Shifting until his back hit the wall, Desmond gently tugged at me until I was almost sideways between his legs, my cheek pressed against his upper chest so I could nearly hear his heart beat. I timed my still-shaky breaths to that, feeling how it jumped and skipped whenever I moved. He didn’t have his brother’s stocky frame, the obvious threat of muscle, nor his father’s wiry strength. He was slender like a runner, all lean angles and long planes. He hummed softly, something I didn’t recognize and couldn’t properly hear pressed against his chest, but his fingers brushed against my skin in the shape of piano chords.
We sat in the damp, dark cave in clothing soaked from the waterfall, clinging to each other like children against a nightmare, but when I fell asleep, the nightmare would still be there. When I woke up, the nightmare would still be there. Every day for three and a half years, the nightmare would always, always be there, and there was no comfort against that.
For a few hours, though, I could pretend.
I could be the little match girl and strike my illusions against the wall, lost in the warmth until the glow faded and left me back in the Garden.
“They weren’t just fellow captives, were they?” Victor asks after giving her a moment to collect herself. “They were your friends.”
“Some of them are friends. All of them are family. I guess that’s just what happens.”
Sometimes it was hard to make yourself get to know other people. It would just hurt more when they died, or hurt them when you died. Sometimes it was hard to believe it was worth that pain. At the heart of the Garden, though, was loneliness and the ever-present threat of shattering, and connecting with the others seemed the safer of two evils. Not the lesser, necessarily, but the safer.
So I knew that Nazira was even more worried about forgetting than Bliss. She was an artist, and she filled sketchbook after sketchbook with her family and friends. She drew outfits she’d loved, her home and school, the little swing set in the city park where she’d gotten her first kiss. She drew them over and over, and panicked if the details changed or got fuzzy.
There was Zara the Bitch, and when Bliss names you that, you know you’re an unholy terror. Bliss was generally scathing and intolerant of bullshit; Zara’s default setting was mean. I appreciated that she didn’t buy into the illusion, but she made things hell for those who needed to cling to it. Like Nazira, who believed that as long as she didn’t forget anything from before, she’d see it all again. Not a week went by that I didn’t break up a fight between them, usually by dragging Zara to the stream and shoving her in until she cooled off. She wasn’t a friend, but in quiet moments, I liked her. She loved books like I did.
Glenys ran and ran and ran, endless laps around the halls, until the Gardener ordered Lorraine to give her twice as much food as the rest of us. Ravenna was one of the few with an MP3 player and speaker, and she’d dance for hours. Ballet, hip-hop, waltz, tap without shoes, all the classes she must have taken for years, and if you walked by her, she’d grab your arm and pull you in to dance with her. Hailee loved doing everyone’s hair, and could make the most fantastic arrangements, and Pia wanted to know how everything worked, and Marenka did gorgeous cross-stitch. She even had a tiny pair of super-sharp embroidery scissors that the Gardener required her to wear on a ribbon around her neck so no one could use them to hurt themselves. Adara wrote stories, and Eleni painted, and sometimes Adara would ask Eleni or Nazira to illustrate scenes for her.
And there was Sirvat. Sirvat was . . . Sirvat.
She was hard to know.
It wasn’t just that she was standoffish, which she was, or quiet, which she was. It was that you never knew what the hell was going to come out of her mouth. She was Lyonette’s final introduction. Lyonette asked me not to help with that one, because Sirvat was just that strange, and neither Lyonette nor I could guess what my reaction would be. So the first time I met her was after her wings were done. She was sprawled along the stream bank, face in the mud, with Lyonette staring at her in utter confusion.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
She didn’t even look at me, half of her pale brown hair clumped with mud. “You can die from water more ways than drowning in it. Drinking too much is as lethal as not having any.”
I glanced over at the perplexed Lyonette. “Is she actually suicidal?”
“I don’t think so.”
She wasn’t, most of the time. We learned that was just Sirvat. She identified flowers we could theoretically eat to kill ourselves, but ate none herself. She knew a thousand different ways a person could die, and had a fascination for the girls in glass that none of us wanted to understand. She visited them almost as much as the Gardener did.
Sirvat was a queer duck. I honestly didn’t spend much time with her, and she didn’t even seem to notice, much less mind.
But most of us knew each other. Even when we chose not to share our lives from before the Garden, there was an intimacy to our company. For better or worse—almost always worse—we were Butterflies. Irrevocable common ground.
“And you mourned each other.” It isn’t a question.
Her mouth tilts. It isn’t a smile, not even a grimace, just an acknowledgment that some kind of expression should be there. “Always. You never had to wait for someone to show up in the glass. You mourned them every single day, as they mourned you, because every day we were dying.”
“Did Desmond get close to any of the other girls?”
“Yes and no. In time. It was . . .” She hesitates, eyes darting several times between Victor and her damaged hands, before sighing and clasping her hands in her lap, out of sight under the table. “Well, you have to know it was complicated.”
He nods. “What did his father think?”
The day after Simone went into the glass—not that we saw her, with the walls still down—the Gardener brought me back to his suite for a fancy private dinner. So far as I could tell without specifically asking, I was the only one he brought in there. I suppose it should have been flattering, but I only found it unsettling. The conversation stayed light. He didn’t mention Simone at all, and I didn’t bring her up because I didn’t want to know the worst of it. The only mystery this place had left was how he killed us.
When dessert was finished, he told me to take a seat with a fresh glass of champagne and relax while he cleaned up. I chose the recliner rather than the couch, popping the footrest up and arranging my long skirt to cover even my feet. I could have presented at an award show in that dress, and I wondered just how much money he sank into the Garden and our upkeep. He had something classical playing on an old-fashioned record player, so I closed my eyes and rested my head back against the deep padding.
The thick carpeting in the suite muffled his footsteps, but I could still hear him return. He stood over me for a time, just watching. I knew he liked to watch us sleep sometimes, but it was somehow creepier when I was awake.
“Did Desmond upset you the other night?”
My eyes snapped open, which he seemed to take as his cue to perch on the arm of the chair. “Upset me?”
“I was looking over some of the footage and saw you pushing him away. He followed you into the cave but there are no cameras in there. Did he upset or hurt you?”
I managed a small smile, for his sake or my own I wasn’t sure. “I was upset, yes, but before Desmond arrived. I had a panic attack. I’d never had one before so I didn’t know what to do, and I misconstrued his arrival at first. He helped me through it.”
“A panic attack?”
“If after a year and a half, that’s my strongest reaction, I don’t think it’s particularly alarming, do you?”
He returned the smile, warm and sincere. “And he helped you?”
“Yes, and stayed with me until I was calm.”
He had stayed with me through the night, even when we heard two isolated doors open, when we heard his father walk the hallways with a sobbing Simone. Sometimes he liked a final fuck before killing a girl; better in her room than in those secret rooms, I guess. Des stayed with me until the morning, when all the doors lifted and the other girls filtered into the Garden to cling together against the painful loss that he didn’t understand, because he didn’t know she was or would soon be dead. Did he think she was just being kicked out? Or taken for an abortion?
“My younger son can be hard to know.”