Annabel: A Delirium Short Story, Page 2Lauren Oliver
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.
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?” The
n 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.
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 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 the ID of Conrad Haloway cupped in my right palm.
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 angry. 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.
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 f
riends, 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.
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.