Harrowhark Nonagesimus was holding a baby.
There were a million other things that Gideon Nav would have expected to see in Harrow’s bony clutches. A human skull, perhaps? The crumpled remains of some innocent creature? A knife, maybe, pointed directly at Gideon’s carotid artery?
The last thing she would have expected to see would have been a baby. The only person less qualified to be toting one of those around would be Gideon herself, which was why when Harrow extended the thing toward her, dangling it by its hand from between two fingers as if disgusted by its mere presence, Gideon said, “Nah, I’m good.”
Harrow’s bony face closed in on itself; her mouth pinched together into an angry line that seemed to disappear into the pallid, corpse-like skin of her face. With a flick of her hand, she released the baby and the world spun into slow motion; Gideon, prepared by years of rugby practice, dove for the doll on instinct.
Her heroism was in vain. Gideon caught the baby by the leg, but not before the empty plastic of the head smacked into the ground. The doll released an ear gratingly robotic scream. Gideon wasn’t sure what was worse — the thought of Harrow dropping an actual, living baby onto the cruel linoleum of the hallway floor (something she was absolutely capable of), or the repetitive shrieks that echoed through the hallway.
Above her head, Harrow scoffed.
“You can’t just drop her—”
“It, ” Harrow replied coldly. She hovered in the hallway just outside of their classroom, her face a perpetual mask of annoyance. From atop her lofty pedestal of egoism, she stared down at Gideon like something particularly nasty that had just been peeled from her shoe. “And if you had just taken it…”
Gideon attempted to bundle the doll into a position that would end the screaming. Trying to stifle it in the crook of her elbow did little; if anything, it seemed to make the electronic shrieking worse. Harrow’s impassive gaze darted from the baby doll’s face to Gideon’s as if she were uncertain which one she would like to smother first. Gideon would have gladly been the first to go, except the desire to high tail it out of this situation through any means possible was second only to the fact that she wouldn’t give Harrow the satisfaction of dying at her hands.
That being said, Gideon was fairly suspicious that she had already died and taken a straight shot to Hell, so what did she have left to lose?
If someone had told her ten years ago — Hell, if someone had told her two hours ago —that she and Harrowhark Nonagesimus would be raising a baby together, Gideon would have laughed until a rib snapped. Now, with a screaming baby doll practically jammed into her own armpit and a frowning Harrow bearing down on her, Gideon just felt like crying.
Gideon should have seen this coming. A mere fifty minutes earlier, she had artfully dropped into the seat next to Coronabeth Tridentarius, nearly taking out her own kneecap trying to beat Naberius Tern to that coveted. Coronabeth had laughed at that, her smile breaking across her face like a ray of sunshine, and patted Gideon’s hand.
After dying a small death of shock at that, Gideon had leaned back, drummed her fingers against a notebook more replete with idle doodles than actual writing, and watched the class fill out, congratulating herself on her foolproof plan.
Home economics. Gideon had, rather wrongfully, determined that this might be one of the few classes that might actually teach her something useful about the world. Taxes, resumes, the kind of boring things that might eventually carry her into that mythical realm of adulthood that her teachers were constantly on her case about. So far, she had learned how to gouge her finger up trying to sew a button onto a coat, and she had learned that if you fucked up really badly, a cute girl might band-aid it up for you.
Home ec taught Gideon another vital life rule, just minutes later: life isn’t fair.
Gideon had plotted this meticulously. Edging Naberius out had left Gideon sitting on top of premium real estate. Second seat over, second row to the back, and Gideon was in the perfect spot to be paired up with Corona, should their decrepit professor instruct them to partner with the classmate next to them. And should he make them count off, making a pair of every other person? Dulcinea Septimus, the fawn haired senior who knew how to pull Gideon’s strings with just the crook of a finger. Foolproof.
At the front of the rooms had been a pile of baby dolls that was both gruesome and hilarious in its effect. The assignment? The crowning misery of the term, a grueling, two week long co-parenting exercise with a baby doll that looked better suited to a horror film than a high school hallway. Gideon had seen juniors and seniors carting the things around and cooing at them for the last couple of years, dreading that point late in the second semester when the halls were filled with the discordant howls of robotic infants.
The exercise was, in Gideon’s opinion, pure sadism. After her attempt at excusing herself from the assignment with a rather well thought out argument of, “But I’m gay,” had failed, Gideon had cooked up a better plan. If she was going to spend two weeks losing sleep over a screeching monstrosity of wire and doll parts, she was going to do so with one of the hottest girls in school.
As Harrow screwed her face up in disdain, wiping her hand off on her jeans as though the baby doll were diseased (which, fair point, it very well could have been — God only knew how many classes had gone through the same dolls), Gideon mourned the fact that she had been defeated by the alphabet.
Nav, their geriatric teacher, far better suited for either a bedpan or a grave than a classroom, had read with boredom. By the time he had come to N in the alphabet, Gideon had already gone through the first two stages of grief, and was ready to bargain. When the teacher had passed over her waving hand and said, in a disinterested voice, and Nonagesimus, Gideon plummeted into the final stage: Depression.
When it was evident that Gideon, catatonic with shock, was not going to come to claim the baby from the grotesque pile of its peers at the front of the room, Harrowhark had set her bony, black clad shoulders and walked to the front of the room to collect it, sweeping slowly through the room like a plague through an unsuspecting country. On her way back, she fixed Gideon with a cool gaze. If looks could kill, Gideon would have already been hacked up and decomposing in the landfill.
Harrow fixed her with that same look now, as she handed (or, more accurately dropped ) the baby off to Gideon.
“What do you want me to do with it?” Gideon asked.
“Shake it,” said Harrow, imperious voice cold as a mausoleum, “As your parents should have done to you.”
And then she stalked away down the hall, leaving Gideon standing alone with a screaming baby doll, like an asshole.
“Yeah, well, she,” Gideon emphasized, because she, despite being philosophically against imposing gender roles on newly minted human beings, wanted to inject some humanity into the situation, “takes after her mother.”
Camilla paused. Her steely gaze moved passively from the baby’s face to Gideon’s, her silence far louder than any words could be.
“Her other mother, dickhead.”
In another life, Camilla might have been a librarian, demure and precise and orderly. In this one, she was a lean powerhouse that knew how to play dirty, with the kind of BDE that could take down people twice her size. She tossed her head back, wiping a sweaty lock of cool brown hair from her face, and took a swig off her water bottle.
Gideon turned her eyes back to where the baby doll sat, swaddled in a garish school spirit blanket that Gideon had excavated from the depths of the gymnasium’s lost-and-found bin. It was propped up on the bleachers, staring across the fields with a cold gleam in its vacant eyes. She had been lucky enough to get it to stop screaming by the time rugby practice rolled around, and it had been patiently waiting on the bleachers ever since.
With a sigh, Gideon threw herself back against the green grass of the practice field. Above, a blue sky bore down on her, a friendly reminder of the summer to come. Even that could not lift her spirits; instead, she thought darkly about spending the rest of the term fighting tooth and nail with Harrowhark Nonagesimus, instead of having idyllic picnics with Corona under the spring sun.
“It’s so hard being a single mother,” Gideon moaned, flinging an arm over her eyes.
“Just give it to Nonagesimus every other day.”
“What, so she can eat it?” Propping herself up on her elbows, Gideon raised one eyebrow at Camilla. “So she can harvest its organs for black market sale? So she can traumatize it with acts of psychological warfare?”
“It’s plastic, Nine.”
“That’s my daughter,” Gideon said, voice rising in mock affront. “I’m telling you, it doesn’t matter. Whatever she can do to fuck me over, she will.”
A whistle sounded from across the field, and Camilla pushed herself up off the grass to follow it. “Maybe you should give her the benefit of the doubt.
With a snort, Gideon followed Camilla up. Camilla, better than anyone, should understand the ruthlessness that was contained within the tiny body of Harrowhark Nonagesimus. Harrow would have pushed Camilla’s cousin into oncoming traffic if it mean she could secure the much disputed role of valedictorian. A sudden joint project wasn’t going to provide her with a reason to make amends for the years of vicious rivalry and bullying. The only change of heart Harrow was capable of was a heart attack, and then again, only if Gideon got really lucky.
The doll spent the rest of the evening screaming. Eventually, Gideon smothered it in a bundle of blankets and relegated it to the bottom of the closet, where she had half a mind to leave it for the next two weeks, grade on the project be damned.
At least if she was going to fail, at least she would be taking Harrow down with her.
The last time Gideon Nav had willingly sat by Harrowhark Nonagesimus had been in kindergarten.
Even then, willing was not necessarily an apt term; they had been forced together by proximity of their names. A testament to her genius, Harrow had been able to spell her own ridiculous name by the age of five. It had barely fit on the name tag at the front of her desk, spelled out in the cramped, wobbly handwriting of a child. The first draft of Gideon’s name tag had been a rough drawing of a rocket taking off from a field of zombies, and the second had been made under teacher supervision.
How simple those early days had been, when sharing a crayon had been enough to strike up a friendship! For nearly a year, the two had been inseparable. Harrow, scrawny and sickly even as a child, had trailed the older, taller Gideon like a dark satellite orbiting a greater sun. Where Gideon could be seen in the far reaches of the playground waving a stick around like a sword, Harrow was not much further, reclining under a tree with a book in her lap. One attempt at shaking the seating assignment up had resulted in big, fat tears rolling down the faces of two distraught six year olds. Gideon and Harrow had miraculously been seated next to another after that.
Everything had changed in the second grade.
Ten years later, Gideon couldn’t have said what had happened. Maybe there had been some juvenile squabble. Maybe it had been Gideon’s fault — she had a reputation for inserting her foot into her mouth whenever given the opportunity. Maybe Harrow had just had a change of heart. All Gideon knew was that one day, the seating assignment changed, and Harrow changed with it. Her friend, already a reserved, reclusive creature to all except Gideon, had grown cold as an arctic front, icing Gideon out as if she didn’t even exist.
Ever the problem child, Gideon had not taken kindly to the newfound disinterest. Even as her circle of friends grew wider, expanding beyond the weird, small kid who had shadowed her for the past year, Gideon had found herself seeking Harrow out and pulling her metaphorical pigtails whenever possible. Each time, Harrow would simply wipe her hands of Gideon like a particularly nasty bug, expertly mingling indifference with repulsion.
Where Gideon was quick to jump, impulsively pushing at Harrow’s buttons to see which one would get a reaction, Harrow burned much slower. She knew when to strike, and where. She would ignore Gideon for weeks on end, surfacing only to dole out the occasional humiliation, or to crush Gideon’s dreams to the ground. It was Harrow’s gum that had made its way into Gideon’s long hair in the third grade — a blessing, really, since Gideon had been begging Aiglamene to cut it for years, but disgusting nonetheless. It was Harrow who had landed Gideon in the junior high detention hall whenever possible, imperiously dredging up any and all infraction on Gideon’s part to an already draconic principal. By extension, it was Harrow who had left Gideon with a record that barred Gideon from any sports tryouts in her freshman year of high school, fueling a year’s worth of lonely, rage-filled workouts that had propelled her to the team for sophomore year.
Since the dawn of time, the two had hated one another — or, at least, since second grade, which seemed comparable in Gideon’s seventeen year old mind.
For this reason, it was rather surreal even to Gideon herself when she dropped her backpack into the chair next to Harrow’s the following day. Harrow regarded it exactly as if Gideon had taken a massive dump on grainy blue plastic.
“What,” she said, in a voice sharp as razor wire, “are you doing.” It was not a question. It was an accusation.
“Raising our child, apparently.” Just saying the words practically triggered Gideon’s gag reflex. Based on the way Harrow’s eyes narrowed, her irises a penetrating black darker even than her smudged eyeliner, she felt the same. To punctuate her point, Gideon drew the doll from her gym bag and dropped it on the desk. The smack it made would have been satisfying, had it not immediately set the stupid thing a-scream.
“And doing exactly as well as I’d have imagined,” Harrow said drily. “Does it have brain damage yet?”
“Don’t listen to her, Princess,” Gideon told the doll, patting it on its back. “Your other mother is a hellacious bitch, with a heart that knows neither joy nor love.”
“That’s not true.” A beat passed. “I enjoy seeing you struggle.”
Gideon sneered at Harrow, who simply glared back. She idly bounced the baby around. She wasn’t sure why she was supposed to do it, but she saw errant mothers doing it all the time out in the wild.
“Good lord, Griddle, are you trying to kill it?”
“Her,” Gideon said, more out of habit than anything. She bounced the baby again, vigorously.
Harrow’s wraith-like little arms shot out; before Gideon knew what was happening, Harrow’s bony claws had fastened around the doll’s legs.
“Have you never heard of shaken baby syndrome?” Harrow asked.
“Oh, now you want a say in her upbringing—”
“If it were a real baby,” Harrow said, tugging on the legs, “it would be as brain dead as you are, if you keep shaking it like that.”
While Gideon clearly had the upper hand in strength and height, she had to admit that Harrow had clawed her way out of hell, and therefore packed a surprising punch in her bony, petite frame. If Gideon lifted the doll high enough, maybe she would just take Harrow with it. The only thing that stopped her from following that strand of investigation was the fact that the only thing she needed less than Coronabeth Tridentarius seeing her lose a game of tug-of-war with a feral child the size of a Keebler elf was Dulcinea Septimus seeing her rip a baby in half. She released the doll, and Harrow nearly went toppling into the desk behind her with the sudden release of tension.
The only thing that kept her in place was Gideon’s hand. Somehow, without permission from the brain that Harrow seemed to think Gideon lacked, Gideon’s arm had shot out, clutching Harrow’s sharp shoulder just before she could go flailing back into the chair.
The two of them both froze. As did time itself. And probably Hell.
Harrow’s head turned slowly. Instead of spinning 360 degrees, like Gideon would have expected it to, it stopped just as her eyes fell on Gideon’s large hand, a burst of color against the black of Harrow’s turtleneck. A turtleneck, Gideon found herself thinking. In April.
Harrow shrugged her shoulder, and Gideon recoiled as if her hand had been burned. And her face.
In the midst of it all, the baby doll had stopped screaming. Harrow furtively pressed it against her board-like chest and turned away without another word, slipping into her chair in silence. She spent the remainder of the final few moments of the break clearly intensely interested in something happening just outside the classroom window.
The thumping of her own heartbeat was enough to distract Gideon from whatever conversations were happening a few seats down, as Dulcinea Septimus cooed at the fake doll rocked between Palamdes Sextus’ scrawny arms. A couple of seats further down, Naberius Tern was attending to the baby doll he was meant to be sharing with Corona with the same fervor he would have applied to doing her laundry, had she deigned to give him the privilege.
In fact, the only thing that drew her from the pit of mortification that she had hurled herself into was the bombshell that their decrepit teacher dropped about five minutes into class. Not only did she have to deal with the incessant cacophony of robot babies shrieking at all hours of the day, but the things were also recording data about their treatment, like some kind of dystopian nightmare. What happened to the good old days, Gideon wondered, when they would have just been handed a sack of flour? At least then Gideon would have had the satisfaction of ruining Harrow’s sweater when the two of them inevitably ripped the thing in half.
Unfortunately, this revelation gave Harrow ideas. When the bell rang, setting off a harmony of shuffling backpacks, Gideon turned toward her unfortunate partner and extended a hand. Harrow ignored her, hooking the baby under her elbow, and marched out into the hallway.
Gideon trailed after her, cursing those tiny, swift legs of Harrow’s the entire time.
“Hand her over.”
“Why?” asked Harrow, stopping in her tracks so suddenly that Gideone nearly plowed straight into her. She whirled to face Gideon. It didn’t matter that Gideon had nearly a foot on her, Harrow still managed to glare at her in such a way that Gideon felt she was being looked down on. “So you can shove it in your disgusting gym bag again?”
“Better than you conducting sadistic experiments on her,” Gideon said. The two of them were impeding the flow of traffic through the hallway, but Harrow, whose only concern was for herself, clearly did not give a shit. “Or using her bones for creepy bone rituals. Or—”
“It is a plastic. Doll. Griddle.”
“And you are the mistress of all evil,” Gideon said, “and have clearly never been taught how to hold a baby.”
Both of their gazes darted down to where the doll was being smothered in the crook of Harrow’s elbow. Gideon had no idea what kind of data was being relayed back to their teacher, but the thing wasn’t crying, which meant maybe Harrow had suffocated it. There were worse fates in life. Like having Harrowhark Nonagesimus for a mother.
Admittedly, having Gideon Nav for a mother wasn’t much better. Gideon didn’t have a single maternal instinct in her body, but she was willing to make an attempt if it meant that no creature — living, dead, or inanimate — would be subject to Harrow. Besides, Gideon had started to grow attached to the doll, during those odd moments when it was neither screaming nor jammed into the furthest recesses of her closet and swaddled in her old clothing.
If anything, Harrow held the baby tighter in her arm. “I am not giving her back. I refuse to allow you to fail this class for me, Nav. Perhaps your pea-sized brain can’t comprehend anything beyond chasing a ball around like an untrained dog, but I have worked too hard for the past three years to have you — why are you looking at me like that?”
Through the self satisfied, shit eating grin that had worked its way onto her face, Gideon said, “You said her.”
Harrow blinked. Her gaze darted down to the doll smothered in the crook of her arm, eyebrows raised in bewilderment as if she had forgotten it was there. A scowl broke over her face like a thunderous tidal wave, destroying everything in its wake.
To that, all Harrow could say was, “Go to Hell.”
And then she stormed off, apparently with the kind of expression that had freshmen nearly throwing themselves at lockers to clear out of her path of destruction. Gideon cackled herself all the way to her biology class, where her satisfaction was only slightly dimmed by the write-up she got for being tardy.