I wonder how old he is. He looks my age, but he must be slightly older, maybe nineteen. I wonder, too—a brief, flitting thought—whether he’s already been paired. But of course he has; he must have been.
I’ve been staring at him accidentally and he turns suddenly to look at me. I drop my eyes, feeling a quick and irrational terror that he has managed to read my thoughts.
“I’d love to look around,” Hana hints not-so-subtly. I reach out and pinch her when Alex isn’t looking and she shrinks away, giving me a guilty look. At least she doesn’t start grilling him about what happened yesterday, and get us thrown in jail or dragged through an interrogation.
Alex tosses his water bottle in the air, catches it in one hand. “Trust me, there’s nothing to see. Unless you’re a fan of industrial waste. There’s plenty of that around here.” He tips his head toward the Dumpsters. “Oh—and the best view of the bay in Portland. We’ve got that going for us too.”
“Really?” Hana wrinkles her nose, momentarily distracted from her detective mission.
Alex nods, tosses the bottle again, catches it. As it arcs through the air the sun winks through the water like light from a jewel. “That I can show you,” he says. “Come on.”
All I want is to get out of here, but Hana says, “Sure,” so I trudge along after her, silently cursing her curiosity and fixation with all things Invalid-related and vowing never to let her pick our running route again. She and Alex walk in front, and I pick up scattered bits of their conversation: I hear him say he takes classes at one of the colleges but miss what he says he studies; Hana tells him we’re about to graduate. He tells her he’s nineteen; she says that we’re both turning eighteen in several months. Thankfully, they avoid talking about the botched evaluations yesterday.
The service road connects with another, smaller drive, which runs parallel to Fore Street, slanting steeply uphill toward the Eastern Promenade. Here there are rows of long, metal storage sheds. The sun is flat and high and unrelenting. I’m incredibly thirsty, but when Alex turns around and offers me a sip from his water bottle, I say, “No,” quickly and too loud. The thought of putting my mouth where his mouth has been makes me feel anxious all over again.
As we come up to the top of the hill—all three of us panting a little from the climb—the bay unfolds to our right like a gigantic map, a sparkling, shimmering world of blues and greens. Hana gasps a little. It really is a beautiful view: unobstructed and perfect. The sky is full of poufy white clouds that make me think of feather pillows, and seagulls turn lazy arcs over the water, patterns of birds forming and dissolving in the sky.
Hana walks forward a few feet. “It’s amazing. Gorgeous, isn’t it? No matter how long I live here I never get used to it.” She turns and looks at me. “I think this is my favorite way to see the ocean. Middle of the afternoon, sunny and bright. It’s just like a photograph. Don’t you think, Lena?”
I’m feeling so relaxed—enjoying the wind at the top of the hill, which sweeps over my arms and legs and makes me feel cool and delicious, enjoying the view of the bay and the high, blinking eye of the sun—I’ve almost forgotten that Alex is with us. He’s been hanging back, standing a few feet behind us, and ever since we came up the hill he hasn’t said a word.
Which is why I nearly jump out of my skin when he leans forward and directs a single word into my ear:
“What?” I whirl around, my heart pounding. Hana has turned back to the water and is going on about wishing she had her camera and how you never seem to have anything you really need. Alex is bent close to me—so close I can see his individual eyelashes, like perfect brushstrokes on a canvas portrait—and now his eyes are literally dancing with light, burning as though on fire.
“What did you say?” I repeat. My voice comes out a croaky whisper.
He leans another inch closer, and it’s like the flames seep out of his eyes and light my whole body on fire. I’ve never been this close to a boy before. I feel like fainting and running all at the same time. But I can’t move.
“I said, I prefer the ocean when it’s gray. Or not really gray. A pale, in- between color. It reminds me of waiting for something good to happen.”
He does remember. He was there. The ground seems to be dissolving under my feet the way it does in the dream about my mother. All I can see are his eyes, the shifting pattern of shadow and light turning there.
“You lied,” I manage to croak out. “Why did you lie?”
He doesn’t answer me. He pulls away a few inches and says, “Of course it’s even prettier at sunset. Around eight thirty the sky looks like it’s on fire, especially at Back Cove. You should really see it.” He pauses, and though his voice is low and casual I get the feeling he’s trying to tell me something important. “Tonight it will probably be amazing.”
My brain grinds into action, slowly processing his words, the way he’s emphasizing certain details. Then it clicks: He has given me a time and a place. He’s telling me to meet him. “Are you asking me to—?” I start to say, but just then Hana runs back up to me, grabbing my arm.
“God,” she says, laughing. “Can you believe it’s after five already? We’ve got to go.” She’s dragging me backward before I can respond or protest, and by the time I think to look over my shoulder to see if Alex is watching or giving me any kind of sign, he has disappeared from view.
“Mama, Mama, help me get home
I’m out in the woods,
I am out on my own.
I found me a werewolf, a nasty old mutt
It showed me its teeth and went straight for my gut.
Mama, Mama, help me get home
I’m out in the woods,
I am out on my own.
I was stopped by a vampire, a rotting old wreck,
It showed me its teeth,
and went straight for my neck.
Mama, Mama, put me to bed
I won’t make it home,
I’m already half-dead.
I met an Invalid, and fell for his art
He showed me his smile,
and went straight for my heart.”
—From “A Child’s Walk Home,” Nursery Rhymes and Folk Tales, edited by Cory Levinson
That evening I can’t concentrate. When I’m setting the table for dinner, I accidentally pour wine in Gracie’s juice cup and orange juice in my uncle’s wineglass, and while I’m grating cheese I catch my knuckles so many times in the teeth of the grater my aunt finally sends me out of the kitchen, saying she’d prefer not to have a topping of skin for her ravioli. I can’t stop thinking about the last thing Alex said to me, the endlessly shifting pattern of his eyes, the strange expression on his face—like he was inviting me. Around eight thirty the sky looks like it’s on fire, especially at Back Cove.
You should really see it. . . .
Is it even remotely, conceivably possible he was sending me a message? Is it possible he was asking me to meet him?
The idea makes me dizzy.
I keep thinking, too, about the single word, directed low and quietly straight into my ear: Gray. He was there; he saw me; he remembered me. So many questions crowd my brain at once, it’s like one of the famous Portland fogs has swept up from the ocean and settled there, making it impossible to think normal, functional thoughts.
My aunt finally notices something’s wrong. Just before dinner I’m helping Jenny with her homework, as always, testing her on her multiplication tables. We’re sitting on the floor of the living room, which is squashed up right next to the “dining room” (an alcove that barely holds a table and six chairs), and I’m holding her workbook on my knees, reciting the problems to her, but my mind is on autopilot and my thoughts are a million miles away. Or rather, they’re exactly 3.4 miles away, down at the marshy edge of Back Cove. I know the distance exactly because it’s a nice run from my house.
Now I’m calculating how quickly I could get down there on my bike, and then beating myself up for even considering the idea.
“Seven times eight?” Jenny pinches her lips together.
“Fifty-six.” “Nine times six?” “Fifty-two.”
On the other hand, there’s no law that says you can’t speak to a cured. Cureds are safe. They can be mentors or guides to the uncureds. Even though Alex is only a year older than I am, we’re separated, irreparably and totally, by the procedure. He might as well be my grandfather.
“Seven times eleven?”
“Lena.” My aunt has squeezed out of the kitchen, past the dining room table, and is standing behind Jenny. I blink twice, trying to focus. Carol’s face is tight with concern. “Is something the matter?”
“No.” I drop my eyes quickly. I hate it when my aunt looks at me like that, like she’s reading all the bad parts from my soul. I feel guilty just for thinking about a boy, even a cured one. If she knew, she would say, Oh, Lena.
Careful. Remember what happened to your mother. She would say, these diseases tend to run in the blood.
I keep my eyes trained on the worn carpet underneath me. Carol bends forward, swoops up Jenny’s workbook from my knees, and says loudly in her clear, high voice, “Nine times six is fifty-four.” She snaps the workbook closed. “Not fifty-two, Lena. I assume you know your multiplication tables?”
Jenny sticks her tongue out at me.
My cheeks start heating up as I realize my mistake.
“Sorry. I guess I’m just kind of . . . distracted.”
There’s a momentary pause. Carol’s eyes never leave the back of my neck. I can sense them burning there. I feel like I’ll scream, or cry, or confess, if she keeps staring at me.
Finally she sighs. “You’re still thinking about the evaluations, aren’t you?”
I blow the air out of my cheeks, feel a weight of anxiety ease off my chest. “Yeah. I guess so.” I venture a glance up at her, and she smiles her little skittering smile.
“I know you’re disappointed you have to go through the process again. But think about it this way—this time you’ll be even more prepared.”
I bob my head and try to look enthusiastic, even though a little, pinching feeling of guilt starts nipping at me. I haven’t even thought about the evaluations since this morning, not since I found out the results would be discounted. “Yeah, you’re right.”
“Come on, now. Dinnertime.” My aunt reaches out and passes a finger over my forehead. Her finger is cool and reassuring, and gone as quickly as the lightest stirring of wind. It makes the guilt flare up full force, and in that moment I can’t believe I was even considering going to Back Cove. It’s the absolute, 100 percent wrong thing to do, and I stand up for dinner feeling clean and weightless and happy, like the first time you feel healthy after a long fever.
But at dinner my curiosity—and with it, my doubts— return. I can barely follow the conversation. All I can think is: Go? Don’t go? Go? Don’t go? At one point my uncle is telling a story about one of his customers, and I notice everyone is laughing so I laugh too, but a little too loud and long. Everyone turns to look at me, even Gracie, who puckers her nose and tilts her head like a dog sniffing at something new.