Dancing, too, is new for me. Uncureds are not allowed to dance in couples, although Lena and I used to practice sometimes with each other, mimicking the stately, grave way we'd seen married couples and cureds dance at official events: stepping evenly in time with the music, keeping at least an arm's distance between their chests, rigid and strict. One two-three, one two-three, Lena would bellow, as I would practically choke from laughing so hard, and she'd nudge me with a knee to keep me on track, and assume the voice of our principal, McIntosh, telling me that I was a disgrace, an absolute disgrace.
The kind of dancing I have known is all about rules: patterns, holds, and complicated maneuvers. But as Steve draws me closer to the band, all I can see is a frenzied mass of seething, writhing people, like a many-headed sea snake, grinding, waving their arms, stamping their feet, jumping. No rules, just energy--so much energy, you could harness it; I bet you could power Portland for a decade. It is more than a wave. It's a tide, an ocean of bodies.
I let myself break apart on it. I forget about Lena, and Fred Hargrove, and the posters plastered all around Portland. I let the music drill through my teeth and drip out my hair and pound through my eyeballs. I taste it, like grit and sweat. I am shouting without meaning to. There are hands on my body--Steve's?--gripping me, pulsing the rhythm into my skin, traveling the places no one has ever touched--and each touch is like another pulse of darkness, beating softness into my brain, beating rational thoughts into a deep fog.
Is this freedom? Is it happiness? I don't know. I don't care anymore. It is different--it is being alive.
Time becomes a stutter--the space between drumbeats, splintered into fragments, and also endlessly long, as long as soaring guitar notes that melt into one another, as full as the dark mass of bodies around me. I feel like the air downstairs has gone to liquid, to sweat and smell and sound, and I have broken apart in it. I am wave: I am pulled into the everything. I am energy and noise and a heartbeat going boom, boom, boom, echoing the drums. And although Steve is next to me, and then behind me, drawing me into him, kissing my neck and exploring my stomach with his fingers, I can hardly feel him.
And for a moment--for a split second--everything else falls away, the whole pattern and order of my life, and a huge joy crests in my chest. I am no one, and I owe nothing to anybody, and my life is my own.
Then Steve is pulling me away from the band and leading me into one of the smaller rooms branching off from it. The first room, the room with the mattresses and the couch, is packed. My body still feels only distantly attached, clumsy, as though I am a puppet unused to walking on its own. I stumble against a couple kissing in the dark. The girl whips around to face me.
Angelica. My eyes go instinctively to the person she was kissing, and for a Cng,t="0em"> second time freezes, and then jump-cuts forward. I feel a seesawing in my stomach, like I've just watched the world flip upside down.
Another girl. Angelica is kissing another girl.
Angelica is an Unnatural.
The look on Angelica's face passes from irritation to fear to fury.
"Get the hell out of here," she practically snarls. Before I can say anything, before I can even say it's okay, she reaches out and shoves me backward. I stumble against Steve. He steadies me, leans down to whisper in my ear.
"You okay there, princess? Too many drinks?"
Obviously, he has not seen. Or maybe he has--he doesn't know Angelica; it wouldn't matter to him. It doesn't matter to me, either--it's the first time I've ever really thought about it, but the idea is there, immediate and absolute--it doesn't matter to me one tiny shred.
Chemicals gone wrong. Neurons misfiring, brain chemistry warped. That's what we were always taught. All problems that would be obliterated by the cure. But here, in this dark, hot space, the question of chemicals and neurons seems absurd and irrelevant. There is only what you want and what happens. There is only grabbing on and holding tight in the darkness.
I immediately regret what I must have looked like to Angelica: shocked, maybe even disgusted. I'm tempted to go back and find her, but Steve has already pulled me into another small room, this one empty except for the heaping pile of broken furniture, which over time has been split apart and vandalized. Before I can speak, he presses me against the wall and starts kissing me. I can feel the sweat on his chest, seeping through his T-shirt. He starts hitching up my shirt.
"Wait." I manage to wrench my mouth away from his.
He doesn't respond. He finds my mouth again and slides his hands toward my rib cage. I try to relax, but all that pops into my head is an image of the laundry lines heavy with bras and underwear.
"Wait," I say again. This time I sidestep him and manage to put space between us. The music is muffled here, and we'll be able to talk. "I need to ask you something."
"Anything you want." His eyes are still on my lips. It's distracting me. I edge away from him even farther.
My tongue suddenly feels too big for my mouth. "Do you--do you like me?" At the last second, I can't bring myself to ask what I really want to know: Do you love me? Is this what love feels like?
He laughs. "Of course I like you, Hana." He reaches out to touch my face, but I pull away an inch. Then, maybe realizing the conversation won't be quick, he sighs and runs a hand through his hair. "What's this about, anyway?"
"I'm scared," I blurt. Only when I say it do I realize how true it is: Fear is strangling me, suffocating me. I don't know what's more C#82idestep terrifying: the fact that I will be found out, that I will be forced to go back to my normal life, or the possibility that I won't. "I want to know what's going to happen to us."
Abruptly, Steve gets very still. "What do you mean?" he asks cautiously. There has been a short gap between songs; now the music starts up again in the next room, frenzied and discordant.
"I mean how can we . . ." I swallow. "I mean, I'm going to be cured in the fall."
"Right." He's looking at me sideways, suspiciously, as though I'm speaking another language and he can identify only a few words at a time. "So am I."
"But then we won't . . ." I trail off. My throat is knotting up. "Don't you want to be with me?" I ask finally.
At that, he softens. He steps toward me again, and before I have a chance to relax, he has woven his hands in my hair. "Of course I want to be with you," he says, leaning down to whisper the words in my ear. He smells like musky aftershave and sweat.
It takes a huge effort for me to push him away. "I don't mean here," I say. "I don't mean like this."
He sighs again and steps away from me. I can tell I've started to annoy him. "What's the problem here?" he asks. His voice is hard-edged, vaguely bored. "Why can't you just relax?"
That's when it hits me. It is as though my insides have been vacuumed away and all that remains is a sold rock of certainty: He doesn't love me. He doesn't care about me at all. This has been nothing but fun for him: a forbidden game, like a child trying to steal cookies before dinner. Maybe he was hoping I'd let him shimmy me out of my underwear. Maybe he was planning to clip my bra alongside all the others, a sign of his secret triumph.
I've been fooling myself this whole time.
"Don't be upset." Steve must sense that he's made the wrong move. His voice turns soft again, lilting. He reaches for me again. "You're so pretty."
"Don't touch me." I jerk backward and accidentally knock my head against the wall. Starbursts explode in my vision.
Steve puts a hand on my shoulder. "Oh, shit, Hana. Are you okay?"
"I said, don't touch me." I push roughly past him, careening into the next room, which is now so packed with people I can barely force my way toward the stairs. I hear Steve call my name only once. After that, he either gives up or his voice is drowned in the coursing swell of sound. It is hot; everyone is slick with sweat, lost in shadow, as though they've been floundering in oil. Even when my vision clears, I feel unsteady on my feet.
I need air.
I need to get out of here. There's a roaring in my head, distinct from the throb of the music--a distant, high-pitched scream knifing me Cm kI need to in two.
I stop moving. No. The scream is real. Someone is screaming. For a second I think I must have imagined it--it must have been the music, which continues screeching on--but then all at once the scream crests and becomes a huge surge, coasting over the sound of the band.
"Run! Raid! Run!"
I am frozen, paralyzed with fear. The music breaks off with a crash. Now there is nothing but screaming, and I am being pushed, shoved by the waves of people around me.
Out. Out. I need to get out. Someone elbows me in the back, and I barely manage to right myself. Stairs--I need to get to the stairs. I can see them from where I am standing, can see a surge of people fighting and clawing upward. Then suddenly there is a tremendous splinter of wood and a crest in the screaming. The door at the top of the stairs has been shattered; the people behind it are falling, tumbling into the people behind them, who are tumbling, tumbling down . . .
This isn't happening. It can't be.
A man is silhouetted huge in the great, gaping mouth of the shattered door. A regulator. He is holding a gun. From behind him, two giant shapes rocket forward into the crowd, and the screams swell in pitch and become the sounds of snarling and snapping.
As the regulators start forcing their way in, my body at last unfreezes. I turn around, away from the stairs, into the thick mass of people, all shoving and running in different directions: openmouthed, panicked. I'm hemmed in on all sides. By the time I force myself out of the main room, several regulators have made it down the stairs. I glance behind them and see them scything through the crowd with their nightsticks.
A huge, amplified voice is booming, "This is a raid. Do not try to run. Do not try to resist."
There is a small ground-level window set high in the room with the dingy mattresses and the couch, and people are crowded around it, yelling at one another, fumbling for a latch or a way to open it. A boy springs onto the sofa and swings hard at the window with his elbow. It shatters outward. He stands on the arm of the sofa and hoists himself up and through it. Now people are fighting to get out this way. People are swinging at one another, clawing, fighting to be first.
I look over my shoulder. The regulators are drawing closer, their heads bobbing above the rest of the crowd, like grim-faced sailors pushing through a storm. I'll never make it out in time.
I struggle against the current of bodies, which is flowing strong toward the window, to the promise of escape, and hurtle into the next room. This is where I stood with Steve and asked him whether he liked me only five minutes ago, although it already seems like the dream from a different lifetime. There are no windows here, no doors or exits.
Hide. It's the only thing to do. Hide and hope that there are too many people to sniff out one by one. I pick my way quickly around the enormous pile of debris heaped against one wall, over broken-down chairs and tables and ol Ctabone by ond strips of tattered upholstery.
"This way, this way!"
The regulator's voice is loud enough, close enough, to be heard over the chaos of other sounds. I stumble, catching my shin against a piece of rusted metal. The pain is sharp and makes my eyes water. I ease down into the space between the wall and the pile of junk and slowly adjust the metal sheet so that it blocks me from view.