Wither, p.18
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       Wither, p.18

         Part #1 of The Chemical Garden series by Lauren DeStefano
Page 18


  My father used to tell me stories of carnivals. He called them celebrations for when there was nothing to celebrate. When he was a child, he could go to a carnival and pay ten dollars to walk through a house of mirrors.

  He described it many times—warped mirrors that made him too tall or too short; mirrors juxtaposed so that they looked like infinite portals. He said that the house always looked like it went on forever, that it was infinite, when from the outside it was really as small as a tool shed. The trick was looking past the illusion, because the exit was never as far as it seemed.

  I hadn’t understood what he meant until now. I wander the rose garden, the tennis courts, the labyrinth of shrubbery, trying to channel his spirit. I imagine him looking down on me, watching my spec of a body searching aimlessly when all the while the exit is just beyond my fingertips.

  “Help me figure this out,” I tell him. The only answer is a wind through the tall grass as I stand in the orange grove. I’ve never been good at solving puzzles; my brother is the one who solved the Rubik’s Cube on the first try. He’s the one who took an interest in the science of things, asking our father questions about the destroyed countries while I was busy admiring the pictures.

  I imagine my brother emerging from between the orange trees. “You shouldn’t have answered that ad. You never listen to me,” he’d say. “What am I going to do with you?” He’d take my hand. We’d go home.

  “Rowan . . . ” His name spills out of me with a hot wave of tears. Nothing answers me but the breeze. He isn’t coming; there’s no path on earth that would lead him to me.

  When my failed plights become too disheartening, I take a break and succumb to the things that make my prison more enjoyable. I dive into the artificial sea within the pool. An attendant shows me how to use the dial that changes the hologram, and I can swim beneath arctic glaciers or navigate the sunken Titanic. I meander alongside bottlenose dolphins. Afterward, dipping wet and smelling of chlorine, Jenna and I lie in the grass and sip colorful drinks with pineapple slices on the rims. We play mini-golf on a course that I suppose was built for Linden when he was a child, or maybe his dead brother before him. We don’t keep score, and it’s a joint effort to defeat the spinning clown at the last hole. We try playing tennis but give up and make a game of shooting tennis balls at the wall, since that’s all we seem to be good at.

  In the kitchen I can eat all the June Beans I want. I sit on the kitchen counter, helping Gabriel peel potatoes, and listening to the cooks talk about the weather and how they’d like to serve the bratty little bride a dirty sock. Gabriel, as good-natured as he is, agrees that Cecily has been particularly awful lately. Someone suggests frying up a rat for her lunch, and the head cook says,

  “Watch your tongue. There are no rats in my kitchen. ”

  Linden feels that he’s neglecting Jenna and me, and he asks if we’d like anything—anything at all. I almost ask for a crate of June Beans, because I heard the kitchen staff complaining about early-morning deliveries, and since then I’ve been fantasizing about escaping on a delivery truck. But then I think of all the progress I’ve made earning Linden’s trust, and how easily it would be destroyed if I were caught, which is highly possible, considering Vaughn knows everything that happens in this place.

  Jenna says, “I’d like a big trampoline. ” And the next morning there it is in the rose garden. We jump until our lungs hurt, and then we lie in the center of it and watch the clouds for a while.

  “This isn’t the worst place to die,” she confesses. Then she props herself on her elbow, which causes my body to slide more toward her, and she asks me, “Has he come to your bed at all lately?”

  “No,” I say, and fold my hands behind my head. “It’s nice to have it to myself again. ”

  “Rhine?” she says. “When he came to you, it wasn’t . . . for children. ”

  “No,” I say. “It was never that. He hasn’t even kissed me. ”

  “I wonder why,” she says, lying back down.

  “Has he come to you at all?” I ask.

  “Yes,” she says. “A few times, before all his attention started going to Cecily. ”

  This surprises me. I think back to Jenna’s reliable morning routine of taking tea in the library and burying her nose in romance novels. There hasn’t been a single morning when she has seemed rumpled or out of sorts, especially not the way Cecily was. And even now, she seems very cool about the whole thing.

  “What was it like?” I ask, and immediately a hot blush spreads across my face. Did I really just ask that?

  “Not terrible,” is Jenna’s nonchalant reply. “He kept asking if I was okay. Like he thought I’d break or something. ” She laughs a little at the thought. “If I was going to break, he wouldn’t be the one to do it. ”

  I’m not sure how to respond to that. The very thought of Linden kissing me sets my nerves on edge, puts my stomach in knots. And yet both of my sister wives have done much more than kiss him, and one is even carrying his child.

  “I thought you hated him,” I finally say.

  “Of course I do,” she says. Her voice is a gentle hum.

  She crosses her ankle over her pointed knee and swings her foot casually. “I’ve hated all of them. But this is the world we live in. ”

  “All of them?” I say.

  She sits up and looks at me, her face a mix of confusion, pity, and maybe amusement. “Really?” she says, and cups my chin in her hand, inspecting me. Her skin is soft, and it smells like the lotions Deirdre lays out for me on the dressing table. “You’re so pretty, and you have such a nice figure,” she says. “How were you earning money?”

  I sit up too, as I realize what she’s asking me. “You thought I was a prostitute?” I say.

  “Well, no,” she says. “You seemed too sweet for that. But I just assumed—how else could girls like us get by?”

  I think of all the girls who dance in the park at New Year’s parties, how some of them will slip into a car with a wealthy first generation. And all the brothels in the scarlet district with blacked-out windows. Sometimes a door would open as I passed by, and I’d hear the burst of pulsing music, see a flicker of rainbow lights. I think of how deftly Jenna danced that night in the orange grove, and how charismatic she was to these men she despised.

  Her life was in one of those dark and secret places I’d barely had the courage to walk past on the sidewalk.

  “I thought the orphanage would have provided you with enough to get by,” I say. But I realize immediately that that can’t be true. Rowan and I deterred enough orphans from stealing from us. We wouldn’t have had to if orphanages had provided for them.

  Jenna lies back down, and I lie beside her. “You’re serious?” she says. “So you’ve never . . . ”

  “No,” I say, a tad defensively. In my mind Jenna begins to materialize in a new light. But I don’t judge her. I don’t blame her. Like she said, it’s the world we live in.

  “Well, I don’t know why he hasn’t come to you,” she says. “I get the sense there’s a reason for everything that happens here. ”

  “I don’t get it,” I say. “If you hate him so much, why not refuse? Linden is so mild, I can’t imagine him forcing himself on any of us. ”

  Though, it has worried me more than once that Linden has not pressed the issue of consummating our marriage. Has he sensed my hesitation and allowed me the luxury of time? How long before his patience is gone?

  She turns to face me, and I can swear there is fear in her gray eyes for a moment. “It’s not him I’m worried about,” she says.

  “Who?” I blink. “Housemaster Vaughn?”

  She nods.

  I think of Rose’s body in the basement. All those ominous hallways that could lead to anywhere. And I sense that Jenna, who is such a keen observer, has found her own reasons in this place to be afraid. The question hangs heavy on my tongue: Jenna, what has H
ousemaster Vaughn done to you?

  But I’m too afraid of the answer. The image of Rose’s hand under that sheet sends a cold ripple up my spine.

  There are ugly, dangerous things lurking beneath the beauty of this mansion. And I’d like to be far away from here before ever knowing what they are.

  Chapter 10

  It seems that leaves are always bursting with new colors. I’ve been here for six months. I avoid Housemaster Vaughn when I can. And at dinner when he regales me in banter about the meal or the weather, I try to smile like his voice isn’t sending cockroaches up and down my spine.

  Linden finds me one afternoon while I’m alone in the orange grove, lying in the grass, and I’m not sure if he was looking for me or if he’d meant to be here alone. I smile at him and tell myself I’m glad he’s here. Now that most of his attention goes to my younger sister wife, I’ve had little opportunity to earn his favor. We’re alone in his dead wife’s favorite place, and I sense an opportunity to bond with him.

  I pat the ground beside me in invitation, and he lies in the grass. We’re both silent as a breeze moves over us.

  Rose still lingers in the trees; the rustling leaves are her ethereal laughter. Linden follows my gaze to the sky.

  For a while we say nothing. I listen to the rhythm of his breaths, and ignore the nearly imperceptible flutter in my chest brought on by his presence. The back of his hand just barely brushes mine. An orange blossom falls over us on a perfect diagonal.

  “I’m dreading fall. It is a terrifying season,” he says finally. “Everything shriveling up and dying. ”

  I don’t know how to answer. Fall has always been my favorite season. The time when everything bursts with its last beauty, as if nature had been saving up all year for the grand finale. I’ve never thought to be frightened of it. My greatest fear is another year of my life passing by while I’m so far from home.

  Suddenly the clouds seem very high above us. They’re moving over us in an arch, circling the planet. They have seen abysmal oceans, and charred, scorched islands.

  They have seen how we destroyed the world. If I could see everything, as the clouds do, would I swirl around this remaining continent, still so full of color and life and seasons, wanting to protect it? Or would I just laugh at the futility of it all, and meander onward, down the earth’s sloping atmosphere?

  Linden takes in another breath, and he musters up the courage to put his hand over mine. I don’t resist. Everything in Linden Ashby’s world is fake, an illusion, but the sky and the orange blossoms are real. His body beside me is real.

  “What are you thinking?” he asks me. For all of our marriage I have never allowed myself to be honest with him, but here, now, I want to tell him what’s on my mind.

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