By Monica Hesse
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Perfect for fans of Black Mirror and Warcross, a suspenseful novel that asks what it means to live a life that isn’t your own.
Lona Sixteen Always has spent most of her life as someone else. Part of a unique virtual reality experiment for troubled kids who have been “rescued” by the government, she spends twenty-three hours a day on the Path, reliving the decades-old, perfectly ordinary memories of a perfectly ordinary boy. Any other life is unimaginable — until one day someone appears on Lona’s screen who doesn’t belong: Fenn, a boy from her past, has returned to set her free.
Lona is wrenched brutally into an existence that is suddenly all her own, one that promises liberty and love, but also holds threatening secrets. And it turns out that there is a heavy price to pay for straying from her assigned path.
In Stray, Edgar-award winning master of suspense Monica Hesse brings us a richly imagined speculative world where there are no easy answers–and no easy way out.
“Don’t forget about us, Lona.”
“Of course not.”
“If the Path is working it will be easy to forget, because We won’t matter.”
“That’s not true.”
He was right. Lona knew. The Path was a cajoling teacher, a relentless force. “If” the Path is working. The Julian Path was always working. Fenn knew that as well as she did. The “if” was a gift to Lona. A courtesy. What he really meant was: “Don’t feel bad about forgetting. It will happen. It is inevitable. But all will be forgiven between us.”
Fenn reached over to Lona and did the thing that he had done once before. He brushed his fingers against her wrist, over the bones that joined her forearm to her hand. His touch was quick and light and furtive. Maybe he had figured out that this was abnormal behavior, better to be done in secret. This was behavior to be analyzed and diagnosed. Dealt with.
Lona felt a tear trickle from the corner of her eye down the bridge of her nose, mucousy and wet. This was also abnormal behavior. Lona was only supposed to cry in Julian’s world. She was not supposed to cry Off Path.
The bell rang. Lona looked toward the door leading to the bay, and then back at Fenn.
“Go,” he said. When she didn’t, he nudged her arm. “Go,” he said again. “Julian is waiting.”
At her pod, the lights were already dimming. She thought about how amputated it had felt to enter the bay without him. How solitary Fenn had looked in his regulation clothing.
The recording began. It was a balm of a message, an ointment, doing what it was designed to do. It soothed. The Path is for you, it said. The Path is in you.
Lona tried to hold on to Fenn’s face. She owed him that.
You are the Path.
It was impossible. The conversation was already fading. The tears she had just shed were evaporating against her face, dry and tight. A membrane of sadness, a memento of disobedience.
This was as it was supposed to be, the great architecture of Lona’s existence. The life she’d just been living ceased to be important. New colors appeared in front of her eyes, new sounds echoed in her ears. A brassy alarm clock. A lawn mower.
Lona’s pod disappeared, until she was no longer in the bay, but in a familiar bedroom.
Lona was becoming Julian again.
First, the pool was cold. If it was below sixty-seven degrees, they weren’t supposed to swim. But the thermometer obviously said sixty-five, and the coach hadn’t done anything but assign a satanic warm-up. Then Dan had forgotten he’d offered to drive Julian to school, so Julian was jogging the seven blocks from practice holding his backpack in front of himself like an hors d’oeuvres tray, trying not to crush the paper model inside. Capsaicin, it was called—the molecule that made peppers hot. On the fifth block, his mother called to say that his capsaicin molecule was sitting on the kitchen table. Julian opened his bag. Cheerios.
“Is this going to be a bad day?” the new manager asked, tapping the screen with his fingernail. The control room was a still, gray dark. Two Monitors sat at their desks, a patchwork of scenes running across their computers. Talia clicked on the tiny square now marked with an oily fingerprint, enlarging it and noting the number in the bottom right-hand corner. Then she opened a browser and typed the number into Julianbase.
Then she reminded herself that the new manager’s name rhymed with skeevy, which was helpful.
“Day 6001 is a five-point-four, Mr. Greevey,” she said. “In Path, that means it’s classified as Mildly Downcast, but it’s within the normal range. It’s barely below average, which is six.”
“I know it’s six.”
He sounded testy. New sector managers always sounded testy. Talia wished his testiness was not currently manifested as a greasy whorl pattern on her screen. Talia bet he didn’t know it was six.
“Of course. I’m just saying that we usually only register days that are Moderate-Severe Depressed or worse—anything less than a three.”
“So you’re not going to call a Coping Technician?”
He sounded accusatory. New sector managers always sounded accusatory. The Coping Technicians hated when new managers started even more than Talia did—the worrying, the whining, the stupid rules that the manager would later realize were stupid and try to blame on someone else. CTs had started referring to new managers as FMs. They said it stood for Floor Manager. It stood for Fecal Matter.
The rumor was that this one got the job because he was somebody’s nephew. He was slightly less competent and more execrable than the one before.
“No,” Talia said. “I don’t need to call a CT. Besides, Lona is the one in 6001. On her charts, she scores very high in resilience, which makes it easier for her to cope with anything Julian’s coping with.”
Talia liked Lona. This wasn’t something you said out loud, not unless you wanted to spend a weekend in a remedial Monitor training seminar. It was unwise, the seminar would explain, to “like” any of them, when they were all learning to become the same person. But Talia liked how, when Julian ran, sometimes Lona’s feet moved, too, little twitches like a dog having a dream, which made her long hair come untucked and fall down her arm. There was something endearing about this. Talia also felt a bond with Lona for other reasons, but those reasons were mixed with unease. Those reasons were better ignored.
And then, because Talia could tell that Greevey was the kind of person who worried more when everything seemed fine than when something was wrong, she added: “But you might want to have one on reserve for later this week. Jynd is in 5724, and Julian’s grandfather dies in 5727. That’s always a hard day.”
This pleased him. Greevey gave Talia an important nod. “I’ll arrange that.”
When he left, Talia turned back to her screen. Day 6001 was familiar. She’d monitored it just a few weeks ago, and she actually kind of liked it. It was a five-point-four, but a funny five-point-four—the kind where the things that went wrong could have been accompanied by a pre-recorded laugh track, full of chuckles and polite groans. After Julian realized he’d left the molecule at home, his mother would offer to drive it to him, but there would be a misunderstanding about which entrance they were meeting at. Julian would go to the south entrance, and his mother would go to the west. Later, Julian would misread his sheet music in choir practice and start singing with the girls.
Talia was convinced Julian would not have viewed this day as a five-point-four at all, but as an even six, or maybe six-point-two. The day’s cozy ridiculousness would have amused him, if not immediately, then a few days later, when he mulled it over in his private thoughts. No one had access to his real private thoughts, of course. But Julian’s ability to get over things like forgotten molecules was, after all, part of what had made Julian such a likable selection.
For now, Julian was merely trotting into Mr. Orlando’s Chemistry class and explaining how his pepper model was missing.
“Was it too hot to handle?” Mr. Orlando asked. Bless him, he thought his capsaicin pun was hilarious. The difference between Mr. Orlando and Ms. Shaw, the other Chemistry teacher, was that Mr. Orlando embraced his own dorkiness, which made everyone like him. He wore short-sleeved button-downs that never quite closed over his stomach; his belly button appeared as a triangle of pale flesh like the eye at the top of a pyramid on a dollar bill. He called his belly button “The Seeing Eye.”
“Maybe you are too hot to handle,” Julian said, and everyone laughed. This was the type of thing you couldn’t get away with in Ms. Shaw’s class.
“Go.” Mr. Orlando rolled his eyes. “Go get your capsaicin. Come back ready to talk about ion bonding.”
Julian obediently loped toward the school’s south entrance, pausing to glance at his reflection in a hallway trophy case. It was a good year for Julian’s looks. He was tall-ish but not too tall. He was handsome-ish, but not overly handsome. He had long limbs, doe-brown eyes. Right now, his hair was still damp, darker than its normal color. When it dried, it would be nearly the same shade as his skin, giving the impression that if he stood in front of a beige wall, he could blend in.
Julian didn’t look at himself frequently, meaning that those in Path were not often confronted with a mirror image of a face that was not technically theirs. There was discussion, once, about whether Path should be modified so that Pathers saw their own faces when Julian looked in the mirror. It hadn’t gone anywhere. Budget issues, probably.
The red light above Talia’s computer screen began to flash, simultaneously emitting an atonal whistle. Noon. Time for midday rounds. Talia could see the entire Path bay from where she was, but just barely. From the control room, the evenly spaced pods looked like blobby, boulder-sized masses. On floor level, a neat path of footlights, the kind they had in movie theaters, lit an efficient walkway for the Monitors to follow. It was peaceful down in the bay. Once it had been the gymnasium part of a posh health club. The control room had been the welcome desk. The Calisthenics room had been the weight room. The showers had been the showers. Some things don’t change.
There would have been basketball nets then, in the bay. It would have smelled like sweat and shoe leather. Now it smelled dry and electronic, and the only sound was a low whooshing, which was the sound of two hundred machines running. It sounded like breathing. Here in the bay, the boulders came to life.
In the beginning, when Talia first started her job, they used regular dental chairs, tilted back into reclining position. The vinyl stuck to skin, though. Created too many bedsores. Now the chairs were coated with microfiber.
The patrolling was Talia’s favorite part of her job—walking around her assigned Pathers, noting anyone who was growing faster than expected and needed to be fitted with a new pod. She rarely had to touch anyone. That was mostly a CT job—stroking the shoulder of a Pather who was having a particularly traumatic day. The pods could replicate most sensory experiences, but sometimes Pathers responded better to actual human touch. CTs used to be called Touchers before they unionized and decided the title didn’t fully enough represent their skill sets. Not that Talia blamed them. Who would want to be a professional Toucher? The Monitors tried to remember to use the new title, with limited success.
To her right, a big redheaded Pather named Grni was somewhere in the 6300s. Julian was filling out college applications, his father plotting a road trip down to a university in St. Louis. To Talia’s left, a smaller Pather named Dwnd must be in the mid 2000s. Julian had decided the swing set was a pirate ship and was annoyed when his mom didn’t remember to say “Ahoy.” The sound from that pod was tinny; Talia made a note to have it checked. Farther down, a young Pather, barely over 365, wearing his miniature visioneers and supported by a special headrest, played a singsongy game of Pattycake with Julian’s parents while a Coping Technician changed his diaper. The diaper was a problem, but no one had been able to design a better stopgap solution for before young Pathers could go on the bathroom break schedule. Someone would think of something. Path was only eighteen. It was getting better all the time.
Finally, Talia came to Lona. Julian was done with Chemistry, running lightly to English. Lona’s feet twitched in time. One foot bounced off her chair and dangled to the side. Julian’s loping wasn’t effective; he went up and down as much as he went forward. He wasn’t a great runner, Talia thought, but Lona might have been.
Which was a useless thing to think. There had never really been a Lona without Julian.
She lifted Lona’s foot back onto her chair. She might have called a Toucher if it was anyone else, but Lona intrigued her ever since what had happened eleven years ago; and, if she was really being honest with herself, Lona scared her.
Talia finished her rounds and walked back up to the control room. The pods became boulders again. Peaceful boulders, neat rows, safe order, dim light.
“Lona was running again,” she said to the second Monitor, a younger woman with cropped hair who sat in the other desk. Lona’s twitchy feet were famous in the control room. “Also, I think Dwnd’s sound needs to be checked.”
“It’s the new speakers. Supposed to be better, but last week I had to send out two Pathers for eardrum exams. One was the day after Julian lit off all those firecrackers in 4200s, so maybe that was supposed to happen?”
A current debate among Path overseers: If Julian got sick, did that mean the Pather in that day should also be sick? Some argued yes—Pathers were supposed to have a full range of human experiences through Julian, and experiences included damaged eardrums. Others said the Pathers were put in Path to give them better lives than they ever would have had Off Path. How much was pain necessary to the ideal human experience?
“What do you think of the new guy?” Talia asked.
“Kind of an idiot. He made me call a Coping Technician for a stubbed toe today. As if he was actually worried about the toe and not his ass.”
“How did that go?”
“The Toucher can kiss my ass. Did you hear they were all asking for Christmas off? What did they think this job—”
Before she could complete her sentence, a piercing sound rang through the cavernous bay—a horrible, hideous scream. It was much louder than any sound Talia’s computer could make, and louder even than Julian’s yells when he broke his left tibia in 4428 after a failed wheelie off the bicycle ramp. It was a sound that could not have been learned by any Pather through any experience in the Julian Path.
But it was a Pather who was making that terrified sound.
The other Monitor’s fingers flew over the keyboard as she tried to isolate the origin of the scream.
“It’s Ernd, in Quadrant 4.” She panicked. “I don’t know what… It doesn’t make any… Ernd is Off Path.”
There were emergency procedures for this. They were just pretend emergency procedures, though. No one ever expected to have to use them. No one went Off Path without permission, without the soothing mechanisms and dozens of meetings that went into preparing for such an event. Pathers did not go Off Path on their own, and so nobody needed emergency procedures.
But these procedures must have involved the overhead lights coming on, Talia thought, because that’s what was happening. The lights were coming on. The visioneers were lifting, hours before Calisthenics were scheduled to take place.
In Quadrant 1, Lona Sixteen Always was heading into the choir room, watching Nick as he did an impression of the choral director and the way his bottom lip quivered. Lona was picking up Julian’s folder of music from his assigned slot. She was listening to Mr. Santolar’s quivering lip tell them that the concert was in just a week, and don’t make him regret choosing such hard music for high school students. And then—then she wasn’t.
Then she was in the bay with all of the other Pathers from Sector 14, and the shrieking sound she heard had nothing to do with choir music. One person was screaming, and then another, and then, as the visioneers lifted, the whole room filled with the sounds of terror.
Lona felt warm light on her face. Sunbeams streamed in the slender windows that surrounded the top of the bay.
Julian spent every spring break visiting his grandparents in Florida, and sometimes they went to Cocoa Beach. Julian belonged to the local parks and rec swim team, and in the summer they practiced outside for ninety minutes every night. Julian had more fresh air than most people of his generation, which was another reason that Julian had been chosen.
And yet, as Lona peered up at the slivers of light piercing in through the top of the gymnasium, she intuitively understood something: This was the first time she had ever seen the sun.
“We were so scared,” a small girl with dark skin was saying. “It was like the time We locked ourselves in the bathroom when Melissa was babysitting.”
“No,” said an older, wavy-haired boy. “It was like when We had our tonsils out and We woke up and Mom and Dad weren’t in the room.”
“That hasn’t happened to us yet,” the girl protested, annoyed. “We aren’t supposed to tell us.”
Lona flexed the muscles her machine told her to flex and listened to the conversations around her. The Calisthenics hour had been lost to gossip about what had happened in the bay. It—whatever it was—hadn’t lasted more than sixty seconds. Then the visioneers started working again. A few minutes later the room flooded with CTs who walked between pods, gently stroking the arms of two children at the same time. More arrived throughout the afternoon (helicoptered in from neighboring sectors?) and by the beginning of Calisthenics, there was nearly one Coping Technician for every Pather. Stroking arms. Upper arms. The length between the shoulder and the elbow, with steady, even pressure. This was the Toucher’s specialty. Stroking arms and saying “Sh-sh-sh-sh-shhhhhh.”
Lona’s current Coping Technician hadn’t arrived until it—whatever it was—was long over. Now, since Lona’s arms were locked in the bicep/tricep machine, the CT stroked her calf, from the side of her knee down to her ankle. It was an awkward fit, this asthmatic, porky man wedged between the pulleys and levers of her muscle strengthener, but he managed to give it some dignity.
Next to Lona, the older boy apologized to the younger girl for spoiling the news about the tonsillectomy—a clear violation of Path rules. “It’s not that bad,” he said. “We don’t even cry.”
The only pronoun that a Pather used was “We.” It hadn’t been planned that way. Just a natural evolution. When Lona was in her mid-4000s, a graduate student had written her linguistics dissertation about the “unique Pather dialect.” She came for research during Calisthenics, sitting near Lona, down by the calf muscle that the CT was currently comforting.
“Do you find that the first person plural pronoun gives you a greater sense of community?” she had asked, pen poised above her spiral notebook. She had narrow eyes like a bird, and freckles across her forearms and the bridge of her nose. “Or do you feel that it upsets your sense of individuality?”
Lona had stared at her. “We don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
What a stupid question. What pronoun were they supposed to use? “You” was just “Me” yesterday, or would be tomorrow. They were all “We”s, dots at different points along the same line. They were all journeying together.
The only thing “individual” about Lona was her name, and that was a random assignment. The L, the twelfth letter of the alphabet, represented the twelfth month of the year and signified that she had been born in December. The O meant her birth date was the fifteenth. The N stood for her sector, and the A was her quadrant. Her full name was Lona Sixteen Always. “Sixteen” was her year signifier—last year she had been Lona Fifteen—and “Always” was the age of the Julian Path when she entered it. It had been the project’s third year. The first-year Pathers were called Beginnings. The seconds were Accelerates.
Not that this mattered. Lona’s birthday might be December 15, but since her days were synced with Julian’s, the only birthday that mattered was his, which was October 6. Lona’s name was just a way to keep track of things. Wherever she was, someone could hear her name and know exactly where she belonged. The same year the linguistics student had come, six or seven months later, Lona met another December 15 born her year. This Pather’s name was Losk; she was briefly in Sector 14 for reasons Lona never knew.
“You two can chat,” a tiny, pixie-ish Coping Technician had cooed. “You both just had the same day.”
The other girl was taller than Lona. She had pale hair—Lona’s was sandy and rough—and brown eyes that looked like boardwalk fudge from Julian’s vacations. They looked a lot like Julian’s friend Sarafina’s eyes. Lona wondered briefly whether Sarafina had ever noticed the similarity before remembering that Sarafina had never seen Losk’s eyes.
“Well, today was gross,” Losk said.
“It was?” Lona’s reply had a question mark after it, but Losk didn’t hear it.
“When We face-planted in gym and everyone saw and laughed. So awful.”
“They weren’t laughing in a mean way,” Lona said, perplexed. “It was just funny. And then our team won anyway.”
“It wasn’t funny. We wanted to die. And what if We get chosen last for basketball next time?”
“Who cares if We do? We’re the best at swimming anyway, and everyone knows that.”
If Lona got to plan the gym program, there would be no basketball unit. Basketball unit would be banished to a cupboard with all of the other ball sports. Floor hockey could stay. A puck wasn’t really a ball.
“But gym is every day,” Losk protested.
“We don’t even like gym.” Lona was almost laughing now at having to explain this. “It’s the most boring class all day.”
“No it’s not. It’s the only fun thing We ever get to do.”
Losk wasn’t reassured by Lona’s reasoning; in fact, she was getting even more upset. Bright pink spots appeared in the middle of her cheeks.
“We know,” Lona said, not because she agreed, but because this conversation was unsettling and she wanted it to be over. “It wasn’t the best day. Definitely not an eleven.”
That appeased Losk. Her face returned to its normal color. “At least it got better when Seth de-pantsed Curtis,” she said. “Then everyone was laughing at him, not us.”
Lona nodded, but she was uncomfortable with this memory. The other students hadn’t laughed at Curtis the same way they had laughed at Julian. It wasn’t a friendly laugh, but a mean one. Curtis was shy and quiet. He carried an injection kit around in a fanny pack in case he accidentally ate a peanut. When Seth pulled down Curtis’s shorts in the middle of gym class, it hadn’t made Lona feel relieved. It had made her feel sad.
The conversation had ended. Lona was still confused. They were paired together to talk about the events of their day. But they’d had the same events, and they each thought the day was something totally different. It didn’t make sense.
At least on that day she had been able to talk to Fenn.
Her mind unfurled the same series of questions it always did when she thought of him. Where is Fenn? What is he doing now? Does he wonder what I’m doing now? Where is Fenn? What is he doing now? Where is Fenn?
They’d known each other forever. Sometimes people exaggerated when they said that. Julian and Nick hadn’t really been friends “forever,” as Julian’s mom liked to say; they met in first grade. Lona had always known Fenn. In her first clear memory, he was barely in his 2000s, a careful, dark-haired boy who was taking too long at a flexibility machine. Lona saw why: he held a crumpled piece of paper in his hand. Contraband.
“What’s that?” she asked—quietly so no one else would hear.
“It’s our ones and elevens. We’re not supposed to see.”
The Coping Technicians kept track of monthly highs and lows for all of the Pathers. This paper contained all of Fenn’s. His CT must have dropped it; Fenn looked nervous about finding it. The creases in the paper were transparent with his sweat.
“Did We look?”
“We’re not supposed to see,” he said again.
Lona plucked the sheet from his hand. She couldn’t read yet, but she knew her numbers. “We’ll look for Us,” she said, meaning she would look for him.
He said: “We’ll look for each other.”
On the Losk day, he offered reasonable explanations. He always offered reasonable explanations. “Maybe Losk’s sound was malfunctioning,” he suggested when Lona sat next to him in quadriceps. “We remember that day, a little bit. It was sad when everyone laughed at Curtis. Julian is always nice to Curtis.”
He chewed his bottom lip. Lona noticed all the older Pathers did this—some habit Julian picked up in high school. “It must have been Losk’s equipment.”
That didn’t make sense. Part of the reason Calisthenics didn’t happen in the bay was because Monitors used the time to examine the pods for potential repairs. The equipment was meticulously maintained. It never went wrong.
“Besides,” he continued, “confusion like that doesn’t sound like it would be prescribed with the Path.” Fenn was like that, measured and methodical. He would eliminate possibilities, chew through arguments. He never spoke until he had complete sentences. “Path only has negative emotions that have been monitored, or that are there for a reason. Otherwise it would just be like Before, remember?”
Lona shuddered. She didn’t technically remember—none of them did—but she had learned about Before, in one of the presentations that sometimes happened during Calisthenics. Path History. Emotional Well-Being. Proper Calisthenics. In this particular presentation, they learned about Before Path. Before Path, Lona would have been beaten or neglected by parents who had been declared unfit. If she were lucky she might have been put in something called “foster care,” but even that was dangerous. The presenter showed pictures of a shrunken boy locked in a dog cage, staring through the bars with huge eyes. “That’s how the authorities found him,” the presenter said. “That’s where his foster parents kept him. He didn’t know how to read. He spent every day in his own filth. This is what it used to be like, for everyone like you. You have all been given a very special gift.”
That gift was the Path, the man said. That gift was the fact that when these potentially unfit people disobeyed orders not to have children, the children were rescued and put into a life they never would have been able to have. A good education. Proper nutrition. When the Julian Act was passed in Congress, the CT said, people wept with joy.
“Fenn,” Lona said. “What if it was a negative emotion only to Losk?”
“But it was the same day.”
“We know. But what if… remember how Dad is always talking about ‘personality differences’?”
Praise for Girl in the Blue Coat:
"Girl in the Blue Coat is a powerful, compelling coming-of-age story set against the dark and dangerous backdrop of World War II. It's an important and page-turning look at the choices all of us--including young adults--have to make in wartime. A beautiful combination of heartbreak, loss, young love, and hope."—Kristin Hannah, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Nightingale
"A tapestry of guilt and acceptance, growing responsibility, and reluctant heroism, Hanneke's coming-of-age under heartbreaking circumstances is a jarring reminder of how war consumes and transforms the passions of ordinary life. Every devastating moment of this beautiful novel is both poignant and powerful, and every word feels true."—Elizabeth Wein, New York Times bestselling author of Black Dove, White Raven; Rose Under Fire; and the Printz Honor-winning Code Name Verity
"In an occupied city, a young woman's daring transforms into true courage when she confronts a mystifying disappearance. From page one, I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. Enthralling."—Judy Blundell, New York Times bestselling author of Strings Attached and the National Book Award-winning What I Saw and How I Lied
"It's no small feat to bring the past to life, especially a history as dark and desperate as World War II. Monica Hesse does just this with Hanneke's story. Brace yourself, dear reader, to have your heart bruised--and possibly even broken--in the most meaningful of ways."—Ryan Graudin, author of The Walled City and Wolf by Wolf
* "[An] affecting novel...that skillfully combines reality with fiction. Her characters come alive, and...Hesse's pacing infuses her story with thriller suspense, enriching the narrative with dramatic surprises both small and large."—Booklist, starred review
* "Riveting... a gripping historical mystery."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- On Sale
- Jun 12, 2018
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
About the Author
Monica Hesse is the bestselling author of Girl in the Blue Coat, American Fire, and The War Outside, as well as a columnist at the Washington Post. She lives outside Washington, D.C. with her husband and their dog.