Valiant. Part 2

"She doesn't mean anything," Dave interrupted. "How about you?"

"Jersey." Val looked at the milky gray liquid in her cup. Sugar crunched between her teeth. "I guess. If I go back." She got up, feeling stupid, wondering if they were making fun of her. "'Scuse me."

Val went to the bathroom and washed up, which made her feel less disgusting. She gargled tap water, but when she spat, she saw herself in the mirror too clearly: splotches of freckles across her cheeks and mouth, including one just below her left eye, all of them looking like ground-in dirt against the patchy tan she had from outdoor sports. Her newly shaved head looked weirdly pale and the skin around her blue eyes was bloodshot and puffy. She scrubbed her hand over her face, but it didn't help. When she came back out, Lolli and Dave were gone.

Val finished her coffee. She thought about napping in the armchair, but the cafe had grown crowded and loud, making her headache worse. She walked out to the street.

A drag queen with a beehive wig hanging at a lopsided angle chased a cab, one Lucite shoe in her hand. As the cabbie sped away, she threw it hard enough that it banged into his rear window.

"f.u.c.king f.u.c.ker!" she screamed as she limped toward her shoe.

Val darted out into the street, picked it up, and returned it to its owner.

"Thanks, lambchop."

Up close, Val could see her fake eyelashes were threaded with silver, and glitter sparkled along her cheekbone.

"You make a darling prince. Nice hair. Why don't we pretend I'm Cinderella and you can put that shoe right on my foot?"

"Um, okay," Val said, squatting down and buckling the plastic strap, while the drag queen tried not to hop as she swayed to keep her balance.

"Perfect, doll." She righted her wig.

As Val stood up, she saw Sketchy Dave laughing as he sat on the metal railing on the other side of the narrow street. Lolli was stretched out on one side of a batiked blue sheet that contained books, candleholders, and clothing. In the sunlight, the blue of Lolli's hair glowed brighter than the sky. The kitten was stretched out beside her, one paw batting a cigarette over the ground.

"Hey, Prince Valiant," Dave called, grinning like they were old friends. Lolli waved. Val shoved her hands in her pockets and walked over to them.

"Pop a squat," Lolli said. "I thought we scared you off."

"Headed somewhere?" Dave asked.

"Not really." Val sat down on the cold concrete. The coffee had finally started racing through her veins and she felt almost awake. "What about you?"

"Selling off some stuff Dave scrounged. Hang out with us. We'll make some money and then we'll party."

"Okay." Val wasn't sure she wanted to party, but she didn't mind sitting on the sidewalk for a while. She picked up the sleeve of a red velvet jacket. "Where did all this stuff come from?"

"Dumpster-diving mostly," Dave said, unsmiling. Val wondered if she looked surprised. She wanted to seem cool and unfazed. "You'd be amazed what people will pay for what they throw out in the first place."

"I believe it," Val said. "I was thinking how nice that jacket is."

That must have been the right response, because Dave grinned widely, showing a chipped front tooth. "You're okay," he said. "So, what, you said 'if you go back'? What's that about? You on the street?"

Val patted the concrete. "I am right now."

They both laughed at that. As Val sat beside them, people pa.s.sed by her, but they only saw a girl with dirty jeans and a shaved head. Anyone from school could have walked past her, Tom could have stopped to buy a necktie, her mother could have tripped on a crack in the sidewalk, and none of them would have recognized her.

Looking back, Val knew she had a habit of trusting too much, being too pa.s.sive, too willing to believe the best of others and the worst of herself. And yet, here she was, falling in with more people, getting swept along with them.

But there was something different about what she was doing now, something that filled her with a strange pleasure. It was like looking down from a high building, the way the adrenaline hit you as you swayed forward. It was powerful and terrible and utterly new.

Val spent the day there with Lolli and Dave, sitting on the sidewalk, talking about nothing. Dave told them a story about a guy he knew who got so drunk that he ate a c.o.c.kroach on a dare. "One of those New York c.o.c.kroaches, ones that are the size of goldfish. The thing was halfway out of his mouth and still squirming as he bit down on it. Finally, after chewing and chewing he actually swallows. And my brother is there-Luis is some kind of crazy smart, like he read the encyclopedia when he was home with chicken pox smart-and he says, 'You know that roaches lay eggs even after they're dead.' Well, this guy can't believe it, but then he starts yelling how we are trying to kill him and holding his stomach, saying he can already feel them eating him from the inside."

"That is nasty," Val said, but she was laughing so hard she had tears in her eyes. "So deeply nasty."

"No, but it gets better," said Lolli.

"Yeah," Sketchy Dave said. "Because he pukes on his shoes. And the roach is right there, all chopped up, but clearly pieces of a big black bug. And here's the thing-one of the legs moves."

Val shrieked with disgust and told them about the time that she and Ruth smoked catnip thinking it would get them high.

When they had sold a faux crocodile-skin clutch, two T-s.h.i.+rts, and a sequined jacket from the blanket, Dave bought them all hot dogs off a street cart, fished out of the dirty water and slathered with sauerkraut, relish, and mustard.

"Come on. We need to celebrate finding you," Lolli said, jumping to her feet. "You and the cat."

Still eating, Lolli jogged down the street. They crossed over several blocks, Lolli in the lead, until they came to an old guy rolling his own cigarettes on the steps of an apartment building. A filthy bag filled with other bags sat beside him. His arms were as thin as sticks and his face was as wrinkled as a raisin, but he kissed Lolli on the cheek and said h.e.l.lo to Val very politely. Lolli gave him a couple of cigarettes and a crumpled wad of bills, and he stood up and crossed the street.

"What's wrong with him?" Val whispered to Dave. "Why's he so skinny?"

"Just cracked out," Dave said.

A few minutes later, he came back with a bottle of cherry brandy in a brown paper bag.

Dave rummaged up an almost-empty cola bottle from his messenger bag and filled that with the liquor. "So the cops don't stop us," he said. "I hate cops."

Val took a swig from the bottle and felt the alcohol burn all the way down her throat. The three of them pa.s.sed it back and forth as they walked down West Third. Lolli stopped in front of a table covered in beaded earrings hanging from plastic trees that jangled whenever a car went past. She fingered a bracelet made with tiny silver bells. Val walked to the next table, where incense was stacked in bundles and samples burned on an abalone tray.

"What have we here?" asked the man behind the counter. He had skin the color of polished mahogany and smelled of sandalwood.

Val smiled mildly and turned back toward Lolli.

"Tell your friends to take more care whom they serve." The incense man's eyes were dark and glittered like a lizard's. "It's always the messengers who are the first to know the customer's displeasure."

"Right," Val said, stepping away from the table. Lolli skipped up, bells jangling around her wrist. Dave was trying to make the cat lick brandy out of the soda cap.

"That guy was really weird," Val said. When she looked back, out of the corner of her eye, for just a moment, the incense man seemed to have long spines jutting up from his back like a hedgehog.

Val reached for the bottle.

They walked aimlessly until they came to a triangle-shaped median of asphalt, lined on both sides with park benches, presumably for suits to eat their lunch in warmer weather and suck in the humid air and car exhaust. They sat, letting the cat down to investigate the flattened remains of a pigeon. There, they pa.s.sed the brandy back and forth until Val's tongue felt numb and her teeth tingled and her head swam.

"Do you believe in ghosts?" Lolli asked.

Val thought about that for a moment. "I guess I'd like to."

"What about other things?" Lolli mewed, rubbing her fingers together to call the cat over. It paid no attention.

Val laughed. "What things? I mean, I don't believe in vampires or werewolves or zombies or anything like that."

"What about faeries?"

"Faeries like... ?"

Dave chuckled. "Like monsters."

"No," Val said, shaking her head. "I don't think so."

"Want to know a secret?" Lolli asked.

Val leaned in close and nodded. Of course she did.

"We know where there's a tunnel with a monster in it," Lolli half-whispered. "A faerie. We know where the faeries live."

"What?" Val wasn't sure she'd heard Lolli right.

"Lolli," Dave warned, but his voice sounded a little slurred, "shut up. Luis would be raging if he heard you."

"You can't tell me what to say." Lolli wrapped her arms around herself, digging her nails into her skin. She tossed back her hair. "Who would believe her anyway? I bet she doesn't even believe me."

"Are you guys serious?" Val asked. Drunk as she was, it almost seemed possible. Val tried to think back to the fairy tales she liked to re-read, the ones she'd collected since she was a little kid. There weren't very many faeries in them. At least not what she thought of as faeries. There were G.o.dmothers, ogres, trolls, and little men that bargained their services for children, then railed at the discovery of their true names. She thought of faeries in video games, but they were elves, and she wasn't sure if elves were faeries at all.

"Tell her," Lolli said to Dave.

"So how come you get to order me around?" Dave asked, but Lolli just punched him in the arm and laughed.

"Fine. Fine." Dave nodded. "My brother and I used to do some urban exploring. You know what that is?"

"Breaking into places you're not supposed to be," Val said. She had a cousin who went out to Weird NJ sites and posted photos of them on his Web site. "Mostly old places, right? Like abandoned buildings?"

"Yeah. There're all kinds of things in this city that most people can't see," Dave said.

"Right," said Val. "White alligators. Mole people. Anacondas."

Lolli got up and retrieved the cat from where it was scratching at the dead bird. She held it on her lap and petted it hard. "I thought that you could handle it."

"How come you know about this stuff that no one else does?" Val was trying to be polite.

"Because Luis has the second sight," Lolli said. "He can see them."

"Can you see them?" Val asked Dave.

"Only when they let me." He looked at Lolli for a long moment. "I'm freezing."

"Come back with us," Lolli said, turning to Val.

"Luis won't like it." Dave turned his boot as if he were squas.h.i.+ng a bug.

"We like her. That's all that matters."

"Where are we going back to?" Val asked. She s.h.i.+vered. Even though she was warm from the liquor drowsing through her veins, her breath gusted in the air and her hands alternated between icy and hot when she pressed them under her s.h.i.+rt and against her skin.

"You'll see," said Lolli.

They walked for a while and then ducked down into a subway station. Lollipop stepped through the turnstile with a swipe of her card, then pa.s.sed it back through the bars to Dave. She looked at Val. "Coming?"

Val nodded.

"Stand in front of me," Dave said, waiting.

She walked up to the turnstile. He swiped, then pressed himself against her, pus.h.i.+ng them both through at once. His body was corded muscle against her back and she smelled smoke and unwashed clothes. Val laughed and staggered a little.

"I'll tell you something else you don't know," Lolli said, holding up several cards. "These are toothpick MetroCards. You break off toothpicks real little and then you jam them in the machine. People pay, but they don't get their cards. It's like a lobster trap. You come back later and see what you caught."

"Oh," Val said, her head swimming with brandy and confusion. She wasn't sure what was true and what wasn't.

Lollipop and Sketchy Dave walked to the far end of the subway platform, but instead of stopping at the end and waiting for the train, Dave jumped down into the well where the tracks ran. A few people waiting for the train glanced over and then quickly looked away, but most of them didn't even seem to notice. Lolli followed Dave awkwardly, moving so that she was sitting on the edge and then letting him half lift her down. She held on to the now-squirming kitten.

"Where are you going?" Val asked, but they were already disappearing into the dark. As Val jumped down onto the litter-strewn concrete after them, she thought how insane it was to follow two people she didn't know into the bowels of the subway, but instead of being afraid, she felt glad. She would make all her own decisions now, even if they were ruinous ones. It was the same pleasurable feeling as tearing a piece of paper into tiny, tiny pieces.

"Be careful not to touch the third rail or you'll fry," Dave's voice called from somewhere ahead.

Third rail? She looked down nervously. The middle one. It had to be the middle one. "What if a train comes?" Val asked.

"See those niches?" Lolli called. "Just flatten yourself into one of those."

Val looked back at the concrete of the subway platform, much too high to climb. Ahead, there was darkness, studded only with tiny lamps that seemed to give off little real light. Rustling noises seemed too close, and she thought she felt tiny paws run over one sneaker. She felt the panic she had been waiting for this whole time. It swallowed her up. She stopped, so gripped by fear that she couldn't move.

"Let's go." Lolli's voice came from the gloom. "Keep up."

Val heard the distant rattle of a train but couldn't tell how far away it was or even what track it was on. She ran to catch up to Lolli and Dave. She had never been afraid of the dark, but this was different. The darkness here was devouring, thick. It seemed like a living thing, breathing through its own pipes, heaving gusts of stench into the tunnel around her.

The smell of filth and wetness was oppressive. Her ears strained for the steps of the other two. She kept her eyes on the lights, as though they were a breadcrumb trail, leading her out of danger.

A train rushed by on the other side of the tracks, the sudden brightness and furious noise stunning her. She felt the pull of the air, as though everything in the tunnels was being drawn toward it. If it had been on her side, she would have never had time to jump for the niche.

"Here." The voice was close, surprisingly close. She couldn't be sure whether it belonged to Lolli or to Dave.

Val realized she was standing next to a platform. It looked like the station they'd left, except here the tiled walls were covered in graffiti. Mattresses were piled on the concrete shelf, heaped with blankets, throw pillows, and couch cus.h.i.+ons-most of them in some variation of mustard yellow. Candle stubs flickered dimly, some jammed in the sharp mouths of beer cans, others in tall gla.s.s jars decorated with the Virgin Mary's face on the label. A boy with his hair braided thickly back from his face sat near a hibachi grill in the back corner of the station. One of his eyes was clouded over, whitish and strange, and steel piercings puckered his dark skin. His ears were bright with rings, some thick as worms, and a bar stuck out from either cheek, as though to highlight his cheekbones. His nose was pierced through one nostril and a hoop threaded his lower lip. As he stood, Val saw that he wore a puffy black jacket over baggy and ripped jeans. Sketchy Dave started up a makes.h.i.+ft ladder of wood planking.

Val turned all the way around. One of the walls was decorated with spray paint that read "for never and ever."

"She's impressed," Lolli said. Her voice echoed in the tunnel.

Dave snorted and walked over to the fire. He took out flattened cigarette b.u.t.ts from his messenger bag and dropped them into one of the chipped mugs, then stacked cans of peaches and coffee.

The boy with the piercings lit up one of the b.u.t.ts and took a deep drag. "Who the f.u.c.k is that?"

"Val," Val said before Lolli could answer. Val s.h.i.+fted her weight, uncomfortably aware that she didn't know the way back.

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