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DELIRIUM
by Lauren Oliver

Genre: Futuristic, Young Adult

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He left me a note. He left me a note. For me. The idea—the fact of it, the fact that he even noticed and thought about me for more than one second—is huge and overwhelming, makes my legs go tingly and my hands feel numb.

And then I’m frightened. This is how it starts. Even if he is cured, even if he is safe—the fact is, I’m not safe, and this is how it starts. Phase One: preoccupation; difficulty focusing; dry mouth; perspiration, sweaty palms; dizziness and disorientation. I feel a rushing blend of sickness and relief, a feeling like finding out that everyone actually knows your worst secret, has known all along. All this time Aunt Carol was right, my teachers were right, my cousins were right. I’m just like my mother, after all. And the thing, the disease, is inside of me, ready at any moment to start working on my insides, to start poisoning me.

“I have to go.” I start up the hill again, nearly sprinting now, but again he comes after me.

“Hey. Not so fast.” At the top of the hill he reaches out and puts a hand on my wrist to stop me. His touch burns, and I jerk away quickly. “Lena. Hold on a second.”

Even though I know I shouldn’t, I stop. It’s the way he says my name: like music.

“You don’t have to be worried, okay? You don’t have to be scared.” His voice is twinkling again. “I’m not flirting with you.”

Embarrassment sweeps through me. Flirting. A dirty word. He thinks I think he’s flirting. “I’m not—I don’t think you were—I would never think that you—” The words collide in my mouth, and now I know that there’s no amount of darkness that can cover the rush of red to my face.

He cocks his head to the side. “Are you flirting with me, then?”

“What? No,” I splutter. My mind is spinning blindly in a panic, and I realize I don’t even know what flirting is. I just know about it from textbooks; I just know that it’s bad. Is it possible to flirt without knowing you’re flirting? Is he flirting? My left eye goes full flutter.

“Relax,” he says, holding up both hands, a gesture like, Don’t be mad at me. “I was kidding.” He turns just slightly to the left, watching me the whole time. The moon lights up his three-pronged scar vividly: a perfect white triangle, a scar that makes you think of order and regularity. “I’m safe, remember? I can’t hurt you.”

He says it quietly, evenly, and I believe him. And yet my heart won’t stop its frantic winging in my chest, spinning higher and higher, until I’m sure it’s going to carry me off. I feel the way I do whenever I get to the top of the Hill and can see back down Congress Street, with the whole of Portland lying behind me, the streets a shimmer of greens and grays—from a distance, both beautiful and unfamiliar—just before I spread my arms and let go, trip and skip and run down the hill, wind whipping in my face, not even trying to move, just letting gravity pull me.

Breathless; excited; waiting for the drop.

I suddenly realize how quiet it is. The band has stopped playing, and the crowd has gone silent too. The only sound is the wind shushing over the grass. From where we are, fifty feet past the crest of the hill, the barn and the party are invisible. I have a brief fantasy that we’re the only two people out in the darkness—that we are the only two people awake and alive in the city, in the world.

Then soft strands of music begin to weave themselves up in the air, gentle, sighing, so quiet at first I confuse the sounds for the wind. This music is totally different from the music that was playing earlier—soft, and fragile, as though each note is spun glass, or silken thread, looping up and back into the night air. Once again I’m struck by how absolutely beautiful it is, like nothing I’ve ever heard, and out of nowhere I’m overwhelmed by the dual desire to laugh and cry.

“This song is my favorite.” A cloud skitters across the moon, and shadows dance over Alex’s face. He’s still staring at me, and I wish I knew what he was thinking. “Have you ever danced?”

“No,” I say, a little too forcefully.

He laughs softly. “It’s okay. I won’t tell.”

Images of my mother: the softness of my hands as she spun me down the long polished wood floors of our house, as though we were ice-skaters; the fluted quality of her voice as she sang along to the songs piping from the speakers, laughing. “My mother used to dance,” I say. The words slip out, and I regret them almost instantly.

But Alex doesn’t question me or laugh. He keeps watching me steadily. For a moment he seems on the verge of saying something. But then he just holds out his hand to me across the space, across the dark.

“Would you like to?” he says. His voice is hardly audible above the wind—so low it’s barely a whisper.

“Would I like to what?” My heart is roaring, rushing in my ears, and though there are still several inches between his hand and mine, there’s a zipping, humming energy that connects us, and from the heat flooding my body you would think we were pressed together, palm to palm, face to face.

“Dance,” he says, at the same time closing those last few inches and finding my hand and pulling me closer, and at that second the song hits a high note and I confuse the two impressions, of his hand and the soaring, the lifting of the music.

We dance.

Most things, even the greatest movements on earth, have their beginnings in something small. An earthquake that shatters a city might begin with a tremor, a tremble, a breath. Music begins with a vibration. The flood that rushed into Portland twenty years ago after nearly two months of straight rain, that hurtled up beyond the labs and damaged over a thousand houses, swept up tires and trash bags and old, smelly shoes and floated them through the streets like prizes, that left a thin film of green mold behind, a stench of rotting and decay that didn’t go away for months, began with a trickle of water, no wider than a finger, lapping up onto the docks.

And God created the whole universe from an atom no bigger than a thought.

Grace’s life fell apart because of a single word: sympathizer. My world exploded because of a different word: suicide.

Correction: That was the first time my world exploded.

The second time my world exploded, it was also because of a word. A word that worked its way out of my throat and danced onto and out of my lips before I could think about it, or stop it.

The question was: Will you meet me tomorrow?

And the word was: Yes.