Authors: Marie Rutkoski
attractive, I told myself.
He cocked his head, and his smile was charming. Brilliant. A sweet knife that sank into my heart and slashed my lie to pieces.
“Lunch didn’t go the way I’d planned,” he said. “I was too nosy, wasn’t I? And rude.”
I slid books into my battered backpack. “A little.”
“Sorry.” His brow rumpled into a rueful, slightly helpless look. “I’m worried about my grade, and want to get a jump-start on our project. College applications are coming up.”
I understood. I had hopes of going to art school, and no way to pay for it beyond my crap job and, maybe, a merit scholarship.
“I liked your answer the other day, about J. Alfred’s loneliness,” he continued. “I think you really understand the poem, and I could use your help. Can we meet soon?”
The mystical powers of the red sweater were, it seemed, nothing more than Conn’s very ordinary grade grubbing. I struggled against a sudden unhappiness and told myself that at least I was on familiar ground. “I’m free tomorrow after school.”
“Perfect.” He beamed.
Something about Conn made me feel in between everything—in between wariness and yearning, self-preservation and attraction—which gave me an idea. “We’ll need a car,” I said.
“I can arrange something.”
* * *
I would have fled school the instant classes were over, along with everyone else. But I slipped into the art room. Mr. Linden didn’t mind if I stuck around while he packed away the supplies.
I opened my sketchbook and began to draw.
I chose a thick-leaded pencil, so the lines were heavy, almost fuzzy. I sketched like someone obsessed, which was sort of absurd, since what I was drawing shouldn’t have stirred so much feeling. It was just a building. And yet … creepy. Or maybe it wasn’t the building itself that was creepy, with its twenty-seven steps and neo-Gothic touches. Maybe it was the way I recognized it, yet had no idea what it was.
I found myself gripping the pencil very tightly. I set it aside and reached into my case for a thinner one.
There should be an inscription on the building, I thought. I set the pencil to paper and felt a sensation inside, like something unbuttoning. Opening. I couldn’t name it. But it stole my breath.
Then my hand flickered. For one insane second, it seemed like I could see
it. I blinked, and breathed, and there were my fingers. Solid. Clutching the pencil so hard that it snapped.
Mr. Linden stepped out of the storage closet. He studied my face. “Darcy? Is something the matter?”
“No.” The broken pencil halves chopsticked in my hand. “Or … I don’t know. I guess I feel a little faint. Or something.” I forced a smile. “I’ve been staring at my sketchbook too long. My eyes are playing tricks on me.”
“That happens sometimes,” he said kindly. “Take a break.”
I nodded, but couldn’t tear my gaze away from the drawing. I didn’t know anymore what name I’d been about to give the building. But now I could name that feeling growing inside me.
I shut the book.
* * *
before knocking on Lily’s door, but it was almost four o’clock, the hour of his online role-playing game, and we were under strict orders not to interrupt.
Lily’s mom pointed to the basement, where I found Lily in front of a stretched canvas, gobbing on oil paint. She flipped the brush in her hand, sliced the wooden end across the paint, and looked really pissed off.
“What’s that?” I nodded at the painting.
“A waste of an entire tube of Prussian Blue.” She turned to the pool table, reached for a wooden triangle, and began to rack the pool balls. “Whatever You Want is harder than you’d think. What have you been working on?”
I hesitated. “Sketches. Of a city.”
“And you seem
thrilled about it. Problems?”
The first sketch had been the skyline I’d drawn the day Conn had asked me to be his partner, and the last was the government building today. But there had been plenty in between, all city scenes. My notebook was filling up. I looked at Lily, searching for a way to explain that the images I’d drawn recently looked familiar, yet I couldn’t identify them.
Except one. “I drew the Water Tower,” I told her. “You know, the old pumping station in Chicago that survived the Great Fire? My Water Tower looks like the real Water Tower. But everything around it is different. There’s no university campus. Instead, the tower’s surrounded by a park. When I sketched, it didn’t feel like I was making stuff up, but drawing from memory, and not a memory from last summer. A much older one.” I shook my head in frustration. “The cityscapes are strange. When I look at them, I’m sure they’re some imaginary city I’ve dreamed up. Then I blink, and I’m convinced I’ve drawn parts of Chicago. Which is impossible. None of the images completely matches up with anything I’ve seen.” I decided not to mention the knowing expression on Conn’s face when he’d seen my first drawing, or the way my hand had seemed to … vanish. To dart in and out of existence. Like lamplight from a dying bulb, going on and off and then on again.
Saying all that would make everything seem even weirder than it already was.
“Raphael could probably make sense of the drawings,” said Lily. “He’s such a Chicago history buff. Maybe you should show him your sketchbook.”
“Maybe,” I said, meaning “no.”
“Would you like me to look at them?”
The truth was, the sketches felt too personal, too unnerving to share with anybody. When Conn had glanced at my open notebook, I’d felt defenseless. Small.
“It’s okay.” Lily quickly interpreted my silence. “You don’t have to show me.”
“It’s just … I don’t think they’re good enough to be Whatever I Want.”
“Speaking about what we want…” Mischief crept into Lily’s voice. “Are you and your class partner making any, hmm, progress?”
“No.” I told her what Conn had said after English. “It’s all about his grade.”
Lily lifted the rack, leaving a perfect triangle of pool balls. She offered me a cue. “Want to break?”
I shook my head. “Go ahead.”
She lined up the white cue ball. “I know what I saw in his eyes, that first day of school.”
I couldn’t help myself. “Really? What?”
The white ball punched into the triangle, shattering it. Colored spheres spun away and slammed into each other like this was the Big Bang, and the start of the universe.
Conn had a motorcycle. Of course.
It was sleek and gray and, as far as these things go, quiet. Not to mention dangerous. I stared at Conn, trying to remember what, exactly, I’d done to earn the dubious honor of riding with him on his rumbling, wheeled death contraption.
“Don’t pretend you’re nervous,” he said.
“Fine. I’ll be genuinely nervous.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Cross my heart and hope not to die,” I said, though a little proud that, somewhere in the course of our short acquaintance, I had convinced him that I was a toughie.
“You wanted transportation,” he said. “This is what I’ve got.”
I took a deep breath and held out my hand. “Helmet?”
He gave me a look of surprise mingled with reproach. Apparently, he had decided my fear was a total charade, and now I was taking it too far. “You don’t need a helmet.”
“Like hell I don’t.”
“Illinois state law doesn’t require that drivers or passengers of motorcycles wear helmets.”
“Yeah, but the law of common sense does.”
He seemed unnecessarily confused for someone suggesting I risk splitting my head open like a ripe melon. “Darcy, you won’t get hurt. And I won’t let us crash.”
Well, I wasn’t the first girl to let a boy talk her into doing something stupid.
The engine continued its low growl as Conn instructed, “Wait until I’m ready, then hop on using the pegs above the rear wheel as if they’re stirrups and this is a horse.”
I climbed up behind him, touching his shoulder for balance. It went rigid under my palm.
I quickly let go, my fingertips slipping from the smooth brown leather of his jacket. I shifted on the seat and decided to focus on not falling off.
He cleared his throat. “As we ride, keep your feet on the pegs.”
And my hands? If this were a Spanish soap opera, for sure I’d be expected to wrap my arms around this muchacho’s warm waist. Conn, however, was obviously not thinking along
lines. “There are bars for your hands on either side, just behind you.”
I tried not to feel like I had been reprimanded. And for what? Touching his shoulder? That had been innocent enough.
I gritted my teeth. I gripped the bars, and we were off.
My nervousness disintegrated into exhilaration. Trees blurred by in a smear of autumnal gold. As I shouted directions in Conn’s ear, we hit the highway, and he opened up the throttle.
The wind buffeted me, strong and cold. The only shelter from it was Conn—whom I wasn’t supposed to touch, whose body radiated heat. I tried not to want to press myself against his back. My fingers tightened around the freezing bars.
When we finally slowed and Conn parked at the commuter train station, my skin vibrated from the motorcycle’s engine. I jumped off. If one small part of the ride had been difficult, if a sliver of me felt the pain of impossible things, the rest of it had been thrilling. “That was fast!” I said.
“Not really.” Conn killed the engine and dismounted.
I laughed. The sound began as self-mocking for having been afraid of a motorcycle, for thinking something was fast when it was slow, but then my laugh changed of its own free will. It grew heady, throaty … happy. It startled me.
It startled him. He looked at me, really looked at me, and caught his breath.
“What?” My pleasure shrank. “What’s wrong?”
He shook his head. “Nothing.”
I touched my chilled cheeks, sure that there must be the remains of a dead bug somewhere, then reached for my ponytail. The tie had vanished, leaving a snarled disaster in its wake. “Whoa. Banshee hair. I bet I look like a member of an eighties post-punk boy band.”
Jims was right: Conn was oddly clueless about obvious things. I was about to lecture him on the revolutionary significance of punk, but he asked, “What are we doing here? You don’t want to take the train to Chicago, do you? I can drive us to the city.”
“This is our destination. Actually,
is.” I pointed at the tracks. “Follow me.”
I led the way down the rails, over the rubbly white rocks. “Usually the tracks are kept clean close to the stations, but in between stops on the line you can find a lot of useful junk.”
He raised one skeptical brow. “Useful.”
I picked up a tube of rusted metal. “Like this.”
“I don’t see how that’s useful for our class assignment.”
“That’s because you lack vision.”
“I lack many things.” He kicked at the rocks. “But not my sanity.”
I unzipped my backpack, tucked the tube inside, and tried to explain. “J. Alfred spends the entire poem wandering around, talking about cheap hotels and chimney soot. He thinks about dirt. Trashy stuff.” I crouched to uncover a pile of springs.
He looked down at me with an expression of growing wonder, so I continued. “Also, J. never actually
anywhere. He’s always between places, and takes forever to make up his mind. So I thought of this”—I swept my hand at the tracks—“because it’s in between stops and littered with trash. I don’t know where this junk comes from. I guess it falls off the trains, which doesn’t really boost my confidence in the safety of Chicagoland commuter rails. But why not build a sculpture about the poem from what we collect here? The junk from an in-between place?”
He knelt next to me, right on the rocks. “You noticed that much. About a
“Do you still think I’m crazy? If not, do you know how to solder?”
He laughed a short laugh that was more like the sound you make when you get punched in the gut. “You’re not exactly what I expected.”
Hanging out with Taylor’s crowd no doubt gave him total access to the Lakebrook High rumor mill. “What did you expect?”
He toyed with a rusted spring. “I heard you were a bit shy…”
I suspected he was politely editing the information he had received.
“… and socially dysfunctional.”
Or maybe not.
“I also heard”—he dropped the spring—“that you were cursed.”
That was new. And it stung. I snatched up the spring and fought the prickle in my eyes. “Be careful. This spring might not look like much, but it’s good material.” Jamming it into my backpack, I stood and stalked away from him, down the tracks.
He caught up with me, offering a shiny railroad spike. “What about this?” He spoke so humbly that I paused and forced myself to look at him.
“Cursed?” I tried to keep my voice light. “Cursed, like how? Like someone’s using a voodoo doll of me as a pincushion?”
But I had guessed what he had meant, and I was right.
“People say that you’ve lived in as many foster homes as years of your life. They say that no one wants to keep you.”
“People are wrong,” I said, and a tear spilled over.
Astonishment flashed across Conn’s face, then a kind of hesitancy crept in, one that reminded me of someone who has broken something and has no idea what to do with the pieces. “Darcy … I didn’t mean to make you cry.” He lifted a hand. He stretched it out slowly, as if I might bite him. He touched my sleeve. “I’m sorry. Truly.”
I swiped at my wet eyes. I felt a surge of frustration—resentment, even—that just a few words from him had stripped me bare. I didn’t even really know Conn, yet still he made my most intense emotions simmer to the surface.
“People are wrong,” I began again. “I’m sixteen, and I’ve lived in
foster homes. Plus two years in a group home when the DCFS couldn’t place me.”