Page 35

I think he must be joking, so I start to laugh. He stays quiet, though, and when I open my eyes I see his face is totally composed.

“You’re not serious,” I say, but already a deep well of fear has opened inside of me and I know that he is.

Somehow I know, too, that this is why he’s been acting strange all day: He misses the Wilds.

“We could go if you want to.” He looks at me for a beat longer and then rolls onto his back. “We could go tomorrow. After your shift.”

“But how would we—” I start to say. He cuts me off.

“Leave that to me.” For a moment his eyes look deeper and darker than I’ve ever seen them, like tunnels. “Do you want to?”

It feels wrong to talk about it so casually, lying on the blanket, so I sit up. Crossing the border is a capital offense, punishable by death. And even though I know that Alex still does it sometimes, the enormity of the risk hasn’t really hit me until now. “There’s no way,” I say, almost in a whisper. “It’s impossible. The fence— and the guards—and the guns . . .”

“I told you. Leave that to me.” He sits up too, reaches out and cups my face quickly, smiling. “Anything’s possible, Lena,” he says, one of his favorite expressions. The fear recedes. I feel so safe with him. I can’t believe that anything bad can happen when we’re together. “A few hours,” he says. “Just to see.”

I look away. “I don’t know.” My throat feels parched; the words tear at my throat as they come out.

Alex leans forward, gives me a quick kiss on the shoulder, and lies down again. “No big deal,” he says, throwing one arm over his eyes to shield them from the sun. “I just thought you might be curious, that’s all.”

“I am curious. But . . .”

“Lena, it’s fine if you don’t want to go. Seriously. It was just an idea.”

I nod. Even though my legs are sticky with sweat, I hug them to my chest. I feel incredibly relieved but also disappointed. I have a sudden memory of the time Rachel dared me to do a back dive off the pier at Willard Beach and I stood trembling at its edge, too scared to jump. Eventually she let me off the hook, bending down to whisper, “It’s okay, Lena-Loo. You’re not ready.” All I’d wanted was to get away from the edge of the pier, but as we walked back onto the beach I felt sick and ashamed.

That’s when I realize: “I do want to go,” I burst out.

Alex removes his arm. “For real?”

I nod, too afraid to say the words again. I’m worried if I open my mouth I’ll take it back.

Alex sits up slowly. I thought he’d be more excited, but he doesn’t smile. He just chews on the inside of his lip and looks away. “It means breaking curfew.”

“It means breaking a lot of rules.”

He looks at me then, and his face is so full of concern it makes something ache deep inside of me. “Listen, Lena.”

He looks down and rearranges the pile of matches he has made, placing them neatly side by side. “Maybe it’s not such a good idea. If we get caught—I mean, if you got caught—” He sucks in a deep breath. “I mean, if anything ever happened to you, I could never forgive myself.”

“I trust you,” I say, and mean it 150 percent.

He still won’t look at me. “Yeah, but . . . the penalty for crossing over . . .” He takes another deep breath. “The penalty for crossing over is . . .” At the last second he can’t say death.

“Hey.” I nudge him gently. It’s an incredible thing, how you can feel so taken care of by someone and yet feel, also, like you would die or do anything just for the chance to protect him back. “I know the rules. I’ve been living here longer than you have.”

He cracks a smile then. He nudges me back. “Hardly.”

“Born and raised. You’re a transplant.” I nudge him again, a little harder, and he laughs and tries to catch hold of my arm. I squirm away, giggling, and he stretches out to tickle my stomach. “Country bumpkin!”

I squeal, as he grabs out and wrestles me back onto the blanket, laughing.

“City slicker,” he says, rolling over on top of me, and then kisses me. Everything dissolves: heat, explosions of color, floating.

We agree to meet at Back Cove the next evening, a Wednesday; since I won’t be working again until Saturday, it should be relatively easy to get Carol to allow me to sleep over at Hana’s. Alex walks me through some of the major points of the plan. Crossing over isn’t impossible, but hardly anyone risks it. I guess the whole punishable-by-death thing isn’t really a big attraction.

I don’t see how we’ll ever make it past the electrified fence, but Alex explains that only certain portions of it are actually electrified. Pumping electricity through miles and miles of fence is too expensive, so relatively few stretches of the fence are actually “online”: the remainder of the fence is no more dangerous than the one that encircles the playground at Deering Oaks Park.

But as long as everyone believes that the whole thing is juiced up with enough kilowattage to fry a person like an egg in a pan, the fence is serving its purpose just fine.

“Smoke and mirrors, all of it,” Alex says, waving his hand vaguely. I assume he means Portland, the laws, maybe all of the USA. When he gets serious a little crease forms between his eyebrows, a tiny comma, and it’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. I try to stay focused.

“I still don’t see how you know all this,” I say. “I mean, how did you guys figure it out? Did you just keep running people at the fence, to see whether they got fried in certain places?”

Alex cracks a tiny smile. “Trade secrets. But I can tell you there were some observational experiments involving wild animals.” He raises his eyebrows. “Ever eaten fried beaver?”


“Or fried skunk?”

“Now you’re just trying to gross me out.”

There are more of us than you think: That’s another one of Alex’s favorite expressions, his constant refrain.

Sympathizers everywhere, uncured and cured, positioned as regulators, police officers, government officials, scientists. That’s how we’ll get past the guard huts, he tells me. One of the most active sympathizers in Portland is matched with the guard who works the night shift at the northern tip of Tukey’s Bridge, right where we’ll be crossing. She and Alex have developed a sign.

On nights he wants to cross over, he leaves a certain flyer in her mailbox, the stupid photocopied kind that takeout delis and dry cleaners give out. This one advertises for a free eye exam with Dr. Swild (which seems pretty obvious to me, but Alex says that resisters and sympathizers live with so much stress they need to be allowed their little private jokes) and whenever she finds it she makes sure to put an extra-large dose of Valium in the coffee she makes for her husband to drink during his shift.

“Poor guy,” Alex says, grinning. “No matter how much coffee he drinks, he just can’t seem to stay awake.” I can tell how much the resistance means to him, and how proud he is of the fact that it is there, healthy, thriving, shooting its arms through Portland. I try to smile, but my cheeks feel stiff. It still blows my mind that everything I’ve been taught is so wrong, and it’s still hard for me to think of the sympathizers and resisters as allies and not enemies.

But sneaking over the border will make me one of them beyond a shadow of a doubt. At the same time, I can’t seriously consider backing out now. I want to go; and if I’m honest with myself, I became a sympathizer a long time ago, when Alex asked me whether I wanted to meet him at Back Cove and I said yes. I seem to have only hazy memories of the girl I was before then—the girl who always did what she was told and never lied and counted the days until her procedure with feelings of excitement, not horror and dread. The girl who was afraid of everyone and everything. The girl who was afraid of herself.

When I get home from the store the next day, I make a big point of asking Carol if I can borrow her cell phone.

Then I text Hana: Sleepover 2nite w A? This has been our code recently whenever I need her to cover for me.

We’ve told Carol we’ve been spending a lot of time with Allison Doveney, who recently graduated with us. The Doveneys are even richer than Hana’s family, and Allison is a stuck-up bitch. Hana originally protested against using her as the mysterious “A,” on the grounds that she didn’t even like to think about pretend hanging out with her, but I convinced her in the end. Carol would never call the Doveneys to check up on me. She’d be too intimidated, and probably embarrassed—my family is impure, tainted by Marcia’s husband’s defection and, of course, by my mother, and Mr. Doveney is the president and founder of the Portland chapter of the DFA, Deliria- Free America. Allison Doveney could hardly stand to look at me when we were in school together, and way back in elementary school, after my mother died, she asked to switch desks to be farther away from me, telling the teacher that I smelled like something dying.

Hana’s response comes almost immediately. U got it. C u tonight.

I wonder what Allison would think if she knew I’d been using her as cover for my boyfriend. She would freak out for sure, and the thought makes me smile.

A little before eight o’clock I come downstairs with my overnight bag slung conspicuously over my shoulder.

I’ve even let a little bit of my pajamas poke out. I’ve packed the whole bag exactly as I would have if I were really going to Hana’s. When Carol gives me a flitting smile and tells me to have a good time, I feel a brief pang of guilt. I lie so often and so easily now.

But it’s not enough to stop me. Once outside I head toward the West End, just in case Jenny or Carol is watching from the windows. Only after I reach Spring Street do I double back toward Deering Avenue and head for 37 Brooks. The walk is long, and I make it to Deering Highlands just as the last of the light is swirling out of the sky. As always, the streets here are deserted.

I push through the rusted metal gate that surrounds the property, slide aside the loose slats covering one ground-floor window, and hoist myself into the house.

The darkness surprises me, and for a moment I stand there, blinking, until my eyes adjust to the low light. The air feels sticky, and stale, and the house smells like mildew. Various shapes begin to emerge, and I make my way into the living room, and to the mold-spotted couch.

Its springs are busted and half of its stuffing has been torn out, probably by mice, but you can tell that once it must have been pretty—elegant, even.

I fish my clock out from my bag and set the alarm for eleven thirty. It’s going to be a long night. Then I stretch out on the bumpy couch, balling my backpack underneath my head. It’s not the world’s most comfortable pillow, but it will do.

I close my eyes and let the sounds of the mice scrabbling, and the low groans and mysterious tickings of the walls, lull me to sleep.

I wake up in the darkness from a nightmare about my mother. I sit up straight, and for one panicked second don’t know where I am. The faulty springs squeal underneath me and then I remember: 37 Brooks. I fumble for my alarm clock and see that it’s already 11:20. I know I should get up but I still feel groggy from the heat and the dream, and for a few more moments I just sit there, taking deep breaths. I’m sweating; the hair is sticking to the back of my neck.

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