“Lena,” she says, “this is my friend Drew.” I think she looks guilty for just a second, but then the smile is back on her face, as wide as ever, like we’re standing in the middle of St. Anne’s talking about a bio quiz.
I open my mouth but no words come out, which is probably a good thing, considering that there’s a giant fire alarm going off in my head. It may sound stupid and naive, but not once when I was heading to the farms did I even consider that the party would be coed. It didn’t even occur to me.
Breaking curfew is one thing; listening to unapproved music is even worse. But breaking segregation laws is one of the worst offenses there is. Thus Willow Marks’s early procedure, and the graffiti scrawled on her house; thus the fact that Chelsea Bronson was kicked out of school after allegedly being found breaking curfew with a boy from Spencer, and her parents were mysteriously fired, and her whole family was forced to vacate their house. And—at least in Chelsea Bronson’s case—there wasn’t even any proof. Just a rumor going around.
Drew gives me a half wave. “Hey, Lena.”
My mouth opens and closes. Still no sound. For a second we stand there in awkward silence. Then he extends a cup to me, a sudden, jerky gesture. “Whiskey?”
“Whiskey?” I squeak back. I’ve only had alcohol a few times. At Christmas, when Aunt Carol pours me a quarter glass of wine, and once at Hana’s house, when we stole some blackberry liqueur from her parents’ liquor cabinet and drank until the ceiling started spinning overhead. Hana was laughing and giggling, but I didn’t like it, didn’t like the sweet sick taste in my mouth or the way my thoughts seemed to break apart like a mist in the sun. Out of control— that’s what it was, that’s what I hated.
Drew shrugs. “It’s all they had. Vodka always goes first at these things.” At these things—as in, these things happen, as in, more than once.
“No.” I try to shove the cup back at him. “Take it.”
He waves me away, obviously misunderstanding. “It’s cool. I’ll just get another.”
Drew smiles quickly at Hana before disappearing into the crowd. I like his smile, the way it rises crookedly toward his left ear—but as I realize I’m thinking about liking his smile, I feel the panic winging its way through me, beating through my blood, a lifetime of whispers and accusations.
Control. It’s all about control. “I have to go,” I manage to say to Hana. Progress. “Go?” She wrinkles her forehead.
“You walk all the way out here—” “I biked.”
“Whatever. You bike all the way out here and then you’re just going to go?” Hana reaches for my hand, but I cross my arms quickly to avoid her. She looks momentarily hurt. I pretend to shiver so she doesn’t feel bad, wondering why it feels so awkward to talk to her.
This is my best friend, the girl I’ve known since second grade, the girl who used to split her cookies with me at lunch, and once put her fist in Jillian Dawson’s face after Jillian said my family was diseased.
“I’m tired,” I say. “And I shouldn’t be here.” I want to say, You shouldn’t be here either, but I stop myself.
“Did you hear the band? They’re amazing, aren’t they?”
Hana’s being way too nice, totally un-Hana, and I feel a deep, sharp pain under my ribs. She’s trying to be polite.
She’s acting like we’re strangers. She feels the awkwardness too.
“I—I wasn’t listening.” For some reason I don’t want Hana to know that yes, I heard, and yes, I thought they were amazing, better than amazing. It’s too private— embarrassing even, something to be ashamed of, and despite the fact that I came all the way to Roaring Brook Farms and broke curfew and everything, just to see her and apologize, the feeling I had earlier today returns to me: I don’t know Hana anymore, and she doesn’t really know me.
I’m used to a feeling of doubleness, of thinking one thing and having to do another, a constant tug-of-war. But somehow Hana has fallen cleanly away into the double half, the other world, the world of unmentionable thoughts and things and people.
Is it possible that all this time I’ve been living my life, studying for tests, taking long runs with Hana—and this other world has just existed, running alongside and underneath mine, alive, ready to sneak out of the shadows and the alleyways as soon as the sun goes down? Illegal parties, unapproved music, people touching one another with no fear of the disease, with no fear for themselves.
A world without fear. Impossible.
And even though I’m standing in the middle of the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen in my life, I suddenly feel very alone.
“Stay,” Hana says quietly. Even though it’s a command, there’s a hesitation in her voice, like she’s asking a question. “You can catch the second set.”
I shake my head. I wish I hadn’t come. I wish I hadn’t seen this. I wish I didn’t know what I know now, could wake up tomorrow and ride over to Hana’s house, could lie out at Eastern Prom with her and complain about how boring summers are, like we always do. Could believe that nothing had changed. “I’m going to go,” I say, wishing my voice didn’t come out shaky. “It’s all right, though. You can stay.”
The second I say it, I realize she never offered to come back with me. She’s looking at me with the weirdest mixture of regret and pity.
“I can come back with you if you want,” she says, but I can tell she’s only offering now to make me feel better.
“No, no. I’ll be fine.” My cheeks are burning and I take a step back, desperate to get out of there. I bump against someone—a boy—who turns and smiles at me. I step quickly away from him.
“Lena, wait.” Hana goes to grab me again. Even though she already has a drink, I shove my cup in her free hand so she has to pause, momentarily frowning as she tries to juggle both drinks into the crook of an elbow, and in that second I dance backward out of her reach.
“I’ll be fine, I promise. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” Then I’m slipping through a narrow space between two people—that’s the only benefit of being five-two, you have a good vantage point on all the in-between spaces— and before I know it, Hana has dropped behind me, swallowed up by the crowd. I weave a path away from the barn, keeping my eyes down, hoping my cheeks cool off fast.
Images swirl by, a blur, making me feel like I’m dreaming again. Boy. Girl. Boy. Girl. Laughing, shoving each other, touching each other’s hair. I’ve never, not once in my whole life, felt so different and out of place.
There’s a high, mechanized shriek, and then the band starts playing again, but this time the music does nothing for me. I don’t even pause. I just keep walking, heading for the hill, imagining the cool silence of the starlit fields, the familiar dark streets of Portland, the regular rhythm of the patrols, marching quietly in sync, the feedback from the regulators’ walkie-talkies— regular, normal, familiar, mine.
Finally the crowd starts thinning. It was hot, pressed up against so many people, and the breeze stings my skin, cools my cheeks. I’ve started to calm down a little, and at the edge of the crowd I allow myself one look back at the stage. The barn, open to the sky and the night and glowing white with light, reminds me of a palm cupping a small bit of fire.
It’s strange how I instantly recognize the voice even though I’ve heard it only once before, for ten minutes, fifteen tops—it’s the laughter that runs underneath it, like someone leaning in to let you in on a really good secret in the middle of a really boring class. Everything freezes. The blood stops flowing in my veins. My breath stops coming. For a second even the music falls away and all I hear is something steady and quiet and pretty, like the distant beat of a drum, and I think, I’m hearing my heart, except I know that’s impossible, because my heart has stopped too. My vision does its camera-zoom focus again and all I see is Alex, shouldering his way out of the crowd toward me.
A brief flash of terror zips through me—for a wild second I think he must be here as part of a patrol, as a raiding group or something—but then I see he’s dressed normally, in jeans and his scuffed-up sneakers with the ink-blue laces and a faded T-shirt.
“What are you doing here?” I stammer out as he catches up to me.
He grins. “Nice to see you too.”
He has left a few feet of distance between us, and I’m glad. In the half-light I can’t make out the color of his eyes and I don’t need to be distracted right now, don’t need to feel the way I did at the labs when he leaned in to whisper to me— the total awareness of the bare inch that separated his mouth from my ear, terror and guilt and excitement all at once.
“I’m serious.” I do my best to scowl at him.
His smile falters, though it doesn’t disappear entirely.
He blows air out of his lips. “I came to hear the music,”
he says. “Like everybody else.”
“But you can’t—” I’m struggling to find words, not quite sure how to say what I want to say. “But this is—”
“Illegal?” He shrugs. One strand of hair curls down over his left eye, and when he turns to scan the party it catches the light from the stage and winks that crazy golden-brown color. “It’s okay,” he says, quieter, so that I have to lean forward to hear him over the music.
“Nobody’s hurting anybody.”
You don’t know that, I start to say, but the way his words are just edged with sadness stops me. Alex runs a hand through his hair and I make out the small, dark, three-pronged scar behind his left ear, perfectly symmetrical. Maybe he’s only regretful for the things he lost after the cure. Music doesn’t move people the same way, for example, and while he should have been cured of feelings of regret, too, the procedure works differently for everybody, and it isn’t always perfect.
That’s why my aunt and uncle sometimes still dream.
That’s why my cousin Marcia used to find herself crying hysterically, with no warning or apparent cause.
“So what about you?” He turns back to me and the smile is on again, and the teasing, winking quality of his voice.
“What’s your excuse?”
“I didn’t want to come,” I say quickly. “I had to—” I break off, realizing I’m not sure why I had to come. “I had to give something to someone,” I say finally.
He raises his eyebrows, clearly unimpressed. I rush on, “To Hana. My friend. You met her the other day.”
“I remember,” he says. I’ve never seen anyone maintain a smile for so long. It’s like his face is naturally molded that way. “You haven’t said you’re sorry yet, by the way.”
“For what?” The crowd has continued to press closer to the stage, so Alex and I are no longer surrounded by people. Occasionally someone walks by, swinging a bottle of something or singing along, slightly off-key, but for the most part we’re alone.