Valiant. Part 6

Nothing farther then he uttered-not a feather then he fluttered-Till I scarcely more than muttered, "Other friends have flown before-On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before." Then the bird said, "Nevermore."

-EDGAR ALLAN POE, "THE RAVEN"

The city lights were bright and the streets were clogged with smokers standing outside of bars and restaurants when Val and Lolli staggered out of the bridge and onto the street.

A man sleeping on broken-down cardboard rolled over and wrapped an overcoat tighter around himself. Val started violently at the movement, her muscles clenching so fast that her shoulders hurt. Lolli cradled her messenger bag as if it were a stuffed animal, wrapping her arms around it and herself.

It was strange how when crazy things happened, it was hard to follow the tracery of reasons and impulses and thoughts that got you to the crazy place. Even though Val had wanted to find evidence of faeries, the actual proof was overwhelming. How many faeries were there and what other things might there be? In a world where faeries were real, might there be demons or vampires or sea monsters? How could these things exist and it not be on the front cover of every newspaper everywhere?

Val remembered her father reading The Three Billy Goats Gruff when she was a little kid. Trip trap, trip trap went the littlest Billy Goat Gruff. This troll was nothing like the ill.u.s.tration in the book-were any of them? Who's that tripping over my bridge?

"Look at my finger," Lolli said, holding it in the loose cradle of her other hand. It was puffy and bent at an odd angle from the joint. "He broke my f.u.c.king finger."

"It might be dislocated. I've done that before." Val remembered falling on her own hands on the lacrosse field, slipping out of a tree, trips to the doctor with his iodine and cigar-smoke smell. "You have to align it and splint it."

"Hey," Lolli said sharply. "I never asked for you to be my knight in s.h.i.+ning armor. I can take care of myself. You didn't have to promise anything to that monster and you don't have to play doctor now."

"You're right." Val kicked a crushed aluminum can, watching it bounce across the street like a stone might skim over water. "You don't need any help. You have everything under control."

Lolli looked intently into the window of an electronics store where televisions showed their faces. "I didn't say that."

Val bit her lip, tasting the remains of the troll's solution. She remembered his golden eyes and the rich, hot rage in his voice. "I'm sorry. I should have just believed you."

"Yeah, you should have," Lolli said, but she smiled.

"Look, we can get a stick or something for the splint. Tie it off with a shoelace." Val squatted down and started unlacing her sneaker.

"I have a better idea," Lolli said, turning toward the mouth of an alley. "How about I forget about the pain?" She sat down against the filthy bricks and pulled out her soup spoon, needle, lighter, and a gla.s.sine bag of whatever-it-was from her pack. "Give me the shoelace anyway."

Val thought of the moving shadows, remembered the amber sand, and had no idea what might happen next. "What is that?"

"Nevermore," Lolli said. "That's what Luis calls it, because there're three rules: Never more than once a day, never more than a pinch at a time, and never more than two days in a row."

"Who made those up?"

"Dave and Luis, I think. After they were living on the street, Luis started couriering for more faeries-I guess they have errands they need someone to run-and Dave took over some of the deliveries. One time he took a little bit of the Never, stirred it into some water like they do, and drank it up. It gives the faeries more glamour or something, to keep the iron from affecting them so much, but it gets us high. Drinking it was okay for a while, but it's so much better when you shoot it in your arm or freebase it like Dave does." Lolli spat into the spoon and lit the lighter. The solution sparkled as though it had just come alive.

"Glamour?"

"The way they make themselves look different, or other things seem different. Magic, I guess."

"What's it like?"

"Never? Like the ocean breaking over your head and sweeping you out to sea," Lolli said. "Nothing else can touch you. Nothing else matters."

Lolli drew up the stuff with the needle. Val wondered if she could ever feel that nothing touched her. It sounded like oblivion. It sounded like peace.

"No," Val said, and Lolli stopped.

Val smiled. "Do me first."

"Really?" Lolli grinned. "You want to?"

Val nodded, unbending her arm and holding it out.

Lolli tied off Val's arm, tapped out the bubbles from the syringe, and slid the needle in as neatly as if Val's skin had been built to sheathe it. The pain was so slight, it was less than the nick of a razor.

"You know," Lolli said, "the thing about drugs is that they make things kind of s.h.i.+ft, go leftward and sideways and upside down, but with Never, you can take everyone else upside down with you. What else can do that?"

Val had never thought too much about the inside of her elbow, but now it felt as vulnerable as her wrist, as her throat. She rubbed the bruise left when the needle was gone. There was barely any blood. "I don't know. Nothing, I guess."

Lolli nodded, as though pleased with that answer. As she was cooking up another batch of Never, Val found herself distracted by the sound of the fire, the feel of her own veins squirming like a nest of snakes under her skin.

"I-," Val started, but euphoria melted her bones. The world turned to honey, thick and slow and sweet. She couldn't think of what she wanted to say, and for a moment she imagined losing her words forever. What if she could never think of what it was she wanted to say?

"Your veins are drinking down the magic," Lolli said, her voice coming from a great distance. "Now you can make anything happen."

Fire flooded Val, was.h.i.+ng away the cold, banis.h.i.+ng all the small agonies-the blister on her toe, the ache of her stomach, the too-tight muscles across her shoulders. Her fear melted away, replaced with power. Power that throbbed inside of her, giddy and eager, opening her up like a puzzle box to find all of her secret hurt and anger and confusion. Power that whispered to her in tongues of fury, with promises of triumph.

"See? It doesn't hurt anymore," Lolli said. She took hold of her finger and twisted. It made a snapping sound, like the crack of a knuckle, and popped back into place.

Everything looked too clear, too bright. Val found herself getting lost in the patterns of grime on the sidewalk, the promise of candy-colored neon signs, the scent of distant pipe smoke, of exhaust pipes, of frying oil. Everything was strange and beautiful and swollen with possibilities.

Lolli grinned like a jackal. "I want to show you something."

The fire was eating away at the inside of her arms, painful, but deliciously so, like being flooded with light. She felt volatile and unstoppable.

"Is this how it always is?" Val asked, even though some distant part of her mind told her that it was impossible for Lolli to know what Val was feeling.

"Yes," Lolli said. "Oh, yes."

Lolli led them down the street, approaching an Asian man with close-cropped graying hair walking in the opposite direction. At first he backed up when they got close, but then something seemed to relax him.

"I'd like some money," Lolli said.

He smiled and reached into the pocket of his coat, pulling out a wallet. He took out several twenties. "Is this enough?" he asked. His voice sounded strange, soft, and dazzled.

She leaned in to kiss his cheek. "Thank you."

Val felt the wind whip off the Hudson, but the scorching cold couldn't touch her now. The fiercest gust seemed like a caress. "How did you make him do that?" she asked, but it was all wonder and no apprehension.

"He wanted to," Lolli said. "They all want us to have whatever we want."

As they walked, each person they pa.s.sed gave them what they asked for. A woman in a sequined skirt gave them her last cigarette, a young guy in a baseball cap handed over his coat without a word, a woman in a bronze trench pulled a pair of glittering gold hoops right from her ears.

Lolli reached into a trash can and lifted out banana peels, wet paper, slimy bread, and cups filled with sludgy water. "Watch this," she said.

In her hands, the detritus turned into cupcakes so white and fine that Val reached out her hand for one.

"No," Lolli said. "For them." She handed one to an old man as he pa.s.sed and he gobbled it like an animal, reaching for another and another as though they were the best food in the world.

Val laughed, partially at his delight, partially at their power over him. She picked up a stone and turned it into a cracker. He ate that too, licking Val's hands for any last trace of it. His tongue tickled and that only made her laugh harder.

They walked a few more blocks; Val couldn't be sure how many. She kept noticing fascinating things she hadn't seen before: the sheen on a roach's wings as it scuttled over a grate, the smirk of a carved face over a lintel, the broken stems of flowers outside of a bodega.

"Here we are," Lolli said, pointing to a dark store. In the window, mannequins posed in pencil skirts printed with scenes from comic books, or lounged on modern, red settees, holding up polka-dotted martini gla.s.ses. "I want to go in."

Val walked up to the window and kicked the gla.s.s. It spiderwebbed but didn't cave. The alarm squawked twice and went silent.

"Try this," Lolli instructed, picking up a plastic straw. In her hand, it changed into a crowbar, heavy and cold.

Val smiled with delight and hit the window with all the built-up aggression of hating Tom and her mother and herself, all the anger at the troll in the tower, and the fury at the entire universe. She beat the gla.s.s in until it folded like bent metal.

"Nice." Lolli grinned and crawled through the window. As soon as Val was inside, the gla.s.s was back, uncracked, better than new.

Inside the store, lights came on and canned music started to play.

Each new glamour seemed to feed the power inside of Val instead of depleting it. With each enchantment, she felt giddier, wilder. Val wasn't even quite sure which one of them was doing what anymore.

Lolli kicked off her shoes in the middle of the store and tried on a dress of green satin. Val could see her bare feet were red with blisters. "Is this cute?"

"Sure." Val picked out a new pair of underwear and some jeans, tossing her old clothes onto the outstretched arm of a mannequin. "Look at this c.r.a.p, Lolli. These are a-hundred-and-eighty-dollar jeans and they don't look like anything. They're just jeans."

"They're free," said Lolli.

Val found clothes and then sat down in one of the cartoonish armchairs to watch Lolli try on more things. As she danced around with a beaded shawl on her head, Val noticed the display next to the chair.

"See this?" Val said, holding up an avocado-colored winegla.s.s. "How ugly is this? I mean, who would pay for something this ugly?"

Lolli grinned and reached for a hat with pink feather fringe. "People buy what they're told to buy. They don't know it's ugly, or maybe they do and they think there's something wrong with thinking that."

"Then they need to be protected from themselves," Val said, and hurled the gla.s.s at the linoleum tile. It shattered, gla.s.s shards spinning out in every direction. "Anyone can see these things are ugly. Ugly, ugly, ugly."

Lolli started to laugh and she kept on laughing as Val broke every last one.

Walking back to Worth Street station with Lolli, Val felt disoriented, unsure of what had actually happened. As the Never ebbed from her, she felt more and more faded, as though the fire of the enchantment had eaten away some tangible part of her, had harrowed her.

She remembered a store and people that ate food out of her hands, and walking, but she couldn't quite be sure where she'd gotten what she was wearing. She remembered a blur of faces and gifts and smiles, as hazy as the memory of a monster in a tower before all that.

When she looked down at herself, she saw clothes she couldn't remember picking out-big black a.s.s-kicking boots that were definitely warmer than her sneakers, a T-s.h.i.+rt printed with a heraldic lion, black cargo pants with tons of zippered pockets and a black coat that was much too big for her. It unnerved her to think that her own clothes were just gone, left behind somewhere. The boots pinched her feet as she walked, but she was glad of the coat. It seemed like they'd walked far into SoHo and, without the magic in her body, she felt colder than ever.

As they slipped through the service entrance and down the stairs, Val saw several people in the tunnel. The changing flicker of the candles lit up one of their cheekbones, the curve of a jaw, the paper bag-covered bottle one was lifting to his mouth. The girl with the swollen belly was there, wrapped up in a blanket with another body.

"There you are," Sketchy Dave said. His voice sounded slurred and when the candlelight caught him, she could see that his mouth had the slack look of the very drunk. "Come sit with me, Lolli," he said. "Come sit over here."

"No," she said, picking her way over to Luis instead. "You can't tell me what to do."

"I'm not trying to tell you anything," he said, and now his voice was miserable. "Don't you know I love you, baby? I would do anything for you. Look." He held up his arm. "Lolli" was carved into the skin in sluggishly bleeding letters. "Look what I did."

Val winced. Lolli just laughed.

Luis lit a cigarette and, for a moment, as the match struck, his whole face was illuminated. He looked furious.

"Why don't you believe me?" Dave demanded.

"I believe you," Lolli said, voice gone shrill. "I don't care. You're boring. Maybe I would love you if you weren't boring!"

Luis jumped to his feet, pointing his cigarette first at Lolli and then at Dave. "Just shut the f.u.c.k up, both of you." He turned and glared at Val, as though this all was somehow her fault.

"Who are they?" Val asked, gesturing toward the couple tangled in the blankets. "I thought n.o.body was supposed to be down here."

"n.o.body is supposed to be down here," he said, sitting down next to his brother. "Not you, not me, not them."

Val rolled her eyes, but she didn't think he noticed in the candlelight. Scooting close to Lolli, she whispered, "Is he this much of a d.i.c.k when I'm not around?"

"It's complicated," Lolli whispered back. "They used to squat here before, but Derek got sent upstate for some s.h.i.+t and Tanya moved to some abandoned building out in Queens."

Luis s.h.i.+fted closer to his brother and spoke quietly to him. Sketchy Dave got up, hands fisted. "You get everything," he shouted at Luis, tears on his cheeks, snot running from his nose.

"What do you want from me?" Luis demanded. "I never touched that girl. It's not my fault you're whipped."

"I'm not a thing," Lolli yelled at both of them, a terrible expression on her face. "You can't talk about me like I'm a thing."

"f.u.c.k you," Dave shouted. "I'm boring? I'm a coward? Someday you're going to wish you didn't talk that way."

The girl in the blanket sat up, blinking rapidly. "Wha-"

"Come on," Luis said, taking Dave's arm. "Let's get out of here, Dave. You're just drunk. You need to walk it off."

Dave jerked away from his brother. "f.u.c.k off."

Val stood up, the last lingering threads of Never making the chalky dark of the tunnels swim. Her legs felt rubbery and the soles of her feet burned from all the walking her body was just starting to realize it had done, but the last thing she wanted was to get caught up in claustrophobic bulls.h.i.+t. "Never mind. We're out of here."

Lolli followed her back up the stairs.

"Why do you like him so much?" Val asked.

"I don't like him." Lolli didn't bother to ask who Val meant. "His eye is jacked up. He's too skinny and he acts like an old man."

Val shrugged and threaded her thumb through the belt loop of her new pants, watching her boots step on the cracks in the sidewalk, letting her silence speak for her.

Lolli sighed. "He should be begging me for it."

"He should," Val agreed.

They walked down Bayard Street, past groceries selling bags of rice, piles of pale golden apples, bamboo shoots in bowls of water, and huge spiky fruit that hung down from the ceiling. They pa.s.sed little shops selling sungla.s.ses, paper lamps, clumps of bamboo bound with gold ribbons, and bright-green plastic dragons molded to resemble carved jade.

"Let's stop," Lolli said. "I'm hungry." The mere mention of food made Val's stomach growl. The fear had soured her belly and she realized she hadn't eaten anything since the night before. "Okay."

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