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I’ve learned to get really good at this—say one thing when I’m thinking about something else, act like I’m listening when I’m not, pretend to be calm and happy when really I’m freaking out. It’s one of the skills you perfect as you get older. You have to learn that people are always listening. The first time I ever used the cell phone that my aunt and uncle share, I was surprised by the patchy interference that kept breaking up my conversation with Hana at random intervals, until my aunt explained that it was just the government’s listening devices, which arbitrarily cut into cell phone calls, recording them, monitoring conversations for target words like love, or Invalids, or sympathizer. No one in particular is targeted; it’s all done randomly, to be fair. But it’s almost worse that way. I pretty much always feel as though a giant, revolving gaze is bound to sweep over me at any second, lighting up my bad thoughts like an animal lit still and white in the ever- turning beam of a lighthouse.
Sometimes I feel as though there are two me’s, one coasting directly on top of the other: the superficial me, who nods when she’s supposed to nod and says what she’s supposed to say, and some other, deeper part, the part that worries and dreams and says “Gray.” Most of the time they move along in sync and I hardly notice the split, but sometimes it feels as though I’m two whole different people and I could rip apart at any second.
Once I confessed this to Rachel. She just smiled and told me it would all be better after the procedure. After the procedure, she said, it would be all coasting, all glide, every day as easy as one, two, three.
“Ready,” I say, spinning my locker closed. We can still hear Mrs. Johanson shuffling around in the bathroom, whistling. A toilet flushes. A faucet goes on.
“My turn to pick the route,” Hana says, eyes sparkling, and before I can open my mouth to protest, she lunges forward and smacks me on the shoulder. “Tag. You’re it,” she says, and just as easily spins off the bench and sprints for the door, laughing, so I have to run to catch up.
Earlier in the day it rained, and the storm cooled everything off. Water evaporates from puddles in the streets, leaving a shimmering layer of mist over Portland. Above us the sky is now a vivid blue. The bay is flat and silver, the coast like a giant belt cinched around it, keeping it in place.
I don’t ask Hana where she’s going, but it doesn’t surprise me when she starts winding us toward Old Port, toward the old footpath that runs along Commercial Street and up to the labs. We try to keep on the smaller, less trafficked streets, but it’s pretty much a losing game. It’s three thirty. All the schools have been released, and the streets surge with students walking home. A few buses rumble past, and one or two cars squeeze by.
Cars are considered good luck. As they pass, people reach out their hands and brush along the shiny hoods, the clean, bright windows, which will soon be smudged with fingerprints.
Hana and I run next to each other, reviewing all the day’s gossip. We don’t talk about the botched evaluations yesterday, or the rumors of the Invalids.
There are too many people around. Instead she tells me about her ethics exam, and I tell her about Cora Dervish’s fight with Minna Wilkinson. We talk about Willow Marks, too, who has been absent from school since the previous Wednesday. Rumor is that Willow was found by regulators last week in Deering Oaks Park after curfew—with a boy.
We’ve been hearing rumors like that about Willow for years. She’s just the kind of person people talk about.
She has blond hair, but she’s always coloring different streaks into it with markers, and I remember once on a freshman class trip to a museum, we passed a group of Spencer Prep boys and she said, so loud one of our chaperones could have easily heard, “I’d like to kiss one of them straight on the lips.” Supposedly she was caught hanging out with a boy in tenth grade and got off with a warning because she showed no signs of the deliria.
Every so often people make mistakes; it’s biological, a result of the same kind of chemical and hormonal imbalances that occasionally lead to Unnaturalism, to boys being attracted to boys and girls to girls. These impulses, too, will be resolved by the cure.
But this time it is serious, apparently, and Hana drops the bomb just as we turn onto Center: Mr. and Mrs.
Marks have agreed to move the date of Willow’s procedure up by a full six months. She’ll be missing graduation day to get cured.
“Six months?” I repeat. We’ve been running hard for twenty minutes, so I’m not sure if the heavy thumping in my chest is a result of the exercise or the news. I’m feeling more out of breath than I should be, like someone’s sitting on my chest. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
Hana tips her head to the right, gesturing the way to a shortcut through an alley. “It’s been done before.”
“Yeah, but not successfully. What about all the side effects? Mental problems? Blindness?” There are a few reasons why the scientists won’t let anyone under the age of eighteen have the procedure, but the biggest one is that it just doesn’t seem to work as well for people younger than that, and in the worst cases it’s been known to cause all kind of crazy problems. Scientists speculate that the brain and its neuro-pathways are still too plastic before then, still in the middle of forming themselves. Actually, the older you are when you have the procedure, the better, but most people are scheduled for the procedure as close as possible to their eighteenth birthday.
“I guess they think it’s worth the risk,” Hana says.
“Better than the alternative, you know? Amor deliria nervosa. The deadliest of all deadly things.” This is the catchphrase that’s written on every mental health pamphlet ever written about the deliria; Hana’s voice is flat as she repeats it, and it makes my stomach dip. All of yesterday’s craziness has made me forget Hana’s comment to me before the evaluations. But now I remember, and remember how strange she looked too, eyes cloudy and unreadable.
“Come on.” I feel a straining in my lungs and my left thigh is starting to cramp. The only way to push through it is to run harder and faster. “Let’s pick it up, Slug.”
“Bring it.” Hana’s face splits into a grin, and both of us start pumping faster. The pain in my lungs swells up and blossoms until it feels like it’s everywhere, tearing through all my cells and muscles at once. The cramp in my leg makes me wince every time my heel hits the pavement. It’s always like this on miles two and three, like all the stress and anxiety and irritation and fear get transformed into little needling points of physical pain, and you can’t breathe or imagine going farther or think anything but: I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.
And then, just as suddenly, it’s gone. All the pain lifts away, the cramp vanishes, the fist eases off my chest, and I can breathe easily. Instantly a feeling of total happiness bubbles up inside of me: the solid feeling of the ground underneath me, the simplicity of the movement, rocketing off my heels, pushing forward in time and space, total freedom and release. I glance over at Hana. I can tell from her expression that she’s feeling it too. She has made it through the wall. She senses me looking and whips around, her blond ponytail a bright arc, to give me the thumbs-up.
It’s strange. When we run I feel closer to Hana than at any other time. Even when we’re not talking, it’s like there’s an invisible cord tethering us together, matching our rhythms, our arms and our legs, as though we’re both responding to the same drumbeat. More and more it has been occurring to me that this, too, will change after our procedures. She’ll retreat to the West End and make friends with her neighbors, with people richer and more sophisticated than I am. I’ll stay in some crappy apartment on Cumberland, and I won’t miss her, or remember what it felt like to run side by side. They’ve warned me that after my procedure I may not even like running anymore, period. Another side effect of the cure: People often change their habits afterward, lose interest in their former hobbies and things that had given them pleasure.
“The cured, incapable of strong desire, are thus rid of both remembered and future pain” (“After the Procedure,” The Safety, Health, and Happiness Handbook, p. 132).
The world is spinning by, people and streets a long, unfurling ribbon of color and sound. We run past St.
Vincent’s, the biggest all-boys school in Portland. A half- dozen boys are outside playing basketball, lazily dribbling the ball around, calling to one another. Their words are a blur, an indistinct series of shouts and barks and short bursts of laughter, the way that boys always sound whenever they’re together in groups, whenever you only hear them from around corners or across streets or down the beach. It’s like they have a language all their own, and for about the thousandth time I think how glad I am that segregation policies keep us separate most of the time.
As we run by I think I sense a momentary pause, a fraction of a second when all their eyes lift and turn in our direction. I’m too embarrassed to look. My whole body goes white-hot, like someone’s just stuck me headfirst into an oven. But a second later I feel their eyes sweeping past me, a wind, latching on to Hana. Her blond hair flashes next to me, a coin in the sun.
The pain is creeping back into my legs, a leaden feeling, but I force myself to keep going as we round the corner of Commercial Street and leave St. Vincent’s behind. I feel Hana straining to keep up next to me. I turn my head, barely managing to gasp out, “Race you.” But as Hana pulls up, arms pumping, and nearly passes me, I put my head down and lunge forward, cycling my legs as fast as I can, trying to suck air into my lungs, which feel like they’ve shrunk to the size of a pea, fighting the screaming in my muscles. Blackness eats the edges of my vision, and all I can see is the chain-link fence that rises up in front of us suddenly, blocking our path, and then I’m reaching out and thwacking it so hard it begins to shake, turning around to yell, “I won!” as Hana pulls up a second behind me, gasping for breath. Both of us are laughing now, hiccuping and taking huge gulping breaths of air as we pace around in circles, trying to walk it off.
When she can finally breathe again, Hana straightens up, laughing. “I let you win,” she says, an old joke of ours.
I toe some gravel in her direction. She ducks away, shrieking. “Keep telling yourself that.”
My hair has come out of its ponytail and I wrestle it out of its elastic, flipping my head down so I get the wind on my neck. Sweat drips down into my eyes, stinging.
“Nice look.” Hana pushes me lightly and I stumble sideways, whipping my head up to swipe back at her.
She sidesteps me. There’s a gap in the chain-link fence that marks the beginning of a narrow service road. This is blocked with a low metal gate. Hana hops it and gestures for me to follow. I haven’t really been paying attention to where we are: The service drive threads down through a parking lot, a forest of industrial Dumpsters and cargo storage sheds. Beyond those is the familiar string of white square buildings, like giant teeth. This must be one of the side entrances of the lab complex. I see now that the chain-link fence is looped on top with barbed wire and marked at twenty-foot intervals with signs that all read: PRIVATE PROPERTY.