Wither, p.10
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       Wither, p.10

         Part #1 of The Chemical Garden series by Lauren DeStefano
Page 10


  “A whole world of trouble is what’s out there for you, blondie,” the head cook says. “Your place is up on that frilly floor of yours, lounging in satin sheets and painting your toenails. Now go on, before you get us all in trouble. ”

  “Come on,” Gabriel says. “I’ll take you back up. ”

  Back on the wives’ floor, Rose’s door is shut, and all the attendants and domestics have gone. Cecily is sitting alone in the hallway, playing some sort of game with yarn entwined around her fingers. She was singing to herself, but when the elevator doors open, she stops and watches me cross to my room.

  “What were you doing with that attendant?” she asks, once Gabriel is gone.

  She hasn’t seen the paper bag of candies, and I tuck it into my nightstand along with my ivy leaf, which I’ve pressed between the pages of a romance novel I took from the library. There are so many books that I don’t think anyone will miss this one.

  I turn just as Cecily appears in my doorway, waiting for an answer. We’re sister wives now, and whatever that may mean in other mansions, I don’t feel as though I can trust her. I also am not fond of her demanding tone, always impatient, always asking questions.

  “I wasn’t doing anything with him,” I say.

  I sit on my bed, and she raises her eyebrows, perhaps waiting for me to ask her to join me. Sister wives can’t enter one another’s bedrooms without permission. It’s one of the few privacies I have, and I won’t relinquish it.

  There’s nothing to stop her from talking, though.

  “Lady Rose is dead now,” she says. “Linden is free to visit us anytime. ”

  “Where is he?” I can’t help but ask.

  Cecily examines the yarn entwined around her fingers, looking displeased with it or the situation. “Oh, he’s in her bedroom. He made everybody else leave. I knocked, but he won’t come out. ”

  I go to my dressing table and begin to brush my hair.

  I’m trying to look busy so that I don’t have to make conversation, and there isn’t much else to do in this room but stare at the wall. Cecily lingers for a while in the doorway, idly twisting in ways that make her skirt ripple.

  “I didn’t tell our husband that you went off with that attendant,” she says. “I could have, but I didn’t. ”

  And then she skips away, a trail of bright red yarn following after her.

  That night, Linden comes to my bedroom.

  “Rhine?” he says softly, just a shadow in my doorway.

  It’s late and I have been lying alone in the darkness for hours, steeling myself against what I knew from the start would be a long awful night. Though she’s gone, I have been listening for the sound of Rose at the end of the hall, yelling at an attendant, calling for me to come brush her hair and talk to her about the world. The silence is maddening, and perhaps that’s why, rather than feigning sleep or denying him, I open the sheets for Linden.

  He closes the door and climbs into my bed. I feel his cool, slender fingers encase my cheeks as he settles beside me. He advances for what will be my first kiss, but his lips fail. He sobs, and I feel the heat of his skin and his breath. “Rose,” he says. It is a choked, frightened sound.

  He buries his face in my shoulder and loses himself in tears.

  I understand grief. After my parents’ death, many of my nights resembled this. So just this once, I won’t resist him. I allow him to find sanctuary in my bed, and I let him cling to me as the worst of it comes up.

  His screams are muffled by my nightgown. Terrible sounds. I feel them vibrating deep in my bones. This goes on for what feels like hours, and then his breathing becomes ragged but even, his grip on my nightgown eases, and I know he’s asleep.

  I spend the remainder of the night drifting in and out of a fitful sleep of my own. I dream of gunshots and gray coats and Rose’s mouth changing color. Eventually I fall into a more substantial sleep, and when the turning of the doorknob awakens me, it’s morning. Soft light and the sounds of early birds fill the room.

  Gabriel comes in, holding my usual breakfast tray, and stops in his tracks when he sees Linden in my bed.

  Sometime in the night. Linden turned away from me, and he is now snoring softly with his arm dangling over the mattress’s edge. I silently catch Gabriel’s eyes and bring a finger to my lips. Then with the same finger I point to my dressing table.

  It’s impossible to read Gabriel’s expression as he sets my breakfast where I’ve indicated; he somehow looks as wounded as the day when he was limping and bruised.

  I’m not sure what’s causing him to look that way until I imagine how this must seem to him. Rose is dead not even a day and I’ve already replaced her. But what does that matter to him? He said himself none of the attendants really liked Rose anyway.

  I mouth a silent thank-you for the breakfast, and he nods and leaves. Later, perhaps when he sees me in the library, I’ll explain what really happened. Rose’s death is starting to sink in, and I have a feeling that very soon I’ll need someone I can to talk to.

  I’m careful about getting out of bed. Best to let Linden sleep. He’s had such a rough night, and I’ve had better ones myself. I quietly slide the drawer of my nightstand open and retrieve one of the June Beans from the paper bag and head to the window. It still won’t open, but the ledge is wide enough to be used as a seat.

  I sit and watch the garden as I suck on the candy, which is as green as the mowed lawn beneath my window. From here I have a perfect view of the pool, and I see someone in an attendant uniform cutting into the water with a long net. The water catches the sunlight and breaks into diamond shapes. I think of the ocean that can be seen along the piers in New York. Long ago there used to be beaches there, but now there are concrete slabs that stop where the ocean begins. You can put five dollars in a rusty telescope and see all the way to the Statue of Liberty or one of the gift shop islands beaming with bright lights and key chains and photo opportunities. You can take a double-deck ferry along the pier while a tour guide talks about all the changes to the cityscape over the centuries. You can slip beneath the railing, take off your shoe, and stick your bare foot into the bleary water that’s ripe with salt, and fish that aren’t safe to eat—fishermen catch them for sport and throw them back.

  I have always been fascinated by the ocean, to dip a limb beneath its surface and know that I’m touching eternity, that it goes on forever until it begins here again.

  Somewhere beneath it lie the ruins of colorful Japan, and Rose’s favorite, India, the nations that could not survive.

  This lone continent is all that’s left, and the darkness of the water is so mysterious, so alluring, that I find this bright pool water to be too frivolous. Clean and sparkling and safe. I wonder if Linden has ever touched the ocean. I wonder if he knows that this colorful paradise is a lie.

  Did Rose ever leave this place? She talked about the world as though she’d seen it for herself, but how much farther than the orange groves did she go? I hope that now she’s someplace with thriving islands and continents, with plenty of languages to learn and elephants to ride.

  “Good-bye,” I whisper, turning the candy around with my tongue. The taste is like peppermint. I hope she has plenty of June Beans, too.

  There’s a gasp from the bed, and Linden flips onto his back, propped up by his elbows. His curls are disheveled, his eyes puffy and confused. For a moment we look at each other, and I can see him struggling to focus. He looks so far away that I wonder if he’s still asleep. In the night there were times when he opened his eyes wide and looked at me, and then he’d drift off again, muttering about pruning shears and the danger of bees.

  Now there’s a weak smile coming to his lips. “Rose?” he croaks.

  But then he must wake a bit more, because he looks devastated. I stare out the window, unsure what to do with myself. A part of me feels sorry for him, but stronger than my pity is my hatred. For
this place, for the gunshots that haunt my dreams. Why should I console him, simply because I have his dead wife’s blond hair?

  I’ve lost the people I love too. Who is there to console me?

  After a long pause he says, “Your mouth is green. ”

  He sits up. “Where did you get the June Beans?” he asks.

  I can’t tell him the truth. I don’t want to risk getting Gabriel into trouble again. “Rose gave them to me. The other day, from the bowl in her room. ”

  “She was fond of you,” he says.

  I don’t want to discuss Rose with him. The night is over, and I won’t be his solace any longer. In the night when we were both vulnerable, I was more forgiving, but now in the daylight everything is clear again. I’m still his prisoner.

  But I can’t be completely cold. I can’t let my contempt show if he’s ever to trust me. “Do you swim?” I ask.

  “No,” he says. “You like the water?”

  When I was a child, safe in my parents’ care, I would swim in the indoor pool at the local gym, diving for rings and trying to best my brother in somersault competitions. It’s been years since I last went; The world has become too dangerous since then. After the city’s only research lab was bombed, destroying jobs and hope for the antidote in one fell swoop, things deteriorated rapidly. There was once a time when science was optimistic about an antidote. But years turned to decades, and new generations are still dying. And hope, like all of us, is dying fast.

  “A little,” I say.

  “I’ll have to show you the pool, then,” Linden says.

  “You’ve never experienced anything like this one. ”

  The pool doesn’t look very special from here, but I think of the effects the bath soaps have on my skin, and the glitter that surrounded Cecily’s dress without falling, and I understand that not everything in Linden Ashby’s world is as it seems.

  “I’d like that,” I say. This is the truth. I would very much like to be out there where the attendant is skim-ming the water. It’s not freedom, but I bet it’s close enough that I’d be able to pretend.

  He’s still watching me, though I’m acting interested in the pool.

  “Would it be asking too much,” he says, “for you to come sit with me for a while?”

  Yes. Yes, it would be too much. It’s too much that I’m here at all. I wonder if Linden is aware of the unfair power he has over me. If I express even a fraction of my disgust, I’ll never leave this floor again in my life. I have no choice but to oblige.

  I find a comfortable in-between by carrying my breakfast tray to the bed. I set it between us, and I sit cross-legged before him. “Breakfast came in while you were asleep,” I say. “You should try to eat something. ” I lift the lid over the food, and there are waffles dotted with fresh blueberries, far bluer than the ones in the grocery stores back home. Rowan would say not to trust anything so bright. I wonder if these berries were grown in one of the many gardens, if this is what fruit used to look like before it started being harvested in chemical soil.

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