“Everything has to blend together. ”
“It’s beautiful,” I say, my voice softer than I’d intended.
He pauses now, and turns to look at me. “You’re beautiful,” he says.
He lifts his mud-coated hands toward me, then stops. I lean forward. He touches me on my forehead, just as he touched his sculpture, and I close my eyes, pressing my face into his hand. I ignore the clay he leaves on my skin, relishing the feel of his gentle finger trailing over my face, down my neck, across my collarbone . . . but he stops. I open my eyes.
He pulls me closer to him.
And the kiss we share makes me glad that I’m not just an empty, clay girl.
I don’t go back to the Hospital until well after dark, and when I do, I leave Luthor in our studio. He’s still working like mad on the sculpture, even though, to me, it looks complete.
I wander down the path between the Recorder Hall and the Hospital. I’ve spent half my life in love with Bartie, who never really noticed me, and now here’s Luthor, who I’d never really seen before, and there’s this thing between us that I’ll never be able to ignore again.
Near the pond, a huge monstrosity grows up from the ground. Kayleigh’s work—a mobile metal sculpture that looks half organic, half nightmare. She’s used some sort of reddish-clear gel to create the appearance of fire at the base, and added groping metal arms reaching through the flames, up to the sky. But our sky is made of metal too, and if this sculpture is grasping for freedom, it will just meet another wall.
Harley’s fresco looks like nothing but a plaster sheet—I suspect he’s been busier looking at Kayleigh than doing any work. He usually paints every day, but he’s been rather distracted by the fact that Kayleigh’s no longer turning him away.
I’m in a silent, contemplative mood by the time I make it back to the Hospital.
“ Hey, Selene! ”
I jump, surprised by the sudden voice.
“I ’ve been waiting for you,” Bartie says, smiling up from the comfy couch in the common room. A trill of music follows his words; his guitar lies on his lap, his fingers unconsciously strumming the strings.
I cross the room and sit in the chair opposite him. A month ago, finding out that Bartie had been waiting up just to see me would have made my face flush and my knees shake. But now, I can still feel Luthor’s kiss on my lips.
“ Why? ” I ask simply.
“Victria . . . ” His voice trails off.
This would be the point, a month ago, that would have made me want to cry. But the part of my heart that will always recognize that Bartie was my first love is silent.
“I ’m sure she’ll come around,” I say. “Victria’s not a very, I don’t know, emotional person. But I bet she’ll fall for you eventually. ”
Bartie laughs. “No, that’s not what I meant! ” Still, he’s pleased with what I said.
Bartie shifts uncomfortably, his hand going back to his guitar, running his fingers up and down the strings. “Victria said you . . . and Luthe . . . ”
“It’s fine,” I say immediately. Better than fine.
“Luthe . . . he’s not . . . ” Bartie shifts again, glancing out the dark window. “He’s said things . . . I just . . . ”
“Victria should pay more attention to her love life and less to mine,” I snap.
“Listen,” Bartie says, leaning closer. “If Luthe has friends, then I’m one. And the way he talks about people . . . about girls . . . ”
“ Girls? More than one?” I ask, my heart plunging.
“That’s not what I’m trying to say. ”
I can’t help but let a sigh of relief escape my lips.
“ Just be careful, okay?” Bartie finally mumbles.
I nod, but I’m still not sure what he means.
Bartie’s hands drift back to his guitar. “Want to jam a bit?”
“ Jam? ” I laugh.
“I read about it. It’s what they used to call making music, back on Sol-Earth. ”
“Jam. ” I say again. Such a ridiculous word.
“I ’ve been working a bit on this,” Bartie adds, and he lifts the guitar up into its proper position, his calloused fingers pressing into the strings on the neck. He fumbles, listening to the chords, until he finds the right harmony.
The song is fast, and gets louder as he goes, but it still sounds melancholy to me. I think it’s the way that the notes weave in and out, always going back to the same deep, resonating chords, as if, no matter how quickly Bartie’s fingers dance on the strings, he can’t help but fall into the same sad melody.
When he glances up at me, he stops the song abruptly.
“ What is it?” I ask as the music dies.
“You looked as if you were going to cry,” he says.
I touch my cheek, but it’s dry.
“ How about this instead?” Bartie says, smiling, and he starts up on the same melody he’d made to match the song I wrote.
I smile, and as soon as I catch the rhythm, I open my mouth to sing. I don’t let the music rip from me as I did in the studio before; instead I force the song to stream from me like a steady flow of quiet water. I don’t want to wake anyone up, and even if the common room is separated from the rest of the Hospital, it’s not soundproof.
Still, the music overwhelms me. By the time I’m at the end, my voice is raised, and I am breathless.
And it’s not until then that I notice Luthor, standing in front of the elevator, watching me. Bartie presses his palm into the guitar strings, silencing them. Luthor doesn’t make a sound as his eyes dart from Bartie to me and back again. I’m suddenly aware of how close I am to Bartie, of the flush on my cheeks, of the way my fingers are almost touching his knee. I snatch my hand back.
Luthor walks out of the common room without saying a word.
When I wake up the next morning, my door is open. I know I closed it the night before, but it’s open now, light from the hallway streaming inside. I get up, rubbing my eyes and pulling my tank top down over my hips as I press the button to zip the door closed. I wonder if it was Victria, come to talk or barge in as usual, and if at the last minute she decided to let me sleep. Or maybe it was just a door malfunction.
I press the button on my wall for food delivery, and while I wait, I stick my fingers into the small cavity by the door. A small blue-and-white pill waits for me there. I stare at the capsule, wondering at how this tiny pill separates me from nearly everyone else on the ship outside the Hospital.
I swallow the pill dry. Doc says we’re loons, that our restlessness and artistic expression comes from this insanity, and that the Inhibitor pills are the only thing that keeps us from really losing it.
But I think Kayleigh is probably right. The Inhibitor pills don’t keep us from cracking; they keep us human, they keep us from turning into the passive nothingness the rest of the Feeders feel. The little compartment in my wall opens, and steam wafts out of it, leaving behind the scent of a meat pasty. I gobble it up as quickly as I can; wall food isn’t the best, and it’s unbearable to eat cold.
I must have overslept—no one’s around the common room, and the Hospital is empty. I head straight to the Recorder Hall. Orion nods at me in the entryway, but is busy working on a floppy.
Something blocks the door of our little studio, and I have to push hard to get inside. The first thing I notice is Luthor. He’s brown with clay, covered up to his elbows, with splotches of it decorating his clothes and great swaths over his brow. Little lines of sweat trickle through the dirt on his face.
Underneath the clay and sweat is a scowl angrier than any I’ve seen..
The next thing I notice is the sculpture. While Luthor’s face radiates with emotion, the clay face of the sculpture is blank. No wonder Luthor’s hands are caked with mud. He’s smoothed every feature from the sculpture’s visage, making the cheeks so flat that they’re almost gone, smoothing the nose into nothing but a bump, completely erasing the lips. The eyes—he’d worked a solid day on the eyes alone, using a tiny pick-like tool to carve in eyelashes—are now nothing more than slight indentations under the barely-there brow.
There is an eerie quality to the sculpture now: The body is still intact, perfectly beautiful and meticulously detailed, but the face is nothing but a flat shadow.
Still, it seems to stare at me with its nothing eyes.
“It’s better now,” Luthor says flatly.
“It was lovely before. ” My voice comes out weak.
Luthor levels his glare at me. “It’s better now,” he repeats.
My hand reaches behind me for the door, my body seeking an escape before my mind can tell me what I need to do.
“ What were you doing with Bartie?” Luthor asks.
“Last night. In the common room. What were you doing with Bartie?” He bites off each word as if it tastes foul in his mouth.
“ Nothing. Singing. Nothing. ”
Luthor reaches toward me with his clay-covered hands. I flinch. He notices, and, rather than becoming gentler as he would have a day before, his hand tenses and his eyes narrow. He touches my brow, his fingers raking across my skin forcefully as he drags them down, over my eyelids, leaving brown streaks on my face.
“You’re mine,” he whispers. “Mine. ”
I get the frex out of there.
From that point on, I don’t work in the studio. I go at night—with Bartie and Victria, both wearing looks of concern and worry—to get my notebooks and sheet music from the Hall. Luthor’s covered his sculpture up with a large cloth, and I don’t have the courage to look at the blank face again.
My music takes on a different tone as I write with Victria and Bartie, who’ve turned the garden behind the Hospital into their studio. It’s nice to be able to get help from a poet when I work on lyrics, or advice from a fellow musician when I’m struggling to find chords. I work quicker—but at the same time, it feels as if I’ve lost some of the emotion behind the music. I’d started out writing love songs, and ended up writing sad ones. Perhaps appropriate for the Sirens, but not for me.
And then, almost before I’ve really had a chance to put everything together the way I want, it’s time to present our work to Orion.
Kayleigh and Harley enlist all of our help to get their pieces from the pond behind the Hospital up to the Recorder Hall. Harley wanted to do the presentations by the pond, but Orion insisted they be done inside the Hall. Besides, the projects are supposed to be installed in the galleries on the upper floors once we’re done with our presentations. I assume that means Luthor had to clean up as well, that our studio is once more just the gallery, but I try not to think on it too much. The gallery seems darker with three hulking new additions—Kayleigh’s metal sculpture, Harley’s fresco, and Luthor’s covered-up clay sculpture.
Orion asks us each to explain our work as part of our presentations. Kayleigh goes first, followed by Harley, but I barely hear them. I’m too busy staring at the bumpy cloth over Luthor’s sculpture. It doesn’t have that same familiar shape I’d come to know. It seems shorter.