ESCAPE FROM EDEN
Since the age of ten, Mia has lived under the iron fist of the fundamentalist preacher who lured her mother away to join his fanatical family of followers. In Edenton, a supposed “Garden of Eden” deep in the South American jungle, everyone follows the Reverend’s strict but arbitrary rules—even the mandate of whom they can marry. Now sixteen, Mia dreams of slipping away from the armed guards who keep the faithful in, and the curious out. When the rebellious and sexy Gabriel, a new boy, arrives with his family, Mia sees a chance to escape.
But the scandalous secrets the two discover beyond the compound’s façade are more shocking than anything they ever imagined. While Gabriel has his own terrible secrets, he and Mia bond together, more than friends and freedom fighters. But is there time to think of their undeniable attraction to each other as they race to stop the Reverend’s paranoid plan to free his flock from the corrupt world? Can two teenagers crush a criminal mastermind? And who will die in the fight to save the ones they love from a madman who’s only concerned about his own secrets?
Scroll for excerpt.
“The chemistry between Mia and Gabriel is palpable in their teasing dialogue and sizzling moments of physical connection. Its rewards … are many: fast-moving action, a capable heroine and a resolution that leaves plenty of room for a sequel.” – Kirkus Reviews [STARRED REVIEW]
“Debut author Elisa Nader hits a strong note with her ESCAPE FROM EDEN… At-times swoony, at-times extremely dangerous, and at-other times completely shocking.” - Examiner.com
"Nader has done something amazing: written a really original novel, one full of characters you’ll care about; smart, witty dialog; and plenty of shocks and thrills. A wonderful balance of light and dark." —Michael Grant, New York Times Bestselling Author of the Gone Series
"Chilling, suspenseful and evocative, ESCAPE FROM EDEN is one of the most surprising love stories I’ve read in ages. Elisa Nader is an exciting new talent in YA fiction and her first novel will have people lining up to join her cult. Consider me the first member.”- Bennett Madison, Author of THE BLONDE OF THE JOKE and SEPTEMBER GIRLS
"An exciting, terrifying, page-turning thrill ride you will not be able to put down.” - Gretchen McNeil, Author of POSSESS, TEN and 3:59
"Gabriel is the quintessential bad boy—hot, mysterious, tortured and impertinent…. I’m a sucker for a swoon built on a flirty, love/hate relationship, and Escape From Eden doesn’t disappoint.” - Forever Young Adult
"False prophets!” the Reverend Elias Eden yelled into the dented microphone. “False witnesses! False apostles!” With every furious word, sweat flew from his brow, disappearing into the blinding fluorescent lights overhead.
He’d begun tonight’s prayer service as he did every evening, scowling down at the congregation as we sat on hard wooden benches under the protection of God and a sloped tin roof. Beyond the pavilion’s pillars, the sounds of the jungle at night came to life: the chirping of frogs, croaking of toucans, and the incessant buzz of insects.
“Move over,” Juanita whispered to me, placing her hand on my shoulder.
Her skin was cold. A welcome shock in the soupy heat. I glanced up at the Reverend. His eyes were now squeezed shut in passion, arms thrown out his sides, momentarily blind to his Flock below.
“Deceitful workers,” the Reverend said in a low voice. “Deceitful accusers of true faith … ”
“Mia, move,” Juanita said, eyes flicking around the pavilion, and to the stage.
As I scooted to my left, a splinter lodged in my thigh. I swallowed down a yelp. The last thing I wanted was the Reverend’s full and pious attention on me during evening prayer. With a wince, I lifted the hem of my skirt, plucked the splinter out, and threw it on the wooden floor. A bead of red blood formed.
Aliyah plopped down between Juanita and me, out of breath, and bowed her head. She smelled of thick grease and bleach. She was late because of dinner cleanup duty.
“False brethren,” the Reverend said and opened his eyes. “And even false worshippers. How do we detect a truth from a falsehood? How do we avoid deception and lies and allow the true light to shine on us?”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. I had endured six years of sermons and preaching. Six years of being told what was right and what was wrong, and the Reverend was never in the wrong. Under the harsh lights, the Reverend’s doughy face looked even paler than usual, highlighting the broken capillaries that spidered across his nose and cheeks like a web. A perpetual sheen of sweat slicked his brow. Why he had a full beard––a wiry ginger beard––in the middle of the jungle I couldn’t guess. Although I’d imagined countless times how I’d draw him, mapping the page in slivers of intricate lines, I never did. My sketchbook was sacred.
And I suspected the Reverend Elias Eden wasn’t as sacred as he believed he was.
“Mia,” Aliyah whispered to me, “I got the call.”
I turned to her. Her black hair was pulled into a series of ponytails with colorful holders like gum balls placed at the base and end of each. We’d known each other since we were little girls, and in the six years we’d been friends she still had her nine-year-old hairstyle. She peeked at me through her braids. Her brown eyes were alight with excitement.
Because getting the call only meant one thing.
“The Reverend invited you to Prayer Circle?” I asked.
Juanita’s head whipped toward us, a fury of dark curls falling across her face. “What?” she whispered.
“In ancient times,” the Reverend boomed, “in the great city of Ephesus, the people were tempted to worship Diana, the goddess whose temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world … ”
Aliyah bit down a smile and nodded. “My dad got the invitation right after dinner.”
“But there were all sorts of dark things in the shadows of this temple. Magic, sorcery, astrology! Sexual immorality and crime … ”
Juanita met my gaze over Aliyah’s head. For the Flock, it was a coveted invitation, an invitation neither Juanita nor I had received yet, even though we were a year older than Aliyah. Secretly, though, I was relieved. Initiation into Prayer Circle opened up a new chapter in life at Edenton: courting with a person chosen by the Reverend, which would end in marriage and proliferation of the Flock. I didn’t want to be with anyone, though. I only wanted one thing, and an attachment to another person would get in the way.
The Reverend raised his hands, as if fighting off invisible forces. “False idols tempt us—they are present in everything. Money is idolized. Beauty is idolized. Churches themselves can become idols! A church is a gift—a means to an end, but churches become idolatrous when made ends in themselves … ”
“When do you go?” Juanita whispered. Her eyes, the color of the blackest peppercorns in the Edenton kitchen, expressed a mix of envy and concern.
“Thursday night.” Aliyah grinned, her teeth so white against her ebony-pink lips. “Will you help me make something pretty to wear?” she asked me.
“Ssssh,” Bridgette hissed from behind us. Loud enough for the Reverend to tear his divine focus from the rafters and skate his eyes in our direction.
We dropped our heads.
The Reverend continued as if we hadn’t disrupted him. “Edenton was created to shelter us from these temptations and keep our focus on the worship of our true God. Now let’s bow our heads in a silent prayer of thanksgiving.”
“Silent prayer of thanksgiving, Mia,” Bridgette hissed.
I half-turned my head and gave her a sneer. Bridgette glared at me from beneath her perfectly blunt-cut golden bangs. As I turned back, I caught Juanita shaking her head at me, a definite don’t stoop to her level in her eyes. It was hard not to. Bridgette was so—so Bridgette.
I kept my head down, mind wandering off as I let it do during silent prayer. The Reverend didn’t control my thoughts. They were my own. But most times I couldn’t help the guilt and the fear that weighed on me. If anyone knew—if Reverend Eden knew—that I wasn’t spending this time praying, I didn’t want to think about the consequences.
After our prayers, the Reverend spoke. “My children,” he said in low voice, perched on the edge of his wooden throne.
It was painted an iron gray. The color, and the gold-painted emblem on the chair back—a majestic tree surrounded by a gilded fence—symbolized Edenton. My uniform dress was the same serviceable gray, starched so stiff at the collar it itched. The Edenton emblem was stitched in white over my left breast, ever-present over my heart. But the Reverend didn’t want control of just our hearts. He wanted our minds as well.
The Reverend’s shock of bright ginger hair danced against the dull color of the chair. “Tonight we welcome more sheep into our Flock with open arms and open hearts. Edenton is about leading an honest life, a peaceful life, one that we devote to God and each other. And it is indeed a pleasure to welcome new members into the Flock of the Promised Land.”
He outstretched his hand. A dark ring of sweat circled the underarm of his blue shirt. He always wore shades of blue.
Three people climbed the stage steps at the right and stood next to the throne. The Reverend pushed himself up and waved a thick-fingered hand at the woman first. She came forward. Her hair was the color of sand. She was tall, and eyed the Reverend down her long, pointed nose.
The Reverend was a big man, overweight in a community of people who tended to be lean and strong. Food was plentiful, but we worked and trained hard. We attended physical training classes, daily. We ate fruits and vegetables from the gardens. Jake the Chicken Man watched over the coops like a tyrant; Enrique and his brother Angél oversaw the fishing nets at the shore. Every week, a shipment of grains, water, medical supplies, and other necessities came in from a nearby city. Like all the teenage girls in the compound, I worked in the kitchen, cooking and serving meals. The Reverend, though, rarely ate with the congregation. He was usually served meals in his cottage.
Reverend Eden shook hands with the woman. Her grip seemed sturdy. The man next to her, whom I assumed was her husband, wore expensive but disheveled clothing. His shirt was rumpled, shorts crooked, one hem higher on the knee than the other. He shoved his glasses up his nose, then greeted the Reverend with a friendly enough smile.
The Reverend moved to shake hands with their son, but the boy jerked away. I smirked with mild satisfaction. Reverend Eden’s bushy brows furrowed at the snub, but he covered it up with a hearty laugh. The congregation laughed too, because that’s what the Reverend wanted; emotion shared, even if it was forced.
“Ah,” Reverend Eden smiled, his teeth the color of fishbone. “What a gift it is for us, to welcome into our family one of God’s strong sons. Isn’t it?” The congregation agreed with hollered yeses. “How old are you, my child?”
“Seventeen,” the boy said in a steely tone.
From my seat, I could see his chest rise and fall rapidly against the fabric of his shirt. Like his parents, he wore nice clothes: a clean red T-shirt, cargo shorts with a lot of pockets, and expensive-looking sneakers that had mud only on the soles. He scanned the congregation as if he wanted to fight each and every one of us with his bare fists. I hadn’t seen that kind of intense anger in anyone in a long time.
“Wow,” Aliyah whispered. “He looks so mean.”
“Cute and mean,” Juanita said, flicking a glance where the boys our age sat in the congregation. “Cuter than the other boys.”
“Your brother is sitting over there,” I whispered to her.
“And? I don’t need to think my brother is cute.” She peered at me through narrowed eyes. “Only you do.”
“Your brother is cute,” I said.
Octavio, her brother, was to court me after our first Prayer Circle. He was sweet and thoughtful, and we talked sometimes, when we could. It was rare to have time to talk to the boys in Edenton.
“I don’t think the new boy is mean,” I whispered, refocusing the topic on the boy onstage. “He doesn’t want to be here.”
“Who wouldn’t want to be here?” Aliyah said, shaking her head.
“My children,” the Reverend went on. “Tonight we welcome Daniel, his wife Evie, and their son Gabriel into the Eden family.”
The congregation exploded into hallelujahs. Once everyone quieted, the Reverend continued with the welcoming ceremony. We spent over an hour in the pavilion, sitting, standing, kneeling, singing.
But all I could do was stare at Gabriel. I imagined what we looked like to him. Two hundred men, women, and children in stiff uniforms gazing up at the Reverend with tired eyes. It was already late, past our normal bedtime. I looked out beyond the pillars of the pavilion and watched one of the Edenton security guards saunter in and out of the shadows along the tree line. His gun, slung lazily over his shoulder, caught the light before he disappeared into the darkness between the trees.
After the ceremony, everyone dispersed. Gabriel fled the stage before his parents. Juanita and I watched as he shoved his way through the crowd, while Aliyah went on and on about Prayer Circle.
Once Gabriel had disappeared down the path leading to the boys’ cottages, Aliyah, Juanita, and I walked toward the kitchen. It was my shift to prep for breakfast in the morning. The three of us sauntered along the dim walkway, in and out of the pools of light thrown by lamps, in silence. The night air was humid, heavy with the cloying scent of frangipani. I could feel the exhaustion weighing on my shoulders. The ceremony had gone on later than expected, and I longed to crawl into my bunk.
“I want to wear something pink, bright pink,” Aliyah said.
I yawned. “We’ll go see Sister tomorrow at the sewing cottage and see what she’s got.” I stopped below the flickering light at the back entrance to the kitchen. I took the hair tie from my wrist and pulled my hair into a knot. “Are you sure the Reverend is okay with you being out of uniform?”
“It’s probably fine,” Juanita said. “But check with Thaddeus first. You know how the Reverend feels about color.”
Aliyah brought her hand up to touch the baubles cinching her ponytails. “But this is Prayer Circle! It’s a celebration.” She dropped her hand, eyes filled with anticipation. “There’s singing and laughing—”
“How do you know?” I asked. “No one is allowed to talk about Circle.”
“I’m guessing that’s what happens.” She leaned in, a conspiratorial tilt to her head. “You know I’ll tell you guys, right? Everything there is to know about Prayer Circle. The second I come back.”
“You shouldn’t, Aliyah,” Juanita said. “You’ll be punished.”
“You’ll get your invite, too,” she continued as if Juanita hadn’t warned her. “Maybe it’s just a mistake that I got the invite before you two. You’re both older than me.”
“We’ll find you something pretty.” I didn’t care about an invitation to Prayer Circle, but I couldn’t ruin her excitement.
With a giggle, she looped her arm in Juanita’s. “Come on, Juanita,” she said. “I need to get a good night’s sleep.”
“Don’t we all,” said Juanita, raising her eyebrows at me. “Don’t stay too late prepping for breakfast, Mia.”
“Yeah, well,” was all I said as they turned away, Aliyah practically skipping toward our cottage behind the kitchen.
I peered down the dark and winding lane and tried to spot the warm glow of Mama’s cottage, where she lived with my brother Max and another mother with a small child. Once the children of the Flock turned thirteen, we were separated from our parents and sent to live in different quarters with kids our age. I missed living with Mama, even though she infuriated me these days. But I missed someone kissing me good night before bed.
With a sigh, I opened the door to the kitchen. It smelled of disinfectant and dishwater. Inside the kitchen was cool, cooler than outside, the humidity swallowed up by the stainless steel of the appliances and counters. I remember being surprised when I first saw the professional kitchen, so different from the simple tables and benches in the dining hall. Cleanliness was taken very seriously in Edenton. Despite being close to Godliness, dirty was dangerous. In the jungle heat, germs multiplied. Scrapes festered into debilitating wounds and food poisoning could sicken entire rows of cottages. Which meant the Flock thinned; which meant the Reverend lost the workers that kept his utopia thriving.
My fingers ghosted along the back of my thigh, remembering the splinter. Once breakfast service was finished in the morning, I’d go to the infirmary.
I switched on my workstation lamp and began prepping the mangos, loving the feel of the chef’s knife in my hand, the weight of it as it moved effortlessly over the cutting board; the thudding sound as it cut through.
A crash behind me made me whirl. A shadowy figure shot between the shelves lined with cooking utensils. Hanging ladles and spoons swung back and forth, the weak light from the window glinting off their handles. All I heard was my blood pulsing in my ears until my own voice broke through.
“Who’s there?” I asked, hating the way my voice quavered.
I swallowed down the fear and stepped forward. The panic pulsing through me was so foreign, so different from the complaisant calm that had existed inside me since the day we came to Edenton. Part of me—and not a small part—thrilled.
“Who’s there?” I said again, more forcefully.
From behind the shelves, someone moved in the shadows and took a deliberate step toward me. He moved forward until he was close enough that the small work light behind me revealed his features.
“Gabriel?” I asked.
Up close, his face wasn’t as hard as it had appeared on the stage earlier. His cheekbones were sharp but his mouth had a softness to it, a plush quality that reminded me of the curving indentation on a cherry. His tousled dark hair fell over his eyes. He seemed to realize I was staring at him because he stopped in front of me, eyes searching mine.
“That’s not fair,” he said. His voice was pleasant, subdued, the edge from earlier gone.
“What’s not fair?” I asked.
“That you know my name, but I don’t know yours.” He smiled then, just a hint of a smile but enough to cause my breath to hitch.
“Mia,” I whispered.
“Mia,” he said as if testing my name on his lips. “Mia what?”
“Eden?” He sounded confused.
“The Flock’s surname is Eden.”
“So we’re family?”
I shrugged. “If you put it that way, I guess so.”
Gabriel’s brows drew together as he regarded me. He leaned down, eyes shimmering with mischief, and whispered in my ear, “Good. Because I’ve always wanted a sister.”
The heat of his breath lingered on my neck, his hair like feathers skimming over my cheek. A tingle I’d never felt before danced up my back and I let my eyes drift shut at the feeling. It wasn’t until I heard the kitchen door slam that I realized he was gone.
And it wasn’t until I looked down at my hand that I noticed he’d stolen my knife.
THANK YOU FOR READING!