“That’s not something we need to talk about.”
“All right. Give me the clay and go wash your hands.”
Bemusedly, I did as she said, scrubbing the fuchsia streaks from my skin. She handed me a turquoise ball of clay. This time when I sat down beside her, I actually looked at all the pieces. Half the scattered teddy bear parts—heads, paws, and tails—were black, the other half white. Some of them had actually been assembled with uniforms, the black in shades of red and the white in shades of blue. Half of each color were slightly larger and their uniforms more ornate, and several of them seemed to be paired. “Are you making a chess set?”
“Nazira’s twentieth birthday is in a couple of weeks.”
And my eighteenth birthday was a few weeks after that, but birthdays weren’t generally celebrated in the Garden. It felt a little too much like mockery, like we were celebrating how much closer we were to death. Other people got to look at a birthday and say, “Yay! One year older!” We met our birthdays with “Fuck. One year less.”
“It’s not a birthday gift,” she continued sourly. “It’s an ‘I’m sorry your life sucks so fucking much’ gift.”
“And shitty timing,” she agreed. She rolled a tiny ball of gold clay into a rope, pinched it in half, twirled it together, and the red king got a shoulder braid for his uniform. “Do you hate him just a little too?”
“More than a little.”
“He would be going against his family.”
“Whereas now he’s just going against common decency and the law,” I sighed. I held out the softened clay and she handed me a ball of royal blue. I knew better than to ask to make one of the bears—my clay creations sucked. “Bliss, I guarantee you there isn’t a side of this I haven’t turned over in my head. It stopped making sense a long time ago, if it ever did.”
“So just go with it and see what happens.”
Footsteps sounded down the hall, growing louder, and a moment later Desmond walked in and dropped to the floor beside me, handing each of us an orange. “Is that a chess set?”
Bliss rolled her eyes and didn’t answer, so while she made teddy bear soldiers, I kneaded the clay and Desmond played with his iPod and travel speaker to continue the concert.
And that orange? First and only time I ever got the peel off in a perfect spiral.
Eddison finally returns holding two bags, one containing bottles of soda and water, the other with what proves to be meatball subs. When he gives one to the girl, he also pulls a small plastic bag from his pocket and sets it on the table before her.
She picks up the bag, then stares at the contents. “My little blue dragon!”
“I talked to the scene techs; they said your room was protected by the cliff.” He sits down across from her, busying himself with unwrapping his sub. Out of courtesy, Victor pretends not to see his blush. “They’ll box everything up for you once it’s released, but they went ahead and gave me that one to pass on.”
She opens the bag and cradles the small clay creature in her hands, one thumb rubbing over the tiny, pajama-clad teddy bear tucked into the crook of its arm. “Thank you,” she whispers.
“You’ve been more forthcoming. Somewhat.”
“Vic, the scene techs are looking through the house. They’ll let us know if they find the pictures.”
For a time, conversation stops as they eat, though the girl has to wrap her tender hands in napkins to hold the hot sandwich. When the meal is done and the debris thrown away, she picks up the sad little dragon and curls her hands around it.
Victor decides it’s his turn to be brave. “What happened to Avery?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did his father punish him?”
“No, they just had a long talk about respecting each other’s privacy, and that the Butterflies were not possessions to be passed around but individuals to be cherished. To hear Des tell it, there was also a pretty sharp reminder that Avery wasn’t allowed to touch me anyway, given the whole branding thing. Well, ‘given the prior incident,’ and Des had never asked about the scar on my hip. If you don’t ask, you can keep your head buried in the sand.”
“So things went back to normal.”
“Such as it was.”
“But something had to change.”
“Something did. Its name was Keely.”
Or, more properly, its name was Avery, and its victim was Keely.
I saw a lot less of Desmond once the semester started. It was his senior year and he was carrying a full course load, but he came in the evenings and brought his textbooks so he could study, and just like I’d helped Whitney, Amber, and Noémie study once upon a time in the apartment, I helped him. Without booze. Bliss helped too, by making fun of him whenever he got something wrong.
Or even just not completely right.
Bliss seized on any opportunity to make fun of him, really.
Avery’s mood went from foul to worse as he watched his brother be such a part of the Garden. Like I said, most of the Butterflies liked Desmond. He didn’t ask anything of them. Well, he asked them questions, and left it to them whether or not to answer.
He asked their names sometimes, but it had somehow become a tradition in the Garden that you only gave your name as your goodbye. But we told him that Simone had once been Rachel Young, that Lyonette had been Cassidy Lawrence. Any of the ones we knew who couldn’t be hurt by the reminder.
Desmond wasn’t a threat to them.
Avery, on the other hand, savaged Zara so badly during sex that his father banned him for a full month, then had to drug him to avoid the hissy fit that tried to follow. Zara could barely walk after that, and every part of her was bruised. Someone stayed with her at all times just to help her with basic functions like showering, getting to the toilet, and eating.
Lorraine was a competent enough nurse—if hardly a compassionate one—but she wasn’t a miracle worker.
Infection set into Zara’s hip, and it was either take her to a hospital or put her in glass.
I think you can safely guess which one the Gardener chose.
For the first time, he told us that morning, so we could have a full day with her to make our goodbyes.
I gave him a sideways look when he told me that, which was met with a lopsided smile and a kiss to the temple. “Even when it’s just a swift embrace and a stolen whisper, you share things with each other in those moments. If it can provide Zara—and the rest of you—any comfort, I’d like to see that you get it.”
I said thank you because he seemed to expect it, but part of me wondered if it was better to just have it happen all at once, rather than dragging it out over the day.
Before he left for class, Desmond brought us a wheelbarrow so we could maneuver Zara through the Garden. He smiled when he brought it, smiled as he kissed my cheek and left for school, and Bliss swore so fluently that Tereza blushed.
“He doesn’t know, does he?” she panted when she could speak a language other than Obscenity. “He really has no clue.”
“He knows Zara is ill; he thinks he’s doing something nice.”
“That—that . . .”
Some things don’t need a translator.
That afternoon, while the Gardener walked with his wife in that other greenhouse that was so much closer than it seemed, Zara pushed herself up to sitting on her bed, sweat matting her fiery orange hair. “Maya? Bliss? Can you wheel me around for a bit?”
We folded a blanket into the wheelbarrow and arranged a few pillows under and around her, stabilizing her hip as much as possible. It wasn’t her only broken bone, but it was decidedly the most painful. “Just in a lap through the hallway,” she instructed.