I've written hundreds of short stories over the years. Paradise took second place in the Writers Weekly 24 hour short story contest and is still, ten years later, my husbands favorite.
Katie tried to ignore the passersby as she hurried through the unfamiliar streets of the city. A young woman, her face illuminated by a weak street lamp, looked at her and grinned; it was obvious Katie didn’t belong here. She tried not to draw attention to herself, but it wasn’t easy. “I will have to hide before daylight comes,” she whispered to herself, careful not to let anyone hear her speak. It had only been four hours since her escape, but she was sure they would be looking for her by now.
She had never seen the city before, and the unfamiliar images that surrounded her were frightening. Her fear, however, was outweighed by her excitement. She was determined to find Benny’s Bookstore and inside, hopefully, the key to her destiny. She glanced at the street sign above her head. She was almost there.
Katie dreamed of being someplace where she felt she belonged. It certainly wasn’t this city, and, although the place where she lived was not necessarily a bad place, it wasn’t a home. Her place of existence, as she liked to call it, was an institution: a sterile, white environment surrounded by medical staff. She had been taken away from her parents at a very young age and sent to live with Dr. Bailey. She had never understood why; no one had ever told her.
Dr. Bailey was very kind, as were the others that helped take care of her, but they were not family. Rebellion became her way of coping. She would not read what they tried to give her. She played ignorant when they wanted her to speak. If she knew they expected her to react one way, she acted just the opposite. Her lack of cooperation had led them to assume that she was of low intelligence, incapable of learning even the basics.
But, Katie wasn't stupid. In fact, she was extremely intelligent, far beyond what Dr. Bailey could ever imagine.
Katie had learned how to exit her locked room at night without being detected. Because of her 'learning disability', no one ever suspected that she was capable of escaping after night call, so no one ever checked. She knew the night nurses’ routines and could easily run throughout her home without any interference. And on her own, she learned.
She had read every book in the library, some twice. She had even managed to hack into Dr. Bailey’s computer and frequented the internet at night. She often laughed at how sly she was, and how easily Dr. Bailey and the others were fooled.
Katie’s only knowledge of her family had come from information she had read in her own medical chart. She didn’t remember them, being taken away at such a young age, and she wept when she read her own history. Her grandfather had been an astronaut, one of the first. Her parents worked for a major university, and after reading about them on the internet, she found that they were well respected in their field. She had no brothers. She had no sisters. She had only Dr. Bailey, and her friend George, who truly was ignorant.
While she rarely pondered her dreams, Katie had been having the same one, every night, for several weeks. She and George were on an island surrounded by palm trees. Majestic mountains bordered their haven and a white sandy beach separated the land from the crystal blue of the ocean. She was highly respected by the other inhabitants for her intelligence, and she openly shared her knowledge with them. Astronauts. Teachers. Doctors. It was a different world in her dream. It was paradise.
When she told George about her dream, he had, as usual, quizzed her for every detail. Katie called him Curious George, although he didn’t understand the meaning behind the nickname. George needed to be here, Katie thought.
“It’s your treasure,” George said. “Katie’s treasure!”
“Someday I will find such an island,” Katie told him.
One summer afternoon, Katie and George sat together in the dayroom. George played with the television remote control as Katie tried to concentrate on the various programs that appeared as the channels changed. Suddenly, she grabbed the remote from him.
She went back several channels, slowly, searching for something. She glanced around to make sure no one was close enough to hear her speak. “George,” she whispered, “Look! It’s my island. It’s on the television!” They sat together in silence and watched as the wonders of Katie’s dream world unfolded before their eyes.
“Katie, you must find it. You must. Then you can come back for me.” George said as he gazed at the screen. But Katie required no prompting. She had already made up her mind.
She spent a week researching before she ventured out on her quest for paradise. She searched the internet and found that there were several books about her island, but none were in Dr. Bailey’s library. She sent messages to every bookstore within fifty miles of her home, looking for someone who had one of the books. Three nights into her search, she received a response.
“Yes, I have one of the books you are inquiring about, but no one has asked for it in years. I would be happy to reserve it for you.” It was signed “Benny” from Benny’s Bookstore. Katie wrote down the address and decided that her journey must begin there.
Late the following night, after everyone was in bed, Katie dressed in the dark and left her tiny room for the last time. She stole to the kitchen and collected provisions for her journey. She went back to the area where she lived, opened George’s door, and kissed her sleeping friend goodbye. “I will come back for you, I promise,” she whispered. Then with one last look around, she escaped into the darkness, into the concrete jungle that she had only seen in books and on television.
Katie didn’t like the idea of breaking into the bookstore any more than she liked the thought of stealing the book. But, as she stood in front of Benny’s she felt drawn to the dusty shelves inside. She found a window in the back that had been left slightly ajar. She was small and extremely agile and she managed to enter without a sound.
In the darkness of the old store, she relied on her night vision, which was exceptional. She searched the shelves, reading the cover of each book. After hours of searching, she was exhausted, both mentally and physically. She sat on the floor beginning to feel as if her journey may have been in vain. Some of the titles on the bottom shelves were difficult to read due to months, possibly years of neglect. She began to wipe the covers gently, her last hope.
And there it was. What George had called her treasure.
She pulled the dusty volume from the shelf and quickly made her way to the antique cash register at the front of the store. She had seen one similar to it before, and had no difficulty opening the drawer. Forty dollars. She grabbed the money quickly, thinking she may need funds for the next leg of her adventure. She made a promise to herself that she would someday pay Benny back, and then darted out of sight, as a young man walked by the front window.
She was anxious to begin the next leg of her journey, but knew once she started reading, she wouldn’t be able to stop. She didn’t dare open the book. Not yet. Not here. Holding the book tightly, she headed back into the night.
“Dr. Bailey? Officer Scopes, here, NYPD. I’m calling about the escapee you reported last night.”
“Her name is Katie. Do you have her?” Dr. Bailey had been up most of the night, worried about her alone in a strange world.
“No, no, I was just told to call you if I heard anything. Actually, I doubt this is anything at all.” Dr. Bailey noticed an aloof, almost jovial tone in the officer’s voice, which irritated him.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” he replied.
“Well,” the officer began, “Didn’t you say she was stupid? I mean, she can’t read, right?"
“No, Officer, Katie cannot read. Please, don’t waste my time. Do you have a lead on her whereabouts or not?”
“Like I said, probably not. I picked up a drunk in the park this morning that swears he saw a monkey that matches her description.” He paused. “He said she was sitting under a tree reading a book.”
“A book?” Dr. Bailey said. “What kind of a book?”
Officer Scopes words were barely audible through his laughter. “Planet of the Apes. What else?”