Tally picked it up. The old leather felt strange in her hands, sending her mind back to the worn textures of the Smoke. She opened it and pulled out a sheet of paper. A small, skittering sound came from the stone floor, and she realized something tiny had fallen from the pouch - two things, in fact. Tally knelt down and squinted, feeling the cool stone with her still burning palms until she found two little white pills.
She stared at them, feeling a memory at the edge of her awareness.
The room darkened, and she looked up. Zane was in the doorway, panting, his eyes flashing in the gloom. "Gee. Thanks for waiting, Tally."
She didn't say anything. He took a step in and knelt beside her.
"You okay?" His hand came to rest on her shoulder. "Didn't hit your head in that fall, did you?"
"No. Just cleared it up. I found this." She handed the sheet of paper to Zane, who smoothed it out and held it up to the light streaming through the door. It was covered with an almost unreadable scrawl.
Tally looked down again at the pills in her hand. Tiny and white, they looked like a pair of purgers. But Tally was pretty sure they would do more than burn calories. She remembered something...
Zane slowly lowered the sheet of paper, his eyes wide. "It's a letter, and it's addressed to you."
"A letter? Who from?"
"You, Tally." His voice echoed softly from the metal walls of the shack. "It's from you."
NOTE TO SELF
Or I guess another way to say it is, I'm you - Tally Youngblood. Same person. But if you're reading this letter, then we're also two different people. At least, that's what us New Smokies are guessing has happened by now. You've been changed. That's why I'm writing to you.
I wonder if you remember writing these words. (Actually, I'm telling Shay to write them.
She did handwriting in school.) Do they seem like a diary entry from back when you were a littlie, or like someone else's diary altogether?
If you can't remember writing this letter at all, then we're both in big trouble. Especially me. Because not being remembered by myself would mean that the me who wrote this letter has been erased somehow. Ouch. And maybe that means I'm dead, sort of. So please try to remember, at least.
Tally paused and traced the scrawled words with one finger, trying to remember dictating them.
Shay liked to demonstrate how they could make letters with a stylus, one of the tricks she'd learned in preparation for their trip to the Smoke. She had left a note for Tally telling how to follow her there. But was this really Shay's handwriting?
More important, were the words true? Tally really couldn't remember. She took a breath and kept on reading...
But, anyway, here's what I'm trying to tell you: They did something to your brain - our brain - and that's why this letter may seem kind of weird to you.
We (that's "we" as in us out in the New Smoke, not "we" as in you and me) don't know exactly how it works, but we're pretty sure that something happens to everyone who has the operation. When they make you pretty they also add these lesions (tiny scars, sort of) to your brain. It makes you different, and not in a good way. Look in the mirror, Tally. If you're pretty, you've got them.
Tally heard a sharp intake of breath next to her ear. She turned to find Zane reading over her shoulder. "Looks like you may be right about us pretties," she said. He nodded slowly. "Yeah. Great."
He pointed at the next paragraph. "But how about that?" She dropped her eyes to the page again.
The good news is, there's a cure. That's why David came and got you, to give you the pills that will fix your brain. (I really hope you remember David.) He's a good guy, even if he had to kidnap you to get you here. Trust him. It might be scary to be out here, away from the city, wherever the New Smokies are hiding you, but the people who gave you the lesions will be looking, and you have to be kept safe until you're cured.
Tally stopped reading. "Kidnapped me?"
"Looks like there's been a change of plan since you wrote this," Zane said.
Tally felt funny for a moment, the image of David now stronger in her head. "If I wrote this. And if it's true. Anyway, Croy came to see me, not...David." As she said his name, memories surged through Tally: David's hands roughened from years of work, his jacket made from sewn-together skins, the white scar that went through his eyebrow. A feeling like panic began to well up in her. "What happened to David, Zane? Why didn't he come?"
He shook his head. "I don't know. Were you and he ... ?"
Tally looked down at the letter again. It blurred before her, and a single teardrop fell onto the paper. Ink bled into the spattered mark, turning the tear black. "I'm pretty sure we were." Her voice was rough, memories tangled inside her. "But something happened."
"I don't know what." Tally wondered why she couldn't remember. Was it really because of lesions - the scars on her brain that the note had warned about? Or did she simply not want to?
"What's that in your hand, Tally?" Zane asked.
She opened her reddened palm to reveal the tiny white pills resting there. "The cure. Let me finish this." She took a steadying breath.
One more thing - Maddy (David's mom, who came up with the cure) says I have to add this, something about "informed consent":
I, Tally Youngblood, hereby give my permission for Maddy and David to give me the pills that cure being pretty-minded. I realize this is a test on an unproven drug, and it all might go horribly wrong. Brain-dead wrong.
Um, sorry about that last part. That's the risk we have to take. That's why I gave myself up to become pretty, so we could test the pills and save Shay and Peris, and everyone else in the world who's had their brain messed with.
So you have to take them. For me. Sorry in advance if you don't want to, and David and Maddy force you to. You'll be better off, I promise.
Tally let the paper fall onto her lap. Somehow, the scrawled words had sucked the clarity out of the world, making her head-spinning and fuzzy again. Her heart was still pounding, but not in that beautiful way it had when she'd caught herself falling from the tower. It felt more like panic, as if she were locked inside the little metal shack.
Zane let out a low whistle. "So that's why you came back."
"You believe this, don't you?"
His eyes flashed gold in the darkness. "Of course. It all makes sense now. Why you can't remember David or coming back to the city. Why Shay has so many mixed-up stories about those days.
Why the New Smokies are so interested in you."
"Because I'm brain damaged?"
Zane shook his head. "We're all brain damaged, Tally. Just like I thought. But you gave yourself up on purpose, knowing there's a cure." He pointed at the pills in her hand. "Those are the reason why you're here."
She stared down at the pills, which looked small and insignificant in the gloom of the shack. "But the letter said they might not even work. I might wind up brain-dead..."
He took her wrist lightly. "If you don't want to take them, Tally, I will."
She closed her hand. "I can't let you do that."
"But this is what I've been waiting for. A way to escape prettiness, to be bubbly all the time!"
"I wasn't waiting for this," Tally cried. "I didn't want anything but to be a Crim!"
He pointed at the letter. "Yes, you did."
"That wasn't me. She says so herself."
"But you - "
"Maybe I changed my mind!"
"You didn't change your mind. The operation did."
She opened her mouth, but nothing came out.
"Tally, you gave yourself up, knowing you'd have to risk the cure. That's amazingly brave." Zane reached out and touched her face, his eyes shining in the shaft of sunlight that streamed across him. "But if you don't want to, let me take the risk for you."
Tally shook her head, wondering what she was more afraid of: the pills going wrong on her, or watching Zane turn into a vegetable in her place. Or maybe what she really feared was finding out what had happened to David. If only Croy had left her alone, or if she'd never found Valentino 317. If she could just forget the pills and stay dumb and pretty, none of this would ever worry her again. "I just want to forget David."
"Why?" Zane leaned closer. "What did he do to you?"
"Nothing. He didn't do anything. But why did Croy leave these pills for me instead of him coming and taking me away? What if he's - "
The shack shuddered for a moment, silencing her. They both looked up; something big had passed overhead.
"A hovercar...," Tally whispered.
"Probably just flying over. As far as they know, we're in the pleasure garden."
"Unless someone saw us up on the ..." She fell silent as a cloud of dust stirred in through the half-opened door, glowing in the shaft of sunlight. "It's landing."
"They know we're here," Zane said, and started tearing up the letter.
"What are you doing?"
"We can't let them find this," he said. "They can't know there's a cure." He stuffed a piece of the letter into his mouth, grimacing at the taste.
She looked at the pills in her hand. "What about these?"
He swallowed the paper with a tortured expression. "I have to take them, now." He bit off another piece of the letter and started chewing.
"They're so small," she said. "We could hide them."
He shook his head, swallowing again. "Getting caught without rings is pretty obvious, Tally.
They'll want to know what we were up to. When you get some food in you, you won't be as bubbly - you might chicken out and hand over the pills."
The sound of footsteps approached across the roof outside. Zane yanked the door almost shut, pulling the ends of the chain through to the inside and snapping the padlock closed, plunging them into darkness. "That won't stop them for long. Give me the pills. If they work, I promise I'll make sure you - "
A voice called from outside, and something cold crawled down Tally's spine. The voice had an edge, like razors in her ears. They weren't wardens outside. This was a Special Circumstance.
In the gloom of the shack, the pills stared up at her like two soulless white eyes. Tally was somehow certain that the words in the letter were her own, begging her to take them. Maybe when she did, everything would be clear and bubbly all the time, like Zane said.
Or maybe they wouldn't work, and would leave her a hollow, brain-dead shell.
Or maybe it was David who was dead. Tally wondered if after today part of her would always remember his face, no matter what she did. And unless she took the pills, she would never know the truth.
Tally started to bring them to her mouth, but found she couldn't. She imagined her brain unraveling. Being erased, like that other Tally who had written the letter. She looked into Zane's pleading, beautiful eyes. He had no doubts, at least.
Maybe she didn't have to do this alone...
The door made a sharp screech as someone tried to pull it open, snapping the chain taut. A blow landed on the door, the sound booming like fireworks in the little metal shack. Specials were strong, but could they beat down a metal door?
"Now, Tally," Zane whispered.
"Then give them to me."
She shook her head and leaned closer, whispering to stay unheard under the thundering blows against the door. "I can't do that to you, Zane, and I can't do this alone. Maybe if we each took one ..."