MY SENSE OF DREAD INCREASED EXPONENTIALLY as we drove down the dark, palm-tree lined driveway to the zoo.
“This is a bad idea,” I said to Noah. We had talked about it on the ride back from Little Havana, after I called my mother and told her we were going to hang out at Noah’s after school—which we didn’t go to—for a change of scenery. Since there was no way to track down Mr. Lukumi, if that was even his real name, and no one else we could go to for help unless we both wanted to be committed, we had to figure out what to do next. I was, of course, the top priority; I had to figure out what prompted my reactions if I was going to have any hope at all of learning to control them. We agreed that this was the best way, the easiest way to experiment. But I was still afraid.
“Just trust me. I’m right about this.”
“Pride goes before the fall,” I said, a small smile on my lips. Then, “Why can’t we test you first, again?”
“I want to see if I can counteract you. I think that’s important. Maybe it’s why we found each other. You know?”
“Not really,” I said to the window. My hair clung in sweaty tendrils to the back of my neck. I twisted it into a knot to get it off my skin.
“Now you’re just being contrary.”
“Says the person with the useful … thing.” It felt weird to name it, name what we could do. Inappropriate. It didn’t do the reality justice.
“I think there’s more you can do, Mara.”
“Maybe,” I said, but doubting it. “I wish I had your thing, though.”
“I wish you did, too.” Then after a pause, “Healing’s for girls.”
“You’re awful,” I said, and shook my head. An obnoxious grin curved Noah’s mouth. “It’s not funny,” I said, but smiled anyway. I was still anxious, but it was incredible how much better I felt with Noah there, with him knowing. Like I could deal with this. Like we could deal with it together.
Noah parked at the curb of the zoo. I didn’t know how he managed to get us after-hours access, and didn’t ask. An outcropping of sculpted rocks greeted us as we walked in, towering over a manufactured pond. Sleeping pelicans dotted the water, their heads tucked under wings. On the opposite side, flamingoes, pale pink in the halogen auxiliary lights, stood in clumps on the opposite side of the walk. The birds were silent sentries, failing to notice or comment on our presence.
We wound deeper into the park, hand in hand as a hot breeze ruffled the foliage and our hair. Past the gazelles and antelopes, which stirred as we approached. Hooves stamped the ground, and a low nickering swept through the herd. We increased our pace.
Something rustled in the branches above us but I couldn’t see anything in the dark. I read the exhibit sign: white gibbons to the right, chimpanzees to the left. As soon as I finished reading, a shrill scream pierced the air and something crashed through the brush toward us. My feet and my heart froze.
The chimpanzee stopped short right at the moat. And not one of the cute, tan-faced charmers usually conscripted into the entertainment industry; this one was enormous. It sat, tense and coiled at the precipice. It stared at me with human eyes that followed us as we started walking again. The hair stood up on the back of my neck.
Noah turned into a small niche and withdrew a set of keys from his pocket as we approached a small structure disguised by large plants and trees. The door read employees only.
“What are we doing?”
“It’s a work room. They’re preparing for an exhibit on insects of the world or something,” Noah said as he opened the door.
I hated the idea of killing anything, but at least bugs reproduced like—well, like roaches—and no one would miss a few.
“How’d you work this out?” I asked, looking behind us. My skin prickled. I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were being watched.
“My mother’s done some volunteer work here. And gives them an obscene amount of money.”
Noah flipped on the lights, illuminating the long metal table in the center, and closed the door behind us. Metal shelves lined the walls, holding bins and plastic tubs. Noah walked around, his eyes scanning their small labels. I was rooted to the doorway, and couldn’t read them from where I stood.
Finally, Noah held up a translucent plastic box. My eyes narrowed at him.
“What are those?”
“Leeches,” he said casually. He avoided my stare.
A wave of disgust rolled through me. “No. No way.”
“You have to.”
I shuddered. “Pick something else,” I said, and rushed to the far side of the room. “Here.” I pointed at an opaque tub with a label I couldn’t pronounce. “Somethingsomething scorpions.”
“Those are poisonous,” Noah said, studying my face.
“They’re also endangered.”
“Fine,” I said, my voice and legs beginning to tremble as I walked over to a transparent box and pointed. “The big-ass spider.”
Noah walked over and read the label, still holding the box of leeches close. Way too close. I backed away. “Also poisonous,” Noah said evenly.
“Then that will be plenty of incentive.”
“It could bite before you kill it.”
My heart wanted to escape from my throat. “A perfect opportunity to practice your healing,” I choked out.
Noah shook his head. “I’m not going to experiment with your life. No.”
“Then pick something else,” I said, growing breathless with terror. “Not the leeches.”
Noah rubbed his forehead. “They’re harmless, Mara.”
“I don’t care!” I heard the insects in the room beat their chitinous wings against their plastic prisons. I began to lose it and felt myself sway on my feet.
“If it doesn’t work, I’ll take it off immediately,” Noah said. “It won’t hurt you.”
“No. I’m serious, Noah,” I said. “I can’t do it. They burrow under skin and suck blood. Oh my God. Oh my God.” I wrapped my arms around my body to stop it from shaking.
“It will be over quickly, I promise,” he said. “You won’t feel anything.” He reached his hand into the tank.
“No.” I could only croak this in a hoarse whisper. I couldn’t breathe. Multicolored spots appeared behind my eyelids that I couldn’t blink away.
Noah scooped up a leech in his hand and I felt myself sink. Then …
My eyes fluttered open.
“It’s dead. Unbelievable,” he said. “You did it.”
Noah walked over with his palm open to show me, but I recoiled, scrambled up against the door. He looked at me with an unreadable expression, then went to discard the dead leech. When he lifted the bin to replace it back on the shelf, he stopped.
“My God,” he said.
“What?” My voice was still nothing but a shaky whisper.
“They’re all dead.”
Noah put the bin back on the shelf with an unsteady hand. He walked among the rows of insects, eyes scanning the transparent tubs and opening the others to inspect them.
When he reached the spot he started in, he stared at the wall.
“Everything,” he said. “Everything’s dead.”