Almost everyone, I see, has coupled off. Boys and girls, intertwined, holding hands and touching each other's hair and faces and laughing quietly, doing all the things that are forbidden in the real world.
A mouth of anxiety yawns open inside of me. I have never been to any party like this. I can practically feel the presence of disease: the crawling of the walls, the energy and tension--like the nesting of a thousand insects.
He has to be here.
"This way." Angie has instinctively dropped her voice to a whisper. She draws me toward the back of the house, and from the way she navigates the rooms, even in the dim and changing light, I can tell that she has been here several times before. We move into the old kitchen. More candles here illuminate the outlines of bare cupboards, a stove, and a dark fridge with its door missing and its shelves black with spotted mold. The room smells stale, like sweat and mildew. A table in the center of the room holds a few dusty bottles of alcohol, and several girls are standing awkwardly against one counter while across the room a group of boys is pretending not to notice them. Obviously they have never been to a party like this either and are unconsciously obeying the rules of segregation.
I scan the boys' faces, hoping that Steve will be among them. He isn't.
"Do you want something to drink?" Angelica asks.
"Water," I say. My throat feels dry, and it's very hot in the house. I almost wish that I had never left home. I don't know what I should do now that I'm here, and there is nobody I want to talk to. Angie is already pouring herself something to drink, and I know that she will soon disappear into the darkness with a boy. She does not seem out of place or anxious at all, and for a second I feel a flash of fear for her.
"There is no water," Angie says, passing me a glass. I take a sip of whatever she has poured me and make a face. It's sweet but has the dull, stinging aftertaste of gasoline.
"What is it?" I say.
"Who knows?" Angie giggles and takes a sip from her own glass. Maybe she is nervous. "It'll help you loosen up."
"I don't need to--" I start to say, but then I feel hands on my waist, and my mind goes still and blank, and I find myself turning without intending to.
"Hi," Steve says to me.
In the second it takes me to process that he is here, and real, and speaking to me, he leans in and puts his mouth on mine. This is only the second time I've ever been kissed, and I have a momentary panic where I forget what I am supposed to do. I feel his tongue pressing into my mouth and I jerk, surprised, spilling a bit of my drink. He pulls away, laughing.
"Happy to see me?" he asks.
"Hi to you, too," I say. I can still taste his tongue in my mouth--he has been drinking something sour. I take another sip of my drink.
He leans in and puts his mouth right up to my ear. "I was hoping you would come," he says in a low voice. Warmth breaks across my chest.
"Really?" I say. He doesn't respond; he takes my hand and draws me out of the kitchen. I swivel around to tell Angelica I'll be back, but she has disappeared.
"Where are we going?" I ask, trying to sound unconcerned.
"It's a surprise," he says.
The warmth from my chest has made it into my head now. We move through a vast room full of more shadow-people, more candles, more flickering shapes on the wall. I place my drink on the arm of a ratty sofa. A girl with short, spiky hair is curled there on the lap of a boy; he is nuzzling her neck and his face is concealed. But she glances up at me as I pass, and I am momentarily startled: I recognize her. She has an older sister at St. Anne's, Rebecca Sterling, a girl I was kind-of friends with. I remember Rebecca told me that her younger sister had chosen to go to Edison because it was bigger.
Sarah. Sarah Sterling.
I doubt she recognizes me, but she drops her eyes quickly.
At the far end of the room is a rough wooden door. Steve leans into it and we emerge onto a porch even sadder than the one out front. Someone has placed a lantern out here--maybe Steve?--illuminating the yawning gaps between wood slats, places where the wood has rotted away completely.
"Careful," he says as I nearly miss my footing and go plunging through a bad patch.
"I've got it," I say, but am grateful that he tightens his grip on my hand. I tell myself that this is it--what I wanted, what I had hoped for tonight--but somehow the thought keeps skittering away. He grabs the lantern before we step off the porch and carries it, swinging, in his free hand.
Across an overgrown stretch of lawn, the grasses shin-high and covered with moisture, we reach a small gazebo, painted white and lined with benches. In places, wildflowers have begun to push their way up through the floorboards. Steve helps me into it--it is elevated a few feet above the ground, but if there were stairs at one point, they are gon yothey are now--and then follows me.
I test one of the benches. It seems sturdy enough, so I sit down. The crickets are singing, tremulous and steady, and the wind carries the smell of damp earth and flowers.
"It's beautiful," I say.
Steve sits next to me. I'm uncomfortably aware of every part of our skin that is touching: knees, elbows, forearms. My heart starts beating hard, and once again I am having trouble breathing.
"You're beautiful," he says. Before I can react, he finds my chin with his hand and tilts me toward him, and then we're kissing again. This time, I remember to kiss back, to move my mouth against his, and I am not so surprised when his tongue finds the inside of my mouth, although the feeling is still foreign and not totally pleasant. He is breathing hard, twisting his fingers through my hair, so I think he must be enjoying himself--I must be doing it correctly.
His fingers graze my thigh, and then, slowly, he lowers his hand, begins massaging my thigh, working up toward my hips. All my feeling, all my concentration, flows down to that spot and to the way my skin feels, as though it is burning in response to his touch. This has to be deliria. Doesn't it? This must be what love feels like, what everyone has warned me about. My mind is spinning uselessly, and I'm trying to remember the symptoms of deliria listed in The Book of Shhh, as Steve's hand moves higher and his breathing gets even more desperate. His tongue is so deep in my mouth, I'm worried I might choke.
Suddenly all I can think about is a line from the Book of Lamentations: What glitters may not be gold; and even wolves may smile; and fools will be led by promises to their deaths.
"Wait," I say, pushing away from him.
"What's wrong?" Steve traces his finger from my cheekbone to my chin. His eyes are on my mouth.
Preoccupation--difficulty concentrating. A symptom comes back to me finally. "Do you think about me?" I blurt. "I mean, have you thought about me?"
"All the time." His answer comes quickly, easily. This should make me happy but I feel more confused than ever. Somehow I always imagined that I would know if the disease was taking root--that I would feel it instinctively, a shift deep in my blood. But this is simply tension, and shredding anxiety, and the occasional burst of good feeling.
"Relax, Hana," he says. He kisses my neck, moves his mouth to my ear, and I try to do as he says and let go of the warmth traveling from my chest to my stomach. But I can't stop the questions; they surge, pressing closely in the dark.
"What's going to happen to us?" I say.
He pulls away, sighing, and rubs his eyes. "I don't know what you--" he begins, and then breaks off with a small exclamation. "Holy shit! Look, Hana. Fireflies."
I turn in the direction he is looking. For a moment, I see nothing. Then all at once,tevall at several flares of white light burst in midair, one after another. As I watch, more and more of them float out of the blackness--brief sparks circling dizzyingly around one another, then sinking once again into the dark, a hypnotic pattern of illumination and extinguishment.
Out of nowhere, I feel a strong surge of hope, and I find myself laughing. I reach for his hand and tighten my fingers around his. "Maybe it's a sign," I say.
"Maybe," he says, and leans in to kiss me again, and so my question--What'
s going to happen to us?--goes unanswered.
I wake to blinding sunshine and a searing pain in my head; I forgot to draw the shades last night. There's a sour taste in my mouth. I move clumsily to the bathroom, brush my teeth, and splash water on my face. As I straighten up, I see it: a blue-purple blemish on my neck just below my right ear, a tiny constellation of bruised and broken capillaries.
I don't believe it. He gave me a Devil's Kiss.
We always got checked for kisses at school; we had to stand in a line with our hair pulled back while Mrs. Brinn examined our chests, necks, collarbones, shoulders. Devil's Kisses are a sign of illegal activity--and a symptom, too, of the disease taking root, spreading through your bloodstream. Last year, when Willow Marks was caught in Deering Oaks Park with an uncured boy, the story was that she'd been under surveillance for weeks, after her mom had noticed a Devil's Kiss on her shoulder. Willow was taken out of school to get cured a full eight months before her scheduled procedure, and I haven't seen her since.
I rummage through the bathroom cabinet, and luckily manage to find an old tube of foundation and some yellowish concealer. I layer on the makeup until the kiss is no more than a faint blue spot on my skin, then arrange my hair in a messy side-bun knotted just behind my right ear. I'll have to be very careful over the next few days; I'm sporting a mark of the disease. The idea is both thrilling and terrifying.
My parents are downstairs in the kitchen. My father is watching the morning news. Even though it's Sunday, he is dressed for work and eating a bowl of cereal standing up. My mother is on the telephone, working its cord around her finger, making the occasional noise of assent. I know immediately that she must be talking to Minnie Phillips. My father watches the news; my mother calls Minnie for information. Mrs. Phillips works at the records bureau, and her husband is a policeman--between the two of them, they know everything that happens in Portland.
Almost everything, that is.
I think of the twisting, darkened rooms of uncureds last night--all of them touching, whispering, breathing one another's air--and feel a rush of pride.
"Morning, Hana," my dad says without taking his eyes off the television screen.
"Good morning." I'm careful to keep the left side of my body angled toward him as I slide into a chair at the kitchen table and shake a handful of cereal into my palm.
Donald Seigal, the mayor's minister of information, is being interviewed on TV.
"Stories of a resistance are vastly overblown," he is saying smoothly. "Still, the mayor is responsive to the concerns of the community . . . new measures will be effectuated . . ."
"Unbelievable." My mother has hung up the phone. She takes the remote and mutes the television. My father makes a noise of irritation. "Do you know what Minnie just told me?"
I fight the urge to smile. I knew it. That is the thing about people once they're cured: They're predictable. That is, supposedly, one of the procedure's benefits.
My mom continues, without waiting for a response, "There was another incident. A fourteen-year-old girl this time, and a boy from CPHS. They were caught sneaking around the streets at three in the morning."