Sarah Tarkoff, a Pittsburgh native, has written for the CW series Arrow and her other TV writing credits include ABC’s Mistresses, Lifetime’s Witches of East End, and the animated series Vixen and The Ray. She graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in screenwriting (hence all the screenwriting), and currently lives in Los Angeles. Sinless — which has just been optioned for television! — is her debut novel.
From the Publisher: “With shades of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies and Ally Condie’s Matched, this cinematic dystopian novel—the first in the thrilling Eye of the Beholder series—is set in a near future society in which ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are manifested by beauty and ugliness.”
Don’t miss out: Sarah Tarkoff will be visiting Riverstone Books on February 10th!
“Tarkoff’s debut and the first in her Eye of the Beholder series challenges the reality of what it means to be beautiful.” —Booklist
MARCH 24, 2031
That day. We were in Jude’s pickup, careening down one of those rural Virginia roads with a dotted yellow line down the middle. Sheer cliffs winding up a mountain, beautiful in a precarious kind of way.
Who was Jude? You’ve never heard of him, but he’s the reason you’ve heard of me. He’s the reason all of this started.
Jude was my next-door neighbor, childhood best friend, and frequent Super Soaker victim. When I was five and he was six, his parents gave him this red stuffed bear with a recording device in its stomach. You pressed a button, and it would repeat whatever you said. Since this was pre-Revelation, we giggled to hear it say “poop” and “fart,” the dirtiest words we knew in preschool, and I whined at my parents until they got me a matching blue one. We traded them back and forth, recording secret messages.
But by the time we got to high school, everything had changed. Sure, Jude was cute — he was nice, and all nice guys were cute — but he was gawky and shy, always wearing some too-formal button-down his mom had laid out for him. He’d come up to me in the hall with long-winded stories, and I’d watch my friends’ eyes glaze over. I never said a mean thing to his face, but when he left, I’d join in their giggling. “Jude loooooves you,” they’d tease. They’d mock how nervous he seemed around me, and I went right along with it, glad for the ego boost. I always wondered why I wasn’t Punished for my disloyalty, my unkindness.
Despite my sophomoric behavior, our friendship continued, grew. I’d leave that old blue bear on my windowsill, and he’d sneak up and elocute into its belly these long, thought-out dissertations on world events, pop culture, whatever intrigued him that day. And the truth is, away from the judging eyes of my friends, I really did think he was one of the most intelligent, funniest people I’d ever met.
Had things been different, I think in time I would have come around. He would have asked me to prom, I would have said yes, my palms would have gotten sweaty in his as we swayed on the gym floor, and I would have wondered, what is this feeling? And when he kissed me, I would have known. And in our mutual, not-that-special way, we would have gotten married and had lots of babies and taught them to glorify Great Spirit. But instead, on that chilly almost-spring morning, we took a drive.
We were on our way to some youth rally in D.C., nauseatingly wholesome stuff. I still remember everything about that day. The way Jude’s hair blew as one funny-looking entity, long overdue for a haircut. How his arms were bigger than I recalled, his jaw squarer, with a hint of a five-o’clock shadow. I remember the moment I realized my best friend had become this handsome man, and I wondered if anyone else had noticed. I remember the way he smiled, the way it lit up the whole car, and I wondered why now, at the age of sixteen, he seemed so different, despite being entirely the same. And how his differentness and his sameness, together, created a feeling I couldn’t quite articulate.
I was wearing a hat of my mother’s, one she’d crocheted herself. Jude was teasing me about it, maybe to be flirty in his unpracticed way. “It’s too small for you.”
“It is not! I have a lot of hair,” I insisted.
“That’s what I mean. Look, it’s coming off.”
He grabbed for it, and I shrieked. “Stop it!”
He perched the small hat on top of his big head. “See, much better.”
“It is not. You look stupid.” I grabbed the hat back, but now I couldn’t get it to sit correctly on my kinky black curls. I stared at myself in the mirror, trying to readjust.
Jude saw I was unhappy and offered, “I’m kidding! It looks good.”
“I don’t believe you.”
He leaned over and moved the hat just a fraction of an inch, right back into place. I smiled.
“See? You’re beautiful.” He’d said it without thinking, I think. I looked over at him, and he turned back to the road, a little embarrassed. I was used to people telling me I was beautiful, but there was something about the way he said it… and the fact that it was him, it was Jude… I desperately wanted him to say it again.
But he kept his focus on the road, quickly adding, for safety, “Only in that hat. Usually you’re disgusting.” And then a playful smile. But he couldn’t fool me. That word, “beautiful” — it was out there.
But I was too timid to confront him directly, so I kept it light.
“I never knew you thought I was disgusting.”
Jude chuckled, going along with my joke. “That’s what all the guys say in the locker room. Grace Luther, super disgusting.”
“But none of those guys are you. I mean, none of those guys are my best friend.”
Jude stole a glance over at me. “So I’m special.”
“Of course you are,” I said. Silence filled the car. I couldn’t read his expression. In that moment, I rethought everything. What if his awkwardness around me was just awkwardness? What if he didn’t have some big crush? Maybe the feelings I’d imagined him having were merely my own invention, because I’d always had a subconscious crush on him. Had I said too much? Had I just ruined our friendship? I quickly added, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
“No,” he said, “I mean, at some point, I wanted to ask you…”
He paused, trying to find the right words, and in a split second I imagined a hundred different possible outcomes. But out of that hundred, not a single one came close to what happened next.
It took us just that split second to speed around the corner, down a hill — where there was a sedan approaching, straddling both lanes.
Jude slammed on the brakes.
“Honk!” I screamed. But that just panicked him more. The sedan swerved, but it all happened so fast and —
The collision. Metal everywhere. Glass everywhere. Airbags deployed — I couldn’t breathe.
Jude’s truck skidded for such a long time, I was sure we were headed over the cliff.
I screamed and I prayed, the only two weapons I had, as the squeal of our tires deafened me. Please, Great Spirit, protect me.
And He did. We skidded to a stop, inches from the edge of the cliff.
It took me a moment to realize it was over. I punched at my inflated airbag. I couldn’t see anything. I tried to reach Jude, but he was so far away, and so quiet. “Jude?” Still nothing. The sound of my own panicked breathing overwhelmed me. Oh no… My hands felt for him, finally found his chest.
“Grace? Are you okay?”
And there he was, reaching for me, holding me. His arms had never surrounded me like that before. I remember taking his hand, feeling the slickness of the blood on it. “It’s okay. I’m here. I’ve got you,” he said.
I started crying. Held him tight. In that moment, I wanted to take back every time I’d joked with my friends about how geeky he was, I wanted to just pray my thanks forever and ever and ever. And then he looked out through the shattered windshield. He blanched, and he jumped out of the car. I followed.
We hadn’t gone off the cliff. We were lucky.
The sedan was ten or twenty feet below the cliff edge, on its side. We heard the sirens coming-our crash had been automatically registered with emergency services-but Jude didn’t wait for them to arrive. He jumped down the craggy rocks, toward the car.
“Jude, wait. It’s not safe.”
But he didn’t listen. I scrambled down after him, wondering — had Jude been speeding? Maybe a little. But I saw him do everything he could to avoid that sedan. Whatever we saw in that other car, it couldn’t be his fault.
Through the passenger window, we saw a woman in her thirties, unconscious. Jude peered in at her. “She’s breathing.” A sigh of relief. And then Jude made that noise. A brief, horrified gasp. I followed his line of sight to the backseat, where a young boy lay in a pool of blood. He couldn’t have been more than five, six. His head rested against the window, and something about it wasn’t shaped right; it conformed too easily to the glass. His skull had been crushed, I realized with horror. He wasn’t moving, wasn’t breathing. I stared at that boy, waiting for any sign of movement. Hoping there’d be any chance that when the ambulances arrived, they’d be able to save him. But the longer I looked, the more I was sure that hope was in vain.
I started crying, grabbed on to Jude. And then Jude couldn’t hold me up. Startled, I pulled away.
I’m sure you’ve all guessed what’s coming next, but it was the first time I’d seen it in person, so it was a shock to me. I was expecting ugly, but this — it was more than ugly. I remember every detail of how Jude’s face twisted, bloating asymmetrically, the color changes — purplish, greenish, yellowish. How the eyes I’d just been staring into bulged, how his tongue hung out. And when I could barely recognize him, how he grabbed at his throat, wheezing, gasping for breath. I could see his windpipe contorting, the skin on his neck straining around it. He fell to his knees, as his muscles grew weak and his throat closed. Jude was being Punished.
I dropped to the ground next to him, hands together, begging, “Please spare him, Great Spirit.” I thought if Great Spirit had given me any talent, it was this one — it was bringing faith to someone in a moment of need. This was the one skill a cleric’s daughter like me had spent her life honing. I grabbed his hands, put them between mine. “Pray with me,” I implored him. “Great Spirit will spare you if you pray with me.” He looked at me, doubtful, but I wouldn’t be deterred. “You have to try. Please.”
I think, though he couldn’t talk, he tried. He listened as I said a Hebrew prayer that began with “baruch atah Adonai” that I’d heard his mother say, a Buddhist mantra, anything I thought Great Spirit might listen to. But his skin kept turning that deathly blue color, and soon, no breath emerged from him at all. His eyes closed. I shook him, I screamed at him, but he’d stopped responding.
I kept praying as the EMTs swarmed around us, putting the woman and her child on stretchers. And as I cried, the EMTs tore me out of Jude’s arms. I begged them to let me keep praying, keep trying, but…
“He’s gone, honey,” a kind-eyed EMT said to me gently as Jude, too, disappeared into an ambulance, and I clung to her as it sped away. Her words echoed in my head: Jude was gone. As gone as the little boy in the back of that car. That was Great Spirit’s justice. An eye for every eye. Whatever mistakes Jude had made on the road, he paid for them with his life.
No sinner is safe from the wrath of Great Spirit.
From SINLESS, published by HarperCollins. Copyright © 2018 by Sarah Tarkoff. All rights reserved.