Ballad a gathering of f.., p.29

Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie, page 29

 part  #2 of  Books of Faerie Series


Ballad: A Gathering of Faerie

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Page 29


  She didn’t have to, and she knew it. I didn’t have to take the script back from her because I had the first page memorized.

  “Hold on,” Nuala said, and she walked over to the light dimmer switch. She turned off the lights over the audience and turned on another set of lights on the stage, making it an island of light in a sea of darkness.

  Suddenly it was real.

  “Now,” she said, in a voice just for me, and pointed. “There’s your mark. ”

  I walked to the front edge of the stage—be Campbell—and held my arms out on either side, like I was welcoming the audience or summoning down something from the skies. “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Ian Everett Johan Campbell, the third and the last. I hope I can hold your attention. I must tell you that what you see tonight is completely real. It might not be amazing, it might not be shocking, it might not be scandalizing, but I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt: it is real. For that—” I paused. “I am deeply sorry. ”

  I lowered my arms to my side, bit my lip and looked at the stage, and then turned and walked off stage. Eric clapped in the audience as I joined Nuala by the edge of the stage.

  “Thank God, that’s better,” Nuala whispered to me. She didn’t have to say that, either. We watched Paul and Megan play Leon and Anna, and wonder of wonders, Paul was a way better Leon, and either him being Leon or Nuala’s pep talk had made Megan a better Anna. They still had to glance at their scripts, but it actually looked … plausible.

  “Parlor tricks, Leon. Sleight of hand,” Megan said. She even shrugged. I mean, like a real person would. “That’s all it is. ”

  And Paul actually blustered. I mean—he was Leon. “I was there, Anna. I saw him do it. There was a woman crying in the audience. They thought it was real. They knew it was real. ”

  I couldn’t stop grinning.

  Nuala pinched the skin of my arm and when I turned to look at her, I saw she was shining, too, with the joy of creation. Something I’d taken for granted my whole life.

  Thanks, Izzy Leopard, I thought.

  “You needed it,” Nuala said, but I could tell what she meant was thank you too.

  Guys weren’t allowed to bring girls into Seward Hall (under penalty of having your nuts chopped off and sent back to your parents via priority mail), so we waited for the Chinese delivery guy at the door and then dragged the world’s most comfortable chairs from the lobby onto the brick patio.

  It was an absolutely gorgeous evening—all yellows, golds, reds, blazing across the hills behind the dorm. A little too cool for bloodsucking insects and a little too warm for goose bumps. Food had never tasted as good as the chicken fried rice eaten out of the box with a plastic fork, lounging on the world’s most comfortable chair with Nuala sitting on the arm.

  “I’m trying to tell you, there are people who are allergic to water. ” Paul spoke in between bites of something red and slimy looking.

  “You can’t be allergic to water,” Megan protested. “The body is like, ninety percent water. ”

  I interrupted. “Not ninety percent. Nobody’s ninety percent water except for Mrs. Thieves. She practically sloshes when she walks. ”

  Eric snorted and coughed up some rice.

  “Oh, that’s sexy,” Megan said, watching Eric kick the rice off the bricks. “Anyway, no one can be allergic to water. It’s like being allergic to—to—breathing. ”

  Nuala cast a scathing look toward Megan before speaking, “It’s true. There have been, like, two cases of it ever. I read about it. It was so rare they didn’t diagnose it forever and now those people have to do weird things to keep from killing themselves by living. ”

  Paul gave Nuala a grateful glance and added, “It’s like those people who are allergic to sunlight. They get super horrible burns when they’re babies, and if they don’t get kept out of the sun, they die of cancer. They have to stay inside with the blinds drawn all the time. Or they get, like, sick blisters all over. ”

  “That must be horrible,” Eric said. “It’s like being allergic to yourself, or to living. Like you were born to die. ”

  Nuala looked away, out over the hills. I circled her wrist with my fingers, and her attention jerked back to me. I offered her a forkful of rice. “Want to try some?”

  She gave me a look, like are you kidding? But she was either intrigued by the concept, or didn’t want to let me down, or wanted to look human for the rest of them, because she leaned toward me and opened her mouth. I managed to put the rice in there without spilling it completely down her front, which is not as easy as it sounds. Instead, just one stray grain stuck to her bottom lip, clinging perilously while she chewed and swallowed with a dubious expression on her face.

  “You’ve got—there’s just—” I gestured toward her mouth, reaching for a napkin and realizing Megan had them. Nuala could’ve knocked the rice off, but she leaned down right beside me instead, her hair smelling way too good as it hung down between us, and that was how I happened to be sucking Nuala’s lower lip into my mouth very gently when Dee joined us on the patio.

  “Hi, Dee,” Paul said. His eyes were very wide and he had a look on his face like whoa-someone-get-the-marshmallows-there’s-gonna-be-a-barbecue-here.

  Nuala slowly slid her lip out of my teeth and leaned back, and I swallowed before turning to look at Dee. I had the sudden, irrational desire to laugh.

  How does it feel, Dee?

  Dee’s face, half-lit gold by the sunset, had gone stony. She folded her arms across her chest and looked at me. “Hi, James. ”

  “Hey. ” Voice sounded good. Casual. Yeah, hi Dee. I was just here sharing rice with this super hot chick. How have you been?

  A slow smile was spreading over Nuala’s face.

  “So you guys ordered take-out?” Dee asked, though it was obvious.

  “Nope,” I said. “Paul stole a car. Turned out to be the delivery guy’s from Fortune Garden. Talk about a twofer. ”

  She didn’t smile.

  Nuala did.

  “There’s plenty here,” Nuala said. She looked at me, and I knew her well enough to hear the edge in her voice. “Enough to share. ”

  Dee looked at me and her voice was arctic. “I know Paul and Megan. I don’t think I know everyone else. ”

  Eric was clearly not a part of the “everyone else” she was interested in, but I introduced him first anyway. “That’s Eric. He’s a teaching assistant by day and fights crime by night. ” I looked at Nuala, who was looking at me in an intense way that I couldn’t interpret. It made me want to get a pen out. It made me want to get the worry stone out. “This is Nuala. ” I thought about adding my girlfriend, just to see Dee’s reaction, but instead I just looked at Nuala’s freckles and her ocean eyes and thought about how different she was from Dee, now that they were both here in the same place.

  I realized I’d been looking at Nuala too long. I looked back to Dee to find that her expression had not changed. Her voice, however, had managed to drop a few more degrees. “Are you a student, Nuala?”

  Nuala looked away from me to Dee, and I saw dislike burning fiercely in her eyes. It surprised me, somehow, because her gaze wasn’t like Megan’s jealous stare. It was … deeper. It was—like—protective. It should’ve scared the hell out of me, but it felt good.

  “Of many things. ” Nuala smiled at Dee, a dangerous rack of teeth. “So you’re a friend of James?”

  Dee smiled the fake stage smile I recognized from our days back at our old school. “I’ve known him nine years. ”

  Nuala rubbed her hand over the back of my head; I tried not to close my eyes at her touch. “That’s a long time. ”

  “We’re very good friends,” Dee said.

  “Clearly. ”

  Behind Dee’s back, Paul made small hooks with his fingers and clawed the air. He mouthed meow.

  “How long have you known him, Nuala?” asked Dee.

  “Oh, a month or so. ”

sp; Dee’s smile froze into something colder. “That’s not very long. ”

  Nuala’s smile disappeared as she delivered her closing volley. Her fingers dropped off my hair to link in the back of my collar. “Oh, it didn’t take me long to figure out what I’d found. But I don’t have to tell you, right? You’ve known him nine years. ”

  Dee stared at Nuala’s fingers on my collar and the way my whole body was sort of leaning toward Nuala’s, and her eyebrows drew together a little.

  “Yeah,” Dee said. “Yeah, you don’t have to tell me. ” Her eyes drifted across Megan and her two opened boxes of food, Eric and his guitar leaning against the wall, Paul and his round eyes, Nuala and her fingers on my neck, and finally to me. I knew how it looked. It looked like I was doing okay without her. It looked like I was sitting here with my friends laughing and eating take-out, totally okay with the way things were going. It looked like Nuala was sitting on the arm of my chair and that she was crazy about me and that we were a couple.

  As Campbell said: “It might not be amazing, it might not be shocking, it might not be scandalizing, but I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt: It is real. For that, I am deeply sorry. ”

  It was real. I was okay.

  And I was deeply sorry.

  Because I’d thought it would feel amazing to turn the tables on Dee, but it didn’t. I saw the expression on her face—or maybe the careful lack of expression—and I recognized it from my own, too many times before.

  She mumbled some sort of line to get herself out of there, and even though I was sorry, it wasn’t enough to make me go after her. Not because of Nuala. I felt certain that even though Nuala hated her, she wouldn’t have stopped me from going after Dee and softening the blow.

  But I was done softening the blow for Dee. When had she ever done the same for me? I was done.

  I felt like kissing Nuala, for setting me free.


  You needn’t tell a bird it’s a bird

  Or remind a fish of its purpose

  It’s only us who lose our way

  We have names because we must.

  —from Golden Tongue: The Poems of Steven Slaughter

  I had taken over the world’s most comfortable chairs, as James called them, as my personal kingdom. I was thinking about going out, to fulfill my promise to James to find out exactly what was going on around here, but a little before midnight, James snuck down to see me. He was barefoot, almost soundless, looking really cute in his T-shirt and sweatpants. I got up out of the chair to meet him halfway across the lobby, and closer, I could see that he not only looked really cute, he also looked really exhausted. Big bags under his eyes. I couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept, now that I thought about it.

  “Hi, crazy,” he said, a little awkward now that we weren’t trying to kill each other.

  I stood there with my hands by my sides. “Hi, asshole. ”

  And then we kissed. Not a crazy kiss, just a soft, tired touching of our lips together because we could. It felt weird, like we were two different people from the people we’d been earlier that day, when I’d been a badass director for the first time ever or when James had been biting my lip in front of his non-girlfriend. Not bad, just weird. For some reason, I hadn’t thought James was capable of this brand of kissing.

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