Ballad a gathering of f.., p.22

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 22

 part  #2 of  Books of Faerie Series

 

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie
 



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Page 22

 

  I shot Paul a dark look that meant thanks for all the advance warning and stood up to face her. I shoved my hands in my pockets without saying anything.

  “Hi, Paul,” Dee looked around me at Paul, who was looking a little hunted. “Do you mind if I talk to James for a second?”

  “I’m waiting for Mom,” I said. My stomach jostled inside me; I couldn’t think. Looking at her stung me.

  “I know. ” Dee looked at the road. “My mom said she sent stuff with her. She called me—my mom did, not yours—and said she’d heard on the radio about traffic on 64, so I know she’s not going to be here for a while. Your mom, not mine. ” She shrugged uncomfortably, and added, in a rush, “I came with the church bus into town and thought I’d warn you she’d be late, if you were here waiting. ” Everything about her face and voice was awkward, conciliatory, miserable.

  Paul offered, “I’ll wait here. ”

  “Thanks, comrade. ” Only a little sarcasm crept through my voice. He could hand my ashes over to my mom after Dee fried what was left of my self-esteem. I wondered for a split second if I could say no. “Okay, let’s go. ”

  Paul made a little rueful face at me before I followed Dee down the sidewalk. She didn’t say anything as we left the station behind, even after we’d followed the rising sidewalk into downtown Gallon. A block away, I saw Evans-Brown Music. I wondered if Bill the pipe instructor was still there or if he disappeared when I wasn’t around to see him, like Nuala. I looked into the empty windows of abandoned shops as we walked, watching our reflections expanding and contracting. Dee, arms crossed across her chest, biting her lip. Me, my hands in my pockets, shoulders hunched, an island she didn’t have a boat to get to.

  “I feel awful,” Dee said, finally. It seemed like an unfair statement. Selfish. Dee must’ve thought so too, because she added, “About what I did to you. I just—every night, I just cry thinking about how I ruined everything between us. ”

  I didn’t say anything. We were passing a shop that advertised menswear, and had a bunch of mannequin heads wearing hats in the front window. My reflection put one of my heads into a derby for a split second.

  “It was like—I don’t even know why—I mean, I just am so sorry. I don’t want everything to be over between us. I know I messed up. I’m just, like, broken. Something’s wrong with me and I know I messed up. ” She wasn’t crying yet, but there was a little catch in her voice just when she said “broken. ” I looked at the cracks on the sidewalk. Ants were marching in straight rows across them. Didn’t that mean it was going to rain or something? I thought I remembered my mom telling me once that ants walked in straight lines to lay down scent trails to find their way back home. The closer they walked, the heavier the scent trail. The easier to find the way back home.

  Dee grabbed my hand and stopped in her tracks, jerking me to a stop as well. “James, please say something. Please. This was … this was really hard to do. Please just say something. ”

  There were words crowding in my head, but they weren’t words to be spoken. They were stark characters, hundreds of letters making words that needed to be written down. So here I was, standing here in the middle of a sidewalk, Dee holding my hand tight enough to hurt, looking at me with too-bright eyes on the verge of tears, and here was me, my head stuffed full of words, and I couldn’t say anything.

  But I had to. When I finally said something, I was surprised at how even my voice was and how coherent the sentences. It was like an omniscient, unbiased narrator had broken into my body and was releasing a public safety announcement. “I don’t know what to say, Dee. I don’t know what you want from me. ”

  Then, in a rush, I knew what to say, and the words were exploding in my head with my desire to say them: but you hurt me. It hurts like hell. Standing here with you holding my hand is killing me. Are you using me? How could you do that? Don’t I mean any more to you than that? I’m just a damn placeholder, is that it?

  I didn’t say them.

  But Dee just stared at me like I had, her eyes so wide that I had to think hard to make sure I really hadn’t. She looked away, at the empty sidewalks around us, then at her feet, as if the sight of her Doc Martens gave her courage. “I did mean to tell you. That I really liked him. Luke. ”

  “You liked him. ” I echoed her words, and I heard my voice—the dull, disbelieving tone—but I didn’t try to change it.

  “Fine. I loved him. I didn’t want to tell you. I felt guilty. Even though you and I were just friends. ” Dee hesitated for a long moment, but I didn’t help her out. “And it’s been really hard, since … since he’s been gone. I know I’ll never see him again and I know I have to get over him and I feel like I’m climbing out of this big hole and I just grabbed onto the closest best thing I could find to get out, and it was you, and I was wrong to do that. ”

  She looked up at me, and now, finally, there were tears, and I knew that I was going to do whatever it was she asked me to do, like always. “Please, James. My head is so screwed up right now. You are my best, best friend, and I can’t lose you too. ”

  “I don’t think I can do that,” I said. “Do this. ”

  It felt good, to tell the truth.

  For a second she stared at me, letting the words sink in. Then she covered her face with her hand and half-turned away from me. She started crying in that way people do when they don’t care who’s watching, when they’re so done they just can’t give a damn who sees them sob.

  I couldn’t watch her do that.

  I took her shoulder and pulled her into a hug. The familiar, bright smell of her shampoo was like a time machine, taking me back into unnumbered hugs over the years I’d known her, before Luke, when it was just me that she needed. I rested my forehead on her shoulder and stared at the reflection of us embracing in the window. Please don’t be thinking of him right now.

  “I’m not,” Dee whispered, and pushed her face into my shoulder, tears dampening my T-shirt.

  I didn’t know if I was helping Dee climb out of her hole or if she was dragging me into it.

  “I know I’m crazy. ” Her voice was quiet against my shirt. “Just stick with me, James. Okay? Until it’s been longer, you know, since the summer—and maybe—maybe we can try again. And this time it will be right. Not messed up. ”

  I didn’t know if she meant trying to be friends or trying to kiss or trying to breathe, but right now, all of them seemed colored by the effort of me trying to believe her. I pressed my hand against her hair, holding her to me, filled with the certainty that she was going to hurt me again and that I didn’t have the strength to push her away before she did.

  Nuala

  What’s this I feel, that clots in my throat?

  The taste of nectar, the feel of wasp stings

  The fond attention that makes me note

  The shape of your hands and other things

  That do not matter.

  —from Golden Tongue: The Poems of Steven Slaughter

  When I look back at that afternoon, I think of all the ways I could’ve kept Eleanor from seeing how I felt about James. I imagine how I could’ve kept her from seeing me at all. Or, if I couldn’t hide, there must’ve been a way to hide our association.

  James was waiting at the bus stop with Roundhead. Stupid Dee had gone back to the school. Apparently, making James feel like shit took a lot out of her and she needed her beauty rest. Roundhead knew some magic tricks—seemed he had hidden depth—and he was making paperclips appear in his hands and disappear. It was easy for me to see the sleight of hand he used to accomplish it, but I had to admit that he didn’t suck at it. He presented his tricks in a sort of perfunctory, unaffected way, like so, of course magic exists.

  And James was smiling at it in a sort of ironic way that I was beginning to get awfully attached to. He smiled because he knew magic existed and he knew also that what Roundhead was showing him was not magic, but he was still being fooled, and he liked the dichoto
my.

  I sat several yards away from them, in the grass, far enough away that James couldn’t sense me but close enough that I could hear what they said. James burned from within, as usual, with a fierce gold, and for the first time in several months, I realized I was hungry.

  It was the first moment I realized that not making a deal with someone before Halloween was probably going to be painful for me.

  It was also the first moment I realized I didn’t think I wanted to take any of James’ years away from him, even if he’d said yes.

  I felt like I was floating. I didn’t know who I was anymore.

  “Waiting for your bus?”

  I didn’t recognize the smooth, moss-green shoes that stood in front of me, but I recognized Eleanor’s voice. I looked up from where I sat and saw Eleanor’s nameless human consort at her side. He inclined slightly at the waist and held out his hand as if to help me up, but Eleanor slapped his fingers lightly and he withdrew them.

  “Tsk. That’s not a good idea, love. She’s hungry and you, as you know, are delicious. ” Eleanor looked down at me and held out her hand instead. Each of her fingers had a ring on it, and some of them were linked together by long gold chains that hung in loops beneath her palm. I stayed sitting. Eleanor frowned at me, an expression of delicate and excruciating pity. “Do you not stand for your queen, dear? Or are you too faint?”

  I looked up at her, and I knew my voice was petulant but I didn’t try to hide it. “Why? Will you have me killed if I don’t?”

  Eleanor pursed her pale lips. “Oh, so you’re the one who refused to help the other night. I told you before there were things we were doing here that we didn’t need meddled with. ”

  Her consort looked at me. His face said stand up in a very blank sort of way. His thoughts were still very hard for me to read, but I could see that he’d seen death recently and he didn’t want to see it again.

  I stood. “I’m not meddling with anything of yours. ” I didn’t think I was. I guess I didn’t really know. I looked at James, and Eleanor looked at him too. By the bus station, a woman was approaching him, arms already outstretched for a hug from several feet away. James’ face was lit with genuine happiness. I didn’t think I’d ever seen him happy before.

  Eleanor started to laugh, and she laughed so hard that even the humans, yards away, shivered and glanced around and remarked on the storm that was supposed to arrive later. Eleanor dabbed at her eyes—as if she could cry—and shook her head at me, smiling disbelievingly. “Oh, little leanan sidhe, is that your chosen, there?”

  I didn’t like her laugh, and I didn’t like her looking at him.

  “What an odd and appropriate choice you’ve made. I nearly killed him a few months ago, and the daoine sidhe brought him back to life for the cloverhand. And now you will finish him off. It’s got a lovely circular feel to it, doesn’t it?”

  I didn’t say anything. I just crossed my arms and stood there watching James smile proudly at his mom hugging Roundhead, like he had invented both hugs and his mother.

 
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