Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 18part #2 of Books of Faerie Series
I noted the detachment. Not “our auditorium. ” Sullivan was frowning at me. “Feeling all right?”
“I didn’t sleep much. ” A understatement of cosmic proportions. I wanted nothing more than the day to be done so that I could fall into my bed.
“You mean, other than what you did in my class,” Sullivan said.
“Some would argue that recumbent listening is the most effective. ”
He shook his head. “Right. I’ll be looking for evidence of its efficacy on your next exam. ” He gestured to the bench. “Your throne. ”
I sat at the piano; the bench creaked and shifted precariously. The piano was so old that the name of the maker was mostly worn away from above the keyboard. And it smelled. Like ground-up old ladies. Sullivan had put some sheet music up on the stand; something by Bach that I’m sure was meant to look simple but had way too many lines for pipe music.
Sullivan turned the folding chair around and sat on it backwards. His face was intent. “So you’ve never played piano before. ”
The memory of Nuala’s fingers overlaying mine was somehow colored by the memory of last night; I tightened my fingers into a fist and released them to avoid shivering. “I tinkered with it once after we talked. Otherwise”—I ran my fingers over the keys and this time, struck by the memory of Nuala, I did shiver, just a tiny jerk—“we’re virtually strangers. ”
“So you can’t play that music up there on the stand. ”
I looked at it again. It was in a foreign language—like hell could I play it. I shrugged. “Greek to me. ”
Sullivan’s voice changed; it was hard now. “How about the music you brought with you?”
“I don’t follow. ”
Sullivan jerked his chin toward my arms, covered by the long sleeves of my black ROFLMAO T-shirt. “Am I wrong?”
I wanted to ask him how he knew. He could’ve guessed. The writing on my hands, equal parts words and music, disappeared beneath both sleeves. I might’ve had them pushed up earlier, in his class. I couldn’t remember. “I can’t play written music on the piano. ”
Sullivan stood up, gesturing me off the bench and taking my place. “But I can. Roll up your sleeves. ”
I stood in the yellow-orange stage lights and pushed them up. Both of my arms were dark with my tiny printing, jagged strokes of musical notes on hurriedly drawn staffs. The notes went all the way around my arms, uglier and harder to read on my right arm where I’d had to use my left hand to write. I didn’t say anything. Sullivan was looking at my arms with something like anger, or horror, or despair.
But the only thing he said was, “Where is the beginning?”
I had to search for a moment to find it, inside my left elbow, and I turned it toward him, my hand outstretched like I was asking him for something.
He began to play it. It was a lot older-sounding than I remembered it being when I’d sung and hummed it with Nuala. All modal, dancing right between major and minor key. It kicked ass a lot more than I remembered too. It was secretive, beautiful, longing, dark, bright, low, high. An overture. A collection of all the themes that were to be worked into our play.
Sullivan got to the end of the music on my left arm and stopped. He pointed to his flat leather music case leaning against the piano leg. “Give me that. ”
I handed it to him and watched as he reached inside and pulled out the same tape recorder he’d brought to the hill that day. He set it on top of the piano and looked at it as if it contained the secrets of the world. Then he pressed play.
I heard my voice, small and tinny: “You weren’t recording before now?”
Sullivan’s voice, sounding very young and fierce when not attached to his body: “Didn’t know if I’d have to. ”
A long silence, hissing tape, birds singing distantly.
Then, Nuala’s voice: “Don’t say anything. ” I didn’t immediately realize what it meant, that I was hearing Nuala’s voice coming out of the recorder. She continued. “You’re the only one who can see me right now, so if you talk to me, you’re going to look like you were retained in the birth canal without oxygen or something. ”
Sullivan reached up and hit stop.
“Tell me you didn’t make the deal, James. ”
His voice was so grave and taut that I just said the truth. “I didn’t. ”
“Are you just saying that? Tell me you didn’t give her a single year of your life. ”
“I didn’t give her anything. ” But I didn’t know if that was true. It didn’t feel true.
“I’d love to believe that,” Sullivan said, and now his voice was furious. He grabbed my hand and wrenched it so that I was staring at my own skin, inches from my face. “But I have to tell you, they don’t give you that for nothing. You’re my student, and I want to know what or who you promised to get this, because it’s my responsibility to keep stupid, brilliant kids like yourself from getting killed, and I’m going to have to clean things up now. ”
I should’ve had something to say. If not witty, than just something.
Sullivan released my hand. “Were you not good enough on your own? Best damn piper in the state and you had to strike a deal for more? I should’ve known it wouldn’t be enough. Maybe you thought it would only affect you? It never affects just you. ”
I jerked down my sleeves. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t make a deal. You don’t know. ”
But maybe he did know. I didn’t know what the hell he knew.
Sullivan looked at the partially rubbed-off letters above the keyboard and clenched and unclenched his hand. “James, I know you think I’m just an idiot. A musician who sold out his teen dreams to become a junior-faculty foot-wipe at a posh high school. That’s what you think I am, right?”
Nuala, who actually read my mind, would’ve been able to word it better, but he was still pretty close for a non-supernatural entity. I shrugged, figuring a non-verbal answer was really the best way to go.
He grimaced at the piano keys, running his fingers over them. “I know that because I was you, ten years ago. I was going to be somebody. Nobody was going to stand in my way, and I had a bunch of people at Juilliard who agreed with me. It was my life. ”
“I’m not a fan of morality tales,” I told him.
“Oh, this one has a twist ending,” Sullivan said, voice bitter. “They ruined my life. I didn’t even know They existed. I didn’t even stand a chance. But you do. I’m telling you right now, they use people like us to get ahead. Because we want what They have to offer and we don’t like the world the way it is. But what you have to understand, James, is just because we want what They have and They want what we have, doesn’t mean we end up with something we like. We don’t. ”
He shoved back from the piano and got up from the bench. “Now sit down. ”
I didn’t know what else to say, so I gave him part of the truth. “I don’t really want to play the piano. ”
“I didn’t either,” Sullivan said. “But at least it’s not an instrument they particularly care for. So it’s a good one for both of us to be playing. Sit down. ”
I sat down, but I didn’t think Sullivan knew as much about Nuala as he thought he did.
When I pulled the six-pack out of my backpack, Paul looked as if I’d laid an egg. I set it down on the desk next to his bed and turned the chair around backwards before sitting on it.
“You still want to get drunk?”
Paul’s eyes were twice as round as usual. “Man, how did you get that?”
I reached behind me to get a pen from the desk and wrote the list on it without quite knowing why. I felt better after I did. “The archangel Michael came down from on high and I asked him, ‘Lo, how can I getteth the stick from my friend Paul’s ass?’ and he said, ‘This ought to go a long way. ’ And gave me a six-pack of Heineken. Don’t ask me why Heineken. ”
“Is that enough to get me drunk?” Paul was still lo
“A beer virgin like yourself won’t. ” I was acutely pleased that I didn’t have to worry about Paul vomiting, thanks to foresight on my part. I liked Paul a lot, but I didn’t think I wanted to dedicate any of the minutes of my life to cleaning up his barf. “And it’s all for you. ”
Paul looked panicked at that. “You aren’t drinking?”
“Anything that is mind-altering makes me nervous. ” I dumped the pencils and pens from the mug that served as our pencil can; they clattered and rolled every which way on the desk. I handed Paul the pencil can.
“That’s because you always like to be in control of everything,” Paul said, weirdly observant. He looked into the mug in his hands. “What is this for?”
“In case you’re shy about drinking out of a bottle. ”
“Dude, there’s like, pencil crap and who knows what in here. ”
I handed him a bottle of beer and turned back to the desk, picking up one of the markers that I’d dumped from the pencil can and finding a scrap piece of paper. I scrawled busily, filling the room with the scent of permanent marker. “Sorry to offend, princess. Bottom’s up. The pizza should be here soon. ”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m ensuring our privacy. ” I showed him the sign I’d created. Paul is feeling delicate. Please do not disturb his beauty sleep. xoxo Paul. I’d put a heart around his name too.
“You bastard,” Paul said, as I stood up and opened the door long enough to tape it to the outside. Behind me, I heard the click of him opening the bottle. “Dude, this smells rank. ”
“Welcome to the world of beer, my friend. ” I crashed on my bed. “Like all vices, it comes with a warning that we usually ignore. ”
Paul rubbed at the condensation on the outside. “What happened to the labels?”
He didn’t have to know how long it had taken me to remove all of the labels and swap the bottle caps. Labor of love, baby. “You get them cheaper when you buy the ones that are mislabeled or the labels got damaged. ”
“Really? Good to know. ” Paul made a face and took a swig. “How will I know I’m getting drunk?”
“You’ll start getting as funny as me. Well, funnier than you usually are, anyway. Every little bit helps. ”
Paul threw the bottle cap at me.
“Drink one before the food comes,” I said. “It works better on an empty stomach. ”
I watched Paul drink half the bottle and then I jumped up and went to the CD player I’d brought with me. “Where are your CDs, Paul? We need some music for the event. ”
Paul gulped down the other half, choking a bit on the last of it, and pointed vaguely under his bed. I handed him another bottle before laying on the floor next to his bed and preparing myself for the worst.
I bit back a swear word with a great force of will. Nuala’s eyes crinkled into evil humor, inches away from mine, glowing from beneath Paul’s bed.
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