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Authors: Marie Rutkoski

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BOOK: The Shadow Society
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What she didn’t know was why. I was terrified of fire. I always had been, though I did my best to hide it. It was embarrassing, because it wasn’t only fire that set me on edge. It was everything that had anything to do with fire. Cigarettes. Smoke. Even stupid smoky-tasting tea.

I unwrapped the rubber band around the money. Most of it was small bills, but there was a lot of it. Hundreds of dollars. Maybe even a thousand.

What was Marsha saving for? And why was she hiding it from me?

I fanned it out and couldn’t help wondering if she’d miss a twenty. Then I quickly tapped the cash against the countertop like a deck of shuffled cards.

She was hiding it from me because it was none of my business. I was just her foster kid.

Who didn’t need to give her a reason to kick me out.

I put the money back into the tin, clamped the lid shut, and shoved it into the cabinet—not a moment too soon. Marsha’s car pulled into the driveway. She walked into the house, her hands rustling with plastic bags, and let the door bang shut behind her. “Hi, Darcy. Did you have a good day?”

Had I? Even I didn’t know the answer to that question. “It was okay.”

“Well,
I
am dog-tired.” Marsha plopped down on the couch and propped her feet on the coffee table. She was still wearing her name tag from the bargain clothing store where she worked as an assistant manager. “I think we both deserve a treat.” She dug through one of the bags and pulled out a pack of multicolored chocolate-covered marshmallows. She ripped it open and offered it.

“No, thanks,” I said.

“Go on, have a pink one. I love the pink ones.”

“It’s just dye. They all taste the same.”

“I know. But the pink cheers me up.” She wriggled her fingers above the marshmallows and picked out her favorite. “Are you working at the Jumping Bean tonight?”

“Yes.” I sighed.

“Keep interested in your career,” she said. “However humble.”

Marsha enjoyed quoting from a plaque that hung above the toilet in her bathroom. It was inscribed with a letter called “Desiderata,” which means “Desired Things.” It’s full of impossible advice, such as the idea that you could get along with everybody without giving up pieces of yourself, and that even a minimum wage job should be thought of as a worthy “career.”

“Here.” She handed me a plastic bag. “This is for you.”

Inside was something soft: a ruby cardigan. “Marsha, you didn’t have to—”

“I sure did. You look like you’re going to a funeral. I want to see you wearing something other than black, black, and black. Go ahead, put it on. It’s part cashmere.”

Even though the sun was going down, it was still shaping up to be a steamy evening. “But—”

“No buts. It was on sale, plus I got my employee’s discount. And that itty-bitty thing isn’t going to fit
me
.”

I touched the red sweater. It had been a long time since I’d received a gift. “Thank you.”

“You’ll look pretty in it,” she said.

Would I? Could a red sweater change so much?

It was as if she’d read my mind. “You’re the artist, Darcy. Don’t you think a little color packs some punch?”

I smiled, not only because it would please her, but also because I wanted to. Then I took a pink marshmallow, pulled on the cardigan, and left for work.

At the coffeehouse, I focused on cappuccinos, lattes, and double-shot espressos. My hands steamed milk and ground beans. I paused only for enough time to peel off the red cardigan. It was too hot. More than that—wearing the sweater felt too hopeful. Like I wanted to look pretty for someone, and that someone wasn’t Marsha.

Inside, I recited my poem and matched its beat to the rhythm of my work:

I will not think of Conn McCrea.

Easier said than done.

When I locked up the café, I looked out at the dark parking lot, reminding myself that Conn was already liked. Already adored. And I was a misfit.

That’s right,
a voice whispered inside.
You don’t fit in. You don’t belong in this world.

I frowned. That was a weird thought. I didn’t belong in
this
world?

It wasn’t like there was any other one.

 

6

It took me a couple of weeks to wear the sweater to school. I kept blaming the heat for this, but then one day, in that schizo way Chicagoland weather has, it was suddenly autumn. The air was apple-crisp, and I had run out of excuses.

Lily’s jaw dropped when she saw me wearing the cardigan. She whirled us into the girls’ bathroom, demanded I put on her lipstick, and swept the loose hair off my face. She produced a handful of bobby pins as if by magic.

“Lily, what are you doing?”

“Finishing what you started.” Her eyes met mine in the mirror. “This is the first time you look as if you’re not trying to disappear.” She swiftly did something complicated with my hair. “There. Now everyone can see what a lovely, slender throat you have.”

I tightened my mouth. “They can see
this
.” I pointed to the scar at the base of my neck, where the skin sloped toward my shoulder. It was an old, white slash.

Lily lost her imperious air. “You still don’t remember how you got that?”

I looked at her.

“Sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have asked.”

I shrugged. It wasn’t her fault I was a messed-up amnesiac.

“Well, what’re you going to do, hide it forever?” She gave me a gentle push out the bathroom door. “Go.”

Luckily, the boys made little comment on my new and supposedly improved appearance. Jims just said “Ooh la la” when he passed me in the hall, and Raphael gave me an incredulous stare in Pre-Calc. I tried not to take offense, since Raphael was fizzing with anxiety and barely able to pass for a normally functioning human being. Auditions for the fall play were that afternoon.

In English class, I did something different. That moment of walking through the door was always agonizing, always the best and worst part of my day. So over the past week, I had developed a ritual. It was a simple one: eyes down, feet steady. Walk.

And don’t look at him.

But that day, I did.

The effect was instantaneous. Conn’s eyes were on me. His mask of boredom slipped away, and it was only then that I knew that it
was
a mask, that it had to be, it had to be fake, because what I saw underneath was too real. His face was fierce, filled with something hot and strange.

And resentful.

I slunk to my seat. I had to get to English earlier, I thought shakily. He always beat me there. He always sat in the middle, so that if I sat anywhere else than in the back I’d feel like a target in his line of sight. Even sitting in the back wasn’t the perfect solution, because I had to push myself past him. Every day.

I ignored most of the lesson, at least until Ms. Goldberg said, “‘I am no Prince Hamlet.’” She was reading from her book. “What does J. Alfred mean? Why does he say he’s ‘an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two’?”

I had a pretty good guess, but I sure wasn’t going to raise my hand. I already felt enough like a fool.

“Well?” Ms. Goldberg waited, and the entire class hardened into stubborn silence.

Deep down, she must have been a very perverse person, because she grinned. “Isn’t that appropriate,” she drawled, “since J. Alfred spends the entire poem debating whether to profess his love, and chooses silence. Here is one question you
will
answer, or fail my class.” She turned to the board and wrote:

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

“This is J. Alfred’s question,” she said, “and it is yours. Your assignment is to decide what it means. I will give you a month to prepare a presentation of your findings to the class. You may work alone or with a partner.”

Well, that was fair. At least she wasn’t going to force me to find someone to pair up with. I listened to the squeal of desks dragged across the floor. To loud voices bouncing off white concrete walls as people sought and found partners. I opened my sketch pad and kept my head down, doodling a cityscape, though it was no city I had ever seen. The skyscrapers were slender and curved. They looked like a wind could knock them down.

“Darcy?”

That voice. Quiet. Deep. I knew before I lifted my eyes who owned it, but I couldn’t believe he was speaking to me.

“Will you be my partner?” asked Conn McCrea.

There was only one possible answer. “Yes.” I shut my sketchbook, but not before his gaze fell on my drawing. I could have sworn I saw a flash of recognition in his eyes. Then it was gone, and I doubted what I had seen, for how could he know a city I had invented only moments before?

Conn pulled up an abandoned chair and sat down next to me. He was tall, yes, but broader than I’d thought, not as lean as he’d seemed from afar. He looked like he trained for something.

It troubled me more than it should have. I instinctively touched the scar on my neck. His gaze flickered to it, and lingered.

Then his eyes met mine. They were a fitful color, the kind that changes according to mood or the light. Gray, blue, green. Like pieces of glass washed up on the shores of Lake Michigan, polished by waves almost as big as the sea’s. My pulse sped along the scar beneath my fingertips.

“Did you know the answer to Ms. Goldberg’s question?” he asked. “About Prince Hamlet?”

I went for nonchalance. “I suppose there could be several theories. What’s yours?”

He gave me an inviting smile. “I’d like to hear what you have to say.”

I played with my pencil. “J. Alfred’s decided to be unimportant. No one’s going to notice him.”

“Yes,” said Conn. “He is very different from you.”

The pencil spun out of my fingers and clattered to the floor. Conn picked it up and set it neatly on my desk. His words had sounded like a compliment. But his voice hadn’t.

The bell rang, and turned off any hint of friendliness in him. Now he looked at me clinically, as if he were wearing night-vision glasses and I had stopped being a person and had become just an interesting pattern of heat.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said shortly, and even though that was a promise of some kind, I felt dismissed.

He stood. I stayed in my seat, watching him go, and pulled the cardigan’s cuffs over my fingers. A little bit of color, and Conn had asked me to be his partner.

Could things really be so simple?

 

7

The next day, we learned that Raphael got the part of Hamlet. Taylor Allen was cast as his mother, Queen Gertrude, which led to a lot of “your mama” jokes from Jims.

At lunch, Raphael seesawed between excitement about the play’s fencing scenes and misery about the cafeteria food. Finally, he dropped his taco pizza to his plate. “Why am I even eating this? It tastes nasty.”

“Just like your mama,” said Jims.

We cracked up.

“Why is it funny that James insulted Raphael’s mother?”

We blinked, startled that A) someone was using Jims’s real name, and B) that someone was Conn. He stood expectantly, a lunch tray balanced on one hand.

“I doubt you’d understand,” Raphael told him.

A smug smile tugged at the corner of Conn’s mouth. “I know more than you think.”

I became acutely aware that this—this small lunch table, my three friends—was
my
territory. Conn had already invaded my mind. I felt nervous about having him so close to the rest of my life, too. And yet—

“May I sit with you?” he asked.

And yet, I wanted him close. Close enough to touch.

The thing about wanting, though, is that it had never gotten me very far.

“Why are you interested in slumming it, Conn?” I tore shreds off my lunch bag, examining them as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls and I was a very brainy scholar who had no time for gorgeous boys. “Haven’t you figured out that people like us will depreciate your social value?”

Lily gave me an odd look, the kind you might give to someone who was about to eat her winning lottery ticket after slathering it in chili sauce. “Sit down, Conn,” she said. “We won’t bite. Not even Darcy.”

Jims warned, “But we might pelt you with questions.”

Conn sat and leaned back in his chair, arms crossed. Amusement colored his expression, but also a quiet arrogance he didn’t quite bother to hide. No question, he seemed to believe, could rattle
him
. “Pelt away.”

Jims pretended to straighten an invisible tie. “You see, we know so little about you, and we’d like to make certain you’re a decent sort of fellow. What brings you to our humble table?”

“Darcy’s my partner for a class project,” Conn said. Three pairs of curious eyes turned toward me. “I hoped that she’d be free to meet me after school today to work on it.”

“So ask her,” said Raphael, knowing full well the answer.

Conn looked at me, and for a moment I was in danger of drowning in his lake-colored eyes. But I knew my priorities. “I can’t.”

“Really?”

Conn’s tone was mild, yet I sensed that beneath it lay something frustrated. And
pushy
, which set some steel into my spine. “Yes, really,” I told him.

He narrowed his eyes. “Why not?”

Somehow, Conn’s questions were evolving into an interrogation. I didn’t like it. Judging by the looks on my friends’ faces,
they
didn’t like it either. “Because I’m busy.”

“With what?” He let his irritation show. “I doubt your social calendar is completely full.”

The sting of insult wasn’t as strong as the sense of my friends silently closing ranks. Lily’s expression didn’t change, but Raphael glowered, and all the humor bled out of Jims. “Darcy,” he said, “why don’t you show your guest to the door?”

“No need.” Conn stood, and I wished that I had, too, because the way his gaze swept down on me from above was unsettling.

As Conn walked away, Jims said, “You sure know how to pick ’em, Darcy.”

“He chose her,” said Lily.

*   *   *

L
ATER, AFTER THE BELL
announced the end of English class, Conn approached.

BOOK: The Shadow Society
11.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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