“The most dangerous sicknesses are those that make us believe we are well.”
—Proverb 42, The Book of Shhh
It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected a cure. Everyone else in my family has had the procedure already. My older sister, Rachel, has been disease free for nine years now.
She’s been safe from love for so long, she says she can’t even remember its symptoms. I’m scheduled to have my procedure in exactly ninety-five days, on September 3.
Many people are afraid of the procedure. Some people even resist. But I’m not afraid. I can’t wait. I would have it done tomorrow, if I could, but you have to be at least eighteen, sometimes a little older, before the scientists will cure you. Otherwise the procedure won’t work correctly: People end up with brain damage, partial paralysis, blindness, or worse.
I don’t like to think that I’m still walking around with the disease running through my blood. Sometimes I swear I can feel it writhing in my veins like something spoiled, like sour milk. It makes me feel dirty. It reminds me of children throwing tantrums. It reminds me of resistance, of diseased girls dragging their nails on the pavement, tearing out their hair, their mouths dripping spit.
And of course it reminds me of my mother.
After the procedure I will be happy and safe forever.
That’s what everybody says, the scientists and my sister and Aunt Carol. I will have the procedure and then I’ll be paired with a boy the evaluators choose for me. In a few years, we’ll get married. Recently I’ve started having dreams about my wedding. In them I’m standing under a white canopy with flowers in my hair.
I’m holding hands with someone, but whenever I turn to look at him his face blurs, like a camera losing focus, and I can’t make out any features. But his hands are cool and dry, and my heart is beating steadily in my chest—and in my dream I know it will always beat out that same rhythm, not skip or jump or swirl or go faster, just womp, womp, womp, until I’m dead.
Safe, and free from pain.
Things weren’t always as good as they are now. In school we learned that in the old days, the dark days, people didn’t realize how deadly a disease love was. For a long time they even viewed it as a good thing, something to be celebrated and pursued. Of course that’s one of the reasons it’s so dangerous: It affects your mind so that you cannot think clearly, or make rational decisions about your own well-being. (That’s symptom number twelve, listed in the amor deliria nervosa section of the twelfth edition of The Safety, Health, and Happiness Handbook, or The Book of Shhh, as we call it.) Instead people back then named other diseases—stress, heart disease, anxiety, depression, hypertension, insomnia, bipolar disorder—never realizing that these were, in fact, only symptoms that in the majority of cases could be traced back to the effects of amor deliria nervosa.
Of course we aren’t yet totally free from the deliria in the United States. Until the procedure has been perfected, until it has been made safe for the under- eighteens, we will never be totally protected. It still moves around us with invisible, sweeping tentacles, choking us. I’ve seen countless uncureds dragged to their procedures, so racked and ravaged by love that they would rather tear their eyes out, or try to impale themselves on the barbed-wire fences outside of the laboratories, than be without it.
Several years ago on the day of her procedure, one girl managed to slip from her restraints and find her way to the laboratory roof. She dropped quickly, without screaming. For days afterward, they broadcast the image of the dead girl’s face on television to remind us of the dangers of the deliria. Her eyes were open and her neck was twisted at an unnatural angle, but from the way her cheek was resting against the pavement you might otherwise think she had lain down to take a nap.
Surprisingly, there was very little blood—just a small dark trickle at the corners of her mouth.
Ninety-five days, and then I’ll be safe. I’m nervous, of course. I wonder whether the procedure will hurt. I want to get it over with. It’s hard to be patient.
It’s hard not to be afraid while I’m still uncured, though so far the deliria hasn’t touched me yet.
Still, I worry. They say that in the old days, love drove people to madness. That’s bad enough. The Book of Shhh also tells stories of those who died because of love lost or never found, which is what terrifies me the most.
The deadliest of all deadly things: It kills you both when you have it and when you don’t.
“We must be constantly on guard against the Disease; the health of our nation, our people, our families, and our minds depends on constant vigilance.”
—“Basic Health Measures,” The Safety, Health, and Happiness Handbook, 12th edition
The smell of oranges has always reminded me of funerals. On the morning of my evaluation it is the smell that wakes me up. I look at the clock on the bedside table. It’s six o’clock.
The light is gray, the sunlight just strengthening along the walls of the bedroom I share with both of my cousin Marcia’s children. Grace, the younger one, is crouched on her twin bed, already dressed, watching me. She has a whole orange in one hand. She is trying to gnaw on it, like an apple, with her little-kid teeth. My stomach twists, and I have to close my eyes again to keep from remembering the hot, scratchy dress I was forced to wear when my mother died; to keep from remembering the murmur of voices, a large, rough hand passing me orange after orange to suck on, so I would stay quiet. At the funeral I ate four oranges, section by section, and when I was left with only a pile of peelings heaped on my lap I began to suck on those, the bitter taste of the pith helping to keep the tears away.
I open my eyes and Grace leans forward, the orange cupped in her outstretched palm.
“No, Gracie.” I push off my covers and stand up. My stomach is clenching and unclenching like a fist. “And you’re not supposed to eat the peel, you know.”
She continues blinking up at me with her big gray eyes, not saying anything. I sigh and sit down next to her.
“Here,” I say, and show her how to peel the orange using her nail, unwinding bright orange curls and dropping them in her lap, the whole time trying to hold my breath against the smell. She watches me in silence. When I’m finished she holds the orange, now unpeeled, in both hands, as though it’s a glass ball and she’s worried about breaking it.
I nudge her. “Go ahead. Eat now.” She just stares at it and I sigh and begin separating the sections for her, one by one. As I do I whisper, as gently as possible, “You know, the others would be nicer to you if you would speak once in a while.”
She doesn’t respond. Not that I really expect her to. My aunt Carol hasn’t heard her say a word in the whole six years and three months of Grace’s life—not a single syllable. Carol thinks there’s something wrong with her brain, but so far the doctors haven’t found it. “She’s as dumb as a rock,” Carol said matter-of-factly just the other day, watching Grace turn a bright-colored block over and over in her hands, as though it was beautiful and miraculous, as though she expected it to turn suddenly into something else.
I stand up and go toward the window, moving away from Grace and her big, staring eyes and thin, quick fingers. I feel sorry for her.
Marcia, Grace’s mother, is dead now. She always said she never wanted children in the first place. That’s one of the downsides of the procedure; in the absence of deliria nervosa, some people find parenting distasteful.
Thankfully, cases of full-blown detachment—where a mother or father is unable to bond normally, dutifully, and responsibly with his or her children, and winds up drowning them or sitting on their windpipes or beating them to death when they cry—are few.
But two was the number of children the evaluators decided on for Marcia. At the time it seemed like a good choice. Her family had earned high stabilization marks in the annual review. Her husband, a scientist, was well respected. They lived in an enormous house on Winter Street. Marcia cooked every meal from scratch, and taught piano lessons in her spare time, to keep busy.
But, of course, when Marcia’s husband was suspected of being a sympathizer, everything changed. Marcia and her children, Jenny and Grace, had to move back with Marcia’s mother, my aunt Carol, and people whispered and pointed at them everywhere they went. Grace wouldn’t remember that, of course; I’d be surprised if she has any memories of her parents at all.
Marcia’s husband disappeared before his trial could begin. It’s probably a good thing he did. The trials are mostly for show. Sympathizers are almost always executed. If not, they’re locked away in the Crypts to serve three life sentences, back-to-back. Marcia knew that, of course. Aunt Carol thinks that’s the reason her heart gave out only a few months after her husband’s disappearance, when she was indicted in his place. A day after she got served the papers she was walking down the street and—bam! Heart attack.
Hearts are fragile things. That’s why you have to be so careful.
It will be hot today, I can tell. It’s already hot in the bedroom, and when I crack the window to sweep out the smell of orange, the air outside feels as thick and heavy as a tongue. I suck in deeply, inhaling the clean smell of seaweed and damp wood, listening to the distant cries of the seagulls as they circle endlessly, somewhere beyond the low, gray, sloping buildings, over the bay. Outside, a car engine guns to life. The sound startles me, and I jump.
“Nervous about your evaluation?” I turn around. My aunt Carol is standing in the doorway, her hands folded.
“No,” I say, though this is a lie.
She smiles, just barely, a brief, flitting thing. “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. Take your shower and then I’ll help you with your hair. We can review your answers on the way.”
“Okay.” My aunt continues to stare at me. I squirm, digging my nails into the windowsill behind me. I’ve always hated being looked at. Of course, I’ll have to get used to it. During the exam there will be four evaluators staring at me for close to two hours. I’ll be wearing a flimsy plastic gown, semitranslucent, like the kind you get in hospitals, so that they can see my body.
“A seven or an eight, I would say,” my aunt says, puckering her lips. It’s a decent score and I’d be happy with it. “Though you won’t get more than a six if you don’t get cleaned up.”
Senior year is almost over, and the evaluation is the final test I will take. For the past four months I’ve had all my various board exams—math, science, oral and written proficiency, sociology and psychology and photography (a specialty elective)—and I should be getting my scores sometime in the next few weeks. I’m pretty sure I did well enough to get assigned to a college.
I’ve always been a decent student. The academic assessors will analyze my strengths and weaknesses, and then assign me to a school and a major.
The evaluation is the last step, so I can get paired. In the coming months the evaluators will send me a list of four or five approved matches. One of them will become my husband after I graduate college (assuming I pass all my boards. Girls who don’t pass get paired and married right out of high school). The evaluators will do their best to match me with people who received a similar score in the evaluations. As much as possible they try to avoid any huge disparities in intelligence, temperament, social background, and age. Of course you do hear occasional horror stories: cases where a poor eighteen- year-old girl is given to a wealthy eighty-year-old man.