Page 10

“Are you okay, Lena?” my uncle asks, adjusting his glasses as though hoping to bring me into clearer focus.

“You seem a little strange.”

“I’m fine.” I push around some ravioli on my plate.

Normally I can put away half a box myself, especially after a long run (and still have room for dessert), but I’ve barely managed to choke down a few bites. “Just stressed.”

“Leave her alone,” my aunt says. “She’s upset about the evaluations. They didn’t exactly turn out as planned.”

She lifts her eyes to my uncle, and they exchange a quick glance. I feel a rush of excitement. It’s rare for my aunt and uncle to look at each other like that, a wordless glance, full of meaning. Most of the time their interactions are limited to the usual thing—my uncle tells stories about work, my aunt tells stories about the neighbors. What’s for dinner? There’s a leak in the roof.

Blah blah blah. I think that for once they’re going to mention the Wilds, and the Invalids. But then my uncle gives a minute shake of his head.

“These kinds of mix-ups happen all the time,” he says, staking a ravioli with his fork. “Just the other day, I asked Andrew to reorder three cases of Vik’s orange juice. But he goes and gets the codes wrong and guess what shows up? Three cases of baby formula. I said to him, I said, ‘Andrew . . .’”

I tune the conversation out again, grateful that my uncle is a talker, and happy that my aunt has taken my side. The one good thing about being kind of shy is that nobody bugs you when you want to be left alone. I lean forward and sneak a glance at the clock in the kitchen.

Seven thirty, and we haven’t even finished eating. And afterward I’ll have to help clear and wash the dishes, which always takes forever; the dishwasher uses up too much electricity, so we have to do them by hand.

Outside, the sun is streaked with filaments of gold and pink. It looks like the candy that gets spun at the Sugar Shack downtown, all gloss and stretch and color. It will be a beautiful sunset tonight. In that moment the urge to go is so strong, I have to squeeze the sides of my chair to keep from suddenly springing up and running out the door.

Finally I decide to stop stressing and leave it to luck, or fate, or whatever you want to call it. If we finish eating and I’m done cleaning up the dishes in time to make it to Back Cove, I’ll go. If not, I’ll stay. I feel a million times better once I’ve made the decision, and even manage to shovel down a few more bites of ravioli before Jenny (miracle of miracles) has a sudden late burst of speed and cleans her plate, and my aunt announces I can clear the dishes whenever I’m ready.

I stand up and start stacking everyone’s plates. It’s almost eight o’clock. Even if I can wash all the dishes in fifteen minutes—and that’s a stretch—it will still be difficult to get to the beach by eight thirty. And forget about making it back by nine o’clock, when the city has a mandated curfew for uncureds.

And if I got caught on the streets after curfew . . .

The truth is, I don’t know what would happen. I’ve never broken curfew.

Just as I’ve finally accepted that there’s no way to get to Back Cove and back in time, my aunt does the unthinkable. As I’m reaching forward to take her plate, she stops me. “You don’t have to clean the dishes tonight, Lena. I’ll do them.”

As she’s speaking, she reaches out and puts a hand on my arm. Just like earlier, the touch is as fleeting and cool as wind.

And before I can think about what this means, I’m blurting out, “Actually, I have to run to Hana’s house really quick.”

“Now?” A look of alarm—or suspicion?—flickers across my aunt’s face. “It’s nearly eight o’clock.”

“I know. We—she—she has a study guide she was supposed to give me. I just remembered.”

Now the look of suspicion—it is suspicion, definitely— makes itself comfortable, drawing Carol’s eyebrows together, cinching her lips. “You don’t have any of the same classes. And your boards are over. How important can it be?”

“It’s not for class.” I roll my eyes, trying to conjure up Hana’s nonchalance, even though my palms are sweating and my heart is jerking around in my chest.

“It’s like a guide full of pointers. For the evaluations. She knows I need to prep more, since I almost choked yesterday.”

Again, my aunt directs a small glance at my uncle.

“Curfew’s in an hour,” she says to me. “If you get caught out after curfew . . .”

Nervousness makes my temper flare. “I know about curfew,” I snap. “I’ve only been hearing about it for my whole life.”

I feel guilty the second that the words are out of my mouth, and I drop my eyes to avoid looking at Carol. I’ve never spoken back to her, have always tried to be as patient and obedient and good as possible—have always tried to be as invisible as possible, a nice girl who helps with the dishes and the little kids and does her homework and listens and keeps her head down. I know that I owe Carol for taking Rachel and me in after my mother died. If it wasn’t for her, I’d probably be wasting away in one of the orphanages, uneducated, unnoticed, destined for a job at a slaughterhouse, probably, cleaning up sheep guts or cow crap or something like that. Maybe—maybe!—if I was lucky, I’d get to work for a cleaning service.

No foster parent will adopt a child whose past has been tainted by the disease.

I wish I could read her mind. I have no idea what she’s thinking, but she seems to be analyzing me, attempting to read my face. I think, I’m not doing anything wrong, it’s harmless, I’m fine, over and over, and wipe my palms on the back of my jeans, positive I’m leaving a sweat mark.

“Be quick,” she says finally, and as soon as the words are out of her mouth I’m off, jetting upstairs and switching my sandals for sneakers. Then I bang back down the stairs and fly out the door. My aunt has barely had time to take the dishes into the kitchen. She calls something to me as I blur past her, but I’m already pushing out the front door and don’t catch what she says. The ancient grandfather clock in the living room starts booming out just as the screen door swings shut behind me. Eight o’clock.

I unlock my bike and pedal it down the front path and out into the street. The pedals creak and moan and shudder. This bike was owned by my cousin Marcia before me and must be at least fifteen years old, and leaving it outside all year isn’t doing anything to preserve it.

I start cruising in the direction of Back Cove, which is downhill, fortunately. The streets are always pretty empty at this time of night. For the most part, the cureds are inside, sitting at dinner, or cleaning up, or preparing for bed and another night of dreamless sleep, and all the uncureds are home or on their way there, nervously watching the minutes swirl away toward nine o’clock curfew.

My legs are still aching from my run earlier today. If I make it to Back Cove on time and Alex is there, I’m going to be a complete mess, sweaty and disgusting. But I keep going anyway. Now that I’m out of the house I push all my doubts and questions out of my mind and focus on hauling ass as fast as my cramping legs will allow me, spinning down through the vacant streets toward the cove, taking every shortcut I can think of, watching the sun descend steadily toward the blazing gold line of the horizon, as though the sky—a brilliant, electric blue at this point—is water, and the light is just sinking through it.

I’ve only been out at this hour a few times on my own, and the feeling is strange—frightening and exhilarating at the same time, like talking to Alex out in the open earlier this afternoon: as though the revolving eye that I know is always watching has been blinded just for a fraction of a second, as though the hand you’ve been holding your whole life suddenly disappears and leaves you free to move in any direction you want.

Lights sputter in windows around me, candles and lanterns, mostly; this is a poor area, and everything is rationed, especially gas and electricity. At a certain point I lose sight of the sun’s position beyond the four- and five-story buildings, which grow more densely packed after I turn onto Preble: tall, skinny, dark buildings, pressed up against one another as though already preparing for winter and huddling for warmth. I haven’t really thought about what I’ll say to Alex, and the idea of standing alone with him suddenly makes my stomach bottom out. I have to pull my bike up abruptly, stop and catch my breath. My heart is pounding frantically. After a minute’s rest I keep pedaling, slower now. I’m still about a mile away but the cove is visible, flashing off to my right. The sun is just teetering over the dark mass of trees on the horizon. I have ten, fifteen minutes tops until total darkness.

Then another thought nearly stops me, hitting me straight like a fist: He won’t be there. I’ll be too late and he’ll leave. Or this will turn out to be a big joke, or a trick.

I wrap one arm around my stomach, willing the ravioli to stay put, and pick up speed again.

I’m so busy circling one foot after the other—left, right, left, right—and doing a mental tug-of-war with my digestive tract, that I don’t hear the regulators coming.

I’m about to speed through the long-defunct traffic light at Baxter when I am suddenly dazzled by a wall of zipping, bouncing light: the beams of a dozen flashlights directed into my eyes, so I have to skid abruptly to a halt, lifting a hand to my face and nearly flipping over the handlebars—which would be a real disaster, since in my rush to get out of the house I forgot to bring my helmet.

“Stop,” the voice of one of the regulators barks out—the leader in charge of the patrol, I guess. “Identity check.”

Groups of regulators—both volunteer citizens and the actual regulators employed by the government—patrol the streets every night, looking for uncureds breaking curfew, checking the streets and (if the curtains are open) houses for unapproved activity, like two uncureds touching each other, or walking together after dark—or even two cureds engaging in “activity that might signal the re-emergence of the deliria after the procedure,” like too much hugging and kissing. This rarely happens, but it does happen.

Regulators report directly to the government and work closely with the scientists at the labs. Regulators were responsible for sending my mother off for her third procedure; a passing patrol saw her crying over a photograph one night right after her second failed treatment. She was looking at a picture of my father, and she’d forgotten to close the curtains all the way.

Within days, she was back at the labs.

Normally it’s easy to avoid the regulators. You can practically hear them from a mile away. They carry walkie-talkies to coordinate with other patrolling groups, and the static interference of the radios going on and off makes it sound like a giant buzzing den of hornets is heading your way. I just wasn’t paying attention. Mentally cursing myself for being so stupid, I fish my wallet out of my back pocket. At least I remembered to grab that. It’s illegal to go without ID in Portland. The last thing anybody wants is to spend the night in jail while the powers that be try to verify your validity.

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