<FONT face="Times New Roman"><P>I wait. They keep us in the dark for so long that <P>we lose sense of our eyelids. We sleep huddled together <P>like rats, staring out, and dream of our bodies swaying. <P>I know when one of the girls reaches a wall. She begins <P>to pound and scream—there’s metal in the sound—but <P>none of us help her. We’ve gone too long without speaking, <P>and all we do is bury ourselves more into the dark. <P>The doors open. <P>The light is frightening. It’s the light of the world <P>through the birth canal, and at once the blinding tunnel <P>that comes with death. I recoil into the blankets with the <P>other girls in horror, not wanting to begin or end. <P>We stumble when they let us out; we’ve forgotten how <P>to use our legs. How long has it been—days? Hours? <P>The big open sky waits in its usual place. <P>I stand in line with the other girls, and men in gray <P>coats study us. <P> <P>I’ve heard of this happening. Where I come from, <P>girls have been disappearing for a long time. They disappear <P>from their beds or from the side of the road. It happened <P>to a girl in my neighborhood. Her whole family <P>disappeared after that, moved away, either to find her or <P>because they knew she would never be returned. <P>Now it’s my turn. I know girls disappear, but any <P>number of things could come after that. Will I become <P>a murdered reject? Sold into prostitution? These things <P>have happened. There’s only one other option. I could <P>become a bride. I’ve seen them on television, reluctant <P>yet beautiful teenage brides, on the arm of a wealthy man <P>who is approaching the lethal age of twenty-five. <P>The other girls never make it to the television screen. <P>Girls who don’t pass their inspection are shipped to a <P>brothel in the scarlet districts. Some we have found <P>murdered on the sides of roads, rotting, staring into the <P>searing sun because the Gatherers couldn’t be bothered <P>to deal with them. Some girls disappear forever, and all <P>their families can do is wonder. <P>The girls are taken as young as thirteen, when their <P>bodies are mature enough to bear children, and the virus <P>claims every female of our generation by twenty. <P>Our hips are measured to determine strength, our <P>lips pried apart so the men can judge our health by our <P>teeth. One of the girls vomits. She may be the girl who <P>screamed. She wipes her mouth, trembling, terrified. I <P>stand firm, determined to be anonymous, unhelpful. <P> <P>I feel too alive in this row of moribund girls with their <P>eyes half open. I sense that their hearts are barely beating, <P>while mine pounds in my chest. After so much time <P>spent riding in the darkness of the truck, we have all <P>fused together. We are one nameless thing sharing this <P>strange hell. I do not want to stand out. I do not want <P>to stand out. <P>But it doesn’t matter. Someone has noticed me. A <P>man paces before the line of us. He allows us to be prodded <P>by the men in gray coats who examine us. He seems <P>thoughtful and pleased. <P>His eyes green, like two exclamation marks, meet <P>mine. He smiles. There’s a flash of gold in his teeth, indicating <P>wealth. This is unusual, because he’s too young to <P>be losing his teeth. He keeps walking, and I stare at my <P>shoes. <I>Stupid! </I>I should never have looked up. The strange <P>color of my eyes is the first thing anyone ever notices. <P>He says something to the men in gray coats. They <P>look at all of us, and then they seem to be in agreement. <P>The man with gold teeth smiles in my direction again, <P>and then he’s taken to another car that shoots up bits of <P>gravel as it backs onto the road and drives away. <P>The vomit girl is taken back to the truck, and a dozen <P>other girls with her; a man in a gray coat follows them <P>in. There are three of us left, the gap of the other girls <P>still between us. The men speak to one another again, <P>and then to us. “Go,” they say, and we oblige. There’s <P>nowhere to go but the back of an open limousine parked <P>on the gravel. We’re off the road somewhere, not far <P>from the highway. I can hear the distant sounds of traffic. <P>I can see the evening city lights beginning to appear in <P>the distant purple haze. It’s nowhere I recognize; a road <P>this desolate is far from the crowded streets back home. <P>Go. The two other chosen girls move before me, and <P>I’m the last to get into the limousine. There’s a tinted <P>glass window that separates us from the driver. Just <P>before someone shuts the door, I hear something inside <P>the van where the remaining girls were herded. <P>It’s the first of what I know will be a dozen more gunshots. <P>I awake in a satin bed, nauseous and pulsating with sweat. <P>My first conscious movement is to push myself to the <P>edge of the mattress, where I lean over and vomit onto <P>the lush red carpet. I’m still spitting and gagging when <P>someone begins cleaning up the mess with a dishrag. <P>“Everyone handles the sleep gas differently,” he says <P>softly. <P>“Sleep gas?” I splutter, and before I can wipe my <P>mouth on my lacy white sleeve, he hands me a cloth napkin— <P>also lush red. <P>“It comes out through the vents in the limo,” he says. <P>“It’s so you won’t know where you’re going.” <P>I remember the glass window separating us from the <P>front of the car. Air tight, I assume. Vaguely I remember <P>the whooshing of air coming through vents in the walls. <P>“One of the other girls,” the boy says, as he sprays <P>white foam onto the spot where I vomited, “she almost <P>threw herself out the bedroom window, she was so disoriented. <P>The window’s locked, of course. Shatterproof.” <P>Despite the awful things he’s saying, his voice is low, possibly <P>even sympathetic. <P>I look over my shoulder at the window. Closed tight. <P>The world is bright green and blue beyond it, brighter <P>than my home, where there’s only dirt and the remnants <P>of my mother’s garden that I’ve failed to revive. <P>Somewhere down the hall a woman screams. The boy <P>tenses for a moment. Then he resumes scrubbing away <P>the foam. <P>“I can help,” I offer. A moment ago I didn’t feel guilty <P>about ruining anything in this place; I know I’m here <P>against my will. But I also know this boy isn’t to blame. <P>He can’t be one of the Gatherers in gray who brought <P>me here—he’s too young, possibly my age. Maybe he <P>was also brought here against his will. I haven’t heard <P>of teenage boys disappearing, but up until fifty years <P>ago, when the virus was discovered, girls were also safe. <P>Everyone was safe. <P>“No need. It’s all done,” he says. And when he moves <P>the rag away, there’s not so much as a stain. He pulls a <P>handle out of the wall, and a chute opens; he tosses the <P>rags into it, lets go, and the chute clamps shut. He tucks <P>the can of white foam into his apron pocket and returns <P>to what he was doing. He picks up a silver tray from <P>where he’d placed it on the floor, and brings it to my <P>night table. “If you’re feeling better, there’s some lunch <P>for you. Nothing that will make you fall asleep again, I <P>promise.” He looks like he might smile. Just almost. But <P>he maintains a concentrated gaze as he lifts a metal lid off <P>a bowl of soup and another off a small plate of steaming <P>vegetables and mashed potatoes cradling a lake of gravy. <P>I’ve been stolen, drugged, locked away in this place, yet <P>I’m being served a gourmet meal. The sentiment is so <P>vile I could almost throw up again. <P>“That other girl—the one who tried to throw herself <P>out the window—what happened to her?” I ask. I don’t <P>dare ask about the woman screaming down the hall. I <P>don’t want to know about her. <P>“She’s calmed down some.” <P>“And the other girl?” <P>“She woke up this morning. I think the House Governor <P>took her to tour the gardens.” <P>House Governor. I remember my despair and crash <P>against the pillows. House Governors own mansions. <P>They purchase brides from Gatherers, who patrol the <P>streets looking for ideal candidates to kidnap. The merciful <P>ones will sell the rejects into prostitution, but the <P>ones I encountered herded them into the van and shot <P>them all. I heard that first gunshot over and over in my <P>medicated dreams. <P>“How long have I been here?” I say. <P>“Two days,” the boy says. He hands me a steaming <P>cup, and I’m about to refuse it when I see the tea bag <P>string dangling over the side, smell the spices. Tea. My <P>brother, Rowan, and I had it with our breakfast each <P>morning, and with dinner each night. The smell is like <P>home. My mother would hum as she waited by the stove <P>for the water to boil. <P>Blearily I sit up and take the tea. I hold it near my face <P>and breathe the steam in through my nose. It’s all I can <P>do not to burst into tears. The boy must sense that the <P>full impact of what has happened is reaching me. He must <P>sense that I’m on the verge of doing something dramatic <P>like crying or trying to fling myself out the window like <P>that other girl, because he’s already moving for the door. <P>Quietly, without looking back, he leaves me to my grief. <P>But instead of tears, when I press my face against the <P>pillow, a horrible, primal scream comes out of me. It’s <P>unlike anything I thought myself capable of. Rage, unlike <P>anything I’ve ever known. <P> <P><P></FONT> <BR><BR><i>Continues...</i> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>Wither</b> by <b>Lauren DeStefano</b> Copyright © 2011 by Lauren DeStefano. Excerpted by permission.<br> All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.