Raven – Lauren Oliver

Here are the top three things I’ve learned in my twenty-two years on the planet: 1) Never wipe your butt with poison ivy. 2) People are like ants: Just a few of them give all the orders. And most of them spend their lives getting squashed. 3) There are no happy endings, only breaks in the regular action. Of all of them, number three is really the only one you have to keep in mind. “This is stupid,” Tack says. “We shouldn’t be doing this.” I don’t bother replying. He’s right, anyway. This is stupid, and we shouldn’t be doing it. But we are. “If anything goes wrong, we abort,” Tack says. “I mean anything. I won’t miss out on Christmas for this shit.” “Christmas” is code for the next big mission.

We’ve only heard rumors about it so far. We don’t know when, and we don’t know where. All we know is that it’s coming. I feel a sudden wave of nausea, a tide rolling up to my throat, and swallow it. “Nothing will go wrong,” I say, even though of course I can’t know that. That’s what I said about migration this year. Nobody dies, I said, over and over, like a prayer. I guess God wasn’t listening. “Border patrol,” I say, as though Tack can’t see the solid cement wall, darkened by rain, and the checkpoints ahead. He eases on the brakes.

The van is like an old man: always hacking and shuddering and taking forever to do what you want it to. But as long as it gets us where it needs to go. “We could have been halfway to Canada by now,” Tack says, which is, of course, an exaggeration. That’s how I know he’s upset. Tack hardly ever exaggerates. He says exactly what he means, only when he means it. It’s one of the reasons I love him. We get through the border without any trouble. Eight years of living in the Wilds and four of working actively with the resistance, and I’ve learned that half the country’s security is for show. It’s all a big song and dance, a stage production: a way of keeping the tiny ants in line, cowed by fear, heads bent to the dirt.

Half the guards are barely trained. Half the walls unpatrolled. But it’s the image that matters, the impression of constant surveillance, of containment. Ants are driven by fear. Tack is quiet as we drive down the West Side Highway, empty of traffic. The river and the sky are the same slate-gray color, and the rain sends sheets of water across the road. The clouds have the same low-down, swollen-belly look they did on the day, years ago, when I Crossed. The day I found her. I still can’t say her name. I used to be an ant too.

Back when I lived before, back when I had a different name, back when the only scar I had was a small, thin fissure on my abdomen, where the doctors had had to remove my appendix. I can still remember my old house: the gauzy curtains that smelled like gardenias and plastic; the carpet sprinkled with baking soda and vacuumed daily; the quiet, heavy as a hand. My festa hand.ather liked quiet. Noise made the buzzing start up in his brain—like a storm of bees, he once told me. The louder the buzzing got, the more he couldn’t think. The more he couldn’t think, the angrier he got. Until he had to break, he had to stop it, he had to smash back all that sound with a fist, until there was quiet again. We were a whirlpool, circling constantly around him, trying to keep the buzzing from coming back. I almost drowned in that house.

“Raven?” I turn to Tack, realizing he’s been trying to get my attention. “What?” I say, a little too sharply. “Here?” Tack has slowed down in front of a parking lot on Twenty-Fourth Street, unattended, empty except for two cars. The street is lined with identical apartments, stiff as sentinels, blinds pulled down against the rain: a whole street of darkened red brick and bird-shit-stained front steps and blindness. “We’re early,” he says. “She had seven hours on us, at least,” I say. “Still, if she was walking . ” He shrugs. “So we wait,” I say. “Turn left on Nineteenth.

I want to scout the block.” Northeastern Medical, the clinic where Julian Fineman is scheduled to die, is on Eighteenth Street; we can thank the radio for letting that little detail slip. I’m surprised there’s not more press. Then again, they might be inside already, angling for a good view. Tack circles the block twice—not enough times to look suspicious, in case anyone is watching—and we talk over the plan together. He helps me think it out, then parks and waits for me while I walk the perimeter on foot, scanning the entrances and the exits, checking out nearby buildings, potential pitfalls, dead ends, and hiding places. Several times I have to stop, breathe, struggle not to puke. “Did you find a place for the backpack?” Tack asks when I climb back into the van. I nod. He inches carefully into nonexistent traffic.

Another thing I love about Tack: how careful he is. Meticulous, in some ways. And in others, totally free—quick to laugh, full of crazy ideas. Hardly anyone gets to see that side of him. How he speaks in a rush when he’s excited. How he likes to say the word love, over and over. Love. I love you. I’ll always love you, my love. You are the love of my life.

We keep these things for each other, the deepest parts. In valid cities it’s those places that get stomped out firglemped oust, even before the cure—the wounds and weirdness and the pieces we carry like misshapen gifts, waiting for a person to welcome them. Love is still hard for me to say sometimes, even when we’re alone, even after all this time. So we’ve made up our own language, in the way we press chest to chest and the way we touch noses when we kiss. I get to say his name—his real name. A name that brings a taste of sunshine, and of sunshine raising mist from the trees, and of mist reaching toward the sky. His secret name, which belongs to me, and to him, and to no one else. Michael. Did I ever tell her I loved her? I don’t know. I can’t remember.

I thought it every day. I’m sorry. The nausea is near constant now. It rolls me up and down. Thinking of her is too much, and the acid comes up from my stomach and burns the back of my throat. “Pull over,” I tell Tack. I puke behind a car that looks like it hasn’t been moved in years, next to a small pharmacy, its battered blue awning pooling the rain. The vertical neon sign advertising consultation and diagnosis is dark, but a small orange sign hangs beyond the grungy door: open. For a second I debate going in, making up some story, trying to get another test, just to be sure. But it’s too risky, and I need to stay focused on Lena.

I tent my jacket above my head as I run back to the van, feeling a little better now that I’ve thrown up. The gutters are running with trash, whipping small bits of paper and disposable cups into the drain. I hate the city. Wish I was out with the rest of the group at the warehouse, packing up, counting heads, measuring supplies. Wish I was anywhere, really—fighting through the Wilds, which are always changing, always growing; fighting the Scavengers, even. Anywhere but this towering gray city, where even the sky is held at bay. Where we are as small as ants. The van smells like mildew and tobacco and, weirdly, like peanut butter. I crack open a window. “Wh teRoman”>at was that about?” Tack asks.

“Didn’t feel good,” I say, staring straight ahead, willing him not to ask any more questions. Two straight weeks of getting sick in the mornings. At first I thought it was just the stress—Lena captured, the whole plan out of our hands. Waiting. Watching. Hoping she’d get it right. Patience was never my strong suit. “You don’t look good,” he says. And then, “What’s going on, Raven? Are you—?” “I’m fine,” I say quickly. “My stomach’s just fucked up, that’s all.

It’s that goddamn jerky we’ve been eating.” Tack relaxes a little. He stops white-knuckling the wheel, and the muscle in his jaw goes still. I feel a wave of guilt, a surge even worse than the nausea. Lying is a defense, like a porcupine’s quills or a bear’s claws. And my time in the Wilds has made me very good at it. But I don’t like lying to Tack. He’s practically the only person I have left. “Is she yours?” Those were Tack’s first words to me. I can still see him the way he was then: skinnier, even, than he is now.

Big hands. Two nose rings. Eyes half-closed but alert, like a lizard’s; hair falling practically to the bridge of his nose. Sitting in the corner of the sickroom, hands and ankles bound. Pockmarked with mosquito bites and bloody with scratches. I’d been in the Wilds for only a month. I was lucky, and found my way to a homestead within six hours of crossing fromYarmouth. Double lucky, actually. Only a week later, the homestead relocated, moved into New Hampshire, just south of Rochester. Rumors of a raid on the Wilds had everyone jumpy.

I’d made it just in time. I had to. Blue was barely alive, and I had no way of feeding her. I’d run in a panic, blind to anything but the need to disappear; had no supplies, no knowledge, no hope of making it on my own. My shoes were too tight and left raw, bloody blisters the size of quarters after only a few hours of walking. I didn’t know how to navigate. Didn’t keep track of where I was going. Got thirsty but didn’t think of sipping from a stream because I was worried it would make me sick. Idiot. If I hadn’t wandered into the homestead, I would have died.

And she would have too. Little baby Blue. I hadn’t believed in God since I was a little kid and saw my dad take my mom by the hair and slam her face-first into the kitchen counter, watched a spray of blood on the linoleum and saw one of her teeth skitter across the floor, white and shiny as a die. I knew then there was no one watching over us. But my first night in the Wilds, when the forest opened up like a jaw and I saw lights glowing fuzzily in the darkness, small halos beyond the rain, and heard voicekin heard s—when Grandma put a blanket around my shoulders, and Mari, twenty-two years old, who’d just given birth to her second stillborn, took Blue in her arms and to her breast and cried silently the whole time she was suckling, when I knew we’d both been saved—that night, I thought I knew God, just for a second. “I’m not supposed to talk to you,” I said to Tack. Only I didn’t know his name then. He didn’t have a name then. Didn’t have a group, or a homestead; didn’t belong anywhere. We called him the Thief.

The Thief laughed. “You aren’t, huh? What about all the freedom on the other side of the walls?” “You’re a Scavenger,” I said, even though I hardly knew what the term meant. I hadn’t seen one yet, thank God, and wouldn’t for two years, during a relocation that wiped out half our number. “I don’t want to talk to you.” He flinched. “I’m not a Scavenger.” Then he lifted his chin and stared at me. That was the first time I realized he was probably my age. His clothes, the dirtiness of him, his attitude—I’d assumed he was older. “I’m not anything.

” “You’re a thief,” I said, looking away. Only a month in the Wilds—I hadn’t even begun to shake my fear of them. Boys. He shrugged. “I’m a survivor.” “You were stealing our food,” I said. I didn’t add: Everyone thought I was to blame. “That makes you a Scavenger in my opinion.” For the past several weeks, the homesteaders had noticed supplies gone missing, some traps empty that should have been full, a jug or two of clean water mysteriously emptied overnight. The group had grown tense, suspicious, and I became the prime suspect.

I was the newest, after all. No one knew who I was or where I’d come from or what I was about, and the thefts had started soon after I’d arrived with Blue. So this guy named Gray, who was kind of the group leader at the time, had started surveillance without telling anyone. In the middle of the night he got out of bed and circulated to all the snares and traps, checked the storerooms, made sure everyone from the homestead was exactly where they should be. On the second day of his rounds, he caught Tack wrestling a rabbit out of one of our traps. Stealing. Tack nearly put a knife through Gray, trying to escape. But he missed and just sliced off a chunk of Gray’s shoulder blade, and Gray managed to shout and pin Tack to the ground, and since then he’d been our prisoner and everyone had been debating what to do about him. “Welcome to freedom,” he said. And he spit.

Right next to his feet, on the ground. “Everyone has an opinion.”

.

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