When Hana’s mom is diagnosed with the mutation, she confesses to Hana she doesn’t know what will happen if she dies. Fischer, a medic at the hospital, implies there is Someone who can help–but religion’s been outlawed.
Hana embarks on a dangerous journey, seeking the answers Fischer insists are available. But when the truth is uncovered, will Hana stick to what she's been taught? Or will she join the rebellion and take a stand against an oppressive society?
The old hospital looms in front of me like some ancient castle from the Early Days. This is where they keep people with the mutation. My heart races at the thought of going inside.
I’ve never been in a hospital before. In fact, I’ve never been in a building that big at all. I wish I’d taken Jamie’s offer to come with me or had come with Dad last night. I wish that Mom hadn’t gotten the mutation at all.
I take a deep breath and push through the double doors.
The quiet lobby area is dim, lit by a few small windows and a couple of glowing lamps. I knew the hospital gets extra electricity allowance, but I’ve almost never seen anyone use manufactured lighting during the day. I’m awed by the sight. In front of me is an abandoned office area, and to my right is an old cafeteria. A sign dangles over the counter by one chain. It seems like someone would have taken it down by now.
I make a split decision and yank it down. Chains clatter as they plunge to the floor. It stays on the ground, and I turn back to the main lobby. My heartbeat calms at regaining this tiny bit of control.
Beyond the cafeteria, several signs hang on the wall. One points me to the stairs.
My dad said Mom was on the third floor. Back in the Early Days, they fought the mutation with chemotherapy drugs and something called radiation. We don’t have those things anymore, so we fight it with fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Sometimes it works, but most of the time it doesn’t. I don’t want to think about what this means for Mom.
The door to the stairs is beside the old elevator shafts. I reach out and feel the cool metal doors. They reflect my image back to me, but I don’t pay attention to that. I’ve seen enough of my short blond hair and not-so-tall stature, but I’ve never actually seen elevators before. I wish the doors would open, and I could peek inside. Riding up to the third floor would be even better, but no one has enough electricity allowance to run elevators, not even the hospital I guess.
I make the climb to the third floor without even getting winded, and more manufactured lighting greets me. Long bulbs line the ceiling. These lights are brighter than the lamps downstairs, and they make an odd buzzing noise. I stumbled into a beehive once, and the angry bees buzzed a lot like the lights.
There are so many rooms down the long hallway, I can’t imagine there would ever be enough sick people to fill them all, but then I remember what they tell us about the Early Days. There were a lot more people back then. Now there are so few people I think we could all fit in this hospital together. How would it feel to be around so many people, all the time? Would it feel crowded? I don’t think so. I think it would feel safe.
The hallway is empty, but a faint beeping comes from down the hall. I pass an old desk on my way toward the beeping. A dumpy computer sits on the desk. People still have those?
I pass one door, two doors, and then an irritated voice stops me in my tracks.
“We could give her chemo at the onset to slow things down a bit, and then start the natural healing. The least we can do is to give her a fighting chance. She’s a Middle, after all.” It’s a woman’s voice, coming from the room with the faint beeping. Her tone is hushed and angry.
I look at the piece of paper that’s been tacked to the wall outside the room.
I suck in a tight breath. They’re talking about Mom? What do they mean by ‘a fighting chance’? My heart picks up speed, and I step closer to the room, careful to stay out of view.
“It takes time to get approval for chemo drugs, and what if she talks? Everyone who gets the mutation will start demanding them. What’s her occupation?” It’s a man’s voice, and he sounds just as angry.
Papers shuffle and the woman says, “Professor at the military academy. I say we do it. She knows how to keep secrets if she’s worked in the military. What chance does she have otherwise?”
The pause in conversation is excruciating as Mom’s life hangs in the balance. Meanwhile my mind spins. Chemo drugs? They’re not even supposed to exist. How can they be talking about this so casually? Have the rest of us been lied to all this time?
“Do you need some help?”
I jerk around, my heart thumping like the rain during a torrential downpour. A boy stands in front of me. He doesn’t look much older than my seventeen years, but definitely old enough to have taken the Test.
“I was looking for my mom’s room,” I say quickly. “I’ve never been here before.” I hope that sounded innocent and confused, and not like I’m scared to be caught eavesdropping.
“What’s her name?” His dark hair is short, but it has a little curl to it. His chocolaty brown eyes aren’t suspicious, not like they’d be if he suspected me of listening to the doctors.
“It’s Maya Norfolk. I think this is her room, but I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to just walk in.”
He smiles kindly. “People are usually nervous, but you don’t have to be. You can go on in.” His smile makes his cheeks puff out like he’s carrying an apple in each one. I could watch him smile all day.
“Thanks,” I force myself to look down.
When I turn around, two people are coming out. The doctors, obviously.
“This is Maya Norfolk’s daughter,” the boy says. “What’s your name, miss?”
I lick my lips. Do the doctors suspect I heard any part of their conversation? “Hana. I’m Hana Norfolk.”
The woman smiles. “It’s nice to meet you, Hana. I’m Dr. Lane, and this is Dr. Bentford. We’ll be taking care of your mom.” She sticks her hand out.
I’ve never shaken someone’s hand before—I thought it was a tradition that went out with the Early Days. Her hand is warm and rough, and she pumps my hand up and down once. Dr. Bentford reaches forward for his turn and gives my hand a half dozen fast shakes.
People who don’t know each other don’t typically touch. It feels very strange.
“Nice to meet you,” I mumble. “I guess I’ll go in now.” No one stops me or questions me, and I slip into Mom’s room. It’s darker in here, but then I see the curtains. They’re drawn, and the light is switched off. My mom is sleeping.
A bed sits in the middle of the room, and there are two chairs on either side of it. A pole stands beside the bed with a bag of fluid. It drips into a long tube that goes into Mom’s hand. The bag hangs freely, not plugged up to electricity. I wonder what makes the water run.
She still looks like Mom. The mutation hasn’t eaten away her body yet. She hasn’t lost weight or her coloring. Back in the Early Days people even lost their hair, but that was from the chemo drugs, not the mutation. I touch her hair softly, remembering all the times she held my hair for me when I was little and got sick. She would give me a cup of water afterward, and then brush my hair. That’s always been my favorite—getting my hair brushed.
I look at her hair again, coming out of my fog. Would Mom care if she lost her hair? No, I don’t think so. I got that from her, not caring about my looks all that much. Besides, she most likely won’t lose her hair anyway. Only if they decide to go ahead with chemotherapy.
Chemo drugs. I take a shaky breath and sit in one of the rickety chairs. Do chemotherapy drugs really still exist? If so, why don’t they give them to everyone? The man had said they needed approval for them, and Mom would have to keep it a secret. None of that makes sense to me.
A soft rap comes from behind the door, and the boy from the hallway comes in with a glass of water. “I wasn’t sure how long you’d be here,” he says. “You might get thirsty.”
I take the glass and smile. “Thanks.”
He pauses like he wants to say more. “I’m sorry about the diagnosis. The mutation is always hard to hear.”
I nod and look down. It is hard to hear. Everyone knows it’s almost a death sentence. Tears burn my eyes and I blink them away. My mom can’t die.
“If you need something just let me know,” he says. “I’ll do anything I can to help. And if you have any questions, I’m happy to get the doctors for you.”
My head bobs up and down like a puppet’s. “Sure. Thanks again.” Talking is hard because I suddenly have a ball in my throat. I try to swallow it down, but it doesn’t help.
“No problem. It was nice to meet you, Hana. I’ll see you around.” He retreats soundlessly, and I realize I didn’t learn his name. He was very kind. I’ve never seen kindness like that in someone else’s eyes. It was almost like he really cared. A thought sprints through my mind, almost gone before I recognize it. What would it be like to be around him all the time?
Why should he care about what happens to me or Mom? Maybe it’s his job—part of his training. Maybe medics are supposed to help comfort those who are sick or injured.
I glance at the bag of fluids hanging on the pole. It looks like water, but of course, I wouldn’t know. The fluids, along with the glass of water in my hands, make me realize the hospital must get extra water allowance too. That’s good. Whoever made up the rules in the government must have known how it felt to have someone they loved in the hospital. They know how to take care of people who are hurting. Our small society may not have many resources, but we pool them and survive. The more you help the society, the more you are helped, in spite of the million rules we have to follow.
I narrow my eyes and bite my lip. If the Greaters do whatever’s best for their citizens, could the chemo drugs help her? I watch Mom’s chest move up and down, and a dull ache grows behind my eyes. What will I do if she dies? What will Dad do? What will happen to her?
My mind flashes back to their whispered conversation and an argument about life after death. That was when I was little, but I’ve never forgotten. I wipe my tears before they run down my face. My mom can’t die. A brick wall goes up in my heart. If there are chemotherapy drugs somewhere, I’m going to find out. If there’s help for Mom to be found, I’m going to find it.