Ballad a gathering of f.., p.14

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 14

 part  #2 of  Books of Faerie Series


Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie

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Page 14


  I suppose if I’d been a responsible adult, I’d have told him that he didn’t need to get drunk to be self-actualized or whatever. But I was bored and generally irresponsible by nature or by choice, so I told him, “I’ll get it for you. ”


  “Beer, Paul. Focus. That’s what you want, right? Alcohol?”

  Paul’s eyes became even rounder behind his glasses. “Are you serious? How—”

  “Shh, don’t bother your head about my mysterious methods. That’s what makes me me. Have you had beer before?” I wrote beer on the side of my index finger, since I’d run out of room on my hand.

  Paul laughed. “Ha. Ha. Ha. My parents say beer defiles the soul. ”

  I grinned at him. Even better. This was going to be insanely entertaining. Things were looking up.

  “What are you grinning at, James?” Sullivan, a few seats ahead of us, had turned around and was peering at me suspiciously. “It’s vaguely sinister. ”

  I sealed my teeth behind my lips but kept smiling at him. I wondered how long he’d been listening. Not that it mattered. My evil plans could go on with or without his knowledge.

  Sullivan observed my closed-lipped smile with a raised eyebrow. He had to speak loudly to be heard over the sound of the bus. “Better, but still ominous. I can’t shake the idea that you’re planning something only marginally ethical, like the takeover of a small Latin country. ”

  I grinned at him again. Of all the teachers, Sullivan spoke my language. “Not this week. ”

  Sullivan grimaced at Paul and back at me. “Well, I hope it’s legal. ”

  Paul blinked rapidly, but I shrugged, indifferent. “In most countries. ”

  Sullivan’s crooked mouth made a rueful smile. “This country?” He read me better than anyone I knew, a fact that was both inconvenient and comforting.

  “My dear professor, your skills are wasted on such deductive reasoning. Don’t you have some English poetry you should be reading?”

  He looked like he wanted to continue with the previous line of questioning, but instead just pointed a finger at me. “Watching you, Mr. Morgan. ” He dropped his finger to my scribbled-on hands and said, “Make a note of that. ” He turned back around in his seat.

  But there was no room left on my skin, so I didn’t bother. Around me, the students’ voices got louder with excitement as the bus pulled into a huge gray parking lot.

  “What are we going to see again?” Megan asked from a seat somewhere near Sullivan.

  “The Raleigh-Botts Ensemble,” he said. A third hyphenated name. I regarded it as an insidious sign. I was keeping an eye open for rains of blood and locusts next. Sullivan added, “A most excellent chamber group who will be performing a wide range of pieces that I’m sure Mrs. Thieves will be testing you on later this year. ”

  “I will be!” Mrs. Thieves called from the front of the bus. “So make sure you keep your program!”

  The bus pulled into a spot and Sullivan and Mrs. Thieves shepherded the busful of students into the parking lot and toward the theater. I saw Sullivan’s lips moving silently as he did a head-count of the milling students.

  “Forty-six. Thirty-four,” I said to him, without much enthusiasm.

  “Shut up, James,” he replied pleasantly. “It’s not working. ”

  Through considerable magic on Sullivan and Mrs. Thieves’ part, we made it into the lobby of the theater building. It was freezing cold, smelled like evergreens, and was carpeted from wall to wall with deep burgundy carpet. All of the wood was stark white and covered with carved scrolls. There was another group of students already filing down the hall. College students. We looked like babies beside them. The college girls tossed their hair and giggled heee heee heee, two years closer to minivans and soccer practices and Botox than the girls from my bus. I wished I hadn’t come.

  “Hi,” said Dee. She smiled up at me, one side a little higher than the other, clutching her notebook to her chest. Study in red, black, and white: the carpet, her hair, her face. “Want to be my friend?”

  “No, I find you quite unlikable,” I said.

  Dee grinned and linked her arm in mine. She leaned her head on my arm. “Good. Sit next to me. Is that allowed?”

  Sullivan wasn’t nearby to tell me no. I slid toward the front of the group, toward the darkened theater. Nobody would know who was who once we were inside; from out here I could see that only the small stage was lit at the front of the room. “We’ll make it allowed. We are young and independent Americans. No one tells us what to do. ”

  “Right. ” Dee laughed and pinched the loose skin on my elbow. I swallowed at her touch.

  In the small theater, we sat as far away from the college students as possible; all around us was the noise of students chattering in fake whispers. In this little room, it was even colder. Between Dee, so close beside me, and the frigid temperature, I felt off-balance, disconnected from some part of myself. Dee reached over and took my hand. She whispered in my ear, “It’s freezing in here. At least your hand is warm. ”

  I leaned my head toward her and whispered back, “The ensemble is comprised entirely of penguins. I read in the program that they refuse to play unless the temperature is below fifty degrees Fahrenheit. If it’s any higher, they begin to sweat and their flippers lose traction on the strings of the instruments. ”

  Dee laughed and then slapped her other hand over her mouth, guiltily. “James,” she hissed furiously, “you’re going to make Thieves yell at me. She can be awful. ”

  I held her hand tightly, warming her fingers with mine. “She’s probably menopausal. Don’t take it personally. ”

  “I wouldn’t be surprised. What is taking so friggin’ long?” Dee craned her neck around as if there would be a clue to the delay in the darkness around us. “Seriously, we’ll all freeze to death before they even start. Maybe you’re right about the penguins. It probably takes a long time for them to warm up. ” She snorted. “Oh, get it? Warm up?”

  “Truly you’re a comic genius. ”

  She slapped my arm, lightly, with the hand I wasn’t holding. “Shut up. I’m happy with you being the funny one. ”

  The lights on stage brightened, then, and whatever lights there had been in the rest of the room dimmed; the students went quiet. The ensemble marched out and took their places on the stage, just eight of them.

  Beside me, Dee barely suppressed a giggle. I leaned toward her; she was biting her knuckle to keep from laughing. She whispered, helplessly, “Penguins. ”

  The ensemble was all dressed very smartly in tuxedos; each had black hair in some stage of slicked-downedness. The resemblance to penguins was undeniable. Dee’s giggles disappeared, however, when they started to play. I don’t even know what the first piece was; I couldn’t bring myself to look away from them to the program. Beside me, Dee had gone quiet and still as the handful of strings moaned and crooned, sweet and melodic. I sighed, some essential part of me going still for once, and listened.

  There was nothing I was conscious of except the music and the fact that Dee’s hand was in mine.

  When the piece was done, she left her fingers in my hand and we clapped, stupid and silly, using one of her hands and one of mine. The ensemble played two more pieces, neither as d’oh-worthy as the first but both making me shiver, and then Dee pulled her hand from mine and whispered, “Bathroom. ”

  She slid silently out of her seat and left me there, my hand missing the weight of hers, cool with her sweat drying against the air conditioning.

  I listened to two more short pieces, distracted, until I couldn’t stop thinking about the sweat on her hand and wondering if she’d left because of something other than having to pee. It was so cold that I couldn’t tell if the goose bumps on my arms were from the freezing temperature or the arrival of something supernatural. I felt blind.

  I slid hastily from my seat and out the back of the theater, not bothering to see if anyone was wat
ching me go. Out in the main building I glimpsed an official dude standing by the door, looking uncomfortable in a flying-monkey costume. I asked him where the bathrooms were. And then, with a flash of insight, I asked him if he’d seen Dee go by. “Dark hair, really revoltingly pretty, about this tall. ”

  Recognition flashed in his eyes. “She said she needed some air. She looked sick. I told her to go up to the balcony. ”

  He pointed up the burgundy-clad stairs to the second floor.

  “Thanks, Jeeves,” I told him, and jogged up the stairs. I followed the narrow hallway, trying doors, until I found one that opened onto a little balcony with a view of the ugly alley behind the theater and the backs of several shops, and, to our left, a narrow view of the street teeming with cars. I stepped into the welcome heat and shut the door behind me.

  Sitting on the floor against the wall, Dee looked up when the door clicked shut.

  For maybe the first time in my life, I said exactly what I was thinking to her. “Are you all right?”

  Dee looked very small sitting there against the white-painted stone wall. She reached out an arm toward me, plaintive, an unconscious or conscious mimicry of the action I’d done last time I’d found her sitting by herself, behind my dorm.

  I sat down beside her and she leaned against me. Down below, a horn blared, a motorcycle engine roared, and some sort of construction equipment rattled. For the second time in my life, I said exactly what I was thinking to her, although I didn’t mean it the way she probably thought I did. “I missed you. ”

  “I was cold. I should’ve brought a sweater. See how I fall to absolute pieces without Mom around to tell me exactly what to do?” Her voice was ironic.

  “You’re a mess,” I agreed. I had my arm around her. My heart was pounding hard as I worked up the guts to say for the third time what I was really thinking to her. I closed my eyes and swallowed. And I did it. “Dee, why did you really leave? What’s wrong?”

  I’d really said it out loud.

  But it didn’t matter, because she didn’t answer. She pulled out of my arms and stood up, walking over to the railing. She stood there so long, watching the cars like they were the only important thing, that I was afraid someone would miss us and come looking. I stood up and joined her at the railing, silently watching the world.

  Dee looked at me. I felt her eyes on me, examining my face, my hair, my shoulders, as if she were somehow analyzing me, sizing me up. Seeing how I’d turned out after nine years of being friends.

  “Do you want to kiss me?” she asked.

  I took a breath.

  “James,” she said again. “I just want to know. Do you want to kiss me?”

  I turned to face her. I didn’t know what to say.

  She made a strange, uncertain face, mouth pulled out straight on either side. “If you want to … you can. ”

  Finally, I spoke, and when I did, my voice sounded weird to me. Not mine. “That’s a funny way to ask someone to kiss you. ”

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