Pandemonium – Lauren Oliver

Alex and I are lying together on a blanket in the backyard of 37 Brooks. The trees look larger and darker than usual. The leaves are almost black, knitted so tightly together they blot out the sky. “It probably wasn’t the best day for a picnic,” Alex says, and just then I realize that yes, of course, we haven’t eaten any of the food we brought. There’s a basket at the foot of the blanket, filled with half-rotten fruit, swarmed by tiny black ants. “Why not?” I say. We are staring at the web of leaves above us, thick as a wall. “Because it’s snowing.” Alex laughs. And again I realize he’s right: It is snowing, thick flakes the color of ash swirling all around us. It’s freezing cold, too. My breath comes in clouds, and I press against him, trying to stay warm. “Give me your arm,” I say, but Alex doesn’t respond. I try to move into the space between his arm and his chest but his body is rigid, unyielding. “Alex,” I say.

“Come on, I’m cold.” “I’m cold,” he parrots, from lips that barely move. They are blue, and cracked. He is staring at the leaves without blinking. “Look at me,” I say, but he doesn’t turn his head, doesn’t blink, doesn’t move at all. A hysterical feeling is building inside me, a shrieking voice saying wrong, wrong, wrong, and I sit up and place my hand on Alex’s chest, as cold as ice. “Alex,” I say, and then, a short scream: “Alex!” “Lena Morgan Jones!” I snap into awareness, to a muted chorus of giggles. Mrs. Fierstein, the twelfth-grade science teacher at Quincy Edwards High School for Girls in Brooklyn, Section 5, District 17, is glaring at me. This is the third time I’ve fallen asleep in her class this week.

“Since you seem to find the Creation of the Natural Order so exhausting,” she says, “might I suggest a trip to the principal’s office to wake you up?” “No!” I burst out, louder than I intended to, provoking a new round of giggles from the other girls in my class. I’ve been enrolled at Edwards since just after winter break—only a little more than two months—and already I’ve been labeled the Number-One Weirdo. People avoid me like I have a disease—like I have the disease. If only they knew. “This is your final warning, Miss Jones,” Mrs. Fierstein says. “Do you understand?” “It won’t happen again,” I say, trying to look obedient and contrite. I’m pushing aside the memory of my nightmare, pushing aside thoughts of Alex, pushing aside thoughts of Hana and my old school, push, push, push, like Raven taught me to do. The old life is dead. Mrs.

Fierstein gives me a final stare—meant to intimidate me, I guess—and turns back to the board, returning to her lecture on the divine energy of electrons. The old Lena would have been terrified of a teacher like Mrs. Fierstein. She’s old, and mean, and looks like a cross between a frog and a pit bull. She’s one of those people who makes the cure seem redundant—it’s impossible to imagine that she would ever be capable of loving, even without the procedure. But the old Lena is dead too. I buried her. I left her beyond a fence, behind a wall of smoke and flame. then In the beginning, there is fire. Fire in my legs and lungs; fire tearing through every nerve and cell in my body.

That’s how I am born again, in pain: I emerge from the suffocating heat and the darkness. I force my way through a black, wet space of strange noises and smells. I run, and when I can no longer run, I limp, and when I can’t do that, I crawl, inch by inch, digging my fingernails into the soil, like a worm sliding across the overgrown surface of this strange new wilderness. I bleed, too, when I am born. I’m not sure how far I’ve traveled into the Wilds, and how long I’ve been pushing deeper and deeper into the woods, when I realize I’ve been hit. At least one regulator must have clipped me while I was climbing the fence. A bullet has skimmed me on the side, just below my armpit, and my T-shirt is wet with blood. I’m lucky, though. The wound is shallow, but seeing all the blood, the missing skin, makes everything real: this new place, this monstrous, massive growth everywhere, what has happened, what I have left. What has been taken from me.

There is nothing in my stomach, but I throw up anyway. I cough up air and spit bile into the flat, shiny leaves on either side of me. Birds twitter above me. An animal, coming to investigate, scurries quickly back into the tangle of growth. Think, think. Alex. Think of what Alex would do. Alex is here, right here. Imagine. I take off my shirt, rip off the hem, and tie the cleanest bit tightly around my chest so it presses against my wound and helps stanch the bleeding.

I have no idea where I am or where I’m going. My only thought is to move, keep going, deeper and deeper, away from the fences and the world of dogs and guns and— Alex. No. Alex is here. You have to imagine. Step by step, fighting thorns, bees, mosquitoes; snapping back thick, broad branches; clouds of gnats, mists hovering in the air. At one point, I reach a river: I am so weak, I am nearly taken under by its current. At night, driving rain, fierce and cold: huddled between the roots of an enormous oak, while around me unseen animals scream and pant and rattle through the darkness. I’m too terrified to sleep; if I sleep, I’ll die. I am not born all at once, the new Lena.

Step by step—and then, inch by inch. Crawling, insides curled into dust, mouth full of the taste of smoke. Fingernail by fingernail, like a worm. That is how she comes into the world, the new Lena. When I can no longer go forward, even by an inch, I lay my head on the ground and wait to die. I’m too tired to be frightened. Above me is blackness, and all around me is blackness, and the forest sounds are a symphony to sing me out of this world. I am already at my funeral. I am being lowered into a narrow, dark space, and my aunt Carol is there, and Hana, and my mother and sister and even my long-dead father. They are all watching my body descend into the grave, and they are singing.

I am in a black tunnel filled with mist, and I am not afraid. Alex is waiting for me on the other side; Alex standing, smiling, bathed in sunlight. Alex reaching out his arms to me, calling— Hey. Hey. Wake up. “Hey. Wake up. Come on, come on, come on.” The voice pulls me back from the tunnel, and for a moment I’m horribly disappointed when I open my eyes and see not Alex’s face, but some other face, sharp and unfamiliar. I can’t think; the world is all fractured.

Black hair, a pointed nose, bright green eyes—pieces of a puzzle I can’t make sense of. “Come on, that’s right, stay with me. Bram, where the hell is that water?” A hand under my neck, and then, suddenly, salvation. A sensation of ice, and liquid sliding: water filling my mouth, my throat, pouring over my chin, melting away the dust, the taste of fire. First I cough, choke, almost cry. Then I swallow, gulp, suck, while the hand stays under my neck, and the voice keeps whispering encouragement. “That’s right. Have as much as you need. You’re all right. You’re safe now.

” Black hair, loose, a tent around me: a woman. No, a girl—a girl with a thin, tight mouth, and creases at the corners of her eyes, and hands as rough as willow, as big as baskets. I think, Thank you. I think, Mother. “You’re safe. It’s okay. You’re okay.” That’s how babies are born, after all: cradled in someone else’s arms, sucking, helpless. After that, the fever pulls me under again. My waking moments are few, and my impressions disjointed.

More hands, and more voices; I am lifted; a kaleidoscope of green above me, and fractal patterns in the sky. Later there is the smell of campfire, and something cold and wet pressed against my skin, smoke and hushed voices, searing pain in my side, then ice, relief. Softness sliding against my legs. In between are dreams unlike any I’ve ever had before. They are full of explosions and violence: dreams of skin melting and skeletons charred to black bits. Alex never comes to me again. He has gone ahead of me and disappeared beyond the tunnel. Almost every time I wake she is there, the black-haired girl, urging me to drink water, or pressing a cool towel to my forehead. Her hands smell like smoke and cedar. And beneath it all, beneath the rhythm of the waking and sleeping, the fever and the chills, is the word she repeats, again and again, so it weaves its way into my dreams, begins to push back some of the darkness there, draws me up out of the drowning: Safe.

Safe. Safe. You’re safe now. The fever breaks, finally, after I don’t know how long, and at last I float into consciousness on the back of that word, gently, softly, like riding a single wave all the way into the shore. Before I even open my eyes, I’m conscious of plates banging together, the smell of something frying, and the murmur of voices. My first thought is that I’m at home, in Aunt Carol’s house, and she’s about to call me down for breakfast—a morning like any other. Then the memories—the flight with Alex, the botched escape, my days and nights alone in the Wilds—come slamming back, and I snap my eyes open, trying to sit up. My body won’t obey me, though. I can’t do more than lift my head; I feel as though I’ve been encased in stone. The black-haired girl, the one who must have found me and brought me here—wherever here is —stands in the corner, next to a large stone sink.

She whips around when she hears me shift in my bed. “Easy,” she says. She brings her hands out of the sink, wet to the elbow. Her face is sharp, extremely alert, like an animal’s. Her teeth are small, too small for her mouth, and slightly crooked. She crosses the room, squats next to the bed. “You’ve been out for a whole day.” “Where am I?” I croak. My voice is a rasp, barely recognizable as my own. “Home base,” she says.

She is watching me closely. “That’s what we call it, anyway.” “No, I mean—” I’m struggling to piece together what happened after I climbed the fence. All I can think of is Alex. “I mean, is this the Wilds?” An expression—of suspicion, possibly—passes quickly over her face. “We’re in a free zone, yes,” she says carefully, then stands and without another word moves away from the bed, disappearing through a darkened doorway. From deeper inside the building I can hear voices indistinctly. I feel a brief pang of fear, wonder if I’ve been wrong to mention the Wilds, wonder if these people are safe. I’ve never heard anyone call unregulated land a “free zone” before. But no.

Whoever they are, they must be on my side; they saved me, have had me completely at their mercy for days. I manage to haul myself into a half-seated position, propping my head up against the hard stone wall behind me. The whole room is stone: rough stone floors, stone walls on which, in places, a thin film of black mold is growing, an old-fashioned stone basin fitted with a rusted faucet that clearly hasn’t functioned in years. I’m lying on a hard, narrow cot, covered with ratty quilts. This, in addition to a few tin buckets in the corner underneath the defunct sink, and a single wooden chair, is the room’s only furniture. There are no windows in my room, and no lights, either—just two emergency lanterns, battery-operated, which fill the room with a weak bluish light. On one wall is tacked a small wooden cross with the figure of a man suspended in its middle. I recognize the symbol—it’s a cross from one of the old religions, from the time before the cure, although I can’t remember which one now. I have a sudden flashback to junior-year American history and Mrs. Dernler glaring at us from behind her enormous glasses, jabbing the open textbook with her finger, saying, “You see? You see? These old religions, stained everywhere with love.

They reeked of deliria; they bled it.” And of course at the time it seemed terrible, and true. Love, the deadliest of all deadly things. Love, it kills you. Alex. Both when you have it… Alex. And when you don’t. Alex. “You were half-dead when we found you,” the black-haired girl says matter-of-factly as she reenters the room. She’s holding an earthenware bowl with both hands, carefully.

“More than half. We didn’t think you were going to make it. I thought we should at least try.” She gives me a doubtful look, as though she’s not sure I’ve been worth the effort, and for a moment I think of my cousin Jenny, the way she used to stand with her hands on her hips, scrutinizing me, and I have to close my eyes quickly to keep all of it from rushing back—the flood of images, memories, from a life that is now dead. “Thank you,” I say. She shrugs, but says, “You’re welcome,” and seems to mean it. She draws the wooden chair to the side of the bed and sits. Her hair is long and knotted above her left ear. Behind it, she has the mark of the procedure—a three-pronged scar—just like Alex did. But she cannot be cured; she is here, on the other side of the fence: an Invalid.

I try to sit up all the way but have to lean back after only a few seconds of struggle, exhausted. I feel like a puppet halfway come to life. There’s a searing pain behind my eyes, too, and when I look down I see my skin is still crisscrossed with a web of cuts and scrapes and scratches, insect bites and scabs. The bowl the girl is holding is full of mostly clear broth, tinged with just a bit of green. She starts to pass it to me, then hesitates. “Can you hold it?” “Of course I can hold it,” I say, more sharply than I’d meant to. The bowl is heavier than I thought it would be. I have trouble lifting it to my mouth, but I do, finally. My throat feels as raw as sandpaper and the broth is heaven against it, and even though it has a weird mossy aftertaste, I find myself gulping and slurping down the whole bowl. “Slowly,” the girl says, but I can’t stop.

Suddenly hunger yawns open inside me, black and endless and all-consuming. As soon as the broth is gone I’m desperate for more, even though my stomach starts cramping right away. “You’ll make yourself sick,” the girl says, shaking her head, and takes the empty bowl from me. “Is there any more?” I croak. “In a little while,” she says. “Please.” The hunger is a snake; it is lashing at the pit of my stomach, eating me from the inside out. She sighs, stands, and disappears through the darkened doorway. I think I hear a crescendo in the hallway voices, a swelling of sound. Then, abruptly, silence.

The black-haired girl returns with a second bowl of broth. I take it from her and she sits again, drawing her knees up to her chest, like a kid would. Her knees are bony and brown. “So,” she says, “where did you cross from?” When I hesitate, she says, “That’s okay. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.” “No, no. It’s fine.” I sip from this bowl of broth more slowly, savoring its strange, earthy quality: as though it has been stewed with stones. For all I know, it has been. Alex told me once that Invalids—the people who live in the Wilds—have learned to make do with only the barest provisions.

“I came over from Portland.” Too soon the bowl is empty again, even though the snake in my stomach is still lashing. “Where are we now?” “A few miles east of Rochester,” she says. “Rochester, New Hampshire?” I ask. She smirks. “Yup. You must have been hoofing it. How long were you out on your own?” “I don’t know.” I rest my head against the wall. Rochester, New Hampshire.

I must have looped around the northern border when I was lost in the Wilds: I’ve ended up sixty miles southwest of Portland. I’m exhausted again, even though I’ve been sleeping for days. “I lost track of time.” “Pretty ballsy of you,” she says. I’m not really sure what “ballsy” means, but I can guess. “How did you cross?” “It wasn’t—it wasn’t just me,” I say, and the snake lashes, seizes up. “I mean, it wasn’t supposed to be just me.” “You were with somebody else?” She’s staring at me penetratingly again, her eyes almost as dark as her hair. “A friend?” I don’t know how to correct her. My best friend.

My boy-friend. My love. I’m still not totally comfortable with that word, and it seems almost sacrilegious, so instead I just nod. “What happened?” she asks, a little more softly. “He—he didn’t make it.” Her eyes flash with understanding when I say “he”: If we were coming from Portland together, from a place of segregation, we must have been more than just friends. Thankfully she doesn’t push it. “We made it all the way to the border fence. But then the regulators and the guards…” The pain in my stomach intensifies. “There were too many of them.

” She stands abruptly and retrieves one of the water-spotted tin buckets from the corner, places it next to the bed, and sits again. “We heard rumors,” she says shortly. “Stories of a big escape in Portland, lots of police involvement, a big cover-up.” “So you know about it?” I try once again to sit up all the way, but the cramping doubles me back against the wall. “Are they saying what happened to … to my friend?” I ask the question even though I know. Of course I know. I saw him standing there, covered in blood, as they descended on him, swarmed him, like the black ants in my dream. The girl doesn’t answer, just folds her mouth into a tight line and shakes her head. She doesn’t have to say anything else—her meaning is clear. It’s written in the pity on her face.

The snake uncoils fully and begins thrashing. I close my eyes. Alex, Alex, Alex: my reason for everything, my new life, the promise of something better—gone, blown away into ash. Nothing will ever be okay again. “I was hoping…” I let out a little gasp as that terrible, lashing thing in my stomach comes riding toward my throat on a surge of sickness. She sighs again and I hear her stand up, scrape the chair away from the bed. “I think—” I can barely force the words out; I’m trying to swallow back the nausea. “I think I’m going to—” And then I’m tipping over the bed, throwing up into the bucket she has placed beside me, my body gripped by waves of sickness. “I knew you would make yourself sick,” the girl says, shaking her head. Then she disappears into the dark hallway.

A second later, she pops her head back into the room. “I’m Raven, by the way.” “Lena,” I say, and the word brings with it a new round of vomiting. “Lena,” she repeats. She raps on the wall once with her knuckles. “Welcome to the Wilds.” Then she disappears, and I am left with the bucket.

.

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