"I'm just cold," she said softly. She was always cold these days, but it was winter, so maybe that wasn't so strange.
"Cold?" Ravus echoed. He took her arm and rubbed it between his hands, watching them as though they were betraying him. "Better?" he asked warily.
His skin felt hot, even through the cloth of her s.h.i.+rt, and his touch was both soothing and electric. She leaned into him without thinking. His thighs parted, rough black cloth scratching against her jeans as she moved between his long legs.
His eyes were half-lidded as he pushed himself off the desk, their bodies sliding together, his hands still holding hers. Then, suddenly, he froze.
"Is something-," she started, but he pushed away from her abruptly.
"You should go," he said, walking to the window and then just standing there. She knew he dared not part the blinds while it was still day outside. "Come back when you are feeling improved. It does neither of us any good to practice when you're sickly. If you need something, I could-"
"I said I was fine," Val repeated, her voice pitched louder than she'd intended. She thought of her mother. Had she thrown herself at Tom like that? Had he turned away from her at first?
Ravus was still turned toward the window when she lifted an entire bottle of Never and put it in her backpack.
That night Lolli and Dave congratulated her on her score, shouting her name so loudly that people stopped on the grate above. Luis sat in shadows, chewing on his tongue ring and remaining silent. That morning she collapsed onto her filthy mattress, like she did most mornings, and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep, as though she had never had any other life but this one.
Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.
-WILLIAM BLAKE, "THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND h.e.l.l"
Val woke up with someone pulling at the fastenings of her jeans. She could feel fingers at her waist, the twist and pinch of a b.u.t.ton as it came undone.
"Get off me," she said, even before she realized it was Dave hunched over her. She twisted away from him and sat up, still flushed with the dregs of Never. Her skin was sweaty, even though cold air blew down from the grate above, and her mouth felt dry as sand.
"Come on," he whispered. "Please." She looked down at her fingers and saw Lolli's chipped blue nail polish. Lolli's white boots were on her feet and she could see long faded blue locks of hair falling past her shoulders.
"I'm not her," she said, her voice thick with sleep and confusion.
"You could pretend," Sketchy Dave said. "And I could be anyone you wanted. Change me into anyone."
Val shook her head, realizing he'd glamoured her to be Lolli, wondering if he'd done it before with others, wondering if Lolli knew. The idea of playing at being other people was appalling, but with the remnants of Never still swarming inside of her, she was intrigued by the sheer wickedness of it. She felt the same thrill that had propelled her into the tunnels, the giddy pleasure of making a choice that is clearly, obviously wrong.
Anyone. She looked over at Lolli and Luis, sleeping close together but not touching. Val allowed herself to imagine Luis's face on Dave. It was easy; their faces weren't so different. Dave's expression s.h.i.+fted, taking on a bored and annoyed look that was all Luis.
"I knew you'd pick him," Dave said.
Val tilted her head forward and was surprised when hair fell to cover her face. She'd forgotten how s.h.i.+elded hair made her feel. "I didn't pick anyone."
"But you'll do it. You want to do it."
"Maybe." Val's mind made the figure above her more familiar. Tom's stiff mohawk shone with hair-spray and when he smiled, his cheeks dimpled. She could even smell the familiar scent of his patchouli aftershave. She leaned into it, flooded with a sense that she was back home and that none of this had ever happened.
The Tom above her sighed with what she thought might be relief and his hands moved under her s.h.i.+rt. "I knew you were lonely."
"I wasn't lonely," Val said automatically, pulling back. She didn't know if she was lying or not. Had she been lonely? She thought of faeries and their inability to lie and wondered what they did when they didn't know what the truth was.
At her thought of faeries, Tom's skin turned green, his hair blackened and fell around his shoulders until it was Ravus she saw, Ravus's long fingers that touched her skin and his hot eyes staring down at her.
She found herself frozen, repulsed by her own fascination. The tilt of his head was just right, his expression inquiring.
"You don't want me," she said, but whether she was speaking to the image of Ravus in front of her or to Dave, she wasn't sure.
He pressed his mouth against hers and she felt the sting of his teeth against her lip and she shuddered with desire and with dread.
How could she not have known she wanted this, when now she wanted nothing else? She knew it wasn't really Ravus and that it was obscene to pretend it was, but she let him ease her jeans off her hips anyway. Her heart thudded against her chest, as though she'd been running, as though she was in some danger, but she reached up her arms and threaded her fingers through oil-black hair. His long body settled over hers and she gripped the muscles of his back, focusing on the hollow of his throat, the glittering gold of his slitted eyes, as she tried to ignore Dave's grunts. It was almost enough.
The next afternoon, as Ravus put Val through a series of sword moves holding the wooden blade, she watched his closed, remote face and despaired. Before, she had been able to convince herself that she didn't feel any way about him, but now she felt as if she'd had a taste of food that left her starving for a banquet that would never come.
Walking back from the bridge, she pa.s.sed near where the Dragon Bus let off. Three hookers s.h.i.+vered in their short skirts. One girl in a faux ponyskin coat walked toward Val with a smile, then turned away as though she realized Val wasn't a boy.
At the next block, she crossed the street to avoid a bearded man in a miniskirt and floppy boots with their laces undone. Steam rose from under his skirt as he urinated on the sidewalk.
Val picked her way through the streets to the entrance to the tunnel platform. As she got close to the concrete park, she saw Lolli arguing with a girl wearing a monster-fur coat with a spiky rubber backpack over it. For a moment, Val felt an odd sense of disorientation. The girl was familiar, but so totally out of context that Val couldn't place her.
Lolli looked up. The girl turned and followed Lolli's glance. Her mouth opened in surprise. She started toward Val on platform boots, a sack of flour clutched in her arm. It was only when Val noticed someone had painted a face on the flour that she realized she was looking at Ruth.
"Val?" Ruth's arm twitched up like she was going to reach for Val, but then thought better of it. "Wow. Your hair. You should have told me you were going to cut it off. I would have helped you."
"How did you find me?" Val asked numbly.
"Your friend," Ruth looked back at Lolli skeptically. "She answered your phone."
Val reached automatically for her bag, even knowing that her phone must not be inside of it. "I turned it off."
"I know. I tried to call you a zillion times and your voice mail is full. I've been freaking out."
Val nodded, at a loss as to what to say. She was conscious of the ground-in dirt on her pants, the black half-moons of her fingernails and the stink of her body, the smells that scrubbing in public rest rooms with your clothes mostly on didn't really make better.
"Listen," Ruth said. "I brought someone to meet you." She held out the sack of flour. It had eyes outlined with heavy black liner and a tiny, pursed mouth shaded with glittering blue nail polish. "Our baby. You know, it's hard on him with one of his mommies gone and it's hard on me, being a single parent. In Health cla.s.s, I had to do all the worksheets alone." Ruth gave Val a wobbly smile. "I'm sorry I was such an a.s.shole. I should have told you about Tom. I started to, like a million times. I just never got the words all of the way out."
"It doesn't matter anymore," Val said. "I don't care about Tom."
"Look," said Ruth. "It's freezing. Can we go inside? I saw a bubble tea place not too far from here."
Was it freezing? Val was so used to being cold when she wasn't using Never that it seemed normal for her fingers to be numb and her marrow to feel like it was made from ice. "Okay," she said.
Lolli had a smug expression on her face. She lit a cigarette and blew twin streams of white smoke from her nostrils. "I'll tell Dave you'll be back soon. I don't want him to worry about his new girlfriend."
"What?" For a moment, Val didn't know what she meant. Sleeping with Dave seemed so unreal, something done in the middle of the night, drunk with glamour and sleep.
"He says you two made it last night." Lolli sounded haughty, but Dave obviously hadn't told her that Val had looked like Lolli when she'd done it. It filled Val with a shameful relief.
Now Val understood why Ruth was here, why Lolli had lifted her cell phone and set up this scene. She was punis.h.i.+ng Val.
Val guessed it was just about what she deserved. "It's no big deal. It was just something to do." Val paused. "He was just trying to make you jealous."
Lolli looked surprised and then suddenly, awkward. "I just didn't think you liked him like that."
Val shrugged. "Be back in a while."
"Who is she?" Ruth asked as they walked toward the bubble tea place.
"Lolli," Val said. "She's okay, mostly. I'm cras.h.i.+ng with her and some of her friends."
Ruth nodded. "You could come home, you know. You could stay with me."
"I don't think that your mom would be down with that." Val opened the wood and gla.s.s door and stepped into the smell of sugary milk. They sat at a table in the back, balancing on the small rosewood boxes the place had for seats. Ruth thrummed her fingers on the gla.s.s top of the table as though her nerves had settled into her skin.
The waitress came and they ordered black pearl tea, toast with condensed milk and coconut b.u.t.ter, and spring rolls. She stared at Val for a long moment before she left their table, as if evaluating whether or not they could pay.
Val took a deep breath and resisted the urge to bite the skin around her finger. "It's so weird that you're here."
"You look sick," Ruth said. "You're too skinny and your eyes are one big bruise."
The waitress set their things down on the table, forestalling whatever Val had been about to say. Glad for the distraction, Val poked at her drink with the fat, blue straw, and then sucked up a large, sticky tapioca and a mouthful of sweet tea. Everything Val did seemed slow, her limbs so heavy that chewing on the tapioca felt exhausting.
"I know you're going to say that you're fine," Ruth said. "Just tell me that you really don't hate me."
Val felt something inside her waver and then she finally was able to start to explain. "I'm not mad at you anymore. I feel like such a sucker, though, and my mother... I just can't go back. At least not yet. Don't try to talk me into it."
"When then?" Ruth asked. "Where are you staying?"
Val just shook her head, putting another piece of toast in her mouth. They seemed to melt on her tongue, gone before she realized she'd eaten them all. At another table, a group of glitter-covered girls exploded in laughter. Two Indonesian men looked over at them, annoyed.
"So what did you name the kid?" Val asked.
"Our flour baby. The one I ran off on without even paying child support."
Ruth grinned. "Sebastian. Like it?"
"Well, here's something that you probably won't like," Ruth said. "I'm not going home unless you come with me."
No matter what Val said, she couldn't talk Ruth into leaving. Finally, thinking that seeing the actual squat might convince her, Val brought her down to the abandoned platform. With someone else there, Val noticed anew the stink of the place, sweat and urine and burnt-sugar Never, the animal bones on the track and the mounds of clothes that never got moved because they were crawling with bugs. Lolli had her kit unrolled and was shaking some Never onto a spoon. Dave was already soaring, the smoke from his cigarette forming the shapes of cartoon characters that chased each other with hammers.
"You've got to be kidding me," Luis said. "Let me guess. Another stray cat for Lolli to shove off onto the tracks."
"V-val?" Ruth's voice trembled as she looked around.
"This is my best friend, Ruth," Val said before she realized how juvenile that sounded. "She came looking for me."
"I thought we were your best friends." Dave smiled a smile that was half-leer and Val regretted letting him touch her, letting him think he had some power over her.
"We're all best friends," Lolli said, shooting him a glare as she rested one of her leg's on Luis's, her boot nearly touching his crotch. "All the bestest of friends."
Dave's face crumpled.
"If you were any kind of friend to her, you wouldn't drag her into this s.h.i.+t," Luis told Val, twisting away from Lolli.
"How many people are down here? Come out where I can see you," a gruff voice called.
Two policemen walked down the stairs. Lolli froze, the spoon in her hand still over the fire. The drug started to blacken and burn. Dave laughed, a weird crazy laugh that went on and on.
Flashlights cut through the dim station. Lolli dropped her spoon, grown too hot to hold, and the beams converged on her, then moved to blind Val. She shaded her eyes with her hand.
"All of you." One of the cops was a woman, her face stern. "Stand against the wall, hands on your head."
One beam caught Luis and the male cop nudged him with his boot. "Go. Let's go. We heard some reports there were kids down here, but I didn't believe it."
Val stood slowly and walked to the wall, Ruth beside her. She felt so sick with guilt that she wanted to vomit. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
Dave just stood stock still in the middle of the platform. He was shaking.
"Something wrong?" the female cop shouted, making it not at all a question. "Against the wall!" With that, her speech turned to barking. Where she had stood was a black dog, larger than a Rottweiler, with foam running from its mouth.
"What the h.e.l.l?" The other cop turned, pulled out his gun. "That your dog? Call it off."
"It's not our dog," Dave said with an eerie smile.
The dog turned toward Dave, growling and barking. Dave just laughed.
"Masollino?" the policeman yelled. "Masollino?"
"Stop f.u.c.king around," Luis called. "Dave, what are you doing?"
Ruth dropped her arms from her head. "What's going on?"
The dog's teeth were bright as it advanced against the policeman. He pointed the gun at it and the dog stopped. It whined and he hesitated. "Where's my partner?"
Lolli giggled and the man looked up sharply, then quickly back at the dog.
Val took a step forward, Ruth still holding her arm so tight that it hurt. "Dave," she hissed. "Come on. Let's go."
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