The stairs let out their awful moaning, and Grace’s sister, Jenny, appears. She is nine and tall for her age, but very thin: all angles and elbows, her chest caving in like a warped sheet pan. It’s terrible to say, but I don’t like her very much. She has the same pinched look as her mother did.
She joins my aunt in the doorway and stares at me. I am only five-two and Jenny is, amazingly, just a few inches shorter than I am now. It’s silly to feel self- conscious in front of my aunt and cousins, but a hot, crawling itch begins to work its way up my arms. I know they’re all worried about my performance at the evaluation. It’s critical that I get paired with someone good. Jenny and Grace are years away from their procedures. If I marry well, in a few years it will mean extra money for the family. It might also make the whispers go away, singsong snatches that four years after the scandal still seem to follow us wherever we go, like the sound of rustling leaves carried on the wind: Sympathizer.
It’s only slightly better than the other word that followed me for years after my mom’s death, a snakelike hiss, undulating, leaving its trail of poison: Suicide. A sideways word, a word that people whisper and mutter and cough: a word that must be squeezed out behind cupped palms or murmured behind closed doors. It was only in my dreams that I heard the word shouted, screamed.
I take a deep breath, then duck down to pull the plastic bin from under my bed so that my aunt won’t see I’m shaking.
“Is Lena getting married today?” Jenny asks my aunt.
Her voice has always reminded me of bees droning flatly in the heat.
“Don’t be stupid,” my aunt says, but without irritation.
“You know she can’t marry until she’s cured.”
I take my towel from the bin and straighten up. That word—marry—makes my mouth go dry. Everyone marries as soon as they are done with their education.
It’s the way things are. “Marriage is Order and Stability, the mark of a Healthy society.” (See The Book of Shhh, “Fundamentals of Society,” p. 114). But the thought of it still makes my heart flutter frantically, like an insect behind glass. I’ve never touched a boy, of course— physical contact between uncureds of opposite sex is forbidden. Honestly, I’ve never even talked to a boy for longer than five minutes, unless you count my cousins and uncle and Andrew Marcus, who helps my uncle at the Stop-N-Save and is always picking his nose and wiping his snot on the underside of the canned vegetables.
And if I don’t pass my boards—please God, please God, let me pass them— I’ll have my wedding as soon as I’m cured, in less than three months. Which means I’ll have my wedding night.
The smell of oranges is still strong, and my stomach does another swoop. I bury my face in my towel and inhale, willing myself not to be sick.
From downstairs there is the clatter of dishes. My aunt sighs and checks her watch.
“We have to leave in less than an hour,” she says. “You’d better get moving.”
“Lord, help us root our feet to the earth And our eyes to the road And always remember the fallen angels Who, attempting to soar, Were seared instead by the sun and, wings melting, Came crashing back to the sea.
Lord, help root my eyes to the earth And stay my eyes to the road So I may never stumble.”
—Psalm 24 (From “Prayer and Study,” The Book of Shhh)
My aunt insists on walking me down to the laboratories, which, like all the government offices, are lumped together along the wharves: a string of bright white buildings, glistening like teeth over the slurping mouth of the ocean. When I was little and had just moved in with her, she used to walk me to school every day. My mother, sister, and I had lived closer to the border, and I was amazed and terrified by all the winding, darkened streets, which smelled like garbage and old fish. I always wished for my aunt to hold my hand, but she never did, and I had balled my hands into fists and followed the hypnotic swish of her corduroy pants, dreading the moment that St. Anne’s Academy for Girls would rise up over the crest of the final hill, the dark stone building lined with fissures and cracks like the weather-beaten face of one of the industrial fishermen who work along the docks.
It’s amazing how things change. I’d been terrified of the streets of Portland then, and reluctant to leave my aunt’s side. Now I know them so well I could follow their dips and curves with my eyes closed, and today I want nothing more than to be alone. I can smell the ocean, though it’s concealed from view by the twisting undulations of the streets, and it relaxes me. The salt blowing off the sea makes the air feel textured and heavy.
“Remember,” she is saying for the thousandth time, “they want to know about your personality, yes, but the more generalized your answers the better chance you have of being considered for a variety of positions.” My aunt has always talked about marriage with words straight out of The Book of Shhh, words like duty, responsibility, and perseverance.
“Got it,” I say. A bus barrels past us. The crest for St.
Anne’s Academy is stenciled along its side and I duck my head quickly, imagining Cara McNamara or Hillary Packer staring out the dirt-encrusted windows, giggling and pointing at me. Everyone knows I am having my evaluation today. Only four are offered throughout the year, and slots are determined well in advance.
The makeup Aunt Carol insisted I wear makes my skin feel coated and slick. In the bathroom mirror at home, I thought I looked like a fish, especially with my hair all pinned with metal bobby pins and clips: a fish with a bunch of metal hooks sticking in my head.
I don’t like makeup, have never been interested in clothes or lip gloss. My best friend, Hana, thinks I’m crazy, but of course she would. She’s absolutely gorgeous—even when she just twists her blond hair into a messy knot on the top of her head, she looks as though she’s just had it styled. I’m not ugly, but I’m not pretty, either. Everything is in-between. I have eyes that aren’t green or brown, but a muddle. I’m not thin, but I’m not fat, either. The only thing you could definitely say about me is this: I’m short.
“If they ask you, God forbid, about your cousins, remember to say that you didn’t know them well. . . .”
“Uh-huh.” I’m only half listening. It’s hot, too hot for June, and sweat is pricking up already on my lower back and in my armpits, even though I slathered on deodorant this morning. To our right is Casco Bay, which is hemmed in by Peaks Island and Great Diamond Island, where the lookout towers are. Beyond that is open ocean—and beyond that, all the crumbling countries and cities ruined by the disease.
“Lena? Are you even listening to me?” Carol puts a hand on my arm and spins me in her direction.
“Blue,” I parrot back at her. “Blue is my favorite color.
Or green.” Black is too morbid; red will set them on edge; pink is too juvenile; orange is freakish.
“And the things you like to do in your free time?”
I gently slip away from her grasp. “We’ve gone over this already.”
“This is important, Lena. Possibly the most important day of your whole life.”
I sigh. Ahead of me the gates that bar the government labs swing open slowly with a mechanized whine. There is already a double line forming: on one side, the girls, and fifty feet away, at a second entrance, the boys. I squint against the sun, trying to locate people I know, but the ocean has dazzled me and my vision is clouded by floating black spots.
“Lena?” my aunt prompts me.
I take a deep breath and launch into the spiel we’ve rehearsed a billion times. “I like to work on the school paper. I’m interested in photography because I like the way it captures and preserves a single moment of time. I enjoy hanging out with my friends and attending concerts at Deering Oaks Park. I like to run and was a co-captain of the cross-country team for two years. I hold the school record in the 5K event. I often babysit the younger members of my family, and I really like children.”
“You’re making a face,” my aunt says.
“I love children,” I repeat, plastering a smile on my face.
The truth is, I don’t like very many children except for Gracie. They’re so bumpy and loud all the time, and they’re always grabbing things and dribbling and wetting themselves. But I know I’ll have to have children of my own someday.
“Better,” Carol says. “Go on.” I finish, “My favorite subjects are math and history,” and she nods, satisfied.
I turn around. Hana is just climbing out of her parents’ car, her blond hair flying in wisps and waves around her face, her semi-sheer tunic slipping off one tan shoulder.
All the girls and boys lining up to enter the labs have turned to watch her. Hana has that kind of power over people.
“Lena! Wait!” Hana continues barreling down the street, waving at me frantically. Behind her, the car begins a slow revolution: back and forth, back and forth, in the narrow drive until it is facing the opposite direction.
Hana’s parents’ car is as sleek and dark as a panther.
The few times we’ve driven around in it together I’ve felt like a princess. Hardly anyone has cars anymore, and even fewer have cars that actually drive. Oil is strictly rationed and extremely expensive. Some middle-class people keep cars mounted in front of their houses like statues, frigid and unused, the tires spotless and unworn.
“Hi, Carol,” Hana says breathlessly, catching up to us. A magazine pops out of her half-open bag, and she stoops to retrieve it. It’s one of the government publications, Home and Family, and in response to my raised eyebrows she makes a face. “Mom made me bring it. She said I should read it while I’m waiting for my evaluation.
She said it will give the right impression.” Hana sticks her finger down her throat and mimes gagging.
“Hana,” my aunt whispers fiercely. The anxiety in her voice makes my heart skip. Carol hardly ever loses her temper, even for a minute. She whips her head in both directions, as though expecting to find regulators or evaluators lurking in the bright morning street.
“Don’t worry. They’re not spying on us.” Hana turns her back to my aunt and mouths to me, yet. Then she grins.
In front of us, the double line of girls and boys is growing longer, extending into the street, even as the glass- fronted doors of the labs swoosh open and several nurses appear, carrying clipboards, and begin to usher people into the waiting rooms. My aunt rests one hand on my elbow lightly, quick as a bird.
“You’d better get on line,” she says. Her voice is back to normal. I wish some of her calmness would rub off on me. “And Lena?”
“Yeah?” I don’t feel very well. The labs look far away, so white I can hardly stand to look at them, the pavement shimmering hot in front of us. The words most important day of your life keep repeating in my head.
The sun feels like a giant spotlight.
“Good luck.” My aunt does her one-millisecond smile.
“Thanks.” I kind of wish Carol would say something else—something like, I’m sure you’ll do great, or Try not to worry—but she just stands there, blinking, her face composed and unreadable as always.