“I think I’ll pass,” I say. “But thanks anyway.”
Hana shrugs, and I can tell she’s fighting to look like it’s no big deal. “If you change your mind . . .” She tries to smile but can’t keep it up for longer than a second.
“Tanglewild Lane. Deering Highlands. You know where to find me.”
Deering Highlands. Of course. The Highlands is an abandoned subdivision off-peninsula. A decade ago the government discovered sympathizers—and, if the rumors are true, even some Invalids—living together in one of the big mansions out there. It was a huge scandal, and the bust the result of a yearlong sting operation.
When all was said and done, forty-two people had been executed and another hundred thrown in the Crypts.
Since then Deering Highlands has been a ghost town:
avoided, forgotten, condemned.
“Yeah, well. You know where to find me.” I gesture lamely down the street.
“Yeah.” Hana looks down at her feet, hops from one to the other. There’s nothing else to say, but I can’t stand to turn around and just walk away. I have a terrible feeling this is the last time I’ll see Hana before we’re cured. Fear seizes me all at once, and I wish I could backpedal through our conversation, take back all the sarcastic or mean things that I said, tell her I miss her and I want to be best friends again.
But just when I’m about to blurt this out, she gives me a quick wave and says, “Okay, then. See you around,” and the moment collapses in on itself and with it, my chance to speak.
“Okay. See you.”
Hana starts off down the road. I’m tempted to watch her go. I get the urge to memorize her walk—to imprint her in my brain somehow, just as she is—but as I’m watching her waver in and out of the fierce sunlight, her silhouette gets confused with another one in my head, a shadow weaving in and out of darkness, about to walk off the cliff, and I don’t know who I’m looking at anymore. Suddenly the edges of the world are blurring and there’s a sharp pain in my throat, so I turn around and walk quickly toward the house.
“Lena!” she calls out to me, just before I reach the gate.
I spin around, heart leaping, thinking maybe she’ll be the one to say it. I miss you. Let’s go back.
Even from a distance of fifty feet, I can see Hana hesitating. Then she makes this fluttering gesture with her hand and calls out, “Never mind.” This time when she turns around she doesn’t waver. She walks straight and quickly, turns a corner, and is gone.
But what did I expect? That’s the whole point, after all:
There’s no going back.
“In the years before the cure was perfected, it was offered on a trial basis only. The risks attached to it were great. At the time one out of every hundred patients suffered a fatal loss of brain function after the procedure.
Nonetheless, people swarmed the hospitals in record number, demanding to be cured; they camped outside the laboratories for days at a time, hoping to secure a procedural slot.
These years are also known as the Miracle Years because of the quantity of lives that were healed and made whole, and the number of souls brought out of sickness.
And if there were people who died on the operating table, they died for a good cause, and no one can lament them. . . .”
—From “The Miracle Years: The Early Science of the Cure,” A Brief History of the United States of America, by E. D.
Thompson, p. 87
When I get into the house it’s even hotter than usual: a wet, suffocating wall of heat. Carol must be cooking. The house smells like browned meat and spices—mixed with the normal summer smells of sweat and mildew, it’s kind of nauseating. For the past few weeks we’ve been eating dinner out on the porch: runny macaroni salads, cold cuts, and sandwiches from my uncle’s deli counter.
Carol pokes her head out of the kitchen as I go by. Her face is red and she’s sweating big-time. Dark swaths of sweat have left pit stains on her pale blue blouse, navy crescents.
“Better get changed,” she says. “Rachel and David will be here any second.”
I’d completely forgotten my sister and her husband were coming over for dinner. Normally I see Rachel four or five times a year, tops. When I was younger, especially after Rachel had first moved out of Carol’s house, I used to count the days until she would come and see me. I don’t think I fully understood then about the procedure and what it meant for her—for me—for us. I knew that she’d been saved from Thomas, and from the disease, but that was it. I think I thought that otherwise things would be exactly the same. I thought that as soon as she came to see me it would be like old times again, that we would bust out our socks to have a dance party, or she would pull me onto her lap and start braiding my hair, launch into one of her stories—of distant places and witches who could change into animals.
But she only skimmed a hand over my head as she came through the door, and applauded politely when Carol made me recite my multiplication and division tables.
“She’s grown up now,” Carol told me, when I asked her why Rachel didn’t like to play anymore. “Someday you’ll see.”
After that I stopped paying attention to the notation that appeared every few months on the kitchen wall calendar: R to visit.
At dinner the big topics of conversation are Brian Scharff—Rachel’s husband, David, works with Brian’s cousin’s friend, so David feels like he’s an expert on the family—and Regional College of Portland, where I’ll be starting in the fall. It’s the first time in my life I’ll be in class with members of the opposite sex, but Rachel tells me not to worry.
“You won’t even notice,” she says. “You’ll be so busy with work and studying.”
“There are safeguards,” says Aunt Carol. “All the students are vetted.” Code for: All the students are cured.
I think of Alex and almost say, Not all of them.
Dinner drags on well past curfew. By the time my aunt helps me clear the plates it’s almost eleven o’clock, and still Rachel and her husband make no sign to leave.
That’s another thing I’m excited about: In thirty-six days, I won’t have to worry about curfew anymore.
After dinner my uncle and David go out onto the porch.
David has brought two cigars—cheap ones, but still—and the smell of the smoke, sweet and spicy and just a little bit oily—floats in through the windows, intermingles with the sound of their voices, fills the house with blue haze. Rachel and Aunt Carol stay in the dining room, drinking cups of watered-down boiled coffee, the dirty pale color of old dishwater. From upstairs I hear the sound of scampering feet. Jenny will tease Grace until she’s bored, until she climbs into bed, sour and dissatisfied, letting the dullness and sameness of another day lull her to sleep.
I wash the dishes—many more of them than usual, since Carol insisted on having a soup (hot carrot, which we all choked down, sweating) and a pot roast slathered in garlic and limp asparagus, probably rescued from the very bottom of the vegetable bin, and some stale cookies. I’m full, and the warmth of the dishwater on my wrists and elbows—plus the familiar rhythms of conversation, the pitter-patter of feet upstairs, the heavy blue smoke—make me feel very sleepy. Carol has finally remembered to ask about Rachel’s children; Rachel goes over their accomplishments as though reciting a list she has only memorized recently, and with difficulty—Sara is reading already; Andrew said his first word at only thirteen months.
“Raid, raid. This is a raid. Please do as you are commanded and do not try and resist. . . .”
The voice booming from outside makes me jump. Rachel and Carol have paused momentarily in their conversation, are listening to the commotion in the street. I can’t hear David and Uncle William, either.
Even Jenny and Grace have stopped fooling around upstairs.
Patchy interference from the street; the sounds of hundreds and hundreds of boots, clicking away in time; and that awful voice, amplified through a bullhorn:
“This is a raid. Attention, this is a raid. Please be ready with your identification papers. . . .”
A raid night. Instantly I think of Hana and the party.
The room starts spinning. I reach out, grabbing on to the counter.
“Seems pretty early for a raid,” Carol says mildly from the dining room. “We had one just a few months ago, I think.”
“February eighteenth,” Rachel says. “I remember. David and I had to come out with the kids. There was some problem with SVS that night. We stood in the snow for half an hour before we could be verified. Afterward Andrew had pneumonia for two weeks.” She relates this story as though she’s talking about some minor inconvenience at the Laundromat, like she’s misplaced a sock.
“Has it been that long?” Carol shrugs, takes a sip of her coffee.
The voices, the feet, the static—it’s all coming closer.
The raiding parties move as one, from house to house— sometimes hitting every house on a street, sometimes skipping whole blocks, sometimes going every other. It’s random. Or at least, it’s supposed to be random. Certain houses always get targeted more than others.
But even if you’re not on a watch list you can end up standing in the snow, like Rachel and her husband, while the regulators and police try to prove your validity. Or—even worse—while the raiders come inside your house, tear the walls down, and look for signs of suspicious activity. Private property laws are suspended on raid nights. Pretty much every law is suspended on raid nights.
We’ve all heard horror stories: pregnant women stripped down and probed in front of everybody, people thrown in jail for two or three years just for looking at a policeman the wrong way, or for trying to prevent a regulator from entering a certain room.
“This is a raid. If you are asked to step out of the house, please make sure you have all your identification papers in hand, including the papers of any children over the age of six months. . . . Anyone who resists will be detained and questioned. . . . Anyone who delays will be charged with obstruction. . . .”
At the end of the street. Then a few houses away. . . .
Then two houses away. . . . No. Next door. I hear the Richardsons’ dog start barking furiously. Then Mrs.
Richardson, apologizing. More barking—then someone (a regulator?) mutters something, and I hear a few heavy thuds and a whimper, then someone else saying, “You don’t have to kill the damn thing,” and someone else saying, “Why not? Probably has fleas, anyway.”
Then for a while there’s quiet: just the occasional cackle of walkie-talkies, someone reciting identification numbers into a phone, the shuffling of papers.
Then: “All right, then. You’re in the clear.” And the boots start up again.
For all their nonchalance, even Rachel and Carol tense up as the boots clomp by our house. I can see Carol gripping her coffee cup tightly, knuckles white. My heart is jumping and skipping, a grasshopper in my chest.
But the boots pass us by. Rachel heaves out an audible sigh of relief as we hear the regulators pound on a door farther down the street. “Open up. . . . This is a raid.”