Page 49

I know you’ve had—I mean, with everything that happened today—I can’t imagine how you must be feeling.”

It’s too late. Tears are blurring my vision. I turn away from him and start chipping at the wall with a fingernail. A minuscule portion of brick crumbles away.

Watching it tumble to the ground reminds me of my mother, and those strange and terrifying walls, and the tears come faster.

“If you cared about me, you would take me away,” I say.

“If you cared about me at all you would go right now.”

“I do care about you,” Alex says.

“You don’t.” Now I know I am being childish, but I can’t help it. “She didn’t either. She didn’t care at all.”

“That’s not true.”

“Why didn’t she come for me, then?” I’m still turned away from him, pressing a palm against the wall, hard; feeling like it, too, might collapse at any second. “Where is she now? Why didn’t she come looking for me?”

“You know why,” he says, more firmly. “You know what would have happened if she was caught again—if she was caught with you. It would have meant death for both of you.”

I know he’s right, but that doesn’t make it any better. I keep going stubbornly, unable to stop myself. “It’s not that. She doesn’t care, and you don’t care. Nobody cares.” I draw my forearm across my face, swiping at my nose.

“Lena.” Alex puts a hand on each of my elbows and guides me around to face him. When I refuse to meet his eyes, he tilts my chin upward, forcing me to look at him.

“Magdalena,” he repeats, the first time since we met that he has ever used my full name. “Your mother loved you. Do you understand that? She loved you. She still loves you. She wanted you to be safe.”

Heat rushes through me. For the first time in my life I am not afraid of the word. Something seems to yawn open inside of me, to stretch out, like a cat trying to soak up the sun, and I’m desperate for him to say it again.

His voice is endlessly soft. His eyes are warm and flecked with light, the color of the sun melting like butter through the trees on a warm autumn evening.

“And I love you too.” His fingers skate the edge of my jaw, dance briefly over my lips. “You should know that.

You have to know that.”

That’s when it happens.

Standing there in-between two disgusting Dumpsters in some crappy alley with the whole world crumbling down around me, and hearing Alex say those words, all the fear I have carried with me since I learned to sit, stand, breathe— since I was told that at the very heart of me was something wrong, something rotten and diseased, something to be suppressed—since I was told that I was always just a heartbeat away from being damaged—all of it vanishes at once. That thing—the heart of hearts of me, the core of my core—stretches and unfurls even further, soaring like a flag: making me feel stronger than I ever have before.

I open my mouth and say, “I love you too.”

It’s strange, but after that moment in the alley I suddenly understand the meaning of my full name, the reason my mom named me Magdalena in the first place and the meaning of the old biblical story, of Joseph and his abandonment of Mary Magdalene. I understand that he gave her up for a reason. He gave her up so she could be saved, even though it killed him to let her go.

He gave her up for love.

I think, maybe, my mother had a sense even when I was born that she would someday have to do the same thing.

I guess that’s just part of loving people: You have to give things up. Sometimes you even have to give them up.

Alex and I talk about all the things I’ll be leaving behind to go with him to the Wilds. He wants to be absolutely sure that I know what we’re getting into. Stopping by Fat Cats Bakery after closing and buying the day-old bagels and cheddar buns for a dollar each; sitting out on the piers and watching the gulls shriek and circle overhead; long runs up by the farms when the dew glistens off every blade of grass as though they’re encased in glass; the constant rhythm of the oceans, beating under Portland like a heartbeat; the narrow cobblestone streets of the old harbor, shops crowded with bright, pretty clothes I could never afford.

Hana and Grace are my only regrets. The rest of Portland can dissolve into nothing, for all I care: its shiny, spindly false towers and blind storefronts and staring, obedient people, bowing their heads to receive more lies, like animals offering themselves up to be slaughtered.

“If we go together, it’s just you and me,” Alex keeps repeating, as though needing to make sure I understand—as though needing to be sure that I’m sure.

“No going back. Ever.”

And I say: “That’s all I want. Just you and me. Always.”

I mean it too. I’m not even afraid. Now that I know I’ll have him—that we have each other—I feel as though I’ll never be afraid of anything ever again.

We decide to leave Portland in a week, exactly nine days before my scheduled procedure. I’m nervous about delaying our departure so long—I’m halfway tempted to make a straight run for the border fence and try to barge my way through in broad daylight—but as usual, Alex calms me down and explains the importance of waiting.

In the past few years he has made the crossing only a handful of times. It’s too dangerous to go back and forth more often than that. But in the next week, Alex will cross twice before we make our final escape—an almost suicidal risk, but he convinces me it’s necessary. Once he leaves with me and starts missing work and class, he’ll be invalidated too—even though, technically, his identity was never really valid in the first place, since it was created by the resistance.

And once we’re both invalidated, we’ll be erased from the system. Gone. Blip! It will be as though we’ve never existed. At least we can count on the fact that we won’t be pursued into the Wilds. There won’t be any raiding parties. No one will come looking for us. If they wanted to hunt us down, they’d have to admit that we’d made it out of Portland, that it was possible, that the Invalids exist.

We’ll be nothing more than ghosts, traces, memories— and soon, as the cureds keep their eyes firmly focused on the future, and the long procession of days to march through—we won’t even be that.

Since Alex won’t be able to cross into Portland any longer, we need to bring over as much food as we can, plus clothes for the winter and anything else we can’t do without. Invalids in the settlements are pretty good about sharing supplies. Still, autumn and winter in the Wilds are always hard, and after years of living in Portland, Alex isn’t exactly a master hunter-gatherer.

We agree to meet at the house at midnight to continue planning. I’ll bring him the first collection of belongings I want to take with me: my photo album, a sheath of notes Hana and I passed back and forth sophomore year in math class, and whatever food I can smuggle from the storeroom at the Stop-N-Save.

It’s almost three o’clock by the time Alex and I split up and I head home. The clouds have mostly broken up, and between them the sky is interwoven, a pale blue, like faded and tattered silk. The air is warm but the wind is edged with an autumn smell of cold and smoke.

Soon all the lush greens of the landscape will burn away into fierce reds and oranges; and then those, too, will burn away, into the stark black brittleness of winter.

And I’ll be gone—out there somewhere among the skinny, shivering trees, encased in snow. But Alex will be with me, and we’ll be safe. We’ll walk together holding hands, and kiss in broad daylight, and love each other as much as we want to, and no one will ever try to keep us apart.

Despite everything that happened today, I feel calmer than I’ve ever been, as though the words Alex and I said to each other today have wrapped me up in a protective haze.

I haven’t been running regularly for over a month. It has been too hot, and until recently Carol has forbidden it. But as soon as I get home I call Hana and ask her to meet me at the tracks, our regular starting point, and she only laughs.

“I was about to call and ask you the same thing,” she says.

“Great minds,” I say, her laughter getting lost for a second in the fuzz that blasts through the receiver, as a censor somewhere deep in Portland tunes into our conversation momentarily. The old revolving eye, ever- turning, ever-vigilant. Anger worms through me for a second, but it disappears quickly. Soon I’ll be off the map completely and forever.

I was hoping to get out of the house without seeing Carol, but she intersects me on my way out the door. As always, she’s been in the kitchen, endlessly repeating her cycle of cooking and cleaning.

“Where have you been all day?” she asks. “With Hana,” I answer automatically. “And you’re going out again?”

“Just for a run.” Earlier I thought if I ever saw her again I would tear at her face, or kill her. But now, looking at her, I feel completely numb, like she’s a painted billboard or a stranger passing on a bus.

“Dinner’s at seven thirty,” she says. “I’d like you to be home to set the table.”

“I’ll be home,” I say. It occurs to me that this numbness, this feeling of separation, must be what she and every cured experiences all the time: as though there is a thick, muffling pane of glass between you and everybody else. Hardly anything penetrates. Hardly anything matters. They say the cure is about happiness, but I understand now that it isn’t, and it never was. It’s about fear: fear of pain, fear of hurt, fear, fear, fear—a blind animal existence, bumping between walls, shuffling between ever-narrowing hallways, terrified and dull and stupid.

For the first time in my life I actually feel sorry for Carol. I’m only seventeen years old, and I already know something she doesn’t know: I know that life isn’t life if you just float through it. I know that the whole point— the only point—is to find the things that matter, and hold on to them, and fight for them, and refuse to let them go.

“Okay.” Carol stands there, kind of awkwardly, like she always does when she wants to say something meaningful but can’t quite remember how to do it. “Two weeks until your cure,” she says finally.

“Sixteen days,” I say, but in my head I’m counting:

Seven days. Seven days until I’m free, and away from all these people and their sliding, superficial lives, brushing past one another, gliding, gliding, gliding, from life to death. For them, there’s hardly a change between the two.

“It’s okay to be nervous,” she says. This is the difficult thing she has been trying to say, the words of comfort it has cost her so much effort to remember. Poor Aunt Carol: a life of dishes and dented cans of green beans and days that bleed forever into one another. It occurs to me, then, how old she looks. Her face is deeply lined, and her hair has patches of gray. It’s only her eyes that have convinced me she is ageless: those staring, filmy eyes that all cureds share, as though they’re always looking off into some vast distance. She must have been pretty when she was young, before she was cured—as tall as my mother at least, and probably just as thin— and a mental image flashes of two teenage girls, both slender black parentheses separated by a span of silver ocean, kicking water at each other, laughing. These are the things you do not give up.

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