“Fuck you.” In the end, these are the two words that come.
She holds up both hands. “Listen, Lena, I’m just saying you have to let it go. You’re nothing like her. And you’re not going to end up like her. You don’t have it in you.”
“Fuck you.” She’s trying to be nice, but my mind is closed up and the words come out on their own, cascading over one another, and I wish every single one was a punch so that I could hit her in the face, bambambambam. “You don’t know a single thing about her. And you don’t know me. You don’t know anything.”
“Lena.” She reaches for me.
“Don’t touch me.” I’m stumbling backward, grabbing my bag, bumping against her desk as I move toward the door. My vision is cloudy. I can barely make out the banisters. I’m tripping, half falling down the stairs, finding the front door by touch. I think Hana might be calling to me, but everything is lost to a roaring, rushing in my ears, inside my head. Sunshine, brilliant, brilliant white light—cool biting iron under my fingers, the gate— ocean smells, gasoline. Wailing, growing louder. A punctuated shriek: beep, beep, beep.
My head clears all at once and I jump out of the middle of the street just before I’m squashed by a police car, which barrels past me, horn still blaring, siren whirling, leaving me coughing up dirt and dust. The ache in my throat gets so bad it feels like I’m gagging, and when I finally let the tears come it’s a huge relief, like dropping something heavy after you’ve been carrying it for a long time. Once I start crying I can’t stop, and all the way home I have to keep mashing my palm into my eyes every few seconds, smearing away the tears just so I can see where I’m going. I comfort myself by thinking that in less than two months this will seem like nothing to me. All of it will fall away and I’ll rise up new and free, like a bird winging up into the air.
That’s what Hana doesn’t understand, has never understood. For some of us, it’s about more than the deliria. Some of us, the lucky ones, will get the chance to be reborn: newer, fresher, better. Healed and whole and perfect again, like a misshapen slab of iron that comes out of the fire glowing, glittering, razor sharp.
That is all I want—all I have ever wanted. That is the promise of the cure.
“Lord Keep our hearts fixed; As you fixed the planets in their orbits And cooled the chaos of emerging— As the gravity of your will keeps star and star from collapsing Keeps ocean from turning to dust and dust from turning to water Keeps planets from colliding And suns from exploding— So, Lord, keep our hearts fixed In steady orbit And help them stay the path.”
—Psalm 21 (From “Prayer and Study,” The Book of Shhh)
That night, even after I’m in bed, Hana’s words replay themselves endlessly in my head. You won’t end up like her. You don’t have it in you. She only said it to comfort me, I know—it should be reassuring—but for some reason it isn’t. For some reason it makes me upset; there’s a deep aching in my chest, as though something large and cold and sharp is lodged there.
Here’s another thing Hana doesn’t understand:
Thinking about the disease, and worrying about it, and stressing about whether I’ve inherited some predisposition for it—that’s all I have of my mom. The disease is what I know about her. It is the link.
Otherwise, I have nothing.
It’s not that I don’t have memories of her. I do—lots of them, considering how young I was when she died. I remember that when there was fresh snow she would send me outside to pack pans with handfuls of it. Once inside we would drizzle maple syrup into the snow-filled pans, watching it harden into amber candy almost instantly, all loops and fragile, sugared filigree, like edible lace. I remember how much she loved to sing to us as she bounced me in the water at the beach off Eastern Prom. I didn’t know how strange this was at the time. Other mothers teach their children to swim. Other mothers bounce their babies in the water, and apply sunscreen to make sure their babies don’t burn, and do all the things that a mother is supposed to do, as outlined in the Parenting section of The Book of Shhh.
But they don’t sing.
I remember that she brought me trays of buttered toast when I was sick and kissed my bruises when I fell, and I remember once when she lifted me to my feet after I fell off my bike and began to rock me in her arms, a woman gasped and said to her, “You should be ashamed of yourself,” and I didn’t understand why, which made me cry harder. After that she comforted me only in private.
In public she would just frown and say, “You’re okay, Lena. Get up.”
We used to have dance parties too. My mother called them “sock jams,” because we would roll up the carpets in the living room and put on our thickest socks, and slip and slide along the wooden hallways. Even Rachel joined in, though she always claimed to be too old for baby games. My mom would draw the curtains and wedge pillows under the front and back doors and turn up the music. We laughed so hard I always went to bed with a stomachache.
Eventually, I understood that on our sock-jam nights she’d closed the curtains to prevent us from being seen by passing patrols, that she’d stopped up the doors with pillows so that the neighbors would not report us for playing music and laughing too much, both potential warning signs of the deliria. I understood that she used to tuck my father’s military pin—a silver dagger he had inherited from his own father, which she wore every day on a chain around her neck—beneath the collar of her shirt whenever we left the house, so no one would see it and become suspicious. I understood that all the happiest moments of my childhood were a lie. They were wrong and unsafe and illegal. They were freakish.
My mother was freakish, and I’d probably inherited the freakishness from her.
For the first time, really, I wonder what she must have been feeling, thinking, the night she walked out to the cliffs and kept walking, feet pedaling the air. I wonder whether she was scared. I wonder whether she thought of me or Rachel. I wonder whether she was sorry for leaving us behind.
I start thinking about my father, too. I don’t remember him at all, though I have some dim, ancient impression of two warm, rough hands and a large looming face floating above mine, but I think that’s just because my mother kept a framed portrait in her bedroom of my father and me. I was only a few months old and he was holding me, smiling, looking at the camera. But there’s no way I’m remembering for real real. I wasn’t even a year old when he died. Cancer.
The heat is horrible, thick, clotting on the walls. Jenny is rolled over on her back, arms and legs flung open on top of her comforter, breathing silently with her mouth gaping open. Even Grace is fast asleep, murmuring soundlessly into her pillow. The whole room smells like a wet exhalation, skin and tongues and warm milk.
I ease out of bed, already dressed in black jeans and a T- shirt. I didn’t even bother to change into my pajamas. I knew I would never be able to sleep tonight. And earlier in the evening, I’d come to a decision. I was sitting at the dinner table with Carol and Uncle William and Jenny and Grace, while everyone chewed and swallowed in silence, staring blankly at one another, feeling as though the air was weighing down on me, constricting my breath, like two fists squeezing tighter and tighter around a water balloon, when I realized something.
Hana said I didn’t have it in me, but she was wrong.
My heart is beating so loudly I can hear it, and I’m positive that everyone else will too—that it will make my aunt sit bolt upright in her bed, ready to catch me and accuse me of trying to sneak out. Which is, of course, exactly what I am trying to do. I didn’t even know a heart could beat so loudly, and it reminds me of an Edgar Allan Poe story we had to read in one of our social studies classes, about this guy who kills this other guy and then gives himself up to the police because he’s convinced he can hear the dead guy’s heart beating up from beneath his floorboards. It’s supposed to be a story about guilt and the dangers of civil disobedience, but when I first read it I thought it seemed kind of lame and melodramatic. Now I get it, though. Poe must have snuck out a lot when he was young.
I ease open the bedroom door, holding my breath, praying it doesn’t squeak. At one point Jenny lets out a shout and my heart freezes. But then she rolls over, flinging one arm across her pillow, and I exhale slowly, realizing she’s just fussing in her sleep.
The hall is totally dark. The room my aunt and uncle share is dark too, and the only sound comes from the whispering of the trees outside and the low ticks and groans from the walls, the usual old-house arthritic noises. I finally work up the courage to slip out into the hall and slide the bedroom door shut behind me. I go so slowly that it almost feels like I’m not moving at all, feeling my way by the bumps and ripples in the wallpaper over to the stairs, then sliding my hand inch by inch over the banister, walking on my very tiptoes.
Even so, it seems like the house is fighting me, like it’s just screaming for me to be caught. Every step seems to creak, or shriek, or moan. Every single floorboard quivers and shudders under my feet, and I start mentally bargaining with the house: If I make it to the front door without waking up Aunt Carol, I swear to God I’ll never slam another door. I’ll never call you “an old piece of turd” again, not even in my head, and I’ll never curse the basement when it floods, and I will never, ever, ever kick the bedroom wall when I’m annoyed at Jenny.
Maybe the house hears me, because, miraculously, I do make it to the front door. I pause for a second longer, listening for the sounds of footsteps upstairs, whispered voices, anything—but other than my heart, which is still going strong and loud, it’s silent. Even the house seems to hesitate and take a breath, because the front door swings open with barely a whisper, and in the last second before I slip out into the night the rooms behind me are as dark and still as a grave.
Outside, I hesitate on the front stoop. The fireworks stopped an hour ago—I heard the last stuttering explosions, like distant gunfire, just as I was getting ready for bed—and now the streets are strangely silent, and totally empty. It’s a little after eleven o’clock. Some cureds must be lingering at the Eastern Prom. Everyone else is home by now. Not a single light is burning on the street. All the streetlamps were disabled years ago, except in the richest parts of Portland, and they look to me like blinded eyes. Thank God the moon is so bright.
I strain to detect the sounds of passing patrols or groups of regulators—I almost hope I do, because then I’ll have to go back inside, to my bed, to safety, and already the panic is starting to drill through me again. But everything is perfectly still and quiet, almost like it’s frozen. Everything rational, right, and good is screaming for me to turn around and go upstairs, but some stubborn inner center keeps me moving forward.
I go down the walk and unchain my bike from the gate.
My bike rattles a little bit, particularly when you first start pedaling, so I walk it a ways down the street. The wheels tick reassuringly over the pavement. I’ve never been out this late on my own in my life. I’ve never broken curfew. But alongside the fear—which is always there, of course, that constant crushing weight—is a small, flickering feeling of excitement that works its way up and underneath the fear, pushing it back some.