In Which Mackenzie Doesn’t See Gladys Through A Peephole
I had a weird and restless night, which led to a weird and unrested morning.
The question of exactly what to tell Amaranth and how to tell her began to weigh on me as soon as I closed the compact… I couldn’t lie to her, but I didn’t want to put her in an awkward spot in dealing with Lee. The easiest way to do it would be to tell her that he had thought of someone else who might know and could be convinced to come forward. That was the truth… or at least it was true, which was almost the same thing… and it might not be all that different from how I would have explained it if he hadn’t impressed the need for secrecy onto me.
But he had, and that meant that anything short of the whole truth… both what I knew and what I suspected… would feel like a lie. I’d lived my life by such “technical truths” before. It had been part of my initial strategy for dealing with life at MU, and it had been Amaranth who had first made me question whether it was any better than lying.
That Amaranth didn’t come to bed with me didn’t so much take away the pressure as much as it left me to suffer under it all night. I didn’t have any unwelcome visitors in my dreams that night, but that may have been a side effect of never falling into a deep enough sleep long enough to have any proper dreams. Every time I woke up I found myself treading over the same ground in my head.
Deciding to speak up and tell the truth should have made everything simpler, but things were only getting more complicated… I was back to half-truths and keeping things from people I cared about.
Of course, we’d made things complicated by trying to have the best of both worlds by sharing our information but keeping out of the investigation. I didn’t think I could be blamed for that… I’d already been more entangled in it than I should have been because of what I was. I couldn’t be blamed and it couldn’t be helped. Not unless I wanted to take a gamble on a straight-up anonymous tip.
By the time morning came around, I’d more or less made peace with the decision. This didn’t mean I was feeling great about what I’d have to tell Amaranth… or about the likelihood that I’d run into Feejee sometime before the hammer came down, knowing what I’d put into motion while she was none the wiser… but I’d accepted that it was likely to be the best of several bad choices.
I could avoid the bathroom for a while. I’d miss baths, but a couple days without showering wouldn’t kill me.
I was already awake when Two began preparing for her meditation session, though I begged off accompanying her… I needed more rest to make up for my lack of actual sleep. When I did decide I’d had enough of lying there in the semi-darkness, it was earlier than I needed to be up for breakfast or anything else… Two wasn’t even back yet. I had a moment of regretting that I hadn’t gone with her… what was the point of regretting? Learn from it and move on, I thought, and felt kind of better for it.
I’d spent the night beating myself up over things that were perhaps at least worth wrestling with a bit, but how to spend an hour of the morning wasn’t it.
I decided to go out and take a shower. It was cold in the dorm room and hot water sounded nice… if I ran into Feejee, well, that was going to happen eventually. I wouldn’t be lingering right near her in the other bathtub or anything, I’d just breeze past. Chances were good she’d be still be asleep, anyway.
I got my things together and headed for the door, but froze at the sound of voices on the other side of it. It was a little bit early for conversation in the hall. I was used to stray sounds coming in through the front of the room, as people headed towards the lounge or the stairs, but people didn’t really hang out in the hallway that much, and they especially didn’t do it early in the morning.
Very carefully, I leaned my head in close to the door and then put my ear against it. I wasn’t interested in eavesdropping… I just wanted to see if I could recognize the voices. I was interested in knowing who I might end up having to walk through to get to where I was going.
“…not going to… for you,” was the first thing that I heard. I couldn’t make out the whole thing, and I didn’t recognize the voice.
“Nobody’s asking you to spy,” said another voice, that I did recognize: Trina. “Just help Gladys here get into position where she can find something out.”
It probably said something that I assumed they were talking about spying on me, but they did seem to be pretty close to my door. On the other hand it wasn’t smart to discuss their plan so close to the intended target, but if one person was getting cold feet then Trina and Gladys might not have any choice.
The next thing I heard was a kind of buzzing hiss. I couldn’t tell if somebody was whispering and it was carrying weirdly, or if it was something else entirely.
I put my eye to the peephole… I could see Trina, Mariel, who was gesticulating urgently with all four arms and saying something to the speaker whose voice I hadn’t quite recognized: Twyla. Gladys wasn’t in sight, but the group was clustered just at the edge of the peephole’s distorted field of vision.
I hadn’t had nearly as much contact with Twyla, good or bad, as I had with some of the other girls on our floor. It was easy enough to forget that she was there. I wasn’t the least bit surprised to find that the other girls were trying to bully her into doing their dirty work for them.
I realized that whether or not they were talking about me, I could break up their little meeting and at least temporarily end Twyla’s predicament just by opening the door at that moment. Having realized that, I felt something cold and hard twisting its way around through the lower regions of my torso. I’d come a long way from feeling like I was going to throw up whenever people looked at me, but that didn’t mean I was comfortable just jumping into the spotlight.
Being led around on a stage by Amaranth was one thing… she was my owner, I was fulfilling my function as her toy… but race aside, Trina and Mariel were every bit the kind of girls whose attention I’d tried and failed to avoid in high school.
That thought was still crossing my mind when my hand went for the doorknob. The fact that it stuck a little meant there was no chance of dramatically throwing the door open and catching them off-guard, but Trina and Twyla were still standing there when I got it open. Mariel and Gladys were nowhere to be seen. Mariel moved very quickly and seemed to perceive time at a very different rate from the rest of us, and evidently Gladys had a similarly incredible reaction time and speed.
I thought about throwing out a chipper “Good morning” or something, but I wasn’t sure I could manage more than an awkward “hi”. I wasn’t even sure I could handle that. I managed to stop myself from feeling guilty at having busted them… they were the guilty ones, and the look on Trina’s face dispelled any doubt from my mind that I was the target of the planned espionage. She didn’t say anything, though, she just turned and walked off.
“You… um… might not want to stand there with your door open,” Twyla said, before heading down the hall towards the stairs or the bathroom.
“Um, thanks?” I said, then stepped back and closed the door.
What had that been about? Good advice for somebody with nosy neighbors, but what the hell could anybody see by looking in through my open door? Trina and company’s sudden interest in the goings-on they imagined to be… going on… in my room was no doubt related to Leda’s death, which meant that they suspected I had something to do with it. But since I didn’t, there was no evidence in my room, much less anything that you could see just by walking past when the door happened to be open. Still, I didn’t necessarily want gawkers hanging around outside of it… and I really didn’t want people trying to eavesdrop on what was happening inside it.
It hit me that what they’d probably been asking Twyla for was access to her room. It was right next to mine. I wondered why they’d be going to her and not her roommates, but I didn’t exactly keep up with the dorm politics of people who didn’t like me.
Since I couldn’t manage a shell of silence like the one Lee had used through my mirror, I’d have to ask Steff if she had a spare sound-damping blanket I could hang over that wall… that would put a serious crimp in their plan.
I waited until Two got back before I went to take my shower. Mercifully, Twyla wasn’t in there, and even more mercifully, neither was Feejee. The bathroom was empty except for us, and nobody else came in until we passed Celia on the way out. It was an eerie reminder that with Sooni and her entourage and Dee gone, there were at least three dorm rooms standing empty because of Leda’s death.
That could be another reason Trina had been leaning on Twyla instead of going to the Leightons, I realized. Maybe they weren’t around to let her friend into their room.
Amaranth looked to be in a very good mood when she came upstairs to walk to breakfast with us. Once we were outside, she pulled on my arm to get me to walk a bit behind Two. That suited me, since I had things I needed to talk to her about, too.
“You know what you were saying yesterday,” she said, “about how they wouldn’t necessarily take my word at face value because I’m just a nymph?”
“I’m not sure that’s exactly how I put it,” I said.
“Oh, baby, I’m not saying I took it personally,” she said. “But you were right. It’s not that I have any special legal standing, it’s just my mother’s protection. So I was thinking about how to make my idea work, and I think I’ve come up with something.”
“Amaranth… we already contacted Lee,” I said.
“Yes, but I figured it would be at least today before he got back to you, and in the mean time I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she said. “And once I did, the answer seemed so obvious, so simple. I couldn’t believe I didn’t think of it when we were first talking about this.”
“Well, the thing is… Lee did get back to me last night,” I said. “And, uh, he also had a kind of simple solution. Simple-ish. It doesn’t need anything from us, it keeps me out of it completely.”
“Oh,” Amaranth said. It sounded like there was some disappointment in her voice.
“Of course, I’d still like to hear what you came up with… it might be useful, if we ever… um… if this situation… it might be interesting,” I said.
I couldn’t even pretend I thought that we’d ever have a use for Amaranth’s plan.
If the same situation ever came up again, I was going to quit and move to another, less absurd plane of existence.
“Well… the thing is… I thought it was such a simple and obvious solution… elegant really,” she said, “that I couldn’t see any reason to wait…”
“Amaranth, you didn’t,” I said. I felt like the ground beneath my feet and the bottom of my stomach were both in a race to get to the bottom of a deep pit.
“Baby, you don’t even know what I did,” she said. “I promise you, it’s a really great idea, or else I wouldn’t have…”
“Well, what is it, then?” I asked.
“Like I told you: you made me realize that the problem is that the protection I have doesn’t belong to me, but my mother,” Amaranth said. “She is the one that the Imperium respects enough to back off of, not me. So…”
“So you asked her to get involved?” I said. Somehow I felt relieved… I didn’t know Mother Khaele, but somehow I couldn’t imagine she’d casually get involved in mortal legal affairs, and I had to believe she was used to being petitioned by Amaranth that she’d be inclined not to take her requests seriously. When she appeared on TV, she made the point about how often people died, right before a giant monster wave made the point for her.
“Not directly,” Amaranth said, which sounded even better.
“I asked her sort of indirectly,” Amaranth said. “I mean, I thought if I just up and asked her she’d probably shut me down out of hand… she’s sort of getting in the habit of not really listening to me, sometimes. Also, she wasn’t available when I tried to commune. So I… well, it’s basically the equivalent of leaving a reflection. She’ll get the message when she gets back from… the thing she didn’t tell me that she was going to be doing this week.”
“She’s gone all week?” I asked, not even bothering to try to parse how a goddess could be “gone” or where she’d go to.
“That’s what it seems like,” Amaranth said, her lower lip wobbling. I gathered that this was a new experience for her.
“Well, then you just have to leave a new message for her,” I said. “Because Lee’s already taking care of it. Um… since you’re the one who left the echo, you could always just say that you handled it yourself.”
“I guess,” she said. I couldn’t tell what she was more bothered by: that her elegant and simple idea wouldn’t be used, or that Mother Khaele had apparently stepped out.
Actually, as soon as I thought that, it seemed obvious… and I felt a little unworthy of her for even thinking it. Of course she was bothered by the thought that her brilliant plan wouldn’t fix everything. She was Amaranth. But it was even more obvious that she wasn’t bothered half as much by that as she was by the fact that her mother, her goddess… the only constant in her life now that she’d left her home and lost her closest companion… had gone away without telling her.
Personally, I didn’t think that a goddess actually needed to update all of her followers with her travel itinerary, and Mother Khaele had evidently used some means of letting her daughters know that she was away and when she’d be back. Pointing that out to Amaranth didn’t seem terribly helpful, and I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I just hugged her.
That turned out to be the right thing to do.
“Thank you, baby,” she said when we were done. There were tears in her eyes and on her cheeks, but she was already done crying. “So… what did Lee say?”
“His thoughts were actually pretty close to yours,” I said, figuring this out as I said it. “Get someone, you know, powerful and credible to give the information. He had someone in mind but, you know, since the whole point is that we have nothing to do with it, we’re not supposed to know. Or talk about it.”
“That makes sense,” Amaranth said.
“So, basically… we can sit back and things should sort themselves out,” I said. “As much as they can be.”
“I need clarification!” Two yelled, from maybe thirty feet up the path. Two had a habit of shouting… and whispering… like a very small child, or someone who was accustomed to talking at one set volume. She understood the theory behind modulating what came out of her mouth, but the finer points of variation escaped her.
“We’re still going to breakfast with you, hon,” Amaranth called. “You can go ahead or wait for us to catch up.”
“Are you going to be doing anything before catching up?”
“We’ll be right there,” I said.
“Then I’ll wait,” Two said.
We didn’t keep her waiting long.