Chapter 7: Dead Girl's Homecoming
“Why didn’t you leave that guy on the floor of his tattoo shop?” Greymore responds. I’m not sure if he wants me to answer. It might be one of those questions he wants me to be still and think about. I am never quite sure.
You see, Will Kane just laid down his badge so he could marry a pacifist named Amy Fowler and open a shop in a different town. But old Frank Miller just got a pardon and is headed back to Hadleyville on the noon train to take his revenge. Trouble waits if he stays, guilt if he goes. The thing that gets me all knotted up though is how Miller has a whole gang on his side, and none of those daisies in the town are standing with Will. Not even his own deputy. Why hang around and stick up for a bunch like that? Greymore likes to watch antique films, and I like the way he explains them.
“Why are there only two colors?”
“I think that’s how people’s eyes were back then,” Greymore explains. We sit on a rooftop at Broadway and Seventh, above a billboard promoting a new fragrance. In the advertisement, a pretty first draft girl decides to skip out on an elegant dinner. She slices through her puppet strings with a dinner fork, using the ropes that once controlled her to climb to freedom through the skylight above. Her beau gazes up at her with heartbreak in his eyes as she gives him one last smile before vanishing into the night. Dumb chick. If I had a seat at the fancy table, and a hot guy on my arm, I wouldn’t pull a disappearing act like that.
Greymore has reprogrammed the billboard on the opposite corner to play the movie High Noon on a continuous loop, because I remind him very much of Marshal Will Kane. The first drafts churning through the square below seem confused, but at least they’re not buying crap they don’t really want.
Time Square is perhaps my favorite spot in the city. The hidden messages make me laugh every time. I should see it on the last night of the year, he tells me, they hold a party like no other and Greymore is always right here above this very sign to witness it.
“What if I left my family for good, the same way you did?” Greymore asks. He’s watching me closely, so he must want a response for this one.
“I’d say it’s about time.”
“Good, that’s what I’ll do then,” he announces. There’s a calmness in his eyes I’ve never seen before. “We’ll have to leave this city behind, of course.”
“Where will we go?”
“There’s a whole world out there. We can go wherever we want. We could be shopkeepers, like Will and Amy.”
Can you picture it? Me and Greymore, bagging bread and printing lottery cards for first drafts. The thought of it tastes quite wonderfully of saffron. A sensation I’ve never felt before suddenly disorients me. An irritation in the respiratory epithelium lining of my nose, activating some hidden reflex in my brain. Pressure collects in my chest, and my vocal chords snap open. A burst of air shoots through my respiratory tract, expelling a wet mist from my mouth. I guess this is what it means to sneeze.
I lay my head on the center, drifting up and down like a marker buoy. Rising when he exhales. Falling when the air rushes in. It’s an odd thing to do, I know, it’s just that Greymore hardly ever sleeps. It would be a shame to miss such an occasion. He doesn’t seem bothered by it, and the rhythm of his body is so very peaceful like this.
The tempo of his breath accelerates. The crisp white sheets beneath us slowly turn black. I look over at Greymore’s arm. The tattoo of the ash tree has dissolved into a dark puddle.
I crawl up to wake him, but he’s still trekking over sleep spindles. His lips darken. Steel blue, approaching midnight. Yet his skin is getting whiter.
And the same thing is happening everywhere. In the corner of the room, a dark stain appears on Greymore’s skateboard, just behind the rear axis. The stain bleeds across the deck, then swallows both sets of wheels until the whole thing is black. The bookcase above it, though, bleaches white from top to bottom.
The whole apartment is at war with itself, everything in it taking a side. The dresser chooses black, the chair beside it, ivory. Greymore’s business suit was already navy blue so it takes only a nudge to push it to black, while on the night table, it takes his chewing gum a bit longer, the rectangular packet having to go from mint green to a sterile white. My eyes tick over to the old wall clock, which shows exactly three a.m., before the hands fade into the white clock face.
The walls blacken and I leap from the bed to save Greymore’s pastels, but by the time I get there, they’ve already become charcoals. Black spots splash the floor beneath my feet, which I find odd, because the tiles are a solid white. Then I stare down at my arm – the pigment dripping from the tattoo on my skin is black.
Behind me, Greymore gasps for air. I grab him by the shoulders and shake him. His head rolls from side to side. Chest heaving up and down, he coughs black ink over his face and neck. Greymore, I shout, squeezing his arm, but he’s stopped moving now.
Mirrors on the ceiling,
The pink champagne on ice
And she said, we are all just prisoners here, of our own device
And in the master’s chambers
They gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can’t kill the beast
The music playing from the old record machine wakes me. I open my eyes and run my fingers along the bed, but Greymore’s not here. The sheets are clean and white again. And the skateboard is still orange. All the colors have returned to the apartment. I roll onto my stomach, expecting to lie in the glowing cinders left by the heat of Greymore’s body, but his spot is cold. He’s been away for some time.
Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before
Relax, said the night man
We are programmed to receive
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave
I slip out of bed and shake my fingers through my hair. “Greymore, it’s a little early for that, don’t you think?” I hear the needle of the turntable scratch the record.
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave
“Greymore?” Light showers the room as I give the chain a tug. It’s not Greymore. The man standing at the record machine is much taller. Strands of long black hair fall from his ski cap, landing just short of broad shoulders wrapped in a sturdy coat.
“Everything will be alright, Tessa. The important thing to remember now is to stay calm. It’ll all be over soon,” he says, the gravity in his voice forcing you to pay attention to his every word. I know who it is before he even turns around. It’s Conrad, chief security tech for the Tearcatchers. And if Conrad’s here, so is –
“What’s it like being dead?” Atherton asks, sitting at the kitchen table, fiddling with Greymore’s toy. Ruben’s Cube, I think it’s called. “Is it all you imagined?”
I’m awake, but I can’t move. My chest feels like it’s caving in, crushed under the weight of a heavy stone carved from my own mistakes. I should’ve followed Greymore’s ghost rules better. I should have done a lot of things. When you’re dreaming, there’s no beginning and no end. Things happen without reason or consequence. You don’t make sense of it, you’re just along for the ride. That’s how it feels, anyway, but it can’t go on forever. Our circadian indicators see to that. And it’s not always the good kind of ending, like in Greymore’s old monochrome films.
“This negates reason. A puzzle that takes ten seconds to solve,” Atherton says, dropping the cube over the table. “The object is to line up all the planes with the same color, correct?”
Conrad pulls the needle from the record. He can see I’m in a bad sequence, so he answers for me. “I believe it presents more of a challenge to the first drafts. It’s quite an achievement when one solves it.”
“The lease on this apartment has been filtered through a half dozen holding companies on three different continents,” Atherton says, motioning for me to sit. He insists that you sit when talking to him. Despite all his genetic gifts, a mutation in his ATP7B causes an excessive amount of copper to collect in his eyes, restricting his ability to look up at people, which presents quite a challenge when you’re only four feet tall. “I always knew you to be a logic thinker, but I didn’t expect you to be this clever.”
I force one foot in front of the other, until I’m in the chair across from him, my hands folded in my lap, the way he likes them to be when you’re in his company. An apple sits at the place setting in front of me. I know just where it came from, and just where I went wrong.
“Thirty-seven hours, nineteen minutes ago, the proprietor of a tattoo shop four blocks away was taken to a hospital. He told the admitting nurse he was attacked by a group of teenagers. The police investigated and collected DNA from a half-eaten apple deposited in a trash bin outside the store. The sample didn’t match any of the first drafts in their matrix, but it showed up in a shadow report our security center pulls together each week. The DNA was a precise match to a profile from our family vault.”
“I… I’m sorry I let you down,” the words sound hollow, probably because they’re not true, but it’s all I can scrape together.
Atherton smacks his palms against the table, overturning the apple, sending it rolling off the table. It looks like it’s falling at half speed, tumbling end over end, before crashing to the floor. “That apple is quite the genetic specimen. There’s not one like it in the whole city, except in a community garden directly across the street. The first drafts all speak of the girl with red hair who brought it back to life. And now it seems the garden’s brought you back to life.”
The apple rolls across the floor, coming to a stop against the guitar case. Atherton thinks he’s bringing me back to life, but he’s just burying me again. All the moments when I’ve felt alive came after I got on that train and left the Tearcatcher name behind.
Atherton’s words bring me out of the trance, “Who else lives here?”
“N… no one. Just me.”
“So you made those paintings, and you listen to that antique music?”
My gaze falls to the table. If Greymore comes home right now, Conrad will kill him without hesitation. Me, too, probably. I’ve heard he’s an expert in such things.
“Your left-brain dominant, this apartment doesn’t suit you.” Atherton drums his fingers over the table. “Who lives here with you?”
“A girl named Violette. She tends bar at the place on West 49th.”
“Have someone look into that,” Atherton orders, removing a sealed glass tube from the pocket of his suit. Fear signals shoot through my thalamus, down to the primitive corridors at the base of the brain where our reactions can’t be controlled.
“I truth speak!”
“We’ll see. You work in the lab, so you know what’s in this container,” he says, uncapping the lid and carefully removing the tiny creature inside with a set of tweezers. “Answer my questions without deception, and you have nothing to fear from it. If not, the axon spider will be agitated by the activity in your prefrontal cortex, and, well, you know what happens better than I do.”
Atherton nods to Conrad, who grabs me by the cheeks and forces my head back. The expression he wears tells me he’s sorry to be doing this, but the warmth I always saw in his eyes, I wonder now if it’s just a mask that makes him a better soldier.
Atherton holds the spider up to my face so I can look into its dead eyes, all six of them, before setting it loose over my face. I felt an imbalance in my stomach fluids when they said we were breeding a new kind of truth serum. It stings to be right.
“You know how this works, Tessa, breathe through your mouth,” Conrad whispers, squeezing my cheeks to force my mouth open. Instinctively, the axon spider changes colors to blend in with its new surroundings. From black to the precise shade of my pale skin. In a few more seconds, it’ll turn slate grey as it wanders through my skull.
The spider crawls around my lip, burrowing into my nose. I try to close my eyes, but I can’t. The surge of adrenaline is forcing my heart to pump at a force no gene tech could have anticipated, making muscle control a forgotten memory.
“Your friend, Violette, does she know who you are?”
“No.” Anything more than a yes or no answer can only work against me.
“Does anyone else know?”
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain we use to solve problems, like this one right here. Don’t think, just react. “None of the first drafts know.” Tiny legs scratch the nerve fibers connecting my grey matter. My skin blazes, but only the right side.
“Are you certain? You’re gambling with your brain, Tessa.”
A sound whistles out of me I didn’t know I could make. A primal whimper. “They don’t know.”
“Did you sell your genetic material to anyone?”
“No.” My toes go numb, my eyes switching in all directions.
Atherton traces my skull with his fingers and presses down on my frontal lobe. There’s a dull halo around him, but I know it’s not real. “Did you give it away to spite me?”
“No, I would never.”
“Did you do anything to compromise the value of this family’s DNA?”
My lips smack together. One. Two. Three times. I’m not even sure my thoughts make sense now. Maybe the psychosis has already set in. Or maybe it’s just a partial seizure. Quick, list the elements on the periodic table by atomic number. Hydrogen. Helium. Lithium. Beryllium. Boron. Carbon. No, you’re thinking again. Just react. “The garden!” I blurt out.
“What about it?”
Just get me to the airport, put me on a plane. Hurry, hurry, hurry, before I go insane. I can’t control my fingers, I can’t control my brain. Oh no, oh oh oh oh. I wanna be sedated. That’s just one of Greymore’s old songs, you’re not saying anything. Finally, the words come, “I used proprietary genes, from the family lab. Used them to grow the apple orchard.”
Atherton plants his hands over my arms, his face an inch from mine, staring blankly as I twitch and squirm and smack my lips. “What else?”
All the blood vessels in my brain feel like they’re being squeezed together. The strokes will start any second now, followed by a nose full of spinal fluid. Say something. Anything. “I…I…defaced Tearcatcher skin,” I say, showing him my arm, the stress hormones now making the tattoo appear as a wilted rose.
Atherton motions to Conrad, who jams a small black cylinder against the back of my neck. The energy pulse creeps along the neurons in my spine, squawking through my brain, blotting out every other sound in the room. I raise my hands to cover my ears, but Conrad grabs my wrists. The axon spider crawls out my ear canal, back into Atherton’s vial, and the room goes quiet.
The fog lifts from my brain. The pain loosens its grip and my breath finds its rhythm again. Conrad stares into my eyes, his right hand still clasping my wrist, but only to measure my pulse. He brushes the hair from my face and smiles.
“You’re okay,” he assures me, as if nothing at all had just happened. “It’s over now. You have anything valuable here?” Conrad plucks one of Greymore’s books from the shelf, The Trial by Franz Kafka, and sets it on fire with a pocket torch.
“What are you doing?”
“Your DNA is everywhere, Tessa, I’m afraid we can take any chances.” He tosses the book against the wall, igniting Greymore’s beautiful paintings. The elm tree with the bright red leaves crinkles, the paint peeling away in smoldering curls. Everything here is valuable. Each item in the room permanently fastened to a memory.
“But people live here,” I say, hypnotized by the flame spreading its angry fingers up the wall. “This is their home.”
“Not anymore,” Conrad declares, opening the window. A cool wind sweeps in, blowing a confetti of scorched paint through the apartment. I watch it float around me. A ticker tape parade of ash and burning paper. A dead girl’s homecoming.
I snatch Greymore’s red hoodie, and one of his old books. Conrad takes my arm and follows Atherton out into the hallway, the smoke alarm chirping in my ears. First drafts stream down the stairwell around us, toting their young ones and their pets and whatever else they decide they can’t live without. Atherton pushes his way through the crowd, bursting through the lobby doors. Smoke filters out onto the street as he rushes to the limo hovering outside. Poythress, Atherton’s driver, opens the door, guiding him safely into the backseat.
“Put her in the front. I don’t want to look at her,” Atherton says, lowering the door shut. Conrad raises the front door and pushes me down into the passenger seat. The heat rolling off the building lets up as he closes the door.
A palm smacks the window outside, the tattoo on the wrist below it showing one half of a shredded heart. Everything feels like it’s pulling apart. Me, Greymore, the limousine. Go, please, I mouth to him, my eyes pleading for him to listen. My fingers lock the door before his reach the handle. Greymore pounds the glass.
“What’s he want?” Poythress asks, folding himself behind the wheel.
“Nothing, this crowd’s getting out of control,” I say, keeping my gaze on the window so he can’t see my tears. “We should go.”
Poythress fires up the propulsion on the limo. “Don’t gotta tell me twice.”
Greymore’s hand slides away from me. “No,” he screams. “Open the door!”
I reach up and touch the glass. A new image swirls across my tattoo, just like Greymore’s. Two fragments of the same heart separated by a thick pane of glass. A second later, his half is gone forever.