from the rafters and skate his eyes in our direction.

We dropped our heads.

The Reverend continued as if we hadn’t disrupted him. “Edenton was created to shelter us from these temptations and keep our focus on the worship of our true God. Now let’s bow our heads in a silent prayer of thanksgiving.”

“Silent prayer of thanksgiving, Mia,” Bridgette hissed.

I half-turned my head and gave her a sneer. Bridgette glared at me from beneath her perfectly blunt-cut golden bangs. As I turned back, I caught Juanita shaking her head at me, a definite
don’t stoop to her level
in her eyes. It was hard not to. Bridgette was so—so Bridgette.

I kept my head down, mind wandering off as I let it do during silent prayer. The Reverend didn’t control my thoughts. They were my own. But most times I couldn’t help the guilt and the fear that weighed on me. If anyone knew—if Reverend Eden knew—that I wasn’t spending this time praying, I didn’t want to think about the consequences.

After our prayers, the Reverend spoke. “My children,” he said in a low voice, perched on the edge of his wooden throne.

It was painted an iron gray. The color, and the gold-painted emblem on the chair back—a majestic tree surrounded by a gilded fence—symbolized Edenton. My uniform dress was the same serviceable gray, starched so stiff at the collar it itched. The Edenton emblem was stitched in white over my left breast, ever-present over my heart. But the Reverend didn’t want control of just our hearts. He wanted our minds as well.

The Reverend’s shock of bright ginger hair danced against the dull color of the chair. “Tonight we welcome more sheep into our Flock with open arms and open hearts. Edenton is about leading an honest life, a peaceful life, one that we devote to God and each other. And it is indeed a pleasure to welcome new members into the Flock of the Promised Land.”

He outstretched his hand. A dark ring of sweat circled the underarm of his blue shirt. He always wore shades of blue.

Three people climbed the stage steps at the right and stood next to the throne. The Reverend pushed himself up and waved a thick-fingered hand at the woman first. She came forward. Her hair was the color of sand. She was tall, and eyed the Reverend down her long, pointed nose.

The Reverend was a big man, overweight in a community of people who tended to be lean and strong. Food was plentiful, but we worked and trained hard. We attended physical training classes, daily. We ate fruits and vegetables from the gardens. Jake the Chicken Man watched over the coops like a tyrant; Enrique and his brother Angél oversaw the fishing nets at the shore. Every week, a shipment of grains, water, medical supplies, and other necessities came in from a nearby city. Like all the teenage girls in the compound, I worked in the kitchen, cooking and serving meals. The Reverend, though, rarely ate with the congregation. He was usually served meals in his cottage.

Reverend Eden shook hands with the woman. Her grip seemed sturdy. The man next to her, whom I assumed was her husband, wore expensive but disheveled clothing. His shirt was rumpled, shorts crooked, one hem higher on the knee than the other. He shoved his glasses up on his nose, then greeted the Reverend with a friendly enough smile.

The Reverend moved to shake hands with their son, but the boy jerked away. I smirked with mild satisfaction. Reverend Eden’s bushy brows furrowed at the snub, but he covered it up with a hearty laugh. The congregation laughed too, because that’s what the Reverend wanted; emotion shared, even if it was forced.

“Ah,” Reverend Eden smiled, his teeth the color of fishbone. “What a gift it is for us, to welcome into our family one of God’s strong sons. Isn’t it?” The congregation agreed with hollered yeses. “How old are you, my child?”

“Seventeen,” the boy said in a steely tone.

From my seat, I could see his chest rise and fall rapidly against the fabric of his shirt. Like his parents, he wore nice clothes: a clean red T-shirt, cargo shorts with a lot of pockets, and expensive-looking sneakers that had mud only on the soles. He scanned the congregation as if he wanted to fight each and every one of us with his bare fists. I hadn’t seen that kind of intense anger in anyone in a long time.

“Wow,” Aliyah whispered. “He looks so mean.”

“Cute and mean,” Juanita said, flicking a glance where the boys our age sat in the congregation. “Cuter than the other boys.”

“Your brother is sitting over there,” I whispered to her.

“And? I don’t need to think my brother is cute.” She peered at me through narrowed eyes. “Only you do.”

“Your brother is cute,” I said.

Octavio, her brother, was to court me after our first Prayer Circle. He was sweet and thoughtful, and we talked sometimes, when we could. It was rare to have time to talk to the boys in Edenton.

“I don’t think the new boy is mean,” I whispered, refocusing the topic on the boy onstage. “He doesn’t want to be here.”

“Who wouldn’t want to be here?” Aliyah said, shaking her head.

Me.

“My children,” the Reverend went on. “Tonight we welcome Daniel, his wife Evie, and their son Gabriel into the Eden family.”

The congregation exploded into hallelujahs. Once everyone quieted, the Reverend continued with the welcoming ceremony. We spent over an hour in the pavilion, sitting, standing, kneeling, singing.

But all I could do was stare at Gabriel. I imagined what we looked like to him. Two hundred men, women, and children in stiff uniforms gazing up at the Reverend with tired eyes. It was already late, past our normal bedtime. I looked out beyond the pillars of the pavilion and watched one of the Edenton security guards saunter in and out of the shadows along the tree line. His gun, slung lazily over his shoulder, caught the light before he disappeared into the darkness between the trees.

After the ceremony, everyone dispersed. Gabriel fled the stage before his parents. Juanita and I watched as he shoved his way through the crowd, while Aliyah went on and on about Prayer Circle.

Once Gabriel had disappeared down the path leading to the boys’ cottages, Aliyah, Juanita, and I walked toward the kitchen. It was my shift to prep for breakfast in the morning. The three of us sauntered along the dim walkway, in and out of the pools of light thrown by lamps, in silence. The night air was humid, heavy with the cloying scent of frangipani. I could feel the exhaustion weighing on my shoulders. The ceremony had gone on later than expected, and I longed to crawl into my bunk.

BOOK: Escape from Eden
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