Wither, p.32
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       Wither, p.32

         Part #1 of The Chemical Garden series by Lauren DeStefano
Page 32


  My fondness for Linden isn’t entirely an act, but I don’t know how to explain my feelings for him when I don’t even understand them myself, so I only say, “Thank you. ”

  “But listen, be careful,” she says, leaning close to me in that intent way of hers. “This afternoon while you were out, I convinced one of the attendants to tell me where Gabriel is. ”

  “What?” I say. “Where is he? Is he okay? Did you talk to him?”

  “I tried,” she says. “When the attendant brought lunch, I complained again, and while we were in the elevator, I hit the panic button, the one that takes you into the basement. ”

  “The basement?” I say, swallowing a lump in my throat. “Why would you go there?”

  “That’s where Gabriel has been reassigned indefi-nitely,” she says, and immediately her eyes fill with pity.

  “I’m sorry. I tried to find him. But as soon as I got into the hallway I crashed right into Housemaster Vaughn. ”

  I feel as though I’ve been kicked in the chest. I double over to catch my breath, and end up falling into a sitting position on the floor. “He’s stuck there because of me,” I say.

  “That’s not true. ” Jenna kneels beside me. “And there are plenty of rooms down there. There’s the storm shelter, and an emergency infirmary, and supply closets full of biohazard suits, medical supplies, fabric for the domestics. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything bad. The Housemaster is always reorganizing the staff here. ”

  “No,” I say. “I know this is my fault. ” I was too reckless. The door was wide open when he kissed me. Wide open! How could I have been so stupid! That noise we heard was probably Vaughn, and then he slipped away like the snake that he is before he could be spotted.

  Jenna catches my fist, after I’ve punched the ground.

  “Listen,” she says. “I told the Housemaster that I was lost, but I don’t think he believed me. I’m probably not going to be allowed out anymore. ”

  “I’m sorry, Jenna—”

  “But I’ll try to distract him for you. I’ll—I don’t know. I’ll throw a fit, or Cecily will, and it’ll create a scene. And that’ll be your chance to go down there and find him. Okay?” She pushes the hair from my forehead. “You’re going to find him, and you’ll see that he’s okay. ”

  “You’d do that?” I say.

  She smiles, and for once she looks strikingly like Rose smiling on her death bed. “Sure,” she says. “What have I got to lose?”

  We sit beside each other in silence for a while, while her question echoes in my head. What has she got to lose? And just where was she all afternoon after she crashed into Vaughn in the hallway? That day on the trampoline, she hinted at being afraid, but I wasn’t brave enough then to ask her what she meant.

  “Jenna,” I say, “what did he do to you?”


  “You know who. Housemaster Vaughn. ”

  “Nothing,” she answers, a little too quickly. “It’s just what I said. He caught me in the basement, and he sent me back upstairs. ”

  “You were gone all afternoon,” I say. She’s looking at the ground, and I tilt her chin with my finger. “Jenna. ”

  She holds my gaze for a second. One horrible second, and I can see the pain in her eyes. I can see that something’s broken. And then she backs away and stands.

  “And how do you know what’s in the basement?” I say, following her toward the door. “You’ve only been to the storm shelter. How do you know about the biohazard suits and the emergency infirmary?”

  Jenna and I have an unspoken agreement to keep Cecily out of things. We keep a protective eye on her, but because of her closeness to Linden and Vaughn, we don’t tell her everything. It never occurred to me that Jenna would keep any secrets from me as well. But now I think she’s been keeping secrets for a while. She stops pacing for the door and looks at her feet and gnaws on her lower lip. I hear my brother’s voice in my head. Your problem is that you’re too emotional.

  But how can I not be emotional, Rowan? How can I not care?

  “Please,” I say.

  “It doesn’t matter,” she says softly.

  “Tell me what he did,” I cry, forgetting the low voice I’ve been using. “What did he do to you?”

  “Nothing!” she cries back. “It’s what he’s going to do to you. He knows you tried to run once, and he expects me to convince you to stay, but I’m trying to help you, so just shut up and let me!”

  I’m so stunned that I don’t follow her when she storms out of the library and slams the door behind her.

  The hologram in the fireplace winces.

  Chapter 19

  I worry for the rest of the evening. Deirdre tries massaging my shoulders, but she seems devastated that her efforts aren’t consoling me at all. “Isn’t there anything I can do?” she asks.

  I think for a moment, and then I say, “Could you send up someone to do my nails? And maybe an eyebrow wax, too? Maybe I’ll feel better if I can do something about my appearance. ”

  Deirdre assures me that I look lovely, but she happily obliges, and a few minutes later I’m soaking in a warm bath while the chattering first generations massage conditioner into my hair and strip my eyebrow line of both hair and a layer of skin. They’re the same women who prepared me on my wedding day, and it’s a relief that they’re so absorbed in their gossip that they don’t notice my distress. It makes what I’m about to do that much easier.

  “The day we met, you asked if my eyes were natural,” I say. “Can irises be dyed?” It sounds painful and absurd, but I’ve seen stranger things in my time here.

  The women laugh. “Of course not!” one says. “Only hair can be dyed. You change your eye color with contact lenses. ”

  “Little pieces of plastic that go right into your eye,” the other says.

  I think it sounds as absurd as the dye, but I say, “Is it painful?”

  “Oh, no!”

  “Not at all!”

  “Do we have any contact lenses?” I ask. “I’d really love to see how I’d look with green eyes. Or maybe a nice dark brown. ”

  The attendants are more than delighted to grant this request. One of them disappears and returns with little circular containers that house contact lenses. They look disturbing, like irises peeled from eyeballs, and my dinner threatens to make a reappearance. But I work through it, because if I can survive that van full of girls, I can do this, too.

  It takes several tries to get the lenses into my eye. I keep blinking, or my eyes water and that flushes them out. One of the attendants even gives up and says, “Your eyes are so pretty, honey, I’m sure your husband wouldn’t want you to change them. ” But the other is more determined, and together we work it out, and I’m staring at my newly green eyes in the mirror.

  Impressive, I have to say.

  The attendants cheer at their success. Before they go, they leave me a bottle of contact solution and some blue and brown lenses to practice with. They warn me not to fall asleep with them in my eyes because they’ll stick to the iris and I’ll have a hard time removing them.

  Once the attendants are gone, I practice putting the green lenses on and taking them off. I think about what Rose said that afternoon when she caught me trying to escape through the elevator. She said that, for my eyes, Vaughn probably paid extra. And earlier this afternoon Jenna said she was worried about what he’d do to me.

  Not her, not Cecily. Me. Are the two things related? And if they are, what does that mean—that he’ll pluck my eyes from my head and run some experiment on heterochromia? Heterochromia for the antidote? I can just see the party he’ll hold; Linden could draw up the layout.

  I leave the contacts to soak in the solution, and I fall into a deep, dreamless sleep.

  In the morning Jenna and I conspire over breakfast.

  We sit on my bed, talking in low voices, and we finally think we’ve
worked out a plan to distract Vaughn and get me into the basement, when we hear Cecily scream.

  We rush to her bedroom and find her kneeling on the floor in a watery puddle of blood, with her face pressed against the mattress. Her back convulses in gasps and sobs.

  My heart is pounding in my ears, and Jenna and I struggle to help her to her feet. It’s difficult just getting her onto the bed, because her body is so tightly locked, so bizarrely heavy, and she’s so hysterical with pain. “It’s happening,” she cries. “It’s happening and it’s too soon. I couldn’t stop it. ”

  We manage to lay her down on the bed. She’s gasping and white. The sheets between her legs bloom red with her blood.

  “I’m getting Governor Linden,” Jenna says, and I move to follow her, but Cecily grabs my arm, and her nails are clawing into my skin, and she says, “Stay! Don’t leave me. ”

  Her condition worsens rapidly. I murmur soothing things to her, but she doesn’t seem to hear them. Her eyes flutter wildly back toward her skull, and horrible groans spill from her mouth. “Cecily. ” I shake her shoulders to bring her back to me. I don’t know what else to do; she’s the one who read all those books on childbirth.

  She’s the expert, and I’m useless now. Useless and terrified.

  She’s right. It’s too early. There’s supposed to be another month, and there shouldn’t be this much blood.

  Her legs writhe in her anguish, and the blood is getting everywhere. Her nightgown. Her lacy white socks.

  “Cecily. ” I grab her face. Her eyes stare at me uncomprehendingly. Her pupils are wide and unreal. “Cecily, stay here with me. ”

  She reaches up, touches my cheek with her cold little hand, and says, “You can’t just leave me. ”

  There’s something strange about the way she says it, some deeper meaning brought on by delirium or something more urgent. There’s a fear in her brown eyes I’ve never seen.

  Vaughn comes running into the room with a crew of attendants and a gasping Linden in tow, and they take over. I move out of the way so Linden can take his right-ful place beside her, holding her hand. The attendants have brought carts of medical equipment, and Vaughn helps her to sit up. “That’s a good girl,” he coos, and jabs an enormous needle into her spine. I’m dizzy by the sight of it, but for some reason an eerie calm washes over Cecily’s face as the fluid is injected. I back away and back away until I’m in the doorway.

  “Now’s your chance,” Jenna whispers. She’s right. In this frenzy I could probably set the house on fire and it would go unnoticed. It’s the perfect time to go to the basement and find Gabriel.

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