The Gray Before Sunrise

By Laura Schiller

Based on: Delirium

Copyright: Lauren Oliver

Author's Note: Raven is an Invalid leader mentioned in the preview of Pandemonium.)

As a proper security guard, I know I should be at my post outside, but I couldn't resist sneaking in here to watch whatever's going down. In her last coded message, Raven told me to expect a "surprise" on Evaluation Day, and her surprises are always interesting to say the least. I wait by the upper landing, keeping an eye on the sterile white operating theatre below me: the table with its row of lab-coated, dull-eyed evaluators, the shiny floor, the empty rows of bleachers … the operating table. I can't believe they do the tests in the same room where they cut into people's brains – for God's sake, aren't these kids terrified enough? The girl they're grilling right now looks like she's about to pass out.

I watch her to avoid looking at that table. She's a short brunette, slim but curvy in all the right places; since that semisheer hospital gown reveals more than she'd want anyone to see, I do my best to focus on her face. She's biting her lower lip between sentences, blinking rapidly, a frown line showing between her arched eyebrows. She keeps glancing at the table behind the white coats, as if it scares her too. You'd think after a lifetime of propaganda, people might not mind being lobotomized into zombies, but this one evidently does. Too bad for her.

When the coats ask her about her favorite color, something changes. She stands tall, a hint of a blush on her round cheeks. She brushes a strand of chestnut hair from her forehead in a way that looks familiar; I couldn't see it in the mouse she was before, but I definitely see it now.

"Gray," she says.

Her voice, not the nervous mumble she's been using but a bright, warm, womanly voice, rings out across the operating theatre. I remember that voice now, calling out to her friend on sunny autumn afternoons: C'mon, Hana! Last one home's a rotten egg! I remember her now. I just didn't recognize her because it's the first time I've seen her standing still.

It's my bird. The jogger from Monument Square, the one who used to jump up to high-five the Governor and run away, laughing, graceful as the seagulls flying over the border wall. I never expected to see anyone so alive in this godforsaken city, not even an uncured, so I haven't forgotten her. I certainly never expected to see her like this.

"Gray?" Coat number four is dumbfounded.

"Not gray, exactly," she explains, almost smiling, her ordinary face transformed into startling beauty as she speaks. "Right before the sun rises, there's a moment where the whole sky goes this pale nothing color … not really gray, but sort of … or sort of white. And I've always really liked it … because it reminds me of waiting for something good to happen."

Honestly, I'm a little disillusioned. Outside my mind, outside of the halo of joy and freedom I've built up around her, she's really just a kid. No older than I am, and probably a lot younger in experience. But as I start to listen, really listen, it occurs to me that I may be wrong again. Here she is, a Portlander born and bred, raised from birth to conform to these people's conventions and, in her own shy, subtle way, still resisting. She's the first evaluee today, maybe the first one ever, to name a color that can't be summed up in one word. I thought if I had to hear 'blue' or 'green' one more time, I'd puke over the stair rail. You'd think the white coats would be happy for the change, but no; I can already sense the idiots making up their minds to flunk her.

A rumbling sound distracts us all, getting closer and closer, making my bird's eyes wider than ever and her face white with fear. Then they burst through the doors, thundering, bellowing, unstoppable: a herd of cattle in wigs and hospital gowns. They're an obvious metaphor for the mindless herd that is this country. Chaos on hooves.


Raven's really outdone herself this time.

My bird, thinking quickly, ducks between the operating table and the wall. The white coats jump up onto the table, shrieking, swatting at the cows with their clipboards. Not so dignified now, eh? I'm laughing my head off, confident no one will even notice me in this chaos, when suddenly my bird's face reappears above the table and her brown eyes look directly up at me.

She's grinning too, watching this ridiculous scene like a spectator at a play, but as our eyes meet, her smile slowly fades away. She stares at me with intense concentration, like she's trying to figure me out: a lone uniformed guard, out of bounds, laughing when he should be helping out. I wink at her, which makes her blush. Since I've been wondering about her since the day I first saw her, it's only fair for her to wonder about me.

She is the gray before sunrise, I think. Nothing special – until you see the morning light in her eyes, the promise of beauty to come.

I've been waiting for something good to happen all my life. I think this might be it.