Chapter 9 — Greenhouse, part 2

9 09 2009

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Ash is holding court at dinner.  Zabe sees him from across the room, sitting at one of the tables, surrounded by the other Year Sixteens.  He’s at the centre of whatever they’re saying: he’s laughing, and so are they.

She moves forward into the room, taking a plate full of food from the Year Thirteen who is dishing it out, and approaches the table.

Ash looks up at her, and his entire face transforms with his smile.  Zabe raises her eyebrows at him.

“Where have you been all day, Zabe?” he asks.

The others are looking at her now.  She feels intensely self-conscious, like a deer sharing a watering hole with a wolf.

“Just out skiing,” she says.  “What did you do?”

“Dug a big fire pit with Betsy and Toby,” Ash says.  He shoves his plate to the side and motions for her to sit at the cleared space.  She steps around the table and squeezes into the seat, now crammed between Ash’s friendly body on one side and Toby’s ambivalent one on the other.  She starts to eat, silent and nervous, as around her the rest of her year jokes and chats.

“We’ll light it up after dinner,” Ash says to her.  “Want to come with me?”

“I don’t know,” she says, thinking of Orri.  “I have… other stuff to do.”

“Don’t worry about school work now,” Ash says.

“I’m not,” she replies.  “I just don’t know if a bonfire would be any fun.”

“Come on, Zabe,” he says.

“It’ll be fun,” Toby says.

“We’ll miss you,” says Jemma.

Zabe wants to say I don’t know about that but holds it in.  “I guess so.”

Ash puts an arm around her shoulders and gives her a quick squeeze before retracting the arm clumsily.  They are sitting too close and Ash almost falls out of his seat.  There’s a lot of laughter and Zabe eats faster.

After dinner, they bundle up and head out to the new fire pit.  Ash keeps close to Zabe as they walk, talking fast about nothing.  She can feel the others behind them, their eyes digging into her back.  She doesn’t know why she ever told Orri that she wanted to lead these people.  She just wants to leave and run to him.  Camaraderie through enclosed spaces is the order of the day here, but she wants out.

“Mr. Wu told me that we needed to burn all of the broken down furniture, so I thought that it would be fun to have a bonfire, and he agreed…” Ash is saying.  Zabe ignores him and looks for the fastest way to exit the scene.  She likes Ash alone; she likes Ash unhappy, when he’s plotting and gathering information and adding it up, when he’s so depressed that he’s reached breaking point and can’t rest until they find out more… not this fast-talking, manic Ash, the one who comes out more and more as they get older, popular with everyone and surrounded by laughing friends.

The fire pit is in the meadow, halfway between the stream and Lady Vallance’s office.  With flourishing hand gestures, Ash lights the dry planks with a flint.  Students from all years are gathering around, or wandering off, or dancing and singing in the soft pink glow of the snowy night.  Zabe breaks away from the rest of Year Sixteen and moves subtly north, seeking her chance to disappear into the snowy night, but Ash tracks her to the edge of the bonfire’s warmth.

“Is it really that awful?” he asks her.

“What?”

“My company.”

Zabe shakes her head, wondering how he can ask that.  “I like you, Ash.  You know that.”

“But you’re trying as hard as you can to avoid me.” He sounds like he wants to make a joke out of it, but it isn’t convincing.

“I just don’t like big crowds,” she says.

“There are about thirty people here, Zabe.”

“I know.”

“So… this is hardly a big crowd.”

Zabe shrugs, hates herself for it, and says, “I just don’t like it, Ash.”

“Ok,” he says, “well, let’s go somewhere else.”

“But this is your bonfire.”

“And you’re my best friend, and I want you to be happy.  You’ve seemed really sad lately.”  He makes a face at her.  “I don’t want a sad Zabe!”  He reaches out and puts his hands on her shoulders.

Zabe hesitates.  “I’m really sorry, Ash.”

“For what?”

“For liking you better when you’re unhappy.”

He frowns at her and lets her go.  “Do you?”

“You talk to me more when you are.”

“Sorry about that,” he says softly.  His hands return, but his touch is light.  “You’re the only one who wants to listen when I am.  Everyone else likes me when I’m happy, but they don’t want to see me any other time.”

Zabe shivers.  The night air is icy at her back even with the insulation of snow clouds.  “Would you understand if I had to go see someone else?” she asks.

“Can I come with you?”

“No.”

His voice sounds angry when he speaks again.  “Are you going to see Orri?”

“How did you guess?”

“Who else would you be seeing?”

“Please don’t be angry with me.”  She realizes that she’s been asking that a lot today.  “He’s just… easier to be around.”

“Why?” Ash demands.  He steps back.  “What am I doing wrong?”

“Nothing,” she says.  Despair settles over her; she doesn’t know how to make Ash understand.  “He’s just… we have a lot in common.”

Ash makes an angry noise and says, “Fine, well, I guess you’d better go.”

“You are mad at me,” Zabe says.  She gets mad at him then, for throwing words around without meaning them.  “Why do you hate Orri so much?”

“Because he’s some guy who lives underground!  And you like him better than me!  He’s obviously working for Dr. Levi and Lady Vallance!”

Zabe remembers Orri’s confession, that Lady Vallance is his mother.  She imagines her years ago, coming into a hospital in some distant, icy land, and taking him, just one of the many children she kidnapped from parents they loved.    Perhaps Orri was the first.  Young, scared, trapped and kept by her… just like Ash, just like all of them.  She wants to make Ash understand but doesn’t want to give away Orri’s secrets.  She says, “Please believe me, Ash, he doesn’t have any love for them.”

“I don’t care what he has for them.  I’m more worried about why he’s so interested in you.”

“He’s lonely,” she says.  “I understand that.”

“Two seconds ago you said that you didn’t want to be around people!”

Zabe groans.  “You just don’t get it!” she snaps.  “And I’m tired of explaining.  I’m going!”

“Wait, Zabe,” Ash starts, but she turns away from him and runs into the darkness.

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She wanders around the pines at the north edge of the valley, past the hot springs where several students are swimming, until she circles around to the small space beneath Lady Vallance’s office.  She has avoided it every day since she first met Orri for fear of drawing suspicion, but now she crouches low and crawls to where she knows the trapdoor is without hesitation.  The snow is thin upon the ground here, just what can be blown in, and she crouches over the door and taps on it lightly.  Then she draws back and lurks in front of the rock face.

Nothing happens.  She waits for several minutes, and then knocks again, a bit louder, but still nothing happens.  She sits in the cold, not sure what to do but wait, until she hears someone moving.  She freezes against the rock face, fully exposed and cursing herself for not knowing what to do.

“Zabe?”

“Ash?”

He appears before her, his face pale and framed in his black rabbit fur-lined hood, and says, “Are you waiting for him?”

“He’s not coming,” she says. Her throat burns with the effort of trying not to cry.  “I don’t know where he is.”

Ash reaches out a hand and says, “Let’s get away from here before we get caught.”

“Ok,” Zabe says.  She takes his hand and allows him to tug her away from there and back up towards the trees.

“I came after you but I lost you at the woods and then I saw someone taken away,” Ash says once they are in the safety of the forest, “into Lady Vallance’s office.  A boy, older than us, but really skinny and pale.”

“That sounds like Orri,” Zabe admits.

“Something was wrong with him,” Ash says.  “He was being carried by Mr. Wu and Mr. Johnson.”

Zabe’s breath hitches.  Now she knows he didn’t ignore her, but this is worse.  “Did you hear or see anything else?”

“No, unfortunately,” Ash says.  “Except he seemed sick.  He was sort of twitching and moaning.”

Zabe stops and stares at the trees, mouth open.  “The visions!” she says, horrified.  “He warned me…”

“What?”  Ash stops too and turns to look at her.  His hand is still tight on hers.  “What kind of visions?  What did he warn you about?”

“There’s a way to induce visions in people.  It’s a drug that you can give them and it–”

“A drug?” Ash interrupts.  “What kind?  What does it look like?  What does it do?”

“I don’t know!” Zabe says.  Her teeth start chattering uncontrollably.  “I used to see people… when they had visions…”  She stops talking.  Ash looks scared but all she can think is that her past is coming up again.  She wants to tell herself what she said when they brought her to the school: that everything that happened before is immaterial, but she can’t deny that this is important.

“When I was a child,” she starts, and Ash’s eyes widen.  “When I was a child,” she says again, her voice stronger, “I saw many people who suffered these visions.  They took this drug… and then it would happen.  Sometimes the visions were blessed.  They foretold things that would happen.  Some people were better than others at seeing the truth of the future, or at interpreting what they saw.  Children were best, because their visions were very clear.  Parents would give their children the drug so that they could sell their visions.  Knowing the future was very important, where I’m from.  But the drug only works for so long, and further visions require more doses, and higher doses than the first – and it would just get into a cycle, they would need money to get more drugs, need more drugs to get money… and after so many doses, the number isn’t always the same for everyone, but there are very few people who seem immune to it… after a certain number of doses, then they wouldn’t be able to stop having visions.  Even if they never took the drug again.  And it would get worse and worse.”

“And having the visions themselves is painful?” Ash asks.

“I think it must be,” Zabe says.  “People would fall down in the street.  And Orri said it was.”

“So his parents gave him the drug too many times…”

“His mother did, yeah.”

Ash looks away.  “That’s terrible,” he says.  His voice is quiet.  “How could she…”

“His mother is Lady Vallance,” Zabe says.

Ash looks back at her.  “Really?”

She nods.  She feels sick with worry for Orri.

“Zabe…”

“Yeah?”

“What do the drugs look like?”

“I don’t know, really.  I mean, I know that you put something into hot water and drink it but… other than that, I have no idea.  People would put cups outside of… outside of where we lived and wait for the water to get hot in the sun.”

“So it wouldn’t be a little capsule or anything like that?”

“I don’t think so, no.”  Zabe suddenly remembers Orri holding the bottle of pills.  “No, there are other kinds of drugs too, I guess.  Like what you had.  Orri takes those too.  He says they help him forget bad memories.”

“Yeah,” Ash says, “they do that.  Temporarily.”  He quirks his mouth.  “Vallance is evil, isn’t she?”

Zabe nods and suddenly her burning throat returns and she starts to cry.  “Oh god,” she gasps, “I’m so sorry, Ash.”

“What?” Ash asks.  He reaches out to her and pulls her into a tight hug.  She freezes, his fur hood smothering her, and just wants to escape, but then he moves slightly so that her face is buried in his bare neck and the sudden closeness makes her cry even harder.  She starts to talk and, like always when she’s nervous, can’t stop herself.

“I’m so angry that she did this to him.  I’m so scared that he won’t be all right.  And what they did to you, and what they’re going to keep doing to all of us.  But we need them, too.  They’ve been parents to us…”  She draws in a shuddering breath.  “They’re the only parents most of us have ever had.  I know that’s not true of you but… god, Ash, I’m so sorry for crying.”

“Don’t be sorry,” he whispers.  “It’s going to be ok in the end.  We don’t need any of them.  We’re going to get out of here.”

“Are we?” Zabe asks.  She stays leaning against him, but forces herself to stop crying.  The tears on her face are cold, so she rubs them in his hood.   “Orri wanted us to go, but he didn’t think he would make it.  He thought that his visions would be too severe.”

“Would you have left with him?”

“I don’t know,” she says.  She wonders if Orri would have left with her earlier in the day, if she’d said that they should go.  Has she missed her only chance?  She realizes now that they could have gone to the people who built the greenhouse.  “Ash, I would have come for you,” she says now.  “I told Orri that.  He agreed.”

Ash squeezes her but doesn’t say anything else.  She stands with her head against the spot where his neck meets his collarbone and watches the snow falling through the trees.

She hopes that when she’s older, she doesn’t hate this place, because it’s simultaneously the worst and the most beautiful moment she’s ever experienced.

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