I tried to open my eyes but sleep meds always made them gunk up more than usual in the morning. “If you’re not going to start right now, may I please sit up?”
The hand stroked my hair, the fingernails scraping lightly against my scalp. “You may,” he said, sounding startled. He did, however, help me sit up on the bench. I rubbed the crystals from my eyes and looked down at the picture in my hand, aware of how his hand kept caressing my hair. I thought of Lyonette, of the other girls I’d seen from a distance, and I couldn’t say I was surprised.
Creeped out, but not surprised.
He stood behind me, the air around him filled with a spicy cologne. Understated, probably pricy. In front of me was a full tattooist’s setup, the inks arrayed on a standing tray. “It won’t be the full design today.”
“Why do you mark us?”
“Because a garden must have its butterflies.”
“Any chance we could leave that metaphorical?”
He laughed, a full, easy sound. This was a man who loved to laugh and didn’t find as much cause to do it as he’d like, and was therefore always delighted by the opportunity. You learn things over time, and that was one of the biggest things I learned about him. He wanted to find more joy in life than he did. “Small wonder my Lyonette likes you. You are a fierce spirit, much like she is.”
I didn’t have an answer to that, nothing that made sense to say.
He carefully hooked his fingers through my hair, pulling it back over my shoulders, and picked up a brush. He worked it through my hair until there wasn’t a single knot to be found, and even after. I think he enjoyed it as much as anything else, really. It’s a simple pleasure, brushing someone else’s hair. Being allowed to. Eventually he pulled it into a ponytail and wrapped it with an elastic, then coiled it into a heavy bun and secured it with a scrunchie and rubber-tipped pins.
“Back onto your stomach now, please.”
I obeyed, and as he moved away I caught a glimpse of pressed khakis and a button-down shirt. He turned my head to face away from him, my cheek pressed against the black leather, and placed my arms loosely at my sides. It wasn’t quite comfortable, but wasn’t direly uncomfortable either. When I steeled myself not to jump or flinch, he lightly slapped my rear. “Relax,” he instructed. “If you tense, it will hurt more and take longer to heal.”
I took a deep breath and forced my muscles to unclench. I curled and uncurled my fists, and with each uncurl I released a bit more tension from my back. Sophia taught us that, mainly to keep Whitney from her periodic breakdowns, and—
“Sophia? Whitney? These are some of the girls?” Eddison interrupts.
“They’re girls, yes. Well, Sophia probably counts as a woman.” The girl takes another sip, eyes the quantity left in the bottle. “Actually, Whitney would too, I guess. So they’re women.”
“What do they look like? We can match their names to—”
“They’re not from the Garden.” It’s hard to interpret the look she gives the younger agent, equal parts pity, amusement, and derision. “I had a life before, you know. Life didn’t begin at the Garden. Well, not this Garden anyway.”
Victor turns the photo over, trying to calculate how long such a thing must have taken. So large, so much detail.
“It wasn’t all at once,” the girl tells him, following his eyes to the pattern. “He started with the outlines. Then he went back in over the course of two weeks to add in all the color and detail. And when it was done, there I was, just another one of the Butterflies in his Garden. God creating his own little world.”
“Tell us about Sophia and Whitney,” Victor says, content to leave the tattoo for a time. He has a feeling what happened when it was done, and he’s willing to call himself a coward if it means not hearing it yet.
“I lived with them.”
Eddison tugs the Moleskine from his pocket. “Where?”
“In our apartment.”
Victor cuts him off. “Tell us about the apartment.”
“Vic,” Eddison protests. “She’s not giving us anything!”
“She will,” he answers. “When she’s ready.”
The girl watches them without comment, sliding the bottle from hand to hand like a hockey puck.
“Tell us about the apartment,” he says again.
There were eight of us who lived there, all of us working together at the restaurant. It was a huge loft apartment, all one room, with beds and footlockers laid out like a barracks. Each bed had a hanging rack for clothing on one side, and rods for curtains on the other side and at the foot of the bed. It wasn’t much for privacy but it worked well enough. Under normal circumstances rent would have been hellish, but it was a shit neighborhood and there were so many of us that you could make your rent in a night or two and call the rest of the month spending money.
Some even did.
We were a strange mix, students and hoydens and a retired hooker. Some wanted the freedom to be anyone they wanted, some of us wanted the freedom to be left alone. The only things we had in common were working at the restaurant and living together.
And honestly? It was kind of like heaven.
Sure, we clashed sometimes, there were arguments and fights and occasional pettiness, but for the most part those things blew over pretty quickly. Someone was always willing to loan you a dress or a pair of shoes or a book. There was work, classes for those who took them, but otherwise we had money and an entire city at our feet. Even for me, who grew up with minimal supervision, that kind of freedom was wonderful.
The fridge was kept stocked with bagels, booze, and bottled water, and there were always condoms and aspirin in the cabinets. Sometimes you could find leftover takeout in the fridge, and whenever social services came to visit Sophia, and see how she was improving, we made a grocery run and hid the booze and condoms. Mostly we ate out or had things delivered. Working around food every night, we generally avoided the apartment kitchen like the plague.
Oh, and the drunk guy. We were never sure if he actually lived in the building or not, but in the afternoons we’d see him drinking in the street and every night he’d pass out in front of our door. Not the building door—our door. He was a fucking pervert too, so when we came back after dark—which was pretty much every night—we took the stairs all the way up to the roof and then came down one floor on the fire escape to come in through the windows. Our landlord put a special lock on there for us because Sophia felt bad for the drunk pervert and didn’t want to turn him over to the cops. Given her situation—retired hooker–drug addict cleaning up to try to get her kids back—the rest of us didn’t push.
The girls were my first friends. I suppose I’d met people like them before but it was different. I could stay away from people and usually did. But I worked with the girls and then I lived with them, and it was just . . . different.
There was Sophia, who mothered everyone and had managed to be completely clean for over a year when I met her, and that was after two years of trying and slipping. She had the two most beautiful daughters, and they’d actually been kept together in the same foster home. Even better, the foster parents fully supported Sophia’s goal of earning them back. They let her come see the girls pretty much whenever she wanted. Whenever things got rough, whenever the addiction started screaming again, one of us would stuff her in a taxi to see her girls and remind her what she was working so hard for.