43. Not the One
“This plan already sucks.”
“Calm yourself, Lai,” says Ema mildly. She runs a brush through the younger girl’s short-cropped hair with the same gentleness one would use to stroke a newborn baby’s face. “I thought you liked getting dressed up.”
“I do, but I don’t like people touching my head.” Lai sighs in defeat, allowing her shoulders to slump and submitting herself to the horrible, horrible ordeal of being primped for the upcoming gala.
The two of them are in Ema’s personal cabin, the door thankfully sealed tight so that they can prepare themselves in private. Even though she’s only been staying here for a matter of days, the room’s occupant has left her mark on it. Mixed aromas dangle in the air, a blend of liquid perfume and shampoo and pleasantly scented air-fresheners and all sorts of other saccharine smells, tickling Lai’s nostrils with their pungent sweetness. Ema is seated on the crisply made bed, an unzipped vinyl bag next to her spewing out an avalanche of cosmetic enhancers across the neatly-folded sheets. Lai is kneeling on the floor, permitting herself to be given a wholly unnecessary makeover, and she can’t figure out for the life of her why Ema owns so much makeup to begin with. Even without it, she looks perfectly…well, perfect. But apparently she has made it a morning ritual to smear her face with creams and dust herself with powders, and now she has taken the liberty of doing the same thing to Lai.
Lai never wears make-up, if she can help it. It’s far too pointless and time-consuming, and there are no persistent flaws in her appearance that she feels the need to conceal. Whenever she looks in the mirror, she is satisfied with what she sees: the slightly pouty curve of her lips, the small nose, the thin but expressive eyebrows hovering over livid, serious eyes. Her body is as thin and flat and plain as a sheet of blank white paper, but she normally enhances it with a dress or a skirt, or an old-fashioned flowing coat in cold weather. Admittedly, she had a bit of fun when it was time to select her outfit for the gala, picking out the strapless, sparkling black gown that she is wearing now. But she’s not having fun anymore.
“Your head is thanking me right now,” proclaims Ema. “Do you ever properly brush your hair?” Lai’s hair is too short to really retain any style, but Ema seems determined to make it as shiny and silky as physically possible.
Lai shrugs noncommittally. “I run a brush through it most days.”
“Mostdays,” mutters Ema, shaking her head. “I think I’m going to put a bit more bronzer on you, once I’m done here. That dress makes you look so pale. Maybe sometime, you should try another color besides shades of gray.”
“What?” demands Lai, in a tone of mock offense. “Don’t you think I’m pretty?”
Ema laughs. “You look very pretty, actually. I bet your mystery man won’t be able to take his eyes off of you.”
“Nah. I don’t think he’ll really notice.”
“Maybe he would have noticed if you’d invited him…”
“Oh, don’t start.”
“I just don’t understand why you didn’t ask him to pair with you! He’s going to the gala anyway, right?”
Lai nods. Only about thirty Uniters have been selected to attend the event tonight; the others will be keeping watch for ILG activity in other areas of the orbital. All three faction leaders have been “invited,” and so has the man who Lai has been contemplating an attraction towards. Ema has been trying to puzzle out who could have possibly caught Lai’s fancy, and admittedly her selection has now been narrowed down quite a bit, but Lai doesn’t think that anyone would ever suspect that she’s interested in Alec. It’s a pointless crush, anyway. She’s not the one for him.
“Well, you’re at least going to ask him for one dance, I hope,” remarks Ema, rummaging around in her makeup pile for a small container of brown powder.
Lai rolls her eyes. “Ema, have you forgotten that we’re not going to the gala to dance and look pretty? We’re supposed to be tracking and cornering the Amitys!”
“Of course I haven’t forgotten. Just like I haven’t forgotten that if we don’t dance and look pretty when we first arrive, people will start to get suspicious of us, and then where would we be?” Ema angles Lai towards her and begins to dust her face with a large, round brush.
“Mmf…” Lai’s closed eyelids twitch furiously as she feels the fine grit settling across her skin. “I can’t actually dance,” she admits.
Ema grins. “It’s not too different from fighting, really. You just have to get into the natural flow of things. Follow your partner’s movements.”
“I don’t think I’ll be asking any partners, but thanks for the advice, anyway.”
Ema huffs and puts down the brush. “Why is it that you just can’t be persuaded to take an interest in social interaction? You always want to be either at the center of everyone’s attention, or just off by yourself! If I didn’t know any better, I might say that you had a – ”
“Personality disorder?” finishes Lai, her voice suddenly cold.
Ema’s lips crease into a frown, her eyes flitting uncomfortably. “Problem,” she corrects quietly. “I was going to say ‘problem.’”
“Youdothink that I have a personality disorder, don’t you?” accuses Lai.
“What?” Ema tries to act surprised and doesn’t do a very good job of it. “Lai, why would you even say something like that?”
“Lady T told me about two weeks ago that you and Felix were batting around the idea that I might have a personality disorder.” Lai seems to retract into herself, if only slightly. She hasn’t dared to discuss this subject with Ema yet, but it has still persisted in her thoughts, embedded in her brain at nearly every moment of the day. She is not always conscious of it, but its presence never wavers.
Ema exhales softly. “I’d never want to insult you, Lai. It’s just…sometimes you make me worry, you really do.”
“I’m not crazy, you know.”
“I never said you were.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“Are you sure that you wouldn’t even consider – ”
“I don’t have a personality disorder!” snaps Lai defensively. “I’dknowif I was suffering from something like that. Wouldn’t I?”
“No, you probably wouldn’t,” responds Ema hastily. “Most people with personality disorders don’t sense that there’s an aberration in their thinking. They just assume that it’s normal, that everybody feels the way they feel. They don’t understand the difference until they start going through treatment…”
“Well, I know I’m different,” interrupts Lai crossly, “but how do I know thatI’mthe one with the problem? What if it’s just everybody else, huh? How would you know?”
Ema shrugs. “Normality is defined by the majority.”
“Well, maybe we should throw that definition of normality out the window, then.” Lai pulls her legs against her chest and rests her chin on one knee, thinking. “If I told you that I’ve got a really bad feeling about this plan, would you actually listen, or would it just reinforce your idea that I’m somehow mentally ill?”
“Of course I’d listen. What exactly do you mean by ‘a bad feeling?’ Do you think that something’s going to go wrong?”
“Not exactly. I feel like everything might just go right…but then because of that, we’re all going to be in trouble. Does that make any sense?”
“No, not really. I, for one, have a very good feeling about the event tonight. In fact, I’m in a better mood than I have been in days.”
“Since you broke up with Les, you mean.”
“Well, yes, I suppose so.”
And then she moves on to a brighter topic, but Lai stops listening. She is a mostly sensible girl; while she indulges in tales of fantasy and horror, supernatural and paranormal matters are not principles that she actually believes in. She likes things in the real world to make sense, because her fantasies would lose their charm if there was no logic to return to. So she’s never thought that anyone, much less herself, could have anything resembling a premonition, and it seemed to be happening to her right now. Whereas for days she’s been craving to solve the mystery of Pandora Amity, both to fulfill the mission of the Uniters and to get results for her hypothesis, she is now bizarrely beginning to wonder if she might be better off not knowing.
She doesn’t realize that the sense of dread steadily overcoming her does not originate in the future, but in the past. A seed of suspicion has been planted within the depths of her subconscious. Even if she was aware of it, she would only regard it with confusion, as she doesn’t know what it is that she’s suspecting. She doesn’t know that if she wants answers about Pandora Amity, the parents are unnecessary, because she has no need to look any further than herself. And even as repressed memories struggle to bubble up from underneath and fill her with a sensation of slowly dawning panic, she doesn’t understand her own plight. Just has a heroine she once read about wasn’t aware that it was her own shoes and not a mystical wizard that could take her home, Lai doesn’t know that everything she wants – and everything she doesn’t need – is not so far away.
She doesn’t know. But she is about to find out.