“Rachel!” I’m breathless for no reason, and I have trouble squeezing the words out. I’m so happy to see her I feel like I could burst into tears. I don’t though, obviously. “You came.”
“Of course I came.” She smiles at me. “You’re my only sister, remember?” She passes me a bouquet of daisies she has brought with her, loosely wrapped in brown paper. “Congratulations, Lena.”
I stick my face in the flowers and inhale, trying to fight down the urge to reach out and hug her. For a second we just stand there, blinking at each other, and then she reaches out to me. I’m sure she’s going to put her arms around me for old times’ sake, or at the very least give me a one-armed squeeze.
Instead she just flicks a bang off my forehead. “Gross,”
she says, still smiling. “You’re all sweaty.”
It’s stupid and immature to feel disappointed, but I do.
“It’s the gown,” I say, and realize that yes, that must be the problem: The gown is what’s choking me, stifling me, making it hard to breathe.
“Come on,” she says. “Aunt Carol will want to congratulate you.”
Aunt Carol is standing at the field’s periphery with my uncle, Grace, and Jenny, talking to Mrs. Springer, my history teacher. I fall into step beside Rachel. She is only a few inches taller than I am and we walk together, in sync, but separated by three feet of space. She is quiet. I can tell she’s already wondering when she can go home and get on with her life.
I let myself look back once. I can’t help it. I watch the girls circulating in their orange gowns like flames.
Everything seems to zoom back, recede away at once.
All the voices intermingle and become indistinguishable from one another—like the constant white noise of the ocean running underneath the rhythm of the Portland streets, so constant you hardly notice it. Everything looks stark and vivid and frozen, as though drawn precisely and outlined in ink— parents’ smiles frozen, camera flashes blinding, mouths open and white teeth glistening, dark glossy hair and deep blue sky and unrelenting light, everyone drowning in light— everything so clear and perfect I’m sure it must already be a memory, or a dream.
“His for hydrogen, a weight of one;
When fission’s split, as brightly lit
As hot as any sun.
He is for helium, a weight of two;
The noble gas, the ghostly pass
That lifts the world anew.
Li is for lithium, a weight of three;
A funeral pyre, when touched with fire—
And deadly sleep for me.
Be is for beryllium, a weight of four . . .”
—From the Elemental Prayers (“Prayer and Study,” The Book of Shhh)
During the summers I have to help my uncle at the Stop- N-Save on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, mostly stocking shelves and working behind the deli counter and occasionally helping with filing and accounting in the little office behind the cereal and dry goods aisle. Thankfully, in late June, Andrew Marcus gets cured and reassigned to a permanent position at another grocery store.
On the Fourth of July I head to Hana’s house in the morning. Every year we go to see the fireworks at the Eastern Promenade. A band is always playing and vendors set up their carts, selling fried meat on skewers and corn on the cob and apple pie floating in a puddle of ice cream, served in little paper boats. The Fourth of July—the day of our independence, the day we commemorate the closing of our nation’s border forever—is one of my favorite holidays. I love the music that pipes through the streets, love the way the steam rising thick from the grills makes the streets look cloudy, the people shadowy and unclear. I especially love the temporary extension of curfew: Instead of being home at nine o’clock, all uncureds are allowed to stay out until eleven. In recent years Hana and I have made it a kind of game to stay out until the last possible second, cutting it closer and closer every year. Last year I stepped into the house at 10:58 exactly, heart hammering in my chest, shaking with exhaustion—I’d had to sprint home. But as I lay in bed I couldn’t stop grinning. I felt like I’d gotten away with something.
I type in Hana’s four-digit gate code—she gave it to me in eighth grade, saying it was “a sign of trust” and also that she’d slit me “from the top of the head to the heels” if I shared it with anyone else —and slip in through the front door. I never bother knocking. Her parents are hardly ever home, and Hana never answers the door.
I’m pretty much the only person who comes over to see her. It’s weird. Hana was always really popular in school—people looked up to her and wanted to be like her—but even though she was really friendly with everybody, she never really got close close with anyone besides me.
Sometimes I wonder whether she wishes she’d been assigned a different desk partner in Mrs. Jablonski’s second-grade class, which is how we first became friends. Hana’s last name is Tate, and we were linked up by alphabetical order (by then I was already going by my aunt’s last name, Tiddle). I wonder whether she wishes she’d been placed with Rebecca Tralawny, or Katie Scarp, or even Melissa Portofino. Sometimes I feel like she deserves a best friend who is just a little more special. Once Hana told me that she likes me because I’m for real— because I really feel things. But that’s the whole problem: how much I feel things.
“Hello?” I call out, as soon as I’m inside Hana’s house.
The front hall is dark and cool as always. Goose bumps prick up over my arms. No matter how many times I come to Hana’s house I’m always shocked by the power of the air- conditioning, which hums somewhere deep inside the walls. For a moment I just stand there, inhaling the clean smells of furniture polish and Windex and fresh- cut flowers. Music is pulsing from Hana’s room upstairs. I try to identify the song but can’t make out any words, just bass throbbing through the floorboards.
At the top of the stairs I pause. Hana’s bedroom door is closed. I definitely don’t recognize the song she’s playing—or blasting, really, so loud I have to remind myself that Hana’s house is shielded on four sides by trees and lawn, and no one will sic the regulators on her.
It’s not like any music I’ve ever heard. It’s a shrieky, shrill, fierce kind of music: I can’t even tell whether the singer is male or female. Little fingers of electricity creep up my spine, a feeling I used to have when I was a tiny child, when I would creep into the kitchen and try to sneak an extra cookie from the pantry—the feeling right before the creak and squeak of my mom’s footsteps in the kitchen behind me, when I would whirl around, my hands and face coated in crumbs, guilty.
I shake off the feeling and push open Hana’s door. She’s sitting at her computer, feet propped up on her desk, bobbing her head and tapping out a rhythm on her thighs. As soon as she sees me she swings forward and hits a key on her keyboard. The music cuts off instantly.
Strangely, the silence that follows seems just as loud.
She flips her hair over one shoulder and scoots away from the desk. Something flickers over her face, an expression that passes too quickly for me to identify it.
“Hi,” she chirrups, a little too cheerfully. “Didn’t hear you come in.”
“I doubt you would have heard me break in.” I go over to her bed and collapse on top of it. Hana has a queen-size bed, with three down pillows. It’s like heaven. “What was that?”
“What was what?” She lifts her knees to her chest and swivels a full circle in her chair. I sit up on my elbows and watch her. Hana only acts this dumb when she’s hiding something.
“The music.” She still stares at me blankly. “The song you were blasting when I came in. The one that almost burst my eardrums.”
“Oh— that .” Hana blows her bangs out of her face. This is another one of her tells. Whenever she’s bluffing in poker she won’t stop fussing with her bangs. “Just some new band I found online.”
“On LAMM?” I press. Hana’s music-obsessed and used to spend hours surfing LAMM, the Library of Authorized Music and Movies, when we were in middle school.
Hana looks away. “Not exactly.”
“What do you mean, ‘not exactly’?” The intranet, like everything else in the United States, is controlled and monitored for our protection. All the websites, all the content, is written by government agencies, including the List of Authorized Entertainment, which gets updated biannually. Digital books go into the LAB, the Library of Approved Books, movies and music go into LAMM, and for a small fee you can download them to your computer. If you have one, that is. I don’t.
Hana sighs, keeping her eyes averted. Finally she looks at me. “Can you keep a secret?”
Now I sit up all the way, scooting to the edge of the bed. I don’t like the way she’s looking at me. I don’t trust it.
“What is this about, Hana?”
“Can you keep a secret?” she repeats.
I think of standing with her in front of the labs on Evaluation Day, the sun beating down on us, the way she forced her mouth close to my ear to whisper about happiness, and unhappiness. I’m suddenly afraid for her, of her. But I nod and say, “Yeah, of course.”
“Okay.” She looks down, fiddles with the hem of her shorts for a second, takes a deep breath. “So last week I met this guy—”
“What?” I nearly fall off the bed.
“Relax.” She holds up a hand. “He’s cured, okay? He works for the city. He’s a censor, actually.”
My heartbeat slows and I settle back against her pillows again. “Okay. So?”
“ So ,” Hana says, drawing the word out, “he was waiting at the doctor’s with me. When I went to have my PT, you know?” Hana sprained her ankle in the fall and still has to do physical therapy once a week, to keep it strong.
“And we started talking.”
She pauses. I don’t really see where the story is going, or how it relates to the music she was playing, so I just wait for her to go on.
Finally she does. “Anyway, I was telling him about boards, and how I really want to go to USM, and he was telling me about his job—what he does, you know, day to day. He codes the online access restrictions, so people can’t just write whatever, or post things themselves, or write up false information or ‘inflammatory opinions’”— she puts this in quotes, rolling her eyes—“and other stuff like that. He’s, like, an intranet security guard.”
“Okay,” I say again. I want to tell Hana to get to the point—I know all about online security restrictions, everybody does—but that would just make her clam up.
She sucks in a deep breath. “But he doesn’t just code the security. He checks for lapses—like, break-ins. Hackers, basically, who jump through all the security hoops and manage to post their own stuff. The government calls them floaters— websites that might be up for an hour, or a day, or two days before they’re discovered, websites full of unauthorized stuff—opinions and message boards and video clips and music.”