I wait. They keep us in the dark for so long that
we lose sense of our eyelids. We sleep huddled together
like rats, staring out, and dream of our bodies swaying.
I know when one of the girls reaches a wall. She begins
to pound and scream—there’s metal in the sound—but
none of us help her. We’ve gone too long without speaking,
and all we do is bury ourselves more into the dark.
The doors open.
The light is frightening. It’s the light of the world
through the birth canal, and at once the blinding tunnel
that comes with death. I recoil into the blankets with the
other girls in horror, not wanting to begin or end.
We stumble when they let us out; we’ve forgotten how
to use our legs. How long has it been—days? Hours?
The big open sky waits in its usual place.
I stand in line with the other girls, and men in gray
coats study us.
I’ve heard of this happening. Where I come from,
girls have been disappearing for a long time. They disappear
from their beds or from the side of the road. It happened
to a girl in my neighborhood. Her whole family
disappeared after that, moved away, either to find her or
because they knew she would never be returned.
Now it’s my turn. I know girls disappear, but any
number of things could come after that. Will I become
a murdered reject? Sold into prostitution? These things
have happened. There’s only one other option. I could
become a bride. I’ve seen them on television, reluctant
yet beautiful teenage brides, on the arm of a wealthy man
who is approaching the lethal age of twenty-five.
The other girls never make it to the television screen.
Girls who don’t pass their inspection are shipped to a
brothel in the scarlet districts. Some we have found
murdered on the sides of roads, rotting, staring into the
searing sun because the Gatherers couldn’t be bothered
to deal with them. Some girls disappear forever, and all
their families can do is wonder.
The girls are taken as young as thirteen, when their
bodies are mature enough to bear children, and the virus
claims every female of our generation by twenty.
Our hips are measured to determine strength, our
lips pried apart so the men can judge our health by our
teeth. One of the girls vomits. She may be the girl who
screamed. She wipes her mouth, trembling, terrified. I
stand firm, determined to be anonymous, unhelpful.
I feel too alive in this row of moribund girls with their
eyes half open. I sense that their hearts are barely beating,
while mine pounds in my chest. After so much time
spent riding in the darkness of the truck, we have all
fused together. We are one nameless thing sharing this
strange hell. I do not want to stand out. I do not want
to stand out.
But it doesn’t matter. Someone has noticed me. A
man paces before the line of us. He allows us to be prodded
by the men in gray coats who examine us. He seems
thoughtful and pleased.
His eyes green, like two exclamation marks, meet
mine. He smiles. There’s a flash of gold in his teeth, indicating
wealth. This is unusual, because he’s too young to
be losing his teeth. He keeps walking, and I stare at my
shoes. Stupid! I should never have looked up. The strange
color of my eyes is the first thing anyone ever notices.
He says something to the men in gray coats. They
look at all of us, and then they seem to be in agreement.
The man with gold teeth smiles in my direction again,
and then he’s taken to another car that shoots up bits of
gravel as it backs onto the road and drives away.
The vomit girl is taken back to the truck, and a dozen
other girls with her; a man in a gray coat follows them
in. There are three of us left, the gap of the other girls
still between us. The men speak to one another again,
and then to us. “Go,” they say, and we oblige. There’s
nowhere to go but the back of an open limousine parked
on the gravel. We’re off the road somewhere, not far
from the highway. I can hear the distant sounds of traffic.
I can see the evening city lights beginning to appear in
the distant purple haze. It’s nowhere I recognize; a road
this desolate is far from the crowded streets back home.
Go. The two other chosen girls move before me, and
I’m the last to get into the limousine. There’s a tinted
glass window that separates us from the driver. Just
before someone shuts the door, I hear something inside
the van where the remaining girls were herded.
It’s the first of what I know will be a dozen more gunshots.
I awake in a satin bed, nauseous and pulsating with sweat.
My first conscious movement is to push myself to the
edge of the mattress, where I lean over and vomit onto
the lush red carpet. I’m still spitting and gagging when
someone begins cleaning up the mess with a dishrag.
“Everyone handles the sleep gas differently,” he says
“Sleep gas?” I splutter, and before I can wipe my
mouth on my lacy white sleeve, he hands me a cloth napkin—
also lush red.
“It comes out through the vents in the limo,” he says.
“It’s so you won’t know where you’re going.”
I remember the glass window separating us from the
front of the car. Air tight, I assume. Vaguely I remember
the whooshing of air coming through vents in the walls.
“One of the other girls,” the boy says, as he sprays
white foam onto the spot where I vomited, “she almost
threw herself out the bedroom window, she was so disoriented.
The window’s locked, of course. Shatterproof.”
Despite the awful things he’s saying, his voice is low, possibly
I look over my shoulder at the window. Closed tight.
The world is bright green and blue beyond it, brighter
than my home, where there’s only dirt and the remnants
of my mother’s garden that I’ve failed to revive.
Somewhere down the hall a woman screams. The boy
tenses for a moment. Then he resumes scrubbing away
“I can help,” I offer. A moment ago I didn’t feel guilty
about ruining anything in this place; I know I’m here
against my will. But I also know this boy isn’t to blame.
He can’t be one of the Gatherers in gray who brought
me here—he’s too young, possibly my age. Maybe he
was also brought here against his will. I haven’t heard
of teenage boys disappearing, but up until fifty years
ago, when the virus was discovered, girls were also safe.
Everyone was safe.
“No need. It’s all done,” he says. And when he moves
the rag away, there’s not so much as a stain. He pulls a
handle out of the wall, and a chute opens; he tosses the
rags into it, lets go, and the chute clamps shut. He tucks
the can of white foam into his apron pocket and returns
to what he was doing. He picks up a silver tray from
where he’d placed it on the floor, and brings it to my
night table. “If you’re feeling better, there’s some lunch
for you. Nothing that will make you fall asleep again, I
promise.” He looks like he might smile. Just almost. But
he maintains a concentrated gaze as he lifts a metal lid off
a bowl of soup and another off a small plate of steaming
vegetables and mashed potatoes cradling a lake of gravy.
I’ve been stolen, drugged, locked away in this place, yet
I’m being served a gourmet meal. The sentiment is so
vile I could almost throw up again.
“That other girl—the one who tried to throw herself
out the window—what happened to her?” I ask. I don’t
dare ask about the woman screaming down the hall. I
don’t want to know about her.
“She’s calmed down some.”
“And the other girl?”
“She woke up this morning. I think the House Governor
took her to tour the gardens.”
House Governor. I remember my despair and crash
against the pillows. House Governors own mansions.
They purchase brides from Gatherers, who patrol the
streets looking for ideal candidates to kidnap. The merciful
ones will sell the rejects into prostitution, but the
ones I encountered herded them into the van and shot
them all. I heard that first gunshot over and over in my
“How long have I been here?” I say.
“Two days,” the boy says. He hands me a steaming
cup, and I’m about to refuse it when I see the tea bag
string dangling over the side, smell the spices. Tea. My
brother, Rowan, and I had it with our breakfast each
morning, and with dinner each night. The smell is like
home. My mother would hum as she waited by the stove
for the water to boil.
Blearily I sit up and take the tea. I hold it near my face
and breathe the steam in through my nose. It’s all I can
do not to burst into tears. The boy must sense that the
full impact of what has happened is reaching me. He must
sense that I’m on the verge of doing something dramatic
like crying or trying to fling myself out the window like
that other girl, because he’s already moving for the door.
Quietly, without looking back, he leaves me to my grief.
But instead of tears, when I press my face against the
pillow, a horrible, primal scream comes out of me. It’s
unlike anything I thought myself capable of. Rage, unlike
anything I’ve ever known.
Excerpted from Wither
by Lauren DeStefano
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are
provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or
distributed without the written permission of the publisher.