I look up, and for one panicked second I can’t find Alex by the buoys. My heart stops. Then I see him, a dark spot cutting quickly through the water. His arms pinwheel gracefully as he swims. He’s fast. I haul myself to my feet, grab my shoes, and limp up to my bike. My legs are so weak it takes me a minute to find my balance, and at first I weave crazily up and down the road like a toddler just learning to ride.
I don’t look back, not once, until I’m at my gate. By then the streets are empty and quiet, night about to fall, curfew about to come down like a giant warm embrace, keeping us all in our places, keeping us all safe.
“Think of it this way: When it’s cold outside and your teeth are chattering, you bundle up in a winter coat, and scarves, and mittens, to keep from catching the flu. Well, the borders are like hats and scarves and winter coats for the whole country!
They keep the very worst disease away, so we can all stay healthy!
After the borders went up, the president and the Consortium had one last thing to take care of before we could all be safe and happy. The Great Sanitation* (sometimes called “the blitz”) lasted less than a month, but afterward all the wild spaces were cleared of the disease. We went in there with some old-fashioned elbow grease and scrubbed the problem spots away, just like when your mom wipes the kitchen counters down with a sponge, easy as one, two, three. . . .
*Sanitation 1. The application of sanitary measures for the sake of cleanliness or protecting health 2. The disposal of sewage and waste”
—Excerpt from Dr. Richard’s History Primer for Children, Chapter One
Here is a secret about my family: My sister contracted the deliria several months before her scheduled procedure. She fell in love with a boy named Thomas, who was also uncured. During the day, she and Thomas spent all their time lying in a field of wildflowers, shielding their eyes against the sun, whispering promises to each other that could never be kept. She cried all the time, and once she confessed to me that Thomas liked to kiss away her tears. Still, now, when I think of those days—I was only eight at the time—I think of the taste of salt.
The disease slowly worked its way deeper and deeper inside of her, an animal chewing her from within. My sister couldn’t eat. What little we could convince her to swallow came up just as quickly, and I was afraid for her life.
Thomas broke her heart, of course, to nobody’s surprise.
The Book of Shhh says: “Amor deliria nervosa produces shifts in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which result in fantasies and delusions that, once revealed, lead in turn to psychic devastation” (See “Effects,” p. 36). Then my sister did nothing but lie in bed and watch the shadows shift slowly across the walls, her ribs rising up under her pale skin like wood rising through water.
Even then she refused the procedure and the comfort it would give her, and on the day the cure was to be administered it took four scientists and several needles full of tranquilizer before she would submit, before she would stop scratching with her long, sharp nails, which had gone uncut for weeks, and screaming and cursing and calling for Thomas. I watched them come for her, to bring her to the labs; I sat in a corner, terrified, while she spit and hissed and kicked, and I thought of my mom and dad.
That afternoon, though I was still more then a decade away from safety, I began to count the months until my procedure.
In the end my sister was cured. She came back to me gentle and content, her nails spotless and round, her hair pulled back in a long, thick braid. Several months later she was pledged to an IT tech, roughly her age, and several weeks after she graduated from college they married, their hands linked loosely under the canopy, both of them staring straight ahead as though at a future of days unmarred by worry or discontent or disagreement, a future of identical days, like a series of neatly blown bubbles.
Thomas was cured too. He was married to Ella, once my sister’s best friend, and now everybody is happy. Rachel told me a few months ago that the two couples often see each other at picnics and neighborhood events, since they live fairly close to each other in the East End. The four of them sit, making polite and quiet conversation, with not a sole flicker of the past to disturb the stillness and completeness of the present.
That’s the beauty of the cure. No one mentions those lost, hot days in the field, when Thomas kissed Rachel’s tears away and invented worlds just so he could promise them to her, when she tore the skin off her own arms at the thought of living without him. I’m sure she’s embarrassed by those days, if she remembers them at all. True, I don’t see her that often now—just once every couple of months, when she remembers she is supposed to stop by—and in that way I guess you could say that even with the procedure I lost a little bit of her. But that’s not the point. The point is that she’s protected.
The point is that she’s safe.
I’ll tell you another secret, this one for your own good.
You may think the past has something to tell you. You may think that you should listen, should strain to make out its whispers, should bend over backward, stoop down low to hear its voice breathed up from the ground, from the dead places. You may think there’s something in it for you, something to understand or make sense of.
But I know the truth: I know from the nights of Coldness. I know the past will drag you backward and down, have you snatching at whispers of wind and the gibberish of trees rubbing together, trying to decipher some code, trying to piece together what was broken.
It’s hopeless. The past is nothing but a weight. It will build inside of you like a stone.
Take it from me: If you hear the past speaking to you, feel it tugging at your back and running its fingers up your spine, the best thing to do—the only thing— is run.
In the days that follow Alex’s confession, I check constantly for symptoms of the disease. When I’m manning the register at my uncle’s store I lean forward on my elbow, keep my hand resting on my cheek so I can crook my fingers back toward my neck and count my pulse, make sure it’s normal. In the mornings I take long, slow breaths, listening for rasping or hitches in my lungs. I wash my hands constantly. I know the deliria isn’t like a cold—you can’t get it from being sneezed on— but still, it’s contagious, and when I woke up the day after our meeting at East End with my limbs still heavy and my head as light as a bubble and an ache in my throat that refused to go away, my first thought was that I’d been infected.
After a few days I feel better. The only weird thing is the way my senses seem to have dulled. Everything looks washed out, like a bad color copy. I have to load my food with salt before I can taste it, and every time my aunt speaks to me it seems like her voice has been muted a few degrees. But I read through The Book of Shhh, and all the recognized symptoms of deliria, and don’t see anything that matches up, so in the end I figure I’m safe.
Still, I take precautions, determined not to make one false step, determined to prove to myself that I’m not like my mother—that the thing with Alex was a fluke, a mistake, a horrible, horrible accident. I can’t ignore how close I was to danger. I don’t even want to think about what would happen if anyone found out what Alex was, if anyone knew that we had stood together shivering in the water, that we had talked, laughed, touched. It makes me feel sick. I have to keep repeating to myself that my procedure is less than two months away now.
All I have to do is keep my head down and make it through the next seven weeks and I’ll be fine.
I come home every evening a full two hours before curfew. I volunteer to spend extra days at the store, and I don’t even ask for my usual eight-dollar-an- hour wage.
Hana doesn’t call me. I don’t call her, either. I help my aunt cook dinner, and I clear and wash the dishes unprompted. Gracie is in summer school—she’s only in first grade and they’re already talking about holding her back—and every night I pull her onto my lap and help her sludge through her work, whispering in her ear, begging her to speak, to focus, to listen, cajoling her, finally, into writing at least half of the answers down in her workbook. After a week my aunt stops looking at me suspiciously whenever I walk into the house, stops demanding to know where I’ve been, and another weight eases off me: She trusts me again. It wasn’t easy to explain why on earth Sophia Hennerson and I would decide on an impromptu swim in the ocean—in our clothes, no less—just after a big family dinner, even harder to explain why I came home pale and shaking, and I could tell my aunt didn’t buy it. But after a while she relaxes around me again, stops looking at me distrustfully, like I’m some caged-up animal she’s worried will go feral.
Days pass, time ticks away, seconds click forward like dominoes toppling in a line. Every day the heat gets worse and worse. It creeps through the streets of Portland, festers in the Dumpsters, makes the city smell like a giant armpit. The walls sweat and the trolleys cough and shudder, and every day people gather in front of the municipal buildings, praying for a brief blast of cold air whenever the mechanized doors swoosh open because a regulator or politician or guard has to go in and out.
I have to give up my runs. The last time I do a full loop outside I find that my feet carry me down to Monument Square, past the Governor. The sun is a high white haze, all the buildings cut sharply against the sky like a series of metal teeth. By the time I make it to the statue I’m panting, exhausted, and my head is spinning. When I grab the Governor’s arm and swing myself up onto the statue’s base, the metal burns underneath my hand and the world seesaws crazily, light zigzagging everywhere.
I’m dimly aware that I should go inside, out of the heat, but my brain is all foggy and so there I go, poking my fingers around the hole in the Governor’s cupped fist. I don’t know what I’m looking for. Alex already told me that the note he’d left for me months ago must have turned to pulp by now. My fingers come out sticky, pieces of melting gum stringing between my thumb and forefinger, but still I root around. And then I feel it slide between my fingers, cool and crisp, folded in a square: a note.
I’m half-delirious as I open it, but still I don’t really expect it to be from him. My hands begin to shake as I read:
Lena, I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. Alex I don’t remember the run home, and my aunt finds me later half passed out in the hallway, murmuring to myself. She has to put me in a bathtub full of ice to get my temperature down. When I finally come to I can’t find the note anywhere. I realize I must have dropped it, and feel half-relieved and half-disappointed. That evening we read that the Time and Temperature Building registered 102 degrees: the hottest day on record for the summer so far.
My aunt forbids me to run outside for the rest of the summer. I don’t put up a fight. I don’t trust myself, can’t be sure my feet won’t lead me back down to the Governor, to East End Beach, to the labs.
I receive a new date for the evaluations and spend my evenings in front of the mirror rehearsing my answers.
My aunt insists on accompanying me to the labs again, but this time I don’t see Hana. I don’t see anyone I recognize. Even the four evaluators are different: