He passes me the new sheet and removes my soiled one. He says nothing. He never does, not out loud. It’s too risky. But for a second, his eyes meet mine, and some communication passes between us.
Then it’s over. He turns and leaves. The door grinds shut and the bolts click into place.
I stand and move to the cot. My hands are shaking as I unfold the sheet. Inside it is a pillowcase, carefully concealed, no doubt smuggled up from one of the other wards.
Time is really just a test of patience. This is how it works, how it has worked for years: a pillowcase one month, occasionally an extra sheet. Linens that go missing and aren’t looked for, linens that can be torn, twisted, braided together.
I reach into the pillowcase. At the very bottom is a small piece of paper, also carefully folded, containing Thomas’s sole instructions: Not yet.
My disappointment is physical: a bitter rush of taste, a liquid feeling in my stomach. Another month to wait. I know I should be relieved—the rope I’ve been making is still too short, and will leave me with a ten-foot drop to the Presumpscot River. More chances to slip, twist or break something, cry out.
And I absolutely cannot cry out.
To keep from thinking too much about the wait ahead of me, another thirty days in this airless, dark place—another thirty days closer to death—I get down on my hands and knees and maneuver under the cot, feeling for the hole in the mattress, as big as a fist. Over the course of a year, I’ve been pulling out handfuls of foam and filler, all of it disposed in the metal chamber pot where I piss and shit and, when the flu makes the rounds, get sick. I wrap my hand around a coil of cotton and pull; inch by inch, all those stolen linens are revealed, torn and braided, made strong to hold my weight. By now, the rope is nearly forty feet long.
I spend the rest of the evening making careful tears, using the edge of the dagger pin, now blunted nearly useless, to poke and tear holes in the fabric. No point in moving quickly.
There is nowhere to go, nothing else to do.
By the time I receive my daily dinner ration, I’ve finished working. I replace the rope in its hiding place, pushing, working it through the opening: a reverse birth. When I’m finished, I eat the food without tasting it, which is probably a blessing. Then I lie on my cot until the lights go off abruptly. T"ju abrupthe whimpering begins, the muttering and the occasional scream of someone gripped in a nightmare or, perhaps, waking from a pleasant dream. Strangely, I’ve learned to find the nighttime sounds almost comforting.
Eventually, my mind brings me memories of Lena, and then visions of the sea; at
last, I sleep.
There was no resistance back then; there was no consciousness, yet, that we needed to resist. There were promises of peace and happiness, a relief from instability and confusion. A path and a place for all. A way to know, always, that your road was the right one. People were flocking to get cured the way they had once flocked to churches. The streets were papered with signs pointing the way to a better future. A central bank; jobs and marriages designed to fit like gloves.
And a life designed to slowly strangle.
But there was an underground: Brain Shops, someone who knew someone who could get you a fake ID for the right price; another person who could hook up an intercity bus ticket; someone else who rented basement space to anyone who wanted to disappear.
In Boston I stayed in the basement apartment of an older couple named Wallace. They weren’t cured; they missed the age cutoff even when the procedure became mandatory, and were allowed to die in peace, in love. Or would have been allowed to—I heard several years later that they had been busted for harboring runaways, people who were dodging the cure, and spent the last few years of their lives in jail.
A path and a place for everyone, and for the people who disagree, a hole.
I should never have stolen his wallet. But that’s the problem with love—it acts on you, works through you, resists your attempts to control. That’s what made it so frightening to the lawmakers: Love obeys no laws other than its own.
That’s what has always made it frightening.
The basement was accessible only through a narrow alleyway that ran between the Wallaces’ house and their neighbor’s; the door was concealed behind a pile of junk that had to be carefully navigated each time we entered or left. Down a steep flight of stairs was a large, unfinished room: mattresses on the floor, a wild jumble of clothing, and a small toilet and sink, made semiprivate behind a folding screen. The ceiling was crisscrossed with metal pipes and plastic tubes and wiring, so it looked like someone’s intestines tacked above us. It was ugly, freezing, and smelled like dirty feet, and I loved it. In my short time there, I made two good friends: Misha, who hooked me up with Rawls and was trying to get me fake papers, too; and Steff, who taught me how to pick pockets and showed me all the best places to do it.
That is how I knew the name of the man I would someday marry: I stole his wallet. The slight touch, my hands across his chest, the momentary contact—it was long enough to feel for it in his jacket, slip it into my pocket, and run.
I should have dumped the wallet and kept the cash, as Steff had taught me to do. But even then love was working on me, making me stupid and curious and careless. Instead I took the wallet back to the crash pad with me and spread out its contents carefully, greedily, on my mattress, like a jeweler bending over her diamonds. One government ID card, pristine, printed with the name conrad haloway. One credit card, gold, issued by the National Bank. One loyalty card at Boston Bean, stamped three times. A copy of his medical certification; he’d been cured exactly six months earlier. Forty-three dollars, which was a fortune to me.
And, tucked into one of the empty credit card flaps, distorting the leather slightly: one silver dagger pin, the size of
a child’s finger.
Three days after Thomas brings me the note telling me to wait, he comes again. This time he is carrying nothing. He merely slides open the door, enters my cell, cuffs me, and hauls me to my feet.
“Let’s go,” he says.
“Go where?” I ask.
“Don’t ask questions.” He speaks loudly, no doubt so that the other prisoners will hear. He shoves me roughly toward the door, out into the narrow corridor that runs between the cells. Above us, the cameras set in the stone ceiling blink like small red eyes.
Thomas grabs my wrists and propels me forward. My shoulders burn. I have a momentary flash of fear: I’m so weak. How will I make it on my own, in the Wilds?
“What did I do?” I ask him.
“Breathe,” he answers. He puts on a good show. “Didn’t I tell you not to ask questions?” At one end of the corridor is the exit to the other wards; at the opposite end is the Tank. The Tank is only a cell, unused, but much smaller than the others, and fitted with nothing but a rusted metal ring hanging from the ceiling. If the residents of Ward Six are too loud, if they give trouble, they are strapped to the ring and whipped or hosed, or simply thrown in here to sit for days in darkness, soiling themselves when they need to go. But the hose is the worst: icy water, emerging with such force it takes your breath away, leaves you blackened and bruised.
Thomas does everything exactly as he should. He cuffs me to the ceiling, and for a moment, as he reaches above my head, we’re so close that I can smell the coffee on his breath.
I feel a deep ache in my stomach, a sudden, wrenching pain; Thomas, for all the risks he is taking, still belongs to the other-world, of bus stops and convenience stores and dawn breaking over the horizon; of summer days and driving rains and wood fires in the winter.
For a moment, I hate him.
Once he locks the door, he turns to me.
“We don’t have much time, so listen carefully,” he says. And just like that, my hatred evaporates, is replaced by a rush of feeling. Skinny Thomas, the boy I used to see sometimes hanging around the house, careful to pretend to be reading. How did he become this pudgy, hard-faced man, with hair gelled over a pink scalp, with lines etched deep into his face?
That’s what time does: We stand stubbornly like rocks while it flows all around us, believing that we are immutable—and all the time we’re being carved, and shaped, and whittled away.
“It will happen soon. As early as this week. Are you ready?”
My mouth is dry. The rope is still too short by seven feet. But I nod. I can make the drop, and with a little luck, I’ll hit a deep spot in the water.
“You’ll go north from the river, then head east when you hit the old highway. There will be scouts looking for you. They’ll take care of you. Got it?”
“North from the river,” I say. “Then east.”
He nods. He looks almost sorry, and I can tell he thinks I won’t make it. “Good luck, Annabel.”
“Thank you,” I say. “I can never repay you. . . .”
He shakes his head. “Don’t thank me.” For a second we stand there, staring at each other. I try to see him as he once was: the boy Rachel loved. But I can hardly remember Rachel, now, as she was when I last saw her. Strangely, I can more easily picture her as a girl, always a little bossy, always demanding to know why she couldn’t stay up and what was the point of eating green beans and what if she didn’t want to get paired, anyway? And when Lena came along, she bossed her around, too; Lena trotted behind her like a puppy, eyes wide, observing, her fat thumb stuck in her mouth.
My girls. I know that I will never see them again. For their own safety, I can’t.
But there is a small, stubborn, stone part of me that still hopes.
Thomas picks up the hose coiled in the corner. “I told them you needed to be punished, so we could talk,” he says. He looks almost sick as he aims the nozzle at me.
My stomach rolls. The last time I was hosed was years ago. I cracked a rib, and for weeks I ran a fever of more than a hundred, floating in and out of vivid dreams of fire, and faces screaming at me through the smoke. But I nod.
“I’ll make it quick,” he says. His eyes say: I’m sorry.
Then he turns on the water.
The girl behind the register was giving me the fish eye.
“You don’t got no ID?” she said.
“I told you, I left it at home.” I was starting to get antsy. I was hungry—I was always hungry back then—and I didn’t like the way the girl was looking at me, with her big bug eyes and the patchwork gauze on her neck, almost showing off the procedure, like she was some war hero and this was her injury to prove it.
“Haloway your pair or something?” She turned his credit card over in her hands, like she’d never seen one.
“Husband,” I snapped. She shifted her eyes to the place where my procedural scar should have been, but I had carefully combed my hair forward and jammed a wool hat down over my ears, so my entire neck was concealed. I shifted my weight, then realized I was fidgeting too much.
Scene: IGA Market on Dorchester, three days after the bust at Rawls’s. Piled on the conveyor belt between us, the source of all the tension: a tin of instant hot cocoa, two packets of dried noodles, ChapStick, deodorant, a bag of chips. The air smelled stale and yeasty, and after the brutal winds of the streets, the store felt as hot as a desert, and as dry.READ MORE >>