Alex smiles, but it’s more like a wince. “Lena, I have to tell you something.” His voice is a little stronger now, but something about his tone makes me afraid to let him speak.
Now I can’t stop talking. “Did it hurt? The procedure, I mean. My sister said it was no big deal, not with all the painkillers they give you, but my cousin Marcia used to say it was worse than anything, worse than having a baby, even though her second kid took, like, fifteen hours to deliver—” I break off, blushing, mentally cursing myself for the ridiculous conversational turn. I wish I could rewind back to last night’s party, when my brain was coming up empty; it’s like I’ve been saving up for a case of verbal vomit. “I’m not scared, though,” I nearly scream, as Alex again opens his mouth to speak.
I’m desperate to salvage the situation somehow. “My procedure’s coming up. Sixty days. It’s dorky, huh?
That I count. But I can’t wait.”
“Lena.” Alex’s voice is stronger, more forceful now, and it finally stops me. He turns so that we’re face-to-face.
At that moment my shoes skim off the sand bottom, and I realize that the water is lapping up to my neck. The tide is coming in fast. “Listen to me. I’m not who—I’m not who you think I am.”
I have to fight to stand. All of a sudden the currents tug and pull at me. It’s always seemed this way. The tide goes out a slow drain, comes back in a rush. “What do you mean?”
His eyes—shifting gold, amber, an animal’s eyes—search my face, and without knowing why, I’m scared again. “I was never cured,” he says. For a moment I close my eyes and imagine I’ve misheard him, imagine I’ve only confused the shushing of the waves for his voice. But when I open my eyes he’s still standing there, staring at me, looking guilty and something else—sad, maybe?—and I know I heard correctly. He says, “I never had the procedure.”
“You mean it didn’t work?” I say. My body is tingling, going numb, and I realize then how cold it is. “You had the procedure and it didn’t work? Like what happened to my mom?”
“No, Lena. I—” He looks away, squinting, says under his breath, “I don’t know how to explain.”
Everything from the tips of my fingers through the roots of my hair now feels as if it’s encased in ice.
Disconnected images run through my head, a skipping movie reel: Alex standing on the observation deck, his hair like a crown of leaves; turning his head, showing the neat three-pronged scar just beneath his left ear; reaching out to me and saying, I’m safe. I won’t hurt you. The words start rattling out of me again but I don’t feel them, hardly feel anything. “It didn’t work and you’ve been lying about it. Lying so you could still go to school, still get a job, still get paired and matched and everything. But really you’re not— you’re still—you might still be—” I can’t bring myself to say the word.
Diseased. Uncured. Sick. I feel like I’ll be sick.
“No.” Alex’s voice is so loud it startles me. I take a step back, sneakers slipping on the slick and uneven bottom of the ocean floor, and nearly go under, but when Alex makes a move to touch me I jerk backward, out of his reach. Something hardens in his face, like he’s made a decision. “I’m telling you I was never cured. Never paired or matched or anything. I was never even evaluated.”
“Impossible.” The word barely squeezes itself out, a whisper. The sky is whirling above me, all blues and pinks and reds swirling together until it looks like parts of the sky are bleeding. “Impossible. You have the scars.”
“Scars,” he corrects me, a little more gently. “Just scars.
Not the scars.” He looks away then, giving me a view of his neck. “Three tiny scars, an inverted triangle. Easy to replicate. With a scalpel, a penknife, anything.”
I close my eyes again. The waves swell around me and the motion, the lift and the drop, convinces me I really will throw up, right here in the water. I choke down the feeling, trying to hold back the realization that is battering at the back of my mind, threatening to overwhelm me—fighting back the feeling of drowning. I open my eyes and croak out, “How . . . ?”
“You have to understand. Lena, I’m trusting you. Do you see that?” He’s staring at me so intently I can feel his eyes like a touch, and I keep my eyes averted. “I didn’t mean to—I didn’t want to lie to you.”
“How?” I repeat, louder now. Somehow my brain gets stuck on the word lie and makes an endless loop: No way to avoid evaluations unless you lie. No way to avoid procedure unless you lie. You must lie.
For a moment Alex is silent, and I think he’s going to chicken out, refuse to tell me anything more. I almost wish he would. I’m desperate to rewind time, go back to the moment before he said my name in that strange tone of voice, go back to the triumphant, surging feeling of beating him to the buoys. We’ll race back to the beach.
We’ll meet up tomorrow, try to wheedle some fresh crabs from the fishermen at the dock.
But then he speaks. “I’m not from here,” he says. “I mean, I wasn’t born in Portland. Not exactly.” He’s speaking in the tone of voice that everyone uses when they’re about to break you apart. Gentle—kind, even— like they can make the news sound better just by speaking in a lullaby voice. I’m sorry, Lena, but your mother was a troubled woman. Like you won’t somehow hear the violence underneath.
“Where are you from?” I don’t have to ask. I know already. The realization has broken, spilled, overrun me. But a little part of me believes that as long as he doesn’t say it, it’s not true.
His eyes are steady on mine, but he tilts his head back— back toward the border, beyond the bridge, to that endlessly moving arrangement of branches and leaves and vines and tangled, growing things. “There,” he says, or maybe I just think he says it. His lips barely move.
But the meaning is clear.
He comes from the Wilds.
“An Invalid,” I say. The word feels like it’s grating against my throat. “You’re an Invalid.” I’m giving him a final chance to deny it.
But he doesn’t. He just winces slightly and says, “I’ve always hated that word.”
Standing there, I realize something else: that it wasn’t a coincidence whenever Carol made fun of me for still believing in the Invalids, whenever she would shake her head without bothering to look up from her knitting needles— tic, tic, tic , they went together, flashing metal—and say, “I suppose you believe in vampires and werewolves, too?”
Vampires and werewolves and Invalids: things that will rip into you, tear you to shreds. Deadly things.
I’m suddenly so frightened a desperate pressure starts pushing down in the bottom of my stomach and between my legs, and for one wild and ridiculous second I’m positive that I’m about to pee. The lighthouse on Little Diamond Island clicks on, cuts a wide swath across the water, an enormous, accusatory finger: I’m terrified I’ll get caught up in its beam, terrified it will point in my direction and then I’ll hear the whirling of the state helicopters and the megaphone voices of the regulators shouting, “Illegal activity! Illegal activity!” The beach looks hopelessly and impossibly remote. I can’t imagine how we got out so far. My arms feel heavy and useless, and I think of my mother, and her jacket filling slowly with water.
I take deep breaths, trying to keep my mind from spinning, trying to focus. There’s no way for anyone to know that Alex is an Invalid. I didn’t know. He looks normal, has the scar in the right place. There’s no way anyone could have heard us talking.
A wave lifts and breaks against my back. I stumble forward. Alex reaches out and grabs my arm to steady me, but I twist away from him just as a second round of waves surges over us. I get a mouthful of seawater, feel the salt stinging my eyes and am momentarily blinded.
“Don’t,” I stutter. “Don’t you dare touch me.”
“Lena, I swear. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I didn’t want to lie to you.”
“Why are you doing this?” I can’t think straight, can hardly even breathe. “What do you want from me?”
“Want . . . ?” Alex shakes his head. He looks genuinely confused—and hurt, too, as though I’m the one who did something wrong. For a second I feel a flash of sympathy for him. Maybe he sees it on my face, that fraction of a second when I let my guard down, because in that moment his expression softens and his eyes go bright as flame and even though I barely see him move, suddenly he has closed the space between us and he’s wrapping his warm hands over my shoulders—fingers so warm and strong I almost cry out—and saying, “Lena.
I like you, okay? That’s it. That’s all. I like you.” His voice is so low and hypnotic it reminds me of a song. I think of predators dropping silently from trees: I think of enormous cats with glowing amber eyes, just like his.
And then I’m stumbling backward, paddling away from him, my shirt and shoes heavy with water, my heart hammering painfully against my chest and my breath rasping in my throat. I’m kicking off the ground and sweeping forward with my arms, half running, half swimming, as the tide lifts and drags at me so I feel like I can only creep forward an inch at a time, so I feel like I’m moving through molasses. Alex calls my name, but I’m too afraid to turn my head and see if he’s coming after me. It’s like one of those nightmares where something’s chasing you but you’re too afraid to look and see what it is. All you hear is its breath, getting closer and closer. You feel its shadow looming up behind you but you’re paralyzed: You know that any second you’ll feel its icy fingers closing on your neck.
I’ll never make it, I think. I’ll never make it back.
Something scrapes across my shin and I begin to imagine that the bay around me is full of horrible underwater things, sharks and jellyfish and poisonous eels, and even though I know I’m panicking I feel like falling backward and giving up. The beach is still so far, and my arms and legs feel so heavy.
Alex’s voice gets whipped away by the wind, sounding fainter and fainter, and when I finally work up the courage to look over my shoulder I see him bobbing up and down by the buoys. I realize I’ve gone farther than I thought, and at the very least Alex isn’t following me.
My fear eases up, and the knot in my chest loosens. The next wave is so strong it helps skim me over a steep underwater ridge, drops me to my knees into soft sand.
When I struggle to my feet the water hits me just at the waist, and I slosh the rest of the way to shore, shivering, grateful, exhausted.
My thighs are shaking. I collapse onto the beach, gasping and coughing. From the flames of color licking across the sky over Back Cove—orange, reds, pinks—I’m guessing it’s close to sunset, probably around eight o’clock. Part of me wants to just lie down, spread my arms and stretch out and sleep all through the night. I feel like I’ve swallowed half my weight in salt water. My skin stings and there’s sand everywhere, in my bra and underwear and between my toes and under my fingernails. Whatever scraped my shin in the water left its mark: a long trickle of blood snakes around my calf.