Raven: A Delirium Short Story, Page 2Lauren Oliver
Tack spots her the same time I do and sinks down a little in the front seat, as if worried she might spot us. But she’s totally focused. She barely pauses at the entrance to the clinic. She slips inside.
Any moment now. The air inside the van is humid, and my skin feels sticky. The windows are fogged from our breath. I feel another roll of nausea and fight it back. No time for that.
After a few minutes, Tack sighs and reaches for the jacket balled up on the seat between us. He shakes it out and shoves his arms, hard, into the sleeves. He looks funny in a suit jacket, like a bear dressed up in a costume for the circus. I would never tell him that, though.
“Ready?” he says.
“Don’t forget this.” I pass him a small laminated ID. It’s so old and stained, the picture is nearly indistinguishable—which is good, because its original owner, Dr. Howard Rivers, was about twenty pounds heavier than Tack and had a decade on him.
Then again, Howard Rivers wasn’t actually Howard Rivers, but Edward Kauffman, a respected doctor in Maine who worked to keep the deliria out of our schools and homes, who had ties to the governor, who subsidized medical centers in poorer parts of town. Secretly, though, he was a radical and controversial resister, famous for performing under-the-table abortions on uncureds who’d gotten pregnant and were desperate to conceal it.
Over the years he established identities for a dozen fake doctors so he could increase his shipments of medicine and antibiotics, which he then distributed to Invalids in the Wilds.
Edward Kauffman, the original, is dead now—has been dead for two years. He was outed in a police sting operation and executed only two weeks later. But many of his pseudonyms, his fake identities, survived. They’re healthy and practicing still.
Tack clips the ID to his jacket. “How do I look?” he says.
“Medical,” I answer.
He checks his reflection in the rearview and tries unsuccessfully again to mash down his hair. “Don’t forget,” he says. “Parking lot on Twenty-Fourth. I’ll be waiting for you.”
“We’ll be there,” I say, ignoring the weird feeling in my stomach. More than nausea. Nerves. I hate being nervous. It’s a weakness. It reminds me of the person I used to be, and the ticking quiet of the old house, my father brewing, growing his anger like a storm.
Every time I have to kill someone, s pll someI pretend he has my father’s face.
“Be careful, Rae.” For a second, I get a glimpse of Michael, the boy no one sees. Face open like a kid’s. Scared. “I wish you’d let me do the heavy lifting.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” I press my fingers against my lips, bring them to his chest. It’s our sign. Neither one of us is super touchy-feely, and besides, it’s too risky to kiss in Zombieland. “See you on the other side.”
“On the other side,” he parrots, then slips out of the van, jogging across the street pooled with rain.
I count off sixty seconds, make some last-minute adjustments to my gear, flip down the mirror, and check my teeth. Feel for the gun concealed in my jacket and check the supplies in my right jeans pocket. All good. All there. Count another sixty seconds, which helps me ignore the nerves. Nothing to be afraid of.
I know what I’m doing. We all do. Too well.
Sometimes I imagine that Tack and I will just crap out—flake on the whole war, the struggle, the resistance. Say good-bye and see you never. We’ll go up north and build a homestead together, far away from everyone and everything. We know how to survive. We could do it. Trap and hunt and fish for our food, grow what we can, pop out a whole brood of kids and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist. Let it blow itself to pieces if it wants to.
It has been two and a half minutes. I open the van door and hop down to the curb. The rain is nothing more than a mist now, but the gutters are still overflowing, swirling eddies of crushed coffee cups and cigarette butts and flyers.
When I push open the door to the clinic, it’s like a different world: thick green carpet, and furniture polished so it shines. Big, showy clock in the corner, ticking away the minutes. Not a bad place to die, if you had to choose.
Tack is standing at reception, drumming his fingers against the desk. He barely glances at me when I come in.
“I’m so sorry, doctor.” The lab tech behind the desk is punching buttons frantically. Her fingers are fat and weighted down with rings cut deep into her flesh. “An inspection—today—there must be a mistake.”
“It’s on the books,” Tack says, in a voice that belongs to someone older and fatter and cured. “Every clinic is subjected to an annual regulatory—”
“Excuse me,” I say loudly, interrupting him, as I come toward the desk. I make sure to walk a little funny, just for show. Tack and I can laugh about it later. “Excuse me,” I repeat, a little louder. Too loud for the space.
“You’ll have to hold on,” the receptionist says to me, picking up the phone and angling her chin awayes er chin from the receiver. She turns immediately back to Tack. “I’m so sorry. You have no idea how embarrassed—”
“Don’t be sorry,” he says. “Just get somebody down here who can help me.”
“Hey.” I lean forward over the counter. “Look, I’m talking to you.”
“Ma’am.” She’s losing it. She’s probably shitting bricks, thinking she’s going to get the whole clinic shut down because she screwed up the review dates. “I’m in the middle of something. If you have an appointment, you’re going to have to sign in and take a seat in the—”
“I don’t have an appointment.” I’m really putting it on, now, practically yelling. Tack does a good job of looking disgusted. “And I won’t wait. I got this rash, okay? It’s driving me crazy. I can’t hardly even sit.”
I undo my belt and start to hitch my pants down over my waist, like I’m about to moon her. Tack draws back with a noise of disgust, and the nurse slams down the phone and practically hurls herself around the desk.
“This way, ma’am, please.” She clamps a hand on my arm. I can smell the sweat underneath her perfume. She pilots me quickly out of the reception area—away from Dr. Howard Rivers, medical inspector, where I can’t do any harm, where I won’t embarrass the clinic any further—and through a set of double doors into a long white hallway. I feel a hitch of excitement in my chest, a slight break, like I always do when a plan is going off like we expected. With my free hand I fumble in my right jeans pocket for the small glass bottle, uncork it with a thumb, let the contents spill out into the rag stuffed in my pocket. Acetone, bleach, and heat.
Not as good as manufactured chloroform, but good enough.
“The doctor will be in to see you shortly,” she says, huffing from the exertion of piloting me forward. She practically shoves me into a small examination room and stands, breasts heaving against her uniform, with one hand on the doorknob. The hall behind her is empty. “If you’ll just wait here . . .”
“I hate waiting,” I say, and step forward, bringing the rag to her face.
She is very heavy as she goes down.
Untie me, and I’ll help you.
The words were stuck in my mind, a taunt and a promise. I didn’t think I could trust him. And it would be a betrayal—of Grandma, and of the other homesteaders who had taken in Blue and me. If I got caught, if the Thief screwed us over, I’d have to pay for it. Maybe I’d get tied up in the sickroom, waiting for the group to decide what should be done with me.
But Blue wasn’t getting any better.
I was so afraid—afraid of everything back then, just a skinny little shit who’d made a snap-dash decision to run away and who had no idea what she was doing. My dad had always told me I was stupid in the head, pathetic, one of the losers. And back then, maybe he was right.
I knew the Thief wasn’t afraid. I could just tell. Wasn’t afraid of me or the other homesteaders, wasn’t afraid of dying.
When Blue started gurgling and rasping in her sleep—then went ten seconds at a time, s
till, not breathing, before taking in a gasp of air—I stole a knife from the kitchen and brought it back to the sickroom. My hands were shaking. I remember, because I kept thinking of my mom’s hands, rattling her silverware, fluttering like birds, a wild, frantic part of her. I wondered if she’d been thinking of me at all since I’d left.
It was late. Everyone else was asleep—now that the Thief had been caught, even Gray didn’t feel the need to patrol.
The Thief’s smile was like a sickle blade in the dark. I squatted down in front of him.
“You promised,” I told him. “You promised to help me.”
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” he said. I didn’t like the sound of his voice—like he was laughing at me—but I cut him loose anyway, feeling sick the whole time, knowing Blue would die otherwise. Might die just the same.
He stood up, groaning a little. I hadn’t realized how tall he was. I hadn’t seen him except sitting or lying down since he was brought in. I took a step backward, flinching, when he raised his arms above his head.
His smile vanished, turned into something harder. “You don’t trust me, do you?” he said.
I shook my head. He extended his hand for the knife, and after a second’s hesitation, I gave it to him.
“I’ll be back by noon,” he said. My heart was beating hard in my throat, a rhythm saying, Please, please. I’m counting on you. He jerked his chin in Blue’s direction. “Keep her alive until then.”
Then he was gone, moving soundlessly through the darkened halls, vanishing into the shadows. And I sat holding Blue, with terror sitting like a black mist in my chest, and waited.
Lies are just stories, and stories are all that matter. We all tell stories. Some are more truthful than others, maybe, but in the end the only thing that counts is what you can make people believe.
I learned to tell stories from my mom. “Your dad’s not feeling well today,” she’d say. She’d say, I had an accident.She’d say, Remember what happened. You’re a clumsy girl. You walked into a door. You tripped and stumbled down a staircase. My favorite story: He doesn’t mean to.
She was so good at telling stories that I started to believe them after a while. Maybe I was clumsy. Maybe it was my fault, for provoking him.
Maybe he really didn’t mean to.
There were stories, too, about a girl who got pregnant before her cure. Caroline Gormely—she lived down the street from me, in our neighborhood of boxy, identical-looking houses. Her parents only found out after she swallowed half a bottle of bleach and was taken to the emergency room. One day she was around, riding the bus home from school, pressing her nose to the glass, the window fogging with her breath. And one day she wasn’t anymore.
My mom told me she’d been taken somewhere to be cured, shipped off to a different city where she could start again. Her parents had disowned her. She would likely end up working sanitation somewhere, never paired, carrying the blight of the disease around her like a scar. You see what happens, my dad said, when you don’t listen?
What about the baby? I’d asked my mom.
She hesitated for only a second. The baby will be taken care of, she said. And she meant it: just not in the way I thought.
The lab tech’s uniform is big on me, so big I feel like a kid playing dress-up. But it will work. I don’t rush. A good story needs pacing, deliberateness. I take my time finding a small fabric mask, which I slip over my face, and rubber gloves. I lock the doorknob before I slip back out into the hall. No sense in risking the discovery of the nurse, who is now curled up on the linoleum, breathing deeply, like a child.
I clip her ID on my uniform, knowing no one will check it. You need to give people the broad strokes, the things they’re expecting: the main characters and the buildup.
And the climax, of course. A good story always needs a climax.
None of the homesteaders blamed me for the Thief’s escape, as I had worried they would, even after the kitchen knife was discovered to be missing. Everyone assumed he had broken out somehow, that he had managed to loosen the restraints himself and had stolen the knife before sneaking out. The hard-liners, the ones who had wanted to see him killed, gloated: he was no good, he might be back to murder them in their sleep, they’d hn r, theyave to keep constant tabs on the food stores now. Should have offed the no-good Scavenger when they’d had a chance.
I almost spoke up. I would have confessed, but I was too scared that I would get turned out, abandoned in the Wilds.
The Thief had promised to be back by noon, but noon came and went, and by the time the homesteaders were finished with their rounds and Blue’s breathing sounded like a rattle in her chest, when she was breathing at all, I knew that he had lied to me. He would never be back, and Blue would die, and it was all my fault. I couldn’t cry about it because I’d learned never to cry, even as a little girl. Crying was one of the things that set my dad off, just like laughing too loud, or smiling at a joke that didn’t include him, or acting happy when he was miserable, or miserable when he was happy.
I remember Lu watched Blue while I went for some air, even though I could tell she didn’t think it would do any good. Everyone was walking around me like I had some kind of disease, or like I was in detonator mode and might fracture at any second into shrapnel. That was the worst: knowing they thought she was going to die too.
I still wasn’t used to the Wilds, and I didn’t like them then. I was used to rules and fences, rivers of pavement and parking lots, order everywhere. The Wilds were vast and dark and unpredictable, and reminded me of back home and my dad’s rage, hanging like a low weight over everything, leaving no room to breathe, pressing us into submission. Later, I learned that the Wilds did obey certain rules, did contain a certain kind of order—raw and bare and beautiful.
Only humans are unpredictable.
I remember: a high moon, the weight of fear, the strangle-squeeze of guilt. A cold wind, bringing unfamiliar smells.
The crack of a branch. A footstep.
And suddenly there he was: The Thief emerged from the woods, looking ten years older than he had when he left, soaking wet. He was carrying a backpack. For a second, I couldn’t believe he was real. I thought I must be dreaming.
“Albuterol,” he said, lifting the backpack. “For the girl. And supplies for the others. Penance for my crime.”
Tylenol, Sudafed, Band-Aids, antibiotics, bacitracin, Neosporin, penicillin. It was a jackpot. No one could believe that he’d returned. No one could believe that he’d risked his life, made a crossing to the other side, to stock up on supplies so desperately needed. He said nothing about the agreement we’d made. His earlier crimes were forgiven.
He told the homesteaders about a small, plain storage facility, minimally secure and totally unmarked, on the banks of the Cocheco River. The man who owned it, Edward Kauffman, was a sympathizer, and doled out medication and even certain treatments to uncureds on the sly. Tack had moved upstream, fighting a heavy current, and crossed just east of Kauffman’s clinic. He’d had to hide out for a while before crossing back, however, waiting for a patrol to move on.
“How’d you know about the clinic?” I asked him.
“My sister,” he told me shortly. He didn’t say, but I guessed: She’d had some kind of procedure there, something he didn’t want me to know about. Later on, I understood.
“Sharp as a tack, that one,” Grandpa announced after the Thief had finished speaking; and so the Thief received a name, and became one of us.
Beyond the waiting room, the hospital looks like any other: bleak, ugly, overly scrubbed. I don’t like places that are too clean. It always makes me think about what’s getting covered up and scrubbed off.
I walk, head down, not too quick, not too slow. Hardly anyone in the halls, and the only doctor I pass barely glances at me. Good. People mind their own business here.
I get a break when I hit the bank of elevators: a guy standing, tapping his foot, checking his watch, a poster boy for impatience, with a
large camera slung around his neck and the look of someone who hasn’t slept in a week. Press.
“You here for Julian Fineman?” is all I have to say.
“It’s six, right? The woman at the front desk told me it was on six.” He must be in his thirties, but he has a big pimple right on the tip of his nose, angry as a blister. His whole vibe is a little like a pimple, actually: ready to explode.
I follow him into the elevator, reach out, and punch six with a knuckle. “It’s six,” I say.
The first time I ever killed someone I was sixteen. It was almost two years since I’d escaped to the Wilds, and by then the homestead had changed. Certain people had left or died; others had showed up. We’d had a bad winter my first year, four weeks of almost straight snow, no hunting, no trapping, making do on scraps left over from the summer—dried strips of meat, and, when that ran out, plain rice. But worse than that was the freeze, the days snow piled up so quick and so heavy it wasn’t safe to go outside; when the homestead reeked of unwashed bodies and worse; when the boredom was so bad it crawled down into your skin and made a constant itch.
Mari didn’t make it past that winter. The second stillborn had hit her hard; even before the winter she sometimes spent days curled up on her cot, one arm crooked around the negative space where a baby should have been. That winter, it was like something brittle finally snapped inside of her, and one morning we woke up and found her swinging from a wooden beam in the food room.
It was snowing too hard to bring her up, so for two days we had to live alongside her body.
We lost Tiny, too, who went out one day to try and hunt, even though we told him it was no use and the animals wouldn’t be out and it was too risky. But he was going crazy from being penned in so long, crazy from the constant hunger gnawing like a rat from the inside nwa the inout. He never came back. Probably got lost and froze to death.