Chapter 19: All the Tiny Girls
The theme of the show is botanical couture. Wearable bacteria that can diagnose and treat illnesses. Dresses, both compostable and edible. Capillary track suits that use photosynthesis to turn daylight into energy, and fluorescence to turn darkness into light.
Darien wears an antirrhinum snapdragon dress that wilts, bunches, or opens depending on the emotional state your hormones give off. Her shoulders pump up and down as she shreds the runway in a perfectly straight line. I’ve been watching the models for over an hour now, and I know just where to stand to catch her eyes when she drops them for the pose-and-turn. Her gaze finds me in the front row. The blossoms of her dress sag and draw shut. “Tessa, I should’ve known. You’re bad at everything else, why should dying be any different. Do us all a favor, and give it one more try.”
“Tell your bodyguard to take me backstage,” I say.
Darien tightens her mouth and straightens her back. “Sorry, Tessa, the hallway’s not wide enough for you back there, maybe next time.”
I fight my way through a crowd of designers with pursed lips and bored-looking fashion editors, keeping pace with Darien as she marches back across the stage. “If you don’t, I’ll tell everyone here what you did.”
She pauses to study my face for a moment, then disappears behind the curtain. The attention at the front of the room hast tilted, I can feel it, away from the models and onto me. My hair and t-shirt and boots. Their expert eyes appraise my every choice. They’d probably be smirking, if they weren’t so worried about getting caught in the background of someone else’s neural snapshot showing anything other than a steely indifference.
A hand touches my arm. I turn around and see Darien’s bodyguard motioning for me to follow him. He leads me through corridors packed with managers, publicists, stylists, and skin techs. A model in 13 centimeter heels who’s skinny enough to dodge rain drops knocks me to the floor as she sprints across the room. Are you sure you’re supposed to be here, she asks, glancing over her shoulder at me. Believe me, hon, if I could be anywhere else, I would. Still, I shouldn’t be too hard on her. A low blood glucose level is like a hammer to the prefrontal cortex. A skinny girl is a hungry one.
The bodyguard pushes open a door and ushers me into a spacious dressing room, the silk room, he calls it. Darien squirms her way out of the snapdragon dress, glancing at my jeans in the mirror. “Tessa, even when you’re dead, you embarrass me. Don’t they have reflective surfaces where you went?”
“Don’t those flowers itch?” I ask, staring down at the dress she kicks across the floor to me.
Darien taps the skin on her legs with a stylus, darkening the pigment by three shades. “Only when I turn the dress inside out, then they itch me in all the right places.”
I let out a slow even breath. Keep your cool, Tessa. Just get an answer to the question you came here for, and get out. Don’t let her drag you into the primal gutters where your brain has no control. “How could you?”
“Easy, I just fold it so the blooms are facing inward and think warm fuzzy thoughts about your boyfriend.”
I smile at her, trying to loosen the arterial tension, and take a step backwards. When provoked by anger, our brains dial up the volume in our right ear, prepping the left hemisphere for action and instinctively drawing us closer to the source of irritation. “How could you stand idle and say nothing as Conrad dragged me to my death?”
“You look fine to me. I mean, you look fine in a not-dead sort of way.” Darien slides into a saffron dress made of reactive algae that instantly constricts to bolster her curves. She taps her foot over the floor, collapsing the columns at the bottom of her dress until it’s short enough to suit her. “What do you want me to say, Tessa? You reap what you sow.”
“I reaped what you sowed.” I move between Darien and the mirror, forcing her to look at me. “It was drawn all over your face in the ballroom. The DNA leak is your doing.”
“Shh.” Darien looks past me, fastening a diamond choker around her neck. “Put the voices in your head on vibrate. You’re a dirty slut, Tessa. The DNA got leaked because you opened your legs and let a Rivegan into the dusty family vault.”
A trigger switches in my amygdala. The glands along the top of my kidneys pump adrenaline through my body at a rate I can longer cap. I grab Darien’s diamond choker and twist it around her petite little throat. She gurgles and flails her legs, sweeping bottles and brushes from the counter. I pivot her so she can face the mirror again and see how her dress has turned a dark red to match the new color in her face.
“We’re not at the estate anymore. This world belongs to the first drafts, and they’re dying because of you. Greymore is dying because of you!” I release the necklace. Darien’s temporal ridge cracks the glass as she falls against the mirror. She drops to her knees and curls into a fetal position over the floor. Her skin shrivels into a mask of anger, upsetting that perfect balance of neural connections between her brain and face. I gaze at the prisms of my cracked reflection to dampen the storm in my brain. “I’m sorry, I just… I need to hear you say it.”
“I didn’t even know I was pregnant. I put on a couple of pounds, yeah, but I thought I just inhaled too many cinnamon vapors.” She sits up and touches the blood on her head as if the sight were new to her. “I was backstage at Elliot’s show, and I had this pain in my back, then a few minutes later, out popped this greasy little thing.”
“You had it right here?” I ask, my words tripping over the adrenaline.
“Ew, no, I wasn’t about to drip my amniotic goo all over the silk room,” Darien says, smothering her face with her palms. “So I went in the bathroom where the first drafts go and dropped the thing there.”
“Where is it?”
“Ugh, squeak much? Only bats can hear you when your voice gets that high.”
“The thing was dead, Tessa, I swear,” Darien says, the sound of her voice muted by heavy breaths.
My hands tremble, the puzzle pieces in my head assembling into a dark picture. I’m not sure I want to hear the rest, but I need to.
“It wasn’t crying. Babies cry, right? It’s what they do.” Darien straightens her shoulders and holds her head up, leaning on her social graces to keep from toppling. “Don’t look at me like that. I had an unsanctioned baby in my arms. You saw how angry Atherton was. If I hadn’t gotten rid of it, he would have.”
“Where is it?” I shout, my eyes welling with tears.
“I put her in the thermal oven.”
I look back over my shoulder and glimpse Darien’s expression as I go. I thought I had seen them all. Flirty, brooding, surprised, daydreaming. On emoji and holograms and runways. But this one is brand new. The overspill from her perfectly-spaced lashes sends rivers down her cheeks. I had always believed her tear ducts had sealed off at birth. This isn’t the first time she’s cried, only the first time I’ve witnessed it. The sound of a teardrop doesn’t carry. “Tessa, what did I do?”
I rush out of the dressing room and take the elevator down to the basement level. It’s hard to watch a person break apart right in front of you. I’ve seen it in the mirror, but never in someone else. As much as I hate Darien, it’s hard not to feel sorry for her right now. When the walls of self-delusion reach as high as hers, they can only crush you.
The elevator doors slide open. The low rumble of a turbine drifts through the air. Tiny arthropods with more legs than they could possibly know what to do with skitter across the massive pipes twisting in and out of the walls. A glowing square of light at the end of the tunnel guides me through the darkness, the heat blurring the lines the closer I get. It’s the panel to the furnace, where trash is scorched, turning chemical energy into thermal.
Many tombs have been filled – Desiree, Westfall, Summer – but this one is just an infant. I wonder if she had time to fill her lungs with a breath, or her head with a dream, before she was laid to rest in this womb of fire and allowed to live a few more moments in the particles pushing a current through the circuits of this building. Is that all she was to this world? A piece of recycled trash that kept the lights burning so the first drafts could cheer on their athletes or their musicians a little longer?
I switch off the furnace and wait for the light to dim. The last thing I want to do is open this door and find the charred remains of a little girl, one of my own family, but I have to make sure Darien was telling the truth. I close my eyes and reach for the handle.
“Stop!” a gravelly voice calls out behind me. A man with greasy hair and lopsided eyes adjusts the tool belt slung around his waist. “Unless you want burn the skin clean off your hand.”
“I need to see what’s in here.”
“Won’t be safe to crawl in there for another three, four hours, and whatever you’re looking for, it’s nothing but vapors, unless it was made of pure tungsten.”
I shrink to the floor and sob, the sparring between my glottis and parasympathetic nervous system pushing a lump in my throat.
“Oh, I see.” He mops the sweat from his neck with a rag. “You’re looking for Sodalane?”
“The little girl, Sodalane. Where I’m from, it means warrior. Called her that because I never saw her cry a single tear.”
“You saw her?” I ask, unable to keep my voice from breaking.
“Of course I did. Furnace has a sensor, won’t activate if it picks up any biomatter in the area. I come down to see why all the lights were dark, and there she was. She opened her eyes, wide and straight. Black as night they were. Then she sat herself right up and smiled right at me. Didn’t take much to figure out she wasn’t one of ours.”
“Where… where is she?”
“Don’t you see? This was no accident. She was gifted to us, and the angels chose me as their courier.” A smile stretches across his face, his eyes beaming with pride. “I kept asking myself, what am I to do with a blessing like this? As I carried her home, I crossed Baron Street, that’s when I looked up and saw the sign.”