Love Forbidden

“I could no more control who I loved than how I came into this world.”

My existence is illegal.

In a world that is barren
And children are conceived through IVF
Love is forbidden.
Marriage is determined by the government
And I discovered on my wedding day
That I was conceived naturally.
The government wants me dead.

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Sample Chapter

Lying on my stomach beneath the tall oak tree, the branches covering the morning sun, I glanced behind me at Joshua. He had made himself content, lying with his head in the small of my back. I nearly laughed as he situated himself as if it was completely normal and something we usually did. It wasn’t.

“Comfortable?” I laughed, looking back as his legs stretched out just past the shade, his feet in the sun. My fingers moved through the blades of grass, playing with them as I spoke.

“I am, actually.” He nodded and, though I couldn’t see his movements, I could feel them. It was strange and oddly calming.

“I’m not ready for today,” I whispered, afraid someone else might overhear my fear. I knew no one else was nearby, but I still found it hard to voice.

He reached for my hand, finding my fingers and giving a tentative squeeze. “I don’t think any of us are,” he confessed. “I keep thinking how everything is about to change for us.” He paused before casting a glance at me. I could feel him staring, even as I avoided making eye contact. “We could always refuse the match.”

I scoffed at the idea. “And die in the Gravelands?” I shook my head once. “No thanks.” I wasn’t looking forward to getting married. It was the requirement of the government for those who turned eighteen. Without the system, society would not survive. We had poisoned ourselves, made it impossible to conceive children naturally, and had to trust the government to keep us alive.

I wasn’t the most trusting person.

Joshua moved to sit up. Immediately, I felt the loss of his body’s warmth against mine. “Maybe it won’t be such a terrible waste,” he suggested. “There must be a few guys you wouldn’t mind being matched with?” Sixteen boys and sixteen girls were part of the marriage ceremony; our entire graduating class.

“Right,” I sighed, thinking it over. I knew the boys in our class, but I couldn’t imagine seeing any of them every day, let alone sharing a home with one of them. It was preposterous.

“You’re telling me you’ve never thought about today?” Josh asked with mild curiosity. We’d always known the day would come, that our match would be one of the sixteen from our school. It would be a lie to tell him I never wondered who I’d marry. Joshua smiled brightly. “I always imagined you’d be my match.”

“Really?” I felt the slightest bit of warmth spread across my cheeks that he would want to spend the rest of his life with me.

He laughed, nudging my arm. “No.” I tried not to hide the embarrassment coloring my face as I stared down at the grass. “Come on, wouldn’t that be weird?” Joshua smiled at me. “We’re best friends. It’s not natural.”

I bit down hard on my bottom lip to keep from crying. I didn’t quite understand what I felt, but I needed to keep my emotions from surfacing. Ignoring Joshua beside me, I glanced up from the grass and across the land at the graveyard, my father’s home, just a few yards away.

I closed my eyes, feeling the ache in my heart returning.

“Mom, please, you have to come with me,” I begged. My hands held purple and blue wildflowers I’d spent all afternoon picking with Joshua’s help. Today was the first anniversary of my father’s death, and I wanted to celebrate him in some sort of way.

“I’m not going there. I have too much to do.” She shook her head once and walked into the kitchen, farther away from me. She dug through the fridge, but it was too early to make dinner. She was stalling. Even I could see that.

I followed her, flowers in hand, and placed them on the counter. “What else do you have to do, Mom? What could be more important?” My eyes pleaded with her to come with me to his grave. I wanted to remember him as he was and shower his home with flowers.

“You wouldn’t understand. You’re a child,” she scolded me. “Now get the flowers off the table and go wash up for dinner.”

My hands ripped the flowers from the counter. I took off running out of the house toward the cemetery. Tears burned my eyes and ran down my cheeks as I stomped through the graveyard over dying grass, searching for his resting place.

Finding it, I dropped to my knees, the flowers spilling from my hands. “I’m so sorry, Dad. I wanted her to come, but she couldn’t. She was too busy—you know how she is.” I wiped the tears away as I fixed the flowers on the ground and rearranged them properly. “I love you so much.” I sniffled once, shivering from the cold autumn air, but refused to leave.

My body froze in place, feeling a warm gloved hand on my shoulder. I glanced back, surprised to see Joshua, his blue eyes staring down at me as he sat beside me on the ground. “Hi, Mr. Parker.”

“Olive?” I felt Joshua’s voice in my head and shook it once, bringing myself back. The sun felt warm, and I realized now he’d placed his arm around my shoulder. “You spaced out for a minute.”

“I guess I did,” I whispered, glancing from the graves back down to the grass. I didn’t want to tell him it was a welcome escape from what he’d said just moments ago—that he’d joked about us being matched and then seemed somehow repulsed by it.

He nodded slowly, keeping me close beside him. “There are a few girls I wouldn’t mind being matched with this afternoon,” he confessed, bringing us right back where we started. I wasn’t sure I was grateful for the conversation, but I also didn’t want him to see he’d hurt me. I was sure it wasn’t intentional. He’d been joking. “I just keep thinking, what if they refuse me?”

“What?” That caught me off-guard. It was unheard of to refuse your match. It wasn’t illegal per se, but it might as well have been. If you denied the match, then you were defying the government of Cabal, which ruled our town of Genesis. The law stated someone could choose not to marry, but then the government no longer had the need to represent that person. As such, the unmarried were banished from any and all government cities and forced to reside in the Gravelands. Anyone who was sent beyond the walls without food or transportation would die. It was no secret that starvation and dehydration would likely be the first to kill you. If you didn’t die from lack of food and water, there were plenty of men that would have their way with you—torture, rape, and kill you.

“I’m worried one of the girls might look at me and not want to marry me,” Joshua repeated. He must have thought I hadn’t heard him. I had. I just couldn’t fathom who would ever turn their match down. I’d never seen it happen, but long before I was born, there were stories of it.

“Oh, come on.” I rolled my eyes and nudged him. His grip on my shoulders loosened, and I wrapped an arm around his waist. My head came to rest on his shoulder as I let out a soft sigh. “No one would rather seek death than marry you.” I laughed softly. “You’re not that bad of a catch.”

Joshua laughed under his breath. “Thanks.”

“I’m serious.” I smiled, glancing at him from his shoulder. “You’re a really nice guy. Besides, marriage isn’t like…” I paused, unwilling to finish the sentence.

“What?” Joshua waited for me to continue.

I couldn’t very well confess I’d been reading illegal texts. I chewed my lip anxiously trying to reconsider my words. “Marriage is just about sharing a house and food together. It’s not like it used to be.”

Joshua stared, waiting for me to elaborate. I wasn’t the best consoler. “After today,” Joshua whispered, “you and me, we won’t be able to do this.”

“I know.” I sighed. Just thinking about it made me miss him already. “It’s not like we’re doing anything wrong,” I reminded him as much as myself. We merely spent time together.

“The government won’t see it like that,” Joshua reminded me. “They’d charge us with adultery.” It was an unwelcome reminder of the perfect system.

I knew he was right. It was a dangerous game we’d been playing for years. Although it wasn’t forbidden to befriend a member of the opposite sex, it was frowned upon. I never quite understood why, until today.

Hesitantly, I pulled back, giving Joshua a shy smile. “I should head home before Mom worries.” If I left now, I could shower and be ready in time for the marriage ceremony. “I’ll see you later.” I smiled, giving a wave as I headed through the graveyard toward home. Already I missed Joshua, with his dark hair and eyes as blue as the sky; I felt my heart leap in a strange, unexplainable way. I hated to think that after today I would probably never see him again.

I gazed into the mirror, saddened by my reflection. My hair, though still damp after my shower, was a shade darker than its usual warm honey. My eyes seemed a muted shade of green, duller and less intense, matching my sour mood. I didn’t feel pretty, and if the boy I was matched to would think the same of me, what then?

I missed my father. It had been thirteen years since he’d died. I’d come to terms with his passing, accepted his fate as I had no other choice, and that meant that I was ready for new beginnings.

The only problem was that the government officials had their own minds made up about our fate. My stomach tensed with butterflies as I swallowed my nerves as best I could.

I opened my closet, surprised to find a white gown. My favorite part of the dress was the bottom and sleeves covered in lace. One of the Keepers must have brought it in while I was out. It took only a matter of seconds for me toss my towel and slip into the dress. The white cotton material reached just past my knees. In the corner of the room, on the floor, sat a pair of white heels. I knew they were left for me, but I doubted I’d be capable of wearing them. I slid my feet into the shoes, stumbling slightly as I tried to walk the length of the bedroom. I glanced at my reflection in the mirror; the gown fit perfectly, and, as I twirled, a faint smile spread across my face.

“You look beautiful.” My mother grinned as she watched from the door. Our school uniforms were usually muted gray. Work attire was provided by the government, based on job position, but white was never a color. It was reserved for the marriage ceremony. I felt incredibly awkward in a dress. However, I knew the other girls would be wearing the same thing and took comfort in their pain.

My blonde hair was down past my shoulders, and my mother ushered me into her bathroom, grabbing her hair dryer and curling iron. “Are you excited?” She chattered away as she dried my hair and then curled the ends, barely leaving me time to speak. “I bet you’re thrilled. I remember my marriage ceremony like it was yesterday. Your father looked so handsome when he came up on stage. All I could think about was how lucky I was to have the government choose him for me.” She let large curls hang several inches past my shoulders before nodding in approval when she was finished. “Oh, one more thing. Almost forgot!” She held up one finger to tell me not to move.

“Mom?” I called back, wondering where she went. She rushed back to me, bringing a bobby pin and purple wildflower into the bathroom. It took only a minute for her to clip it into my hair.

“Perfect.” She admired her work before ushering me out the door. “You can’t be late!” I rolled my eyes and groaned in protest. I knew I shouldn’t be mad at her, but it was hard not to be. I dreaded what the afternoon would bring.

As we walked outside, our neighbors did the same. Those with children in the graduating class joined at the front of the stage, and their families were just behind them in the city square. Those not participating stood farthest back and watched with great admiration. Gradually, I approached the front and walked up the stairs as I took my place on the stage. The girls from my class all gathered, one by one. My eyes searched the crowd for a recognizable face to calm my nerves. I spotted my mother standing proudly alone. My eyes scanned the front row of potential candidates. They were all dressed the same in midnight black suits. It took less than a second to find his dark brown hair in the crowd. Joshua’s blue eyes pierced through mine. Was he as nervous as I felt? He looked good. I wanted to give him a smile or a brief wave, but all I could do was lock eyes on him as we stared at one another.

I knew I should be happy, but all I could feel was nauseated. I swallowed the bile rising in my throat. I felt as though I’d been tossed on a ship in the middle of a hurricane, swaying violently from side to side. On one side is Governor Craynor and the other is the husband I’m forced to marry. My stomach shifted in waves, and my skin grew ashen and clammy. My hands trembled as I tried to stay strong, but I felt as though I was failing miserably. I let my mind wander as I did my best to calm my nerves. If I had the choice, who would I choose to marry? Glancing toward Governor Craynor, the thought vanished as he studied the list of names on the sheet in front of him. I was the fourth in line—the fourth to be chosen and married off today. I knew I shouldn’t be nervous, but not knowing what awaited made me want to vomit. I studied the sixteen faces in the crowd of familiar boys. I was sickened to think I could be married to Levi Keller, the most obnoxious and gross boy in school.

I grimaced as my teacher Ms. Steiner informed us we would be reading in pairs. We had just learned our alphabet last year, and I wasn’t the strongest reader. I didn’t even like reading, but Mom would occasionally sit me down with the Genesis Times to read what our government told us was going on in the world. In Ms. Steiner’s class, we had textbooks. I sat beside Levi, trying my best not to be repulsed. His hair was dark and matted down to his skin. Though I knew his natural color was blonde, it had been a long time since he’d bathed. Dirt showed on his face and hands. I raised my hand, hoping Ms. Steiner would call on me. She ignored me. I would have played sick, asked to go to the nurse because I wasn’t feeling very well. I didn’t think she’d believe me, but I didn’t want to sit next to Levi. He reached toward me, poking me in the arm

“Why’s the hand up, Olivia?” Levi’s eyes narrowed and he tilted his head, studying me. “Afraid I have germs?” He laughed and the rest of classroom erupted in nervous laughter. They all must have felt it, too, mustn’t they? No one ever wanted to be paired with Levi Keller. Today I was the unlucky chosen one. I felt my cheeks redden in embarrassment. He scooted his chair closer to me, and the putrid stench made my stomach somersault. Maybe I really would get sick and go home.

“Forget it,” I muttered. I was better than this. Better than him. He couldn’t scare me. I grimaced when I felt him push the edge of the book into my arm. I knew he did it intentionally.

“Start reading, Olivia.” He pushed the open pages in front of me. “One of us has to do the work. It isn’t going to be me.” He smirked as I studied the letters on the page. I leaned closer, trying to focus, quietly sounding out the words as I felt him grip onto my pigtails and pull.

“Oww!” I squealed as the pain radiated up into my head.

He snorted like a pig, mocking me.

I jerked around, my fist finding his face as I punched him once. That was all it took for Ms. Steiner to scold me and send me home for the day.

I didn’t want to imagine a life tied with Levi because the government thought we were the perfect match. My eyes scoured the stage and then the mass of people standing before us. I could deny the match, but what then? I’d be immediately escorted to the gate and left on my own to die out there alone. I’d never see my mother again.

There had to be another way. Pretending to marry would at least buy me time to pack some food and water. I could say goodbye or maybe even convince my mother to come with me. She’d understand, wouldn’t she? Then we’d climb the wall or find a way to forge through the entrance. It was an impossible task, but less revolting than marrying Levi Keller.

The governor read off the first name, “Janessa Becker,” and a silence filled the city square as anticipation flowed from the boys waiting to see who would marry her. She was a nice enough girl with porcelain skin, auburn hair and freckles. She’d never done anything wrong to me, but we weren’t best friends. The governor adjusted his spectacles while reading the names. “Martin Scavenger.” A soft clapping erupted through the crowd whether they wanted to celebrate the news or not. Martin caught sight of Janessa and stepped away from the boys and made his approach toward the stairs. The governor waited until Martin made his way up the platform and stood before Janessa before reading off the second girl’s name.

Two additional girls’ names followed, as did the boys’. None of the girls had been paired with Levi. I knew my turn was next and held my breath. Levi was a bully. In all our years of schooling, he’d never changed. I’d witnessed him pick on the younger children at the playground. Maybe I should have stopped him. Maybe I should have stood up and done something different. I couldn’t change the past any more than I could change where I was right now.

Governor Craynor read off my name next. “Olivia Parker.” I stood awkwardly, staring down at the boys who were still available. I could deal with most of the other boys in school. Marriage, though, seemed like such a long time with someone you had to tolerate. My eyes scoured the crowd, seeing a guard a few feet from my mother. What would happen to her if I refused my match? I knew the guard was watching the ceremony and not standing by the gates because his daughter was on the platform today, to the right of me. Was he not still on duty? He was dressed in the black Cabal uniform with a gun slung over his back. I doubted he would be so forgiving.

Did Governor Craynor remember me from all those years ago, reading my father’s eulogy at the funeral? He hardly interacted with the townspeople. He liked to stay holed up in his mansion. For a system where everyone was treated equally and provided the same things, Governor Craynor lived in the largest, most elegant home in Genesis, the Governor’s Mansion. It wrapped around the street with a private swimming pool in the back, and several people in town worked for him, cooking and cleaning. It was no secret that he thought of himself as better than us. I had no idea what he did as governor, but I didn’t imagine it involved much work. His responsibility was supposed to be to the people. I couldn’t remember a time when he’d ever done anything to help the people of Genesis. He seemed more about controlling us and instilling order. I doubted he had any real training to be a leader and half-wondered how a man of such power came into the position of governor. I couldn’t remember a time when anyone else had ever watched over our town. I knew there were other governors in the other cities, but didn’t know who they were. Once a year, sometime in the early spring, there was a Governor’s Ball when they’d all visit our town. Very little work was done—mostly it was an elaborate party to celebrate how fortunate we all were.

I despised Governor Craynor. I had no personal reason to hate him; he’d never spoken directly to me, and I doubted he ever would again after today. He was plump and graying, and his voice was gruff. I was almost certain as he spoke I could hear a slight slur in his speech, and wondered if he’d had too much grog. I’d heard of people getting sick from grog, but I’d never tasted it, nor had I ever seen it in our home. The government provided our food—it was unlikely the people would ever get anything more than we absolutely needed.

I realized I had let my mind wander and glanced back at Governor Craynor as he used his spectacles to read the name of the person I would be marrying. He took a moment, and I was sure the air had left my lungs and I would pass out. My heart quickened and my eyes widened as I leaned forward. My hands were visibly shaking, and I felt more than just nervous, I felt sick. I gasped as I heard his name: “Joshua Warren.”

I couldn’t believe what I heard. Had I imagined it? Joshua walked down the aisle past the other boys and headed for the stairs, an eager smile on his face as he slowly approached me. I never imagined Joshua being the government’s match. I could see it in his eyes as he stood facing me. He felt it, too—relief.

I didn’t listen as the governor finished calling the girls’ names and their matches. Instead I reached out, taking Joshua’s hand in mine. I glanced down at our hands together and felt my breath quicken as the world seemed to pause around us. No one else followed my lead. Everyone stood there awkwardly, putting on their best smile, pretending to be happy. It was a big adjustment today, for all of us. We live in one of the better cities. We are of the few lucky ones, or so we’re told. I hardly felt lucky, yet standing there with Joshua was more than I could have hoped for. I glanced toward my right and saw the marriage ceremony continuing. It all felt like the perfect dream.

Once the last couple was called, the ceremony continued to our vow exchange. I followed the lead as, one by one, each girl who stood to the left of me twirled in a circle. As it was my turn, I followed suit, twirling and stepping out of my heels, absently missing my footing. I nearly fell to the floor as Joshua reached out to catch me. A slight gasp emitted from the town. My face flushed red from embarrassment, and I knew I’d made a mockery of the vows exchanged for marriage.

The governor laughed it off. “Children.” He shook his head, “You are no longer that today,” he chided, scolding us for our actions. He stared at me, his gaze lingered, waiting for me to further disobey him. Did he think I did this on purpose? I merely nodded as the governor continued the tradition and gestured for the next girl beside me to twirl. Down the line, all sixteen girls had followed suit and then the boys all took a step forward and then a step back. Each boy, now considered a man, held out one hand, and if we accepted them as our husbands we gave them our hands in marriage. One by one, each girl accepted. As the ceremony came to a close, the crowd softly clapped and one by one the new couples walked off the stage and down the aisle toward their respective families. I took Joshua’s hand, still surprised by the sudden turn of events. I had feared what today would bring, that marriage would be the end for me, and instead it was clearly the beginning.

“We should go find your mother,” Joshua told me, squeezing my hand as he dragged me through the crowd.

Joshua’s family found us first. His mother, Rebecca, grinned excitedly. “We’re so happy to have you in our family!” She squeezed me tight in her arms, and I knew she was being honest. Most families accepted this as fate, but his mother would never lie. It wasn’t part of her nature. His father reached out and shook my hand with a faint nod. I glanced around, wondering where my mother was, when she pushed her way through the crowd toward us.

“Mom!” I reached for her, pulling her close to me, thrilled with how things had turned out. Just hours ago I was terrified about getting married, but it hardly seemed so bad now that it had been to Joshua.

“I have to talk to you later,” she whispered into my ear as her eyes glistened with tears.

“What’s wrong?” I frowned, not understanding what she’d want to talk to me about. Was she upset with my match? I couldn’t believe that was the case. Whatever it was could wait. It would have to. I glanced around at the other girls from my class. They looked less than thrilled. I was happy, though—nothing could dampen my spirits.

After visiting and receiving several rounds of congratulations from our family and the town, we headed toward our new home together. My stomach was a flurry of butterflies. I’d never spent a night away from my bed and now I was to live in a new home with my husband.

Joshua smiled and opened the door for me as we stepped into our new home. Our families would bring our belongings, though we didn’t own much. The government provided food and furniture. The fridge was perfectly stocked, exactly like the one back home. It was mildly refreshing to feel at ease. All the worries that had surfaced vanished as I stepped inside our new home together. Even the house smelled the same as the home I grew up in with my mother. How was that possible?

I glanced around. Our place was small and quaint—a two-bedroom government-issued house. The layout was precisely the same as my childhood home. Everyone in our stature received the same goods, and it was considered fair and right. No one questioned such authority. No one had need or reason to. The government seemed to know what was best for the people. I’m not sure I always agreed with their means, but people in our city had homes and food. No one starved if they followed the rules. It was meant to be fair.

“So, what do you think?” I heard his voice behind me and jumped.

Joshua took a tentative step back to give me some space. I laughed it off, shaking my head. “Sorry. I’m just not used to you being in my house.” In all the years we’d been friends, we’d never once set foot in one another’s home. It was forbidden.

Joshua laughed, glancing around. “Well, it’s our house now.”

After a beat, I glanced at him with a faint smile. “My mother mentioned she wanted to tell me something after the marriage ceremony. She might stop by this evening.”

Joshua nodded. “That’s fine. I’m sure she’ll come by before curfew.”

I chuckled softly. “I would expect so.” Breaking curfew meant, at the very least, a flogging. It was rare for adults to be whipped. Mostly children and teenagers were the ones punished for being out past nine.

Joshua rested his hand on my back, guiding me to the sofa to sit down. It was the simplest and lightest touch, but it sent a shiver coursing through me. “Any idea what she wanted to talk about?”

I shook my head. “She seemed worried to tell me in town,” I remarked. “She’s my mom, though, and I’m sure, whatever it was, she had her reasons.”

“Do you think it has anything to do with your father?” Joshua asked and immediately my eyes widened. The thought hadn’t so much as crossed my mind. He’d been gone for over a decade.

“I don’t know,” I whispered resting my hands in my lap and staring down at them. I glanced at Joshua curiously. “What could she possibly tell me about him that I don’t already know?”

There was so much I hadn’t known about my father, Gavin Parker. He had died when I was five in a fire at his work. I hadn’t asked the specifics. I was too young to know them when it happened, and talking about it never made me feel any better.

Joshua glanced at me. “Maybe he wrote you a letter before he died?”

“It’s not possible. I mean, he died in a fire, Josh. It would have burned with him. Besides, there is no way my mother could have kept something that big from me.” I felt hopeful, though—even just the slightest bit—at the notion he could have written me a letter for the day I got married.

Joshua smiled reassuringly. “I’m sure, whatever the reason, it’ll be a good one.” He was always so optimistic.

I knew he had to be right. Why give me bad news after the marriage ceremony? It seemed not only unlikely, but unheard of. Watching him, I reached out, taking his hand as my thumb brushed against the back of his palm. “Do you ever wonder what it’s like outside of the walls?” He had to feel the same curiosity.

Joshua smiled weakly at me, glancing down at our entwined hands. “I’ve climbed a few trees, but they’re never taller than the gates. There’s no possible way to see over the walls.” He wasn’t the only tree climber.

We only knew what was in the Gravelands from the stories we’d learned in school and the slideshow projection of rotted corpses in the desert. Every year, they showed us new footage to remind us that we were better off inside Genesis, taken care of, protected. Those few that roamed the Gravelands were outlaws, horrible men who would rape and pillage anyone who crossed their paths. You were lucky to die of dehydration or starvation first.

I knew it was impossible to see beyond the wall. Only couriers were granted access with permission to return. I had no chance of being assigned this position; couriers were always men.

“What else have you done that you’ve never told anyone about?”

Joshua laughed. “Well, let’s see. Do you remember the cow that had red stripes painted on it?”

My eyes widened, remembering Mr. Mercurial’s cow. He was one of the few people who had fresh milk that wasn’t brought in from a neighboring town. One night the cow was completely ordinary, the next day it had bright red stripes painted all over it. Thankfully, the paint washed off, but I had always wondered who had pranked Mr. Mercurial. “You did that?” I never knew Joshua had a bad bone in him.

Joshua laughed, seeing my jaw on the floor. “Well, for the record, he deserved it.”

I shook my head. “The cow didn’t deserve anything. Mr. Mercurial might have, but I can’t believe you did that. I also can’t believe you didn’t tell me sooner.” I nudged him.

Joshua grinned, his eyes shining as he stared at me. I shifted my head slightly as it rested against his shoulder. I could smell him as he sat beside me. He smelled sweetly of almonds and milk. Had his story made me imagine the scent? “Your turn to tell me a story,” he said. I could feel his breath against my skin.

I nodded faintly but didn’t move from his embrace. It was warm and comforting as I closed my eyes. “Let’s see.” I tried to think of a story that wouldn’t break the banter between us. I was enjoying ou

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