Hana: A Delirium Short Story, Page 2Lauren Oliver
I knew it. The message is from Angelica.
Can't sleep. Weird nightmares--was on the corner of Washington and Oak, and fifteen rabbits were trying to get me to join a tea party. I can't wait to get cured!
All our messages about the underground must be carefully coded, but this one is easy enough to decipher. We're meeting on the corner of Washington and Oak in fifteen minutes.
We're going to a party.
To get to the Highlands I have to go off peninsula. I avoid taking St. John, even though it will lead me directly to Congress. There was an outbreak of the deliria there five years ago--four families affected, four early cures imposed. Since then, the whole street has been tainted and is always targeted by regulators and patrols.
The itch under my skin has swollen to a steady, thrumming force, a need in my legs and arms and fingers. I can barely pedal fast enough. I have to force myself not to push it. I need to stay alert and pay attention, just in case there are regulators nearby. If I'm caught out after curfew, I'll have a lot of questions to answer, and this--my last summer as me, my last summer of freedom--will come abruptly to a halt. I'll be thrown into the labs by the end of the week.
Luckily, I reach the Highlands without incident. I slow down, squinting at the street signs as I pass, trying to decipher letters in the dark. The Highlands is a mess of different roads and cul-de-sacs, and I never remember all of them. I pass Brooks and Stevens; Tanglewild and Crestview Avenue, and then, confusingly, Crestview Circle. At least the moon is full and floats almost directly above me, leering. Tonight the man in the moon looks as though he's winking, or smirking: a moon with secrets.
Then I spot Oak. Even though I'm barely rolling along now, my heart is going so hard in my throat, I feel like it'll burst out through my mouth if I try and say a word. I've avoided thinking about Steve all night, but now, as I get closer, I can't help it. Maybe he'll be here tonight. Maybe, maybe, maybe. The idea--the thought of him--cascades into consciousness, into being. There is no repressing it.
As I climb off my bike, I instinctively fumble in my back pocket and feel for the note I've been carrying everywhere for the past two weeks, after I found it folded neatly on top of my beach bag.
I like your smile. I want to know you. Study session 2nite--earth sciences. You have Mr. Roebling, right?
Steve and I had seen each other at some of the underground parties earlier in the summer, and once we almost talked after I bumped into him and splashed some soda on his shoe. And then, during the day, we began to pass each other: in the street, at Eastern Prom. He always lifted his eyes to mine and, just for a second, flashed me a smile. That day--the day of the note--I thought I saw him wink. But I was with Lena, and he was with friends in the out>boys' section of the beach. No way for him to come and speak with me. I still don't know how he managed to sneak the note into my bag; he must have waited until the beach was pretty much empty.
His message, too, was in code. The "study session" was an invitation to a concert; "earth sciences" meant that it would be held on one of the farms--Roebling Farm, to be exact.
That night we ditched the concert and walked out to the middle of an empty field, and lay side by side in the grass with our elbows touching, looking up at the stars. At one point, he traced a dandelion from my forehead to my chin, and I fought the desperate, nervous urge to giggle.
That was the night he kissed me.
My first kiss. A new kind of kiss, like the new kind of music still playing, softly, in the distance--wild and arrhythmic, desperate. Passionate.
Since then, I have managed to see him only twice, and both times were in public and we could do no more than nod at each other. It is worse, I think, than not seeing him at all. That, too, is an itch--the desire to see him, to kiss him again, to let him put his fingers in my hair--is a monstrous, constant, crawling feeling in my blood and bones.
It's worse than a disease. It's a poison.
And I like it.
If he is here tonight--please let him be here tonight--I'm going to kiss him again.
Angelica is waiting for me on the corner of Washington and Oak, as promised. She is standing in the shadow of a towering maple, and for a second, as she steps out of the darkness--dark hair, dark shadow-eyes--I imagine that she is Lena. But then the moonlight falls differently on her face, and Lena's image goes skittering away into a corner of my mind. Angelica's face is all sharp angles, especially her nose, which is just slightly too long and tilted upward. That's the reason, I think, I disliked her for so long--her nose makes it look as though she's always smelling something nasty.
But she understands me. She understands what it's like to feel penned in, and she understands the need to break out.
"You're late," Angelica says, but she's smiling.
Tonight there is no music. As we cross the lawn toward the house, a stifled giggle disturbs the silence, followed by the sudden swell of conversation.
"Careful," Angie says as we step onto the porch. "Third stair's rotten."
I dodge it, like she does. The wood of the porch is old, and it groans under our weight. All the windows are boarded up, and the faint outlines of a large red X are still visible, faded by weather and time: This house was once home to the disease. When we were little, we used to dare one another to walk through the Highlands, dare each other to stand for as long as possible with our hands on the doors of houses that had been condemned. The rumor was that the tortured spirits of people who had died from amor deliria nervosa still walked the streets and would strike you down with d fa down wisease for trespassing.
"Nervous?" Angie asks, sensing me shiver.
"I'm fine," I say, and push open the door before she can reach for it. I enter ahead of her.
For a second, as we pass into the hallway, there is a sudden stillness, a moment of tension, as everyone in the house freezes; then they see that it is okay, that we are not regulators or police, and the tension ebbs away again. There is no electricity, and the house is full of candles--set on plates, stuffed into empty Coke cans, placed directly on the ground--which transform the walls into flickering, dissolving patterns of light, and turn people into shadows. And they, the shadow-people, are everywhere: massed in corners and on the few remaining pieces of furniture in the otherwise empty rooms, pressed into hallways, reclining on the stairs. But it is surprisingly quiet.
Almost everyone, I see, has coupled off. Boys and girls, intertwined, holding hands and touching each other's hair and faces and laughing quietly, doing all the things that are forbidden in the real world.
A mouth of anxiety yawns open inside of me. I have never been to any party like this. I can practically feel the presence of disease: the crawling of the walls, the energy and tension--like the nesting of a thousand insects.
He has to be here.
"This way." Angie has instinctively dropped her voice to a whisper. She draws me toward the back of the house, and from the way she navigates the rooms, even in the dim and changing light, I can tell that she has been here several times before. We move into the old kitchen. More candles here illuminate the outlines of bare cupboards, a stove, and a dark fridge with its door missing and its shelves black with spotted mold. The room smells stale, like sweat and mildew. A table in the center of the room holds a few dusty bottles of alcohol, and several girls are standing awkwardly against one counter while across the room a group of boys is pretending not to notice them. Obviously they have never been to a party like this either and are unconsciously obeying the rules of segregation.
I scan the boys' faces, hoping that Steve will be among them. He isn't.
"Do you want something to drink?" Angelica asks.
"Water," I say. My throat feels dry, and it's very hot in the house. I almost wish that I had never left home. I don't know what I should do now that I'm here, and there is nobody I want to talk to. Angie is already pouring herself something to drink, and I know that she will soon disappear into the darkness wi
th a boy. She does not seem out of place or anxious at all, and for a second I feel a flash of fear for her.
"There is no water," Angie says, passing me a glass. I take a sip of whatever she has poured me and make a face. It's sweet but has the dull, stinging aftertaste of gasoline.
"What is it?" I say.
"Who knows?" Angie giggles and takes a sip from her own glass. Maybe she is nervous. "It'll help you loosen up."
"I don't need to--" I start to say, but then I feel hands on my waist, and my mind goes still and blank, and I find myself turning without intending to.
"Hi," Steve says to me.
In the second it takes me to process that he is here, and real, and speaking to me, he leans in and puts his mouth on mine. This is only the second time I've ever been kissed, and I have a momentary panic where I forget what I am supposed to do. I feel his tongue pressing into my mouth and I jerk, surprised, spilling a bit of my drink. He pulls away, laughing.
"Happy to see me?" he asks.
"Hi to you, too," I say. I can still taste his tongue in my mouth--he has been drinking something sour. I take another sip of my drink.
He leans in and puts his mouth right up to my ear. "I was hoping you would come," he says in a low voice. Warmth breaks across my chest.
"Really?" I say. He doesn't respond; he takes my hand and draws me out of the kitchen. I swivel around to tell Angelica I'll be back, but she has disappeared.
"Where are we going?" I ask, trying to sound unconcerned.
"It's a surprise," he says.
The warmth from my chest has made it into my head now. We move through a vast room full of more shadow-people, more candles, more flickering shapes on the wall. I place my drink on the arm of a ratty sofa. A girl with short, spiky hair is curled there on the lap of a boy; he is nuzzling her neck and his face is concealed. But she glances up at me as I pass, and I am momentarily startled: I recognize her. She has an older sister at St. Anne's, Rebecca Sterling, a girl I was kind-of friends with. I remember Rebecca told me that her younger sister had chosen to go to Edison because it was bigger.
Sarah. Sarah Sterling.
I doubt she recognizes me, but she drops her eyes quickly.
At the far end of the room is a rough wooden door. Steve leans into it and we emerge onto a porch even sadder than the one out front. Someone has placed a lantern out here--maybe Steve?--illuminating the yawning gaps between wood slats, places where the wood has rotted away completely.
"Careful," he says as I nearly miss my footing and go plunging through a bad patch.
"I've got it," I say, but am grateful that he tightens his grip on my hand. I tell myself that this is it--what I wanted, what I had hoped for tonight--but somehow the thought keeps skittering away. He grabs the lantern before we step off the porch and carries it, swinging, in his free hand.
Across an overgrown stretch of lawn, the grasses shin-high and covered with moisture, we reach a small gazebo, painted white and lined with benches. In places, wildflowers have begun to push their way up through the floorboards. Steve helps me into it--it is elevated a few feet above the ground, but if there were stairs at one point, they are gon yothey are now--and then follows me.
I test one of the benches. It seems sturdy enough, so I sit down. The crickets are singing, tremulous and steady, and the wind carries the smell of damp earth and flowers.
"It's beautiful," I say.
Steve sits next to me. I'm uncomfortably aware of every part of our skin that is touching: knees, elbows, forearms. My heart starts beating hard, and once again I am having trouble breathing.
"You're beautiful," he says. Before I can react, he finds my chin with his hand and tilts me toward him, and then we're kissing again. This time, I remember to kiss back, to move my mouth against his, and I am not so surprised when his tongue finds the inside of my mouth, although the feeling is still foreign and not totally pleasant. He is breathing hard, twisting his fingers through my hair, so I think he must be enjoying himself--I must be doing it correctly.
His fingers graze my thigh, and then, slowly, he lowers his hand, begins massaging my thigh, working up toward my hips. All my feeling, all my concentration, flows down to that spot and to the way my skin feels, as though it is burning in response to his touch. This has to be deliria. Doesn't it? This must be what love feels like, what everyone has warned me about. My mind is spinning uselessly, and I'm trying to remember the symptoms of deliria listed in The Book of Shhh, as Steve's hand moves higher and his breathing gets even more desperate. His tongue is so deep in my mouth, I'm worried I might choke.
Suddenly all I can think about is a line from the Book of Lamentations: What glitters may not be gold; and even wolves may smile; and fools will be led by promises to their deaths.
"Wait," I say, pushing away from him.
"What's wrong?" Steve traces his finger from my cheekbone to my chin. His eyes are on my mouth.
Preoccupation--difficulty concentrating. A symptom comes back to me finally. "Do you think about me?" I blurt. "I mean, have you thought about me?"
"All the time." His answer comes quickly, easily. This should make me happy but I feel more confused than ever. Somehow I always imagined that I would know if the disease was taking root--that I would feel it instinctively, a shift deep in my blood. But this is simply tension, and shredding anxiety, and the occasional burst of good feeling.
"Relax, Hana," he says. He kisses my neck, moves his mouth to my ear, and I try to do as he says and let go of the warmth traveling from my chest to my stomach. But I can't stop the questions; they surge, pressing closely in the dark.
"What's going to happen to us?" I say.
He pulls away, sighing, and rubs his eyes. "I don't know what you--" he begins, and then breaks off with a small exclamation. "Holy shit! Look, Hana. Fireflies."
I turn in the direction he is looking. For a moment, I see nothing. Then all at once,tevall at several flares of white light burst in midair, one after another. As I watch, more and more of them float out of the blackness--brief sparks circling dizzyingly around one another, then sinking once again into the dark, a hypnotic pattern of illumination and extinguishment.
Out of nowhere, I feel a strong surge of hope, and I find myself laughing. I reach for his hand and tighten my fingers around his. "Maybe it's a sign," I say.
"Maybe," he says, and leans in to kiss me again, and so my question--What's going to happen to us?--goes unanswered.
I wake to blinding sunshine and a searing pain in my head; I forgot to draw the shades last night. There's a sour taste in my mouth. I move clumsily to the bathroom, brush my teeth, and splash water on my face. As I straighten up, I see it: a blue-purple blemish on my neck just below my right ear, a tiny constellation of bruised and broken capillaries.
I don't believe it. He gave me a Devil's Kiss.
We always got checked for kisses at school; we had to stand in a line with our hair pulled back while Mrs. Brinn examined our chests, necks, collarbones, shoulders. Devil's Kisses are a sign of illegal activity--and a symptom, too, of the disease taking root, spreading through your bloodstream. Last year, when Willow Marks was caught in Deering Oaks Park with an uncured boy, the story was that she'd been under surveillance for weeks, after her mom had noticed a Devil's Kiss on her shoulder. Willow was taken out of school to get cured a full eight months before her scheduled procedure, and I haven't seen her since.
I rummage through the bathroom cabinet, and luckily manage to find an old tube of foundation and some yellowish concealer. I layer on the makeup until the kiss is no more than a faint blue spot on my skin, then arrange my hair in a messy side-bun knotted just behind my right ear. I'll have to be very careful over the next few days; I'm sporting a mark of the disease. The idea is both thrilling and terrifying.
My parents are downstairs in the kitchen. My father is watching the morning news. Even though it's Sunday, he is dressed for work and eating a bowl of cereal standing up. My mother is
on the telephone, working its cord around her finger, making the occasional noise of assent. I know immediately that she must be talking to Minnie Phillips. My father watches the news; my mother calls Minnie for information. Mrs. Phillips works at the records bureau, and her husband is a policeman--between the two of them, they know everything that happens in Portland.
Almost everything, that is.
I think of the twisting, darkened rooms of uncureds last night--all of them touching, whispering, breathing one another's air--and feel a rush of pride.
"Morning, Hana," my dad says without taking his eyes off the television screen.
"Good morning." I'm careful to keep the left side of my body angled toward him as I slide into a chair at the kitchen table and shake a handful of cereal into my palm.
Donald Seigal, the mayor's minister of information, is being interviewed on TV.
"Stories of a resistance are vastly overblown," he is saying smoothly. "Still, the mayor is responsive to the concerns of the community . . . new measures will be effectuated . . ."
"Unbelievable." My mother has hung up the phone. She takes the remote and mutes the television. My father makes a noise of irritation. "Do you know what Minnie just told me?"
I fight the urge to smile. I knew it. That is the thing about people once they're cured: They're predictable. That is, supposedly, one of the procedure's benefits.
My mom continues, without waiting for a response, "There was another incident. A fourteen-year-old girl this time, and a boy from CPHS. They were caught sneaking around the streets at three in the morning."
"Who was it?" my dad asks. He has given up on the news and is now rinsing his bowl in the sink.
"One of the Sterling girls. The younger one, Sarah." My mother watches my dad expectantly. When he doesn't react, she says, "You remember Colin Sterling and his wife. We had lunch with them at the Spitalnys' in March."