This doesn’t make any sense, but as long as no one mentions the Invalids, everyone’s happy. We’re not supposed to know about them. They’re not even supposed to exist; supposedly, all the people who live in the Wilds were destroyed over fifty years ago, during the blitz.
Fifty years ago the government closed the borders of the United States. The border is guarded constantly by military personnel. No one can get in. No one goes out.
Every sanctioned and approved community must also be contained within a border—that’s the law—and all travel between communities requires official written consent of the municipal government, to be obtained six months in advance. This is for our own protection.
Safety, Sanctity, Community: That is our country’s motto.
For the most part, the government has been successful.
We haven’t seen a war since the border was closed, and there is hardly any crime, except for the occasional incident of vandalism or petty theft. There is no more hatred in the United States, at least among the cured.
Only sporadic cases of detachment—but every medical procedure carries a certain risk.
But so far, the government has failed to rid the country of the Invalids, and it is the single blemish on the administration, and the system in general. So we don’t talk about them. We pretend that the Wilds—and the people who live there—don’t even exist. It’s rare to hear the word even spoken, except when a suspected sympathizer disappears, or when a young diseased couple is found to have vanished together before a cure can be administered.
One piece of really good news is this: All of yesterday’s evaluations have been invalidated. All of us will receive a new evaluation date, which means I get a second chance. This time I swear I’m not going to screw it up. I feel completely idiotic about my meltdown at the labs.
Sitting at the breakfast table, with everything looking so clean and bright and normal—the chipped blue mugs full of coffee, the erratic beeping of the microwave (one of the few electronic devices, besides the lights, Carol actually allows us to use)— makes yesterday seem like a long, strange dream. It’s a miracle, actually, that a bunch of fanatical Invalids decided to let loose a stampede at the exact moment I was failing the most important test of my life. I don’t know what came over me. I think about Glasses showing his teeth, and the moment I heard my mouth say, “Gray,” and I wince. Stupid, stupid.
Suddenly I’m aware that Jenny has been talking to me.
“What?” I blink at Jenny as she swims into focus. I watch her hands as she cuts her toast precisely into quarters.
“I said, what’s wrong with you?” Back and forth, back and forth. The knife dings against the edge of the plate.
“You look like you’re about to puke or something.”
“Jenny,” Carol scolds. She is at the sink, washing dishes.
“Not while your uncle is eating breakfast.”
“I’m fine.” I rip off a piece of toast, slide it across the stick of butter that’s getting melty in the middle of the table, and force myself to eat. The last thing I need is a good old family-style interrogation. “Just tired.”
Carol turns to look at me. Her face has always reminded me of a doll’s. Even when she’s talking, even when she’s irritated or happy or confused, her expression stays weirdly immobile. “Couldn’t sleep?”
“I slept,” I say. “I just had a bad dream, that’s all.”
At the end of the table, my uncle William starts up from his newspaper. “Oh, God. You know what? You just reminded me. I had a dream last night too.”
Carol raises her eyebrows, and even Jenny looks interested. It’s extremely unusual for people to dream once they’ve been cured. Carol once told me that on the rare occasions she still dreams, her dreams are full of dishes, stacks and stacks of them climbing toward the sky, and sometimes she climbs them, lip to lip, hauling herself up into the clouds, trying to reach the top of the stack. But it never ends; it stretches on into infinity. As far as I know, my sister Rachel never dreams anymore.
William smiles. “I was caulking the window in the bathroom. Carol, you remember I said there was a draft the other day? Anyway, I was piping in the caulk, but every time I finished, it would just flake away—almost like it was snow—and the wind would come in and I’d have to start all over. On and on and on—for hours, it felt like.”
“How strange,” my aunt says, smiling, coming to the table with a plate of fried eggs. My uncle likes them super runny, and they sit on the plate, their yolks jiggling and quivering like hula-hoop dancers, spotted with oil. My stomach twists.
William says, “No wonder I’m so tired this morning. I was doing housework all night.”
Everyone laughs but me. I choke down another bit of toast, wondering whether I’ll dream once I’ve been cured.
I hope not.
This year is the first year since sixth grade that I don’t have a single class with Hana, so I don’t see her until after school, when we meet up in the locker room to go running, even though cross-country season ended a couple of weeks ago. (When the team went to Regionals it was only the third time I’d ever been out of Portland, and even though we went just forty miles along the gray, bleak municipal highway, I could still hardly swallow, the butterflies in my throat were so frantic.) Still, Hana and I try to run together as much as we can, even during school vacations.
I started running when I was six years old, after my mom committed suicide. The first day I ever ran a whole mile was the day of her funeral. I’d been told to stay upstairs with my cousins while my aunt prepared the house for the memorial service and laid out all the food.
Marcia and Rachel were supposed to get me ready, but in the middle of helping me dress they’d started arguing about something and had stopped paying me any attention at all. So I had wandered downstairs, my dress zipped halfway up my back, to ask my aunt for help.
Mrs. Eisner, my aunt’s neighbor at the time, was there.
As I came into the kitchen she was saying, “It’s horrible, of course. But there was no hope for her anyway. It’s much better this way. It’s better for Lena, too. Who wants a mother like that?”
I wasn’t supposed to have heard. Mrs. Eisner gave a startled little gasp when she saw me, and her mouth shut quickly, like a cork popping back into a bottle. My aunt just stood there, and in that second it was as though the world and the future collapsed down into a single point, and I understood that this—the kitchen, the spotless cream linoleum floors, the glaring lights, and the vivid green mass of Jell-O on the counter—was all that was left now that my mother was gone.
Suddenly I couldn’t stay there. I couldn’t stand the sight of my aunt’s kitchen, which I now understood would be my kitchen. I couldn’t stand the Jell- O. My mother hated Jell-O. An itchy feeling began to work its way through my body, as though a thousand mosquitoes were circulating through my blood, biting me from the inside, making me want to scream, jump, squirm.
Hana, one foot on a bench, is lacing up her shoes when I come in. My awful secret is that I like to run with Hana partly because it’s the single, sole, solitary shred of a thing that I can do better than she can, but I would never admit that out loud in a million years.
I haven’t even had a chance to put my bag down before she’s leaning forward and grabbing my arm.
“Can you believe it?” She’s fighting a smile, and her eyes are a pinwheel of color—blue, green, gold—flashing like they always do when she’s excited about something. “It was definitely the Invalids. That’s what everybody’s saying, anyway.”
We’re the only people in the locker room—all the sports teams have finished their seasons—but I instinctively whip my head around when she says the word. “Keep your voice down.”
She pulls back a little, tossing her hair over one shoulder. “Relax. I did recon. Even checked the toilet stalls. We’re in the clear.”
I open up the gym locker I’ve had for all my ten years at St. Anne’s. At its bottom is a film of gum wrappers and shredded notes and lost paper clips, and on top of that, my small limp pile of running clothes, two pairs of shoes, my cross- country team jersey, a dozen half-used bottles of deodorant, conditioner, and perfume. In less than two weeks I’ll graduate and never see the inside of this locker again, and for a second I get sad. It’s gross, but I’ve actually always loved the smell of gyms: the industrial cleaning fluid and the deodorant and soccer balls and even the lingering smell of sweat. It’s comforting to me. It’s so strange how life works: You want something and you wait and wait and feel like it’s taking forever to come. Then it happens and it’s over and all you want to do is curl back up in that moment before things changed.
“Who’s everybody, anyway? The news is saying it was just a mistake, a shipping error or something.” I feel the need to repeat the official story, even though I know just as well as Hana that it’s BS.
She straddles the bench, watching me. As usual, she’s oblivious to the fact that I hate it when other people see me change. “Don’t be an idiot. If it was on the news, it definitely isn’t true. Besides, who mixes up a cow and a box of prescription meds? It’s not like it’s hard to tell the difference.”
I shrug. She’s right, obviously. She’s still looking at me, so I angle slightly away. I’ve never been comfortable with my body like Hana and some of the other girls at St. Anne’s, never gotten over the awkward feeling that I’ve been fitted together just a little wrong in some very key places. Like I’ve been sketched by an amateur artist: If you don’t look too closely, it’s all right, but start focusing and all the smudges and mistakes become really obvious.
Hana kicks one leg out and begins stretching, refusing to let the issue drop. Hana’s more fascinated with the Wilds than anyone I’ve ever met. “If you think about it, it’s pretty amazing. The planning and all that. It would have taken at least four or five people—maybe more—to coordinate everything.”
I think briefly of the boy I saw on the observation deck, of his flashing, autumn-leaf-colored hair, and the way he tipped his head back when he laughed so I could see the vaulted black arch of his mouth. I told no one about him, not even Hana, and now I feel I should have.
Hana goes on, “Someone must have had security codes.
Maybe a sympathizer—”
A door bangs loudly at the front of the locker room, and Hana and I both jump, staring at each other with wide eyes. Footsteps click quickly across the linoleum. After a few seconds of hesitation, Hana launches smoothly into a safe topic: the color of the graduation gowns, which are orange this year. Just then Mrs. Johanson, the athletic director, comes around the bank of lockers, swinging her whistle around one finger.
“At least they’re not brown, like at Fielston Prep,” I say, though I’m barely listening to Hana. My heart is pounding and I’m still thinking about the boy, and wondering whether Johanson heard us say the word sympathizer. She doesn’t do anything but nod as she passes us, so it seems unlikely.