"Who was it?" my dad asks. He has given up on the news and is now rinsing his bowl in the sink.
"One of the Sterling girls. The younger one, Sarah." My mother watches my dad expectantly. When he doesn't react, she says, "You remember Colin Sterling and his wife. We had lunch with them at the Spitalnys' in March."
My father grunts.
"So terrible for the fam--" My mother stops abruptly, turning to me. "Are you all right, Hana?"
"I--I think I swallowed the wrong way," I gasp. I stand up and reach for a glass of water. My fingers are shaking.
Sarah Sterling. She must have been caught on her way back from the party, and for a second I have the worst, most selfish thought: Thank God it wasn't me. I take long, slow sips of water, willing my heart to stop pounding. I want to ask what happened to Sarah--what will happen--but I don't trust myself to speak. Besides, these stories always end the same way.
"She'll be cured, of course," my mother finishes, as though reading my mind.
"She's too young," I blurt out. "There's no way it'll work right."
My mother turns to me calmly. "If you're old enough to catch the disease, you're old enough to be cured," she says.
My father laughs. "Soon you'll be volunteering for the DFA. Why not operate on infants, too?"
"Why not?" My mother shrugs.
I stand up, bracing myself against the kitchen table as a rush of blackness sweeps through my head, clouding my vision. My father takes the remote and turns the volume up on the television again. Now it is Fred's father, Mayor Hargrove, whose image comes into focus.
"I repeat, there is no danger of a so-called 'resistance movement,' or any significant spread of the diseasef w the di," he is saying. I walk quickly out into the hall. My mom calls something to me, but I'm too focused on the drone of Hargrove's voice--"Now, as ever, we declare a zero-tolerance policy for disruptions and dissidence"--to hear what she says. I take the stairs two at a time and shut myself into my room, wishing more than ever that my door had a lock.
But privacy breeds secrecy, and secrecy breeds sickness.
My palms are sweating as I pull out my phone and dial Angelica's number. I'm desperate to talk to someone about what happened to Sarah Sterling--I need Angelica to tell me it's okay, and we're safe, and also that the underground won't be disrupted--but we'll have to speak carefully, in codes. All our phone calls are regulated and recorded, periodically, by the city.
Angelica's cell phone goes straight to voice mail. I dial her house number, which rings and rings. I have a flash of panic: For a second, I worry she must have been caught too. Maybe even now, she's being dragged down to the labs, strapped down for her procedure.
But no. She lives a few doors down from me. If Angelica had been caught, I would have heard about it.
The urge is there, sudden and overwhelming: I need to see Lena. I need to talk with her, to spill everything, to tell her about Fred Hargrove, who has already had and given up one match, and his mother's obsessive weeding, and Steve Hilt, and the Devil's Kiss, and Sarah Sterling. She will make me feel better. She will know what I should do--what I should feel.
This time, when I go downstairs, I make sure to tiptoe; I don't want to have to answer my parents' questions about where I'm heading. I get my bike from the garage, where I stashed it after riding home last night. A purple scrunchie is looped around its left handle. Lena and I have the same bike, and a few months ago we started using the scrunchies to differentiate them. After our fight I pulled the scrunchie off and shoved it in the bottom of my sock drawer. But the handlebars looked sad and naked, and so I had to replace it.
It is just after eleven, and the air is full of shimmering, wet heat. Even the seagulls seem to be moving more slowly; they drift across the cloudless sky, practically motionless, as though they are suspended in liquid blue. Once I make it out of the West End and its protective shelter of ancient oaks and shaded, narrow streets, the sun is practically unbearable, high and unforgiving, as though a vast glass lens has been centered over Portland.
I make a point of detouring past the Governor, the old statue that stands in the middle of a cobblestone square near the University of Portland, which Lena will attend in the fall. We used to run together past the Governor regularly, and made a habit of reaching up and slapping his outstretched hand. I always made a wish simultaneously, and now, although I don't stop to slap his hand, I reach out with a toe and skim the base of the statue for good luck as I ride past. I wish, I think, but don't get any further. I don't know exactly what to wish for: to be safe or to be unsafe, for things to change or for things to stay the same.
The ride to Lena's house takes me longer than usual. A garbage truck has broken down on Congress Street, and the police are redirecting people up ChestnIle up Cut and around on Cumberland. By the time I get to Lena's street, I'm sweating, and I stop when I'm still a few blocks away from her house to drink from a water fountain and blot my face. Next to the fountain is a bus stop, with a sign warning of curfew restrictions--SUNDAY TO THURSDAY, 9 P.M.; SATURDAY AND SUNDAY, 9:30 P.M.--and as I go to chain my bike up, I notice the smudgy glass waiting area is papered with flyers. They are all identical, and feature the crest of Portland above bolded black type.
The Safety of One Is the Duty of All
Keep Your Eyes and Ears Open
Report All Suspicious Activity to the Department of
Sanitation and Security
If You See Something, Say Something
**$500 reward for reports of illicit or unapproved activity
I stand for a minute, scanning the words over and over, as though they will suddenly mean something different. People have always reported suspicious behavior, of course, but it has never come with a financial reward. This will make it harder, much harder, for me, for Steve, for all of us. Five hundred dollars is a lot of money to most people these days--the kind of money most people don't make in a week.
A door slams and I jump, almost knocking over my bike. I notice, for the first time, that the whole street is papered with flyers. They are posted on gates and mailboxes, taped to disabled streetlamps and metal garbage cans.
There is movement on Lena's porch. Suddenly she appears, wearing an oversized T-shirt from her uncle's deli. She must be going to work. She pauses, scanning the street--I think her eyes land on me, and I lift my hand in a hesitant wave, but her eyes keep tracking, drifting over my head, and then sweeping off in the other direction.
I'm about to call out to her when her cousin Grace comes flying down the cement porch steps. Lena laughs and reaches out to slow Grace down. Lena looks happy, untroubled. I'm seized by sudden doubt: It occurs to me that Lena might not miss me at all. Maybe she hasn't been thinking of me; maybe she's perfectly happy not speaking to me.
After all, it's not like she's tried to call.
As Lena starts making her way down the street, with Grace bobbing beside her, I turn around quickly and remount my bike. Now I'm desperate to get out of here. I don't want her to spot me. The wind kicks up, rustling all those flyers, the exhortations of safety. The flyers lift and sigh in unison, lik
e a thousand people waving white handkerchiefs, a thousand people waving good-bye.
The flmonoyers are just the beginning. I notice that there are more regulators on the streets than usual, and there are rumors--neither confirmed nor denied by Mrs. Hargrove, who comes over to deliver a scarf that my mother left--that there will soon be a raid. Mayor Hargrove is insistent--both on television and when we once again dine with his family, this time at their golf club--that there is no resurgence of the disease and no reason to worry. But the regulators, and the offers of rewards, and the rumors of a possible raid, tell a different story.
For days there is not even a whisper of another underground gathering. Every morning I rub concealer into the Devil's Kiss on my neck, until at last it disperses and breaks apart, leaving me both relieved and saddened. I haven't seen Steve Hilt anywhere--not at the beach, not at Back Cove or by the Old Port--and Angelica has been distant and guarded, although she manages to slip me a note explaining that her parents have been watching her more closely since the news of Sarah Sterling's exposure to deliria.
Fred takes me golfing. I don't play, so instead I trail behind him on the course as he shoots a near-perfect game. He is charming and courteous and does a semi-decent job of pretending to be interested in what I have to say. People turn to look at us as we pass. Everyone knows Fred. The men greet him heartily, ask after his father, congratulate him on getting paired, although no one breathes a word about his first wife. The women stare at me with frank and unconcealed resentment.
I am lucky.
I am suffocating.
The regulators crowd the streets.
Lena still doesn't call.
Then one hot evening at the end of July, there she is: She barrels past me on the street, her eyes trained deliberately on the pavement, and I have to call her name three times before she will turn around. She stops a little way up the hill, her face blank--unreadable--and makes no effort to come toward me. I have to jog uphill to her.
"So what?" I say as I get closer, panting a little. "You're just going to walk by me now?" I meant for the question to come out as a joke, but instead it sounds like an accusation.
She frowns. "I didn't see you," she says.
I want to believe her. I look away, biting my lip. I feel like I could burst into tears--right there in the shimmering, late-afternoon heat, with the city spread out like a mirage beyond Munjoy Hill. I want to ask her where she's been, and tell her I miss her, and say that I need her help.
But instead what comes out is: "Why didn't you call me back?"
She blurts out at the same time: "I got my matches."
I'm momentarily taken aback. I can't believe that after days of abrupt and unexplained silence, this is what she would say to me first. I swallow back all the things I was going to say to her and make my tone polite, disinterested.
"Did you accept yet?" I say.
"You called?" she says. Again, we both speak at the same time.
She seems genuinely surprised. On the other hand, Lena has always been hard to read. Most of her thoughts, most of her true feelings, are buried deep.
"I left you, like, three messages," I say, watching her face closely.
"I never got any messages," Lena says quickly. I don't know whether she is telling the truth. Lena, after all, always insisted that after the cure we wouldn't be friends--our lives would be too different, our social circles too remote. Maybe she has decided that already the differences between us are too great.
I flash back to how she looked at me at the party at Roaring Brook Farms--the way she jerked away when I tried to reach out to her, lips curling back. Suddenly I feel as though I am only dreaming. I am dreaming of a too-colored, too-vivid day, while images pass soundlessly in front of me--Lena is moving her mouth, two men are loading buckets into a truck, a little girl wearing a too-big swimsuit is scowling at us from a doorway--and I am speaking too, responding, even smiling, while my words are sucked into silence, into the bright white light of a sun-drenched dream. Then we are walking. I am walking with her toward her house, except I am only drifting, floating, skating above the pavement.