When I was a girl, it snowed for a whole summer.
Every day, the sun rose smudgy behind a smoke-gray sky and hovered behind its haze; in the evenings, it sank, orange and defeated, like the glowing embers of a dying flame.
And the flakes came down and down—not cold to touch, but with their own peculiar burn—as the wind brought smells of burning.
Every night, my mother and father sat us down to watch the news. All the pictures were the same: towns neatly evacuated, cities enclosed, grateful citizens waving from the windows of big, shiny buses as they were carted off to a new future, a life of perfect happiness. A life of painlessness.
“See?” my mother would say, smiling at me and my sister, Carol, in turn. “We live in the greatest country on earth. See how lucky we are?”
And yet the ash continued swirling down, and the smells of death came through the windows, crept under the door, hung in our carpets and curtains, and screamed of her lie.
Is it possible to tell the truth in a society of lies? Or must you always, of necessity, become a liar?
And if you lie to a liar, is the sin somehow negated or reversed?
These are the kinds of questions I ask myself now: in these dark, watery hours, when night and day are interchangeable. No. Not true. During the day the guards come, to deliver food and take the bucket; and at night the others moan and scream. They are the lucky ones. They are the ones who still believe that sound, that voice, will do any good. The rest of us know better, and have learned to live in silence.
I wonder what Lena is doing now. I always wonder what Lena is doing. Rachel, too: both my girls, my beautiful, big-eyed girls. But I worry about Rachel less. Rachel was always harder than Lena, somehow. More defiant, more stubborn, less feeling. Even as a girl, she frightened me—fierce and fiery-eyed, with a temper like my father’s once was.
But Lena . . . little darling Lena, with her tangle of dark hair and her flushed, chubby cheeks. She used to rescue spiders from the pavement to keep them from getting squashed; quiet, thoughtful Lena, with the sweetest lisp to break your heart. To break my heart: my wild, uncured, erratic, incomprehensible heart. I wonder whether her front teeth still overlap; whether she still confuses the words pretzel and pencil occasionally; whether the wispy brown hair grew straight and long, or began to curl.
I wonder whether she believes the lies they told her.
I, too, am a liar now. I’ve become one, of necessity. I lie when I smile and return an empty tray. I lie when I ask for The Book of Shhh, pretending to have repented.
I lie just by being here, on my cot, in the dark.
Soon, it will be over. Soon, I will escape.
And then the lies will end.
The first time I saw Rachel and Lena’s father I knew: knew I would marry him, knew I would fall in love with him. Knew he would never love me back, and I wo Neuldn’t care.
Picture me: seventeen, skinny, scared. Wearing a too-big, beat-up denim jacket I’d bought from a thrift store and a hand-knitted scarf, not even close to warm enough to immunize me from the frigid December wind, which came howling across the Charles River, blew the snow sideways, stripped people in the streets of all their color so they walked, white as ghosts, heads bowed against the fury.
That was the night Misha took me to see the cousin of a friend of a friend, Rawls, who ran a Brain Shop down on Ninth.
That’s what we called the dingy centers that sprang up in the decade after the cure became law: Brain Shops. Some of them pretended to be at least half-legit, with waiting rooms like at a regular doctor’s office and tables for lying down. In others, it was just some guy with a knife, ready to take your money and give you a scar, hopefully one that looked realistic enough.
Rawls’s shop was the second kind. A low basement room, painted black for God knows what reason; a sagging leather couch, a small TV, a stiff-backed wooden chair, and a space heater—and that was pretty much it, except for the smell of blood, a few buckets, and a little curtained-off area, too, where he actually did his work.
I remember I nearly threw up coming in, I was so nervous. A couple of kids were ahead of me. There was no space on the couch, and I had to stand. I kept thinking the walls were contracting; I was terrified they would collapse entirely, burying us there.
I’d run away from home almost a month earlier and in that time had been scraping and saving money for a fake.
In those days it was easier to travel; a decade after the cure was perfected, the walls were still going up, and regulations weren’t as stringent. Still, I’d never been more than twenty miles from home, and I spent practically the whole bus ride down to Boston either with my nose pressed up against the window, watching the bleak blur of starved winter trees and shivering landscapes and guard towers, new and in construction—or in the bathroom, sick with nerves, trying to hold my breath against the sharp stink of pee.
The last commercial flight: that’s what I watched on TV, at Rawls’s shop, while I waited my turn. The news crews packing the runway, the roar of the plane down the strip, and then the lift: an impossible lift, like a bird’s, so beautiful and easy it made you want to cry. I’d never been on an airplane, and now I never would. The airstrips would be dismantled and airports abandoned. Too little gas, too much risk of contagion.
I remember my heart was in my throat, and I couldn’t look away from the TV, from the image of the plane as it morphed, grew smaller, turned into a small black bird against the clouds.
That’s when they came: soldiers, young recruits, fresh out of boot camp. Uniforms crisp and new, boots shining like oil. People were trying to run out the exit in the back, and everyone was shouting. The curtains got torn down; I saw a flimsy folding table covered by a sheet, and a girl stretched out on it, bleeding from her neck. Rawls must have been halfway through her procedure.
I wanted to help her, but there wasn’t any time.
The back door was thrown open, and I made it out and into an alley slick with ice, heaped with dirty snow and trash. I fell, cut my hand on the ice, kept going. I knew if I was caught, that was the end—I’d be hauled back to my parents, chucked into the labs, probably ranked a zero.
That was the first year that a national system of ranking was established, made consistent across the country. Pairing was taking off. Regulatory councils were springing up everywhere, and little kids talked about becoming evaluators when they grew up.
And no one would choose the girl with the record.
It was at the corner of Linden and Adams that I saw him. Ran into him, actually—saw him step out in front of me, hands up, shouting, “Wait!” Tried to dodge, lost my footing, stumbled directly into his arms. I was so close, I could see the snow caught in his lashes, smell the damp wool of his coat and the sharpness of aftershave, see where he’d missed the stubble on his jaw. So close that the procedural scar on his neck looked like a tiny white starburst.
I’d never been that close to a boy before.
The soldiers behind me were still shouting—“Stop!” and “Hold her!” and “Don’t let her get away!” I’ll never forget the way he looked at me—curiously, almost amused, as though I were a strange species of animal in a zoo.
Then: He let me go.
The dagger pin is all I have left. It is comfort and pain, both, because it reminds me of all I’ve had, held, and had taken from me.
It is my pen, too. With it, I write my story, again and again, in the walls. So I don’t forget. So it becomes real.
I think of: Conrad’s hands, Rachel’s dark hair, Lena’s rosebud mouth, how when she was an infant, I used to sneak into her bedroom and hold her while she slept. Rachel never let me—from birth, she screamed, kicked, would have woken the household and the street.
But Lena lay still and warm in my arms, submerged in some secret dreamland.
And she was my secret: those nighttime hours, that twin heartbeat space, the darkness, the joy.
All of this, I write.
And so truth shall set me free.
My room is full of holes. Holes where the stone grows porous, eaten away by mold and moisture. Holes where the mice make .(their homes. Holes of memory, where people and things get lost.
There is a hole in the bottom of my mattress.
And in the wall behind my bed, another hole, growing bigger by the day.
On the fourth Friday of every month, Thomas brings me a change of linens for the cot. Laundry day is my favorite. It helps me keep track of the days. And for the first few nights, before the new sheet is soiled with sweat and the sediment of dust that sifts down on me continuously, like snow, I feel almost human again. I can close my eyes, imagine I am back in the warmth of the old house, with the wood and the sun, the smell of detergent, an illegal song piping softly from the ancient record player.
And, of course, laundry day is when I get my messages.
Today I’m up just before the sun. My cell is windowless, and for years I couldn’t tell night from day, morning from evening: a colorless existence, a time without aging or end. In the first year of my imprisonment, I did nothing but dream of the outdoors—the sun on Lena’s hair, warm wood steps, the smell of the beach at low tide, swollen-belly rain clouds.
Over time even my dreams became gray and textureless.
Those were the years I wanted to die.
When I first broke through the wall, after three years of digging, twisting, carving the soft stone away with a bit of metal no larger than a child’s finger—when that last bit of rock crumbled away and went spinning, tumbling into the river below—my first thought wasn’t even of escape but of air, sun, breath. I slept for two nights on the floor just so I could feel the wind, so I could inhale the smell of snow.
Today I have stripped my bed of its single sheet and the coarse blanket—wool in winter, cotton in summer—that is standard issue in Ward Six. No pillows. I once heard the warden say that a prisoner had tried to suffocate himself here, and ever since, pillows have been forbidden. It seems unlikely but then again: Two years ago a prisoner managed to get hold of a guard’s broken shoelaces and choked himself to death on the metal frame of his cot.
I am at the end of the row, so as always, I get to listen to the rest of the ritual: the doors creaking open, the occasional cry or moan, the squeak of Thomas’s sneakers and then the heavy thud, the click, of the cell doors closing again. This is my only excitement, my only pleasure: waiting for the clean linens, holding the filthy sheet balled in my lap, heart fluttering like a moth in my throat, thinking, Maybe, maybe this time . . .
Amazing, how hope lives. Without air or water, with hardly anything at all to nurture it.
The bolts slide back. A second later, the door grinds open and Thomas appears, carrying a folded sheet. I haven’t seen my reflection in eleven years—since I arrived and sat in the medical wing while a female warden cut off my hair and shaved my hea Nehaved md with a razor, telling me it was for my own good—so the lice would stay out.
My monthly shower takes place in a windowless, mirrorless room, a stone box with several rusted showerheads and no hot water, and now when my head needs shaving, the warden comes to me, and I am bound and locked to a heavy metal ring on the door while she works. It is by watching Thomas, by seeing the way the years have made his skin puff and sag, carved wrinkles into the corners of his eyes, thinned his hair, that I can estimate what they have done to me.READ MORE >>