Page 55

Outside, the streets are as quiet as they’ve ever been, and in that moment I know that it’s hopeless: I won’t be able to escape on my own. Tomorrow I’ll wake up and my aunt and Rachel and the regulators will escort me downtown, and the only chance of escape I’ll have will be into the ocean, or off the roof of the laboratories.

I think of Alex’s molten honey eyes and the softness of his touch and sleeping under a canopy of stars, stretched out above our heads like they were placed there just for us. Now, after so many years, I understand what the Coldness was and where it came from—this sense that everything is lost, and worthless, and meaningless. Finally, the cold and the despair turn merciful, dropping down on my mind like a dark veil, and miracle of miracles, I sleep.

I wake sometime later in ink purple darkness with the sensation of someone in the room, some loosening of the restraints on my wrists. For a second my heart soars and I think, Alex, but then I look up and see Gracie, perched at the head of my bed, working at the cords binding me to the headboard. She is pulling and untwisting and bending forward, occasionally, to chew at the nylon with her teeth, giving the impression of a quiet and industrious animal gnawing its way through a fence.

Just like that, the cord snaps and I’m free. The pain in my shoulders is agonizing; my arms are full of a thousand pinpricks. But still, in that moment of release, I could shout and jump for joy. This is how my mother must have felt when she saw the first shaft of sunlight penetrate the fissure in her stone prison walls.

I sit up, rubbing my wrists. Gracie crouches against the headboard, watching me, and I lean forward and wrap her up in a big hug. She smells like apple soap and a little like sweat. Her skin is hot, and I can’t think of how nervous she must have been, sneaking up to my room.

I’m surprised by how thin and fragile she feels, trembling ever so slightly in my arms.

But she’s not fragile—not by a long shot. Gracie is strong, I realize, perhaps stronger than any of us. It occurs to me that for a long time she has been doing her own version of resisting, and the fact that she is a born resister makes me smile into her hair. She’ll be okay.

She’ll be more than okay.

I pull away just a little bit so I can whisper in her ear. “Is Uncle William still out there?”

Gracie nods, then places both hands under the side of her head, indicating that William is sleeping.

I lean forward again. “Are there regulators in the house?”

Gracie nods again, holding up two fingers, and my stomach sinks. Not just one regulator—two of them.

I stand up, testing my legs, which are cramping from being immobilized for almost two full days. I tiptoe to the window and open the blinds as quietly as possible, conscious of Uncle William slumbering only ten feet away from me. The sky outside is a rich, dark purple, the color of eggplant, and the street is draped with shadows as though it has been covered over with velvet.

Everything is totally still, totally silent, but at the horizon is just the faintest blush, a gradual lightening:

Dawn isn’t far off.

I ease open the window carefully, feeling a sudden desire to smell the ocean. There it is: the smell of salt spray and mist, a smell mixed, in my mind, with the idea of constant revolution, an eternal tide. I feel overwhelmingly sad then. I know there’s no way to find Alex in the middle of this enormous sprawling, sleeping city, and no way for me to reach the border on my own.

My best bet is to try and make it down to the cliffs, to the ocean, to walk into the water until it closes over my head. I wonder if it will hurt. I wonder if Alex will be thinking of me.

Somewhere deeper in the city a motor is running, a distant, earthy growl, like an animal panting. In a few hours the bright blush of morning will push through all that darkness, and shapes will reassert themselves, and people will wake up and yawn and brew coffee and get ready for work, everything the same as usual. Life will go on. Something aches at the very core of me, something ancient and deep and stronger than words:

the filament that joins each of us to the root of existence, that ancient thing unfurling and resisting and grappling, desperately, for a foothold, a way to stay here, breathe, keep going. But I will it away; I will it to curl up again, to let go.

I’d rather die my way than live yours.

The motor is getting louder now, approaching. And now I see a solitary motorcycle, a dark black speck, coming up the street. For a second I pause, fascinated. I’ve only seen a working motorcycle twice before, and despite everything it strikes me as beautiful, the way it weaves up the street, barely glinting, cutting through the dark, like the sleek black head of an otter through the water.

And the rider, too, just a dark shape massed on the back of the bike like liquid, like shadow, bent forward, just the crown of the head visible, drawing ever closer, taking on shape and detail.

The crown of the head: like the color of leaves in autumn, burning, burning.


I can’t help it: I let out a little cry of excitement.

Outside the bedroom door, there’s a thumping sound, like something banging against the wall. I hear Uncle William mutter, “Shit.”

Alex pulls into the narrow alley that separates our property—a strip of grass, really, a single, anemic tree, and a waist-high chain-link fence—from the next. I wave at him frantically. He cuts the engine of the motorcycle, turning his face upward, toward the house. It’s still very dark, so I’m not sure he can see me.

I risk calling his name softly, into the yard. “Alex!”

He swivels his head toward my voice, a grin splitting his face, spreading his arms as though to say, You knew I would come, didn’t you? It reminds me of how he looked the first time I ever saw him on the balcony in the labs, all twinkle and flash, like a star winking through the darkness just for me.

And in that second I’m so filled with love it’s as though my body transforms into a single blazing beam of light, shooting up, up, up, beyond the room and walls and city:

as though everything has dropped away behind us, and Alex and I are alone in the air, and totally free.

Then the door to my bedroom flies open and William starts yelling.

Suddenly the house is noise and light, footsteps and shouting. Uncle William is just standing in the doorway, shouting for Carol, and it’s like in one of those scary movies when a sleeping beast is woken, except now the house is the beast. Feet pound up the stairs—the regulators, I think—and at the end of the hall Carol flies out of her bedroom, her nightgown flapping behind her like a cape, mouth twisted open into one long, indecipherable shout.

I shove against the screen as hard as I can, but it’s stuck. Below me Alex is screaming something too, but I can’t make it out over the motorcycle engine, roaring to life again.

“Stop her!” Carol is yelling, and William comes to life, unfreezing, lunging into the room. Pain burns my shoulder as I shove against the screen again, feel it strain outward for a second and then resist. No time, no time, no time. Any second now William will grab me and it will all be over.

Then Gracie yells, “Wait!”

Everyone freezes just for a second. It is the first and only time Gracie has ever spoken aloud to them. William trips over himself and stares at his granddaughter, slack-jawed. Carol freezes in the doorway, and behind her, Jenny rubs her eyes as though convinced she is dreaming. Even the regulators—both of them—pause at the top of the stairs.

That second is all I need. I give another shove and the screen shudders and pops outward, clattering onto the street. And before I can think about what I’m doing, or the two-story drop to the street below, I’m swinging out of the window and letting go, the air sweeping me up like an embrace so for a moment my heart sings again and I think, I’m flying.

Then I’m hitting the ground with such force that my legs give way and the air gets knocked out of me in a rush.

My left ankle twists and wrenching pain goes through my whole body. I skid forward on my hands and knees, rolling against the fence. Above me the shouting has started up again, and a moment later the front door of the house bursts open and two men spill out onto the porch.

“Lena!” That’s Alex’s voice. I look up. He’s leaning over the chain-link fence, extending his hand. I fling one arm upward and he grabs me by the elbow, half dragging me over the fence; a bit of it catches on my tank top, tearing the fabric, nicking my skin. There’s no time to be scared.

On the porch there is an explosion of static. One regulator is shouting into his walkie-talkie. The other one is loading a gun. Strangely, in the middle of all the chaos, I have the stupidest thought: I didn’t know that regulators were allowed to carry guns.

“Come on!” Alex yells. I scrabble onto the motorcycle behind him, wrapping my arms tightly around his waist.

The first bullet ricochets off the fence directly to our right. The second one pings off the sidewalk.

“Go!” I scream, and Alex guns it just as a third bullet whips by us, so close I can feel the air vibrating in its wake.

We jet forward to the end of the alley. Alex cuts the wheel, hard, to the right, so we spin out onto the street, tipping over so far my hair grazes the pavement. My stomach does a huge somersault and I think, It’s over, but miraculously the motorcycle rights itself and then we’re speeding forward down the dark street, while the sounds of shouting and the explosions of gunfire recede behind us.

The quiet doesn’t last, though. As we turn onto Congress, I hear the wail of sirens, growing louder and louder, a scream. I want to tell Alex to go faster, but my heart is pounding so hard I can’t speak the words.

Besides, my voice would only be lost in the furious whipping of the wind around us, and I know he’s going as fast as he can. The buildings on either side of us are a blur, gray and shapeless, like a mass of melted metal.

Never has the city looked so foreign to me, so awful and deformed. The sirens are so loud that the noise is like a thin blade, vibrating furiously through me. Lights begin to flicker on in the buildings around us as people are roused from sleep. The horizon is touched with red: The sun is rising, a rusty color, the color of old blood, and I’m so filled with fear it is an agony, a shredding feeling, worse than any nightmare I’ve ever had.

Then, out of nowhere, two squad cars materialize at the end of the street, blocking our progress. Regulators and police—dozens of them, all heads and arms and screaming mouths—pour out onto the street. Voices boom, amplified, distorted through radios and bullhorns.

“Freeze! Freeze! Freeze or we shoot!”

“Hold on!” Alex yells, and I can feel his muscles tensing underneath me. At the last second he jerks the bars to the left and we skid sideways into another narrow alley, clipping the brick wall. I scream as my right leg gets crushed against the wall. Skin grates off my shin as we slide for several seconds along the exterior of the building before Alex once again gets control of the bike and we shoot forward. As soon as we burst out the other end of the alley there are two more patrol cars swerving behind us.

We’re going so fast my arms are shaking as I try to hold on, and right then I have a momentary flash of calm and clarity and I realize that we’ll never make it. Both of us will die today, gunned down or smashed up or exploded in some terrible moment of fire and twisted metal, and when they go to bury us we’ll be so melted together and entwined they won’t be able to separate the bodies; pieces of him will go with me, and pieces of me will go with him. Weirdly, the thought doesn’t even upset me.

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