I’m glad the choice is made for us. I’m glad I don’t have to choose—but more than that, I’m glad I don’t have to make someone else choose me. It would be okay for Hana, of course, if things were still the way they were in the old days. Hana, with her golden, halo hair, and bright gray eyes, and perfect straight teeth, and her laugh that makes everyone in a two-mile radius whip around and look at her and laugh too. Even clumsiness looks good on Hana; it makes you want to reach out a hand to help her or scoop up her books. When I trip on my own feet or spill coffee down the front of my shirt, people look away. You can almost see them thinking, what a mess. And whenever I’m around strangers my mind goes fuzzy and damp and gray, like streets starting to thaw after a hard snow—unlike Hana, who always knows just what to say.
No guy in his right mind would ever choose me when there are people like Hana in the world: It would be like settling for a stale cookie when what you really want is a big bowl of ice cream, whipped cream and cherries and chocolate sprinkles included. So I’ll be happy to receive my neat, printed sheet of “Approved Matches.” At least it means I’ll end up with somebody. It won’t matter if nobody ever thinks I’m pretty (although sometimes I wish, just for a second, that somebody would). It wouldn’t matter if I had one eye.
“In here.” The nurse stops, finally, outside a door that looks identical to all the others. “You can leave your clothing and things in the antechamber. Please put on the gown that is provided for you, with the opening to the back. Feel free to take a moment, have some water, do some meditation.”
I imagine hundreds and hundreds of girls sitting cross- legged on the floor, hands cupped on their knees, chanting Om, and have to stifle another wild urge to laugh.
“Please be aware, however, that the longer you take to prepare, the less time your evaluators will have to get to know you.”
She smiles tightly. Everything about her is tight: her skin, her eyes, her lab coat. She is looking straight at me, but I have the impression that she isn’t really focusing, that in her mind she’s already tick-tocking her way back to the waiting room, ready to bring yet another girl down yet another hallway, and give her this same spiel. I feel very lonely, surrounded by these thick walls that muffle all sounds, insulated from the sun and the wind and the heat, all of it perfect and unnatural.
“When you’re ready, go on through the blue door. The evaluators will be waiting for you in the lab.”
After the nurse clicks away I go into the antechamber, which is small and just as bright as the hallway. It looks like a regular doctor’s examination room. There’s an enormous piece of medical equipment squatting in the corner, emitting a series of periodic beeps, a tissue- paper-covered examination table, a stinging, antiseptic smell. I take off my clothes, shivering as the air- conditioning makes goose bumps pop up all over my skin, the fuzz on my arms standing up a little straighter.
Great. Now the evaluators will think I’m a hairy beast.
I fold my clothes, including my bra, in a neat pile and slip on the gown. It’s made of super-sheer plastic, and as I wrap it around my body, securing it at the waist with a knot, I’m fully aware that you can still see pretty much everything— including the outline of my underwear— through its fabric.
Over. Soon it will be over.
I take a deep breath and step through the blue door.
It’s even brighter in the lab—dazzlingly bright, so the evaluators’ first impression of me must be of someone squinting, stepping backward, bringing her hand to her face. Four shadows float in a canoe in front of me. Then my eyes adjust and the vision resolves into the four evaluators, all sitting behind a long, low table. This room is very large, and totally empty except for the evaluators and, in the corner, a steel surgical table that’s been shoved up against one wall. Dual rows of overhead lights beat down on me, and I notice how high the ceiling is: at least thirty feet. I have a desperate urge to cross my arms over my chest, to cover myself up somehow. My mouth goes dry and my mind goes as hot and blank and white as the lights. I can’t remember what I’m supposed to do, what I’m supposed to say.
Fortunately, one of the evaluators, a woman, speaks first. “Do you have your forms?” Her voice sounds friendly, but it doesn’t help the fist that has closed deep in my stomach, squeezing my intestines.
Oh, God, I think. I’m going to pee. I’m going to pee right here. I try to imagine what Hana will say after this is over, when we’re walking through the afternoon sunshine, with the smell of salt and sun-warmed pavement heavy on the air around us. “God,” she’ll say.
“That was a waste of time. All of them just sitting there staring like four frogs on a log.”
“Um—yes.” I step closer, feeling like the air has turned solid, resisting me. When I’m a few feet away from the table, I reach out and pass the evaluators my clipboard.
There are three men and one woman, but I find I can’t focus on their features for too long. I scan them quickly and then shuffle backward again, getting only an impression of some noses, a few dark eyes, the winking of a pair of glasses.
My clipboard bobs its way down the line of evaluators. I squeeze my arms to my sides and try to appear relaxed.
Behind me, an observation deck runs along the back wall, elevated about twenty feet off the ground. It is accessed through a small red door high up beyond the tiered rows of white seats that are obviously meant to hold students, doctors, interns, and junior scientists.
Not only do the lab scientists perform the procedure, they do checkups afterward and often treat difficult cases of other diseases.
It occurs to me that the scientists must perform the cure here, in this very room. That must be what the surgical table is for. The fist of anxiety starts closing in my stomach again. For some reason, though I’ve often thought about what it would be like to be cured, I’ve never really thought about the procedure itself: the hard metal table, the lights winking above me, the tubes and the wires and the pain.
“Yes. That’s me.”
“Okay. Why don’t you start by telling us a little about yourself?” The evaluator with the glasses leans forward, spreading his hands, and smiles. He has big, square white teeth that remind me of bathroom tiles. The reflection in his glasses makes it impossible to see his eyes, and I wish he would take them off. “Talk to us about the things you like to do. Your interests, hobbies, favorite subjects.”
I launch into the speech I’ve prepared, about photography and running and spending time with my friends, but I’m not focusing. I see the evaluators nodding in front of me, and smiles beginning to loosen their faces as they take notes, so I know I’m doing fine, but I can’t even hear the words that are coming out of my mouth. I’m fixated on the metal surgical table and keep sneaking looks at it from the corner of my eye, watching it blink and shimmer in the light like the edge of a blade.
And suddenly I’m thinking of my mother. My mother had remained uncured despite three separate procedures, and the disease had claimed her, nipped at her insides and turned her eyes hollow and her cheeks pale, had taken control of her feet and led her, inch by inch, to the edge of a sandy cliff and into the bright, thin air of the plunge beyond.
Or so they tell me. I was six at the time. I remember only the hot pressure of her fingers on my face in the nighttime and her last whispered words to me. I love you. Remember. They cannot take it.
I close my eyes quickly, overwhelmed by the thought of my mother, writhing, and a dozen scientists in lab coats watching, scribbling impassively on notepads. Three separate times she was strapped to a metal table; three separate times a crowd of observers watched her from the deck, took note of her responses as the needles, and then the lasers, pierced her skin. Normally patients are anesthetized during the procedure and don’t feel a thing, but my aunt had once let slip that during my mother’s third procedure they had refused to sedate her, thinking that the anesthesia might be interfering with her brain’s response to the cure.
“Would you like some water?” Evaluator One, the woman, gestures to a bottle of water and a glass set up on the table. She has noticed my momentary flinch, but it’s okay. My personal statement is done, and I can tell by the way the evaluators are looking at me—pleased, proud, like I’m a little kid who has managed to fit all the right pegs in all the right holes—that I’ve done a good job.
I pour myself a glass of water and take a few sips, grateful for the pause. I can feel sweat pricking up under my arms, on my scalp, and at the base of my neck, and I pray to God they can’t see it. I try to keep my eyes locked on the evaluators, but there it is in my peripheral vision, grinning at me: that damn table.
“Okay now, Lena. We’re going to ask you some questions. We want you to answer honestly. Remember, we’re trying to get to know you as a person.”
As opposed to what? The question pops into my mind before I can stop it. As an animal?
I take a deep breath, force myself to nod and smile.
“Great.” “What are some of your favorite books?”
“Love, War, and Interference, by Christopher Malley,” I answer automatically. “Border, by Philippa Harolde.”
It’s no use trying to keep the images away: They are rising now, a flood. That one word keeps scripting itself on my brain, as though it is being seared there. Pain.
They wanted to make my mother submit to a fourth procedure. They were coming for her on the night she died, coming to bring her to the labs. But instead she had fled into the dark, winged her way into the air.
Instead she had woken me with those words—I love you.
Remember. They cannot take it.—which the wind seemed to carry back to me long after she had vanished, repeated on the dry trees, on the leaves coughing and whispering in the cold gray dawn. “And Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare.”
The evaluators nod, make notes. Romeo and Juliet is required reading in every freshman-year health class.
“And why is that?” Evaluator Three asks.
It’s frightening : That’s what I’m supposed to say. It’s a cautionary tale, a warning about the dangers of the old world, before the cure. But my throat seems to have grown swollen and tender. There is no room to squeeze the words out; they are stuck there like the burrs that cling to our clothing when we jog through the farms.
And in that moment it’s like I can hear the low growl of the ocean, can hear its distant, insistent murmur, can imagine its weight closing around my mother, water as heavy as stone. And what comes out is: “It’s beautiful.”
Instantly all four faces jerk up to look at me, like puppets connected to the same string.
“Beautiful?” Evaluator One wrinkles her nose. There’s a zinging, frigid tension in the air, and I realize I’ve made a big, big mistake.
The evaluator with the glasses leans forward. “That’s an interesting word to use. Very interesting.” This time when he shows his teeth they remind me of the curved white canines of a dog. “Perhaps you find suffering beautiful? Perhaps you enjoy violence?”