Annabel

Chapter 4

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My mother smiled tightly. “Well, it’s your choice, of course.” She reached over and patted me awkwardly on the knee. Even before her cure, she had never been affectionate; no one had ever touched in my family, unless it was my father taking a swing at my mom when he was drunk. “I’m proud of you.”

Carol leaned forward into the front seat. “He doesn’t look like an engineer,” was all she said.

I turned my face to the window. On the drive home, I repeated his name to myself like a private rhythm: Conrad, Conrad, Conrad. My secret music. My husband. I felt something loosen inside my chest. His name warmed me. It spread through my mind, through my whole body, until I could feel the syllables in my fingertips, and all the way down to my toes. Conrad.

That’s when I knew, without a doubt, that the cure hadn’t worked at all.

now

The light goes out, and the nighttime noises begin on the ward: the murmurs and moans and screams.

I remember other noises—the sounds of outside: frogs singing, throaty and mournful; crickets humming an accompaniment. Lena as a young girl, her palms cupped carefully to contain a firefly, shrieking with laughter.

Will I recognize the world outside? Would I recognize Lena, if I saw her?

Thomas said he would give me the signal. But at least an hour passes with nothing—no sign, no further word. My mouth is dry as dust.

I am not ready. Not yet. Not tonight. My heartbeat is wild and erratic. I’m sweating already and shaking, too.

I can barely stand.

How will I run?

A jolt goes through me as the alarm system kicks on without warning: a shrill, continuous howl from downstairs, muffled through layers of stone and cement. Doors slam; voices cry out. Thomas must have tripped one of the alarms in a lower ward. The guards will go rushing for it, suspecting an attempted breakout or maybe a homicide.

That’s my cue.

I stand up and shove the cot aside, so the hole in the wall is revealed: a tight squeeze, but big enough to fit me. My makeshift rope is coiled on the floor, ready to go, and I thread one end through the metal ring on the door, knot it as tightly as I can.

I’m not thinking anymore. I’m not afraid, either.

I toss the free end of the rope out through the hole, hear it snap once in the wind. For the first time since I was imprisoned, I thank God that the Crypts is windowless, at least on this side.

I go headfirst through the hole, wriggling when my shoulders meet resistance. Soft, wet stone rains down on my neck. My nose is full of the smell of spoiled things.

Good-bye, good-bye.

The alarm still wails, as though in response.

Then my shoulders are through and I’m upside-down over a dizzying drop: forty-five feet at least, to the black and frozen with ice, motionless, reflecting the moon. And the rope, like a spun thread of white water, running vertically toward freedom.

I make a grab for the rope. I pull, hand over hand, sliding my body, my legs, through the jagged hole in the rock.

And then I fall.

My legs leave the lip of rock, and I swing a wild half circle, kicking into air, crying out. I stop with a jerk, right side up, the rope coiled around my wrists. Stomach in my throat. The alarm is still going: high-pitched, hysterical.

Air, air, nothing but air. I’m frozen, unable to move up or down. I have a sudden memory of a spring cleaning the year before I wa cr bmes New Ros taken, and a giant spiderweb uncovered behind the standing mirror in the bedroom. Dozens of insects were bound, immobile, in white thread, and one had only just been caught—it was still struggling feebly to get out.

The alarm stops, and the ensuing silence is as loud as a slap. I have to move. I can hear the roar of the river now, and the shush of the wind through the leaves. Slowly I inch downward, wrapping my legs around the rope, swinging, nauseous. There’s a pressure on my bladder, and my palms are burning. I’m too afraid to be cold.

Please let the rope hold.

Thirty feet from the river I lose my grip and free-fall several feet before catching myself. The force of my stop makes me cry out, and I bite down on my tongue. The rope lashes in the wind.

But I’m still safe. And the rope holds.

Inch by inch. It seems to take forever. Hand over hand. I don’t even notice that my palms are bleeding until I see smears of red on the linens. But I feel no pain. I’m beyond pain now, numb from fear and exhaustion. I’m weaker, even, than I’d feared.

Inch by inch.

And then, all at once, I’m at the end of the rope, and seven feet below me is the frozen Presumpscot, a blackened surface of rotted logs and black rocks and ice. I have no choice but to drop and pray for a good landing, try to avoid the water and make it into the drifts, white as a pillow, piled up on the banks.

I let go.

then

I kept up my end of the bargain. I gave my family no trouble. In the months leading up to the marriage ceremony, I said yes when I was supposed to and did what I was told.

But all the time, love grew inside me like a delicious secret.

It was exactly that way later, when I was pregnant first with Rachel, and then Lena. Even before the doctors confirmed it, I could always tell. There were the normal changes: the swollen, tender breasts; a sharpening sense of smell; a heaviness in my joints. But it was more than that. I could always feel it—an alien growth, the expansion of something beautiful and other and also entirely mine. A private constellation: a star growing inside my belly.

If Conrad remembered the skinny, frightened girl he’d held for one brief moment on a frigid Boston street corner, he showed no signs of it when we met. From the beginning, he was polite, kind, respectful. He listened to me, and asked questions about what I thought, what I liked, and what I didn’t. He told me once, early on, that he liked engineering because he enjoyed the mechanics of making things work—structures, machines, anything. I know he often wished that people were more easily decoded.

That’s, of course, what th ffone cure was for: for flattening people into paper, into biomechanics and scores.

A year before Conrad died, he got the diagnosis: a tumor the size of a child’s thumb was growing in his brain. It was sudden and totally unexpected. The doctors bad luck.

I was sitting next to his hospital bed when he suddenly sat up, confused from a dream. Even as I tried to urge him back against the pillows, he looked at me with wild eyes.

“What happened to your leather jacket?” he asked.

“Shh,” I said, trying to soothe him. “There’s no leather jacket.”

“You were wearing it the first time I saw you,” he said, frowning slightly. Then he sagged suddenly back against the pillows, as though the effort of speaking had exhausted him. And I sat next to him while he slept, gripping his hand, watching the sun revolve in the sky outside the window and the patterns of light shifting on his sheet.

And I felt joy.

Conrad always held my head—lightly, with both hands—when we kissed. He wore glasses for reading, and when he was thinking hard about something, he would polish them. His hair was straight except for a bit that curled behind his left ear, just above his procedural scar. Some of this I observed right away; some of it I learned much later.

But from the beginning, I knew that in a world where destiny was dead, I was destined, forever, to love him. Even though he didn’t—though he couldn’t—ever love me back.

That’s the easy thing about falling: There is only one choice after that.

now

I count three seconds of air. Then a blast of cold and a force like a fist, driving the breath from me, pummeling me forward. I hit bottom, and pain shoots up my ankle, and then the cold is everywhere, all at once, obliterating all other thought. For a minute, I can’t breathe, can’t get air, don’t know which way is up or down. Just cold, everywhere and in all directions.

Then the river shoves me upward, spits me out, and I come up gasping, flailing, as ice breaks around me with a noise like a dozen rifles firing at once. Stars spin above me. I manage to make it to the edge of the river, and I slosh into the shallows, shivering so hard my brain feels like it’s bouncing in my skull, coughing up water. I sit forward, cup my hand to the water, and drink through frozen fingers. The water is sweet, slightly gritty with dirt, delicious.

I haven’t felt the wind, truly felt it, in eleven years.

It’s colder than I remember.

I know I have to move. North from the river. East from the old highway.

I take one last look at the looming silhou nnt>

Beyond the Crypts, I know, is the old, dusty road that leads to the bus stop—and beyond that, the gray sludge of the service road, which extends all the way on-peninsula and eventually merges with Congress Street. And then: Portland, my Portland, gripped on three sides by water, nestled like a jewel on a small spit of land.

Somewhere, Lena is sleeping. Rachel, too. My own jewels, the stars I carry with me. I know that Rachel was cured, and out of reach to me now. Thomas told me so.

But Lena . . .

My littlest . . .

I love you. Remember.

And someday, I will find you again.

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