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Authors: Jennie Bates Bozic

Damselfly (8 page)

BOOK: Damselfly
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“I’m glad you like the hair. This is actually my natural color.”

“No, it’s not,” Shrike says. “They told us you were blonde.”

Crane sighs. “Which donor did you get your tactlessness from, Shrike?”

“At least
I
don’t look like a limp noodle. I don’t have one either.” He laughs at his own joke, but no one joins in. Crane’s face turns bright red, and he reabsorbs himself with the thrilling activity of pushing bits of food around on his plate.

“Did you dye it yourself?” This time it’s Blue talking to me. I’m getting whiplash from turning my head so often.

“Yes. Earlier today.” My head begins to pound. I rest my elbows on the table and close my eyes for a moment while I rub my temples. I want this to end so I can go home, boot up my new computer, and have my
real
birthday with Jack. I’m sure he’s wondering where I’ve been for the past day and a half. Last time we spoke, he told me he was planning something special, and I have no idea what it is. I can’t wait to find out.

The quartet stops playing. I open my eyes again to see Dr. Christiansen step up onto a small stage erected during dinner. She’s allowed her hair out of its ponytail prison for the night, and she actually looks pretty in the spotlight. She blinks into the glare and holds her microphone up to her mouth.

“Greetings, honored guests. Happy birthday, Lina.” She could not sound more dismal if she was announcing our impending demise. “I have a very special announcement to make on this historic occasion. Today Lina has reached adulthood, and it is time for her to move on to the next stage of her life: marriage and family. Please direct your attention to the video we are about to play. Thank you.”

Marriage and family? Excuse me?

The video image pops up out of the projector and unrolls itself along the wall in full-color, then snaps into focus. It’s just a green background. Some cheesy pop piano blasts over the speakers, and flowers and hearts begin to “bloom” over the green. Then words write themselves in cursive white lettering as the deep voice of a male narrator booms,
“Little Love: A Tom and Thumbelina Story.”

My mouth drops open, and one of the photographers snaps a flash in my eyes.

The narrator continues:
“Deep in the forests of Denmark, the land of fairy tales, lives a young woman who is only six inches tall.”

The green background dissolves into some footage of me flying around the flower gardens, then video of me doing drills with George. At least, I think that’s what I’m doing. When did they start taping me without telling me?

“Meanwhile, six young men of the same size are preparing to fight for her heart.”

Footage of the Toms parades past. They all look handsome and strange as they race each other across a course and then practice wrestling bare-chested. It’s more than a little over-the-top.

“There is only one woman in the entire world whose heart is the perfect match for theirs. And now, Thumbelina will choose her true love, her husband, from among them as you watch from your very own living room.”

I get the vague impression music is playing, but all sound has turned to sludge in my ears. Jane bounces onto the stage as the video ends. Her voice pierces through everything.

“Thank you so much for watching! We’re so pleased to announce that Lina and the Toms are going to have their very own reality show to find true love!”

Chapter 7

Shock paralyzes me. Even my thoughts seem unable to move forward in any logical fashion. I stare open-mouthed at the empty wall where the video just played. The crowd finishes their applause. How can they possibly clap for that?

Fingers touch my hand, and I jump and pull away. They were Blue’s fingers.

“They didn’t tell you?” he asks, his voice low and tender.

I stare at him, then look at each of the other Toms in turn. They’re all watching me with strange expressions.

“We thought you knew,” Row says, his eyes darting to his brothers for help.

I stumble to my feet, knocking my chair over in the process. Al rushes to grab it and set it aright and takes my arm to steady me. His strong grip holds me up, but his hands are too warm. Everything feels much too warm. Another flash goes off in my face, and I press my hand to my stomach. My dinner threatens to make another appearance, and I’ve broken out into a cold sweat.

All eyes are on me. One or two guests wear furious expressions along with their formalwear. A couple more people look concerned. Everyone else smiles as if forcing a girl to pick a husband on international television is the best idea they’ve heard in their entire lives.

I can feel my heartbeat pulsing through my head. The world goes silent, even though people are still talking. I can see their mouths moving, but all I can hear is pulse, pulse, pulse and a faint ringing.

The spotlight centers on me yet again, and the light hurts so badly I close my eyes.

“I…I’m sorry. I don’t feel well.” I back up, then head for the back door.

“Lina, please sit down at the table,” says Dr. Christiansen’s voice behind me. It’s not a request, but I don’t care. The door is all that matters right now.

Get through the door, then worry about the rest.

Chairs are scraping, footsteps coming from every direction. I grab hold of the door’s edge and pull myself into the kitchen. Just like before, none of the staff notice me. They’re too busy cleaning up.

Get to the window. Window, window, window.
As my fingers touch the cold pane of glass, the door opens behind me and slams into the wall.

“Lina! Get back in there now!” It’s Dr. Christiansen. I’ve never heard her yell before.

Window, window. Get through the window.
Someone’s left it open a crack to let the fresh air in. To let me out.

“Shut that!” the doctor screams as I slip through. She’s all blonde rage and limp curls.

I head for home. I won’t have much time. She won’t ever let this one go, but there’s one more thing I need to do and I direct all of my focus, all of my energy, toward that one goal.

I hurl through my living room window, exploding the glass into chunks. My shoulder hurts from the impact, but that doesn’t matter.

I fumble for the power switch to my new computer, a converted old cell phone with built-in camera.

Bless you, George.

Everything whirs to life. Jack’s video chat invitation pops on the screen, and with shaky fingers, I push “accept.” Moments later, Jack’s face appears on the screen.

“Happy birthday! Nice hair. Are you all right?”

A sob bursts out of me before I can stop it. No, not a sob. A wail that cannot stand to be contained any longer. I crumple in on myself and cry into my hands.

“Lina! What’s wrong?” His palms are pressed against the camera. He looks like he’s about to push into my living room.

They can’t be far now. I force myself to catch my breath. To slow down so I can speed up. I try not to think too hard about what I have to say. “I’m…I’m so sorry,” I manage before another wave of tears overwhelms me.

“What?! Tell me what is going on. Do you need me to call someone? I will.”

“No.” There’s no one to call. “I’m sorry, Jack. I can’t explain. But I won’t…be able to see you anymore. It will all make sense…very soon.”

He pushes himself away from his computer as if I’ve punched him in the face. “What are you talking about, Lina? What is going on? What happened yesterday?” He keeps going on and on with questions I have no time to answer. I can’t get a word in.

Fresh tears. Footsteps running toward me outside.

“Jack, I need to tell you something, so stop talking.”

He stops, cold and motionless. I do not recognize this Jack.

I inhale hard and deep. “I love you.”

He blinks. His mouth opens to say something, but I can’t bear to hear what it is.

“Goodbye,” I whisper, and I pull the plug.

He’s gone.

A raw sob tears its way through my throat and mouth. I force myself to get up, grab my razor knife, and open the cell phone. I will not allow Dr. Christiansen to have this piece of me. I scrape the blade over the motherboard, popping off dozens of tiny pieces. Then I dig through until I find the memory card. I unscrew the cover and stab the inside over and over again until the metal is a mess of dents and punctures. Panic overtakes me. Look at what I’ve done! I run my fingers across my broken memories as tears drip down onto the unforgiving metal and plastic.

The ceiling opens. Jane’s face enters my house like an unwelcome ogre. Her flashlight gives her features a gruesome appearance as she shouts to Dr. Christiansen that she’s found me.

I stand, still holding the destroyed bits of my computer. My fingers explore the holes, wrapping themselves into twisted places, becoming one with the last tie to Jack I still have.

I don’t resist when Jane picks me up and gently clips my wings together, nor when I am placed in an animal carrier that still has tufts of fur from its last occupant.

As I am transported to the main buildings, the deadening realization that Jack and I are truly over hits me full force. It isn’t until I am locked securely into Dr. Christiansen’s spare bedroom that I notice I left the computer pieces in the carrier. I don’t even remember when I let them go.

Chapter 8

I wake up with a stiff back, still clothed in the awful dress. Dim light seeps through cracks in the blinds.

Where am I?

My hand stretches out across the bedding. It isn’t mine; it’s cheap and ugly and smells of bleach. I sit bolt upright and my surroundings come into focus.

I’m in a strange bedroom in Dr. Christiansen’s house. I push off the mattress—a small pillow wrapped in a shirt—and smooth down my hair. A tangle of purple comes loose in my hand, and I stare at it as the events of the previous night replay in my head and heart.

Jack is gone. I wait for the tears to come, but instead my heart comes up dry. I just feel flat, with a dash of panic under the surface.

Where is everyone? I fly up to the window and try to crack it, but it’s nailed shut. The door can only be opened with a keypad, so I won’t be getting out that way. The white walls and ceiling stare down at me like jailers.

“Hey!” I shout. “Let me out of here!” Silence answers me, and after several more tries, I retreat to the shabby pillow bed and curl up into a ball. The clock on the wall reads 8:43 a.m., and I watch the neon numbers advance for the next hour and fourteen minutes.

A click. The door opens, and Dr. Christiansen appears with her clipboard. An assistant I’ve never seen before pushes in a cart holding a projector and some other equipment I can’t identify.

“Shut the door,” she says. I disentangle my limbs and wings from the pillow and hug my arms around myself.

“What’s this all about?” I ask, trying to sound brave. But all my courage from yesterday vanished with the remains of my computer.

“We’re going to discuss your participation in the upcoming show and the consequences you will face if you choose to be difficult again.”

I sigh. What more could she possibly do to me at this point?

“Shooting will begin in two weeks. You are expected to show up on time, participate in every date with a smile, and at the end of the show, you will select one of the Toms.”

“I don’t think so.” The words are heavy on my tongue, but I can’t just roll over and let her win.

“I thought you might say that. You seem to have no concern for your own wellbeing, but I think you might be interested in keeping your online friend safe.”

“What are you talking about? If you think I’ll believe for one second that you are big and powerful enough to hurt him all the way in another country…you’ve got a screw loose.” I fold my arms, incredulous that she would stoop to such ridiculous blackmail.

Dr. Christiansen grabs the cart, aims the projector at the wall, and hits the power button. Footage of a dilapidated shop materializes on the wall. A young Native American man leans against the porch post, looking nervously from side to side. My heart quickens at the sight of him, but it isn’t Jack—just a guy that could be his doppelganger. He stuffs his hand into his coat pocket and grips something inside.

It’s a gun.

“Do you understand what you are seeing?” Dr. Christiansen asks. “Or do I have to break it down into small words for you?”

I pry open my dry lips. “You’re going to frame him.”

“Very good. The civil war was hard on the Americas. So many impoverished and desperate people willing to work for whatever the pay. All I need to do is send him one simple text and our friend will walk into that store in broad daylight and rob it. Then he will disappear, and the police will look for a young man who looks just like Jack. Unless, of course, you agree to cooperate.”

The feeling has drained out of me onto the floor. All I can do is nod.

“Perfect.” She holds up her phone and hits send.

The young man on the screen jumps and fishes his own phone out of his pocket. With trembling hands, he reads the message, and his shoulders droop in relief. He lets out a cracked laugh and, with a smile, stands up straighter and walks away.

The projector flicks off, and the assistant backs out of the room.

I stare at Dr. Christiansen. I’ve always thought of her as a cold-hearted woman, but I’ve never seen her this ruthless. A spear of terror pierces my heart as she smoothes her coat, smiling.

“I’m so glad we’ve been able to work this out,” she says. Then she’s gone.

***

Later, Jane brings food, a bowl of hot water, and all of my clothes in a squashed bundle. If it didn’t take all of my energy to eat and get myself clean, I would be upset over the mess of wrinkles she’s made of my clothing. I’ve always taken good care of those things, and now there they are in a heap. I tug on my pajamas and curl up on the pillow.

When I was a little girl, about five or six years old, Mr. Coxworth gave me several pop-up children’s books. He propped them up on the kitchen counter in his house, and I would play in the paper castles and oceans. I’d never heard the stories my “forts” belonged to, so I made up my own instead.

BOOK: Damselfly
10.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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