Wither, p.15
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       Wither, p.15

         Part #1 of The Chemical Garden series by Lauren DeStefano
Page 15


  We arrive in the orange grove by early evening, and even with the stage set up and the band tuning its instruments and the crowd of people I’ve never met, I can see that this place is not like the rest of the mansion. It’s wild, with uneven lengths of grass as high as my uncomfortable heels or my knees. It reaches into my dress like thin rubbery fingers. Ants crawl around the rims of crystal glasses and make lines up trees. All the greenery hums and rustles.

  I don’t recognize most of the faces here. Some are attendants setting up heaters for the food or perfecting the paper lanterns. Others are well-dressed, polished to the point of being borderline greasy, all first generations.

  “They’re Housemaster Vaughn’s colleagues,” Deirdre whispers to me, standing on a foldout chair and adjusting my bra strap so it will stop sliding down my arm.

  “The House Governor doesn’t have friends of his own. When Rose took ill, he stopped even leaving the property. ”

  “What did he do before then?” I ask, smiling like she’s saying something delightful.

  “Designed houses,” she says, and fluffs my hair around my shoulders. “There! You look so pretty. ”

  My sister wives and I start the night as wallflowers, which is what our domestics have coached us to do.

  We hold hands with one another, share a cup of punch, look pretty and wait to be introduced. One at a time the strangers, first generations, steal us for dances. They put their hands on our hips and shoulders, getting too close, forcing us to smell their crisp suits and aftershave. I find myself looking forward to the moment when they’ll release me, when I can catch my breath beneath the oranges. Jenna stands beside me, all danced out. Despite her ever-present resentment for her captivity, she is a fantastic dancer. Fast or slow, her body moves like a flame or a ballerina in a music box. Her long, lean limbs move as naturally as a weeping willow in the wind. She smiles at our husband as she moves, and he blushes, overcome by her beauty. But I know what her smile really means. I know why she’s enjoying this night. It’s because his dead wife still lingers here, and he’s in agony, and she wants him to know that his pain will never go away.

  Her smile is her revenge.

  Now she stands beside me and plucks an orange from its branch. She turns it in her hands and says, “I think we’ll get off easy tonight. ”

  “What do you mean?” I ask.

  She nods ahead of us, to where Cecily is slow dancing in Linden’s arms. Her white teeth can be seen beaming even from here. “She’s captured his heart for the moment,” Jenna says. “He hasn’t let her go for a second. ”

  “You’re right,” I say. He has given all of his dances to Cecily. He has spent the rest of his time staring in awe at Jenna. He hasn’t looked at me at all.

  Jenna is plucked away for another dance, having gained many admirers with her versatility and charming smile. I’m left alone to nurse punch from a crystal glass. A cool breeze washes through my hair, and I wonder where Rose fell ill. Was it where the attendants are arguing over not making enough chicken for the occasion? Where Cecily and Linden have snuck away from the dance floor to giggle in the tall grass? And where did the scattered ashes fall? And what were those ashes, and what really became of Linden and Rose’s dead child?

  As the night presses on and the guests thin out, Jenna and I sit in the grass while Adair and Deirdre comb the tangles from our hair. Linden and Cecily are nowhere to be found, not even when we slip away to bed much later.

  The following day Cecily stumbles into the library sometime after noon looking pale and dazed. There’s a hazy smile on her lips that won’t go away, and her hair is a mess. It’s like a brushfire filled with casualties.

  Gabriel brings the tea, and Cecily pours in too much sugar as usual. She doesn’t talk to us. There are pillow creases on her face, and she cringes whenever she moves her legs.

  “It’s a pretty day,” she finally says, long after I’ve moved to my overstuffed chair and Jenna has begun pacing the aisles.

  She doesn’t look right. Not right at all. Her usual verve is subdued, and her voice is gentle like wind chimes. She seems like a wild bird that has been tamed and is surveying its captivity in a daze in which captivity doesn’t seem so bad.

  “Are you all right?” I ask her.

  “Oh, yes,” she says. Her head cants to one side, then the other, and then she gently rests it on the table.

  Across the room Jenna shoots me a look. Her mouth doesn’t move but I understand what she’s telling me.

  Now that Cecily has finally gotten what she wanted of our husband, this means Linden has tucked Rose safely inside his memories, and he’s ready to visit the beds of his remaining wives.

  Cecily looks so small and helpless, as happy as she may be, that I say “Come on” and gently bring her to her feet. She doesn’t object, and in fact wraps her little arm around my back as I guide her to her room.

  Linden is a monster, I think. He’s a vile man. “Can’t you see she’s still a little girl?” I murmur.

  “Hm?” Cecily raises her eyebrows.

  “Nothing,” I say. “How are you feeling?”

  She climbs into the bed, which is unmade and looking as though she just left it, and as her head reaches the pillow, she stares at me with cloudy eyes. “Brilliant,” she says.

  I tuck her in, and I notice the small bit of blood on the sheets.

  I sit with her for a while as she drifts back to sleep. I listen to the robins that have nested in the tree below her window. She’d wanted to show them to me before, just a child looking for an excuse to talk to me. I haven’t been very kind to her, or fair. She can’t help that she’s oblivious, that she’s so young. She can’t help that she grew up in a world without parents, in an orphanage that allowed her to be taken for either a bride or a corpse. She doesn’t know how fragile she is, how close she came to death in that van.

  But I do. I push some tangled hair from her face and say, “Have sweet dreams. ”

  It’s the best thing anyone can hope for, in this place.

  I’m so angry with Linden that I can’t stand the sight of him. He comes into my bedroom that night, and without asking he advances to my bed. I don’t open the sheets, and so he stops. I turn on the light and act as though I’m just waking, when in fact I’ve been expecting him.

  “Hello,” he says softly.

  “Hello,” I say, and sit up.

  He touches the edge of my mattress but doesn’t sit.

  Could he be waiting for an invitation? Did Cecily give him one? Jenna never will. If he isn’t going to force himself on us, then Cecily is the only one who will ever allow him.

  He says, “You looked beautiful last night, in the orange grove. ”

  “I didn’t think you noticed me,” I say. Even now, he doesn’t look at me. He looks out my window that doesn’t open. The winds have picked up again, howling like the dead. Oranges and roses must be flying from the greenery and getting mangled in the air.

  “Can I come to bed?” he says.

  “No,” I say, folding the blanket neatly across my lap.

  He looks at me, raises a delicate eyebrow. “No?”

  “No,” I affirm. I mean to sound angry, but somehow it doesn’t come out right. There’s tight silence between us, and then I say, “But thank you for asking. ”

  He stands rigidly and seems to be trying to decide where to put his hands. His pajama pants don’t have pockets. “Then how about a walk?” he says.

  “Now?” I say. “It looks like it’s a cold night. ” Florida has proven thus far to have strange weather.

  “Wear a coat,” he says. “Meet me at the elevator in a few minutes. ”

  Well, I suppose there’s no harm in a walk. I go to my closet and put a light knit coat over my nightgown, and a pair of thick socks that make it hard for me to wriggle my feet into my shoes.

  When I meet Linden at the elevator, I see t
hat my coat is the feminine cut of his, and I wonder if this is coincidence. Deirdre, hopeless little romantic that she is, may have designed it specially to match. I suppose she means for me to learn to love him. But she’s young yet. She has plenty of years to learn what true love is, or at the very least what it isn’t.

  The elevator moves down and I’m haunted by images of my mother twirling in her billowy dresses, my father dipping her over his arm, music filling the living room.

  You want to know about true love? my father the geneticist said to my brother and me as we watched them dance.

  I’ll tell you something about true love. It’s no science to it. It’s natural as the sky.

  Love is natural. Even the human race can’t claim to be natural anymore. We are fake, dying things. How fitting that I would end up in this sham of a marriage.

  Outside it’s bitter and cold. There’s a burned, leafy smell like autumn. I think of Windbreakers and rakes and new kneesocks for school. Things that are a world away, but lingering still. My nose is frozen; I pull the collar of my coat up around my ears.

  Linden hooks his arm in mine and we begin to walk, not through the rose garden but toward the orange grove. All traces of the party are gone, and now I can see it for what it really is: straggly and natural and pretty. A place where I would want to lie on a blanket and read. I can see why Rose spent so much time here, and I wonder if she knew she was ill that day she collapsed. I wonder if she thought she might slip away quietly, shaded by soft white blossoms, so that her pain would not be prolonged.

  The wind rustles everything, and I feel her serenity everywhere. I feel peaceful, not so angry anymore.

  “She’s here,” Linden says, like he was reading my mind.

  “Mm,” I agree.

  We walk for a while, along a vague path of well-trod grass and dirt. There are no man-made ponds here, no quaint little love seats or benches. The wind comes in such loud bouts that when we open our mouths, all hope of words is sucked from our throats. But I sense there’s something Linden wants to say, and when it’s calm, he stops walking and takes my hands. The cold has chapped my knuckles, but his palms are smooth and moist over them.

  “Listen to me,” he says. His eyes are bright green in the moonlight. “I will share this place with you. Anywhere you wish to go, just ask and I’ll allow it. But this place is sacred, all right? I will not let you use it as a weapon against me. ”

  There’s nothing forceful about his tone, but he squeezes my hands and lowers his head so our eyes are even. So he knows, then. He knows that my party suggestion was malicious, and yet he didn’t raise a hand to me.

  He didn’t abuse me for my defiance like his father abused Gabriel. Why? Why would a man who stole three girls from their homes show me any kindness?

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