When I was a little kid, my favorite thing about winter was sledding. Every time it snowed, I would convince Lena to meet me at the bottom of Coronet Hill, just west of Back Cove, and together we would trek through soft mounds of new powder, our breath coming in clouds, our plastic sleds sliding soundlessly behind us while hanging icicles refracted the sunlight and turned the world new and dazzling.
From the top of the hill, we could see all the way past the smudgy line of low brick buildings huddled together by the wharves and across the bay to the white-capped islands just off the coast--Little Diamond Island; Peaks Island, with its stiff-necked guard tower--past the massive patrol boats that trudged through the sleet-gray water on their way to other ports; all the way to open ocean, distant flashes of it winking and dancing close to the horizon.
"Today I'm going to go to China!" I'd trumpet out into the quiet.
And Lena would go as pale as the snow clinging to her faded jacket and say, "Shhh, Hana. Someone will hear you." We weren't supposed to talk about other countries, or even know their names. All these distant, diseased places were as good as lost to history--they had imploded, turned chaotic and riotous, ruined by amor deliria nervosa.
I had a secret map, though, which I kept underneath my mattress; it had been stuffed in with a few books I had inherited from my grandfather when he died. The regulators had gone through his possessions to make sure there was nothing forbidden among them, but they must have missed it: folded up and wedged inside a thick nursery-school primer, a beginner's guide to The Book of Shhh, was a map that must have been circulated in the time Before. It showed no border wall around the United States, and it featured other countries too: more countries than I had ever imagined, a vast world of damaged, broken places.
"China!" I would say, just to bug her, and to show her I wasn't afraid of being overheard, by the regulators or patrols or anyone else. Besides, we were all alone. We were always all alone at Coronet Hill. It was very steep, and situated close to the border and to Killians' House, which was supposedly haunted by the ghosts of a diseased couple who had been condemned to death for resistance during the blitz. There were other, more popular sledding spots all over Portland. "Or maybe France. I hear France is lovely at this time of year."
oth220;I'm just kidding, Lena," I would say. "I'd never go anywhere without you." And then I'd flop down onto my sled and push off, just like that, feeling a fine spray of snow on my face as I gathered speed, feeling the frigid bite of the rushing air, watching the trees turn to dark blurs on either side of me. Behind me, I could hear Lena shouting, but her voice was whipped away by the thundering of the wind and the whistling of the sled across the snow and the loose, breathless laughter that pushed itself out of my chest. Faster, faster, faster, heart pounding and throat raw, terrified and exhilarated: a sheet of white, an endless surf of snow rising up to meet me as the hill began to bottom out . . .
Each time I made a wish: that I could take off into the air. I would be thrown from my sled and disappear into that bright, dazzling, blank tide, a crest of snow that would reach up and suction me into another world.
But each time, instead, the sled would begin to slow. It would come bumping and crunching to a halt, and I would stand up, shaking the ice from my mittens and from the collar of my jacket, and turn around to watch Lena take her turn--slower, more cautiously, letting her feet drag behind her to slow her momentum.
Strangely enough, this is what I dream about now, the summer before my cure, during the last summer that will ever be truly mine to enjoy. I dream about sledding. That's what it's like to barrel forward toward September, to speed toward the day when I will no longer be troubled by amor deliria nervosa.
It is like being on a sled in the middle of a cutting wind. I am breathless and terrified; I will soon be engulfed by whiteness and suctioned into another world.
"Perfect." My mother dabs her mouth primly on her napkin and beams across the table at Mrs. Hargrove. "Absolutely exquisite."
"Thank you," Mrs. Hargrove says, inclining her head graciously, as though she, and not her cook, has been the one to prepare the meal. My mom has a housekeeper who comes in three times a week, but I have never known a family with an actual staff. Mayor Hargrove and his family have real servants. They pass through the dining room, pouring water from sterling silver pitchers, refilling the bread plates, pouring out the wine.
"Didn't you think so, Hana?" My mother turns to me, widening her eyes so I can read the command in them.
"Absolutely perfect," I reply obediently. My mother narrows her eyes at me slightly, and I can tell she's wondering whether I'm making fun of her. Perfect has been her favorite word this summer. Hana's performance at the evaluations was perfect. Hana's score was practically perfect. Hana was paired with Fred Hargrove--the mayor's son! Isn't that perfect? Especially since, well . . . There was that unfortunate situation with his first match . . . but everything always works out in the end. . . .
"Mediocre at best," Fred puts in casually.
Mayor Hargrove nearly chokes on his water. Mrs. Hargrove gasps, "Fred!"
Freyorjustifyd winks at me. I duck my head, hiding a smile.
"I'm kidding, Mom. It was delicious, as usual. But maybe Hana is tired of discussing the quality of the green beans?"
"Are you tired, Hana?" Mrs. Hargrove has apparently not understood that her son is joking. She turns her watery gaze to me. Now Fred is concealing a smile.
"Not at all," I say, trying to sound sincere. It is my first time having dinner with the Hargroves, and my parents have impressed on me for weeks how critical it is that they like me.
"Why don't you take Hana out to the gardens?" Mayor Hargrove suggests, pushing away from the table. "It'll take a few minutes to get coffee and dessert on."
"No, no." The last thing I want is to be alone with Fred. He is nice enough, and thanks to the information packet I received about him from the evaluators, I'm well prepared to discuss his interests (golf; movies; politics), but nevertheless, he makes me nervous. He is older, and cured, and has already been matched once before. Everything about him--from the shiny silver cuff links to the neat way his hair curls around his collar--makes me feel like a little kid, stupid and inexperienced.
But Fred is already standing up. "That's a great idea," he says. He offers me his hand. "Come on, Hana."
I hesitate. It seems strange to have physical contact with a boy here, in a brightly lit room, with my parents watching me impassively--but of course, Fred Hargrove is my match, and so it is not forbidden. I take his hand, and he draws me up to my feet. His palms are very dry, and rougher than I expected.
We move out of the dining room and into a wood-paneled hall. Fred gestures for me to go first, and I am uncomfortably aware of his eyes on my body, his closeness and smell. He is big. Tall. Taller than Steve Hilt.
As soon as I think of the comparison, I'm angry with myself.
When we step onto the back porch, I move away from him, and am relieved when he doesn't follow. I press up against the railing, staring out into the vast, dark-draped landscape of gardens. Small, scrolled-iron lamps illuminate birch trees and maples, trellises neat with climbing roses, and beds of blood-red tulips. The crickets are singing, a throaty swell. The air smells like wet earth.
"It's beautiful," I blurt.
Fred has settled onto the porch swing, keeping one leg crossed over the opposite knee. His face is mostly in shadow, but I can tell he's smiling. "Mom likes gardening. Actually, I think she just likes weeding. I swear, sometimes I think she plants weeds just so she can yank them up again."
I don't say anything. I've heard rumors that Mr. and Mrs. Hargrove have close ties to the president of Deliria-Free America, one of the most powerful anti-deliria groups in the country. It makes sense that she likes to weed, to uproot the nasty, creeping growth that blemishes her perfect garden. That is what the DFA wants too: total eradication of the disease, of the nasty, dark, twisting eify, twistmotions that cannot be regulated or controlled.
I feel as though something hard and sharp is stuck in my throat. I swallow, reach out, and squeeze the porch railing, taking comfort in its roughness and solidity.
I should be grateful. That's what my mother would tell me. Fred is good-looking, and rich, and he seems nice enough. His father is the most powerful man in Portland, and Fred is being groomed to take his place. But the tightness in my chest and throat won't go away.
He dresses like his father.
My mind flashes to Steve--his easy laugh, his long, tan fingers skating up my thigh--and I will the image away quickly.
"I don't bite, you know," Fred says lightly. I'm not sure whether he means it to be an invitation to move closer, but I stay where I am.
"I don't know you," I say. "And I'm not used to talking to boys." This is no longer exactly true--not since Angelica and I discovered the underground, anyway--but of course, he can't know that.
He spreads his hands. "I'm an open book. What do you want to know?"
I look away from him. I have many questions: What did you like to do before you were cured? Do you have a favorite time of day? What was your first match like, and what went wrong? But none are appropriate to ask. And he wouldn't answer me anyway, or he would answer the way he has been taught.
When Fred realizes I'm not going to speak, he sighs and climbs to his feet. "You, on the other hand, are a complete mystery. You're very pretty. You must be smart. You like to run, and you were president of the debate team." He has crossed the porch toward me, and he leans against the railing. "That's all I got."
"That's all there is," I say forcefully. That hard thing in my throat is only growing. Although the sun went down an hour ago, it is still very hot. I find myself wondering, randomly, what Lena is doing tonight. She must be at home--it's nearly curfew. Probably reading a book, or playing a game with Grace.
"Smart, pretty, and simple," Fred says. He smiles. "Perfect."
Perfect. There's the word again: a locked-door word--stifling, strangling.
I'm distracted by movement in the garden. One of the shadows is moving--and then, before I can cry out or alert Fred, a man emerges from the trees, carrying a large, military-style rifle. Then I do cry out, instinctively; Fred turns around and begins to laugh.
"Don't worry," he says. "That's just Derek." When I continue to stare, he explains, "One of Dad's guards. We've beefed up security recently. There have been rumors. . . ." He trails off.
"Rumors about what?" I prompt him.
He avoids looking at me. "It's probalf 8217;s bly overblown," he says casually. "But some people believe that a resistance movement is growing. Not everyone believes that the Invalids"--he winces when he says the word, as though it hurts him--"were eradicated during the blitz."
Resistance movement. Invalids. A prickly feeling starts to work its way through my body, as though I've just been plugged into an electrical outlet.
"My father doesn't believe it, of course," Fred finishes flatly. "Still, better to be safe than sorry, right?"