“Looking for real estate?” Bliss asked, and Zara nodded.
It was something you couldn’t help but wonder about. When you died, which case would you be in? I was pretty sure I knew which one the Gardener had picked out for me; it was right beside Lyonette, and positioned in such a way that you could see it from the cave. Bliss thought she’d be on my other side, just the three of us, hanging out forever in the fucking wall for future generations of Butterflies to wonder about and fear.
We walked slowly through the hall, me pushing the barrow and Bliss doing her best to stabilize the front. Zara stopped us near the front entrance, where the scent of honeysuckle filled the air and mixed with a more chemical smell from one of the rooms we never, ever saw open. Like the tattoo room, Lorraine’s room, and Avery’s former playroom, the walls were opaque and solid, with a punch pad beside an honest-to-God door. We weren’t supposed to be here.
And I’d still never seen Des put in his main door code.
“Do you think if I asked for this one, he’d give it to me?”
“For the honeysuckle?”
“No, because we all avoid this part. Then I wouldn’t be seen as much.”
“Ask him. Worst he can do at that point is say no.”
“If I asked you right now to kill me, would you?”
I studied the empty glass case because I didn’t want to see if she was serious or not. Zara could be cruel, mocking the other girls until they cried, but she didn’t have much of a sense of humor. “I guess I’m not that good a friend,” I said finally.
Bliss said nothing.
“Do you think it hurts?”
“He says it doesn’t.”
“And you believe him?”
“No,” I sighed, leaning against the doorway into the plant life. “I don’t think he knows one way or the other. I think he wants to believe there’s no pain.”
“What do you think she’ll be like?”
“The next Butterfly.” She craned her head back to stare at me, her brown eyes fever-bright. “He hasn’t gone hunting in a long time. Not since Tereza. He’s been so happy with Desmond here that he hasn’t even looked for anyone else.”
“He might not go look.”
He didn’t always, though. Sometimes a girl died and he didn’t go hunting. Not until someone else died. Sometimes he brought back one girl, occasionally he brought back two, though he hadn’t done that during my time here. Trying to understand why that man did anything the way he did was a worthless endeavor.
We were still standing there when Lorraine came out of her room to start dinner. She seemed startled at first, one hand flying to the dark chestnut hair, somewhat faded and heavily streaked with silver, that she still wore long and up, as the Gardener preferred. Even though he never looked at her, never commented on it, she still wore it that way. She glanced at the bandaged Zara, at how pale she was except for two bright blotches of red on her cheeks, then at the empty case.
Zara’s eyes narrowed. “Wishing you were in there, Lorraine?”
“I don’t have to put up with you,” the woman retorted.
“I know how you can be.”
Suspicion warred with hope in fading blue eyes. “You do?”
“Yeah. Magically become thirty years younger. I’m sure he’d love to kill and display you then.”
Lorraine sniffed and stalked past us, slapping Zara’s ankle on the way. The movement jarred the broken, infected hip and she bit back a scream.
Bliss’s eyes followed the cook-nurse. “I’ll send Danelle to help you back.”
“Why, where are you—” I took a second look at her expression. “Right. Never mind. Danelle.”
The gasping Zara and I watched her jog away. “What do you suppose she’s doing?” she asked after a minute.
“I’m not asking and I don’t want to know in advance,” I said fervently. “Depending on what it is, I may not want to know after the fact either.”
A few minutes later, not just Danelle but a very confused Marenka walked down the hall to join us. “Should I ask what Bliss is doing?”
“No,” we answered together.
“So I shouldn’t ask why she borrowed my scissors?” murmured Marenka, a hand to her throat where a ribbon usually held her tiny pair of embroidery scissors.
Danelle thought about that, accepted it, and lightly touched the edge of the wheelbarrow. “Into the Garden? Or back to your room?”
“Room,” groaned Zara. “I think I get to take another painkiller.”
Between us, Danelle, Marenka, and I got her settled back into bed with a glass of water and a happy pill. Then Bliss walked in, hands held behind her back, and an eminently satisfied look on her face.
Oh, God, I didn’t want to know.
“I have a present for you, Zara,” she announced cheerfully.
“Avery’s head on a platter?”
“Close.” She tossed something onto the coverlet.
Zara lifted it up to stare at it, then burst out laughing. It dangled from her hand, the ends slowly releasing from their pattern. “Lorraine’s braid?”
“Think I could take it with me?”
Danelle rubbed the ends of the hair between her fingers. “We could probably rebraid part of it into a garter for you.”
“Or braid it into your hair like extensions.”
“A crown, definitely.”
Everyone who came in through the afternoon and evening had another suggestion to make, and it was an indication of our universal contempt for Lorraine that no one expressed any sorrow or sympathy for our cook-nurse. When it was time for dinner, we all took our trays and crowded into Zara’s room, all twenty-odd of us, knee to knee on the floor and even in the shower.
Adara lifted a glass of apple juice. “To Zara, who can spit seeds farther than anyone else.”
We all laughed, even Zara, who raised her glass of water to return the toast.
Nazira stood next, and I think we were all a little apprehensive about that one; Nazira and Zara got along about as well as Avery and Desmond. “To Zara, who may be a right bitch, but she’s our bitch.”
Zara blew her a kiss.
It was sick. I don’t think there’s a person there who doubted that. It was sick and wrong and profoundly twisted, and yet somehow it made us feel a lot better. One by one, we all stood and made a toast to Zara, some mocking, some serious, and sure there were plenty of tears to be had, even if not by me, but maybe the Gardener was right, maybe this did help.
When it was my turn, I stood and lifted my glass of water. “To Zara, who’s leaving us too soon, but who we will remember in a non-creepy fashion for the rest of our lives.”
“However short they may be,” added Bliss.
How fucked up were we that we laughed?
When everyone had taken their turn, Zara raised her glass once more. “To Zara,” she said quietly, “because when she dies, Felicity Farrington will finally rest in peace.”
“To Zara,” we all murmured together, and drained our glasses.
When the Gardener came, it was without a dress but with Desmond, and he smiled to see all of us together. “It’s time, ladies.”
Slowly, everyone kissed Zara, gathered their trays, and filed out of the room with the Gardener kissing each and every one of them on the cheek. I waited until the end, perching on the side of the bed so I could take her clammy hand. Lorraine’s silver-streaked braid was pinned like a coronet around her double-twist. “Anything I can do?” I whispered.
She dug under her pillow and gave me a battered, dog-eared, highlighted, and notated-half-to-death copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I was really into theatre in school,” she said softly. “When I was taken from the park, I was supposed to be meeting my friends for a rehearsal. I’ve spent three years writing notes for a production I’ll never do. Do you think you and Bliss could put together a reading for everyone? Just . . . something to remember me by?”
I took the book and held it against my heart. “I promise.”
“Take care of the next girl, and try not to visit me too much, okay?”