Wither, p.24

Wither, page 24

 part  #1 of  The Chemical Garden Series



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Page 24


  “I had no idea,” I say. “I didn’t think my name meant anything. ”

  Was this what Rose meant, when I told her my name and she said it was a beautiful place?

  “It says it was a freight river. There isn’t any other information about it,” Gabriel says, disappointed.

  “That’s okay!”

  I laugh a little, and put my arm behind his neck to bring him closer, and I kiss his cheek with gratitude. He turns a wild shade of red, and so do I.

  He has no idea what this means to me, but by the look in his eyes I can tell he knows it must be something good. He brushes the hair from my forehead and looks at me. Rhine. The river that, somewhere out there, has broken free.

  Chapter 14

  All night I dream of rivers, and beneath the water, brilliant sharp-leafed flowers.

  “You were smiling in your sleep,” Linden says, when I open my eyes. He’s sitting on the window ledge with a pencil in his hand and a drawing in his lap; sheets of paper are stacked beside him, and I can tell he’s been working for a while. I think of what Vaughn said about how I coaxed Linden back into his designs. I still don’t understand Vaughn’s intentions in telling me, but it’s true. Linden has been working a lot lately, and I just might be the one inspiring him.

  “I dreamt we lived in that house you drew, with the pie in the window and the swing in the yard,” I say, faking everything but this luscious feeling of happiness that comes out in my voice. The view from the window is showing me a lovely day.

  Linden smiles at me, relieved but unsure. He isn’t used to seeing me like this, and he might think the painkillers are to thank. I try moving and find it’s not so agonizing as before. I’m able to sit upright and lean against the pillows for support.

  “I heard you went after me, in the storm,” I say.

  He sets down his work and joins me on the bed. The cut on his lip is healing. He looks like a pristine boy who got into a school yard fight. I try to picture his fragile, thin body braving the hurricane, but I can’t see him getting far. I can only see him being swept up or rescued or killed.

  “I thought I’d lost you,” he says, and I can’t tell if that’s a smile or a frown on his lips.

  “I got lost when the wind picked up,” I say. “I couldn’t find my way back. I tried so hard. ”

  “I know you did. ” He pats my hand, and there’s such sadness in his eyes that I hate myself for lying. Linden seems to have that effect on me.

  He says, “I want to show you something. ”

  He tells me that I was mostly unconscious for a week.

  The thing that hit the back of my head was a blade from one of the windmills. The various other injuries came from debris that stretches from as near as the tennis courts to as far as the stables, but he wants me not to worry, because his father has hired people to clean it up, and they’re doing a lovely job. He says the real damage was done to me. He tells me that in between long stretches of silence, I muttered about rats and sinking ships and explosions, always explosions, and trying to stop the bleeding.

  Mercifully I remember none of these nightmares.

  But he heard everything. He stayed by my side, and since he couldn’t reach me, he tried to draw what I was seeing. He hesitates a moment before showing me the first paper, like it’s going to be a crime scene photo or something.

  And then he shows me. He’s drawn heavily shaded houses that are tilting to one side, or bursting with branches from a tree that takes up the building’s insides.

  There are windows dripping blood, a yard filled with upturned rats. I’ve been married to this man for nearly nine months, and I thought he knew nothing about me, but he has captured my fears. All that’s missing is Rowan, and even still I think he might be beneath the full moon in one of the drawings. He’s in that bleeding house, looking at the moon, and I’m here in this frilly mansion looking at the same moon. And we’re both wondering if our twin is okay.

  I feel nauseous and dizzy, like my dreams have been spilled out into my hands. The last drawing is our wedding gazebo, overrun with cobwebs and bloody finger-prints, and what appears to be a piece of the windmill wedged into the roof. “That one wasn’t you,” he says.

  “That’s how I felt while you were gone. When I wasn’t sure if you’d wake up. ”

  I’m staring at a ruined marriage in the rubble of that gazebo. Linden’s greatest tragedy was losing his first wife, and yet I had no idea losing me was so frightening to him. The night before I ran away, he climbed into my bed, and I could feel the heat of his grief for Rose as he cried into my nightgown. Even though it’s been my goal to earn his favor and become first wife, I had no idea I was as precious to him as my dead sister wife. Why? Is it because I look like her?

  I say nothing for a while, flipping through the same drawings over and over again, taking time to look at each. His usual detail rings true. I can see inside these houses. One room is flooded with June Beans; another room seems to be made up of road maps.

  “Are you angry?” Linden asks. “Maybe I shouldn’t have showed you. ” He reaches to take them back, and I tighten my grip.

  “No,” I say, blinking at a house that’s full of fish. It’s an exact replica of my favorite pool hologram, but the sharks are swimming with limbs in their mouths—bleeding arms and legs. “These are . . . horrifying. I had no idea you could see things like this. ”

  “I—I shouldn’t. ” Linden goes pale and looks away from me. “My father says I should design things that are more—”

  “Forget what your father says, he’s wrong,” I say.

  Linden looks at me with as much surprise as I feel. I hadn’t meant to say that out loud, but now that I’ve got his attention, I might as well finish. “You shouldn’t keep these things to yourself. You’re talented. Okay, maybe nobody wants to live in a house full of trees or sharks or blood, but the other ones. ”

  “I didn’t mean anybody would want to live in these houses,” he says, indicating the stack of nightmares in my hand.

  “Clearly,” I say.

  “That was my point. Maybe someone would have lived in these houses once. ” He points to the careful detail around the threshold of the shark house, how there’s even a door knocker and decrepit shutters that were once clean and new. And the house with rats in the yard has a trellis of dead roses that once thrived. “But something went wrong. They went bad. ”

  I can see it. I can see the beautiful house where my mother was born, in a beautiful city that later succumbed to all the chemicals, until even flowers couldn’t grow. I can see a whole world that used to be full of countries.

  Linden is searching my face for understanding, and his eyes are a little misty, and I nod because I do understand.

  I understand what these drawings mean, and I understand why he’d want to cry about them.

  “I know,” I say. “I know exactly. ”

  The houses went bad like the world went bad.

  Linden begins drawing more. He draws more viable houses and asks me for my opinion. He says he’s going to start trying to sell them soon. It amazes me that a boy who has spent all of his life living in one place, and who hardly ventures into the world, can create such convincing places to live.

  Cecily comes in the afternoons to take him off my hands. I appreciate this because I want time to myself.

  But I also think it’s good for Linden to leave my bedside.

  Sometimes it’s as though he’s the one who’s incapacitated.

  And then one afternoon Cecily comes looking for Linden, and I say, “I thought he was with you. ”

  Neither Gabriel nor Jenna knows where he is, and neither do any of our domestics. Housemaster Vaughn is nowhere to be found either, and sometime after lunch, Cecily is restless. She climbs into the bed with me, holding a big hardcover book with an ultrasound image on the cover. “What’s this word? G-E-S-T-A-T-I-O-N. ”

  I pronounce it for her, and she tells me what it means, though I already know. For a while she shows me diagrams and describes what her baby is doing right now, how it’s big enough to suck its thumb, how fetuses can hiccup. Twice she presses my hand to her stomach and I feel the baby kick. It reminds me that all of this is real, as though I’d managed to forget. I worry about Cecily being in labor. I worry about the baby being born dead, like Linden’s first child. I worry that, living or dead, this baby will end up in Vaughn’s basement on a rolling cart.

  Cecily is in the middle of describing how the placenta is delivered when Linden appears in the doorway. He’s dressed in a suit, and his curly hair has been slicked back in a less menacing replica of Vaughn’s style.

  “Where have you been?” Cecily frowns.

  “With a contractor interested in my designs,” he says, looking at me. His eyes are bright. “There’s a company that wants me to work with them designing a new strip mall that’s opening up. ”

  “That’s great!” I say, and I mean it. Linden sits on my bed, Cecily between us. He even smells like he’s been in the real world. Car exhaust and polished marble floors.

  “I was thinking that in a month or two, when you’re feeling more up to it, we could go to an architecture expo. They’re a little dry, but it’s a great opportunity to show off my designs. And my beautiful wife, of course. ” He pushes the hair from my face, and for some reason I find that I’m flattered. And excited. I’m going to leave this mansion!

  “That’s sort of stupid,” Cecily interjects. “Who cares about shopping? There were no malls where I come from. ”

  “They aren’t malls in the traditional sense,” Linden says patiently. “They’re more like wholesale warehouses, not open to the public but to invested companies. They mostly carry medical equipment, sewing machines—things like that. ”

  I know exactly what he means. I’ve taken phone orders for wholesalers and tagged along with my brother on several of his deliveries.

  “Do they televise the expos?” I say.

  “These, no. They aren’t as exciting as the ribbon-cut-ting ceremonies or the christening parties. ”

  “What’s a christening party?” Cecily says, reasserting her presence between us.

  Linden explains that with the state of the world (he means that we’re all dying), it’s a cause for celebration when a new building goes up. Like a hospital or even a car dealership. It’s a sign that people are still contributing to society and that we haven’t given up hope that things will improve. So there are christening parties, usually held by the person or company that put up the building, where everyone involved in its construction can celebrate. “Like a New Year’s party,” Linden says.

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