Chapter 14: Whispers of Angels
From the time I was young, I was told to wear my prettiness like a birthright, a currency to be redeemed for the immediate and unwavering attention of anyone and everyone I meet, but how much will it take for me to feel worthy? Five million hugs on my neural network. Ten million? I peddle my flesh to the world, but all I really want is to feel clean again. I took five baths today. Or was it six? Mud, algae, arthropod, carp, steam, and regular. Six baths, yet I still feel the impurity all over me. I often wonder what would happen if I made one of them an acid bath. If my skin were seared off, would people see me for who I really am? Listen to me when I speak?
I have to get ready for another family social event tonight. The hair, the makeup, the clothes. It’s an endless ritual, yet it bothers me not, because punishing myself feels good. The meeting is business flirty with an updo and just the right amount of cleavage. Add a perfume designed to route a man’s blood directly to his sex organs and heels that accentuate a vertical line in the posture, and all I need to do is show up. I’ll twirl my hair and laugh whenever the inflection of someone’s voice indicates they’re attempting humor, but the corridors of my brain run deeper. I’m a debutante with an IQ of 406. I’ll wait till I get home to do my crying, because the smell of tears dampens the excitability of neurons in the male brain.
Maybe I should do what Darien does and let one of my brothers climb on top of me for a while. She says having someone else inside you makes you feel connected to something greater than yourself. I wonder, if I were to drown myself in one of those bath tubs, would I be reborn as a lower being? One unburdened by doubt and a shortage of meaning? Or do we just keep lugging the same weight from one life to the next?
That’s what Desiree wrote in her neural diary on the morning she died. I disengage from the link to her cerebral backup unit and hold the tear catcher to my cheek. Probably, I shouldn’t have read it, but I’ve already filled four other bottles today, and I’m nearly out of tears. Five dead family members. Five bottles of tears. That’s how it works.
I twist the cap back over the bottle and let my eyes roam over Desiree’s belongings. The dollhouse sitting in the closet corner brings a smile to my face. I said I wasn’t close with my sisters growing up, but I was close with Desiree once. We would spend hours creating backstories for the occupants of that house. Swapping out names and occupations and histories like we were the queens of creation. We shared a rich imagination and a sense of wonder about how the world worked, before they told us who to be and how to think. They taught us to squeeze all the riches we could from the genes we were gifted. But there Desiree stood, at the summit of her genetic potential, and it meant nothing to her.
I thought we had outgrown all we held in common, but her diary tells me otherwise. If only she had shared with me what was truly in her heart. I hate myself for being jealous of her. Sitting at the table with her and the Rivegans yesterday, I wished her dead. And a moment later, she was. It’s almost as if I made it happen.
I lie down on Desiree’s bed. Her sheets still smell like saffron, just as they did when we were children. I close my eyes and see the sun rising and falling behind the horizon, flipping the sky on and off again. Night smothering day. Light burning away darkness. I see an old road. Grass slowly pushes up through the pavement, until the emerald pockets explode and consume it. Time strips away the tissue of the sycamores on either side, their fingers dropping champagne leaves then picking them up just as quickly.
Then it all slows. The leaves blow across the grass to a wrought iron gate. Beyond it, crumbling angels watch over the dead. I know they are dead because their names are carved in limestone. I imagine Desiree’s name, and my own, written there among the first drafts.
There are two loud pops, and suddenly, I’m back in that elevator, the two bodyguards slumping to the floor beside me. The patterns of blood they leave over the door swirl, painting themselves into the shapes of two frowny faces, the kind you see over warning sensors at a train crossing.
Two more pops fill the room, stirring me from the dream, only it sounds more like two knocks this time. My heart pumps way too fast, snapping my eyes open. There’s a beep, and the door across from me slides open. Camilla pushes her supply cart into the room, pausing when she sees me on the bed.
“Oh, I’m scheduled to clean out this room today,” she says, backing the cart out. “I’ll give you a few more minutes.”
“No, wait.” I sit up, dangling my legs over the bed and wiping the sleep from my face. “Please, stay a moment.”
“It’s so difficult to logic think when a young one passes. What a cruel, senseless act,” she says, running her fingers along a patch sown into her shirt baring the initials of the fallen. We’re all wearing it this week, Atherton insisted. I don’t know if his contrition is real or just a manipulation of our suffering for his own ends, but the rite itself is a good one. Camilla draws a smile back over her face, the thyroid cartilage around her larynx thickening. “The important thing is not to let this tragedy ruin us. The world will judge us by what we do next.”
“I don’t know what to do next.”
“Perhaps it’s time then.”
“Time for what?”
“To open up that bin of secrets you’ve kept such a tight lock on.”
Camilla’s right, as she typically is. The lies I’ve told have already cost six people their lives. Their faces will haunt me forever. “It’s my fault, all of this.”
“No, dear, there’s nothing you could have done. Even Conrad, with all his physical gifts, couldn’t prevent such violence.”
“No, I’m the reason all this happened. When I ran away the night of the merger party, I met a boy in the city, a Rivegan. He was kind and fragile. I thought he was saving me, but now that I see things clearly, I know it was all a ruse to steal my blood. First drafts have been dying in hundreds for my mistake, now so are Tearcatchers.”
“Oh my,” Camilla says, sitting on the bed beside me. “So, it’s true then? We’re at war with the house of Rivegan?”
“I’ve been a fool. I thought we were in love, and I let it cloud my logic. He was there at the meeting yesterday, Greymore, and he knew they planned to kill every single one of us. He stood idle and waited for me to die, which I surely would have, if not for Conrad’s actions.”
“Are you certain this boy knew it would happen? You know as well as anyone how the tiers of power function. Is it not customary for the family leadership to keep those beneath them in the dark?”
“Greymore’s an empathy mirror, he was feeling our neural reactions to the attack before any of us felt it ourselves, I’m certain of it. He had a pain in his ears, and then he excused himself from the table so he didn’t have to watch.” Camilla wraps her delicate arms around me. I rest my chin on her shoulder and sob, but my tear ducts have run dry.
“I’ll never understand why so much of the world rests on the shoulders of the young,” Camilla says, pushing the hair from my eyes, like Greymore used to do.
Greymore, I hate him. I should have run from that club as soon as I saw him. I want to draw a black mark over his face in every brain cell where he lives, like that memory scanner did to me, because I’ll only remember him as a coward now. Not the Greymore who leaped to my rescue in that dark alley and still carries the mark of the scavenger’s blade over his arm. Not the Greymore who pounded on the glass of Atherton’s limo as it sped away. And certainly not the one who wore a broken heart on his empathy tattoo, because, truth speak, how could someone fake a reaction like that?
Am I the world’s greatest imbecile for thinking Camilla could be right? But if Greymore didn’t know what was going to happen in that meeting, why did he ask if anyone heard a noise and then rush from the table? Maybe Greymore wasn’t mirroring our reactions at all, but experiencing his own. He was sitting closer than anyone to the acoustic system.
That injector I stuck Greymore with in the train tunnel, the one that altered his DNA so the gene hunter bomb couldn’t find him, if it carried black market Tearcatcher DNA, he’d have some of our genes encoded on his chromosomes, making him vulnerable to a sonic wave attack programmed to affect only Tearcatchers, just as if he were one of our own.
The needle still sits in the pocket of my sweatshirt. I kiss Camilla on the forehead and run back to my room, my brain churning with theories as to what I’ll find when I test the DNA.