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       Hare Moon, p.1

           Carrie Ryan
 
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Hare Moon


  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Text copyright © 2010, 2011 by Carrie Ryan

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in slightly different form in the collection Kiss Me Deadly: 13 Tales of Paranormal Love by Running Press Teens, an imprint of Running Press Book Publishers, Philadelphia, in 2010.

  Delacorte Press is a registered trademark and the colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.

  Visit us on the Web! www.randomhouse.com/teens

  Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at

  www.randomhouse.com/teachers

  eISBN: 978-0-375-97999-6

  Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.

  v3.1

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Copyright

  First Page

  About the Author

  It’s because the paths are forbidden that Tabitha always finds her way to them. Despite the Sisters’ warnings about what lies beyond the village fences, she’s tired of being trapped. Tired of being told what to do all the time. Tired of hearing that the village is all there is of life.

  She wants something more. Needs something more.

  The fences exist, the Sisters tell her, to keep the dead at bay. Tabitha wonders whether they might also serve to keep the living docile and trapped. Lately she has begun to understand the claustrophobia of an unexplored life, and the only time she breathes easy is when she thinks about what might lie outside her tiny existence.

  The first time she opens the gate it’s on a dare with herself, to see if she’s truly strong enough to follow through on her awakening desires. She touched the gate once, as part of a bet when she was seven. To win she kept her fingers wrapped around the thin coil of metal for ten seconds, watching the dead shuffle toward her with vacant hunger.

  As she counted off seven … eight … nine … one of them reached out to her, ran his thumb over her knuckles, trying to pry her grip from the barrier.

  She made it to ten, won the bet and had nightmares for a month. Until recently, the fence and path have been nothing but off-limits stretches of treacherous, forgotten land unfolding from the village proper. There is no such thing as life beyond the fences, Tabitha has been told her entire life.

  Except that now she’s not sure she can accept this edict.

  As she approaches the gate, she’d like to believe that she isn’t terrified. That she isn’t hesitant. That the dead along the fence don’t frighten her, with their broken fingers reaching, always reaching, and their moans calling for her.

  It’s the sound of them that gets to her—the way it invades every part of her life. She hears them in her sleep, in her daydreams, during chores and services. She hears them when she’s praying to God.

  And on the path there’s no escaping the Unconsecrated. They stumble along the fences on either side of her, pushing and pulling the rusted metal. She’s never known need like that in her life. Doesn’t understand it.

  Yet she recognizes it as more intense than anything she feels now, anything she has ever felt, and she begins to realize she wants to feel it as well.

  Tabitha knows there are rules and that rules are meant to be followed. Every morning she attends the services at the chapel and every evening she recites her prayers. She respects her parents, cares for her younger siblings and completes chores without complaint. Well, without too much complaint.

  During the winter months she does as she’s asked and smiles demurely to the eligible young men her age, wanting one to choose her for a wife.

  But they never do.

  Tabitha’s okay with this, though. Because it isn’t the young men who call to her at night. It’s the Forest. It’s the whisper of the trees that there’s something else, outside the fences. That there’s still a world that’s bigger than any she could ever comprehend and all she has to do is find the strength to go after it.

  At night she tosses and turns in her bed, listening to the Forest. Wanting it. Needing it until her cheeks burn red and tears run from her eyes. And in the morning she slows her steps as she passes by the gate on an errand. She promises herself that tomorrow she will sneak through it. Tomorrow she will taste the world beyond.

  The first time she actually crosses out of the village and onto the path she pauses and waits for the siren to wail. The sound of the gate hinges screaming as she pried them open still sits too heavy in the air, and there’s a moment of absolute terror as she realizes that she has taken an irretrievable step and broken a rule inviting unimaginable consequences.

  But she doesn’t turn back. Instead she takes one step forward and then another, until she is fully through the gate. She waits, moving only to breathe, and when no one comes after her, she experiences an elation unlike any she has ever contemplated.

  This is true freedom, she thinks, feeling the draw of liberation. This is what it means to believe in yourself and reach for what you most desire.

  She stays on the path for only a moment, the Unconsecrated coming near to press against the fences on either side. She stares down the path to where it disappears into the Forest and she wonders what lies on the other side of the forbidden horizon.

  Tabitha knows enough to slip back through the gate quickly, though, and seals it shut as flakes of rust scatter from the abandoned metal latch. The feeling of those few moments, of being bare to the world beyond, vibrates through her, a new energy that ebbs too fast so that she immediately craves it again.

  After that day she crosses through the gate again and again. She’s timed the Guardian patrol just right so that she knows when to slip away, when to sprint down the path. And the lightness of freedom is unlike anything she’s ever known. It consumes her.

  Sometimes she tells herself she won’t ever go home. Yet she always does. Because she’s a good girl, and there are still some rules she’s not ready to break. But she’s not so “good” that her skin doesn’t start to feel tight and itch, as if her body’s shrinking and the only thing that will release the compression of it is to escape to the path.

  So she does, pushing farther and farther into the Forest. She learns to ignore the Unconsecrated, who follow her every step; learns to listen instead to the way the wind tickles its way through leaves overhead, and to the chirps and whirs of birds.

  The sun feels brighter and the shade cooler in the Forest, and she starts to wonder why it’s off-limits. She likes that she doesn’t have to think about what’s next when she’s on the path: it’s just one step and then another, and the fences keep her moving straight ahead.

  One day, she walks far enough to find a second gate and she stands for a long time staring at it, wondering if she should go through or if it’s a sign that she’s wandered too far.

  She sets her hand on the metal latch, feeling a pattern of rusty prickles beneath her fingers. She still hasn’t decided what to do when a voice calls out to her. “You’re here,” it says.

  Startled, she runs her gaze through the Forest and down the path and finds a pair of eyes looking back at her. A young man approaches the gate from the other side.

  Not expecting anyone else to be on the path, especially a stranger, she needs a moment to find her voice. “I am,” she responds as quickly as she can, because to show her confusion and shock would make her appear weak. Tabitha never likes to appear weak. “Are you expecting me?” she asks, suddenly not sure whether she’s awake o
r asleep.

  She notices that the young man has his sleeves rolled up and his forearms are exposed. She’s seen forearms before, of course, but there’s something different about his. Something so informal and intimate about the sloppiness of the sleeves pushed to his elbows, as if it’s an invitation to push a finger underneath the fabric and tempt the sensitive skin there.

  The sun glows off the blond hair covering his arms. His fingers look long and tan, curled slightly as he stops on the other side of the gate. “Not especially, but I’m glad you’re here,” he says. She looks up from his arms to his face.

  He’s smiling at her, eyes slightly crinkled because the sun is at her back.

  “I think …” She tilts her head and ponders for a moment because she doesn’t like to be rash with her words. “I think I am too.” She grins at him.

  She learns that his name is Patrick and that he comes from another village in the Forest.

  “I didn’t know there were other villages in the Forest,” she says, but she has to struggle not to let him see what this knowledge does to her, how it makes her blood pump furiously through her body. Growing up, she was told that they are all that was left. That her village is home to the only survivors of the Return.

  She was told it is her sole and sacred duty to continue the path of humanity.

  “Quite a few of the villages are gone,” Patrick explains. “But there are enough left that we’ll survive.”

  Neither of them opens the gate between them, and as Tabitha walks home in the late afternoon, her thoughts run wild with the newly learned reality of her world. It’s as if she’s spent her life kneeling on the ground, staring at a rock, and suddenly she’s standing, staring at a field full of stones.

  She wonders what it would be like to fly. To see the entire world at once. She runs through the Forest, arms out, with fingers almost—but not quite—brushing the metal links of the old fences. She realizes that the world might be hers to know after all.

  They have agreed to meet at the same gate on the second afternoon after the full moon each month. Tabitha spends the between days lost in dreams. Her mother starts to scold her for burning dinner. Her younger brother skins his knee one day when she’s not paying attention. She barely remembers the words to the prayers she’s asked to recite at services.

  But she’s alive. And she wants to grab everyone around her and scream that there’s a world that’s more important than any of these daily toils. Yet she doesn’t say a word because she fears that they will lock the gates. Lock her from the path, and from Patrick.

  The next two times they meet, neither opens the gate. They stay on their respective sides and tell stories. She rolls onto her back on the path and stares up through the canopy of leaves and watches how the sun caresses each one as Patrick tells her about his dreams.

  Sometimes she closes her eyes and wonders what it would be like to walk through the gate and run away with him. And sometimes she imagines bringing him home with her and claiming him as hers.

  At the end of their third meeting, he laces his fingers through the links of the gate and she laces her fingers through his and they sit that way for an afternoon, feeling each other’s pulse fighting.

  He brings her a gift at their next meeting: a worn book with pages as soft as feathers. She opens the gate to take it from him. She’s astonished at how small it is, how compact. The only books she’s ever seen are copies of the Scripture in her village, thick heavy tomes with paper like onionskin.

  “It’s my sister’s favorite,” he tells her. “I thought you might like it too.”

  She reads the little book three times before their next meeting, trying to understand what it means. It’s about a house and a woman and her husband, who, she discovers, may have drowned his first wife. It’s lush and dangerous and makes her body pound and pulse.

  “Why would a man be so cruel to his wives?” she asks Patrick after the next full moon.

  He looks at her with his head tilted. “It’s just a story,” he says. “It’s made up—fiction.”

  She nods but she’s frowning because she still doesn’t understand what that means, and he pulls her into his arms to ease her worries.

  In the winter she tells him about Brethlaw, the celebration of life and marriage at her village. He opens the gate and she walks through it and now they tangle together under blankets, surrounded by snow that floats through the air and melts against their skin.

  He traces his finger down her spine, weaving between her bones. “Would you leave your world for me?” he asks.

  “I might,” she tells him. She wonders how the world ever fell apart with this much love in it.

  Tabitha’s parents are unhappy with her. She’s not focusing, they tell her. They remind her that if she doesn’t find a husband soon she may be left with no option but to join the Sisterhood, like her friends Ruth and Ami. And while this might have been an effective threat in the past, she just bites back smiles because she knows there is no man or god for her other than Patrick.

  Patrick’s not at their meeting spot. It’s the first time he hasn’t shown, and Tabitha wraps her arms around her body and paces little circles in the freezing rain. She walks through the gate and sprints down the path, wondering if he’s hurt or lost, but there’s no sign of him.

  She goes home confused and empty. Where before she felt too big for her skin when she walked around her village, now she feels too small. Her body doesn’t work the way it should—she’s clumsy, tripping when she walks. Nothing is right anymore.

  The next month she checks the moon, making sure she knows exactly when it’s at its fullest. She’s so anxious to go to Patrick two days later that she’s not as careful as she should be. One of the Guardians sees her placing her hand on the gate to the path.

  He takes her to the Cathedral and the Sisters whisper in a tight little knot while her parents stand to the side, white-faced and silent. No one will marry her now, they know. She’s a dreamer, and dreamers need to be broken to the will of the Sisterhood.

  Her parents don’t object when the Sisters proclaim Tabitha one of them. She puts on the black tunic and combs her hair from her face into a tight bun. She stands with Ruth and Ami, and listens to the enumeration of her duties. She bows her head and recites the prayers, but that is not where her mind and heart are. They’re on the path, waiting.

  Tabitha spends the next month planning her escape. Soon she can’t sleep anymore and she’s memorized every detail of her room. She’s tired of the stone walls, the stone floor, the tiny window looking over the graveyard, beyond which the dead roam the fences. She thinks she might understand a little now why they moan. She thinks she might understand the pain of such intense desire. It brings tears to her eyes that never seem to go away.

  She starts to wander through the Cathedral in the darkness of the too-early morning hours. She counts the windows, she counts the benches and cushions and even the stones in the floor. Anything to stop thinking about pregnant moons and Patrick and the feel of him trailing a hot finger down her spine.

  She’s tracing her own finger along a crooked crack in the Sanctuary wall, remembering the feel of his skin against hers, when the crack dips behind a curtain and she follows it. There’s a door there, and she doesn’t hesitate before pushing it open to reveal a long hallway. She wanders down it to another door, this one thick and banded with metal.

  It’s dark and she has no candle and it’s late, and Tabitha spends a long while staring at that door before she turns around and goes back to bed. The moans of the Unconsecrated whisper her into the deepest sleep she’s felt for ages.

  The next night she doesn’t even change into her sleeping gown, but instead waits in her black tunic for the Cathedral to fall silent. She takes the candle and flint from beside her bed and goes straight to the curtain in the Sanctuary, her heart pounding so hard that her fingers shake from the force.

  She sneaks down the hallway, her footsteps disturbing a thin layer of dust, and this time
she doesn’t pause but goes immediately through the metal-banded door. It leads to a set of stairs, and she descends, the air growing dank and thick enough that the light from her candle barely penetrates it.

  She’s in a basement and it smells like dirt, tastes like the wet rot of fall. Rows of wooden racks march through the large room, some cradling old grimy bottles but most just barely withstanding entropy. There are no other doors and no windows, no escape from the heady mustiness.

  Along one wall hangs a curtain but Tabitha already knows this trick. She pulls it aside and finds another door, but this one is locked. She tries every way she knows, but she can’t open the door. Eventually she gives up and goes back to bed, but this time she cannot sleep.

  Soon, to Tabitha, the locked door behind the curtain in the basement becomes like the gate blocking the path. She knows she must go through it. And as with the gate, she makes her plan carefully.

  She offers to take on the chores assigned to Ruth and Ami, cleaning rooms and scrubbing walls and floors, using them as an excuse to rifle through drawers and cabinets. She finds dozens of keys and she tries them all but none work.

  The next time the moon is full she thinks about abandoning Patrick in the Forest. It’s been months since she’s seen him, and she’s angry and hurt and broken. Sometimes she’ll pull his book out from under a loose stone in the wall of her room and she’ll flip through the pages, wondering if all men are so cruel; if love is like a spring bud that blossoms and bursts in a bright hot color and then wilts and dies, never to return.

  Two days later, she spends the afternoon torn. She finds herself sneaking away and walking toward the gate and then turning back. She doesn’t know what’s right. She doesn’t want to give up the hope of Patrick but she’s not sure she’s ready to deal with the pain of him either.

  It frustrates her that he occupies so much of her mind. Even when she tries to think of other things during the day, he invades her dreams at night and she wakes up sweaty and alone. The second night after the full moon is no exception. She crawls from her bed and carries her candle to the gate and walks the path through the Forest to their meeting spot.

 
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