“No. No, that’s not it.” I’m trying to think straight, but my head is full of the ocean’s wordless roaring. It is growing louder and louder by the second. And now, faintly, it’s as though I can hear screaming as well—like my mother’s scream is reaching me from across the span of a decade. “I just mean . . . there’s something so sad about it. . . .” I’m struggling, floundering, feeling like I’m drowning now, in the white light and the roaring.
Sacrifice. I want to say something about sacrifice, but the word doesn’t come.
“Let’s move on.” Evaluator One, who sounded so sweet when she offered me the water, has lost all pretense of friendliness. She is all business now. “Tell us something simple. Like your favorite color, for example.”
Part of my brain—the rational, educated part, the logical me part—screams, Blue! Say blue! But this other, older thing inside of me is riding across the waves of sound, surging up with the rising noise. “Gray,” I blurt out.
“Gray?” Evaluator Four splutters back.
My heart is spiraling down to my stomach. I know I’ve done it, I’m tanking, can practically see my numbers flipping backward. But it’s too late. I’m finished—it’s the roaring in my ears, growing louder and louder, a stampede that makes thinking impossible. I quickly stammer out an explanation. “Not gray, exactly. Right before the sun rises there’s a moment when the whole sky goes this pale nothing color—not really gray but sort of, or sort of white, and I’ve always really liked it because it reminds me of waiting for something good to happen.”
But they’ve stopped listening. All of them are staring beyond me, heads cocked, expressions confused, as though trying to make out familiar words in a foreign language. And then suddenly the roaring and the screaming surge and I realize I haven’t been imagining them all this time. People really are screaming, and there’s a tumbling, rolling, drumming sound, like a thousand feet moving together. There’s a third sound too, running under both of those: a wordless bellowing that doesn’t sound human.
In my confusion everything seems disconnected, the way it does in dreams. Evaluator One half rises from her chair, saying, “What the hell . . . ?”
At the same time, Glasses says, “Sit down, Helen. I’ll go see what’s wrong.”
But at that second the blue door bursts open and a streaming blur of cows— actual, real, live, sweating, mooing cows—come thundering into the lab.
Definitely a stampede , I think, and for one weird, detached second feel proud of myself for correctly identifying the noise.
Then I realize I’m being charged by a bunch of very heavy, very frightened herd animals, and am about two seconds from getting stomped into the ground.
Instantly I launch myself into the corner and wedge myself behind the surgical table, where I’m completely protected from the panicked mass of animals. I poke my head out just a little so I can still see what’s going on.
The evaluators are hopping up onto the table now, as walls of brown and speckled cow flanks fold around them. Evaluator One is screaming at the top of her lungs, and Glasses is yelling, “Calm down, calm down!”
even though he’s grabbing onto her like she’s a life raft and he’s in danger of sinking.
Some of the cows have wigs hanging crazily from their heads, and others are half-swaddled in gowns identical to the one I’m wearing. For a second I’m sure I’m dreaming. Maybe this whole day has been a dream, and I’ll wake up to discover that I’m still at home, in bed, on the morning of my evaluation. But then I notice the writing on the cows’ flanks: NOT CURE. DEATH. The words are written in sloppy ink, just above the neatly branded numbers that identify these cows as destined for the slaughterhouse.
A little chill dances up my spine, and everything starts clicking into place. Every couple of years the Invalids— the people who live in the Wilds, the unregulated land that exists between recognized cities and towns—sneak into Portland and stage some kind of protest. One year they came in at night and painted red death skulls on every single one of the known scientists’ houses.
Another year they managed to break into the central police station, which coordinates all the patrols and guard shifts for Portland, and move all the furniture onto the roof, even the coffee machines. That was pretty funny, actually—and pretty amazing, since you’d think Central would be the most secure building in Portland.
People in the Wilds don’t see love as a disease, and they don’t believe in the cure. They think it’s a kind of cruelty. Thus the slogan.
Now I get it: The cows are dressed up as us, the people being evaluated. Like we’re all a bunch of herd animals.
The cows are calming down somewhat. They’re not charging anymore, and have begun to shuffle back and forth in the lab. Evaluator One has a clipboard in her hand, and she’s swooping and swatting as the cows butt up against the table, mooing and nipping at the papers scattered across its surface—the evaluators’ notes, I realize, as a cow snaps up a sheet of paper and begins to rip at it with its teeth. Thank God. Maybe the cows will eat up all the notes, and the evaluators will lose track of the fact that I was completely tanking. Half-concealed behind the table—and safe, now, from those sharp, stamping hooves—I have to admit the whole thing is kind of hilarious.
That’s when I hear it. Somehow, above the snorting and stomping and yelling, I hear the laugh above me—low and short and musical, like someone sounding out a few notes on a piano.
The observation deck. A boy is standing on the observation deck, watching the chaos below. And he’s laughing.
As soon as I look up, his eyes click onto my face. The breath whooshes out of my body and everything freezes for a second, as though I’m looking at him through my camera lens, zoomed in all the way, the world pausing for that tiny span of time between the opening and closing of the shutter.
His hair is golden brown, like leaves in autumn just as they’re turning, and he has bright amber eyes. The moment I see him I know that he’s one of the people responsible for this. I know that he must live in the Wilds; I know he’s an Invalid. Fear clamps down on my stomach, and I open my mouth to shout something— I’m not sure what, exactly—but at precisely that second he gives a minute shake of his head, and suddenly I can’t make a sound. Then he does the absolutely, positively unthinkable.
He winks at me.
At last the alarm goes off. It’s so loud I have to cover my ears with my hands. I look down to see whether the evaluators have seen him, but they’re still doing their little tabletop dance, and when I look up again, he’s gone.
“Step on a crack, you’ll break your mama’s back. Step on a stone, you’ll end up all alone.
Step on a stick, you’re bound to get the Sick. Watch where you tread, you’ll bring out all the dead.”
—A common children’s playground chant, usually accompanied by jumping rope or clapping That night, I have the dream again.
I’m at the edge of a big white cliff made out of sand. The ground is unsteady. The ledge I’m standing on is starting to crumble, to flake away and tumble down, down, down—thousands of feet below me, into the ocean, which is whipping and snapping so hard it looks like one gigantic, frothing stew, all whitecaps and surging water.
I’m terrified I’m going to fall, but for some reason I can’t move or back away from the edge of the cliff, even as I feel the ground sifting away from underneath me, millions of molecules rearranging themselves into space, into wind: Any second I’m going to fall.
And just before I know that there’s nothing underneath me but air—that at any split second I’m going to feel the wind shrieking around me as I drop down into the water—the waves lashing underneath me open up for a moment and I see my mother’s face, pale and bloated and splotched with blue, floating just below the surface.
Her eyes are open, her mouth is split apart as though she is screaming, her arms are extended on either side of her, bobbing in the current, as though she is waiting to embrace me.
That’s when I wake up. That’s when I always wake up.
My pillow is damp, and I’ve got a scratchy feeling in my throat. I’ve been crying in my sleep. Gracie is folded next to me, one cheek squashed flat against the sheets, her mouth making endless, noiseless repetitions. She always gets into bed with me when I’m having the dream. She can sense it, somehow.
I brush her hair away from her face and pull the sweat- soaked sheets away from her shoulders. I’ll be sorry to leave Grace when I move out. Our secrets have made us close, bonded us together. She is the only one who knows of the Coldness: a feeling that comes sometimes when I’m lying in bed, a black, empty feeling that knocks my breath away and leaves me gasping as though I’ve just been thrown in icy water. On nights like that—although it is wrong and illegal—I think of those strange and terrible words, I love you, and wonder what they would taste like in my mouth, try to recall their lilting rhythm on my mother’s tongue.
And of course I keep her secret safe. I’m the only one who knows that Grace isn’t stupid, or slow: There’s nothing wrong with her at all. I’m the only one who has ever heard her speak. One night after she’d come to sleep in my bed I woke up in the very early morning, the nighttime shadows ebbing off our walls. She was sobbing quietly into the pillow next to me, pronouncing the same word over and over, stuffing her mouth with blankets so I could barely hear her: “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.” As though she was trying to chew her way around it; as though it was choking her in her sleep. I’d put my arms around her and squeezed, and after what felt like hours she exhausted herself on the word and fell back to sleep, the tension in her body slowly relaxing, her face hot and bloated from the tears.
That’s the real reason she doesn’t speak. All the rest of her words are crowded out by that single, looming one, a word still echoing in the dark corners of her memory.
I know. I remember.
I sit up and watch the light strengthen on the walls, listen for the sounds of the seagulls outside, take a drink from the glass of water next to my bed. Today is June 2.
I wish, for Grace, the cure could come sooner. I comfort myself by thinking that someday she will have the procedure too. Someday she will be saved, and the past and all its pain will be rendered as smoothly palatable as the food we spoon to our babies.
Someday we will all be saved.
By the time I drag myself down to breakfast—feeling as though someone is grinding sand into both of my eyes— the official story about the incident at the labs has been released. Carol keeps our small TV on low while she makes breakfast, and the murmur of the newscasters’ voices almost puts me back to sleep. “Yesterday a truck full of cattle intended for the slaughterhouse was mixed up with a shipment of pharmaceuticals, resulting in the hilarious and unprecedented chaos you see on your screen.” Cue: nurses squealing, swatting at lowing cows with clipboards.