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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. My birthday.
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 effects of 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’s 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 that 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 passed 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.
The stairs let out their awful moaning, and Grace’s sister, Jenny, appears. She is nine and tall for her age, but very thin: all angles and elbows, her chest caving in like a warped sheet pan. It’s terrible to say, but I don’t like her very much. She has the same pinched look as her mother did.
She joins my aunt in the doorway and stares at me. I am only five-two and Jenny is, amazingly, just a few inches shorter than I am now. It’s silly to feel self-conscious in front of my aunt and cousins, but a hot, crawling itch begins to work its way up my arms. I know they’re all worried about my performance at the evaluation. It’s critical that I get paired with someone good. Jenny and Grace are years away from their procedures. If I marry well, in a few years it will mean extra money for the family. It might also make the whispers go away, singsong snatches that four years after the scandal still seem to follow us wherever we go, like the sound of rustling leaves carried on the wind: Sympathizer. Sympathizer. Sympathizer.
It’s only slightly better than the other word that followed me for years after my mom’s death, a snakelike hiss, undulating, leaving its trail of poison: Suicide. A sideways word, a word that people whisper and mutter and cough: a word that must be squeezed out behind cupped palms or murmured behind closed doors. It was only in my dreams that I heard the word shouted, screamed.
I take a deep breath, then duck down to pull the plastic bin from under my bed so that my aunt won’t see I’m shaking. “Is Lena getting married today?” Jenny asks my aunt. Her voice has always reminded me of bees droning flatly in the heat.
“Don’t be stupid,” my aunt says, but without irritation. “You know she can’t marry until she’s cured.”
I take my towel from the bin and straighten up, hugging the towel to my chest. That word—marry—makes my mouth go dry. Everyone marries as soon as they are done with their education. It’s the way things are. “Marriage is Order and Stability, the mark of a Healthy society.” (See The Book of Shhh, “Fundamentals of Society,” p. 114). But the thought of it still makes my heart flutter frantically, like an insect behind glass. I’ve never touched a boy, of course—physical contact between uncureds of opposite sex is forbidden.
Honestly, I’ve never even talked to a boy for longer than five minutes, unless you count my cousins and uncle and Andrew Marcus, who helps my uncle at the Stop-N-Save and is always picking his nose and wiping his snot on the underside of the canned vegetables.
And if I don’t pass my boards—please God, please God, let me pass them—I’ll have my wedding as soon as I’m cured, in less than three months. Which means I’ll have my wedding night.
The smell of oranges is still strong, and my stomach does another swoop. I bury my face in my towel and inhale, willing myself not to be sick.
From downstairs there is the clatter of dishes. My aunt sighs and checks her watch.
“We have to leave in less than an hour,” she says. “You’d better get moving.”
Lord, help us root our feet to the earth
And our eyes to the road
And always remember the fallen angels
Who, attempting to soar,
Were seared instead by the sun and, wings melting,
Came crashing back to the sea.
Lord, help root my eyes to the earth
And stay my eyes to the road
So I may never stumble.
My aunt insists on walking me down to the laboratories, which, like all the government offices, are lumped together along the wharves: a string of bright white buildings, glistening like teeth over the slurping mouth of the ocean. When I was little and had just moved in with her, she used to walk me to school every day. My mother, sister, and I had lived closer to the border, and I was amazed and terrified by all the winding, darkened streets, which smelled like garbage and old fish. I always wished for my aunt to hold my hand, but she never did, and I had balled my hands into fists and followed the hypnotic swish of her corduroy pants, dreading the moment that St. Anne’s Academy for Girls would rise up over the crest of the final hill, the dark stone building lined with fissures and cracks like the weather-beaten face of one of the industrial fishermen who work along the docks.
It’s amazing how things change. I’d been terrified of the streets of Portland, then, and reluctant to leave my aunt’s side. Now I know them so well I could follow their dips and curves with my eyes closed, and today I want nothing more than to be alone. I can smell the ocean, though it’s concealed from view by the twisting undulations of the streets, and it relaxes me. The salt blowing off the sea makes the air feel textured and heavy.
“Remember,” she is saying, for the thousandth time. “They want to know about your personality, yes, but the more generalized your answers the better chance you have of being considered for a variety of positions.” My aunt has always talked about marriage with words straight out of The Book of Shhh, words like duty, responsibility, and perseverance. “Got it,” I say. A bus barrels past us. The crest for St. Anne’s Academy is stenciled along its side and I duck my head quickly, imagining Cara McNamara or Hillary Packer staring out the dirt-encrusted windows, giggling and pointing at me. Everyone knows I am having my evaluation today. Only four are offered throughout the year, and slots are determined well in advance.
The makeup Aunt Carol insisted I wear makes my skin feel coated and slick. In the bathroom mirror at home, I thought I looked like a fish, especially with my hair all pinned with metal bobby pins and clips: a fish with a bunch of metal hooks sticking in my head.
I don’t like makeup, have never been interested in clothes or lip gloss. My best friend, Hana, thinks I’m crazy, but of course she would. She’s absolutely gorgeous—even when she just twists her blond hair into a messy knot on the top of her head, she looks as though she’s just had it styled. I’m not ugly, but I’m not pretty, either. Everything is in between. I have eyes that aren’t green or brown but a muddle. I’m not thin, but I’m not fat, either. The only thing you could definitely say about me is this: I’m short.
“If they ask you, God forbid, about your cousins, remember to say that you didn’t know them well. . . .”
“Uh-huh.” I’m only half listening. It’s hot, too hot for June, and sweat is pricking up already on my lower back and in my armpits, even though I slathered on deodorant this morning. To our right is Casco Bay, which is hemmed in by Peaks Island and Great Diamond Island, where the lookout towers are. Beyond that is open ocean—and beyond that, all the crumbling countries and cities ruined by the disease.
“Lena? Are you even listening to me?” Carol puts a hand on my arm and spins me in her direction.
“Blue,” I parrot back at her. “Blue is my favorite color. Or green.” Black is too morbid; red will set them on edge; pink is too juvenile; orange is freakish.
“And the things you like to do in your free time?” I gently slip away from her grasp. “We’ve gone over this already.”
“This is important, Lena. Possibly the most important day of your whole life.”
I sigh. Ahead of me the gates that bar the government labs swing open slowly with a mechanized whine. There is already a double line forming: on one side, the girls, and fifty feet away, at a second entrance, the boys. I squint against the sun, trying to locate people I know, but the ocean has dazzled me and my vision is clouded by floating black spots.
“Lena?” my aunt prompts me.
I take a deep breath and launch into the spiel we’ve rehearsed a billion times. “I like to work on the school paper. I’m interested in photography because I like the way it captures and preserves a single moment of time. I enjoy hanging out with my friends and attending concerts at Deering Oaks Park. I like to run and was a co-captain of the cross-country team for two years. I hold the school record in the 5K event. I often babysit the younger members of my family, and I really like children.”
“You’re making a face,” my aunt says.
“I love children,” I repeat, plastering a smile on my face. The truth is, I don’t like very many children except for Gracie. They’re so bumpy and loud all the time, and they’re always grabbing things and dribbling and wetting themselves. But I know I’ll have to have children of my own someday.
“Better,” Carol says. “Go on.”
I finish, “My favorite subjects are math and history,” and she nods, satisfied.
I turn around. Hana is just climbing out of her parents’ car, her blond hair flying in wisps and waves around her face, her semi-sheer tunic slipping off one tan shoulder. All the girls and boys lining up to enter the labs have turned to watch her. Hana has that kind of power over people.
“Lena! Wait!” Hana continues barreling down the street, waving at me frantically. Behind her, the car begins a slow revolution: back and forth, back and forth, in the narrow drive until it is facing the opposite direction. Hana’s parents’ car is as sleek and dark as a panther. The few times we’ve driven around in it together I’ve felt like a princess. Hardly anyone has cars anymore, and even fewer have cars that actually drive. Oil is is strictly rationed and extremely expensive. Some middle-class people keep cars mounted in front of their houses like statues, frigid and unused, the tires spotless and unworn. “Hi, Carol,” Hana says breathlessly, catching up to us. A magazine pops out of her half-open bag, and she stoops to retrieve it. It’s one of the government publications, Home and Family, and in response to my raised eyebrows she makes a face. “Mom made me bring it. She said I should read it while I’m waiting for my evaluation. She said it will give the right impression.” Hana sticks her finger down her throat and mimes gagging.
“Hana,” my aunt whispers fiercely. The anxiety in her voice makes my heart skip. Carol hardly ever loses her temper, even for a minute. She whips her head in both directions, as though expecting to find regulators or evaluators lurking in the bright morning street.
“Don’t worry. They’re not spying on us.” Hana turns her back to my aunt and mouths to me, Yet. Then she grins.
In front of us, the double line of girls and boys is growing longer, extending into the street, even as the glass-fronted doors of the labs swoosh open and several nurses appear, carrying clipboards, and begin to usher people into the waiting rooms. My aunt rests one hand on my elbow lightly, quick as a bird.
“You’d better get on line,” she says. Her voice is back to normal. I wish some of her calmness would rub off on me.
“Yeah?” I don’t feel very well. The labs look far away, so white I can hardly stand to look at them, the pavement shimmering hot in front of us. The words most important day of your life keep repeating in my head. The sun feels like a giant spotlight. “Good luck.” My aunt does her one-millisecond smile.
“Thanks.” I kind of wish Carol would say something else—something like, I’m sure you’ll do great, or Try not to worry—but she just stands there, blinking, her face composed and unreadable as always.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Tiddle.” Hana winks at me. “I’ll make sure she doesn’t screw up too badly. Promise.”
All my nervousness dissipates. Hana is so relaxed about the whole thing, so nonchalant and normal.
Hana and I go down toward the labs together. Hana is almost five-nine. When I walk next to her I have to do a half skip every other step to keep up with her, and I wind up feeling like a duck bobbing up and down in the water. Today I don’t mind, though. I’m glad she’s with me. I’d be a complete wreck otherwise.
“God,” she says, as we get close to the lines. “Your aunt takes this whole thing pretty seriously, huh?”
“Well, it is serious.” We join the back of the line. I see a few people I recognize: some girls I know vaguely from school; some guys I’ve seen playing soccer behind Spencer Prep, one of the boys’ schools. A boy looks my way and sees me staring. He raises his eyebrows and I drop my eyes quickly, my face going hot all at once and a nervous itch working in my stomach. You’ll be paired in less than three months, I tell myself, but the words don’t mean anything and seem ridiculous, like one of the Mad Libs games we played as children that always resulted in nonsensical statements: I want banana for speedboat. Give my wet shoe to your blistering cupcake.
“Yeah, I know. Trust me, I’ve read The Book of Shhh as much as anyone.” Hana pushes her sunglasses up onto her forehead and bats her eyelashes at me, making her voice supersweet: “‘Evaluation Day is the exciting rite of passage that prepares you for a future of happiness, stability, and partnership.’” She drops her sunglasses back down on her nose and makes a face.
“You don’t believe it?” I lower my voice to a whisper.
Hana has been strange recently. She was always different from other people—more outspoken, more independent, more fearless. It’s one of the reasons I first wanted to be her friend. I’ve always been shy, and afraid that I’ll say or do the wrong thing. Hana is the opposite.
But lately it’s been more than that. She’s stopped caring about school, for one thing, and has been called to the principal’s office several times for talking back to the teachers. And sometimes in the middle of talking she’ll stop, just shut her mouth as though she’s run up against a barrier. Other times I’ll catch her staring out at the ocean as though she’s thinking of swimming away.
Looking at her now, at her clear gray eyes and her mouth as thin and taut as a bowstring, I feel a tug of fear. I think of my mother floundering for a second in the air before dropping like a stone into the ocean; I think about the face of the girl who dropped from the laboratory roof all those years ago, her cheek turned against the pavement. I will away thoughts of the illness. Hana isn’t sick. She can’t be. I would know. “If they really want us to be happy, they’d let us pick ourselves,” Hana grumbles.
“Hana,” I say sharply. Criticizing the system is the worst offense there is. “Take it back.”
She holds up her hands. “All right, all right. I take it back.”
“You know it doesn’t work. Look how it was in the old days. Chaos all the time, fighting, and war. People were miserable.”
“I said, I take it back.” She smiles at me, but I’m still mad and I look away.
“Besides,” I go on, “they do give us a choice.”
Usually the evaluators generate a list of four or five approved matches, and you are allowed to pick among them. This way, everyone is happy. In all the years that the procedure has been administered and the marriages arranged, there have been less than a dozen divorces in Maine, less than a thousand in the entire United States—and in almost all those cases, either the husband or wife was suspected of being a sympathizer and divorce was necessary and approved by the state.
“A limited choice,” she corrects me. “We get to choose from the people who have been chosen for us.”
“Every choice is limited,” I snap. “That’s life.”
She opens her mouth as though she’s going to respond, but instead she just starts to laugh. Then she reaches down and squeezes my hand, two quick pumps and then two long ones. It’s our old sign, a habit we developed in the second grade when one of us was scared or upset, a way of saying, I’m here, don’t worry.
“Okay, okay. Don’t get defensive. I love the evaluations, okay? Long live Evaluation Day.”
“That’s better,” I say, but I’m still feeling anxious and annoyed. The line shuffles slowly forward. We pass the iron gates, with their complicated crown of barbed wire, and enter the long driveway that leads to the various lab complexes. We are headed for Building 6-C. The boys go to 6-B, and the lines begin to curve away from each other.
As we move closer to the front of the line, we get a blast of air-conditioning every time the glass doors slide open and then hum shut. It feels amazing, like being momentarily dipped head to toe in a thin sheet of ice, popsicle-style, and I turn around and lift my ponytail away from my neck, wishing it weren’t so damn hot. We don’t have air-conditioning at home, just tall, gawky fans that are always sputtering out in the middle of the night. And most of the time Carol won’t even let us use those; they suck up too much electricity, she says, and we don’t have any to spare.
At last there are only a few people in front of us. A nurse comes out of the building, carrying a stack of clipboards and a handful of pens, and begins distributing them along the line. “Please make sure to fill out all required information,” she says, “including your medical and family history.”
My heart begins to work its way up into my throat. The neatly numbered boxes on the page—Last Name, First Name, Middle Initial, Current Address, Age—collapse together. I’m glad Hana is in front of me. She begins filling out the forms quickly, resting the clipboard on her forearm, her pen skating over the paper.
The doors whoosh open again, and a second nurse appears and gestures for Hana to come inside. In the dark coolness beyond her, I can see a bright white waiting room with a green carpet.
“Good luck,” I say to Hana.
She turns and gives me a quick smile. But I can tell she is nervous, finally. There is a fine crease between her eyebrows, and she is chewing on the corner of her lip.
She starts to enter the lab and then turns abruptly and walks back to me, her face wild and unfamiliar-looking, grabbing me with both shoulders, putting her mouth directly to my ear. I’m so startled I drop my clipboard.
“You know you can’t be happy unless you’re unhappy sometimes, right?” she whispers, and her voice is hoarse, as though she’s just been crying.
“What?” Her nails are digging into my shoulders, and at that moment I’m terrified of her.
“You can’t be really happy unless you’re unhappy sometimes. You know that, right?”
Before I can respond she releases me, and as she pulls away, her face is as serene and beautiful and composed as ever. She bends down to scoop up my clipboard, which she passes to me, smiling. Then she turns around and is gone behind the glass doors, which open and close behind her as smoothly as the surface of water, sucking closed over something that is sinking.