“Don’t worry, Mrs. Tiddle.” Hana winks at me. “I’ll make sure she doesn’t screw up too badly. Promise.”
All my nervousness dissipates. Hana is so relaxed about the whole thing, so nonchalant and normal.
Hana and I go down toward the labs together. Hana is almost five-nine. When I walk next to her I have to do a half skip every other step to keep up with her, and I wind up feeling like a duck bobbing up and down in the water. Today I don’t mind, though. I’m glad she’s with me. I’d be a complete wreck otherwise.
“God,” she says, as we get close to the lines. “Your aunt takes this whole thing pretty seriously, huh?”
“Well, it is serious.” We join the back of the line. I see a few people I recognize: some girls I know vaguely from school; some guys I’ve seen playing soccer behind Spencer Prep, one of the boys’ schools. A boy looks my way and sees me staring. He raises his eyebrows and I drop my eyes quickly, my face going hot all at once and a nervous itch working in my stomach. You’ll be paired in less than three months, I tell myself, but the words don’t mean anything and seem ridiculous, like one of the Mad Libs games we played as children that always resulted in nonsensical statements: I want banana for speedboat. Give my wet shoe to your blistering cupcake.
“Yeah, I know. Trust me, I’ve read The Book of Shhh as much as anyone.” Hana pushes her sunglasses up onto her forehead and bats her eyelashes at me, making her voice supersweet: “‘Evaluation Day is the exciting rite of passage that prepares you for a future of happiness, stability, and partnership.’” She drops her sunglasses back down on her nose and makes a face.
“You don’t believe it?” I lower my voice to a whisper.
Hana has been strange recently. She was always different from other people—more outspoken, more independent, more fearless. It’s one of the reasons I first wanted to be her friend. I’ve always been shy, and afraid that I’ll say or do the wrong thing. Hana is the opposite.
But lately it’s been more than that. She’s stopped caring about school, for one thing, and has been called to the principal’s office several times for talking back to the teachers. And sometimes in the middle of talking she’ll stop, just shut her mouth as though she’s run up against a barrier. Other times I’ll catch her staring out at the ocean as though she’s thinking of swimming away.
Looking at her now, at her clear gray eyes and her mouth as thin and taut as a bowstring, I feel a tug of fear. I think of my mother floundering for a second in the air before dropping like a stone into the ocean; I think about the face of the girl who dropped from the laboratory roof all those years ago, her cheek turned against the pavement. I will away thoughts of the illness. Hana isn’t sick. She can’t be. I would know.
“If they really want us to be happy, they’d let us pick ourselves,” Hana grumbles.
“Hana,” I say sharply. Criticizing the system is the worst offense there is. “Take it back.”
She holds up her hands. “All right, all right. I take it back.”
“You know it doesn’t work. Look how it was in the old days. Chaos all the time, fighting, and war. People were miserable.”
“I said, I take it back.” She smiles at me, but I’m still mad and I look away.
“Besides,” I go on, “they do give us a choice.”
Usually the evaluators generate a list of four or five approved matches, and you are allowed to pick among them. This way, everyone is happy. In all the years that the procedure has been administered and the marriages arranged, there have been fewer than a dozen divorces in Maine, less than a thousand in the entire United States—and in almost all those cases, either the husband or wife was suspected of being a sympathizer and divorce was necessary and approved by the state.
“A limited choice,” she corrects me. “We get to choose from the people who have been chosen for us.”
“Every choice is limited,” I snap. “That’s life.”
She opens her mouth as though she’s going to respond, but instead she just starts to laugh. Then she reaches down and squeezes my hand, two quick pumps and then two long ones. It’s our old sign, a habit we developed in the second grade when one of us was scared or upset, a way of saying, I’m here, don’t worry.
“Okay, okay. Don’t get defensive. I love the evaluations, okay? Long live Evaluation Day.”
“That’s better,” I say, but I’m still feeling anxious and annoyed. The line shuffles slowly forward. We pass the iron gates, with their complicated crown of barbed wire, and enter the long driveway that leads to the various lab complexes. We are headed for Building 6-C. The boys go to 6-B, and the lines begin to curve away from each other.
As we move closer to the front of the line, we get a blast of air-conditioning every time the glass doors slide open and then hum shut. It feels amazing, like being momentarily dipped head to toe in a thin sheet of ice, popsicle-style, and I turn around and lift my ponytail away from my neck, wishing it weren’t so damn hot. We don’t have air-conditioning at home, just tall, gawky fans that are always sputtering out in the middle of the night. And most of the time Carol won’t even let us use those; they suck up too much electricity, she says, and we don’t have any to spare.
At last there are only a few people in front of us. A nurse comes out of the building, carrying a stack of clipboards and a handful of pens, and begins distributing them along the line.
“Please make sure to fill out all required information,”
she says, “including your medical and family history.”
My heart begins to work its way up into my throat. The neatly numbered boxes on the page—Last Name, First Name, Middle Initial, Current Address, Age—collapse together. I’m glad Hana is in front of me. She begins filling out the forms quickly, resting the clipboard on her forearm, her pen skating over the paper.
The doors whoosh open again, and a second nurse appears and gestures for Hana to come inside. In the dark coolness beyond her, I can see a bright white waiting room with a green carpet.
“Good luck,” I say to Hana.
She turns and gives me a quick smile. But I can tell she is nervous, finally. There is a fine crease between her eyebrows, and she is chewing on the corner of her lip.
She starts to enter the lab and then turns abruptly and walks back to me, her face wild and unfamiliar-looking, grabbing me with both shoulders, putting her mouth directly to my ear. I’m so startled I drop my clipboard.
“You know you can’t be happy unless you’re unhappy sometimes, right?” she whispers, and her voice is hoarse, as though she’s just been crying.
“What?” Her nails are digging into my shoulders, and at that moment I’m terrified of her.
“You can’t be really happy unless you’re unhappy sometimes. You know that, right?”
Before I can respond she releases me, and as she pulls away, her face is as serene and beautiful and composed as ever. She bends down to scoop up my clipboard, which she passes to me, smiling. Then she turns around and is gone behind the glass doors, which open and close behind her as smoothly as the surface of water, sucking closed over something that is sinking.
“The devil stole into the Garden of Eden. He carried with him the disease— amor deliria nervosa —in the form of a seed. It grew and flowered into a magnificent apple tree, which bore apples as bright as blood.”
—From Genesis: A Complete History of the World and the Known Universe, by Steven Horace, PhD, Harvard University
By the time the nurse admits me into the waiting room, Hana is gone— vanished down one of the antiseptic white hallways and whisked behind one of the dozens of identical white doors—although there are about a half- dozen other girls milling around, waiting. One girl is sitting in a chair, hunched over her clipboard, scribbling and crossing out her answers, and then rescribbling.
Another girl is frantically asking a nurse about the difference between “chronic medical conditions” and “pre-existing medical conditions.” She looks like she’s on the verge of having some kind of fit—a vein is standing out on her forehead and her voice is rising hysterically—and I wonder whether she’s going to list a tendency toward excessive anxiety on her sheet.
It’s not funny, but I feel like laughing. I bring my hand to my face, snorting into my palm. I tend to get giggly when I’m extremely nervous. During tests at school I’m always getting in trouble for laughing. I wonder if I should have marked that down.
A nurse takes my clipboard from me and flips through the pages, checking to see that I haven’t left any answers blank.
“Lena Haloway?” she says in the bright, clipped voice that all nurses seem to share, like it’s part of their medical training.
“Uh-huh,” I say, and then quickly correct myself. My aunt has told me that the evaluators will expect a certain degree of formality. “Yes. That’s me.” It’s still strange to hear my real name, Haloway, and a dull feeling settles at the bottom of my stomach. For the past decade I’ve gone by my aunt’s name, Tiddle. Even though it’s a pretty stupid last name—Hana once said it reminded her of a little-kid word for peeing—at least it isn’t associated with my mother and father. At least the Tiddles are a real family. The Haloways are nothing but a memory. But for official purposes I have to use my birth name.
“Follow me.” The nurse gestures down one of the hallways, and I follow the neat tick-tock of her heels down the linoleum. The halls are blindingly bright. The butterflies are working their way up from my stomach into my head, making me feel dizzy, and I try to calm myself by imagining the ocean outside, its ragged breathing, the seagulls turning pinwheels in the sky.
It will be over soon, I tell myself. It will be over soon and then you’ll go home, and you’ll never have to think about the evaluation again.
The hallway seems to go on forever. Up ahead a door opens and shuts, and a moment later, as we turn a corner, a girl brushes past us. Her face is red and she’s obviously been crying. She must be done with her evaluation already. I recognize her, vaguely, as one of the first girls admitted.
I can’t help but feel sorry for her. Evaluations typically last anywhere from half an hour to two hours, but it’s common wisdom that the longer the evaluators keep you, the better you’re doing. Of course, that isn’t always true. Two years ago Marcy Davies was famously in and out of the lab in forty-five minutes, and she scored a perfect ten. And last year Corey Winde scored an all- time record for longest evaluation—three and a half hours—and still received only a three. There’s a system behind the evaluations, obviously, but there’s always a degree of randomness to them too. Sometimes it seems the whole process is designed to be as intimidating and confusing as possible.
I have a sudden fantasy of running through these clean, sterile hallways, kicking in all the doors. Then, immediately, I feel guilty. This is the worst of all possible times to be having doubts about the evaluations, and I mentally curse Hana. This is her fault, for saying those things to me outside. You can’t be happy unless you’re unhappy sometimes. A limited choice. We get to choose from the people who have been chosen for us.