As They Slip Away (Across the Universe #2.5)

Chapter 6

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Orion nods to Luthor, indicating that he should go next, but Luthor shakes his head. Instead, Victria begins reciting her poetry.

It’s not until Bartie goes that I am able to draw my attention away from Luthor’s too-short sculpture.

His music is hollow in the best possible way. It speaks of longing and sorrow, and I want to fill it with my voice, but I don’t. It’s better this way.

As his music fades, I step forward with my own. I close my eyes and forget about everything and just sing.

And for that short moment, everything is right.

But then the moment disappears.

I open my eyes, and I’m still here. And so is Luthor.

“Thank you, Selene,” Orion says. “Now, it’s your turn, Luthor. ”

He doesn’t bother introducing his work. Instead, Luthor steps up to his sculpture and in one swift motion rips the cloth off.

I gasp—the only sound in the silent gallery.

The sculpture is no longer faceless—it’s headless. From the rough marks at the decimated remains of the neck, I can easily imagine him wrapping his fingers around the clay, carefully and precisely squeezing, squeezing, squeezing until the head simply popped right off.

From the neck down, the sculpture is beautiful—even more graceful and elegant than I’d remembered. There are cuticles etched in the fingernails, veins at the delicate wrists. Individual toes curl around the base, and the draping gown looks as if it is made of silk, not mud.

But from the neck up—nothing.

“ Well. ” Orion’s voice cuts through the ringing silence. “This is quite . . . illuminating, Luthor. ”

Luthor lets the sheet that had been covering his sculpture drop to the floor as he turns and storms out of the gallery.

Even Kayleigh and Harley, as wrapped up as they are in each other, have noticed the way Bartie and Victria never leave my side. Their worry is palpable.

“ Go to Doc,” Harley finally says. “Ripping the head off a sculpture of someone is loons.

Maybe he can up Luthor’s meds. ”

“I don’t think the meds we take have anything to do with being loons,” Kayleigh says.

“They just— ”

“This isn’t the time for that,” Victria snaps. I’m surprised; I’ve never seen her be short with Kayleigh before. “But Harley’s right. We should talk to Doc. Or maybe even Eldest?”

We let the weight of her words sink in before I say anything. “Not Eldest. It’s just a creepy sculpture. No reason to contact Eldest. ”

Although no one says anything, the tension in the room dissolves a bit now that I’ve said to leave Eldest out of it.

“ Still—Doc?” Bartie says.

I shake my head. “It’s just a sculpture. ”

I can’t sleep that night, which is why, when my door zips open, I’m awake to see Luthor standing in the doorway.

“You were supposed to be asleep,” he says.

“You’re supposed to be in your own room,” I snap back.

He shrugs and steps inside, letting the door zip closed behind him.

“I didn’t say you could come in! ”

He just stands there.

“ Get out! ” I say, my voice rising.

In two steps, he’s at my bed, his open hand covering my mouth. I try to shout, but the sound is muffled. He presses his weight against me, pushing me into my mattress. I thrash around, but can’t escape his grip.

“You were supposed to be mine,” he says. His breath is hot, his pupils dilated.

I shake my head the best I can under his grip.

“I don’t like to share. ”

His hand slips down. “I don’t know what you’re talking about! ” I yell.

But his hand isn’t letting me go—it’s just moving further down. His other hand joins the first around my neck.

I am hyperaware of the situation. I can feel each heavy thud of my heart growing stronger and faster. I can feel each of his fingers around my throat, each pressing into my skin. He’s not choking me; he’s just making sure I know that he could.

Unbidden and unwanted, an image of his sculpture comes into my mind: a perfect body with its head squeezed off.

My eyes burn. “Don’t, ” I whisper, afraid to say more. The word has to fight its way up my throat to my mouth.

“I could,” he says. “I could. I can do whatever I want. ”

“ Don’t, ” I plead.

“You sing. You become someone else when you sing—more beautiful, more perfect. ”

His index finger strokes the front of my throat, where my vocal chords are.

“ Don’t sing for anyone else,” he orders.

I nod my head—anything to make him go away.

His grip tightens around my neck, pushing me further into my mattress. He lifts his right leg, and, without removing his hands from my throat, he climbs over me so that he’s straddling me in my own bed.

His full weight presses down against me.

Tears leak from my eyes, dripping into my hair.

“You’re mine, ” he whispers.

It is a very long time before he leaves, but when he finally does, a part of me has already died. My back is uncomfortably straight in the blue plastic chair across from Doc’s desk in his office. He steeples his fingers as he looks at me. “But, ” he says in a carefully controlled voice, “he didn’t actually do anything?”

For answer, I remove the scarf around my neck. Ten long fingerprint-shaped bruises decorate my throat.

“ But—nothing else?” Doc shifts uncomfortably. “ He threatened you, yes, I understand that, but he didn’t actually . . . ?”

“ Would it matter if he did?” I ask. My voice is raspy, a mixture of the gasping sobs that raked through my throat in the shower this morning and the pressure Luthor exerted on my vocal chords as he—

Doc leans forward. “This is very serious, ” he says. “I think perhaps I should give Luthor some hormone suppressants, at least until the Season. . . . ”

“ Pills? You’re just going to give him pills?”

“ His, er, desire for you isn’t entirely natural. We can tamp down that desire, at least for a few years, until the Season. ”

“I ’m not just worried about his desire. ”

Doc’s eyes drift lower, to the bruises on my neck.

“I could bring Eldest into this,” he mutters, half to himself. “But the thing is . . . ”

“ What?” My feeble voice cracks. “What is it? Why are you trying to nicely say that Luthor won’t be punished for what he’s done to me?”

“ But if he didn’t actually do anything—”

“ What do you want me to say?” I stand up, my voice straining against my desire to shout.

“That he held me down on the bed, even when I begged him to get up? That he crushed my throat until I couldn’t make a sound? That he laughed at me as I struggled against him?” That he did things to me that I’m too disgusted to even describe with words.

Doc won’t meet my eyes.

“Luthor is skilled in tactile and kinetic studies,” he tells his neatly ordered desk. “He may be focused on creating sculptures now, but his skills could lead to an advancement in modular studies of the ship’s engines, or help increase efficiency in the City or through the floppy network.. . . ”

“And all I can do is sing,” I croak.

I collapse back in the chair, hoping for Doc to protest, but we both know it’s true. There’s not much room for art on Godspeed; I’m superfluous at best. People like Kayleigh or Luthor will be able to find a productive way to contribute to the ship. People like me or Bartie will be able to do nothing more than provide some amusement for the real workers.

Luthor’s more important than me, because his skills can aid the ship. A song is nothing compared to productivity.

I laugh, a bitter, cracked sound damaged by Luthor’s chokehold on me last night.

I can’t even sing, not now. One day—soon, if Doc’s right—my vocal chords will heal.

But could I ever really sing again? If Luthor says I can only ever sing for him, and he can do whatever he wants on this ship that values people based on what labor or skills they can provide, dare I ever make music?

“I ’ll start Luthor on hormone suppressants, ” Doc says in the silence. “That should stop his . . . urges. ”

But not his hands, his big, strong hands that choked the sound out of me, that popped the head off his sculpture, that held the razor-sharp scalpels he used to carve into clay, that he could use to carve into me.

8.

“ We’ll protect you,” Victria says. Kayleigh, sitting on my bed, nods her head. “If Doc won’t protect you, we will. ”

“ What can you do?” I ask with a feeble laugh.

Kayleigh and Victria exchange glances. “The boys will help,” Kayleigh says. “Harley and Bartie.”

“They don’t know me that well. ”

“They’ll still help. ”

I can see it now: a lifetime where I’m always watched by at least one of them. Before, I had thought of Kayleigh as a sometime friend and Victria as an occasional companion. Harley and Bartie were always in the background of my mind. But I know—I can see it in the earnest looks both girls are giving me—that here is a chance for me to become something more to them all.

Not friend. Ward.

“I can’t ask that of you, of any of you,” I say.

Victria shakes her head. “We can’t let that happen to you again. ”

She looks at my neck, but she can’t see the wounds I’ve hidden behind my clothes.

“You can’t protect me all day, every day. ”

“You can move into my room,” Kayleigh says.

“ Or mine,” Victria adds.

I stare out the window.

“ Selene?” Kayleigh asks. Something in her voice draws my attention to her. “You forgot to take your pill,” she says. She holds out the little blue-and-white capsule that holds the drugs that keep me conscious, aware of the world.

I hadn’t forgotten it.

“ Silly me,” I mutter, taking the pill. Kayleigh watches me carefully as I put it on my tongue and pretend to swallow.

But I don’t.

After a while, I plead a headache, and the two girls leave. They don’t go far; I can hear them talking, guarding my room. They shout at Luthor when he gets too close; I can hear him denying their accusations, their voices raising until Doc comes out and silences everyone.

I spit the blue-and-white pill out of my mouth and into the toilet, then flush it away.

Kayleigh said the pills made you nothing, and nothing seems like a pretty good thing to be right now.

Someone knocks on my door. I know it can’t be Luthor—he doesn’t knock.

Doc stands on the other side. “I’ve sent your little guards to their rooms,” he says. Then his harsh expression melts. “I’ve also posted a guard—a real guard—at Luthor’s room. I don’t want you to feel threatened. ”

But I do. Guard or no. Because eventually, in a few days or weeks or even a whole month, the guard will go away. And I still won’t have a lock on my door. And Luthor won’t have forgotten.


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