Alex (Delirium #1.1)

Alex (Delirium #1.1) by Lauren Oliver

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Let me tell you something about dying: it’s not as bad as they say.

It’s the coming-back-to-life part that hurts.

I was a kid again in Rhode Island, running through the gallery, heading toward the ocean.

The gallery was what we called the long, covered walkway that ran from the harbor all the way to the old square, where you could still find bombs, undetonated, embedded in the brick. There was a rumor that went around among us—if you stepped on one, you’d explode. This kid Zero once dared me to do it, and I did just so he’d leave me alone. Nothing happened. Still, I wouldn’t have done it again.

You never know. A second time it could go boom.

The gallery was all in brick and housed shops that a hundred years ago must have catered to tourists, vacationers, families. The storefront windows were all gone, maybe shot out, but probably just broken after the blitz, when anyone who survived went looting for supplies. There was, in order: Lick ’n’ Swirl Ice Cream; Benjamin’s Pizza; the Arcade; the Gift Gallery; T-Shirts-n-More; Franny’s Ice Cream. The ice cream machines had been taken apart for scrap, but the pizza oven in Benjamin’s was still there, big as a car, and sometimes we used to stick our heads inside and inhale and pretend we smelled baking bread.

There were also two art galleries, and funny enough, most of the art was still hanging on the walls. You can’t use paintings as shovels or canvas as a blanket; no point in stealing art, no one to sell it to after the blitz and no money to buy it with. There were photographs of tourists from Before, wearing bright T-shirts and strappy sandals and eating ice cream cones piled high with different-colored scoops, and paintings of the beach at dawn, and at dusk, and at night, and in the rain, and in the snow. There was one painting, I remember, that showed a broad, clean sweep of sky and the ocean drawn out to the horizon, and the sand littered with seashells and crabs and mermaid’s purses and bits of seaweed. A boy and girl were standing four feet apart, not facing each other, not acknowledging each other in any way, just standing, looking out at the water.

I always liked that painting. I liked to think they had a secret.

So when I died and turned kid again I went back there, back to the gallery—before Portland, and the move up north, and her. All the stores had been repaired, and there were hundreds of people standing behind the glass, palms pressed to the windowpanes, watching me as I ran. They were all shouting to me, but I couldn’t hear them. The glass was too thick. All I could see was the ghost-fog of their breath against the glass and their palms, flat and pale, like dead things.

The longer I ran, the farther the ocean seemed, and the smaller I got, until I was so small I was no bigger than a piece of dust. Until I was no bigger than an idea. I knew I’d be okay if I could only reach the ocean, but the gallery just kept on growing, huge and full of shadows, and all those people kept calling to me silently from behind the glass.

Then a wave came and pushed me backward, and slammed me against something made of stone, and I became big again. My body exploded outward like I’d gone and stepped on that bomb and I was breaking apart into ten thousand pieces.

Everything was on fire. Even my eyes hurt when I tried to open them.

“I don’t believe it,” were the first words I heard. “Someone up there must be looking after him.”

Then someone else: “No one looks after this garbage.”

I was alive again. I wanted to die.

One time, when I was twelve, I burned down a house.

Nobody was living there. That’s why I chose it. It was just some half-run-down white clapboard farmhouse, sitting in the middle of a bunch of lumpy outhouses and barns, like deer turds gathered at the bottom of a big hill. I have no idea what happened to the family that used to live there, but I liked to imagine that they’d gone off to the Wilds, made a clean break for the border once the new regulations kicked in, once people started getting locked up for disagreeing.

It was close to the border, only fifty feet from the fence. That’s why I chose it too.

I had started with small things—matchbooks, papers; then piles of leaves, heaped carefully into a garbage can; then a little locked wooden shed on Rosemont Avenue. I watched from Presumpscot Park, sitting on a bench, while the firemen came to put out the shed fire, sirens screaming, geared up. I watched while the neighbors gathered, until there were so many they blocked my view and I tried to stand. But I couldn’t stand. My feet and legs were numb. Like bricks. So I just sat and sat, until the crowd thinned and I saw the shed wasn’t a shed anymore but just a pile of charred wood and metal and molten plastic, where a bunch of toys had fused together.

All because of the smallest spark. All because of the click of a lighter in my hand.

I couldn’t stop.

Then: a house. It was summer, six o’clock, dinner hour. I figured if anyone smelled the smoke they might think it was a barbecue, and I’d have plenty of time to get out of there. I used rags stuffed with kerosene and a Bic lighter I had stolen from the desk of the principal’s office at my school: yellow with smiley faces on it.

Right away I knew it was a mistake. The house went up in less than a minute. The flames just . . . swallowed it. The smoke blocked out the sun and turned the air blurry from the heat. The smell was awful. Maybe there’d been dead animals in the house, mice and raccoons. I hadn’t thought to check.

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