Ugly for Life
They must have forewarned the minders about her return. All the other uglies were gone, off on some unscheduled school trip. But they hadn't found out in time to save her stuff. When Tally reached her old room, she saw that everything had been recycled. Clothes, bedding, furniture, the pictures on the wallscreen - it had all reverted back to Generic Ugly. It even looked as if somebody else had been briefly moved in, then out again, leaving a strange drink can in the fridge.
Tally sat down on the bed, too stunned to cry. She knew she would start bawling soon, probably losing it at the worst possible time and place. Now that the encounter with Dr. Cable was over, her anger and defiance were fading, and there was nothing left to sustain her. Her stuff was gone, her future was gone, only the view out the window remained.
She sat and stared, having to remind herself every few minutes that it had all really happened: the cruel pretties, the strange buildings on the edge of town, the terrible ultimatum from Dr. Cable. Tally felt as if some wild trick had gone horribly wrong. A weird and horrible new reality had opened up, devouring the world she knew and understood.
All she had left was the small duffel bag she'd packed for the hospital. She couldn't even remember carrying it all the way back here. Tally pulled out the few clothes, which she'd shoved in at random, and found Shay's note.
She read it, looking for clues.
Take the coaster straight past the gap,
until you find one that's long and flat.
Cold is the sea and watch for breaks.
At the second make the worst mistake.
Four days later take the side you despise,
and look in the flowers for fire-bug eyes.
Once they're found, enjoy the flight.
Then wait on the bald head until it's light.
Hardly any of it made sense to her, only bits and pieces. Shay had obviously meant to hide the meaning from anyone else reading it, using references only the two of them would understand. Her paranoia made a lot more sense now. Having met Dr. Cable, Tally could see why David wanted to keep his city - or camp, or whatever it was - a secret.
As Tally held the note, she realized that it was what Dr. Cable had wanted. The woman had been sitting across the room from the letter the whole time, but they'd never bothered to search her. That meant that Tally had kept Shay's secret, and that she still had something to bargain with.
It also meant that Special Circumstances could make mistakes.
Tally saw the other uglies come back in before lunchtime. As they filed off the school transport, all of them craned their necks to look up at her window. A few pointed before she ducked back into the shadows. Minutes later Tally could hear kids in the hall outside, growing silent as they passed her door.
A few even giggled, as new uglies always did when tried to keep quiet.
Were theylaughing at her?
Her rumbling stomach reminded Tally that she hadn't eaten breakfast, or dinner the night before. You weren't supposed to have food or water for sixteen hours before the operation. She was starving.
But she stayed in her room until lunch was over. She couldn't face a cafeteria full of uglies watching her every move, wondering what she had done to deserve her still-ugly face. When she couldn't stand her hunger anymore, Tally stole upstairs to the roof deck, where they put out leftovers for whoever wanted them.
A few uglies saw her in the hall. They clammed up and stood aside as Tally passed, as if she were contagious. What had the minders told them? Tally wondered. That she'd pulled one too many tricks?
That she was inoperable, an ugly-for-life? Or just that she was a Special Circumstance?
Everywhere she went, eyes looked away, but it was the mostvisible she'd ever felt.
A plate was set out for her on the roof deck, sealed in plastic wrap, her name stuck to it. Someone had noticed that she hadn't eaten. And, of course, everyone would realize that she was in hiding.
The sight of the plate of food, wilted and solitary, made the suppressed tears well up in her eyes. Tally's throat burned as if she'd swallowed something sharp, and it was all she could do to get back to her room before she burst into loud, jagged sobs.
When she got there, Tally found that she hadn't forgotten to bring the plate. She ate while she cried, tasting the salt of her tears in every bite.
Her parents came by about an hour later.
Ellie swept in first, gathering Tally into a hug that emptied her lungs and lifted her feet off the ground.
"Tally, my poor baby!"
"Now don't injure the girl, Ellie. She's had a tough day."
Even without oxygen, it felt good inside the crushing embrace. Ellie always smelled just right, like a mom, and Tally always felt like a littlie in her arms. Released after what was probably a solid minute, but still too soon, Tally stepped back, hoping that she wouldn't cry again. She looked at her parents sheepishly, wondering what they must be thinking. She felt like a total failure. "I didn't know you guys were coming."
"Of course we came," Ellie said.
Sol shook his head. "I've never heard of anything like this happening. It's ridiculous. And we'll get to the bottom of it, don't you worry!"
Tally felt a weight lift from her shoulders. Finally there was someone else on her side. Her father's middle-pretty eyes twinkled with calm certainty. There was no question that he would sort everything out.
"What did they tell you?" Tally asked.
Sol gestured, and Tally sat down on the bed. Ellie settled beside her while he paced back and forth across the small room.
"Well, they told us about this Shay girl. Sounds like she's a lot of trouble."
"Sol!" Ellie interrupted. "The poor girl's missing."
"Sounds like she wants to be missing."
Her mother pursed her lips in silence.
"It's not her fault, Sol," Tally said. "She just didn't want to turn pretty."
"So, she's an independent thinker. Fine. But she should have had better sense than to drag someone else down with her."
"She didn't drag me anywhere. I'm right here." Tally looked out the window at the familiar view of New Pretty Town. "Where I'll be forever, apparently."
"Now, now," Ellie said. "They said that once you've helped them find this Shay girl, everything should go ahead as normal."
"It won't make any difference if the operation happens a few days late. It'll be a great story when you're old." Sol chuckled.
Tally bit her lip. "I don't think I can help them."
"Well, you just do your best," Ellie said.
"But I can't. I mean, I promised Shay that I wouldn't tell anyone her plans."
They were silent for a moment.
Sol sat down, taking one of her hands in his. They felt so warm and strong, almost as wrinkled as a crumbly's from days spent working in his wood shop. Tally realized that she hadn't visited her parents since the week of summer break, when she'd mostly been anxious to get back to hanging out with Shay full-time. But it was good to see them now.
"Tally, we all make promises when we're little. That's part of being an ugly - everything's exciting and intense and important, but you have to grow out of it. After all, you don't owe this girl anything. She's done nothing but cause you trouble."
Ellie took her other hand. "And you'll only be helping her, Tally. Who knows where she is now and what's happening to her? I'm surprised you let her run off like that. Don't you know how dangerous it is out there?"
Tally found herself nodding. Looking into Sol's and Ellie's faces, everything seemed so clear. Maybe cooperating with Dr. Cable would really be helping Shay, and would set things back on course for herself. But the thought of Dr. Cable made her wince. "You should have seen these people. The ones investigating Shay? They look like..."
Sol laughed. "I guess it would be a bit of a shock at your age, Tally. But of course we old folks know all about Special Circumstances. They may be tough, but they're just doing their jobs, you know. It's a tough world out there."
Tally sighed. Maybe her reluctance was just because the cruel pretties had scared her so much. "Have you ever met them? I couldn't believe the way they looked."
Ellie furrowed her brow. "Well, I can't say I've actuallymet one."
Sol frowned, then broke into a laugh. "Well, you wouldn'twant to meet one, Ellie. And Tally, if you do the right thing now, you probably won't ever meet one again. That sort of business is something we can all do without."
Tally looked at her father, and for a moment she saw something other than wisdom and confidence in his expression. It was almost too easy the way Sol laughed off Special Circumstances, dismissing everything that went on outside the city. For the first time in her life, Tally found herself listening to a middle pretty without being completely reassured, a realization that made her dizzy. And she couldn't shake the thought that Sol knew nothing about the outside world Shay had fled to.
Maybe most people just didn'twant to know. Tally had been taught all about the Rusties and early history, but at school they never said a single thing about people living outside the cities right now, people like David. Until she'd met Shay, Tally had never thought about it either.
But she couldn't dismiss the whole thing the way her father had.
And she had made Shay a solemn promise. Even if she was just an ugly, a promise was a promise.
"Guys, I'm going to have to think about this."
For a moment, an awkward silence filled the room. She'd said something they hadn't expected.
Then Ellie laughed and patted her hand. "Well, of course you do, Tally."
Sol nodded, back in command. "We know you'll do the right thing."
"Sure. But in the meantime," Tally said, "maybe I could come home with you?"
Her parents shared another look of surprise.
"I mean, it's really weird being here now. Everyone knows that I...I'm not scheduled for classes anymore, so it would just be like coming home for autumn break, but a little early."
Sol recovered first, and patted her shoulder. "Now, Tally, don't you think it would be even stranger for you out in Crumblyville? I mean, there's no other kids out there this time of year."
"You're much better off here with the other children, darling," Ellie added. "You're only a few months older than some of them. And goodness, we don't have your room ready at all!"
"I don't care. Nothing could be worse than this," Tally said.
"Oh, just order up some more clothes, and get that wallscreen back the way you want it," Sol said.
"I didn't mean the room - "
"In any case," Ellie interrupted, "why make a fuss? This'll all be over in no time. Just have a nice chat with Special Circumstances, tell them everything, and you'll be headed where you really want to be."
They all looked out the window at the towers of New Pretty Town.
"I guess so."
"Sweetheart," Ellie said, patting her leg, "what other choice do you have?"