Wither, p.17
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       Wither, p.17

         Part #1 of The Chemical Garden series by Lauren DeStefano
Page 17


  “I never believed otherwise,” he says. “But I saw see him in your bed and—I don’t know. It got to me. ”

  “Yeah, well, it gets to me, too. ” I laugh a little, and he follows my lead. I break away and sit on the edge of my mattress. “So, what’s happening with Cecily?”

  He shakes his head. “I don’t know. Housemaster Vaughn is in there with a few of the house doctors. ” He watches my face drop. “But, hey, listen. I’m sure she’s all right. If it was very serious, they would have moved her to a hospital in the city. ”

  I look at my hands in my lap and sigh.

  “Can I get you anything?” Gabriel says. “What about tea? Or some strawberries. You hardly ate at dinner. ”

  I don’t want tea or strawberries. I don’t want Gabriel to be my attendant right now. I want him to sit here with me and be my friend. I want to know he won’t be punished for it later. I want us both to be free.

  Maybe if I ever work out a plan to escape, I can bring him with me. I think he would like the harbor.

  But I don’t know how to say all of this in a way that won’t make me seem weak, so all that comes out is, “Tell me about yourself. ”

  “Myself?” He looks confused.

  “Yes,” I say, patting the mattress.

  “You know all there is to know,” he says, sitting beside me.

  “Not true,” I say. “Where were you born? What’s your favorite season? Anything. ”

  “Here. Florida,” he says. “I remember a woman in a red dress with curly brown hair. Maybe she was my mother, I’m not sure. And summer. What about you?” The last part is said with a smile. He smiles so infrequently that I consider each one a sort of trophy.

  “Fall is my favorite,” I say. He already knows about Manhattan, and that my parents died when I was twelve.

  I’m thinking up another round of questions when there’s a knock at the door. Gabriel stands and smoothes out the wrinkles in the comforter where he sat. I grab the empty glass on my nightstand in case I need to pretend I was asking him for a refill. “Come in,” I say.

  It’s Elle, Cecily’s domestic. Her eyes are wild with excitement. “Guess what I’ve come to tell you,” she says.

  “You’ll never guess. Cecily is going to have a baby!”

  In the weeks that follow, Linden devotes so much time to Cecily that I become the invisible bride again. I know this lack of attention is bad for my escape plan, but I can’t help feeling a little less burdened without his constant presence, at least for now. Once again Gabriel and I are free to talk, when he brings breakfast to my room. He’s the only attendant bringing meals to the wives’ floor, so he brings me breakfast early again, while my sister wives are asleep, although Cecily’s sleep pattern has become more erratic as her pregnancy progresses.

  Spending time with Gabriel is nothing like the obligatory time spent with my husband. I can be honest with Gabriel. I can tell him that I miss Manhattan, which had once seemed to me like the biggest place in the world, but now feels as distant as a star.

  “There used to be more boroughs dividing the city—Brooklyn, I think, and Queens, and a few others. But they called it all Manhattan after they added the lighthouses and new harbors, and they labeled the boroughs by their purpose. Mine is factories and shipping. To the west is fishing, and to the east is mostly residences. ”

  “Why?” Gabriel asks, biting into a piece of toast from my breakfast tray. He’s sitting on the ottoman, by the window, and the morning light brightens the ring of blue around his pupils.

  “Don’t know. ” I roll onto my stomach and rest my chin on my arms. “Maybe it got too confusing trying to keep all those boroughs straight; they’re all mostly industrialized, aside from the residences. Maybe the president couldn’t bother to learn the difference. ”

  “Sounds stifling,” he says.

  “A little,” I admit, “but the buildings are hundreds of years old, some of them. When I was little, I used to pretend I was leaving my front door and stepping into the past. I used to pretend . . . ” My voice trails off. I trace my finger along the seam of my blanket.

  “What?” Gabriel asks, leaning toward me.

  “I’ve never said it out loud before,” I say, just now realizing it. “But I used to pretend I was going out into the twenty-first century, and I’d see people who were all different ages, and I’d get to grow up and be just like them. ” There’s a long silence, and I keep my eyes on the seam because suddenly it’s difficult to look at Gabriel.

  But I can feel him looking at me. And after a few seconds he comes to the edge of my bed; I feel the mattress dip slightly under his weight.

  “Forget it,” I say, trying to manage a laugh. “It’s dumb. ”

  “No,” he says. “It’s not. ”

  His finger trails after mine, along the blanket, making a straight line up and down, our hands not quite touching. A flood of warmth rushes through me, creating a smile I can’t avoid. There will be no adulthood for me, I know that, and it’s been a long time since I’ve even pretended. I could never share this fantasy with my parents; it would have saddened them. Or with my brother; he would have called it pointless. And so I kept it to myself, forced myself to outgrow it. But now, watching Gabriel’s hand move alongside my own as though we’re playing a game with a set rhythm and method, I let the fantasy return. One day I’ll step outside of this mansion, and there will be the world. The healthy, thriving world, with a beautiful path to the rest of my long life.

  “You should see it,” I say. “The city, I mean. ”

  His voice is soft. “I’d like that. ”

  There’s a knock at my closed door, and Cecily’s voice asks, “Is Linden in there with you? He was supposed to bring me some hot chocolate. ”

  “No,” I say.

  “But I hear voices,” she says. “Who’s with you?”

  Gabriel stands, and I smooth out the blankets as he picks up my breakfast tray from the dressing table.

  “Try paging the kitchen,” I tell her. “Maybe someone there knows where he is. Or try Elle. ”

  She hesitates, knocks again. “Can I come in?”

  I sit up, quickly throw the blankets across the mattress, and smooth out the wrinkles, fluff up the pillows.

  I haven’t done anything wrong, but now I suddenly feel strange about her discovering Gabriel in my room. I cross the room and open the door. “What do you want?” I say.

  She pushes past me, stares at Gabriel, sizing him up with her brown eyes.

  “I’d better get these dishes to the kitchen,” he says awkwardly. I try to give him an apologetic look over Cecily’s shoulder, but he won’t acknowledge me. He’ll barely even look up from his shoes.

  “Well, then, bring up some hot chocolate,” Cecily says.

  “Extra, extra hot, and don’t put marshmallows in it. You always do that, and they get all melted and gross because it takes you so long to bring it upstairs. Put marshmallows in a bowl on the side. No, bring a whole bag. ”

  He nods, moves past us. Cecily peers out into the hallway until the elevator doors have closed behind Gabriel.

  Then she spins to face me. “Why was your door closed?”

  “None of your business,” I snap. I realize how suspicious that sounds, but I can’t help it. Talking to Gabriel is one of the few luxuries I have. My sister wife has no right, and yet every right, to take it away.

  I sit on the ottoman and pretend to arrange the hair accessories in the top drawer, fuming.

  “He’s just an attendant,” Cecily says, walking the length of my room and tracing her finger along the wall.

  “And he’s stupid, anyway. He never brings enough cream or sugar with the tea, and it takes him so long to bring my meals that the food’s always cold by the time—”

  “He’s not stupid,” I interrupt. “You just like to complain. ”

  “Complain?” she splutters
. “Complain? You’re not the one throwing up breakfast every morning. You’re not the one trapped in bed all day because of this stupid pregnancy. I do not think I’m asking for too much when I expect the stupid attendants to do their job, which is to bring me whatever I want. ” She drops onto my mattress and folds her arms in defiance. Point made.

  From this angle I can see the slight bump coming up under her nightgown. And vaguely I can smell something like vomit under whatever perfume she’s wearing.

  Her hair is disheveled, her skin pale. And, loathe as I am to admit it, I understand her sour mood. She’s going through more than a girl her age should.

  “Here,” I say, reaching into my drawer and handing her one of the red candies Deirdre gave me on my wedding day. “This will settle your stomach a little. ”

  She takes it and pops it into her mouth with an “mm” of satisfaction.

  “And giving birth is going to hurt, you know,” she says. “I might even die. ”

  “You won’t die,” I say, forcing away the thought that Linden’s mother died in childbirth.

  “But I might,” she says. All the challenge has left her voice. She sounds almost afraid as she looks at the candy wrapper in her hand. “So they should get me whatever I want. ”

  I sit beside her and put my arm around her. She settles her head against my shoulder. “Okay,” I agree. “You should get whatever you want. But you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, you know. ”

  “What does that mean?”

  “It’s something my mother used to say,” I tell her. “It means that if you’re nice to people, they’ll be happier to do things for you. Maybe even do a little extra. ”

  “Is that why you’re so nice to him?” she says.


  “That attendant. You’re always talking to him. ”

  “Maybe,” I say. I feel my cheeks starting to burn.

  Thankfully Cecily isn’t looking at me. “I’m just being nice, I guess. ”

  “You shouldn’t be so nice,” she says. “It gives the wrong impression. ”

  Chapter 9

  Linden is so delighted about the pregnancy, and the mood of the house is so bright, that he offers all of us the freedom to tour the house and the gardens. When I’m alone, I look for the road through the trees to the outside world, but I can never find so much as a path. Housemaster Vaughn leaves the property sometimes to do work at his hospital, but the lawn must be treated somehow to resist tire marks because I’ve never seen any leading out of the garage. Gabriel called this place eternity and I’m beginning to think he’s right. No beginning, no end. And no matter where I go, I always somehow end up back at the mansion.

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