Lena speaks; I answer. The words are only drifting too--they are a nonsense-language, a dream-babble.
Tonight I will attend another party in Deering Highlands with Angelica. Steve will be there. The coast is once again clear. Lena looks at me, repulsed and fearful, when I tell her this.
It doesn't matter. None of it matters anymore. We are sledding once again--into whiteness, into a blanket of quiet.
But I am going to keep going. I am going to soar, and soar, and break away--up, up, up into the thundering noise and the wind, like a bird being sucked into the sky.
We pause at the beginning of her block, where I stood just the other day, watching her move happily and unself-consciously down the sidewalk with Grace. The flyers still paper the street, although today there is no wind. They hang perfectly, corners aligned, the emblazoned governmental seal running like a typographical error hundreds of times along the two sides of the street. Lena's other cousin, Jenny, is playing soccer with some kids at the end of the block.
I hang back. I don't want to be spotted. Jenny knows me, and she's smart. She'll ask me why I don't come around anymore, she'll stare at me with her hard, laughing eyes, and she'll know--she'll sense--that Lena and I are no longer friends, that Hana Trent is evaporating, like water in the noon sun.
"You know where to find me," Lena is saying, gesturing casually down the street. You know where to find me. Like that, I am dismissed. And suddenly I no longer feel as though I am dreaming, or floating. A dead weight fills me, dragging me back into reality, back into the sun and the smell of garbage and the shrill cries of the kids playing soccer in the street, and Lena's face, composed, neutral, as though she has already been cured, as though we have Chouthe ki never meant a thing to each other in our lives.
The weight is rising through my chest, and I know that at any second, I'm going to begin crying.
"Okay, then. See you around," I say quickly, concealing the break in my voice with a cough and a wave. I turn around and start walking quickly, as the world begins to spiral together into a wash of color, like liquid being spun down a drain. I jam my sunglasses down onto my nose.
"Okay. See you," Lena says.
The tide is pushing from my chest to my throat now, carrying with it the urge to turn around and call out to her, to tell her I miss her. My mouth is full of the sour taste that rises up with those old, deep words, and I can feel the muscles in my throat flexing, trying to press them back and down. But the urge becomes unbearable, and without intending to, I find that I am spinning around, calling her name.
She has already made it back to her house. She pauses with her hand on the gate. She doesn't say a word; she just stares at me blankly, as though in the time it has taken her to walk the twenty feet, she has already forgotten who I am.
"Never mind," I call out, and this time when I turn around, I do not hesitate or look back.
The note from Steve arrived earlier this morning inside a rolled-up advertisement for Underground Pizza--Grand Opening TONIGHT!, which had been wedged into one of the narrow iron scrolls on our front gate. The note was only three words--Please be there--and included only his initials, presumably so in case it had been discovered by my parents or a regulator instead, neither of us would be implicated. On the back of the advertisement was a crudely drawn map showing only a single street name: Tanglewild Lane, also in Deering Highlands.
This time, there is no need to sneak out. My parents have gone to a fund-raiser tonight; the Portland Conservation Society is having their annual dinner-dance. Angelica's parents are attending too. This makes things far easier. Rather than sneak through the streets after curfew, Angelica and I meet in the Highlands early. She has brought a half bottle of wine and some bread and cheese, and she is red-faced and excited. We sit on the porch of a now-shuttered mansion and eat our dinner while the sun breaks into waves of red and pink beyond the tree line, and finally ebbs away altogether.
Then, at half past nine, we make our way toward Tanglewild.
Neither of us has the exact address, but it doesn't take us long to locate the house. Tanglewild is only a two-block street, mostly wooded, with a few peaked roofs rising up--just barely visible, silhouetted against the deepening purple sky--indicating houses set back behind the trees. The night is remarkably still, and it is easy to pick out the drumbeat thrumming underneath the noise of the crickets. We turn down a long, narrow drive, its pavement full of fissures, which the moss and the grass have begun to colonize. Angelica takes her hair down, then places it in a ponytail, then once again shakes it loose. I feel a deep flash of pity for her, followed by a squeeze of fear.
Angelica's cure is scheduled for next week.
As C"jujustiwe get close to the house, the rhythm of the drum gets louder, although it is still muffled; all the windows have been boarded up, I notice, and the door is closed tightly and stuffed around with insulation. The second we open the door, the music becomes a roar: a rush of banging and screeching guitar, vibrating through the floorboards and walls. For a second I stand, disoriented, blinking in the bright kitchen light. The music seems to get my head in a vise--it squeezes, it presses out all other thoughts.
"I said, close the door." Someone--a girl with flame-red hair--launches past us practically shouting, and slams the door behind us, keeping the sound in. She shoots me a dirty look as she goes back across the kitchen to the guy she has been talking to, who is tall and blond and skinny, all elbows and kneecaps. Young. Fourteen at most. His T-shirt reads PORTLAND NAVAL CONSERVATORY.
I think of Sarah Sterling and feel a spasm of nausea. I close my eyes and concentrate on the music, feeling it vibrate up through the floor and into my bones. My heart adjusts to its rhythm, beating hard and fast in my chest. Until recently I had never heard music like this, only the stately, measured songs that get played endlessly on Radio One. This is one of my favorite things about the underground: the crashing of the cymbals, the screeching guitar riffs, music that moves into the blood and makes you feel hot and wild and alive.
"Let's go downstairs," Angelica says. "I want to be closer to the music." She's scanning the crowd, obviously looking for someone. I wonder if it's the same someone she went off with at the last party. It's amazing that despite all the things we've shared this summer, there's still so much that we don't and can't talk about.
I think of Lena and our strained conversation in the street. The now-familiar ache grips my throat. If only she had listened to me and tried to understand. If she could see the beauty of this underground world, and appreciate what it means: the music, the dancing, the feeling of fingertips and lips, like a moment of flight after a lifetime of crawling . . .
I push the thought of Lena away.
The stairs leading down to the basement are rough-hewn concrete. Except for a few thick pillar candles, pooled in wax and placed directly on the steps, they are swallowed in dark. As we descend, the music swells to a roar, and the air becomes hot and sticky with vibration, as though the sound is gaining physical shape, an invisible body pulsing, breathing, sweating.
The basement is unfinished. It looks as though it was hacked straight out of the earth. It's so dark I can just make out rough stone walls and a stone ceiling, spotted with dark mold. I don't know how the band can see what they are playing.
Maybe that's the reason for the screeching, careening notes, which seem to be fighting with one another for dominance--melodies competing and clashing and clawing into the upper registers.
The basement is vast and cavelike. A central room, where the band is playing, branches into other, smaller spaces, each one darker than the last. One room is nearly blocked off with heaps of broken furniture; another one is dominated by a sagging sofa and several dirty-looking mattresses. On one of them a couple is lying, writh C lyken ing against each other. In the dark, they look like two thick snakes, intertwined, and I back away quickly. The next room is crisscrossed with laundry lines; from them, dozens of bras and pairs of cotton underwear--girls' underwear--are hanging. For a second, I think they must have been left by the family who lived there, but as a group of boys pushes roughly past me, snickering loudly, it occurs to me all at once that these must be trophies, mementos, of things that have happened in this basement.
Sex. A word that is difficult even to think.
I feel dizzy and hot already. I turn around and see that Angelica has once again melted into the darkness. The music is driving so fiercely through my head, I'm worried it will split apart. I start to move back to the central room, thinking that I will go upstairs, when I spot Steve standing in the corner, his eyes half-closed, his face lit up red by a small cluster of miniature lights that are coiled on the ground and connected, somehow, to a circuit--probably the same one that is powering the amps in the central room.
As I start toward him, he spots me. For a second, his face registers no change of expression. Then I step closer, into the limited circle of dim light, and he grins. He says something, but his face is swallowed by a crescendo of sound as the two guitar players bang furiously on their instruments.
We both step forward simultaneously, closing the last few feet between us. He loops his arms around my waist, and his fingers brush the exposed skin between my shirt and waistband, thrilling and hot. I go to rest my head against his chest at the same time as he bends down to kiss me, so he ends up planting his lips on my forehead. Then, as I tilt my face upward and he stoops to try again, I crack my head against his nose. He jerks back, wincing, bringing a hand to his face.
"Oh my God. I'm so sorry." The music is so loud, I can't even hear my own apology. My face is flaming. But when he draws his hand away from his nose, he's smiling. This time, he bends down slowly, with exaggerated care, making a joke of it--he kisses me cautiously, slides his tongue gently between my lips. I can feel the music vibrating in the few inches between our chests, beating my heart into a frenzy. My body is full of such rushing heat, I'm worried it will go fluid--I'll melt; I'll collapse into him.
His hands massage my waist and then move up my back, pulling me closer. I feel the sharp stab of his belt buckle against my stomach, and inhale sharply. He bites down lightly on my lip--I'm not sure if it's an accident. I can't think, can't breathe. It's too hot, too loud; we're too close. I try to pull away but he's too strong. His arms tighten around me, keeping me pressed to his body, and his hands skate down my back again, over the pockets of my shorts, find my bare legs. His fingers trace my inner thighs, and my mind flashes to that room of crisscrossed underwear, all of it hanging limply in the dark, like deflated balloons, like the morning-after detritus of a birthday party.
"Wait." I place both hands on his chest and shove him forcibly away. He is red-faced and sweating. His bangs are plastered against his forehead. "Wait," I say again. "I need to talk to you."
I'm not sure if he hears me. The rhythm of the music is still drumming beneath my ribs, and m Cy r" width="y words are just another vibration skating alongside of it. He says something--again, indecipherable--and I have to lean forward to hear him better.
"I said, I want to dance!" he yells. His lips bump against my ear, and I feel the soft nibble of his teeth again. I jerk away quickly, then feel guilty. I nod and smile to show him okay, we can dance.