Clarisse McClellan, a pale, dark-eyed girl of about seventeen, peeks through the curtains at the nighttime world outside.
If I am going to leave after all, she thinks to herself, scanning the deserted streets and rows after rows of dark houses, I think I should leave now. At least everyone is inside.
She had been planning her escape for a long time.
Unfortunately, for her, there wasn't any other way. At school, she was labelled antisocial and regarded by her classmates as an oddball. The teachers consistently took notes on her behaviour, and policemen always searched her after she told them her name, allegedly because of her bad family record. More worrisomely, now that she was almost an adult, she would be forced to choose a boring, tedious job and work away boring, tedious years at it. Nothing could be worse.
But on the other hand, if she gets caught, she will lose everything: her mother and father, her crackpot uncle, the collection of volumes they gave to her... right now, she would be leaving all of that anyway, but her family would move away, go live where no one knows the girl named Clarisse. If, for some reason, someone was to ask, they'd tell them she was run over on the highway and no one would ask a single question more: they could easily be reported for reminding people of their deceased relatives.
And then, one by one, in their own time, Clarisse's family would also escape from that forsaken city and meet her at the old house far out in the country that once belonged to her great-great-grandparents. There they would spend the rest of their days, laughing and reading the long years away. It will be that simple.
But tonight, it will be herself who will blaze the trail for the rest of them.
Shuddering ever so slightly, like a leaf in the autumn breeze, Clarisse grabs the overflowing pack from her bed and swings it over her shoulder. Its heaviness weighs her down, bending her back into an uncanny slouch that can only be corrected with its removal.
In the bag are enough packets of dry food to last her for months, as well as a few bottles of water, some sets of clean clothes and, nestled between their impenetrable folds, a copy of Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and Wuthering Heights. They all debated over whether or not she should bring them along with her: if Clarisse is found with even one book, she will be sent straight to the insane asylum, the house will be searched and, with the discovery of dozens more, burned, and they will be separated from each other indefinitely. But, without stories' illusions of human company, what would her family come home to? Ultimately, they all agreed to let her take three of her favourite novels with her.
Quietly, as though there is a sleeping spy in the house, Clarisse opens the door and, making sure it does not creak, descends the staircase into the shadow-cast foyer where she could barely see a foot in front of her. Feeling around, her hand closes over a small, spherical object on the door.
Suddenly, a moment of doubt almost forces her to flee back to her room, to eternal safety and satisfaction.
Do I really want to leave? She wonders. I can refuse. They will understand.
But then she thinks about her future if she stays. She sees herself burning her books, their delicate butterfly-wing pages fluttering up into the air, ablaze with colour, only to fall back to earth as ashes. She sees herself at a dingy factory assembling seashell radios, eight hours a day, five days a week, for the rest of her life, as long as it might be. She sees herself in a room with those terrible parlor walls, martini in hand, talking about nothing to people who are not real...
No, she thinks, shaking the thought off, I do not want to remain here for a second longer.
Taking a deep breath, Clarisse steels herself. What she will do from this point on will determine not only hers, but her family's, fate.
She turns the handle. The door opens and she slips out, soundlessly, onto the moonlit road that seems to stretch out in both directions for infinity.