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.
Copyright © 2011 by Lauren Oliver. All Rights Reserved.