Just like I feared—he’s ashamed of me now, disgusted by my family’s history, by the disease that runs in my blood. At any second he’ll stand up and tell me it’s better if he doesn’t speak to me anymore. It’s weird. I don’t even really know Alex, and there’s an impassable divide between us, but the idea upsets me anyway.
I’m two seconds away from jumping up and running away, just so I won’t have to nod and pretend to understand when he turns to me and says, Listen, Lena.
I’m sorry, but . . . and gives me that all-too-familiar look.
(Last year there was a rabid dog loose on the Hill, biting and snapping at everyone, frothing at the mouth. It was half-starved, mangy, flea-riddled, and missing one leg, but still it took two cops to shoot it down. A crowd gathered to watch, and I was there. I stopped on the way back from my run. For the first time in my life I understood the look that people had been giving me forever, the same curl of the lip whenever they hear the name Haloway. Pity, yes—but disgust, also, and fear of contamination. It was the same way they were looking at the dog while he circled and snapped and spit; and then a mass exhalation of relief when the third bullet finally took him down and he stopped twitching.) Just when I think I can’t take it anymore, Alex reaches over and barely skims my elbow with one finger. “I’ll race you,” he says, standing up and beating the sand off his shorts. He reaches a hand out to me and helps me up, a smile flickering back on his face. I’m endlessly grateful to him in that second. He’s not going to hold my family’s past against me. He doesn’t think I’m dirty or damaged. He pulls me to my feet, and I think he squeezes my hand once I’m standing, a quick pulse, and I’m startled and happy, thinking of my secret sign with Hana.
“Only if you’ve got a thing for total humiliation,” I say.
He raises his eyebrows. “So you think you can beat me?”
“I don’t think. I know.”
“We’ll see about that.” He cocks his head to the side.
“First one to the buoys, then?”
That throws me. The tide doesn’t go out too far in the bay; the buoys are still floating on at least four feet of water. “You want to race into the bay?”
“Scared?” he asks, grinning.
“I’m not scared, I’m just—”
“Good.” He reaches out and brushes my shoulder with two fingers. “Then how about a little less conversation, and a little more— Go! ”
He screams out the last word and takes off at full speed.
It takes me two whole seconds to launch myself after him, and I’m calling out, “No fair! I wasn’t ready!” and both of us are laughing as we splash through the shallows in our clothes, the little ripples and dips of the ocean floor now exposed by the tide’s retreat. Shells crunch under my feet. I get my toe caught in a tangle of red and purple seaweed and nearly do a face-plant. I push myself off the wet sand with a palm and get my balance again, have almost caught up to Alex, when he ducks down and scoops up a handful of wet sand, whirling around to peg me with it. I shriek and duck out of the way, but a bit of it still catches me on the cheek, dribbling down my neck.
“You are such a cheater!” I manage to gasp, out of breath from running and laughing.
“You can’t cheat if there are no rules,” Alex shoots back over his shoulder.
“No rules, huh?” We’re splashing shin deep now and I start palming water at him, making a splatter pattern over his back and shoulders. He turns around, sweeping his arm across the surface of the water, a glittering arc.
I twist to avoid it and end up slipping and falling elbow deep, soaking my shorts and the bottom half of my T- shirt, the sudden cold making me gasp. He’s still slogging forward, his head craned back, his smile dazzling, his laugh rolling off and away so loud I imagine it dipping past Great Diamond Island and over the horizon, reaching all the way to other parts of the world.
I scramble up and haul after him. The buoys are bobbing twenty feet ahead of us and the water is at my knees, and then my thighs, and then all the way to my waist, until both of us are half running and half swimming, frantically paddling forward with our arms. I can’t breathe or think or do anything but laugh and splash and focus on the bright red bobbing buoys, focus on winning, winning, I have to win, and when we’re only a few feet away and he’s still in the lead and my shoes are leaden and filled with water, my clothes dragging me down like my pockets have been weighted with stones, without thinking I leap forward and tackle him, wrestling down into the water, feeling my foot connect with his thigh as I rocket off of him and reach out to slap the nearest buoy, the plastic shooting away from my hand when I hit it. We must be a quarter mile off the beach, but the tide’s still going out so I can stand, the water hitting me at my chest. I raise my arms triumphantly as Alex comes up spluttering water, shaking his head so water pinwheels from his hair.
“I won,” I pant out.
“You cheated,” he says, pushing forward a few more steps and collapsing with both arms behind him, looped over the rope stringing along the buoys. He arches his back so his face is tilted up toward the sky. His T-shirt is completely soaked, and water beads off his eyelashes, trickles down his cheeks.
“No rules,” I say, “so no cheating.”
He turns to me, grinning. “I let you win, then.”
“Yeah, right.” I splash him a little and he holds up his hands, surrendering. “You’re just a sore loser.”
“I don’t have much practice at it.” There’s that confidence again, that semi- infuriating easiness of his, the tilt of his head and the smile. But today it’s not infuriating. Today I like it, feel like it’s somehow rubbing off on me, like if I was around him enough I would never feel awkward or frightened or insecure.
“Whatever.” I roll my eyes and hook one arm over the buoys next to him, enjoying the feel of the currents swishing around my chest, enjoying the strangeness of being in the bay with my clothes on, the stickiness of my T-shirt and the sucking of my shoes on my feet. Soon the tide will turn and the water will come in again. Then it will be a slow, exhausting swim back to the beach.
But I don’t care. I don’t care about anything—I’m not worried about how in a million years I’ll explain to Carol why I’ve come home soaking wet, with seaweed clinging to my back and the smell of salt in my hair, not worried about how long I have until curfew or why Alex is even being nice to me. I’m just happy, a pure, bubbly feeling.
Beyond the buoys the bay is dark purple, the waves brushed over with whitecaps. It is illegal to go beyond the buoys—beyond the buoys are the islands and the lookout points, and beyond them is open ocean, ocean that leads to unregulated places, places of disease and fear—but for that moment I fantasize about ducking underneath the rope and swimming out.
To our left we can see the bright white silhouette of the lab complex and beyond it, distantly, Old Port, all the docks like gigantic wooden centipedes. To our right is Tukey’s Bridge, and the long string of guard huts that runs its length and continues up along the border. Alex catches me looking.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” he says.
The bridge is mottled gray-green, all coated in backsplash and algae, and it looks like it’s keening slightly into the wind. I wrinkle my nose. “It looks kind of like it’s rotting, doesn’t it? My sister always said that someday it would fall into the ocean, just topple right over.”
Alex laughs. “I wasn’t talking about the bridge.” He tilts his chin just slightly, gesturing. “I meant past the bridge.” He pauses for just a fraction of a second. “I meant the Wilds.”
Beyond Tukey’s Bridge is the northern border, located along the far side of Back Cove. As we’re standing there the lights in the guard huts click on, one after another, shining out against the deepening blue sky—a sign that it’s getting late and I should be going home soon. Still, I can’t force myself to leave, even as I feel the water around my chest start to bubble and eddy, the tide turning. Beyond the bridge the lush greens of the Wilds move together in the wind like an endlessly re-arranging wall, a thick wedge of green cutting down toward the bay and separating Portland from Yarmouth. From here we can just make out the barest section of it, an empty place marked with no lights, no boats, no buildings: impenetrable and strange and black.
But I know that the Wilds extend back, go on for miles and miles and miles all through the mainland, all across the country, like a monster reaching its tentacles around the civilized parts of the world.
Maybe it was the race, or beating him to the buoys, or the fact that he didn’t criticize me or my family when I told him about my mother, but in that moment the giddiness and happiness is still flowing strong and I feel like I could tell Alex anything, ask him anything. So I say, “Can I tell you a secret?” I don’t wait for him to answer; I don’t have to, and knowing that makes me feel dizzy and careless. “I used to think about it a lot. The Wilds, I mean, and what they were like . . . and the Invalids, whether they really existed.” Out of the corner of my eye I think I see him flinch slightly, so I press on, “I used to sometimes think . . . I used to pretend that maybe my mom didn’t die, you know? That maybe she’d only run away to the Wilds. Not that that would be any better. I guess I just didn’t want her to be gone for good.
It was better to imagine her out there somewhere, singing. . . .” I break off, shaking my head, amazed that I feel so comfortable talking to Alex. Amazed, and grateful. “What about you?” I say.
“What about me what?” Alex is watching me with an expression I can’t read. Like I’ve hurt him, almost, but that doesn’t make any sense.
“Did you used to think about going to the Wilds when you were little? Just for fun, I mean, like a game.”
Alex squints, looks away from me, and grimaces. “Yeah, sure. A lot.” He reaches out and slaps the buoys. “None of these. No walls to run into. No eyes. Freedom and space, places to stretch out. I still think about the Wilds.”
I stare at him. Nobody uses words like that anymore:
freedom, space. Old words. “Still? Even after this?”
Without meaning to or thinking about it I reach out and brush my fingers, once, against the three-pronged scar on his neck.
He jerks away from my touch as though I’ve scalded him, and I drop my hand, embarrassed.
“Lena . . . ,” he says, in the strangest voice: like my name is a sour thing, a word that tastes bad in his mouth.
I know I shouldn’t have touched him like that. I’ve overstepped my boundaries, and he’s going to remind me of it, of what it means to be uncured. I think I will die of humiliation if he starts to lecture me, so to cover my discomfort I start babbling. “Most cureds don’t think about that kind of stuff. Carol—that’s my aunt—she always said it was a waste of time. She always said there was nothing out there but animals and land and bugs, that all the talk of Invalids was make-believe stuff, kid stuff. She said believing in Invalids is the same thing as believing in werewolves or vampires. Remember how people used to say there were vampires in the Wilds?”