“Why don’t you hate me?”
I’d been thinking about that a lot the past few weeks, and still wasn’t sure I’d found the answer. “Maybe you’re as trapped here as we are,” I said slowly. Except I did hate him a bit, as much as but in a different way than his father and brother.
He turned that over for a while. In a flash of lightning, I tried to make out the emotions racing across his face. He had his father’s eyes, but he was much more self-aware than the Gardener would ever be. The Gardener clung to his delusions. Desmond eventually confronted the hard truths, or at least the beginnings of them. He didn’t know what to do with them, but he didn’t try to make them less than they were.
“Why don’t you try to escape?”
“Because girls before me did.”
“There is only one door that leads out of this space, and it is locked and coded at all times. You have to punch in your code for both entry and exit. When maintenance comes in, the rooms become soundproof. We could scream and pound all we wanted to and no one would ever hear us. We could stay out here when the walls come down for maintenance, but someone tried that about ten years ago and nothing happened except that she disappeared.” And reappeared in glass and resin, but Desmond still hadn’t seen those Butterflies. He seemed to forget what his father had said about keeping us after we die. “I’m not sure if your father hires incurious people or if he made it seem unexceptional, but no one came to the rescue. When it comes right down to it, though, we’re afraid.”
“Of what happens if we almost get there.” I looked up at the night beyond the glass panes. “Let’s face it, he could kill all of us pretty quickly if he ever felt the need to. And if one of us made the attempt and failed, what’s to say he wouldn’t punish all of us for it?”
Or at least the one who made the attempt and me, because he thinks they tell me everything. How would I not know of such a plan?
What an asinine thing to say, under the circumstances.
I shook my head. “I’m just sorry you ever came here.”
Another sideways look, somewhere between hurt and amused. “Completely sorry?” he asked after a minute.
I studied his face in the moonlight. Twice he’d helped me through panic attacks, even if he only knew about one. He was fragile in a way his father and brother weren’t, someone who wanted to be good, do good, and just didn’t know how. “No,” I said eventually. “Not completely.” Not if I could figure out some way to lead him to usefulness.
“You’re a very complicated person.”
“And you’re a complication.”
He laughed and held his hand out between us, palm up, and I didn’t hesitate to take it, lacing our fingers together. I leaned into him, resting my head on his shoulder, and found a comfortable silence between us. He reminded me of Topher a bit, if more complex, and just for a little while, I wanted to pretend this boy wasn’t his father’s son, that he was my friend.
I fell asleep that way, and when morning sunlight struck my eyes, I slowly sat up to find that we’d curled together through the night, his hand on my hip and his other arm cushioning my cheek from the stone. The new girl wouldn’t be awake for a few hours yet, but Desmond had classes and at some point, a violin proficiency he’d pass without even trying.
Hesitantly, I reached out and stroked a comma of dark hair back from his forehead. He stirred and unconsciously followed the gesture, and I couldn’t help but smile. “Wake up.”
“No,” he mumbled, and grabbed my hand to shield his eyes.
“You have classes.”
“You have a proficiency.”
“You have finals next week.”
He sighed but it turned into a face-splitting yawn, and he grudgingly sat up to rub the sleep from his eyes. “You’re bossy, but nice to wake up to.”
I looked away because I wasn’t sure what was showing on my face. His fingertips, lightly callused from the strings, touched my chin and brought my face back to his, and the only thing there was a soft smile.
He leaned forward, then caught himself and started to pull back. I closed the distance between us, his lips soft against mine. The light touch on my chin moved back until his hand could cup my cheek and he deepened the kiss until my head was swimming. It had been so long since I’d actually kissed someone, rather than just allow them to force a kiss on me. The Gardener thought his son could love me, and I thought he might be right. I also thought love would prove a different motivation for the son than for the father. I hoped.
When Desmond moved away, he pressed a kiss against my cheek. “Can I come see you after classes?”
I nodded even as I silently acknowledged that my life had reached an entirely new level of fucked up.
“And the Gardener was happy about this?”
“Actually, he was. I mean, I’m sure there was a certain degree of self-interest in it—after all, if Desmond was emotionally attached to one or more of us, he was unlikely to risk anything happening to us. That had to be part of it, but I think most of it was that he genuinely enjoyed seeing his son happy.”
Victor sighs. “Just when I think this story can’t get more twisted.”
“It can always get more twisted.” She smiles as she says it, but he knows better than to trust it. It’s not at all a nice smile, not something that should be so easily displayed on a girl her age. “That’s life, right?”
“No,” Victor says quietly. “It isn’t. Or at least it shouldn’t be.”
“But that’s not the same thing. Is and shouldn’t are entirely different things.”
He’s starting to think Eddison isn’t going to come back.
He can’t really blame him.
If this is the twisted she’s admitting to, how much worse is the twisted she’s still hiding?
“How did things change after his finals?”
He was around more in the summer, except for an hour or so in the early afternoon when he walked with his parents in the outer greenhouse. If he came in the mornings, he stayed atop the cliff or in the library, respecting the privacy of my conversations with the other girls in the cave. Danelle had come to replace Lyonette as my balance in the more delicate of those conversations, just as she’d started taking the night shift with our new arrivals.
There wasn’t much to the night shift, given that they were in a drugged sleep, but still. I appreciated being able to get some space.
And despite the wings that spread across her cheeks and forehead, Danelle could be trusted as a sensible option. I’d grown used to her double set of Red-Spotted Purples, with their contrasts of deep, rich color and bright pattern breaks. I won’t say it suited her, any more than the ones on my back suited me, but she’d made them a part of her and learned from the experience. She and Marenka were the last to receive the wings on their faces; after that, they’d talked everyone else out of sucking up to that extent. There were some who came close, but they hadn’t crossed the line yet.
I took the earliest conversations and she traded with me once the new girl showed signs of waking. Danelle held back on actually meeting the new girls until they were more or less settled, just like the others with the wings on their faces did.
After the first session, I was actually in the room whenever the Gardener worked on the new girl’s tattoo. She hated needles, but if I read to her—and let her squeeze the ever-loving fuck out of my arm—she could lie still for it. It was by her request that I was there, rather than the Gardener’s, though I think he was pleased by it. As I read aloud from The Count of Monte Cristo and wondered if that counted as irony, I watched the brilliant ice blue of a Spring Azure spread across her porcelain skin, broken by occasional veins or fringes of silver-white and one narrow band of midnight blue on the tips of the upper wings.