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“Tell her,” he says.

Hana leans up against the shelves stocked with toilet paper and canned beans, relaxing her arms just enough so I know she isn’t mad, and gives me a look like, You better tell me.

So I do. I’m not sure how long we have until Jed gets tired of manning the register by himself, so I try to keep it short. I tell her about running into Alex at Roaring Brook Farms; I tell her about swimming out to the buoys with him at East End Beach and what he told me when we were there. I choke a little bit on the word Invalid and Hana’s eyes widen—just for a second I see a look of alarm flash across her face—but she keeps it together pretty well. I finish by telling her about last night, and going to find her to warn her about the raids, and the dog and how Alex saved me. When I describe hiding out in the shed I get nervous again—I don’t tell her about the kissing, but I can’t help but think about it—but Hana is openmouthed again at that point, and obviously in shock, so I don’t think she notices.

The only thing she says at the end of my story is: “So you were there? You were there last night?” Her voice is weird and trembly, and I’m worried she’s going to start crying again. At the same time I feel a tremendous rush of relief. She’s not going to freak out about Alex, or be mad that I didn’t tell her.

I nod.

She shakes her head, staring at me like she’s never seen me before. “I can’t believe that. I can’t believe you snuck out during a raid—for me.”

“Yeah, well.” I shift uncomfortably. It feels like I’ve been talking for ages, and Hana and Alex have both been staring at me the whole time. My cheeks are flaming hot.

Just then there’s a sharp knock on the door that opens to the store, and Jed calls out, “Lena? Are you in there?”

I gesture frantically to Alex. Hana shoves him behind the door just as Jed starts pushing at it from the other side. He manages to get the door open only a few inches before it collides with the crate of applesauce.

In those few inches of space, I can see one of Jed’s eyes blinking at me disapprovingly.

“What are you doing in there?”

Hana pops her head around the door and waves. “Hi, Jed,” she says cheerfully, once again switching effortlessly into cheerful public mode. “I just came by to give Lena something. And we started gossiping.”

“We have customers,” Jed says sullenly.

“I’ll be out in a second,” I say, trying to match Hana’s tone. The fact that Jed and Alex are separated by only a few inches of plywood is terrifying.

Jed grunts and retreats, closing the door again. Hana, Alex, and I look at one another in silence. All three of us exhale at the same time, a collective sigh of relief.

When Alex speaks again, he keeps his voice to a whisper. “I brought some things for your leg,” he says.

He takes the backpack off and sets it on the ground, then starts pulling out peroxide, Bacitracin, bandages, adhesive tape, cotton balls. He kneels in front of me.

“Can I?” he says. I roll up my jeans, and he starts unwinding the strips of T-shirt. I can’t believe Hana is standing there watching a boy—an Invalid—touch my skin. I know she would never in a million years have expected it, and I look away, embarrassed and proud at the same time.

Hana inhales sharply once the makeshift bandages come off my leg. Without meaning to I’ve been squeezing my eyes shut.

“Damn, Lena,” she says. “That dog got you good.”

“She’ll be fine,” Alex says, and the quiet confidence in his voice makes warmth spread through my whole body.

I crack open an eye and sneak a look at the back of my calf. My stomach does a flop. It looks like an enormous chunk has been torn out of my leg. A few square inches of skin are just plain missing.

“Maybe you should go to the hospital,” Hana says doubtfully.

“And tell them what?” Alex uncaps the tube of peroxide and begins wetting cotton balls. “That she got hurt during a raid on an underground party?”

Hana doesn’t answer. She knows I can’t actually go to the doctor. I’d be strapped down in the labs, or thrown in the Crypts, before I could finish giving my name.

“It doesn’t hurt that bad,” I say, which is a lie. Hana again gives me that look, like we’ve never met before, and I realize that she’s actually—and possibly for the first time in our lives—impressed with me. In awe of me, even.

Alex dabs on a thick coat of antibacterial cream and then starts wrestling with the gauze and the adhesive tape. I don’t have to ask where he got so many supplies.

Another benefit to having security access in the labs, I assume.

Hana drops to her knees. “You’re doing it wrong,” she says, and it’s a relief to hear her normal, bossy tone. I almost laugh. “My cousin’s a nurse. Let me.”

She practically elbows him out of the way. Alex shuffles over and raises his hands in surrender. “Yes, ma’am,”

he says, and then winks at me.

Then I do start laughing. Fits of giggling overtake me, and I have to clamp my hands over my mouth to keep from shrieking and gasping and totally blowing our cover. For a second Hana and Alex just stare at me, amazed, but then they look at each other and start grinning stupidly.

I know we’re all thinking the same thing.

It’s crazy. It’s stupid. It’s dangerous. But somehow, standing in the sweltering storeroom surrounded by boxes of mac ’n’ cheese and canned beets and baby powder, the three of us have become a team.

It’s us against them, three against countless thousands.

But for some reason, and even though it’s absurd, at that moment I feel pretty damn good about our odds.

Chapter Sixteen

“Unhappiness is bondage; therefore, happiness is freedom. The way to find happiness is through the cure.

Therefore, it is only through the cure that one finds freedom.”

—From Will It Hurt? Common Questions and Answers About the Procedure, 9th edition, Association of American Scientists, Official USA Government Agency Pamphlet

After that I find a way to see Alex almost every day, even on days I have to work at the store. Sometimes Hana comes along with us. We spend a lot of time at Back Cove, mostly in the evenings after everyone has left. Since Alex is on the books as cured, it’s not technically illegal for us to spend time together, but if anyone knew how much time we spent together—or saw us laughing and dunking and having water fights or racing down by the marshes—they’d definitely get suspicious. So when we walk through the city we’re careful to stand apart, Hana and I on one sidewalk, Alex on the other. Plus, we look for the emptiest streets, the run-down parks, the abandoned houses—places where we won’t be seen.

We return to the houses in Deering Highlands. I finally understand how Alex knew how to find the toolshed during the raid night, and how he navigated the halls so perfectly in the pitch-dark. For years he has spent a few nights a month squatting in the abandoned houses; he likes to take a break from the noise and the bustle of Portland. He doesn’t say so, but I know squatting must remind him of the Wilds.

One house in particular becomes our favorite: 37 Brooks Street, an old colonial that used to be home to a family of sympathizers. Like many of the other houses in Deering Highlands, the property has been boarded up and fenced off ever since the great rout that emptied the area, but Alex shows us a way to sneak in through a loosened plank covering one of the first-floor windows.

It’s strange: Even though the place has been looted, some of the bigger furniture and the books are still there, and if it weren’t for the smoke stains creeping up the walls and ceilings, you might expect the owners to come home any moment.

The first time we go, Hana walks ahead of us calling, “Hello! Hello!” into the darkened rooms. I shiver in the sudden dark and coolness. After the blinding sunshine outside, it comes as a shock. Alex pulls me closer to him.

I’m finally getting used to letting him touch me, and I don’t flinch or whip around to look over my shoulder every time he leans in for a kiss.

“Want to dance?” he teases.

“Come on.” I slap him away. It feels weird to talk loudly in such a quiet place. Hana’s voice rolls back to us, sounding distant, and I wonder how big the house is, how many rooms there are, all covered in the same thick layer of dust, all draped in shadow.

“I’m serious,” he says. He spreads his arms. “It’s the perfect place for it.”

We’re standing in the middle of what must once have been a beautiful living room. It’s enormous—bigger than the whole ground floor of Carol and William’s apartment. The ceiling stretches up into darkness and a gigantic chandelier hangs above us, winking dully in the limited shafts of light that sneak through the boarded- up windows. If you listen hard, you can hear mice moving quietly in the walls. But somehow it’s not gross or frightening. Somehow it’s kind of nice, and it makes me think of woods and endless cycles of growth and death and regrowth—like what we’re really hearing is the house folding down around us, centimeter by centimeter.

“There’s no music,” I say.

He shrugs, winks, holds out his hand. “Music is overrated,” he says.

I let him draw me toward him so we’re standing chest to chest. He’s so much taller than I am, my head barely reaches his shoulder, and I can feel his heart drumming through his chest, and it gives us all the rhythm we need.

The best part of 37 Brooks is the garden in the back. An enormous overgrown lawn winds between ancient trees, so thick and gnarled and knotted their arms twist overhead and form a canopy. The sunlight filters through the trees and spots the grass a pale white. The whole garden feels as cool and quiet as the library at school. Alex brings a blanket and leaves it inside the house. Whenever we come we take it and shake it out on the grass, and all three of us lie there, sometimes for hours, talking and laughing about nothing in particular. Sometimes Hana or Alex buys some food for a picnic, and one time I manage to swipe three cans of soda and a whole carton of candy bars from my uncle’s store, and we get totally crazy on a sugar high and play games like we did when we were little—hide-and-seek and tag and leapfrog.

Some of the tree trunks are as wide as four garbage pails mashed together, and I take a picture of Hana, laughing, trying to fit her arms around one of them.

Alex says the trees must have been here for hundreds of years, which makes Hana and me go silent. That means they were here before—before the borders were shut down, before the walls were put up, before the disease was driven into the Wilds. When he says it, something aches in my throat. I wish I could know what it was like then.

Most of the time, though, Alex and I spend time alone and Hana covers for us. After weeks and weeks of not seeing her at all, suddenly I’m going to Hana’s every single day—and sometimes twice in one day (when I see Alex; and then when I actually see Hana). Fortunately, my aunt doesn’t pry. I think she assumes we had a fight and are making up for lost time now, which is kind of true anyway and suits me fine. I’m happier than I can ever remember being. I’m happier than I can ever remember even dreaming of being, and when I tell Hana I can never in a million years repay her for covering for me, she just crooks her mouth into a smile and says, “You’ve already repaid me.” I’m not sure what she means by that, but I’m just glad to have her back on my side.

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