Wither, p.41
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       Wither, p.41

         Part #1 of The Chemical Garden series by Lauren DeStefano
Page 41


  “I’ve been looking for you all night. ”

  “Where’s your girlfriend?” I say, before I can stop myself.

  “What? What are you talking about?”

  “Nothing,” I say as he turns me to face him. “I just forgot you have a weakness for blondes. ”

  “Oh, her?” he says. “Her husband’s father is a contractor I’ve been working with. I thought it would benefit me to stay on his good side. ”

  “Okay,” I say, watching as a giant screen on the wall counts down the seconds to midnight.

  Twenty. . . nineteen. . .

  “Don’t be mad,” Linden says, squeezing my hands.

  They’re sweating in the black gloves. “I didn’t like watching you dance with him, either. In fact I wanted to apologize the moment the music stopped, but you’d disappeared. ”

  Ten. . . nine. . .

  He tilts my chin, forcing me to look at him. Of all the Governors and Housemasters here, he’s the only one I would allow to touch me in this way. He’s familiar, like it or not. The closest thing I have to home this far down the coast.

  “You’re the only blonde I have a weakness for,” he promises. And it’s so pathetic that I have to laugh, and he laughs too, and takes my face in his hands. “I love you,” he says.

  Three . . . two . . . one.

  He kisses me, amidst a sea of fake fireworks and fake stars. And we ring in this fake New Year together. And it only seems fitting that, in this moment of illusion, the words just come out of me. “I love you, too. ”

  Chapter 24

  We return from the New Year’s party in the early hours of morning, and my bedroom window lets in a smoggy blue light. Across the hall from my bedroom, Cecily’s door is open, and I can hear her breathing, the rustle of her body moving in the satin blankets. Next to her door there’s an empty bedroom, and no sound at all.

  And somehow that silence is what makes it impossible for me to sleep. I toss and turn for a while, and then I cross the hall to Jenna’s bedroom.

  Her door creaks open. In the morning light I can see that her bed has been made. One of her paperback romances remains on the nightstand. It’s the only bit of her that lingers. From here I can see the candy wrapper marking the last page she ever read.

  Even her smell is gone. That light, airy collaboration of perfumes and lotions that made attendants blush.

  In her final days it was overpowered by the heavy salve Adair rubbed on her chest to help her breathe, but that medicinal smell is gone as well. The vacuum has been swept over her footsteps, erased the gurney marks from when her body was taken away.

  I wait. To be haunted by her, to hear her voice. When Rose died, I could still, for months, feel her presence in the orange groves. Even if it was just my imagination, it was something. But if Jenna’s spirit still exists on earth, it isn’t here. There’s not even a shadow in her mirror.

  I peeled back the blankets, climb into her bed. The sheets smell brand new, and maybe they are, because I don’t recognize them—white with little purple flowers.

  This isn’t her satin comforter, either, which had a cherry juice stain in the corner. She’s gone. Not a trace, aside from the paperback. I’ll never know what happened to her that afternoon when she disappeared into Vaughn’s basement. She’ll never run away with me and see the ocean. She’ll never dance or breathe again.

  I bury my face in the mattress, the spot where she died, and I pretend her fingers are brushing through my hair. It takes a lot of effort before I’m able to conjure up a clear memory of her voice.

  You’re getting out of here, and it’s going to be amazing.

  “Okay,” I tell her.

  After a while I fall into a mercifully dreamless sleep.

  It is my last dreamless night. After that, Gabriel is always on my mind, alone somewhere in that awful place beneath my feet. I think of his skin made gray by those flickering lights, his breath coming out in clouds. I close my eyes at night and begin dreaming of him lying on a cot to sleep, with my dead sister wives in a freezer beside him.

  I worry about Vaughn discovering our plan and harming him. Killing him. Vaughn says he began working on his antidote the day Linden was born, and even if I don’t believe that he means to do good things, I do believe that much. I also believe that Linden’s is the only life he cares about saving. And Bowen is Vaughn’s backup if he can’t cure his son in time.

  I have a horrible dream one night. Bowen, tall and willowy like his father, pressing his lips to the mouth of some hesitant bride who lives in what was once his mother’s bedroom. He tells her that he loves her, and she holds a knife behind her back, spiteful and beautiful, waiting for the right moment to end him. There is nobody to warn him. No mother to love him. All he has ever known is Vaughn, who pries Linden’s body apart in the basement, frantic for a cure. And me? I am long dead, frozen and perfectly preserved with my sister wives, our eyes open in stunned expressions, our hands not quite touching. In a row of four, icicles on our eyelashes.

  Something touches me, and I scream before I can stop myself. My heart is hammering in my chest, and immediately I struggle to break away from my sister wives’ corpses, desperate to be out of Vaughn’s basement.

  “Hey,” a soft voice whispers. “Shh—hey, hey. It’s alright. You had a bad dream. ” I roll over, and there’s Linden beside me in my bed; I can just barely make him out in the moonlight. He pushes the hair from my face.

  “Come here,” he says, and draws me to him. I don’t resist.

  My hands are trembling when I grip his shirt. His cheek against mine is warm, melting away the frozen skin of my dream.

  Across the hall I hear the baby hiccup and then start wailing. I move to get out of bed, but Linden pulls me back down.

  “I have to go,” I say. “It’s my fault. I woke him. ”

  “You’re shaking,” he says. He touches the back of his hand to my forehead. “And you might be a little warm. Do you feel sick?”

  “I’m not sick,” I assure him.

  “Stay in bed,” Linden says. “I’ll go. ”

  I want to go. I want to confirm that Bowen is still just an infant, that the willowy boy in my dream isn’t real.

  At least not yet. I get out of bed, and Linden follows me across the hall to Cecily’s room. She’s trying to drag herself out of her bed, hair disheveled, eyes half open.

  “I’ve got him,” I whisper. “Go back to sleep. ”

  “No,” she says, and pushes me aside just as I’m reaching into the crib. “You aren’t his mother. I am. ” Bowen whimpers and hiccups as she brings him into her arms.

  She shushes him, hums sweetly, and settles in the rocking chair. But when she undoes the top buttons of her nightgown, Bowen thrashes away from her breast, whining.

  Linden comes up behind me and puts his arm around my shoulders. “Maybe we should try the wet nurse, love,” he says to Cecily.

  She looks at him, and there are tears brimming in her eyes. “Don’t you dare,” she spits. “I am his mother. He needs me. ” Her voice breaks, and she turns her attention back to her son. “Bowen, please . . . ”

  “My father says this is normal for the first few weeks,”

  Linden tries. “Newborns don’t take to the breast easily. ”

  “He used to,” Cecily says. “Something’s wrong. ” She buttons her nightgown and stands, holding her son to her chest and pacing back and forth. This settles him; he’s asleep in seconds.

  “He just wasn’t hungry,” I say.

  Cecily says nothing more as she sets Bowen back into his crib, stooping to kiss his forehead. She did not see my dream—a world in which her son has grown into a motherless young man with unwitting brides of his own—but has she had nightmares of her own? Has it occurred to her, even once, that she will only be a very small part of his life, and that one day she’ll be nothing more to him than the distant memo
ry of red hair and the sullen, elegant chords of a keyboard? If he remembers her at all.

  “My parents used to work in a lab that had a nursery,” I tell her, ignoring my own rule about not letting Linden hear about my life. These words aren’t for him anyway. “All of the babies were orphans, and there were so many of them that they couldn’t get one-on-one care sometimes. So the technicians played a recording of a lul-laby to soothe their crying. But the ones who were held always seemed more alert. Those were the ones who laughed and learned to reach for things sooner than the others. ”

  Cecily was staring into the crib as I spoke, but now she raises her head toward me. “What does that mean?”

  “I guess it means babies understand human contact. They know when they’re being cared for. ”

  “I don’t remember anyone,” Cecily whispers. “I grew up in an orphanage, and I don’t remember anyone ever caring for me. I just want him to know I’m his mother. That I’m here and I’ll take care of him. ”

  “He knows,” I whisper back, and I put my arm around her.

  She wipes her hand across her eyes. “He doesn’t have to listen to recordings. He has a mother. He has me. ”

  “He does,” I agree.

  She covers her mouth to hold in another sob. Cecily has always been emotional, but giving birth to Bowen and losing Jenna have taken their toll. Every day she’s more withered. I’ve been hoping Linden will be able to comfort her, so that it will be easier for her once I’m gone, but there are times when he can’t reach her, when her sorrow comes out too irrationally or is too heavy for him to comprehend. Times like this, when she slips her hand into mine and holds on tight, and our husband becomes just a shadow in the doorway.

  “Come on. You should get back to sleep,” I say, and she lets me guide her to her bed. I tuck the covers in around her. Her eyes are already closed. She’s always so weary.

  “Rhine?” she says. “I’m sorry. ”

  “Sorry for what?” I ask. But she has drifted off to sleep.

  I turn for the door and realize that Linden is gone. He probably slipped away while I was trying to console Cecily, afraid he might make things worse. Cecily’s temper is a fragile thing, especially now that she’s grieving over Jenna. Her intensity terrifies him; I think it’s because her grief reminds him of losing Rose.

  I stand in the doorway for a while, listening to the cadenced breathing of my sister wife and her son, their forms barely visible in the moonlight. And a terrible sense of mortality washes over me. Very soon, Cecily will lose her remaining sister wife, and in less than four years, she’ll lose her husband, too. And one day this floor will be nothing but empty bedrooms, with not even a ghost to keep Bowen company.

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