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oh, my savage empire (how lucky we are)

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“Why don’t you just throw me away?” Kira says.

Rachel ignores the question. She flicks her gaze to the row of pink shelves (the camera there is on), the drawings on the pink desk (the camera there is on), the clumsily made pink bed (the camera there is on). She sits next to Kira on that pink bed. She folds her hands together.

She says: “Why would I throw you away, Kira?”

Kira’s face flattens, sours. She lifts the hem of her shirt to show the surgical scar on her stomach – healed, long healed. She drops the hem of her shirt again. “You got what you wanted already,” she says. “You took it all already.”

She isn’t good enough at this: her eyes start welling over, and she has to look away. Her gaze drops to the floor – there isn’t a twitch towards the first or second or third cameras, so she must not know they’re there. It’s fine. These things take time. It hurts to be caught in a mousetrap; the initial pain of it is so brutal that your entire mind focuses on escaping. You throw yourself against that problem – escaping – with every piece of yourself, as if it is a problem with a solution. Eventually you give up. After you give up, you can begin to understand the mousetrap; sooner or later you’ll know every piece of it, and then it will hurt less.

Kira is still trying to escape, so she’s still bleeding. Tears on the carpet. Rachel watches Kira’s mouth work itself around half-finished syllables, the sharp edges of words she can’t quite commit to yet. Her tongue is still too tender. Once it gets calloused enough, you can say anything.

“Kira,” Rachel says.

“Sweetheart,” Rachel says.

“You’re worth more,” Rachel says, “than what was inside of you.”

“I’m not,” Kira says. “My mom—” she sucks in a jagged breath. It slices its way into her mouth in sharp shards, one – two – three. Out again: one, two, onetwo, one, and for a moment Rachel thinks that she’s got it – that she has it – and then the tears spill over into sobbing. Kira buries her face in her hands; she chokes on her grief. She says: “You can’t even – you can’t—”

The rough edges of her sobs. The way the words are buried in them. I’m not even ransom anymore, there isn’t. There isn’t anyone, I. You can’t. You can’t. Please, I. I just want. Please. And there isn’t. And I.

And Kira. Her face buried in her hands. The terrible sound as she scrabbles and scrabbles and scrabbles against the trap. Rachel’s lips part unconsciously; the stale, manufactured air drags itself back and forth against her teeth. Something is buzzing inside of her – she feels it rattling underneath her breastbone, she feels it warm and prickling in the skin of her hands. She watches her fingers uncurl. She watches herself reach out and touch it.

Kira goes stiff. Rachel leaves her hand there, palm splayed against Kira’s spine. Kira breathes in; her bones rise to meet Rachel’s hand. Kira breathes out and she’s gone.

“I want to go home,” Kira says, soft and trembling.

“You’re already there.”

Kira shudders. The motion claws through her muscles and through her bones and through her skin and is carried through the fabric of her scrubs until finally, finally, it reaches the palm of Rachel’s hand. An electric jolt. An unintentional seize. When Rachel had put Kira under for the surgery, she’d gone so still – like a doll – like a little girl’s dream of a doll, one that could breathe or love you back. He had told Rachel to deliver her to the nurses once she was unconscious. Rachel couldn’t keep her; Rachel was biased, Rachel’s hands might have shaken while cutting Kira open. Unforgivable. Unforgivable, also, the way Rachel sat with her – before she let Kira disappear into the operating room. She had watched Kira sleep. It had felt so important. Why had it felt so important?

Maybe because she had wanted to see the end of it.

The end of what?

“This isn’t home,” Kira says, and Rachel blinks. She blinks again and again and again and then she snaps back into the here, now – where Kira is still speaking, furiously and desperately, working her way through the empty motions of courage. She stares at her hand – a foreign object, a parasitic growth on Kira’s spine. The angles of her own hand are unfamiliar to her.

“It will get easier,” she says to that hand. She looks at Kira. “I promise, sweetheart. Eventually, you’ll forget all about them.”

“I don’t want to forget them,” Kira says.

“Eventually,” Rachel says, “you will.” She lifts her hand; she lifts her hand; she lifts her hand; she lifts her hand and catches a lock of Kira’s hair between her fingers, moving it gently until it’s tucked behind Kira’s ear. She whispers: “You may as well see that as an advantage.”

Kira stares at her. Her eyes are red, raw, wretched. Unreadable. Anger, maybe, or hatred, or terror, or love – it could be love, maybe it could be love—

 

 

Kira throws her arms around Rachel’s middle.

She buries her face against Rachel’s stomach.

 

 

It could be love, maybe. Maybe it could. It could be. Maybe. Love, maybe: Kira’s small hands clenched tightly in the back of Rachel’s dress. Her body shuddering. It’s been so long since it was love, it’s not like she would recognize it – maybe this is what it looks like – when Kira claws at the fabric like she’s wrenching a thousand invisible necks. Her tears acid-hot against Rachel’s stomach. It could be, it might be, and maybe it is, maybe this is it – when Rachel sat there at that bedside for precisely fourteen minutes longer than she should have, smelling the lingering nostalgic scent of anesthetics, and she had reached up, and – just for a moment – she had wrapped her hand around Kira’s hand, and Kira’s fingers hadn’t moved, her hand so still, like it had been waiting – like it had been waiting – like she had been waiting—

Now she lifts a hand and cups the back of Kira’s skull. The skin of her scalp is hot. Not feverish. The curls of her hair – Rachel threads her fingers through them. She combs out the tangles one by one with her mechanical hands. She feels the gears of her mechanical brain turning, turning: delivering back to her in shards the slant of Kira’s eyes, the grip of her fingers. The ticker-tape printing itself out. A 28% chance of sincerity; a smaller chance of love. Rachel isn’t stupid. She knew the odds. She isn’t stupid. She didn’t actually believe in it.

Still: she pulls Kira closer. Kira stiffens and then leans into it – holding, being held – even harder. She commits to it with a vengeance. Like she could cut open Rachel and crawl inside of her. Like she would be safe in there.

This is very clever, Rachel tells her. Really. You should be proud of yourself. I have a weakness. You’re already starting to exploit it. It’s good, that Kira has begun the process of learning this. It’s a lesson that Rachel doesn’t have to teach her.

Rachel closes her eyes. In the dark, she isn’t anywhere. The dark is always the same. When she was very little she used to believe that it was a way out; if she held very still the dark would forget that she was there, and she could tiptoe through it like a tunnel back to her own life. If she just waited for the right time to open her eyes—

now!

—she opens her eyes. She looks for the camera: there, the second one, red light on and steady. She looks down. Kira’s eyes are just as steady and just as red. She doesn’t look away when Rachel meets her gaze.

“It’s alright,” Rachel says. She tries to reshape her voice into something soothing, a performance of motherhood for an audience of eyes. She tries it again, tries to mean it: “You’re going to be alright.”

“Like you?” Kira says.

Rachel pulls in a breath – to say yes, to say no, to say you should go back to crying, now, while you still remember how to do it. She lets the breath out slowly. Instead of any of that, she says: “Is that what you want?”

“I want,” Kira says. “I want—” she leans backwards, away from Rachel, into herself. She looks down at her hands. Her brow twists and untwists. She says: “I want—”

Rachel leans in closer. She holds her breath; she waits for Kira to say it out loud.