Bliss brought an ice pack with the lunch trays to put on my now-perpetually bruised arm.
The Gardener didn’t touch me if Desmond was in the Garden, but his son’s interest in me roused a corresponding excitement in him. It was no secret among the girls that he liked me best—honestly, I think they were relieved—but he’d gone from coming to me two or three times a week to damn near every day.
He still went to the other girls, of course, but when he was with anyone else, he didn’t care if his younger son was in the Garden or not. And there was still Avery, but his fangs had been mostly pulled by the destruction of his playroom and the clear pride his father had in Desmond. With his younger brother as a strong example of how their father wanted us treated, it was hard for him to give in to the things he enjoyed.
I grew to hate lunch, because every single day, when Desmond went to share the meal and the early afternoon with his mother, the Gardener came to me with a need that made his hands shake. I started taking lunch in my room just so I wouldn’t have to suffer the indignity of him coming to the dining room and calling my name across conversations. Even though he knew Desmond hadn’t done any more than kiss me, just the thought that he could do more was enough to make the Gardener nearly mess his pants.
And dear fucking Christ, the possibility that he scoured the security footage hoping to see his son with me was enough to make my brain turn off completely.
At least those visits had a specific time limit, because he had to be up at the house by a quarter to two to meet his wife for their walk. While the family strolled along the square in the outer greenhouse, I spent the hour with the girl he rechristened Tereza. She was just shy of seventeen, the daughter of two litigators, and almost never spoke above a whisper. When she did, it was important, like her asking me to read to her while the Gardener inked her wings. She could also be drawn into conversation about music. She played piano, we learned, and wanted to be a professional pianist. She and Ravenna could talk for hours about ballet scores. She paid attention, noticed the undercurrents of any given situation, so she seemed to understand our precarious existence even before I showed her the display cases that first week.
For her sake, so she’d have a way to keep herself grounded, I asked the Gardener to give her a keyboard.
He installed an upright piano in one of the empty rooms, replacing the bed with a beautiful instrument and an entire wall of filing cabinets of sheet music. Except for meals, sleep, and putting up with her visits from the Gardener—numerous because she was new—she was in that room, playing the piano until her hands cramped.
Desmond met me in the hallway one afternoon, leaning against the Garden-side wall. His head was tilted to one side as he listened. “What happens if someone has a breakdown?” he asked quietly.
“In what way?”
He nodded in the direction of the doorway. “You can hear it in the music. She’s disintegrating. She’s getting choppy, changing the tempos, pounding at the keys . . . maybe she doesn’t talk, but that doesn’t mean she’s adapting.”
You never really forgot that he was a psych major.
“She’ll either break or she won’t. There’s a limit to what I can do to prevent that.”
“But what happens if she does?”
“You know what happens. You just don’t want to admit it.” He’d never asked why Simone hadn’t returned. Tereza’s arrival was greeted with consternation followed by an obvious, concerted effort to not think about it too deeply.
Desmond paled, but nodded to show he understood. Then he promptly changed the subject. If you don’t look at the bad thing, the bad thing can’t see you, right? “Bliss has some sort of project spread out over the rock. She told me if I sat on any of the clay, she’d shove it up my nose.”
“What was she working on?”
“I have no idea; she was still softening the clays.”
Summer afternoons were almost unbearably warm in the Garden, the heat soaking through the glass. Most girls spent the afternoons in the water or the shade to escape it, or in their rooms where they could actually feel the cooler air moving through the vents. I wasn’t going to disturb Bliss if she was working on something, especially if she was doing it in the hottest part of the Garden, so I took Desmond’s hand and led him down the hall. It was cooler in the back corner, where the base of the cliff stood directly against the hall glass and blocked the sunlight.
I turned in to my room and Desmond immediately began studying the shelf above my bed. He tapped the carousel to make it spin. “For some reason I don’t really see you as a carousel person,” he said, turning to look at me.
“Someone else was.”
He looked back at the carousel and didn’t say anything. He couldn’t ask for more without hitting things he tried so hard not to think about.
“The gifts we give say as much about us as the gifts we get and keep,” he murmured eventually. He touched the muzzle of the sad little dragon, which now had a tiny pajama-clad teddy bear to keep him company. “Is it the things that are important, or the people?”
“I thought classes were over for the summer.”
He gave me a sheepish grin. “Habit?”
My room had changed a bit from that first day. My sheets were a deep rose, the blanket a rich, brilliant purple, with stacks of pillows in a pale fawn-brown. My toilet and shower were both concealed by drapes of a matching brown, rose and purple sashes hanging loose against the walls in case I wanted to clip them back for any reason. There were two short bookcases along one wall with the various books the Gardener had given me personally, rather than adding into the library, and the knickknacks spilled over onto these shelves, the most important—or at least the most personal—staying on the shelf above the bed.
Other than the knickknacks, it was hard to say the room reflected anything about me, as I hadn’t chosen anything about it. Even the trinkets were hard to pin down, really. Evita had once painted me a lovely chrysanthemum on a rock, but that showed her sunny personality, not mine. My keeping it just meant that she was important to me.
And then there was the thing that made me ever conscious of just how not mine the space was: the blinking red camera light above the door.
I sat on the bed, my back against the wall, and watched him bend sideways to read the spines of the books. “How many of these were my father’s choice?”
“The Brothers Karamazov?”
“No, that one was mine.”
“Really?” He grinned at me over his shoulder. “Dense, isn’t it?”
“On the surface. It’s fun to discuss.”
I discussed a lot of books with Zara, but never the classics. That was something Noémie and I had done, dissecting them, getting into debates that could last for days or even weeks without ever fully being resolved. Rereading Dostoevsky kept Noémie fresh in my mind in a way that wasn’t as painful as directly reminding myself of her and the others in New York. There was a book for each of the girls from the apartment. It was subtler than Nazira’s drawings or Bliss’s figures, but the same impulse.
“Why am I not surprised that you like books with layers?” He finished his perusal and stood next to the bed, hands in his pockets.
“You can sit on the bed, you know.”
“I, uh . . . this is your space,” he said awkwardly. “I don’t want to presume.”
“You can sit on the bed, you know.”
He smiled this time and toed off his shoes, sitting next to me on top of the blankets. We’d kissed a few times since that first one, each one tentative and just a little overwhelming. His father, and to a lesser extent his brother, hovered between us whenever it seemed it might go a little further, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.