Monday, August 25, 2014


73,000 words
YA Contemporary

The girls never get a choice. This has always been the way in New Jerusalem, for as long as I've been alive and longer. My father chose my mother, a fact he seldom lets her forget. Now that I am sixteen, and a woman, tonight it is my turn to be chosen. And though the very thought turns my insides liquid, it is more from anticipation than fear.

My mother perches beside me on one of the low benches the men have dragged out into the Mojave Desert. Tonight—and tonight only—we are allowed outside the high, concrete walls of the city.
She holds out a plate piled with sticky rice, some slices of roast lamb, and a crumbling chunk of bread. “You need to eat something.” She raises her voice to be heard above the sonorous chanting booming from big speakers into the open air of the evening.

The smell churns my stomach. This is a feast compared to our daily meals, but I push it away.

“Ruth is over by the food station, with Leah.” She points through the crowd, toward the fire in the distance. “They look as nervous as you. Perhaps more.”

“I’m not nervous.”

Ruth and Leah are terrified of what tonight will bring. They don’t know who will choose them, or whose wives they will become. But I have no reason to share their fear.

Still, my stomach lurches again as I turn away from my mother’s finger, toward the cave opening in the steep red rocks to our right. I’ve never been inside. Like most of our rituals, the men are free to attend, while the women go only once, on their wedding night. Afterward, they are forbidden to speak of it. My own father is the only man I know well enough to ask about it, and he refuses to answer. I can’t imagine why the Ceremony must be shrouded in such secrecy. I can only suppose the proceedings are too sacred to speak of, or too profane.

After tonight, I will be able to ask my husband.

“Surely you can tell me something,” I say, watching my mother’s headscarf twist in the cool night breeze. “The time is nearly upon us. What will it matter now?”

She shifts her gaze from mine. "It's better if you don't know." she says. "The unexpected should feel like a gift, not an obligation.”

“What is one more obligation?”

She must hear the bitterness in my voice, because she sighs and lays a hand on my arm. “Please. Not tonight, Miriam.”

I pull my hand away. “I need to talk to Ruth,” I say, jumping from my seat and spilling the plate balanced between us. “Sorry.”

“Go.” She waves me off and kneels in the sand to clean up my mess.

I hesitate only for a moment. Her body language calls me to help, but the urge to get away is too strong. I pull up my skirt and run, scanning the faces of the girls for my best friend, though it is a half-hearted gesture. Someone else is on my mind tonight.

I skirt the crowd as I run, behind the groups of chattering women and around the booths and tables piled with mouth-watering food. I leave the warmth of the fire, the familiar sounds and smells, until I am far enough into the darkness to see the stars. They decorate the sky like thousands of candles, while back near the Celebration, the smoke from our bonfire climbs toward Heaven like an offering to God.    

I stop only when I have no choice, when the patrolling guards come into view. We are free for this one evening, but freedom requires protection. The rest of the country—the rest of the world—do not live as we do. It is only inside the walls of our communal society that we are safe. Outside, people do unspeakable things to one another.

It is my greatest shame that I have tried to imagine these things. But all I can picture is the vast desert, stretching out beyond me forever; faceless people hovering at the perimeter, bodies contorted, though not in prayer. This life is all I’ve ever known. I was born here, and tonight I will marry someone who was born here, too. We are the Second Generation of Daniel’s Children, and this title carries its own obligations.

I turn my back on the guards and walk back towards the light, my heart pounding loudly in the stillness. For the first time, I am afraid. Not of being chosen, but of being caught—here, on the boys’ side of the fire. From the shadows, I see them all gathered together, shoulders jostling, hands waving. My skin tingles at the sound of their laughter.

They sound just like Ruth and Leah and I.

Girls are not allowed to speak in the presence of boys, and because we are separated whenever possible, they rarely speak in ours. The only time we are together for any length is Sunday, at Chapel. And at Chapel there is no speaking. That is a rule even I have never broken.

I seek out Boaz. He seems illuminated tonight, his skin bronze against the white of his shirt, his eyes bright in the firelight. His voice carries through the night, warm and strong, as I imagine his embrace will be.

His gaze is drawn to mine like a magnet, even in the darkness. There is a heat between us far greater than the desert sun. For a brief second, I worry he will give away my presence. But then he smiles, the corner of his mouth curving like the crook of a finger.

It is an invitation. The tether between us grows strong, and tonight, it sends shivers of excitement to every part of my body. Boaz is going to choose me, and I will finally know what it is like to speak to him. Touch him. Be touched by him.

“It’s Boaz for you, isn’t it?”

I bite my tongue to keep from crying out as my friend, Leah, whispers eagerly into my ear.

“What are you doing out here?”

It is dark this far from the fire, but Leah’s pale skin seems to glow in the moonlight, her freckles scattered like stars across her wide nose.

“I followed you,” she says.

“Did anyone see you?” I peer into the darkness, but can’t see anyone else. If we get caught our here, especially on this night, Daniel’s punishment will be severe.

Leah seems oblivious to my concern as hops from one foot to the other and twists a lock of orange hair around her finger. “I saw you. Watching Boaz. Don’t worry, I won’t tell,” she promises. “I bet he’s going to pick you.”      

Before I can answer, the chanting cuts out and a microphone squeals, the reverberation echoing off the mountain walls. I look for Boaz one last time, but he and the others are moving toward the cave.

“We have to get back,” I say. We’ve been waiting for this night all our lives. “If we are late . . .” I don’t finish.  I don’t actually know what will happen if we are late, but it won’t be pleasant. There is no time for keeping to the shadows.

I grab Leah’s hand and break into a flat-out run, sand dragging our stride and chafing inside my leather sandals.

I don’t see Aaron until I barrel into him. 


  1. I really love the tone you've set here! It's a little creepy, with strong world building that's shown and not told. Awesome! At first I did question that this was contemporary, though I'm assuming your query would set up the cult angle and an agent would expect it. I would definitely read more

  2. This reminded me of The Handmaid's Tale. Good characterization, and I feel like I've already been able to pick up a lot about the world without the details feeling heavy handed at all.

    I like the squeal of the microphone - it's startling. It doesn't seem to fit the archaic society they live in. It raises questions. It makes me wonder what the rest of the world is like outside this city.

  3. I love this so far. The writing flows well, the world is at once detailed and just vague enough to keep the reader interested, and I'm already sympathetic towards the MC. I only take pause at the "contemporary" genre. You mention the Mojave, but so far as I know, there isn't a culture like this living there. You also mention New Jerusalem, so I Googled it, and it looks like this is a prophecy made about a future city where the Holy Temple will be rebuilt (or so Wikipedia tells me). If this takes place in the future, that's definitely not contemporary. I wish I could see the pitch so that I knew for sure what the setting/culture is. Other than that, you've done a great job with this.

    Best of luck!

  4. I would read on just to find out more about the culture--it's intriguing. I like too that you've raised several mysteries: Will she end up with Boaz? What happens if she's caught? Like eachstaraworld, I was confused by the genre. I expect contemporary to be in a mostly familiar culture in the present day. This is lovely, but it doesn't feel contemporary.


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