Freedom comes at a cost...
Ella was genetically engineered to be the perfect pet-graceful, demure...and kept. In a daring move, she escaped her captivity and took refuge in Canada. But while she can think and act as she pleases, the life of a liberated pet is just as confining as the Congressman's gilded cage. Her escape triggered a backlash, and now no one's safe, least of all the other pets. But she's trapped, unable to get back to Penn-the boy she loves-or help the girls who need her.
Back in the United States, pets are turning up dead. With help from a very unexpected source, Ella slips deep into the dangerous black market, posing as a tarnished pet available to buy or sell. If she's lucky, she'll be able to rescue Penn and expose the truth about the breeding program. If she fails, Ella will pay not only with her life, but the lives of everyone she's tried to save...
The Perfected series is best enjoyed in order.
Book #1 Perfected
Book #2 Tarnished
Book #3 Unraveled
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About the Author
Kate Jarvik Birch is a visual artist, author, playwright, daydreamer, and professional procrastinator. As a child, she wanted to grow up to be either a unicorn or mermaid. Luckily, being a writer turned out to be just as magical. Her essays and short stories have been published in literary journals including Indiana Review and Saint Ann's Review. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah with her husband and three kids. To learn more visit www.katejarvikbirch.com
Read an Excerpt
By Kate Jarvik Birch, Heather Howland, Victoria Andreas
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Kate Jarvik Birch
All rights reserved.
This wasn't freedom. This room, with its dingy walls and small, square window, was just another cell. Another cage. Only this time Penn wasn't here to love me. Or to help me get away.
This time, I'd have to escape on my own.
I cracked the door and peered down the hallway toward the desk at the end of the corridor. I hadn't even taken a step yet and already my heart thundered against my chest like it, too, longed to escape. There was still one more item I needed to find before I could leave this place.
There were nine other girls — pets — in the refugee center, and I knew they were in the common room watching television the way they did every night. I waited until the main light down the hall switched off, signaling all but one of the workers had checked out for the night. Only the small glow from the lamp that sat on the desk in the reception area lit the room, casting the hall in shadow.
The people who ran this place were nice enough, with their order and their routine. They probably thought it was kind of them to make one of their personnel available at all times, just a few steps down the hallway if we got scared or had a question. But to me, it felt like they'd positioned a prison guard to watch over me.
I closed the door behind me. All I needed to do was stroll past the reception desk the way I'd practiced for the past six days. To the woman sitting there, I would look like all the other girls: small, unsure, lost in this big world. She would only see the things I chose to show her.
Not that there was much left of me to show.
When my world split in two, after the U.S. police dragged Penn in one direction, while the Canadian officers pulled me in another, a part of me felt like I stayed tethered somewhere across the border, waiting for Penn to come walking across that bridge, no handcuffs weighing down his wrists, no bright red gash across his forehead. Just him, whole and well and complete. But with that half of me gone, I couldn't think straight anymore. There was only space for one thing: getting back to Penn.
I crept forward. On my left, the door to the common room was open. The other girls sat side by side on the small couches. The television's blue light flickered across their faces. It had been almost a week, but I still couldn't remember their names. There was no room in my mind for formalities.
"Good evening, Ella," the woman at the reception desk said, setting down her magazine as I approached. "Everyone else is watching the season finale of Pro Chef in the common room. Don't you want to join them?"
"I'm planning on it." I smiled, praying she couldn't see the way my pulse pounded in my neck. "But I was hoping I could convince you to make us some popcorn again. I've been craving it since you served it the other day."
She grinned and clasped her hands together. All you had to do to make one of the workers happy was to ask about food. It was the easiest way to distract them. They were excited by any sign that we were starting to fit in, but nothing thrilled them more than showing interest in their favorite foods.
"Let me see if we have any." She pushed back her chair and practically bounced toward the small kitchen down the hall.
Her excitement stabbed me with guilt. I'd already taken three things, but it wasn't getting any easier. The staff here had shown me nothing but compassion. In return, I'd stolen from them.
You need to find Penn. You need to make sure he's safe. The mantra I'd repeated to myself for the past week washed away my doubt.
I could still see Penn and the fear in his dark eyes as they pulled him away from me. I always saw the same thing, whether my eyes were opened or closed, whether I was alone or someone was speaking directly to me. I couldn't not see his face, the worry, the fear, the sadness. Sometimes I wanted to rub my fists into my eyes to make it go away.
But in this moment, I clung to it.
I held still, waiting for the woman to round the corner before I stepped behind the desk. On the top shelf was a row of books. They weren't the kind Penn's little sister, Ruby, had on her bookshelf, ones filled with stories of cursed kings and clever heroes. Most of these were marked along the spine with a common word. My reading skills were still almost nonexistent, but I remembered the letters that Ruby had taught me. I could still feel the sound of them inside my mouth as if they'd left a residue there, and I knew that if I stared at these words long enough they would start to turn into something, even if that thing was only the leftover taste of hope.
It had taken me a day or so to figure out what it spelled. At night I traced the letters on my palm, trying to sound it out. C-A-N-A-D-A. Canada, my newest cage, but if I was lucky, it might also spell my passage back.
I plucked the smallest book off the shelf and quickly flipped through it. Yes, some of the pages were packed dense with words, but the first few were covered with the thin, colored lines of a map. They weren't the same as the one Penn had looked at when we drove from Connecticut to the border, but they had to be similar.
Down the hall, a door slammed. I quickly slipped the little book into the back pocket of my jeans, pulling my T-shirt down over the top of it, and hurried toward the common room.
It wasn't the television show that I noticed when I walked in — it was the girls. The blue light still flickered across their faces but instead of sitting side by side on the couch with a dazed expression, they now kneeled in front of the television, so close that they could reach their fingers out and touch it. None of them turned to face me when I walked in.
I stared at the screen, trying to figure out what could possibly hold their attention this way. The camera showed a crowd of reporters standing in front of a small stage. Atop it, a podium was filled with microphones.
"What are you —" I began to say, but then the camera panned over to the side of the stage where the crowd was parting and through the sea of people, Congressman John Kimble stepped forward, looking as confident and impressive as I'd ever seen him.
A cold jolt shot through my body and instinctually my hand flew to my pocket. In it, the collar the congressman had given to me burned like a lit beacon. The delicate gold pendant was the only material remnant left over from my life at his house. A reminder of where I'd been and why I'd left.
I stepped away from the television, but before I turned, something caught my eye and the terrible sickness in my stomach lifted, replaced with the electric rush of adrenaline. Standing just behind the congressman's left shoulder, in a crisp navy suit, was the congressman's son.
My heart leaped and I stumbled forward. I needed to be closer to him. It didn't matter that it was only an image on the screen. Reality smudged around the edges, leaving only the two of us. I closed my eyes and I was next to him, lying on the cool, mossy flagstones inside our garden. His fingers traced the shape of my arm as a breeze stirred the top of the pond, sending a ripple across the surface. I rolled against him, feeling the heat of his skin soak into mine ...
The television screeched, startling me. I blinked at the screen, at the sight of the sound crew adjusting the microphones. Once they finished, the congressman took his place behind the podium. Penn, stony faced, stayed glued to his side.
"Thank you for coming out," the congressman said, addressing the crowd of reporters in front of him. "This has been a difficult week for our family."
Our family. My owners.
He sighed and glanced to the side of the stage where the rest of his family stood. My attention had been so consumed with Penn that I hadn't even noticed the congressman's wife, Elise, or his daughter, Ruby. My heart swelled, seeing her sweet little face surrounded by crazy brown curls that her mother had obviously tried to tame. But the sadness in her big brown eyes couldn't be tamped down the way her hair could. I swallowed back a lump in my throat, knowing how much she must be missing me.
"As I'm sure you've heard, our family has had someone very dear taken from us. Our Ella was a part of our family, and having her stolen has left a big hole in our hearts."
The sound of my name on his lips made my legs weak and I took a small step away from the TV. Lowered myself back down onto one of the sofas.
His cold, dark eyes pierced through the television screen. Was he talking to me? None of it made sense. The congressman knew that Penn and I had run away together, yet there they were standing shoulder to shoulder, as if they were one big happy family.
"It's no secret that I've been a strong backer of Bill 467 since its inception," the congressman went on, "and in doing so, I've put myself, and my family, under attack from a diverse group of extremists. They call themselves the Liberationists, an insulting knockoff of our great country's tragic history, but they're nothing but zealots. They have no regard for the law. No regard for life. This is a frighteningly dangerous group that hides behind vitriol and false rhetoric. They're nothing short of homegrown terrorists, and I compel anyone listening to be on the lookout. If you suspect that someone close to you might be involved in one of these organizations, I urge you to reach out to the authorities."
"What does he mean by 'terrorists'?" one of the girls asked. "They're trying to save us, not hurt us."
Behind the congressman, Penn stood, eyes glazed. He gave no impression that he was even hearing what his father was saying.
I glanced between the girls' faces. Did they understand? Did they know that it had been Penn who had helped me escape? Did anyone know, or had I dreamed it all?
As if he'd read my mind, the congressman turned to Penn, placing his hand on his shoulder. "Our family isn't exempt from blame," he said. "My son's actions played a part in the loss of our dear Ella, and he's here with me today to ask for your help in returning her to us."
The congressman moved aside as Penn stepped up to the podium. For a moment he simply stared down at the microphones, unblinking. The camera zoomed in on his face. From the outside he looked like a perfect example of a congressman's son. His tousled dark hair had been tamed, and his clothes had been pressed. But even though someone had obviously styled him to look this way, something about him looked ... wrong.
There were dark circles underneath his amber eyes that someone had tried to mask with makeup, and even though his hair had been combed down to cover the cut above his eyebrow, the skin beside his eye was still tinged with the sunset hues of an old bruise.
I wanted to reach out and stroke the hair back from his forehead, to press my lips to his injuries as if my kiss could heal him, could make him whole.
Finally, Penn gave his head a small shake and looked down at the notecards that he'd been clutching. He spread them out on the podium. "Thank you all for coming here today," he said. "My family hopes that by speaking out we might not only help inform some of you about the misconceptions of Bill 467, but also find a way to bring home our pet."
He sounded different. Flat. His voice normally sounded like laughter was about to push its way out at any moment. But it only sounded tired as he began detailing the ways that people had been misinterpreting the law.
"Even though these pets seem human in every way, they were scientifically engineered to be companions," he read from the cards.
I cringed at his words. Seem human. What was that supposed to mean? I was a human. Penn, of all people, knew that.
My hands quivered in my lap, thinking of the way his fingers had felt interlocked with my own. No one could tell me we were that different.
"It's easy to forget that they're pets," he went on. "I know it was for me. They look like us and they've been trained to interact with us. Those of you who've had a chance to meet one know that they're capable of intelligent conversation, but the same is true for robots or chimpanzees for that matter."
We all cringed and one of the girls sucked in a shuddering breath, covering her eyes with her hands.
"I don't know if I can watch any more of this," one said, reaching to turn off the TV.
"No, stop." I scooted forward, pushing her hand away. I didn't want to hear another hateful word from Penn's mouth, but somehow it seemed even worse not to hear it.
"He's not ..." She looked from the TV to me, the realization that I was the one they were talking about spreading across her face.
"This isn't like him," I said. "Those cards ... Someone told him to say this!"
"I had a chance to talk to the scientists at NuPet," Penn continued. "They told me that, because of the extensive genetic modification they undergo, pets can't be classified as humans. They use test tube insemination and incubation. They're raised in kennels and training centers, not loving homes. They've taken away the human element, not just from their genes, but from the process. They're ... bred. Grown. And pets grown in labs aren't capable of being fully human." He lowered the cards. "NuPet has made all the data publically available. You can see for yourself."
My eyes stung and I shook my head, trying to tune him out. These couldn't be Penn's words. They couldn't.
"... help us bring home our pet, Ella."
My ears perked at my name. Penn's voice changed ever so slightly. I'm sure no one else noticed it, but I did. I did. The dullness that had weighed down his speech slipped away, if only just for a moment. I stared at the screen, willing him to say my name again. To say anything that sounded like himself.
"My family won't rest until she's returned to us and that's why we'd like to announce a hundred thousand dollar reward for her safe return."
The girls stared disgustedly at the screen, even though any one of their owners would probably pay exorbitant sums to have them returned. They just hadn't announced it on television.
Penn's hands shook and the notecards he held fell to the ground. He lifted his eyes, staring into the camera for the first time.
"My father will do anything to get her back. He'll find her and he'll bring her home," he said. "I promise."
The intensity in Penn's eyes pushed me back in my seat and before I knew it, the woman from the desk was beside the television, switching off the screen. The happy look on her face was gone.
Her jaw clenched. "It's going to have to be a 'no' on the popcorn. Television isn't a good idea, either," she said. "Please return to your rooms for the evening."
The girls nodded, obedient as always, and headed for the hallway. I didn't take my eyes off of the black TV screen. In it, my own reflection stared back at me, but I would never forget the look in Penn's eyes. The other girls might not have seen it. The world might not have seen it. But I did. And I knew it was meant for me.
"Are you okay?" the woman from the counter asked, placing her hand on my shoulder.
I pushed back the urge to brush her hand away. "I'm fine."
"Do you want me to call your counselor? I'm sure she'll come in. That's what they're for, to help you through tough times like this." She sounded like the video they'd shown me at orientation.
"No. I'll be fine. I think I just need to lie down for a minute."
I stood. The small rectangle of my stolen book still burned in my pocket. I didn't need sympathy. I didn't need to talk to one of their counselors. I didn't need a life skills class or a lecture on self-sufficiency. I just needed to get out of there.
Get the book. Get back to my room while everyone was busy watching TV. Gather up the handful of items I'd stolen to get me back to Penn, and leave. That had been the plan. Not this.
In my room, I shut the door and latched it. It was only a small privacy lock. It wouldn't keep someone out for long if they really wanted to get in.
I slipped the case off of my pillow and shoved the book inside. Then, lifting the corner of the mattress, I fished out the other items I'd collected. A thin, black wallet was the first thing I'd taken. I slipped it, far too easily, out of the back pocket of the man who had come in to speak to us about becoming Canadian citizens.
I opened it, the way I'd done every night since I'd taken it. I knew all its contents by heart: the bent picture of two small boys, the worn business cards, twenty-seven dollars in bills, a few laminated cards with the man's sad, unsmiling face staring back at me. I plucked out the cash, shoving it into the front pocket of my jeans. Everything else, I left inside.
Excerpted from Tarnished by Kate Jarvik Birch, Heather Howland, Victoria Andreas. Copyright © 2015 Kate Jarvik Birch. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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