Annabel

Chapter 3

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Why did I use his card? To this day, I don’t know. I don’t know whether I was getting overconfident, or whether, just for a moment, I wanted to pretend: pretend that I wasn’t a runaway, pretend that I wasn’t squatting in an unfinished basement with six other girls, pretend that I had a home and a place and a pair, just like she did, just like everyone was supposed to.

Maybe I was already a little tired of freedom.

“We’re not supposed to take cards without an ID,” she said after a long minute. I’ll never forget her: those black bangs, the eyes as incurious, as flat, as marbles. “If you want, I can call the manager.” She said it like she’d be doing me a favor.

Alarm bells went off in my head. Manager meant authority meant trouble. “You know what? Forget it.”

But she had already swiveled around. “Tony! Hey, Tony! Anybody know where Tony went?” Then she turned back to me, exasperated. “Give me a second, okay?”

It was then: a split-second decision, the moment she left the register and went looking for Tony—a thirty, maybe forty-second reprieve. Without thinking, I stuffed the ChapStick in my pocket, pushed the chips and the noodles inside my jacket, and took off. I was a few feet from the door when I heard her yelling. So close to the street, to the blast of cold air and people bundled and indistinguishable. Three feet, then two . . .

A security guard materialized in front of me. He gripped me by the shoulders. He smelled like beer. Ffacfont>

He said, “Where do you think you’re going, little lady?”

Within two days, I was on a bus back to Portland. This time my sister, Carol, was with me—and, for extra insurance, a member of the Juvenile Regulatory Commission, a skinny nineteen-year-old with a face full of pimples, hair like a tuft of sea grass, and a wedding ring.

I knew Carol wouldn’t be able to keep her mouth shut for long—she never had been able to—and as soon as we had pulled away from the bus terminal, she rounded on me.

“What you did was selfish,” she said. Carol was only sixteen at the time—we were born almost exactly a year apart—but even then she could have passed for forty. She carried a purse, an actual purse, and red leather gloves, square-toed black boots, and jeans she actually ironed. Her face was narrower than mine, and her nose was upturned, as though it disapproved of the rest of her features and was trying to distinguish itself from them. “Do you know how worried Mom and Dad are? And how embarrassed?”

My mother had been one of the first volunteers to be cured. She’d had the procedure even before it was federally mandated. After three decades in a marriage with my father—who was charming and loud when he was sober, mean and loud when he was drunk, and a philanderer whenever he could get his hands on a woman who would sleep with him—she had welcomed the cure like a beggar welcomes food, water, and the promise of warmth. She’d bullied Dad into it too, and I had to admit, he was better for it. Calmer. Less angry. And he hardly drank anymore either. He hardly did anything anymore, since he’d been air-traffic control most his life—except sit in front of the TV or fiddle downstairs at his workbench, playing with old machine parts and radio equipment.

“Which is it?” I blew my breath onto the window, drew a star inside the condensation with my finger, then wiped it off.

Carol frowned. “What?”

“Are they worried? Or are they embarrassed?” I blew again, and drew a heart this time.

“Both.” Carol reached out quickly and smudged the heart away. “Stop that.” A look of fear flashed across her face.

“No one’s looking,” I said. I leaned my head against the window, feeling suddenly exhausted. I was going home. No more bumping up against commuters, fumbling for easy picks, feeling the mix of shame and elation when a target worked out. No more peeing behind a folding screen in the middle of the night, trying not to wake anyone else up. I’d be cured right away, probably by the end of the week.

A small part of me was glad. There’s always relief in giving up.

“Why do you have to be so difficult?” Carol said.

I turned to look at her. My kid sister. We’d never been close. I’d wanted to love her, really. But she Kallime had always been too different, too cautious, likely to tell, impossible to play with.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t give you any trouble again.”

I slept for most of the trip back to Portland, my hands tucked in my jacket and my forehead resting against the window, and th

e ID of Conrad Haloway cupped in my right palm.

now

I’ve been on Ward Six for eleven years, with nothing but old stories, old words, for comfort. Scratching my way through minutes that feel like years, and years that have run by me like sand, like waste.

But now, waiting for Thomas to give me the signal, I find I have no patience left.

I remember that’s how it was when I was pregnant with Lena. The last two weeks seemed longer than the rest of the months combined. I was so fat and my ankles were so swollen, it took energy just to stand. But I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t wait, and in the dark hours, after Rachel and my husband were asleep, I walked. I paced the room that would soon be hers back and forth: twelve steps across, twenty on the diagonal. I kneaded my feet on the carpet. I held my stomach, tight as a bowl, with both hands, and felt her gentle stirrings, her faint heartbeat pulsing under my fingertips like a distant drum.

And I spoke to her. I told her stories of who I’d been and who I’d wanted to be and the world she was about to enter and the world that had come before.

I said I was sorry.

I remember one time I turned and saw Conrad standing in the doorway. He stared at me, and in that moment the wordless thing passed between us, the thing that wasn’t quite love but was so close I could believe in it sometimes—maybe a kind of understanding.

“Come to bed, Bells,” was all he said.

Now I find I must walk as well. I can’t lie down anyway: The hose left bruises on my legs and spine, and even the touch of the sheet is painful. I can hardly bring myself to eat, but I know I must. Who knows how long I’ll be out in the Wilds before the scouts find me, or if they even will? I have nothing but a pair of cotton slippers and a cotton jumpsuit. And the snow lies in heavy drifts along the frozen river; the trees will be bare, the animals in hiding.

If I can’t find help, I’ll die within two, three days. Better to die out there, though, in the world I have always loved—even now, after all it has done to me.

Three days pass with no word. Then a fourth and a fifth. The disappointment is constant, suffocating. When the sixth day passes with no sign from Thomas, I begin to lose hope. Maybe he has been found out. Another day goes by. I get angry. He must have forgotten about me.

My bruises have turned to starbursts, big explosions of improbable colors, yellows and greens and purples. I’m no longer worried or NallimMy bruisesangry. All my hope, the energy that I’ve been eking from thoughts of escape, abandons me at once. I lose even the desire to walk.

I’m filled with black thoughts: Thomas never intended to help me. The planned escape, the braiding of the rope, the scouts—all of it has been a dream, a fantasy that has kept me going all these years.

I stay in bed, don’t bother to get up except when I have to relieve myself, and when at last the dinner tray is shoved in through a narrow slot in the door.

And then I freeze: Underneath the small plastic bowl filled with pasta cooked into a lump is a small square of paper. Another note.

Thomas has written in all caps: tonight. be ready.

My stomach goes into my throat, and I’m worried I might be sick. Suddenly the thought of leaving these walls, this room, seems impossible. What do I know about the world outside? What do I know about the Wilds, and the resistance that survives there? When I was taken, I had only just begun my involvement with the movement. A meeting here, a document passed from hand to hand there. . . .

I’ve been dreaming of escape for eleven years,

and now, when the time has finally come, I know I’m not ready.

then

I didn’t know, at first, that the cure hadn’t worked.

Installed in my old bedroom at my parents’ house, forbidden from seeing my friends, from leaving the house without permission and without Carol as an escort, I was as good as dead. Shuffling from the bed to the shower, watching the same news on TV, listening to the same music piping from the radio. This was what being cured was like: like being in a fishbowl, circling always inside the same glass.

I did what I was told, helped my parents with the chores, reapplied to college, since my admission had been rescinded once the facts of my time in Boston became public. I wrote letters of apology: to countless committees, to public officials, to my neighbors, to faceless bureaucrats with long, meaningless titles.

Slowly I earned back certain freedoms. I could go to the store by myself. I could go to the beach, too. I was able to see old friends, although most of them were forbidden from seeing me. And all that time, my heart was like a dull hammer in my chest.

It was a full six months before the Portland Evaluation Committee, as it was called then, decided I was ready to be paired. The Marriage Stability Act had just been passed, and the system was still in its infancy. I remember that my mother and I had to go down to CORE, the Center for Organization, Research, and Education, to receive my results, and for the first time since I’d returned to Portland, I was filled with something like excitement. Except it was the bad kind, the kind that turns your stomach and makes your own spit taste a little like throw-up.

Dread.

I don’t remember receiving the slender folder containing my results, but I know we were outside, in the car, before I could bring myself to open it. Carol was with us, in the backseat. “Who’d you get?” she kept saying. But I couldn’t read the names, couldn’t make the words stand still on the page. The letters kept floating, drifting off the margins, and every picture looked like a collection of abstract shapes. For a minute, I thought I was losing my mind.

Until I reached my eighth recommended pair: Conrad Haloway. Then I knew I was losing my mind.

The picture was the same one he had used for his government ID—which I still kept, tucked at the bottom of my underwear drawer, concealed within a sock. Next to the picture were the basic facts of his life: where he was born, what school he’d attended, his various scores, his work history, details about his family, and a psychological and social stability rank.

I felt a sudden surge, like my insides had been powered off, dusty and useless, for the past six months. Now they came online all at once: my heart beating up into my mouth, chest tight, lungs squeezing, squeezing.

“This one,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. I pointed, placed a finger directly on his forehead between his eyes. The picture was black-and-white, but I remembered them perfectly: light brown, like hazelnut skins.

My mother leaned over me to look. “He’s a bit old, isn’t he?”

“He’s only just moved to Portland,” I said. “He’s been in service to the engineering corps. Working on the walls. See? It says so.”

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