Page 41

There’s no stopping it. The hallway doesn’t last forever, and I step into the living room just in time to hear Brian say, “She’s not as pretty as in the pictures.”

Brian and his mom have their backs to me, but Carol’s mouth falls open when she sees me standing there, and both of the Scharffs whip around to face me. At least they have the grace to look embarrassed. He drops his eyes quickly, and she flushes.

I’ve never felt so ashamed or exposed. This is worse, even, than standing in the translucent hospital gown at the evaluations, under the glare of the fluorescent lights. My hands are trembling so badly the water jumps over the lip of the glasses.

“Here’s your water.” I don’t know where I find the strength to come around the sofa and place the glasses down on the coffee table. “Not too much ice.”

“Lena—” My aunt starts to say something, but I inter- rupt her.

“I’m sorry.” Miraculously, I even manage a smile. I can only hold it for a fraction of a second, though. My jaw is trembling too, and I know that at any moment I might cry. “I’m not feeling very well. I think I might step outside for a bit.”

I don’t wait to be given permission. I turn around and rush the front door. As I push out into the sun I hear Carol apologizing for me.

“The procedure is still several weeks away,” she’s saying. “So you’ll have to forgive her for being so sensitive. I’m sure it will all work out. . . .”

The tears come hot and fast as soon as I’m outside. The world begins to melt, colors and shapes bleeding together. The day is perfectly still. The sun has just inched past the middle of the sky, a flat white disk, like a circle of heated metal. A red balloon is caught in a tree. It must have been there for a while. It is going limp, bobbing listlessly, half-deflated, at the end of its string.

I don’t know how I’ll face Brian when I have to go back inside. I don’t know how I’ll face him ever. A thousand awful things race through my mind, insults I’d like to hurl at him. At least I don’t look like a tapeworm, or, Has it ever occurred to you that you’re allergic to life?

But I know I won’t—can’t—say any of those things.

Besides, the problem isn’t really that he wheezes, or is allergic to everything. The problem isn’t even that he doesn’t think I’m pretty.

The problem is that he isn’t Alex.

Behind me the door squeaks open. Brian says, “Lena?”

I mash my palms against my cheeks quickly, wiping away the tears. The absolute last thing in the world I want is for Brian to know that his stupid comment has upset me. “I’m fine,” I call back, without turning, since I’m sure I look like a mess. “I’ll come inside in a second.”

He must be stupid or stubborn, because he doesn’t leave me alone. Instead he closes the door behind him and comes down off the front stoop. I hear him wheezing a few feet behind me.

“Your mom said it was okay if I came out with you,” he says.

“She’s not my mom,” I correct him quickly. I don’t know why it seems so important to say. I used to like it when people confused Carol for my mom. It meant they didn’t know the real story. Then again, I used to like a lot of things that seem ridiculous now.

“Oh, right.” Brian must know something about my real mom. It’s on the record he would have seen. “Sorry. I forgot.”

Of course you did , I think, but don’t say anything. At least the fact that he’s hovering over me has made me too angry to be sad anymore. The tears have stopped. I cross my arms and wait for him to take the hint—or get tired of staring at my back—and go inside. But the steady wheezing continues.

I’ve known him less than half an hour, and already I could kill him. Finally I get tired of standing there in silence, so I turn around and brush past him quickly.

“Feeling much better now,” I say. I don’t look at him as I start toward the house. “We should go in.”

“Wait, Lena.” He reaches out and grabs my wrist. I guess grabs isn’t really the right word. More like wipes sweat on. But I stop anyway, though I still can’t bring myself to meet his eyes. Instead I keep my eyes locked on the front door, noticing for the first time that the screen has three large holes in it, near the upper right corner. No wonder the house has been full of insects this summer.

Grace found a ladybug in our bedroom the other day.

She brought it to me, cupped in her tiny palm. I helped her carry it downstairs and release it outside.

I feel an overwhelming rush of sadness, unrelated to Alex or Brian or any of that. I’m just struck with a sense of time passing so quickly, rushing forward. One day I’ll wake up and my whole life will be behind me, and it will seem to have gone as quickly as a dream.

“I didn’t mean for you to hear what I said before,” he says. I wonder if his mom made him say this. The words seem to require a tremendous effort on his part. “It was rude.”

As if I haven’t already been completely humiliated—now he has to apologize for calling me ugly. My cheeks feel like they’re going to melt off, they’re so hot.

“Don’t worry about it,” I say, trying to extricate my wrist from his hand. Surprisingly, he won’t let me go— even though technically he shouldn’t be touching me at all.

“What I meant was—” His mouth works up and down for a second. He won’t meet my eyes. He keeps scanning the street behind me, his eyes darting back and forth, like a cat watching a bird. “What I meant was, you looked happier in the pictures.”

This is a surprise, and for a second I can’t think of a response. “I don’t seem happy now?” I splutter out, and then feel even more embarrassed. It’s so weird to be having this conversation with a stranger, knowing he won’t be a stranger for very much longer.

But he doesn’t seem freaked out by the question. He just shakes his head. “I know you aren’t,” he says. He drops my wrist, but I don’t feel as desperate to go inside anymore. He’s still staring off at the street behind me, and I sneak a closer look at his face. I guess he could be kind of good-looking. Not nearly so gorgeous as Alex, obviously—he’s super pale and slightly feminine-looking, with a full, round mouth and a small, tapered nose—but his eyes are a clear, pale blue, like a morning sky, and he has a nice strong jawline. And now I start to feel guilty. He must know I’m unhappy because I’ve been paired with him. It’s not his fault I’ve changed—seen the light or contracted the deliria, depending on who you ask. Maybe both.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “It’s not you. I’m just—I’m just scared about the procedure, that’s all.” I think of how many nights I used to fantasize about stretching out on the operating table, waiting for the anesthesia to turn the world to fog, waiting to wake up renewed. Now I’ll be waking up to a world without Alex: I’ll be waking up into the fog, everything gray and blurry and unrecognizable.

Brian is looking at me, finally, with an expression I can’t identify at first. Then I realize: pity. He feels sorry for me. He starts speaking all in a rush. “Listen, I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but before my procedure I was like you.” His eyes click back to the street. The wheezing has stopped. He speaks clearly, but low, so Carol and his mom can’t hear through the open window. “I didn’t—I wasn’t ready.” He licks his lips, drops his voice to a whisper. “There was a girl I used to see sometimes at the park. She babysat for her cousins, used to bring them to the playground there. I was captain of the fencing team in high school—that’s where we practiced.”

You would be captain of the frigging fencing team, I think. But I don’t say this out loud; I can tell he’s trying to be nice.

“Anyway, we used to talk sometimes. Nothing happened,” he qualifies quickly. “Just a few conversations, here and there. She had a pretty smile.

And I felt . . .” He trails off.

Wonder and fear sweep through me. He’s trying to tell me that we’re alike. He somehow knows about Alex—not about Alex specifically, but about someone. “Wait a second.” My mind is churning. “Are you trying to say that before the procedure you were . . . you got sick?”

“I’m just saying I understand.” His eyes flick to mine for barely a fraction of a second, but that’s all I need. I’m positive now. He knows I’ve been infected. I’m both relieved and terrified—if he can see it, other people will see it too.

“My point is only that the cure works.” He places extra emphasis on the last word. I know, now, that he’s trying to be kind. “I’m much happier now. You will be too, I promise.”

Something inside of me fractures when he says that, and I feel like I could cry again. His voice is so reassuring. There’s nothing I want more in that moment than to believe him. Safety, happiness, stability: what I’ve wanted my whole life. And for that moment I think maybe the past few weeks really have just been some long, strange delirium. Maybe after the procedure I’ll wake up as from a high fever, with only a vague recollection of my dreams and a sense of overwhelming relief.

“Friends?” Brian says, offering me his hand to shake, and this time I don’t flinch when he touches me. I even let him hold my hand an extra few seconds.

He’s still facing the street, and as we’re standing there a frown flickers temporarily across his face. “What does he want?” he mutters, and then calls out, “It’s okay.

She’s my pair.”

I turn around just in time to see a flash of burnt golden- brown hair—the color of leaves in autumn—disappear around the corner. Alex. I wrench my hand away from Brian’s, but it’s too late. He’s gone.

“Must have been a regulator,” Brian says. “He was just standing there, staring.”

The feeling of calm and reassurance I’d had only a minute earlier vanishes in a rush. Alex saw me—he saw us, holding hands, heard Brian say I was his pair. And I was supposed to have met him an hour ago. He doesn’t know that I couldn’t get out of the house, couldn’t get a message to him. I can’t imagine what he must be thinking about me right now. Or actually, I can imagine.

“Are you okay?” Brian’s eyes are so pale they’re almost gray. A sickly color, not like sky at all—like mold or rot. I can’t believe I thought he could be attractive for even a second. “You don’t look too good.”

“I’m fine.” I try to take a step toward the house and stumble. Brian reaches out to steady me, but I twist away from him. “I’m fine,” I repeat, even though everything around me is breaking, fracturing.

“It’s hot out here,” he says. I can’t stand to look at him.

“Let’s go inside.”

He puts a hand on my elbow and propels me up the stairs, through the door, and into the living room, where Carol and Mrs. Scharff are waiting for us, smiling.

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