Alex and I are lying together on a blanket in the backyard of 37 Brooks. The trees look larger and darker than usual. The leaves are almost black, knitted so tightly together they blot out the sky.
“It probably wasn’t the best day for a picnic,” Alex says, and just then I realize that yes, of course, we haven’t eaten any of the food we brought. There’s a basket at the foot of the blanket, filled with half-rotten fruit, swarmed by tiny black ants.
“Why not?” I say. We are staring at the web of leaves above us, thick as a wall.
“Because it’s snowing. ” Alex laughs. And again I realize he’s right: It is snowing, thick flakes the color of ash swirling all around us. It’s freezing cold, too. My breath comes in clouds, and I press against him, trying to stay warm.
“Give me your arm,” I say, but Alex doesn’t respond. I try to move into the space between his arm and his chest but his body is rigid, unyielding. “Alex,” I say. “Come on, I’m cold. ”
“I’m cold,” he parrots, from lips that barely move. They are blue, and cracked. He is staring at the leaves without blinking.
“Look at me,” I say, but he doesn’t turn his head, doesn’t blink, doesn’t move at all. A hysterical feeling is building inside me, a shrieking voice saying wrong, wrong, wrong, and I sit up and place my hand on Alex’s chest, as cold as ice. “Alex,” I say, and then, a short scream: “Alex!”
“Lena Morgan Jones!”
I snap into awareness, to a muted chorus of giggles.
Mrs. Fierstein, the twelfth-grade science teacher at Quincy Edwards High School for Girls in Brooklyn, Section 5, District 17, is glaring at me. This is the third time I’ve fallen asleep in her class this week.
“Since you seem to find the Creation of the Natural Order so exhausting,” she says, “might I suggest a trip to the principal’s office to wake you up?”
“No!” I burst out, louder than I intended to, provoking a new round of giggles from the other girls in my class. I’ve been enrolled at Edwards since just after winter break—only a little more than two months—and already I’ve been labeled the Number-One Weirdo. People avoid me like I have a disease—like I have the disease.
If only they knew.
“This is your final warning, Miss Jones,” Mrs. Fierstein says. “Do you understand?”
“It won’t happen again,” I say, trying to look obedient and contrite. I’m pushing aside the memory of my nightmare, pushing aside thoughts of Alex, pushing aside thoughts of Hana and my old school, push, push, push, like Raven taught me to do. The old life is dead.
Mrs. Fierstein gives me a final stare—meant to intimidate me, I guess—and turns back to the board, returning to her lecture on the divine energy of electrons.
The old Lena would have been terrified of a teacher like Mrs. Fierstein. She’s old, and mean, and looks like a cross between a frog and a pit bull. She’s one of those people who makes the cure seem redundant—it’s impossible to imagine that she would ever be capable of loving, even without the procedure.
But the old Lena is dead too.
I buried her.
I left her beyond a fence, behind a wall of smoke and flame.
In the beginning, there is fire.
Fire in my legs and lungs; fire tearing through every nerve and cell in my body. That’s how I am born again, in pain: I emerge from the suffocating heat and the darkness. I force my way through a black, wet space of strange noises and smells.
I run, and when I can no longer run, I limp, and when I can’t do that, I crawl, inch by inch, digging my fingernails into the soil, like a worm sliding across the overgrown surface of this strange new wilderness.
I bleed, too, when I am born.
I’m not sure how far I’ve traveled into the Wilds, and how long I’ve been pushing deeper and deeper into the woods, when I realize I’ve been hit. At least one regulator must have clipped me while I was climbing the fence. A bullet has skimmed me on the side, just below my armpit, and my T-shirt is wet with blood. I’m lucky, though. The wound is shallow, but seeing all the blood, the missing skin, makes everything real: this new place, this monstrous, massive growth everywhere, what has happened, what I have left.
What has been taken from me.
There is nothing in my stomach, but I throw up anyway. I cough up air and spit bile into the flat, shiny leaves on either side of me. Birds twitter above me. An animal, coming to investigate, scurries quickly back into the tangle of growth.
Think, think. Alex. Think of what Alex would do.
Alex is here, right here. Imagine.
I take off my shirt, rip off the hem, and tie the cleanest bit tightly around my chest so it presses against my wound and helps stanch the bleeding. I have no idea where I am or where I’m going. My only thought is to move, keep going, deeper and deeper, away from the fences and the world of dogs and guns and—
No. Alex is here. You have to imagine.
Step by step, fighting thorns, bees, mosquitoes; snapping back thick, broad branches; clouds of gnats, mists hovering in the air. At one point, I reach a river: I am so weak, I am nearly taken under by its current. At night, driving rain, fierce and cold: huddled between the roots of an enormous oak, while around me unseen animals scream and pant and rattle through the darkness. I’m too terrified to sleep; if I sleep, I’ll die.
I am not born all at once, the new Lena.
Step by step—and then, inch by inch.
Crawling, insides curled into dust, mouth full of the taste of smoke.
Fingernail by fingernail, like a worm.
That is how she comes into the world, the new Lena.
When I can no longer go forward, even by an inch, I lay my head on the ground and wait to die. I’m too tired to be frightened. Above me is blackness, and all around me is blackness, and the forest sounds are a symphony to sing me out of this world. I am already at my funeral. I am being lowered into a narrow, dark space, and my aunt Carol is there, and Hana, and my mother and sister and even my long-dead father. They are all watching my body descend into the grave, and they are singing.
I am in a black tunnel filled with mist, and I am not afraid.
Alex is waiting for me on the other side; Alex standing, smiling, bathed in sunlight.
Alex reaching out his arms to me, calling—
“Hey. Wake up. Come on, come on, come on. ”
The voice pulls me back from the tunnel, and for a moment I’m horribly disappointed when I open my eyes and see not Alex’s face, but some other face, sharp and unfamiliar. I can’t think; the world is all fractured. Black hair, a pointed nose, bright green eyes—pieces of a puzzle I can’t make sense of.
“Come on, that’s right, stay with me. Bram, where the hell is that water?”
A hand under my neck, and then, suddenly, salvation. A sensation of ice, and liquid sliding: water filling my mouth, my throat, pouring over my chin, melting away the dust, the taste of fire. First I cough, choke, almost cry. Then I swallow, gulp, suck, while the hand stays under my neck, and the voice keeps whispering encouragement. “That’s right. Have as much as you need. You’re all right. You’re safe now. ”
Black hair, loose, a tent around me: a woman. No, a girl—a girl with a thin, tight mouth, and creases at the corners of her eyes, and hands as rough as willow, as big as baskets. I think, Thank you. I think, Mother.
“You’re safe. It’s okay. You’re okay. ”
That’s how babies are born, after all: cradled in someone else’s arms, sucking, helpless.
After that, the fever pulls me under again. My waki
ng moments are few, and my impressions disjointed. More hands, and more voices; I am lifted; a kaleidoscope of green above me, and fractal patterns in the sky. Later there is the smell of campfire, and something cold and wet pressed against my skin, smoke and hushed voices, searing pain in my side, then ice, relief. Softness sliding against my legs.
In between are dreams unlike any I’ve ever had before. They are full of explosions and violence: dreams of skin melting and skeletons charred to black bits.
Alex never comes to me again. He has gone ahead of me and disappeared beyond the tunnel.
Almost every time I wake she is there, the black-haired girl, urging me to drink water, or pressing a cool towel to my forehead. Her hands smell like smoke and cedar.
And beneath it all, beneath the rhythm of the waking and sleeping, the fever and the chills, is the word she repeats, again and again, so it weaves its way into my dreams, begins to push back some of the darkness there, draws me up out of the drowning: Safe. Safe. Safe. You’re safe now.
The fever breaks, finally, after I don’t know how long, and at last I float into consciousness on the back of that word, gently, softly, like riding a single wave all the way into the shore.
Before I even open my eyes, I’m conscious of plates banging together, the smell of something frying, and the murmur of voices. My first thought is that I’m at home, in Aunt Carol’s house, and she’s about to call me down for breakfast—a morning like any other.
Then the memories—the flight with Alex, the botched escape, my days and nights alone in the Wilds—come slamming back, and I snap my eyes open, trying to sit up. My body won’t obey me, though. I can’t do more than lift my head; I feel as though I’ve been encased in stone.
The black-haired girl, the one who must have found me and brought me here—wherever here is—stands in the corner, next to a large stone sink. She whips around when she hears me shift in my bed.
“Easy,” she says. She brings her hands out of the sink, wet to the elbow. Her face is sharp, extremely alert, like an animal’s. Her teeth are small, too small for her mouth, and slightly crooked. She crosses the room, squats next to the bed. “You’ve been out for a whole day. ”
“Where am I?” I croak. My voice is a rasp, barely recognizable as my own.
“Home base,” she says. She is watching me closely. “That’s what we call it, anyway. ”
“No, I mean—” I’m struggling to piece together what happened after I climbed the fence. All I can think of is Alex. “I mean, is this the Wilds?”
An expression—of suspicion, possibly—passes quickly over her face. “We’re in a free zone, yes,” she says carefully, then stands and without another word moves away from the bed, disappearing through a darkened doorway. From deeper inside the building I can hear voices indistinctly. I feel a brief pang of fear, wonder if I’ve been wrong to mention the Wilds, wonder if these people are safe. I’ve never heard anyone call unregulated land a “free zone” before.
But no. Whoever they are, they must be on my side; they saved me, have had me completely at their mercy for days.
I manage to haul myself into a half-seated position, propping my head up against the hard stone wall behind me. The whole room is stone: rough stone floors, stone walls on which, in places, a thin film of black mold is growing, an old-fashioned stone basin fitted with a rusted faucet that clearly hasn’t functioned in years. I’m lying on a hard, narrow cot, covered with ratty quilts. This, in addition to a few tin buckets in the corner underneath the defunct sink, and a single wooden chair, is the room’s only furniture. There are no windows in my room, and no lights, either—just two emergency lanterns, battery-operated, which fill the room with a weak bluish light.