Wither, p.20
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       Wither, p.20

         Part #1 of The Chemical Garden series by Lauren DeStefano
Page 20


  “Are you okay?” Jenna says, and for some reason her soft voice in my ear is clearer than the alarms. I realize she’s holding my hand, which is full of sweat. I nod dazedly.

  Once the elevator doors close behind us, the alarm stops. The silence says that everyone is safe. Well, everyone that Linden thinks is important. The kitchen staff and all the attendants, as promised, are still working about the mansion. If the worst happens and they’re sucked into the ether, they can be replaced. Housemaster Vaughn can put in a low bid on good orphans.

  As we’re walking down the hallway of horrors, I ask, “When will dinner be served?”

  What I’m really asking is: Where is Gabriel?

  Housemaster Vaughn chuckles. It’s such an ugly sound. He says, “All this one can think about is food. I suppose if we’re all in one piece tonight, dinner will be at seven as usual, darling. ”

  I smile charmingly, blush like his teasing makes me feel like a happy little daughter-in-law. I want him to get blown away. I want him to stand alone in the kitchen while knives and pans spin around in the hurricane winds and plates smash at his feet. And then I want for the roof to be ripped away, and for him to be pulled up, getting smaller and smaller until he’s nothing.

  We come to a room that is warmly lit, with overstuffed chairs like the ones in the library, and divans and canopy beds with gauzy lilac and white netting. Comfy cozy. There are window with images of fake tranquil landscapes. The air comes in through vents in the ceiling. Cecily harrumphs and gets out of her wheelchair, brushing Linden off as she explores the chess table. “Is it some kind of game?” she asks.

  “You mean a bright girl like yourself has never been taught the cultural art of chess?” Housemaster Vaughn says.

  If Cecily wasn’t interested in playing a moment ago, she is now. She wants to be cultured as much as she wants to be sexy and well read. She wants to be all the things a young girl is not. “Teach me?” she asks as she takes a seat.

  “Absolutely, darling. ”

  Jenna, who hates Housemaster Vaughn even more than she hates our husband, pulls the netting closed around a bed and takes a nap. The domestics are talking dresses and sewing notions; they can’t do much for us down here, but I suppose Housemaster Vaughn thinks they will be handy if the mansion is destroyed and we still need someone to knit our blankets and darn our socks. Linden sits on the divan surrounded in papers and architecture magazines he’s brought along to amuse himself, with a pencil in his hand.

  I sit next to him, and he doesn’t notice me until I ask, “What are you drawing?”

  His dark eyelashes are downcast, like he’s considering whether what’s on the page is worth my time. Then he holds it up to show me, and it’s a delicate pencil sketch of a Victorian house flourishing with flowers and ivy. But under all that, there’s a stable structure. Solid beams on the porch, strong-looking windows. I can even see inside to outlines of floors, and doors with clothes hanging on the knob. I can see that a family lives inside. There’s a pie on the window ledge, and a woman’s hands are either placing it there or retrieving it. The house is at an angle so I can see two of its outer walls. A swing in the yard looks like it has just been in motion; its child has leapt off the edge of the page. There’s a bowl in the grass, where a dog will take a drink after it returns from a walk around the neighborhood, or a nap in a neighbor’s flower bed.

  “Wow,” I exhale, without meaning to.

  He brightens a little, and then clears the papers away so I can sit closer to him. “It’s just an idea I had,” he says.

  “My father thinks I shouldn’t draw families inside the houses. He says nobody will want to buy a design unless it’s clean and they can only see themselves living there. ”

  As always, his father is wrong.

  “I would live there,” I say. Our shoulders are touching; this is closer than we’ve ever come outside of my bed.

  “It helps me to draw someone inside the house,” he says. “It gives it a kind of, I don’t know, soul. ”

  He shows me more of his houses. A flat one-story ranch with a sleeping cat on the porch, towering office buildings with gleaming windows that make me think of home, garages and gazebos, and a lone store that pops out of a blurry strip mall. And I’m stunned, not just by the precision of his lines, but by the immediacy of him beside me, excitedly pointing to things and explaining his process. I would not have imagined that he had this kind of energy. This kind of deftness and talent.

  He’s always seemed too sad to do anything but wallow. Not everything in his world is what it seems. His designs command attention. They are beautiful and strong. Meant to last a natural lifetime, like the home where I grew up.

  “I used to sell lots of designs before . . . ” he says, not finishing the thought. We both know why he stopped designing. Rose fell ill. “I used to oversee the construction, too. Watch the drawings come to life. ”

  “Why don’t you go back to it?” I say.

  “There’s no time. ”

  “There’s plenty of time. ”

  Well, four years. A meager lifetime. The look in his eyes makes me think he’s had the same thought.

  He smiles at me, and I can’t read what it means. I think, for just a second there, he looked up and saw heterochromatic me. Not a dead girl. Not even a ghost.

  He brings his hand to my face, and I feel his fingertips brushing my jaw, his fingers uncurling like something coming to bloom. He looks serious and soft. He’s closer than he was a second ago, and I feel myself being pulled into his gravity, and for some reason I feel like I want to trust him. I’m in his house-building hands, and I want to trust him. My lower lip goes slack, waiting for his to catch it.

  “I want to see your drawings too!” Cecily says, and my eyes fly open. I draw my hand away from the crook of Linden’s elbow, where it had somehow become wedged.

  I look away from him, and there is Cecily, pregnant and sucking on a piece of caramel that fills her whole left cheek. I scoot over and let her sit between us, and Linden patiently shows her his designs.

  She doesn’t understand why the rope on the tire swing is broken, or why there’s a solstice wreath on the front door of the empty shop. And soon enough, she’s bored with the whole thing, I can tell, but she keeps making conversation about his designs because she has his attention and won’t relinquish it.

  I climb into the canopy with Jenna, closing the gauze behind me.

  “Are you asleep?” I whisper.

  “No,” she whispers back. “Do you realize he almost just kissed you?”

  As always, she has been observing. She turns to face me, and her eyes search me over. “Don’t forget how you got here,” she says. “Don’t forget. ”

  “No, never,” I say.

  But she’s right.

  For a moment I almost did.

  I fall asleep, and the voices of the storm cellar become far away. I dream of everyone I hear. Cecily is a little ladybug in a plaid skirt, and Housemaster Vaughn is a large cricket with cartoon eyes. “Listen to me, darling,” he tells her, wrapping his fuzzy arm around her shell.

  “Your husband has two other wives. Your sisters. You must not interrupt them. ”

  “But!” Her cartoon eyes well with petulance and sorrow. She’s sucking on a caramel.

  “There, there,” he says. “ Jealousy looks so ugly on your pretty face. How about you and your father-in-law play some chess?”

  She is his pet. His pregnant, faithful little pet.

  Bishop to F5. Knight to E3.

  Outside the winds are roaring, and over and over I hear the words: It will be the very coldest day in hell . . . The very coldest day in hell . . .

  Chapter 11

  The house doesn’t blow away. Aside from a few broken trees, the world returns to normal.

  Gabriel finds me lying in a pile of leaves. I sense his presence standing over me and open my eye
s. He’s holding a thermos. “I brought you some hot chocolate,” he says. “Your nose is all red. ”

  “So are your fingers,” I say. Red like the falling leaves.

  His breath comes out in little clouds. In all this autumn, his eyes are very blue.

  “There’s a bug,” he says, nodding toward my head. I look and see some little winged thing jump and crawl along my blond hair. I blow gently, and it’s gone.

  “I’m glad you didn’t get blown away,” I say, and as I’d hoped, he takes this as a cue to sit beside me.

  “That house is something like a thousand years old,” he says, uncapping the thermos. The lid becomes a cup and he pours me some hot chocolate. I sit up and accept it, inhaling the sugary warmth for a while. He drinks straight from the thermos, and I watch his Adam’s apple move under his skin. “It’s not going anywhere. ”

  I look at the brick mansion in the distance, and I know he’s telling the truth.

  “So did you win the bet?” I say, sipping my hot chocolate. It burns my tongue and turns a patch of it to sandpaper. “Was it a category two?”

  “A three,” he says. His lips are chapped, like mine, nothing like Linden’s, and I think we are two unwitting prisoners out here in this barren garden. This garden that’s gone to sleep for the coming winter.

  “I don’t love him,” I say.

  “What?” he says.

  “Linden. I don’t love him. I don’t even like to be in the same room as him. I just wanted you to know that. ”

  He won’t look at me, suddenly. He takes another sip, and this time he throws his head back to get the final dregs of hot chocolate. There’s a little arch of chocolate left over his lip.

  “I just wanted you to know,” I say again.

  “It’s good to know,” he says, and nods.

  When our eyes meet, we both grin, and then we laugh, tentatively at first, like peeking out to be sure it’s safe, and then more confidently. I snort, and throw my hand over my mouth, too hysterical to be embarrassed.

  I don’t know what’s funny or if anything even is. I just know it feels really good.

  I wish we could spend more time like this, even if all we can do is walk and kick up some dead leaves as we go. But when we get up and start walking automatically toward the house, I remember that we’re both prisoners.

  He can only talk to me if he’s bringing me something, and then it’s back to the kitchen, back to polishing the woodwork, back to vacuuming the infinite rugs. I guess that’s why he brought the hot chocolate.

  The closer we get to the house, the more faint the sweet taste becomes. The burned sandpaper part of my tongue spreads. The soft cloudy sky begins to look ominous. The dead leaves scuttle away as though in fear.

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