Once again, I stay quiet. I wonder what Fred would do if he knew about the underground, and knew that I had spent the summer at forbidden, unsegregated beach parties and concerts. I wonder what he would do if he knew that only last week, I let a boy kiss me, let him explore my thighs with his fingertips--actions reviled and forbidden.
"Would you like to go down into the gardens?" Fred asks, as though sensing the topic has disturbed me.
"No," I say, so quickly and firmly he looks surprised. I inhale and manage to smile. "I mean--I have to use the bathroom."
"I'll show you where it is," Fred says.
"No, please." I can't keep the urgency from my tone. I toss my hair over one shoulder, tell myself to get a grip, and smile again, wider this time. "Stay here. Enjoy the night. I can find it."
"And self-sufficient, too," Fred says with a laugh.
On the way to the bathroom, I hear the murmur of voices coming from the kitchen--some of the Hargroves' servants, I assume--and am about to keep walking when I hear Mrs. Hargrove say the word Tiddles quite clearly. My heart seizes. They're talking about Lena's family. I inch closer to the kitchen door, which is partially open, certain at first that I've only imagined it.
But then my mother says, "Well, we never wanted to make little Lena feel ashamed because of the rest of her family. One or two bad apples . . ."
"One or two bad apples can mean the whole tree is rotten," Mrs. Hargrove says primly.
I feel a hot flash of anger and alarm--they are talking about Lena. For a second I fantasize about kicking open the kitchen door, right into Mrs. Hargrove's simpering face.
"She's a lovely girl, really," my mother insists. "She and Hana have been inseparable since they were little."
"You're much more understanding than I am," Mrs. Hargrove says. She pronounces understanding as though she's really saying idiotic. "I would never have allowed Fred to run around with someone whose family had been so . . . tainted. Blood tells, doesn't it?"
"The disease doesn't carry through the blood," my mother says softly. I feel a wild urge to reach through the wood and hug her. "That's an o ne#8217;sld idea."
"Old ideas are often based in fact," Mrs. Hargrove responds stiffly. "Besides, we simply don't know all the factors, do we? Certainly an early exposure--"
"Of course, of course," my mother says quickly. I can tell that she's eager to mollify Mrs. Hargrove. "It's all very complicated, I admit. Harold and I just always tried to allow things to progress naturally. We felt that at some point the girls would simply drift apart. They're too different--not well matched at all. I'm actually surprised their friendship lasted as long as it did." My mother pauses. I can feel my lungs working painfully in my chest, as though I've been plunged into icy water.
"But after all, it seems we were right," my mother continues. "The girls have barely spoken at all this summer. So you see, in the end, it all worked out."
"Well, that's a relief."
Before I can move or react, the kitchen door is opening, and I am caught frozen, standing directly in front of the door. My mother lets out a small cry, but Mrs. Hargrove doesn't look either surprised or embarrassed.
"Hana!" she chirps, smiling at me. "What perfect timing. We were just about to have dessert."
Back at home, locked in my room, I can breathe normally for the first time all night.
I draw a chair up to my window. If I press my face nearly to the glass, I can just make out Angelica Marston's house. Her window is dark. I feel a pulse of disappointment. I need to do something tonight. There's an itch under my skin, an electric, jumpy feeling. I need to get out, need to move.
I stand up, pace the room, pick up my phone from the bed. It's late--after eleven--but for a moment I consider calling Lena's house. We haven't spoken in exactly eight days, since the night she came to the party at Roaring Brook Farms. She must have been horrified by the music and the people: boys and girls, uncureds, together. She looked horrified. She looked at me like I was already diseased.
I open the phone, type in the first three digits of her number. Then I snap the phone shut again. I've left messages with her already--two or three, probably, and she has returned exactly none of my calls.
Besides, she's probably sleeping, and I'll no doubt wake up her aunt Carol, who will think something is wrong. And I can't tell Lena about Steve Hilt--I don't want to frighten her, and for all I know she would report me. I can't tell her about what I'm feeling now, either: that my life is slowly squeezing closed around me, as though I'm walking through a series of rooms that keep getting smaller. She'll tell me how lucky I should feel, how grateful I should be for my scores at evaluations.
I throw my phone on the bed. Almost immediately, it buzzes: A new text message has come in. My heart leaps. Only a few people have my number--only a few people even have cell phones. I grab the phone again, fumble it open. The itch in my blood makes my fingers shake.
I knew it. The message is from Angelica.
Can't sleep. Weird nightmares--was on the corner of Washington and Oak, and fifteen rabbits were trying to get me to join a tea party. I can't wait to get cured!
All our messages about the underground must be carefully coded, but this one is easy enough to decipher. We're meeting on the corner of Washington and Oak in fifteen minutes.
to a party.
To get to the Highlands I have to go off peninsula. I avoid taking St. John, even though it will lead me directly to Congress. There was an outbreak of the deliria there five years ago--four families affected, four early cures imposed. Since then, the whole street has been tainted and is always targeted by regulators and patrols.
The itch under my skin has swollen to a steady, thrumming force, a need in my legs and arms and fingers. I can barely pedal fast enough. I have to force myself not to push it. I need to stay alert and pay attention, just in case there are regulators nearby. If I'm caught out after curfew, I'll have a lot of questions to answer, and this--my last summer as me, my last summer of freedom--will come abruptly to a halt. I'll be thrown into the labs by the end of the week.
Luckily, I reach the Highlands without incident. I slow down, squinting at the street signs as I pass, trying to decipher letters in the dark. The Highlands is a mess of different roads and cul-de-sacs, and I never remember all of them. I pass Brooks and Stevens; Tanglewild and Crestview Avenue, and then, confusingly, Crestview Circle. At least the moon is full and floats almost directly above me, leering. Tonight the man in the moon looks as though he's winking, or smirking: a moon with secrets.
Then I spot Oak. Even though I'm barely rolling along now, my heart is going so hard in my throat, I feel like it'll burst out through my mouth if I try and say a word. I've avoided thinking about Steve all night, but now, as I get closer, I can't help it. Maybe he'll be here tonight. Maybe, maybe, maybe. The idea--the thought of him--cascades into consciousness, into being. There is no repressing it.
As I climb off my bike, I instinctively fumble in my back pocket and feel for the note I've been carrying everywhere for the past two weeks, after I found it folded neatly on top of my beach bag.
I like your smile. I want to know you. Study session 2nite--earth sciences. You have Mr. Roebling, right?
Steve and I had seen each other at some of the underground parties earlier in the summer, and once we almost talked after I bumped into him and splashed some soda on his shoe. And then, during the day, we began to pass each other: in the street, at Eastern Prom. He always lifted his eyes to mine and, just for a second, flashed me a smile. That day--the day of the note--I thought I saw him wink. But I was with Lena, and he was with friends in the out>boys' section of the beach. No way for him to come and speak with me. I still don't know how he managed to sneak the note into my bag; he must have waited until the beach was pretty much empty.
His message, too, was in code. The "study session" was an invitation to a concert; "earth sciences" meant that it would be held on one of the farms--Roebling Farm, to be exact.
That night we ditched the concert and walked out to the middle of an empty field, and lay side by side in the grass with our elbows touching, looking up at the stars. At one point, he traced a dandelion from my forehead to my chin, and I fought the desperate, nervous urge to giggle.
That was the night he kissed me.
My first kiss. A new kind of kiss, like the new kind of music still playing, softly, in the distance--wild and arrhythmic, desperate. Passionate.
Since then, I have managed to see him only twice, and both times were in public and we could do no more than nod at each other. It is worse, I think, than not seeing him at all. That, too, is an itch--the desire to see him, to kiss him again, to let him put his fingers in my hair--is a monstrous, constant, crawling feeling in my blood and bones.
It's worse than a disease. It's a poison.
And I like it.
If he is here tonight--please let him be here tonight--I'm going to kiss him again.
Angelica is waiting for me on the corner of Washington and Oak, as promised. She is standing in the shadow of a towering maple, and for a second, as she steps out of the darkness--dark hair, dark shadow-eyes--I imagine that she is Lena. But then the moonlight falls differently on her face, and Lena's image goes skittering away into a corner of my mind. Angelica's face is all sharp angles, especially her nose, which is just slightly too long and tilted upward. That's the reason, I think, I disliked her for so long--her nose makes it look as though she's always smelling something nasty.
But she understands me. She understands what it's like to feel penned in, and she understands the need to break out.
"You're late," Angelica says, but she's smiling.
Tonight there is no music. As we cross the lawn toward the house, a stifled giggle disturbs the silence, followed by the sudden swell of conversation.
"Careful," Angie says as we step onto the porch. "Third stair's rotten."
I dodge it, like she does. The wood of the porch is old, and it groans under our weight. All the windows are boarded up, and the faint outlines of a large red X are still visible, faded by weather and time: This house was once home to the disease. When we were little, we used to dare one another to walk through the Highlands, dare each other to stand for as long as possible with our hands on the doors of houses that had been condemned. The rumor was that the tortured spirits of people who had died from amor deliria nervosa still walked the streets and would strike you down with d fa down wisease for trespassing.
"Nervous?" Angie asks, sensing me shiver.
"I'm fine," I say, and push open the door before she can reach for it. I enter ahead of her.
For a second, as we pass into the hallway, there is a sudden stillness, a moment of tension, as everyone in the house freezes; then they see that it is okay, that we are not regulators or police, and the tension ebbs away again. There is no electricity, and the house is full of candles--set on plates, stuffed into empty Coke cans, placed directly on the ground--which transform the walls into flickering, dissolving patterns of light, and turn people into shadows. And they, the shadow-people, are everywhere: massed in corners and on the few remaining pieces of furniture in the otherwise empty rooms, pressed into hallways, reclining on the stairs. But it is surprisingly quiet.