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Annabel: A Delirium Short Story, Page 3

Lauren Oliver

  My mother leaned over me to look. “He’s a bit old, isn’t he?”

  “He’s only just moved to Portland,” I said. “He’s been in service to the engineering corps. Working on the walls. See? It says so.”

  My mother smiled tightly. “Well, it’s your choice, of course.” She reached over and patted me awkwardly on the knee. Even before her cure, she had never been affectionate; no one had ever touched in my family, unless it was my father taking a swing at my mom when he was drunk. “I’m proud of you.”

  Carol leaned forward into the front seat. “He doesn’t look like an engineer,” was all she said.

  I turned my face to the window. On the drive home, I repeated his name to myself like a private rhythm: Conrad, Conrad, Conrad. My secret music. My husband. I felt something loosen inside my chest. His name warmed me. It spread through my mind, through my whole body, until I could feel the syllables in my fingertips, and all the way down to my toes. Conrad.

  That’s when I knew, without a doubt, that the cure hadn’t worked at all.


  The light goes out, and the nighttime noises begin on the ward: the murmurs and moans and screams.

  I remember other noises—the sounds of outside: frogs singing, throaty and mournful; crickets humming an accompaniment. Lena as a young girl, her palms cupped carefully to contain a firefly, shrieking with laughter.

  Will I recognize the world outside? Would I recognize Lena, if I saw her?

  Thomas said he would give me the signal. But at least an hour passes with nothing—no sign, no further word. My mouth is dry as dust.

  I am not ready. Not yet. Not tonight. My heartbeat is wild and erratic. I’m sweating already and shaking, too.

  I can barely stand.

  How will I run?

  A jolt goes through me as the alarm system kicks on without warning: a shrill, continuous howl from downstairs, muffled through layers of stone and cement. Doors slam; voices cry out. Thomas must have tripped one of the alarms in a lower ward. The guards will go rushing for it, suspecting an attempted breakout or maybe a homicide.

  That’s my cue.

  I stand up and shove the cot aside, so the hole in the wall is revealed: a tight squeeze, but big enough to fit me. My makeshift rope is coiled on the floor, ready to go, and I thread one end through the metal ring on the door, knot it as tightly as I can.

  I’m not thinking anymore. I’m not afraid, either.

  I toss the free end of the rope out through the hole, hear it snap once in the wind. For the first time since I was imprisoned, I thank God that the Crypts is windowless, at least on this side.

  I go headfirst through the hole, wriggling when my shoulders meet resistance. Soft, wet stone rains down on my neck. My nose is full of the smell of spoiled things.

  Good-bye, good-bye.

  The alarm still wails, as though in response.

  Then my shoulders are through and I’m upside-down over a dizzying drop: forty-five feet at least, to the black and frozen with ice, motionless, reflecting the moon. And the rope, like a spun thread of white water, running vertically toward freedom.

  I make a grab for the rope. I pull, hand over hand, sliding my body, my legs, through the jagged hole in the rock.

  And then I fall.

  My legs leave the lip of rock, and I swing a wild half circle, kicking into air, crying out. I stop with a jerk, right side up, the rope coiled around my wrists. Stomach in my throat. The alarm is still going: high-pitched, hysterical.

  Air, air, nothing but air. I’m frozen, unable to move up or down. I have a sudden memory of a spring cleaning the year before I was taken, and a giant spiderweb uncovered behind the standing mirror in the bedroom. Dozens of insects were bound, immobile, in white thread, and one had only just been caught—it was still struggling feebly to get out.

  The alarm stops, and the ensuing silence is as loud as a slap. I have to move. I can hear the roar of the river now, and the shush of the wind through the leaves. Slowly I inch downward, wrapping my legs around the rope, swinging, nauseous. There’s a pressure on my bladder, and my palms are burning. I’m too afraid to be cold.

  Please let the rope hold.

  Thirty feet from the river I lose my grip and free-fall several feet before catching myself. The force of my stop makes me cry out, and I bite down on my tongue. The rope lashes in the wind.

  But I’m still safe. And the rope holds.

  Inch by inch. It seems to take forever. Hand over hand. I don’t even notice that my palms are bleeding until I see smears of red on the linens. But I feel no pain. I’m beyond pain now, numb from fear and exhaustion. I’m weaker, even, than I’d feared.

  Inch by inch.

  And then, all at once, I’m at the end of the rope, and seven feet below me is the frozen Presumpscot, a blackened surface of rotted logs and black rocks and ice. I have no choice but to drop and pray for a good landing, try to avoid the water and make it into the drifts, white as a pillow, piled up on the banks.

  I let go.


  I kept up my end of the bargain. I gave my family no trouble. In the months leading up to the marriage ceremony, I said yes when I was supposed to and did what I was told.

  But all the time, love grew inside me like a delicious secret.

  It was exactly that way later, when I was pregnant first with Rachel, and then Lena. Even before the doctors confirmed it, I could always tell. There were the normal changes: the swollen, tender breasts; a sharpening sense of smell; a heaviness in my joints. But it was more than that. I could always feel it—an alien growth, the expansion of something beautiful and other and also entirely mine. A private constellation: a star growing inside my belly.

  If Conrad remembered the skinny, frightened girl he’d held for one brief moment on a frigid Boston street corner, he showed no signs of it when we met. From the beginning, he was polite, kind, respectful. He listened to me, and asked questions about what I thought, what I liked, and what I didn’t. He told me once, early on, that he liked engineering because he enjoyed the mechanics of making things work—structures, machines, anything. I know he often wished that people were more easily decoded.

  That’s, of course, what the cure was for: for flattening people into paper, into biomechanics and scores.

  A year before Conrad died, he got the diagnosis: a tumor the size of a child’s thumb was growing in his brain. It was sudden and totally unexpected. The doctors bad luck.

  I was sitting next to his hospital bed when he suddenly sat up, confused from a dream. Even as I tried to urge him back against the pillows, he looked at me with wild eyes.

  “What happened to your leather jacket?” he asked.

  “Shh,” I said, trying to soothe him. “There’s no leather jacket.”

  “You were wearing it the first time I saw you,” he said, frowning slightly. Then he sagged suddenly back against the pillows, as though the effort of speaking had exhausted him. And I sat next to him while he slept, gripping his hand, watching the sun revolve in the sky outside the window and the patterns of light shifting on his sheet.

  And I felt joy.

  Conrad always held my head—lightly, with both hands—when we kissed. He wore glasses for reading, and when he was thinking hard about something, he would polish them. His hair was straight except for a bit that curled behind his left ear, just above his procedural scar. Some of this I observed right away; some of it I learned much later.

  But from the beginning, I knew that in a world where destiny was dead, I was destined, forever, to love him. Even though he didn’t—though he couldn’t—ever love me back.

  That’s the easy thing about falling: There is only one choice after that.


  I count three seconds of air. Then a blast of cold and a force like a fist, driving the breath from me, pummeling me forward. I hit bottom, and pain shoots up my ankle, and then the cold is everywhere, all at once, obliterating all other thought. For a minute, I can’t breathe
, can’t get air, don’t know which way is up or down. Just cold, everywhere and in all directions.

  Then the river shoves me upward, spits me out, and I come up gasping, flailing, as ice breaks around me with a noise like a dozen rifles firing at once. Stars spin above me. I manage to make it to the edge of the river, and I slosh into the shallows, shivering so hard my brain feels like it’s bouncing in my skull, coughing up water. I sit forward, cup my hand to the water, and drink through frozen fingers. The water is sweet, slightly gritty with dirt, delicious.

  I haven’t felt the wind, truly felt it, in eleven years.

  It’s colder than I remember.

  I know I have to move. North from the river. East from the old highway.

  I take one last look at the looming silhouette of the Crypts. Free. I’m free. The word brings with it such a surge of joy, I have to consciously stop from crying out. I’m not safe yet.

  Beyond the Crypts, I know, is the old, dusty road that leads to the bus stop—and beyond that, the gray sludge of the service road, which extends all the way on-peninsula and eventually merges with Congress Street. And then: Portland, my Portland, gripped on three sides by water, nestled like a jewel on a small spit of land.

  Somewhere, Lena is sleeping. Rachel, too. My own jewels, the stars I carry with me. I know that Rachel was cured, and out of reach to me now. Thomas told me so.

  But Lena . . .

  My littlest . . .

  I love you. Remember.

  And someday, I will find you again.

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  I’ve started dreaming of Portland again.

  Since Alex reappeared, resurrected but also changed, twisted, like a monster from one of the ghost stories we used to tell as kids, the past has been finding its way in. It bubbles up through the cracks when I’m not paying attention, and pulls at me with greedy fingers.

  This is what they warned me about for all those years: the heavy weight in my chest, the nightmare-fragments that follow me even in waking life.

  I warned you, Aunt Carol says in my head.

  We told you, Rachel says.

  You should have stayed. That’s Hana, reaching out across an expanse of time, through the murky-thick layers of memory, stretching a weightless hand to me as I am sinking.

  About two dozen of us came north from New York City: Raven, Tack, Julian, and me, and also Dani, Gordo, and Pike, plus fifteen or so others who are largely content to stay quiet and follow directions.

  And Alex. But not my Alex: a stranger who never smiles, doesn’t laugh, and barely speaks.

  The others, those who were using the warehouse outside White Plains as a homestead, scattered south or west. By now, the warehouse has no doubt been stripped and abandoned. It isn’t safe, not after Julian’s rescue. Julian Fineman is a symbol, and an important one. The zombies will hunt for him. They will want to string the symbol up, and make it bleed meaning, so that others will learn their lesson.

  We have to be extra careful.

  Hunter, Bram, Lu, and some of the other members of the old Rochester homestead are waiting for us just south of Poughkeepsie. It takes us nearly three days to cover the distance; we are forced to circumnavigate a half-dozen Valid cities.

  Then, abruptly, we arrive: The woods simply run out at the edge of an enormous expanse of concrete, webbed with thick fissures, and still marked very faintly with the ghostly white outlines of parking spaces. Cars, rusted, picked clean of various parts—rubber tires, bits of metal—still sit in the lot. They look small and faintly ridiculous, like ancient toys left out by a child.

  The parking lot flows like gray water in all directions, running up at last against a vast structure of steel and glass: an old shopping mall. A sign in looping cursive script, streaked white with bird shit, reads empire state plaza mall.

  The reunion is joyful. Tack, Raven, and I break into a run. Bram and Hunter are running too, and we intercept them in the middle of the parking lot. I jump on Hunter, laughing, and he throws his arms around me and lifts me off my feet. Everyone is shouting and talking at once.

  Hunter sets me down, finally, but I keep one arm locked around him, as though he might disappear. I reach out and wrap my other arm around Bram, who is shaking hands with Tack, and somehow we all end up piled together, jumping and shouting, our bodies interlaced, in the middle of the brilliant sunshine.

  “Well, well, well.” We break apart, turn around, and see Lu sauntering toward us. Her eyebrows are raised. She has let her hair grow long, and brushed it forward, so it pools over her shoulders. “Look what the cat dragged in.”

  It’s the first time I’ve felt truly happy in days.

  The short months we have spent apart have changed both Hunter and Bram. Bram is, against all odds, heavier. Hunter has new wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, although his smile is as boyish as ever.

  “How’s Sarah?” I say. “Is she here?”

  “Sarah stayed in Maryland,” Hunter says. “The homestead is thirty strong, and she won’t have to migrate. The resistance is trying to get word to her sister.”

  “What about Grandpa and the others?” I am breathless, and there is a tight feeling in my chest, as though I am still being squeezed.

  Bram and Hunter exchange a small glance.

  “Grandpa didn’t make it,” Hunter says shortly. “We buried him outside Baltimore.”

  Raven looks away, spits on the pavement.

  Bram adds quickly, “The others are fine.” He reaches out and places a finger on my procedural scar, the one he helped me fake to initiate me into the resistance. “Looking good,” he says, and winks.

  We decide to camp for the night. There’s clean water a short distance from the old mall, and a wreckage of houses and business offices that have yielded some usable supplies: a few cans of food still buried in the rubble; rusted tools; even a rifle, which Hunter found cradled in a pair of upturned deer hooves, under a mound of collapsed plaster. And one member of our group, Henley, a short, quiet woman with a long coil of gray hair, is running a fever. This will give her time to rest.

  By the end of the day, an argument breaks out about where to go next.

  “We could split up,” Raven says. She is squatting by the pit she has cleared for the fire, stoking the first, glowing splinters of flame with the charred end of a stick.

  “The larger our group, the safer we are,” Tack argues. He has pulled off his fleece and is wearing only a T-shirt, so the ropy muscles of his arms are visible. The days have been warming slowly, and the woods coming to life. We can feel the spring coming, like an animal stirring lightly in its sleep, exhaling hot breath.

  But it’s cold now, when the sun is low and the Wilds are swallowed by long purple shadows, when we are no longer moving.

  “Lena,” Raven barks out. I’ve been staring at the beginnings of the fire, watching flame curl around the mass of pine needles, twigs, and brittle leaves. “Go check on the tents, okay? It’ll be dark soon.”

  Raven has built the fire in a shallow gully that must once have been a stream, where it will be somewhat sheltered from the wind. She has avoided setting up camp too close to the mall and its haunted spaces; it looms above the tree line, all twisted black metal and empty eyes, like an alien spaceship run aground.

  Up the embankment a dozen yards, Julian is helping set up the tents. He has his back to me. He, too, is wearing only a T-shirt. Just three days in the Wilds have already changed him. His hair is tangled, and a leaf is caught just behind his left ear. He looks skinnier, although he has not had time to lose weight. This is just the effect of being here, in the open, with salvaged, too-big clothing, surrounded by savage wilderness, a perpetual reminder of the fragility of our survival.

  He is securing a rope to a tree, yanking it taut. Our tents are old and have been torn and patched repeat
edly. They don’t stand on their own. They must be propped up and strung between trees and coaxed to life, like sails in the wind.

  Gordo is hovering next to Julian, watching approvingly.

  “Do you need any help?” I pause a few feet away.

  Julian and Gordo turn around.

  “Lena!” Julian’s face lights up, then immediately falls again as he realizes I don’t intend to come closer. I brought him here, with me, to this strange new place, and now I have nothing to give him.

  “We’re okay,” Gordo says. His hair is bright red, and even though he’s no older than Tack, he has a beard that grows to the middle of his chest. “Just finishing up.”

  Julian straightens and wipes his palms on the back of his jeans. He hesitates, then comes down the embankment toward me, tucking a strand of hair behind his ear. “It’s cold,” he says when he’s a few feet away. “You should go down to the fire.”

  “I’m all right,” I say, but I put my hands into the arms of my wind breaker. The cold is inside me. Sitting next to the fire won’t help. “The tents look good.”

  “Thanks. I think I’m getting the hang of it.” His smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes.

  Three days: three days of strained conversation and silence. I know he is wondering what has changed, and whether it can be changed back. I know I’m hurting him. There are questions he is forcing himself not to ask, and things he is struggling not to say.

  He is giving me time. He is patient, and gentle.

  “You look pretty in this light,” he says.

  “You must be going blind.” I intend it as a joke, but my voice sounds harsh in the thin air.

  Julian shakes his head, frowning, and looks away. The leaf, a vivid yellow, is still tangled in his hair, behind his ear. In that moment, I’m desperate to reach out, remove it, and run my fingers through his hair and laugh with him about it. This is the Wilds, I’ll say. Did you ever imagine? And he’ll lace his fingers through mine and squeeze. He’ll say, What would I do without you?