Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Alex (delirium)

Lauren Oliver


  ( Delirium )

  Lauren Oliver

  This was a short story which was only available in the first print runs of Lauren Oliver’s Requiem. The short story gives us a glimpse into the childhood of Alex, the torture he underwent in the Crypts, how he escaped and his slow path towards reuniting with Lena once again.

  Lauren Oliver


  A Delirium Story

  Let me tell you something about dying: it’s not as bad as they say.

  It’s the coming-back-to-life part that hurts.

  I was a kid again in Rhode Island, running through the gallery, heading toward the ocean.

  The gallery was what we called the long, covered walk-way that ran from the harbor all the way to the old square, where you could still find bombs, undetonated, embedded in the brick. There was a rumor that went around among us—if you stepped on one, you’d explode. This kid Zero once dared me to do it, and I did just so he’d leave me alone. Nothing happened. Still, I wouldn’t have done it again.

  You never know. A second time it could go boom.

  The gallery was all in brick and housed shops that a hundred years ago must have catered to tourists, vacationers, families. The storefront windows were all gone, maybe shot out, but probably just broken after the blitz, when anyone who survived went looting for supplies.

  There was, in order: Lick ‘n’ Swirl Ice Cream; Benjamin’s Pizza; the Arcade; the Gift Gallery; T-Shirts-n-More; Franny’s Ice Cream. The ice cream machines had been taken apart for scrap, but the pizza oven in Benjamin’s was still there, big as a car, and sometimes we used to stick our heads inside and inhale and pretend we smelled baking bread.

  There were also two art galleries, and funny enough, most of the art was still hanging on the walls. You can’t use paintings as shovels or canvas as a blanket; no point in stealing art, no one to sell it to after the blitz and no money to buy it with. There were photographs of tourists from Before, wearing bright T-shirts and strappy sandals and eating ice cream cones piled high with different-colored scoops, and paintings of the beach at dawn, and at dusk, and at night, and in the rain, and in the snow. There was one painting, I remember, that showed a broad, clean sweep of sky and the ocean drawn out to the horizon, and the sand littered with seashells and crabs and mermaid’s purses and bits of seaweed. A boy and girl were standing four feet apart, not facing each other, not acknowledging each other in any way, just standing, looking out at the water. I always liked that painting. I liked to think they had a secret.

  So when I died and turned kid again I went back there, back to the gallery—before Portland, and the move up north, and her. All the stores had been repaired, and there were hundreds of people standing behind the glass, palms pressed to the windowpanes, watching me as I ran. They were all shouting to me, but I couldn’t hear them. The glass was too thick. All I could see was the ghost-fog of their breath against the glass and their palms, flat and pale, like dead things.

  The longer I ran, the farther the ocean seemed, and the smaller I got, until I was so small I was no bigger than a piece of dust. Until I was no bigger than an idea. I knew I’d be okay if I could only reach the ocean, but the gallery just kept on growing, huge and full of shadows, and all those people kept calling to me silently from behind the glass.

  Then a wave came and pushed me backward, and slammed me against something made of stone, and I became big again. My body exploded outward like I’d gone and stepped on that bomb and I was breaking apart into ten thousand pieces.

  Everything was on fire. Even my eyes hurt when I tried to open them.

  “I don’t believe it,” were the first words I heard.

  “Someone up there must be looking after him.”

  Then someone else: “No one looks after this garbage.”

  I was alive again.

  I wanted to die.

  One time, when I was twelve, I burned down a house.

  Nobody was living there. That’s why I chose it. It was just some half-run-down white clapboard farmhouse, sitting in the middle of a bunch of lumpy outhouses and barns, like deer turds gathered at the bottom of a big hill. I have no idea what happened to the family that used to live here, but I liked to imagine that they’d gone off to the Wilds, made a clean break for the border once the new regulations kicked in, once people started getting locked up for disagreeing.

  It was close to the border, only fifty feet from the fence. That’s why I chose it too.

  I had started with small thing—matchbooks, papers; then piles of leaves, heaped carefully into a garbage can; then a little locked wooden shed on Rosemont Avenue. I watched from Presumpscot Park, sitting on a bench, while the firemen came to put out the shed fire, sirens screaming, geared up. I watched while the neighbors gathered, until there were so many they blocked my view and I tried to stand. But I couldn’t stand. My feet and legs were numb.

  Like bricks. So I just sat and sat, until the crowd thinned and I saw the shed wasn’t a shed anymore but just a pile of charred wood and metal and molten plastic, where a bunch of toys had fused together.

  All because of the smallest spark. All because of the click of a lighter in my hand.

  I couldn’t stop.

  Then: a house. It was summer, six o’clock, dinner hour. I figured if anyone smelled the smoke they might think it was a barbecue, and I’d have plenty of time to get out of there. I used rags stuffed with kerosene and a Bic lighter I had stolen from the desk of the principal’s office at my school: yellow with smiley faces on it.

  Right away I knew it was a mistake. The house went up in less than a minute. The flames just… swallowed it.

  The smoke blocked out the sun and turned the air blurry from the heat. The smell was awful. Maybe there’d been dead animals in the house, mice and raccoons. I hadn’t thought to check.

  But the worst was the noise. It was louder, way louder, than I had expected. I could hear wood popping, splitting apart, could hear individual splinters burst and crackle into nothing. Like the house was screaming. But weirdly, when the roof went down, there wasn’t any sound at all. Or maybe I couldn’t hear by then, because my lungs were full of smoke and my head was pounding and I was running as fast as I could. I called the fire department from an old pay phone, disguising my voice. I didn’t stay to watch them come.

  They saved the barn, at least. I found out later. I even went to a few parties there, years afterward, on nights I couldn’t stand it anymore: all the pretending, the secrets, the sitting around and waiting for instructions.

  I even saw here there, once.

  But I never went back without remembering the fire—the way it ate up the sky, the sound of a house, a something, shriveling into nothing.

  That’s what it was like waking up in the Crypts. No-longer-dead. But without her.

  Like burning alive.

  I have nothing to say about my months there. Imagine it, then imagine worse, then give up and know you can’t imagine it.

  You think you want to know, but you don’t.

  No one expected me to live, so it was like a game to the guards to see how much I could take. One guy, Roman, was the worst. He was ugly—fat lips, eyes glassed over like a fish on ice in the grocery store—and mean as hell.

  He liked to put his cigarettes out on my tongue. He cut the insides of my eyelids with razors. Every time I blinked, I felt like my eyes were exploding. I used to lie awake at night and imagine wrapping my hands around his throat, killing him slowly.

  See? I told you. You don’t want to know.

  But the worst was where they put me. The old cell where I’d once stood with Lena, staring at the words etched into the stone. A single word, actually. Just love, over and over.

  They’d patched up
the hole in the wall, reinforced it and barred it with steel. But I could still taste the outside, still smell the rain and hear the distant roar of the river beneath me. I could watch the snow bending whole trees into submission, could lick the icicles that formed on the other side of the bars. That was torture—being able to see, and smell, and hear, and being trapped in a cage. Like standing on the wrong side of the fence, only a few feet from freedom, and knowing you’ll never cross it.

  Yeah. Like that.

  I got better—somehow, miraculously, without wanting it or willing it or trying. My skin grew together, sealed in the bullet, still lodged somewhere between two ribs. My fever went down, and I stopped seeing things whenever I closed my eyes: people with holes in their faces instead of mouths, buildings catching fire, skies filled with blood and smoke.

  My heart kept going, and some small, distant part of me was glad.

  Slowly, slowly, I grew back into my body. One day, I managed to stand up. A week later, to walk the cell, staggering between the walls like a drunk.

  I got a beating for that one—for healing too fast.

  After that I moved only at night, in the dark, when the guards were too lazy to do random checks, when they slept or drank or played cards instead of making the rounds.

  I wasn’t thinking of escape. I wasn’t thinking of her.

  That came later. I wasn’t thinking anything at all. It was just will, forcing my blood through my veins and my heart to keep opening and shutting and my legs to try and move.

  When I remembered, I remembered being a little kid. I thought about the homestead on the Rhode Island coast, long before I moved homesteads with a few others and came to Maine: the gallery and the smell of low tide, and all the brick covered in layers of bird shit, crusty as salt spray. I remembered the boats this guy Flick made out of timber and scrap, and the time he took me fishing and I hooked my first trout: the blush pink of its belly and how good it tasted, like nothing I’d ever eaten before. I remembered Brent, who was my age and like a brother, and how his finger looked after he got cut on an old bit of razor wire, puffy and dark as a storm cloud, and how he screamed when they cut it off to stop the infection from spreading. Dirk and Mel and Toadie: all of them dead, I heard later, killed on some secret mission to Zombieland.

  And Carr, in Maine, who taught me all about the resistance, who helped me memorize facts about the new me when it was time for me to cross over.

  And I remembered my first night in Portland, how I couldn’t get comfortable on the bed, and how I moved onto the floor, finally, and fell asleep with my cheek against the rug. How weird everything was: the supermarkets stocked with food I’d never seen before, and trash bins heaped with stuff that was still usable, and rules, rules for everything: eating, sitting, talking, even pissing and wiping yourself.

  In my mind, I was reliving my whole life again—slowly, taking my time. Delaying.

  Because I knew, sooner or later, I’d get to her.

  And then… Well, I’d already died once. I couldn’t live through it again.

  The guards lost interest in me after a while.

  In the quiet, and the dark, I got stronger. Eventually she came. She appeared suddenly, exactly like she’d done that day—she stepped into the sunshine, she jumped, she laughed and threw her head back, so her long ponytail nearly grazed the waistband of her jeans.

  After that, I couldn’t think about anything else. The mole on the inside of her right elbow, like a dark blot of ink. The way she ripped her nails to shreds when she was nervous. Her eyes, deep as a promise. Her stomach, pale and soft and gorgeous, and the tiny dark cavity of her belly button.

  I nearly went crazy. I knew she must think I was dead.

  What had happened to her after crossing the fence? Has she made it? She had nothing, no tools, no food, no idea where to go. I imagined her weak, and lost. I imagined her dead.

  She might as well be.

  I told myself that if she was alive she would move on, she would forget me, she would be happy again. I tried to tell myself that was what I wanted for her.

  I knew I would never see her again.

  But hope got in, no matter how hard and fast I tried to stomp it out. Like these tiny fire ants we used to get in Portland. No matter how fast you killed them, there were always more, a steady stream of them, resistant, ever-multiplying.

  Maybe, the hope said. Maybe.

  Funny how time heals. Like that bullet in my ribs. It’s there, I know it’s there, but I can barely feel it at all anymore.

  Only when it rains. And sometimes, too, when I remember. The impossible happened in January, on a night like all other winter nights, frigid black, and long.

  The first explosion woke me from a dream. Two other explosions followed, buried somewhere beneath layers of stone, like the rumblings of a faraway train. The alarms started screaming but just as quickly went silent.

  The lights shut off all at once.

  People were shouting. Footsteps echoed in the halls.

  The prisoners began banging on walls and doors, and the darkness was full of shouting.

  I knew right away it must be freedom fighters. I could feel it, the way I could always feel it in my fingertips when I was supposed to do a job, like a drop, and something was wrong—an undercover cop hanging around, or a problem with a contact. Then I’d keep my head down, keep it moving, regroup.

  Later I found out that in the lower wards, two hundred cell doors swung open simultaneously. Electrical problem.

  Two hundred prisoners made a break for it, and a dozen had made it out before the police and regulators showed up and started shooting.

  Our doors were closed with deadbolts, and stayed shut.

  I beat on the door so hard my knuckles split. I screamed until my voice dried up in my throat. We all did.

  All of us in Ward Six, all of us forgotten, left to rot. The minutes that had passed since the lights went off felt like hours.

  “Let me out!” I screamed, over and over. “Let me out.

  I’m one of you.”

  And then, a miracle: a small cone of light, a flashlight sweeping down the hall, and the pattern of fast footsteps.

  I’ll admit it. I called to be let out first. I’m not too proud to say it. I’d spent five months in that hellhole, and escape was on the other side of the door. Days, years passed before my door swung open.

  But it did. Swing open.

  I recognized the guy with the keys. I knew him as Kyle, though I doubt that was his real name. I’d seen him at one or two meetings of the resistance. I’d never liked him.

  He wore really tight button-down shirts and pants that made him look like he had a constant wedgie.

  He wasn’t wearing a button-down then. He was wearing all black, and a ski masked pushed back on his head, so I could see his face. And in that moment, I could have kissed him.

  “Let’s go, let’s go.”

  It was chaos. It was hell. Emergency lights flashing, illuminating in strobe prisoners clawing at one another to get through the doors, and guards swinging with clubs or firing, randomly, into the crowd to hold them back. Bodies in the halls, and blood smearing the linoleum, speckled on the walls.

  I knew from all my times at the Crypts, there was a service entrance in the basement, next to the laundry room.

  By the time I made it to the first floor, the cops were flowing in, bug-eyed in their riot gear. The screaming was so loud. You couldn’t even hear what the cops were yelling. Five feet away from me, I watched some woman wearing a hospital gown and paper slippers shank a cop right in the neck with a pen. I thought, Good for her.

  Like I said: I’m not too proud.

  There was a pop, and a fizz, and something went ricocheting down the hall. Then a hard burn in my eyes and throat and I knew they’d chucked in the tear gas, and if I didn’t get out then, I’d never get out. I made for the laundry chute, trying to breathe through the filthy cotton of my sleeve. Pushing people when I had to. Not caring.

  You have to understand. I wasn’t just thinking of me. I was thinking of her, too.

  It was a long shot, but I had no choice. I crawled into the laundry chute, as narrow as a coffin, and dropped. Four long seconds of darkness and free fall. I could hear my breath echoing in the metal cage.

  Then I was down. I landed in a big pile of sheets and pillowcases that smelled like sweat and blood and things I didn’t want to think about. But I was safe, and nothing was broken. The laundry room was black, empty, the old machines still. The whole room had that moist feel that all laundry rooms do, like a big tongue.

  I could still hear screaming and gunshots from upstairs, rolling down the laundry chute, amplified and transformed. It sounded like the world was ending.

  But it wasn’t.

  Out of the laundry room, around the corner, no problem at all. The service door was supposed to be alarmed, but I knew the staff always disabled it so they could go out for smoke breaks without going upstairs.

  So: outside, and to the black rush of the Presumpscot River.

  To freedom.

  For me, the world was beginning.

  How did I love her?

  Let me count the ways.

  The freckles on her nose like the shadow of a shadow; the way she chewed on her lower lip when she was thinking and the way her ponytail swung when she walked and how when she ran she looked like she was born going fast and how she fit perfectly against my chest; her smell and the touch of her lips and her skin, which was always warm, and how she smiled. Like she had a secret.

  How she always made up words during Scrabble.

  Hyddym (secret music). Grofp (cafeteria food). Quaw (the sound a baby duck makes). How she burped her way through the alphabet once, and I laughed so hard I spat out soda through my nose.

  And how she looked at me like I could save her from everything bad in the world.

  This was my secret: she was the one who saved me.