“And you found one.” A sick feeling has settled in my stomach. Words keep flashing in my brain, like a neon sign going in and out: illegal, interrogation, surveillance.
She doesn’t seem to notice that I’ve gone totally still.
Her face is suddenly animated, as alive and energetic as I’ve ever seen it, and she leans forward on her knees, talking in a rush. “Not just one. Dozens. There are tons of them out there, if you know how to look. If you know where to look. It’s incredible, Lena. All these people— they must be all over the country—sneaking in through the loops and the holes. You should see some of the things people write. About—about the cure. It’s not just the Invalids who don’t believe in it. There are people here, all over the place, who don’t think . . .” I’m staring at her so hard she drops her eyes and switches topics.
“And you should hear the music. Incredible, amazing music, like nothing you’ve ever heard, music that almost takes your head off, you know? That makes you want to scream and jump up and down and break stuff and cry. . . .”
Hana’s room is big—almost twice as big as my room at home—but I feel as though the walls are pressing down around me. If the air-conditioning’s still working, I can no longer feel it. The air feels hot and heavy, like a wet breath, and I stand up and move to the window. Hana breaks off, finally. I try to shove open her window, but it won’t budge. I push and strain against the windowsill.
“Lena,” Hana says timidly, after a minute.
“It won’t open.” All I can think is: I need air. The rest of my thoughts are a blur of radio static and fluorescent lights and lab coats and steel tables and surgical knives—an image of Willow Marks getting dragged off to the labs, screaming, her house defaced with marker and paint.
“Lena,” Hana says, louder now. “Come on.”
“It’s stuck. Wood must be warped from the heat. If it would just open.” I heave and the window flies upward, finally. There’s a popping sound, and the latch that’s been keeping it in place snaps off and skitters to the middle of the floor. For a second Hana and I both stand there, staring at it. The air coming in the open window doesn’t make me feel better. It’s even hotter outside.
“Sorry,” I mumble. I can’t look at her. “I didn’t mean to— I didn’t know it was locked. The windows at my house don’t lock.”
“Don’t worry about the window. I don’t care about the stupid window.”
“One time Grace got out of her crib when she was little, almost made it onto the roof. Just slid the window right open and started climbing.”
“Lena.” Hana reaches out and grabs my shoulders. I don’t know if I have a fever or what, going hot and cold every five seconds, but her touch makes a chill go through me and I pull away quickly. “You’re mad at me.”
“I’m not mad. I’m worried about you.” But that’s only half-true. I am mad— furious, in fact. All this time I’ve been blindly coasting along, the idiot sidekick, thinking about our last real summer together, stressing about the matches I’ll get and evaluations and boards and normal stuff and she’s been nodding and smiling and saying, “Uh-huh, yeah, me too,” and “I’m sure things will be fine,” and meanwhile, behind my back, she’s been turning into someone I don’t know— someone with secrets and weird habits and opinions about things we’re not even supposed to think about. Now I know why I was so startled on Evaluation Day, when she turned back to whisper to me, eyes huge and glowing. It was like she had dropped away for a second—my best friend, my only real friend—and in her place was a stranger.
That’s what’s been happening all this time: Hana has been morphing into a stranger.
I turn back to the window.
A sharp blade of sadness goes through me, deep and quick. I guess it was bound to happen eventually. I’ve always known it would. Everyone you trust, everyone you think you can count on, will eventually disappoint you. When left to their own devices, people lie and keep secrets and change and disappear, some behind a different face or personality, some behind a dense early morning fog, beyond a cliff. That’s why the cure is so important. That’s why we need it.
“Listen, I’m not going to get arrested just for looking at some websites. Or listening to music, or whatever.”
“You could. People have been arrested for less.” She knows this too. She knows, and doesn’t care.
“Yeah, well, I’m sick of it.” Hana’s voice trembles a little, which throws me. I’ve never heard her sound less than certain.
“We shouldn’t even be talking about this. Someone could be—”
“Someone could be listening?” She cuts me off, finishes my sentence for me. “God, Lena. I’m sick of that, too.
Aren’t you? Sick of always checking your back, looking behind you, watching what you say, think, do. I can’t—I can’t breathe, I can’t sleep, I can’t move. I feel like there are walls everywhere. Everywhere I go—bam! There’s a wall. Everything I want—bam! Another wall.”
She rakes a hand through her hair. For once, she doesn’t look pretty and in control. She looks pale and unhappy, and her expression reminds me of something, but I can’t place it right away.
“It’s for our own protection,” I say, wishing I sounded more confident. I’ve never been good in a fight.
“Everything will get better once we’re—”
Again, she jumps in. “Once we’re cured?” She laughs, a short barking sound with no humor in it, but at least she doesn’t contradict me directly. “Right. That’s what everybody says.”
All of a sudden it hits me: She reminds me of the animals we saw once on a class trip to the slaughterhouse. All the cows were lined up, packed in their stalls, staring at us mutely as we walked by, with that same look in their eyes, fear and resignation and something else. Desperation. I’m really scared, then, truly terrified for her.
But when she speaks again, she sounds a little bit calmer. “Maybe it will. Get better, I mean, once we’re cured. But until then . . . This is our last chance, Lena.
Our last chance to do anything. Our last chance to choose.”
There’s the word from Evaluation Day again— choose — but I nod because I don’t want to set her off again. “So what are you going to do?”
She looks away, biting her lip, and I can tell she’s debating whether or not to trust me. “There’s this party tonight . . .”
“What?” Zoom. The fear floods back in.
She rushes on. “It’s something I found on one of the floaters—it’s a music thing, a few bands playing out by the border in Stroudwater, on one of the farms.”
“You can’t be serious. You’re not—you’re not actually going, right? You’re not even thinking about it.”
“It’s safe, okay? I promise. These websites . . . it’s really amazing, Lena, I swear you’d be into it if you looked.
They’re hidden. Links, usually, embedded on normal pages, approved government stuff, but I don’t know, somehow you can tell they don’t feel right, you know?
They don’t belong.”
I grasp at a single word. “Safe? How can it be safe? That guy you met—the censor—his whole job is to track down people who are stupid enough to post these things—”
“They’re not stupid, they’re incredibly smart, actually— ”
“Not to mention the regulators and patrols and the youth guard and curfew and segregation and just about everything else that makes this one of the worst ideas—”
“Fine.” Hana raises her arms and brings them slapping down against her thighs. The noise is so loud it makes me jump. “Fine. So it’s a bad idea. So it’s risky. You know what? I don’t care.”
For a second there’s silence. We’re glaring at each other, and the air between us feels charged and dangerous, a thin electrical coil, ready to explode.
“What about me?” I say finally, struggling to keep my voice from shaking.
“You’re welcome to come. Ten thirty, Roaring Brook Farms, Stroudwater. Music. Dancing. You know— fun .
The stuff we’re supposed to be having, before they cut out half of our brain.”
I ignore the last part of her comment. “I don’t think so, Hana. In case you’ve forgotten, we have other plans for tonight. Have had plans for tonight for, oh, the past fifteen years.”
“Yeah, well, things change.” She turns her back to me, but I feel like she’s reached out and punched me in the stomach.
“Fine.” My throat is squeezing up. This time I know it’s the real deal, and I’m on the verge of crying. I go over to her bed and start gathering up my stuff.
Of course my bag has spilled over on its side, and now her comforter is covered with little scraps of paper and gum wrappers and coins and pens. I start stuffing these back into my bag, fighting back the tears. “Go ahead. Do whatever you want tonight. I don’t care.”
Maybe Hana feels bad, because her voice softens a little bit. “Seriously, Lena. You should think about coming.
We won’t get in any trouble, I promise.”
“You can’t promise that.” I take a deep breath, wishing my voice would stop quivering. “You don’t know that.
You can’t be positive. “ “And you can’t go on being so scared all the time.”
That’s it: That does it. I whirl around, furious, something deep and black and old rising inside of me. “Of course I’m scared. And I’m right to be scared. And if you’re not scared it’s just because you have the perfect little life, and the perfect little family, and for you everything is perfect, perfect, perfect. You don’t see. You don’t know.”
“Perfect? That’s what you think? You think my life is perfect?” Her voice is quiet but full of anger.
I’m tempted to move away from her but force myself to stay put. “Yeah. I do.”
Again she lets out a barking laugh, a quick explosion.
“So you think this is it, huh? As good as it gets?” She turns a full circle, arms extended, like she’s embracing the room, the house, everything.
Her question startles me. “What else is there?”
“ Everything , Lena.” She shakes her head. “Listen, I’m not going to apologize. I know you have your reasons for being scared. What happened to your mom was terrible—”
“Don’t bring my mom into this.” My body goes tight, electric.
“But you can’t go on blaming her for everything. She died more than ten years ago.”
Anger swallows me, a thick fog. My mind careens wildly like wheels over ice, bumping up against random words:
Fear. Blame. Don’t forget. Mom. I love you. And now I see that Hana is a snake—has been waiting a long time to say this to me, has been waiting to squirm her way in, as deep and painful as she can go, and bite.