Taken by Erin Bowman - Read Online
Taken
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Fans of Incarceron by Catherine Fisher and Variant by Robison Wells won't want to miss this magnetic first book in a gripping dystopian sci-fi series. Marie Lu, New York Times bestselling author of the Legend trilogy, raves that Taken is "an action-packed thrill ride from beginning to end. More, please!"

Gray Weathersby has grown up expecting to disappear at midnight on his eighteenth birthday. They call it the Heist—and it happens to every boy in Claysoot. His only chance at escape is to climb the Wall that surrounds Claysoot. A climb no one has ever survived . . .

Published: HarperTeen an imprint of HarperCollins on
ISBN: 9780062117281
List price: $9.99
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Taken - Erin Bowman

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PART ONE

OF HEISTS

ONE

TODAY IS THE LAST DAY I will see my brother.

I should be spending these remaining hours with him, but instead I’m in the meadow, watching a crow pick at the carcass of a half-eaten deer. The bird is a filthy thing: slick black feathers, a beak of oiled bone. I could wring its neck if I wanted, sneak up on it and crack its frail frame between my palms before it even heard me coming. It doesn’t matter, though. Crushing the life from the bird’s small body won’t save my brother. Blaine’s been damned since the day he was born.

Just like me. Just like all the boys in Claysoot.

I stand abruptly. The crow, startled by my movement, lifts briskly into the early morning light. I send an arrow after it and miss, mostly on purpose. Truthfully, I’m no better than the crow, scavenging what I can, hoarding any bit of meat that will feed our people. If my black hair were feathers, I might outshine even the bird’s gleaming darkness.

There’s nothing much left of the deer. The corpse is hollowed out, animals having feasted on the belly. A hind leg appears intact, but there are too many flies. I don’t want people getting sick. It’s not worth the risk. Especially not today. The last thing we need on the eve of a Heist is more stress and worry.

I reshoulder my pack and let my feet carry me back toward the forest. My boots know the way, and as their leather soles press against familiar footpaths, I think about Blaine. I wonder what he’s doing right now, if he’s sleeping in, clinging to the remnants of a carefree dream. I would guess not. Too much looms before him. He was still in bed when I left for the woods before dawn, but even then he was muttering in his sleep.

I have only two quail from my morning in the woods, which will be more than enough for lunch. Blaine probably won’t even have an appetite. The Heist tends to do that to people, especially the boy of age. Eighteen is far from a celebrated milestone, and come midnight, Blaine will unwillingly greet his fate. He’ll vanish before our eyes, disappearing the way all the boys do when they turn eighteen, as good as dead. I’m terrified for him, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared senseless myself. Since Blaine turns eighteen at midnight, it means I turn eighteen just three hundred and sixty-four days later.

It was fun to share a birthday when we were younger. Ma gave us what she could: a whittled boat, a woven hat, a metal pail and shovel. We galloped through town and made everything our playground. Sometimes it was the stairs leading up to the Council building, others the tables of the healing Clinic, at least until Carter Grace shooed us away, hands on her waist and curses escaping her lips. Our antics rendered us well-known throughout town. We were the Weathersby brothers, the boys with too much zest for life in such a gray place. That zest didn’t last forever, of course.

You grow up quickly in Claysoot.

By the time I hit the hunting trailhead and make my way from the forest, it is midday. I pass two boys playing near a small fire as their mother hangs laundry on a flimsy line behind their house. One is very young, maybe four or five. The other can’t be older than eight. I smile at the mother as I pass by, and though she attempts to return the gesture, her grimace is less than convincing. She looks aged, beaten down, even though I suspect she is no older than twenty-five. I know it’s because of the boys. I bet not a day goes by that she doesn’t wish they were girls, or at least that one of them was.

I run into Kale outside the Council building. She is playing on the steps, tugging behind her a wooden duck that Blaine and I played with as children. It was a gift from our father, before he was lost. We were both too young to remember the toy being given to us—or even our father, for that matter—but Ma said he carved it himself, whittling the thing from a single piece of wood over the course of three months. The duck is showing signs of age now, a chunk missing from its bill and an uneven chip running the length of its tail. It clunks awkwardly down the steps, never landing right side up as Kale skips to meet me.

Uncle Gray! she exclaims. She is a small thing, not even three yet. Her nose is still soft pink, a tiny button stitched into the center of her face. She beams as I approach.

Hey there, Kale. What are you up to?

Taking Ducky for a walk. Mamma said I could. She pulls at the wooden toy behind her and it plunks onto the dirt road. Where’s Pa? She stares up at me with those bright blue eyes of hers. They look just like Blaine’s.

I’m not sure. Why don’t you come with me to the market? Maybe we can find him together. I offer her my hand and she takes it, pudgy fingers wrapping around my thumb.

I miss Pa, she mumbles as we move along.

I smile at her, but there’s nothing else to say. It is moments like this that make me feel lucky. I am not Blaine. I am not turning eighteen. I am not a father. I will not disappear when someone needs me most. If Kale misses Blaine now, when he’s merely at work or still asleep, how will she feel tomorrow, after the Heist? How can I explain that to her? How can anyone?

The market is bustling as always. Women and girls are there, trading herbs and cloth and vegetables. There are boys, too, all my age or younger. Some hoist freshly caught game onto tables, others tools and weapons or livestock gear, but everyone is trading for various goods. Kale fidgets behind me as I barter with Tess, an older woman who sells cotton and clothing sewn at the textile shop.

I know, Tess. I know one bird doesn’t amount to a new jacket, I admit as I set one of my quail before her. But remember two weeks ago, when I gave you rabbit for next to nothing because you were in a bind?

Gray, you know I’d be out of business if I made every deal based on kindness alone.

It’s for Blaine, I say, rubbing my thumb over the wooden buttons on the jacket. It’s made of heavy cotton, streaks of dark brown and black running through the material. He’s always wanted a good jacket, and I wanted to give him one for his birthday, even if he can only enjoy it for a day. I pretend to admire her handiwork but peer from beneath my bangs to see how she reacts to the thickly laid-on guilt. Tess bites her lip anxiously. She knows as well as anyone that tonight Blaine faces the Heist.

Oh fine, take it, she says, thrusting the jacket at me. But we’re even now.

Of course. I take Kale’s hand and we leave the market, a new jacket thrown over my shoulder and the remaining bird still dangling from my hip.

Kale continues to pull the wooden duck behind her as I lead the way toward our place—Blaine’s and mine. It sits on the southern edge of the village, set back from the other homes where it is quiet and peaceful. I frown, realizing that in less than a day’s time it will no longer be our place but mine.

Aw, what a precious sight! Chalice Silverston stands before us, sneering. Father and daughter, out for one final stroll perhaps?

I raise my head and glare at her.

Oh. Hey, Gray. I thought you were your brother. She’s seen my eyes at this point, the one thing that differentiates me from Blaine. His eyes are blue and vibrant. Alive. Mine are stormy, so colorless that I was named after their dreary hue.

I grunt audibly but don’t feel like arguing. I want to focus my efforts on enjoying this last day—if that’s even possible.

"What’s the matter, Gray? Feeling a little under the weather?" she drawls. Gray Weathersby. Under the weather. She’s been flaunting that play on words since we were children, and now, after hearing it a million times over, I’ve had enough.

Chalice, you better shut that hole in your face before I make you, I snap.

Oh come on, Gray. You’re just bummed about your big brother. Sad and moping because he’s going to be up and gone in a matter of hours.

That strikes a nerve. Anger rages into my chest, surges against my rib cage. I couldn’t care less that we went to school together, spent days sitting in the same classroom. I forget that she’s a girl and that I probably shouldn’t hit her. I react automatically, dropping Kale’s hand and throwing my fist into Chalice’s cheek. She deserves it, all of it. I hit her again, this time in the stomach. We end up in the dirt, flailing. A few strikes later someone yanks me off Chalice and pushes me aside.

Get ahold of yourself, Gray. I roll over and find Blaine standing above me, his eyes filled with disappointment. Sasha Quarters, Kale’s mother, stands behind him. I can taste blood on the inside of my lip and my jaw throbs. Well, good for Chalice, having the nerve to actually sock me back.

You’re crazy, Chalice says through a mouthful of blood. Absolutely crazy.

But she . . . I look between her and my brother. She was mocking you, Blaine. She doesn’t even care about the Heist.

Blaine frowns. I don’t give a crap whether she cares about me or not. I’d rather know why my kid brother is beating up a girl half his size. You okay? he asks, turning to Chalice.

This is why everyone likes Blaine better than me. This is why they’ll all miss him but barely notice when I’m gone. He’s calmer and has a better heart, looks at the whole of things. But me, I’m reckless, always reacting to some feeling in my chest.

I sit in the dirt and wipe the blood from my teeth as Kale runs to hide between Sasha’s legs. Sasha’s older than Blaine but doesn’t look it. I think she’s nineteen or twenty now, only it’s hard to tell because she’s so damn pretty. When Blaine had first been slated to her, I’d been jealous. Months later she was pregnant and that jealousy instantly turned to relief. That was when I started being careful with my own slatings, avoiding them when possible. I never want to be a father. Ever.

Sasha helps Chalice hobble off. I watch as they go, wondering how Blaine can stand it: how Kale lives with Sasha while Sasha continues with the slatings. Blaine’s left floating on the outskirts of the picture as if he doesn’t matter, which is a pretty standard treatment. Boys are important to an extent, but sooner or later we’re all gone, so no one bothers getting attached. Children get the father’s last name, but that’s about it. They live with their mothers; and the boys, well, the boys just drift.

Where are they going? I ask.

Blaine offers a hand and pulls me to my feet. To the Clinic. You need to go, too?

Nah, I’ll survive.

Good. You deserve whatever pain follows. He smirks and punches me in the shoulder. It hurts more than it should. And then his face changes, grows stern and parental.

You can’t do stuff like that, Gray, he scolds. He still looks disappointed, which is worse than his being angry. You’re always lashing out before you even attempt to understand others. Chalice has dealt with a lot of pain and suffering. Of course she hates the Heist. And is bitter. And says rude things. She’s lost three half brothers in the past two and a half years. That’s not an easy burden to carry.

I roll my eyes. That doesn’t give her the right to mock the losses of others.

Blaine sighs and gives me a look. A big brother look. An I know best look. Then he stoops to retrieve the jacket I bought for him. When he straightens up, he looks tired. I don’t want to argue with him. Not today. Not on our last day.

That jacket’s for you. I nod to the dirty lump in his arms. Happy birthday. For a second he looks elated and then somewhat terrified, but he shakes the look of fear from his face and pulls on the jacket.

Thanks, Gray. His smile is back. The friendly, brotherly one.

You’re welcome.

It’s all we say. There are a lot of other things that could fill the silence, but they’d all be meaningless. We both know what’s coming and nothing will change it, least of all words.

We walk the rest of the way home together, Blaine wearing his jacket even though the summer sun is quickly warming the land.

I’m going to miss you, I say, squinting in the light.

Gray, don’t even start with me. His tone is more pained than angry, as if discussing his fate for the hundredth time this week might finally break him.

Maybe we can run? Hide? We could leave tonight and live in the woods.

And then what? We can only go as far as the Wall, and the Heist is unavoidable no matter where I am.

I know. But maybe if we go over the Wall. Maybe there’s more.

Blaine shakes his head sternly. There is no more.

You don’t know that.

"Every person who climbs over the Wall winds up back on this side, dead. If there’s anything more, we’d see it for two seconds before meeting our own end."

If the two of us go together, it could be different. Like when we hunt. We’re better together, Blaine. I’m practically begging at this point. This can’t be it. Life can’t really be so short.

Blaine pushes his hair out of his eyes and buttons the jacket high about his neck. No boy makes it past eighteen, Gray. The Heist is going to happen whether we want it to or not. Don’t make this any harder than it has to be.

We both know he’s right and we enter the house together, in complete silence, for the very last time.

TWO

TODAY IS A SERIES OF lasts. Our last lunch. Last afternoon tea. Last game of checkers. After tonight it will be over. After tonight, he’ll be gone.

Blaine picks up one of his dark, clay tokens and jumps over two of my wooden ones. I finger the lines of the game board carved into our table as he collects my fallen pieces, smirking.

It’s hard to believe his Heist is already here. It feels like the years flew by, like I must have missed a bunch of them while blinking. The moments I remember with clarity are the milestones of our childhood. Starting school, learning how to hunt. Xavier Piltess taught us over the course of a muggy summer when I was ten. He was fifteen and had his own bow. He sat in Council meetings and got to vote on important issues, and he knew exactly how much a rabbit could go for in the market compared to a deer or wild turkey. The way we saw it, there was no question Xavier couldn’t answer.

Until, of course, he was Heisted as well.

By the time I was thirteen, Blaine and I were selling game regularly in the market and helping Ma in the textile building twice a week. A year after that, Ma caught a chill that even Carter and her medicines couldn’t chase away, and the two of us carried on alone.

As customary, we became men at fifteen, attended Council meetings, and were eligible for the slatings. It’s strongly encouraged, of course, for the boys to make their rounds in Claysoot and follow through with slatings. I’ve always felt a little torn about it, though. Not that it isn’t enjoyable—it always is—but I’ve grown to hate the moving around, sleeping with one girl only to be pushed at another. There’s a level of comfort that is always missing. Each encounter feels like a formality and one that could far too easily result in fatherhood. While I hate the routine, I understand why the Council shoves us at a different girl each month. If we don’t want to die out, there’s really no other option.

Blaine was always a year ahead of me in these milestones, always leading the way, setting the example. When I was uncertain or scared or confused he’d set me at ease. And now he’s just hours away from being gone forever.

Gray? Blaine’s voice pulls me from my thoughts.

Huh?

I think I’m going to go to the blacksmith shop. I need to stay busy.

No, don’t go to work. Let’s at least finish this game.

Blaine touches one of his game pieces but pulls his hand back without moving it to a new square. I can’t do this ’til midnight, Gray. I’m too anxious.

I’ll come with you, I offer.

He shakes his head and points at my chin. You should get your jaw checked out. It looks worse compared to this morning.

I notice for the first time it’s already late afternoon. Had we really been playing that long, or are all lasts quicker by nature?

Fine, I say. I’ll stop by the Clinic.

He nods in approval, almost the way our mother used to, and then tosses my pack into my lap. He pulls on his new jacket, even though the air is now oppressive and heavy, and tousles my hair before leaving. I sit there, staring at the game pieces, Blaine’s clay tokens far outnumbering my wooden ones. Our last unfinished game.

He would have won.

The Clinic has several beds, separated by thin curtains that hang from wooden rods running the width of the building. The curtains aren’t being utilized when I arrive and I can see that Carter is not in. Her daughter, Emma, is there though, reorganizing a set of clay jars on the shelves at the far end of the room.

I’ve known Emma since we were kids. Our mothers had been close, mostly on account of how sick I was as a child. Ma once told me that I’d seen nothing but the inside of our house until I was a year old; and throughout that time Carter visited often, fussing over me and working her magic. Whatever she did, she did it well. Half of Claysoot still stares at me like I’m some sort of miracle, like it should be impossible to be so sick as an infant and still come out on the strong side of healthy.

Ma and Carter remained inseparable through most of my childhood, and as a result, I spent a lot of time with Emma. Sometimes Ma brought Blaine and me to the Clinic and we chased Emma around the wooden tables until she cried mercy. Other days, when Carter had less work, she brought Emma over to our house and we entertained ourselves with games like checkers and Little Lie.

Emma was a scrawny thing back then, but she kept up with us. If we were getting good and dirty in the streets, she tagged right along. If we were climbing trees and scuffing our knees on rocks, she boasted the same battle scars. And even though we spent countless hours together as children, Emma was always closer to Blaine. I’ve never been able to shake the jealousy, but I suppose I brought it upon myself. When I was six and the two of them seven, I pushed Emma over and stole the wooden toy she was playing with. She favored Blaine from that day forward, and naturally that’s when it started. As soon as she favored Blaine, I favored her.

At first it was a childlike thing, but my affection never faded. I watched her change over the years, abandoning her thin frame for the curves that now fill out her dresses. She’s become increasingly pretty as she nears eighteen, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in no one else. I’ve made my rounds in the slatings, but I’d be kidding myself if I said I didn’t want just Emma. I guess it’s fitting that I’ve never been paired with her. I probably don’t deserve it.

Is Carter in? I call out.

She’s making a house call, Emma replies, answering my hopes without even looking at me. Give me a moment and I’ll be right over.

I sit on an empty bed and rub my jaw, wincing as my hands find an open gash. Blaine was right. I definitely need to have it looked at.

I watch Emma as I wait, admiring how her steady fingers pluck jars from the shelf with ease. She moves so quickly but smoothly as well, her hands confident from years of administering care. They never falter, never slip. Her eyes, too, are focused, darting back and forth. Every time I look into their brown depths, I feel something in my chest heave.

Eventually, when the jars are organized to her liking, Emma meets me at the bed. She has a beauty mark on her right cheekbone, and it almost looks like a single tear escaping down her face.

I should refuse to help you. After what you did to Chalice and all. Emma has a soft voice, calm like winter’s first snowfall.

She deserved it, I say surely.

You’re lucky that I believe all injured beings deserve to be healed. She looks at me, puzzled, her head cocked as if she is studying a wild animal. I know what she’s thinking. It’s what they all think: How can I look so much like Blaine and be so different?

She takes my face in her hands and examines my chin. The open cut stings, but I focus on her touch instead, her fingers against my skin. When she is satisfied with her inspection she turns her back on me and begins to mix various ingredients in a shallow bowl. I watch her crush them, her forearm and shoulder flexing. She finishes, wipes her hands on her apron, and faces me again.

One scoop should do, she says. She passes me the bowl, which now holds a pasty mixture. Rub it on the inside of your mouth, near the gash. It will numb the area, and I need to stitch up that cut.

I scoop a small handful of the mixture with my fingers and apply it as Emma instructed. Almost instantly, the