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Besides, Brian had his procedure last month.” As though that’s what’s bothering me.

“He’s coming here? Today?” I have to reach out and place one hand on the wall. Somehow I’ve managed to completely forget about Brian Scharff, that neat printed name on a page.

Carol must think I’m nervous about meeting him, because she smiles at me. “Don’t worry, Lena. You’ll be fine. We’ll do most of the talking. I just thought you two should meet, since . . .” She doesn’t finish her sentence.

She doesn’t have to.

Since we’re paired. Since we’ll be married. Since I’ll share my bed with him, and wake up every day of my life next to him, and have to let him put his hands on me, and have to sit across from him at dinner eating canned asparagus and listening to him rattle on about plumbing or carpentry or whatever it is he’s going to get assigned to do.

“No!” I burst out.

Carol looks startled. She’s not used to hearing that word, certainly not from me. “What do you mean, no?”

I lick my lips. I know refusing her is dangerous, and I know that it’s wrong. But I can’t meet Brian Scharff. I won’t. I won’t sit there and pretend to like him, or listen to Carol talk about where we’ll live in a few years, while Alex is out there somewhere—waiting for me to meet up with him, or tapping his fingers against his desk while he listens to music, or breathing, or doing anything at all.

“I mean . . .” I struggle for an excuse. “I mean—I mean, couldn’t we do it some other time? I don’t really feel good.” This, at least, is true.

Carol frowns at me. “It’s an hour, Lena. If you can manage to sleep over at Hana’s house, you can manage that.”

“But—but—” I ball one fist up, squeezing my fingernails into my palm until pain starts blooming there, which gives me something to focus on. “But I want it to be a surprise.”

Carol’s voice takes on an edge. “There’s nothing surprising about this, Lena. This is the order of things.

This is your life. He is your pair. You will meet him, and you will like him, and that’s that. Now go upstairs and get in the shower. They’ll be coming at one o’clock.”

One. Alex gets off work at noon today; I was supposed to meet him. We were going to have a picnic at 37 Brooks, like we always do whenever he comes off the morning shift, and enjoy the whole afternoon together. “But—” I start to protest, not even sure what else I can say.

“No buts.” Carol crosses her arms and glares at me fiercely. “Upstairs.”

I don’t know how I make it up the stairs; I’m so angry I can barely see. Jenny’s standing on the landing, chewing gum, dressed in one of Rachel’s old bathing suits. It’s too big for her. “What’s wrong with you?” she says, as I push past her.

I don’t answer. I make a beeline for the bathroom and turn the water on as high as it can go. Carol hates it when we waste water, and normally I make my showers as quick as I can, but today I don’t care. I sit on the toilet and stuff my fingers in my mouth, biting down to keep from screaming. This is all my fault. I’ve been ignoring the date of the procedure, and I’ve avoided even thinking Brian Scharff’s name. And Carol is absolutely right: This is my life, and the order of things. There’s no changing it. I take a deep breath and tell myself to stop being such a baby. Everyone has to grow up sometime; my time is on September 3.

I go to stand up, but an image of Alex last night— standing so close to me, speaking those weird, wonderful words, I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach—knocks me down again, and I thud back onto the toilet.

Alex laughing, breathing, living—separately, unknown to me. Waves of nausea overtake me, and I double over with my head between my knees, fighting it.

The disease, I tell myself. The disease is progressing. It will all be better after the procedure. That’s the point.

But it’s no use. When I finally manage to get into the shower, I try to lose myself in the rhythm of the water pounding on the porcelain, but images of Alex flicker through my mind—kissing me, stroking my hair, dancing his fingers over my skin—dancing, flashing, like light from a candle, about to be snuffed out.

The worst is that I can’t even let Alex know I won’t be able to meet him. It’s too dangerous to call him. My plan was to go to the labs and tell him in person, but when I come downstairs, showered and dressed, and head for the door, Carol stops me.

“Where do you think you’re going?” she says sharply. I can tell she’s still angry that I was arguing with her earlier—angry, and probably offended. She no doubt thinks I should be turning cartwheels because I’ve finally been paired. She has a right to think it—a few months ago, I would have been turning cartwheels.

I turn my eyes to the ground, attempting to sound as sweet and meek as possible. “I just thought I’d take a walk before Brian comes.” I try to conjure up a blush.

“I’m kind of nervous.”

“You’ve been spending enough time out of the house as it is,” Carol snaps back. “And you’ll only get sweaty and dirty again. If you want something to do, you can help me organize the linen closet.”

There’s no way I can disobey my aunt, so I follow her back upstairs and sit on the floor as she passes ratty towel after ratty towel down to me, and I inspect them for holes and stains and damage, fold and refold, count napkins. I’m so angry and frustrated I’m shaking. Alex won’t know what has happened to me. He’ll worry. Or even worse, he’ll think I’m deliberately avoiding him.

Maybe he’ll think going to the Wilds freaked me out.

It frightens me, how violent I’m feeling—crazy, almost, and capable of anything. I want to climb up the walls, burn down the house, something. Several times I have the fantasy of taking one of Carol’s stupid dish towels and strangling her with it. This is what all the textbooks and The Book of Shhh and parents and teachers have always warned me about. I don’t know whether they’re right or whether Alex is. I don’t know whether these feelings— this thing growing inside of me—is something horrible and sick or the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

Either way, I can’t stop it. I’ve lost control. And the truly sick thing is that despite everything, I’m glad.

At twelve thirty Carol moves me downstairs to the living room, which I can tell has been straightened and cleaned. My uncle’s shipping orders, which are usually scattered everywhere, have been stacked in a neat pile, and none of the old schoolbooks and broken toys that usually litter the floor are visible. She plops me down on a sofa and begins messing with my hair. I feel like a prize pig, but I know better than to say anything about it. If I do everything she tells me—if everything goes smoothly—maybe I’ll still have time to go to 37 Brooks once Brian leaves.

“There,” Carol says, stepping away and squinting at me critically. “That’s as good as it’s going to get.”

I bite my lip and turn away. I don’t want her to notice, but her words have sent a sharp pain through me.

Amazingly, I’d actually forgotten that I’m supposed to be plain. I’m so used to Alex telling me I’m beautiful. I’m so used to feeling beautiful around him. A hollow opens up in my chest. This is what life will be like without him:

Everything will become ordinary again. I’ll become ordinary again.

At a few minutes after one I hear the front gate squeak open and footsteps on the path. I’ve been so focused on Alex I haven’t had time to get nervous about Brian Scharff’s arrival. But now I have the wild urge to make a run for the back door, or hurtle through the open window. Thinking about what Carol would do if I went belly flopping through the screen brings on an uncontrollable fit of giggling.

“Lena,” she hisses at me, just as Brian and his mother start knocking on the front door. “Control yourself.”

Why? I’m tempted to fire back. It’s not like he can do anything about it, even if he hates me. He’s stuck with me and I’m stuck with him. We’re stuck.

That’s what growing up is all about, I guess.

In my imagination Brian Scharff was tall and fat, a hulking figure. In reality he’s only a few inches taller than I am—which is impressively short, for a guy— and so thin I’m worried about breaking his wrist bone when we shake. His palms are damp with sweat, and he barely squeezes my hand. It feels like holding on to a damp tissue. Afterward, when we all take our seats, I surreptitiously wipe my hands against my pants.

“Thank you for coming,” Carol says, and there’s a long, awkward pause. In the silence I can hear Brian wheezing through his nose. It sounds like there’s a dying animal trapped in his nasal canal.

I must be staring, because Mrs. Scharff explains, “Brian has asthma.” “Oh,” I say. “The allergies make it worse.”

“Um . . . what is he allergic to?” I ask, because she seems to be expecting it.

“Dust,” she says emphatically, like she’s been waiting to break out that word since she sailed through the door.

She looks witheringly around the room—which is not dusty—and Carol blushes. “And pollen. Cats and dogs, of course, and peanuts, seafood, wheat, dairy, and garlic.”

“I didn’t know you could be allergic to garlic,” I say. I can’t help it: It just pops out.

“His face puffs up like an accordion.” Mrs. Scharff turns a disdainful eye toward me, as though I’m somehow responsible for this fact.

“Oh,” I say again, and then another uncomfortable silence descends on us. Brian doesn’t say anything, but he wheezes louder than ever.

This time Carol comes to the rescue. “Lena,” she says, “perhaps Brian and Mrs. Scharff would like some water.”

I’ve never been so grateful for an excuse to leave a room in my life. I jump out of my seat, nearly taking down a lamp with my knee by accident. “Of course. I’ll get it.”

“Make sure it’s filtered,” Mrs. Scharff calls after me, as I tear out of the room. “And not too much ice.”

In the kitchen I take my time filling up the glasses—from the tap, obviously—and letting the cold air from the freezer blast my face. From the living room I can hear the low murmur of conversation, but I can’t make out who is speaking or what is being said. Maybe Mrs.

Scharff decided to reprise her list of Brian’s allergies.

I know I have to go back into the living room eventually, but my feet just won’t move toward the hallway. When I finally force them into action, they feel like they’ve been transformed into lead; still, they carry me far too quickly toward the living room. I keep seeing an endless series of bland days, days the color of pale yellow and white pills, days that have the same bitter aftertaste as medicine. Mornings and evenings filled with a quietly whirring humidifier, with Brian’s steady wheezing breath, with the drip, drip, drip from a leaking faucet.

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