Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 19part #2 of Books of Faerie Series
“Surprise,” she said.
You didn’t surprise me, I thought.
“Yeah, I did. I can read your thoughts, remember?” She pointed to the bottom of the mattress. “That’s pretty funny, what you’re doing. Is that real beer?”
I lifted my finger to my lips and silently made my lips go shhh. Nuala grinned.
“You’re not a good person,” she said. “I like that about you. ”
She pushed Paul’s CD binder to me and rested her freckled cheek on her arms. “See you later. ”
I stood up with his CDs and looked over to see how he was faring. He seemed more chipper already. God bless vanishing inhibitions. “So what have you got in here?” I asked Paul, but I started paging through without waiting for his answer. “These are all dead guys, Paul. ”
“Beethoven’s not really dead,” Paul pointed at me with the bottle. “That’s just a rumor. A cover-up. He’s doing weddings in Vegas. ”
I grinned. “Too right. Ohhh, Paul. Paul. What the crap. You have a Kelly Clarkson CD in here. Tell me it’s your sister’s. Tell me you have a sister. ”
Paul was a little defensive. “Hey, she has a good voice. ”
“God, Paul!” I flipped through more of the CDs. “Your brain is like a cultural wasteland. One Republic? Maroon Five? Sheryl Crow ? Are you a little girl? I don’t even know what to put on that won’t make me develop breasts and start craving chocolate. ”
“Give it to me,” Paul said. He took the CD case and pulled one out. “Get me another bottle while I put this on. I think it’s working. ”
So that was how we happened to be listening to Britney Spears “Hit Me Baby One More Time” when the pizza guy delivered our sausage-and-green-peppers, extra-cheese, extra-sauce, extra-calories, extra everything.
Pizza guy raised his eyebrows.
“My friend is having his period,” I told the pizza guy, and handed him his tip. “He needs Britney and extra cheese to get him through it. I’m trying to be supportive. ”
Paul was singing along by the time I got the box open and ripped the pieces apart. I handed him a piece of pizza and took one for myself. “This is awesome, dude,” he told me. “I can see why college kids do it. ”
“Britney Spears, or beer?”
“E-mail my heart,” Paul sang at me.
I’d created a monster.
“Paul,” I said. “I was thinking some more about this metaphor assignment. ”
Paul studied the string of cheese that led from his piece of pizza to his mouth. He spoke carefully to avoid breaking it. “How it sucks?”
“Right on. So I was thinking we could do something else. Together. ”
“Dude, I looked them up online. They’re like, forty-five dollars. ”
I lifted up the top layer of cheese on my slice of pizza and scraped some of the sauce off. “What are you talking about?”
Paul waved a hand at me. “Oh. I thought you were talking about buying one of those papers online. After Sullivan mentioned it, I looked it up. They’re forty-five bucks to download. ”
I made a note to remind Sullivan that we students were young and impressionable. “I actually meant doing something entirely different for the assignment. Would you really buy a paper online?”
“Nah,” Paul said sadly. “Even if I did have a credit card. It’s a sad statement about my lack of balls, isn’t it?”
“Balls isn’t buying someone else’s term paper,” I assured him. “When you’re sober, I have something I want you to read. A play. ”
“Hamlet ’s a play,” Paul observed. He held out his hand. “Lemme read it now. ”
I grabbed the notebook from my bed and tossed it to him.
Paul scanned the text of Ballad while singing along with Britney. He paused just long enough to say, “This is some good shit, James. ”
“I don’t have any other kind,” I said.
“Sullivan!” Nuala warned from under the bed. I looked sharply in the direction of the bed and then headed to the door just as the knock came. I opened the door and stepped out into the hall, shutting the door behind myself.
Sullivan’s expression was pointed. “James. ”
“Mr. Sullivan. ”
“Interesting choice of music you two have chosen for tonight. ”
I inclined my head slightly. “I like to believe that our time at Thornking-Ash has invested in us a deep appreciation for all musical genres. ”
Inside the room, Paul hit a really high note. I think the kid had perfect pitch. He’d really missed his calling. He shouldn’t be playing the oboe, he should be touring nationally with Mariah Carey.
“Dear God,” Sullivan said.
“Agreed. So what brings you to our fair floor?”
Sullivan craned his neck to see the sign I’d put on the door. “Pizza. Delivery boy said it looked like one of you was drinking something that looked an awful lot like beer. ”
“See if I ever tip him again, if he’s going to trill like a canary first time anyone looks at him funny. ”
Sullivan crossed his arms. “So is that why Paul is singing high E over C in there? I know you haven’t been drinking. You don’t smell like it and you are definitely just your usual charming self. ”
I smiled congenially at him. “I can tell you quite honestly that neither of us is drinking alcohol. ”
He narrowed his eyes. “What are you up to?”
I lifted my hands as if in surrender. “He wanted to get drunk. I wanted to see him loosen up. Three bottles of non-alcoholic beer later, and I think”—I paused, as Paul tried for another high note and failed miserably—“I think both of us are happy with the results while being, surprisingly, on this side of legal. ”
Sullivan’s mouth worked. He wouldn’t reward me with a smile. “Shocking, considering the person who was the genesis of this plan. And how did you fool Paul?”
“The guy at the bar in town was kind enough to let me have a Heineken box and some caps. I swapped out the caps on six non-alcoholic beers and stripped the labels with some story about discounts for Paul. I think the bartender was a very good sport. Like some of my teachers. ” I raised an eyebrow at him, waiting to see if he was going to rise to it.
“The machinations involved are incredible; it pains me to consider how much of your free time this involved. Well, far be it from me to destroy an evening based on camaraderie, deception, and fake beer. ” Sullivan looked at me and shook his head. “God help me, James, what the hell are you?”
I blinked back up at him. “Dying to get back in there and see if I can get Paul to wear his underwear on his head is what I am. ”
Sullivan wiped a smile off his face with his hand. “Good night, James. No hangovers, I trust. ”
I grinned at him and slid back into the room, shutting the door behind me. Thanks, Nuala.
“No problem,” Nuala replied.
“Who was that at the door?” Paul asked.
“Your mom. ” I handed him a fourth bottle. “You’re going to have to pee like a racehorse. ”
“Do you think racehorses pee more than other horses?” Paul asked. “It doesn’t seem like they ought to, but otherwise, why isn’t it just ‘pee like a horse’?”
I took another piece of pizza and lay down on the floor next to his bed. It was several degrees cooler on the floor, and in the draft, I could smell Nuala’s flowery summer breath strongly. “Maybe they drink more water. Or maybe nobody gives a crap if other horses pee. ”
“Gives a crap about pee,” echoed Paul with a laugh.
I laughed too, for an entirely different reason, and saw the line of Nuala’s sarcastic smile underneath the edge of the bed. You could be anywhere and he couldn’t see you. Why under the bed?
“’Cause I wanted to scare the shit out of you,” Nuala said.
I offered her my piece of pizza, and she gave me a really weird, shocked look and then shook her head. It made me think about the old faerie tales, h
“Now this is real music,” I told Paul.
On the bed above, Paul thumped his foot in time with the beat. “Britney’s real too, dude. But this is just a little more real. ” He paused. “Dude, I think you’re the coolest friend I’ve ever had. ”
I felt a little twinge of guilt. Just a tiny one. “Because I got you beer?”
“No, man. Because you’re just so, you know. So you. Not like anybody else. ” Paul paused and regrouped. “When I see you, I want that. To not be like anybody else. Even when you’re an ass, you know, you’re an ass just like you and nobody else, and everybody respects that. ”
Nuala was looking at me while he said that. Her eyes glowed at me, huge in her face, in the darkness a few inches from me.
Do you think that too?
“Especially the ass part,” Nuala replied. She was still just looking at me, so intense, and I was just staring back at her.
I didn’t know how to respond to Paul. All I could think of was how good Nuala smelled and the little spray pattern her freckles made across her cheeks. Without looking away from Nuala, I said, “You flatter me. ”
“Shut up,” Paul said. “Just take the compliment. ”
I grinned. “You think you’ll still be this blunt when you’re sober?”
“No way. ”
Somehow Nuala and I were holding hands. I couldn’t remember how it happened; if I’d reached for her hand first, or if she’d stretched her hand out of the darkness toward mine. But I was holding her hand and she was holding it back and somehow her fingers were slowly whispering across the skin on my wrist and my fingers were rubbing over the back of her palm. And I didn’t know what it meant—if it meant that we were just holding hands and this was just what you did with a psycho faerie girl, or if this feeling that was coursing through me was way more than my body telling me I was close to something supernatural.
“Plus, you know,” Paul continued, “you’re a freak too, and you’re still cool. You know? You write all over your hands and you’re like, totally obsessive, and still, every guy who knows you wants to be you. ” Paul’s head thumped against the wall beside his bed. “It gives freaks like me hope. ”
Nuala’s fingers on my skin seemed like my whole world. I wanted her to pull me underneath the bed and disappear into the darkness with me, but I managed, “You’re not a freak. ”
“Oh, dude, you have no idea. You want to hear how messed up I am? No way would I tell anyone this normally. This is good shit. ”
Nuala’s breath was on my face and I’m sure my crap sausage-and-green-peppers breath was on hers, but if she minded it she didn’t show it. Her mouth was curled into a very innocent and beautiful sort of half-smile I’m sure she would’ve killed immediately if she’d been aware of it.
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