Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 17part #2 of Books of Faerie Series
She took the popcorn bucket from me and set it on the seat on the other side of her. “I can’t believe I gave you popcorn. I should make you drink popcorn butter for mocking my director name. ”
I grinned at her. “Truly, a fate worse than death. ” I thought of what she’d said, about living one thousand lives without leaving her own. Living one thousand human lives. It seemed like an important distinction. “But, you know, sixteen years is a long time. You could’ve been a director. ”
Nuala turned in her seat to face me, eyebrows pulled down very low over her eyes, and spoke to be heard over the suspenseful music of the final scene. “Seriously, you are special ed, aren’t you? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out. ”
People who made excuses always pissed me off. “What, because it’s not enough time? You could’ve at least tried. Sixteen years is enough time to try. ”
She hissed through her teeth and shook her head. “You are stupid, piper! Don’t you remember what happened with the piano? Well, I can’t write any words, either. If I had to create anything new while I was directing, it—it just—wouldn’t happen. ”
“Difficult. But not crushing,” I observed.
Her eyes didn’t so much narrow as tighten around the edges. “Okay then. What happens when I change appearances between movies?”
I grinned at her crookedly. “Madonna did that her whole career. ”
Nuala raised her hands and fisted them, as if imagining them around my neck. “Yeah. Whatever. Okay, how about this? I’m like all faeries. I have to go wherever the strongest cloverhand takes us. So what happens if the cloverhand decides to move across country just as I’ve gotten settled? Don’t you get it? I can’t have a normal life at all, much less think about doing something like having a real career. It’s not about trying or not trying. ”
I got the subtext: just human enough to be miserable as a faerie and just faerie enough to ruin everything good about being human. But I just said, “You lost me at the cloverhand bit. ”
Nuala waved a hand at the movie screen without looking at it. It went dark, instantly throwing us into utter black. After a few seconds, my eyes started to adjust to the light of the dim runner lights along the aisles, but still, all I could see was Nuala’s giant blue eyes in front of me. Even without any other facial features visible, I could see the disbelieving expression in them.
“Your girlfriend-who-isn’t? It only took me two seconds to figure it out. How can you know all about the faeries and all about her and not know what a cloverhand is?”
At the mention of Dee, a weight clenched in my stomach. I didn’t want to be there anymore, sitting in a sticky movie theater seat. I wanted to be standing, pacing, moving. I wanted to be punching my fist through a wall.
Nuala’s eyes dropped to my hands as if she imagined them punching through a wall, too. “The last queen was a cloverhand. She’s dead. So now your fake girlfriend is here, and she’s the strongest cloverhand. So we’re here too. ”
“Stop calling her that. ”
Her eyes made a grinning shape as she willfully misunderstood me. “It’s just what it’s called. Someone who attracts the faeries. We have to stay near them. Wherever they are is Faerie. ”
I remembered what Dee had said, that first night we ran into each other at the school. Did you see Them? The faeries?
I was tired of trying to see in the dark and tired of having my eyes open, so I closed them and rested my forehead on my fists. “So she’s always going to have Them around her. ” I didn’t know if Dee was strong enough for that.
“Until there’s a stronger cloverhand. ” Nuala’s voice was closer to me than before, but I didn’t open my eyes. I felt her breath on the skin of my arm. “Why do you have dead written on your hand?”
“I don’t remember. ”
“I don’t believe you. What were you thinking when you wrote it?”
“I don’t remember. ”
“Do you love her?”
“Nuala, leave me alone. Seriously. ”
She was insistent. “It’s a yes-or-no question. And it’s not even like I’m a real person. It’s like you’re just telling yourself. ”
The pressure of my knuckles against my closed eyelids was starting to make colorful patterns in the darkness, light violet and green dancing in nonsensical, falling patterns. “I asked really nicely for you to leave it, Nuala. It’s not secret man-code for ‘keep asking me until I change my answer. ’ It means I really don’t want to talk about it. With you or anybody. It’s not personal. ”
Nuala grabbed my fists in her hands, sending chills through my arms. “Why haven’t you played any music since you kissed her?”
Leave me alone. I didn’t say anything. Even if I wanted to answer her, what would I say? That stupid things like music and breathing hadn’t seemed important since then? That there was so much white noise in my head ever since I’d kissed Dee that I couldn’t find a single note to hold onto?
“That’s a start,” Nuala said. Reading my thoughts again. Maybe she couldn’t stop.
I didn’t feel like adding anything more to my thoughts on Dee. I changed the subject. Sort of. “I think maybe you’re lucky. ”
“Yeah. ” I turned my head on my fists to look at her; it made one of her hands lie against my cheek. The skin of my face tightened with the strangeness of her. “Immortality would be awful in our screwed-up world if you were the only one who had it. You’d have to remember all those years of everyone else disappearing. At least you don’t have to watch everyone you know get old and die while you live forever. ”
Nuala frowned at her fingers on my skin. “Other faeries get to remember. ”
“You just said you weren’t like other faeries. They don’t feel properly. But you have to be more human, right? To be able to catch us. ”
She was silent.
“How human are you?” Right after I asked the question, I wasn’t sure how I meant it. But I didn’t take it back.
She was quiet so long I thought she wasn’t going to answer. Finally, she took her hand from my cheek and said, “Too much. I didn’t think I was very human at all, but I guess I was wrong. Or maybe I’m just dying. Maybe this always happens. How would I know? Sixteen years doesn’t seem very long when you’re at the end of it. ”
I sat back. I didn’t like how I was feeling, so I said, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. ”
Her voice was petulant. “I will when you do. ”
I looked down at my hands. In the faint light, I could just pick out some of the words on them: dead, valkyrie, following them down. “Let’s write something, together. ”
Nuala looked at me, her face sort of frowning.
I said, “Don’t give me that ‘what the hell do you mean’ look. I mean, let’s write something. ”
“You mean, you want me to help you write something. ”
“No, I mean we use both our brains and just my hands to write something. ”
“I don’t know. Music? A play?”
Nuala looked like she was trying really hard not to look pleased. “You don’t write plays. ”
“If we wrote a play, with music, you could direct it. We’re supposed to do some creative project for Sullivan’s class, something having to do with metaphor. I mean, it’s not a movie, but hell, we can only do so much before Halloween, right?”
She was looking at me really intensely then, in the sort of way that I had always wanted Dee to look at me. I kind of thought she was going to kiss me, for some reason, because she was looking at my mouth. I had a horrible idea that she would, and then I would think of Dee while she was, and then she would kill me in a long, slow, painful process that would be hard to explain to insurance people.
Nuala looked from my mouth to my eyes. “Get your pen out,” she said.
I did. I had no paper, but that didn’t matter. “What should we call it?”
Without hesitation, Nuala climbed into the seat behind me so that she could wrap her arms around my shoulders. The sixth sense in me told me she was cold, but a totally different sense blazed hot when she rested her cheek against mine, the side of her mouth just touching my cheek.
I clicked the end of the pen so the nib came out, rested it against my palm for a second while I listened to her silence, and then wrote: Ballad.
Because I was not a real music student and because Sullivan sucked at organizational skills, we had to meet for my piano lesson in the old auditorium building. Turns out the practice rooms were filled to capacity at five o’clock on Fridays, by real piano players and real clarinet players and real cellists and all their real teachers and ensemble leaders.
So instead, I picked my way over to ugly Brigid Hall. To prove that Brigid was no longer a useful member of the Thornking-Ash environ, the grounds people had let the lawn between Brigid and the other academic buildings get autumn crunchy and allowed the boxwoods and ivy to take over the dull, yellow-brick exterior. It was a message to all visiting parents: Do not take pictures of this part of the campus. This building has been deemed too ugly for academic use. Don’t think we didn’t notice.
On the walk over, my phone beeped in my pocket. Pulling it out, I saw a text message from Dee. When I opened it, the first words of text I saw were
James im so sorry
and I felt sick to my stomach and deleted it without reading any further. I shoved the phone back into my pocket and headed around the side of Brigid Hall to the entry.
The door was coated in peeling red paint that seemed somehow significant. I didn’t think there were any other red doors on campus. Like me, a loner. I punched my knuckles lightly against the door knob in solidarity. “You and me, buddy,” I said under my breath. “One of a kind. ”
I let myself in. I had entered a long, thin room, populated by old folding chairs all pointed attentively toward a low stage at the other end of the building. It smelled like mold and the old wood of the floor and the ivy pressed up by the frosted glass windows. On the stage, recessed lights illuminated a grand piano that was as old and ugly as the building itself. The whole thing was a crash course in all that was best forgotten about 1950s architecture.
Sullivan sat at the piano, knobby figures toying with the keys. Nothing mind-blowing, but he knew his way around the keyboard. And the piano, for what it was worth, didn’t sound nearly as bad as it looked. I walked up through the folding chair audience, grabbing one of the front-row chairs and bringing it onto the stage with me.
“Salutations, sensei,” I told him, and dropped my backpack onto the chair beside the piano. “What a lovely creation that piano is. ”
“Isn’t it though? I don’t think anybody remembers that this building is here. ” Sullivan played “Shave and a Haircut” before getting up from the bench. “Strange to think this used to be their auditorium. Ugly little place, isn’t it?”