courtneysmyth and aiscat93 have won copies of Rampant
yathenaeum has won a Demon's Lexicon prize pack from the last Big Idea post.
All of you should email me your addresses at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will send you your prizes!
Second: a present for you all!
My Big Idea is as follows: I put up a short story to celebrate every week sales reach a certain (modest) number, to thank readers for buying hardcover, and as a show of faith that blogs and free content make a difference.
People who link to the short story get entered for a draw for a Prize Pack (this week's is a Demon's Lexicon audio book, a selection of bookmarks and a copy of The Eternal Kiss, a selection of vampire stories by Holly Black, Rachel Caine, Cassandra Clare, Libba Bray, lots of awesome people.. and me). Links from book bloggers count as extra, as I think book bloggers are great.
In the forum, Karatheon mentioned Natasha Walsh, and I got to thinking, and someone else mentioned Olivia, and... well.
The backstory of some characters both mentioned and actually featured in The Demon's Lexicon, not necessary to have read the book. I very much hope you all enjoy!
The Arundel Tomb
She was trapped, and she was starting to think she was never going to get out.
The little steel box had been rattling against the walls, the lines it was connecting to creaking, for hours. There were new sounds every time the boys outside went into a fresh spree of button-pressing, the sound of wheels grinding on wheels, the low scream and scrape of metal on metal.
Marie was sitting in one corner of the lift, her arms wrapped around her knees, her head pressed down on her arms. She was trying to make a small still centre of herself, crushing down the panic and fear.
Mum, Dad or Tasha would be bound to miss her soon. They would be bound to check the library eventually. There were only so many places Marie could be: school, at music practice, or the library. Why would she go anywhere else? It wasn’t as if she had any friends.
The lift shook again, pulleys groaning. Marie kept her back pressed flat against the wall, pushing as if she could dig through steel with her shoulderblades.
The sound of the boys’ laughter wasn’t so bad if she could just tell herself it wasn’t malicious. It was like the sound of a flock of birds, she told herself, like quarreling magpies. They were just stupid. They weren’t really trying to hurt her. They didn’t hate her. It was just a game.
She curled her body inward, making a tight ball. Still and small and calm.
There was another awful little metallic shriek. The sound of the boys’ laughing stopped abruptly.
Something’s gone wrong, Marie told herself. There’s a light flashing or a line has frayed and the lift’s going to plummet and you’re going to die.
She’d never thought she might die in an accident. Not like that.
There was a slam and the whole lift rocked with the shock of the impact of – something. The boys were throwing things down at her, Marie thought. They wanted the lift to fall: or at best, they didn’t care if it did or not. They didn’t care if she lived or died.
Marie waited, braced, for the next slam. Instead she heard another tiny creak. She waited for the noise to escalate, tried to stay small and calm, head down, deep breaths, and then there was another slam.
She hardly noticed the noise, because the creak had been a hatch lifting, and the slam was feet hitting the floor of the lift.
Marie looked up, and up. Her first feeling was not relief, but fear.
This wasn’t an adult. This was a boy, just like the gang of boys who thought it was hilarious to imprison her in a lift. Except this boy was much bigger. This boy was huge. He had shoulders twice as wide as her father’s: big hands that looked like they could grab her, shove her, keep her trapped.
“Hey,” he said. “Are you all right?”
“I,” Marie said, and was appalled to find her voice trembling.
“Oh, hey,” he said, his voice softer, and he knelt down. “Hey there, honey. C’mon. I’ve got you. I’ll find your mum.”
Marie’s head jerked up. “My mum?” She stared at him indignantly. “How old do you think I am?”
“Um,” said the boy.
“I’m fourteen,” Marie snapped. “I’m in the class below you at school. I’ve seen you walking around being all stupid and tall.”
“Come on,” the boy protested. “I’m not that tall.”
Marie found the corner of her mouth tugging up to respond to his smile, and only stopped because her mouth moving made her aware her cheeks were stiff with drying tears.
“So, okay,” the boy continued, his own smile not dimmed at all, but warm and steady. “You go to my school. Are you new?”
“Yes,” Marie muttered. “You haven’t noticed me?”
The words sounded vain, but she didn’t mean it that way. Their school was small enough, and she wasn't hard to spot.
The boy rested back on his haunches, grinning at her. “Well, it’s hard for me to differentiate between all you tiny people, from my great height.”
“Even from your great height,” Marie said mildly. “I’d think you might be able to see that all the other girls have hair.”
She waited for him to look uneasy or ask her what the hair was about – less than an inch of blond hair that somehow managed to look sickly, like dying grass, got Marie attention. Just not the kind of attention anybody would want.
Opinions at school ranged from her not caring what she looked like, being in a loony bin, liking girls, being very troubled and cutting her own hair that way. People had decided she was weird, and so they went with whatever reason allowed them to dislike her most.
“You have hair,” the boy said, just as mildly. “Like a duckling.”
Marie let herself uncurl, a little bit. “Like a-“
“Well, you know, yellow and fuzzy,” the boy said. “Not trying to insinuate you have feathers. We’ve just met. That would be rude.”
Marie gave a startled little hiccup of a laugh and then she saw that the boy’s smile had been dimmed after all. Now the smile broke out as warm and welcoming as his arms would have been, she suddenly knew, if she had been the child he’d thought she was.
“You jumped down here because you thought I was a little kid?”
“Well, I didn’t know who you were,” he said. “Just that I saw Jim and Steve and the rest of that lot from year ten giggling like dumbasses and pressing buttons. It looked like they’d been at it a while, so I figured whoever was in here was scared.”
“It was very kind of you,” Marie said tactfully. “But – now there are two of us stuck in here.”
“Nah,” the boy responded, easy and sweet. “I told Jim to go get someone. He will. They’re not really bad guys, you know. They just got carried away.”
“If they’d gone for someone,” Marie said. “Someone would be here by now.”
“Well,” said the boy.
They waited for a few moments of silence, listening to the absence of hurrying footsteps and concerned voices.
“Well, the good news is you’re no longer trapped in a lift on your own,” the boy said. “The bad news is that you’re now trapped in a lift with an idiot.”
Marie sighed. “Don’t blame yourself. I think it’s nice that you believed they’d get help.”
“It was naïve,” Marie said. “But it was nice. And I’d rather be trapped in here with an idiot than trapped in here alone.”
She grinned at him, and he gave her that supernova smile again.
“I’m Daniel Ryves,” he said.
“Exchanging names might’ve been a bad idea, though,” Daniel said thoughtfully. “In case we’re trapped here and one of us has to eat the other to survive.“ He blinked and then added: “I’m a gentleman, though, so you’re welcome to kill me and eat me if you have to.”
“Thanks,” Marie said. “That’s very considerate.”
“So that’s settled,” Daniel said, and leaned back against the other side of the lift wall with easy grace, huge and athletic, moving as if he was comfortable with every inch. He flicked a look up at her, serious for a moment. “I’m just kidding around,” he added. “Worst comes to the worst, I think I can climb back up.”
“Don’t you dare try! What if you slipped or the lift moved and you got crushed?”
“I wouldn’t slip,” Daniel said, sounding mildly offended. “I mountain climb.”
Marie uncurled all the way so she could lunge forward and grab his sleeve.
“And you won’t get crushed, because you’re Superman?”
Whenever she was allowed outside, a few times over the years, she was appalled seeing the risks people took. They crossed haphazardly in front of moving cars, blithe and calm, sure that they were special and they could never be hurt.
They were so stupid.
“No,” Daniel said. “Okay. I’m sorry. I’ll stay.”
Marie realized she’d just reached out and grabbed a strange boy. She was being too intense, she thought. Over the years, she’d got out of the habit of casual conversation. She was always freaking out the other kids.
Daniel just looked at her. His eyes were a very deep dark blue, like a jar of ink with light shining through it.
She drew back her hand. “You’d better stay,” she said. “You promised I could kill and eat you.”
Daniel threw back his curly red head and laughed. He kept his head tilted back against the lift wall, comfortable even though he was trapped, and even though he was being stupid and naïve, Marie felt obscurely comforted.
“Until we get to the killing, “ Daniel said suddenly. “Do you want to jam?”
He kicked Marie’s guitar case gently. Marie patted it apologetically, because it was her best guitar and never deserved to be kicked, and then smiled.
“Jam? D’you have a tin whistle in your back pocket?”
“No,” said Daniel. “But I thought that I could sing while you played.” He looked amused by her doubtful glance. “I’m good,” he said. “I’m a choirboy.”
“You’re a mountain-climbing choirboy.”
“I’m a mountain-climbing cricket captain top of my class flute-playing fencing choirboy,” Daniel said. “Don’t try to put me in a box.”
“Flute?” Marie said. “That’s cool!” She paused. “I’m not being ironic,” she added belatedly. “I really – music is my passion.”
It was true, but it sounded ridiculous coming out of her mouth. She kept saying ridiculous true things, and then had to deal with people staring, because kids were supposed to communicate with each other in some kidding around language Marie hadn’t been around to learn.
“That’s cool,” said Daniel. “I’m not being ironic,” he added, and somehow his kidding around didn’t hurt. Maybe it was because he could go on to be serious, and not sound self-conscious at all. “I’m good at a lot of stuff, but it’d be nice to know that something was the one thing. To be really sure.”
He looked down at the knees of his jeans.
Marie had never doubted exactly what she wanted to do. She didn’t even understand being unsure, but she thought it would be frightening. “It is nice.”
“The only thing I’m really sure about is Olivia,” Daniel said. “That’s my girlfriend. She’s my passion.”
It only struck Marie later how much force of personality, how much quiet self-assurance, a fifteen year old boy needed to be able to say ‘She’s my passion’ and mean it. Even Daniel Ryves seemed a little embarrassed by it, ducking his head after he’d spoken.
When he lifted his chin, there was faint colour rising along his cheekbones. “So, let’s hear you play. Since it’s your passion and all.”
It was the music that finally got them help. A library patron heard the strains of John Lennon’s Whatever Gets You Through the Night and fetched help. Through people calling down to them, Daniel kept singing and urging Marie to play on.
When the lift finally rose and the doors opened, they opened on Marie sitting on her guitar case strumming, and Daniel standing with his arms spread wide.
“Don't need a sword to cut through flowers oh no, oh no,” he caroled out triumphantly. “Whatever gets you through your life 'salright, 'salright. Do it wrong or do it right 'salright, 'salright.” He grabbed Marie’s hand and lifted her up to bow with him.
Marie laughed and did it with a flourish, her pulse beating fast against his.
“Thank you, thank you,” said Daniel. “We’ll be trapped in a lift every week. Come see us again.”
Of course, girlfriend or not, ridiculous though she knew it was, by the time the lift doors opened Marie was hopelessly in love.
Marie thought that would be the end of it, a brief beautiful episode she would remember and he would forget. But on Monday she walked into the cafeteria and Daniel rose from his chair.
“Over here,” he called out, and most of the heads in the cafeteria turned to see who he was talking to.
Marie died inside, and contemplated the fact that she could simultaneously love someone and wish to beat them to death with her guitar case. Since there didn’t seem to be much choice about it, she trailed reluctantly over to Daniel’s lunch table, which was crowded with boys who were just a gang like Jim and Steve, only a year older and bigger, and the girls she was almost more scared of.
Daniel pointed at her, gesturing for her to sit in the seat across from him. Marie had to push her case under the seat and gracelessly scramble, but she managed to get into it.
“Olivia, this is the girl I was talking about,” Daniel said. “Marie. Marie, this is Olivia.”
Olivia was pretty much what Marie had expected, which was to say ravishingly beautiful. She was tall, tall enough to look right with Daniel, and slim in that way which still involved curves. She had a waterfall of hair like black silk, and her eyes were hooded, as if Marie really wasn’t worth the bother for Olivia to lift her eyelids. All Marie caught was a glimpse of arctic blue beneath the shadowy veils of long, much-mascara’d lashes.
“Hi,” she murmured, her voice low and throaty.
Daniel persevered and talked to Marie about music for most of lunch, though occasionally he got distracted by one of his friends and Marie had to sit there, conscious to the marrow of her bones of her hot cheeks and her horrible hair.
Olivia continued to look exquisitely bored, until almost the very end of lunch, when she said: “I’m going to the ladies. Marie!”
“Er,” Marie said nervously. “Yes?”
Olivia gave her a scornful look, already standing. “Are you coming?”
“Guess I am,” Marie said under her breath, and levered herself out of her seat. By the time she’d retrieved her guitar case, she was out of breath and Olivia was looking impatient.
She strode ahead of Marie in the halls, never glancing back. Her hair blew out behind her like a flag in the wind.
“Look,” Marie said, as she heaved the case into the bathroom, the door swinging shut behind her. “It really isn’t necessary to warn me off.”
“Oh I know,” Olivia told her, leaning against the sink with her arms crossed under her breasts. “But I’d rather terrify you away now than have to put up with weeks of you hanging around sighing and staring like a cow with asthma.”
Marie raised an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t describe myself as terrified.”
“Really?” Olivia asked, and made a small gesture.
Every tap in the bathroom turned, very slowly, as if being manipulated by an invisible, childish hand that could only just reach. Water came hissing out of every faucet, and the steam rising from the water made Olivia’s hair lift a little, floating around her like shadows come alive.
Olivia smiled. “Are you terrified now?”
Marie stood frozen.
Olivia laughed, then, and left the sink. She stopped beside Marie and touched Marie’s awful hair with long, lacquered fingernails, running along Marie’s scalp like claws.
She said: “That’s what I thought.”
She left the bathroom, and Marie stood staring at the rushing water.
After a while, she realized that no magic was going to turn off the water, and she went slowly over to the sinks. Someone had to stop the room from flooding.
Marie didn’t take stupid risks. She didn’t see how crossing the road dangerously gave her anything but an exciting chance at broken legs.
This was different.
Whenever she had the chance to go out, she used to make catalogues of things she saw, things to make struggling through the next round of treatment bearable. She used to tell herself them while she was lying in bed staring at the white plastic covering the windows. Because I lived until today, I saw dragonflies.
Because I lived until today, Marie found herself thinking. I saw magic.
For days after that, she found herself leaning against walls, hugging her instrument cases to her chest and watching to see what Olivia did. She never used magic in front of Daniel, Marie noticed. But when Daniel was gone, there were a couple of times when a pencil out of her reach found her hand, or a clock struck to end a class a few minutes early.
One of those times, when the class leaped up in incredulous joy and haste to flee before the teacher objected, Marie lost sight of Olivia.
She saw her with a vengeance when Olivia appeared in front of her, pinning her to a wall.
“You’re not even scared, are you?” Olivia spat, lips skinned back from her teeth, almost too ferocious to be beautiful.
“Has everyone been scared before?” Marie asked.
Olivia sneered. “What do you think?”
“I think you only ever told people you didn’t mind scaring off,” Marie said. “You haven’t told Daniel.”
Olivia stepped back from Marie fast, as if Marie’s shirt had suddenly gone on fire beneath her fingers. Her long hair was suddenly more like a flying veil than a flag, but through the falling blackness Marie could see her face had turned white.
Marie reached out her hand. “Don’t worry,” she said, though Olivia was already retreating. “I won’t tell.”
She watched Olivia run away, posters tearing off the walls as she went.
Daniel kept trying to shepherd her towards his table at lunch, and Marie went sometimes because she knew he honestly wanted her company, and because he was beautiful. Even though she knew that it wouldn’t be worth it, that he would be the only one who’d talk to her.
One lunchtime Daniel was talking to his friend Simon about football. Under the noise of boys yelling together a girl called Nicola, who had red hair in the most perfect perm imaginable, leaned forward and told Marie in an undertone: “Been meaning to say. Nice hair.”
Marie hadn’t been braced for it. She flinched.
“God, Nicki,” Olivia said from her place beside Daniel, where she’d been casually examining her fingernails. “You’re so boring. I’ve been meaning to ask, Marie. Do you have a nickname?”
“Uh, like Ree?” Marie asked. “No.”
“Good,” Olivia told her decisively. “We don’t like nicknames, do we?”
Daniel was always attuned to the sound of her voice, always ready to turn towards her. “No,” he said, smiling at her and Marie. “Very important to me not to be called Dan,” he went on, with his usual combination of gravity and playfulness. “I feel there’s more to me than that. There’s a wealth of individuality and personality expressed in that ‘iel,’ you see.”
“I do see,” said Marie. “Um, I think Ree would sound massively stupid.”
“Liv sounds stupid, too,” Olivia agreed. “It sounds like a command. Sit! Stay! Die! Live!” She tossed her hair. “I don’t take orders well.”
“Lucky for her, I do,” said Daniel, and wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
Olivia relaxed into him slightly. She was still watching Marie, her scarlet-painted mouth tipped up at the corners a little. Marie found she didn’t mind them cuddling, not much.
“Come sleep over at my house this weekend,” Olivia said suddenly.
“Excuse me, I will do no such thing,” Daniel told her. “You must not be aware you’re speaking to a choirboy.”
Olivia rolled her eyes. “Oh yes, you take orders so well, Daniel. As it happens, I was speaking to Marie.”
Daniel looked massively delighted, eyes filled with stars that she was ready to like people who he liked, that she was willing to reach out.
Marie could kind of understand how he felt.
Olivia’s house was big and beautiful, about four times the size of Marie’s, the kind of house that Marie’s family would have had if they hadn’t had to pay for all the treatments.
“Must be nice to have your own room,” Marie said, curling up in Olivia’s window seat as Olivia played her records extremely loud. “I have to share with my sister Tasha. She’s in the year above you.”
“All right,” Olivia said, obviously amused at the implication she might know who Tasha was. “Is it nice to have a sister? My parents never had any more. Too scared to, after me.”
She laughed, a brittle sort of sound.
Her room was huge and dark, filled with old wood and heavy curtains. Olivia had hung the whole place with windchimes, covering the windows, dripping from the ceiling like dozens of tiny chandeliers.
“Yes. I love Tasha,” Marie said. It was one of the things she said that to her were simple and obvious, and that made the other kids stare. Olivia stared, too, but it was a different kind of stare, one that made Marie brave enough to say, “I’d love to see some more magic.”
“Magic,” Olivia repeated, and gave a startled little laugh. “I never thought of it that way.”
She was wearing nothing but a loose black T-shirt, barely reaching her white thighs. Marie would have been hideously self-conscious wearing so little in front of any of the girls at school, but Olivia didn’t seem to notice, just stood there with her hair tumbling down her back and her face thoughtful.
“What other way is there to think about it?”
“Yeah,” Olivia said. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
She tipped back her head and laughed, a wild sort of sound, and when School’s Out started fresh she grabbed Marie’s hands and swung her up out of the window seat.
“Well we got no choice,” Marie sang at her. “All the girls and boys-“
Olivia spun her around and then threw up a hand, and all the windchimes in the room started swaying and singing out, chiming to each other.
Under the music, Olivia said: “I’m a magician!” and she laughed, and the ceiling was like a sea of crystal with mermaids hidden in the gleaming moonlight, singing like she and Olivia were singing, each to each.
That morning they were served huge breakfasts by Olivia’s mother, a tall thin woman who wore the remains of Olivia’s beauty like a tattered ballgown, far more striking and pathetic than ordinary clothes getting old. She had grey eyes rather than Olivia’s ice blue, and they looked haunted.
When Olivia went to the bathroom, Olivia’s mother grasped Marie from behind, her fingers clutching hard and shocking.
“You seem like a nice girl,” Olivia’s mother said. It sounded like a warning.
“I try,” Marie said, awkward but firm. “Olivia’s a good friend.”
Olivia came striding back in and gave her mother a darkling look that made her shrink back against the sink. Marie looked over her shoulder to give the poor woman a smile, and then turned back and smiled at Olivia.
She wondered what had started the cycle: Olivia’s parents being scared of her or Olivia testing them by trying to provoke fear, and then getting angrier and scarier when it worked.
“These waffles are so good,” Marie said. “Thanks so much. Be careful, Olivia, or I’ll invite myself over every weekend.”
Mum and Dad were so happy that Marie had found some friends. It seemed to let them relax, as if having Olivia or Daniel calling was a sign that everything was finally over, that the battle had been won.
Tasha was practical about it, as she was about most things, as she’d been Marie’s whole life, pretending like everything was normal. She was getting ready for a race, pulling on her gymknicks and tying her shoes, as she told her that it was great Marie was getting out of the house more.
“Just, maybe, watch yourself and don’t fall for Dan Ryves,” Tasha warned, tying up her long blond hair. “Strikes me that girlfriend of his wouldn’t think twice about scratching out eyes.”
“Olivia isn’t so bad,” Marie said, amused. She was trying to muster up the energy to sit up in bed, but it didn’t seem worth the effort. “And she knows she has – she’s got-”
“Marie,” Tasha said sharply, and Marie found herself jerked upright, Tasha’s hands on her shoulders.
In Tasha’s eyes she saw panic, and fear, and just a bit of weary exasperation because now Tasha was going to miss her race.
Marie didn’t blame her. It did get annoying, after a while.
“Olivia’s got nothing to worry about,” Marie murmured to the wall when Tasha went racing for their parents. Tasha had always been absolutely healthy, vibrant and glowing with it. She took steps three at a time.
Marie had resented her for it, sometimes, the same way Tasha had resented Marie taking up all their parents’ time and attention. They’d spent hours at a time hating each other, off and on, over the years.
But Marie had never had Olivia’s doubts. She knew Tasha loved her, knew they all loved her. She could feel the weight of their anxiety pressing down on her chest as they drove her to the hospital to get a fresh barrage of tests.
Olivia pulled her into a bathroom that Friday, taking the cap off her lipstick as if it had personally annoyed her.
“You weren’t in school yesterday,” she observed, painting her mouth vengeful red.
Marie sat down on the floor, with her back to the wall. She felt like she was back in the lift, like Daniel had never come to rescue her.
“Marie, are you listening to me?” Olivia demanded. “What were you doing? I wanted to show you-”
“Yeah,” Marie said. “That’s fair.”
“I beg your pardon,” Olivia said. “And by that I mean, don’t interrupt me again.”
“I know your secret, so I guess you should know mine,” Marie said, the words falling out of her mouth like an avalanche. “Okay, then. Acute myelogenous leukemia.”
“What,” Olivia said.
The mirror Olivia was staring into cracked clear across. Marie found that she was crying.
“It sounds like a magic spell,” she said. “Doesn’t it? It sounds like nonsense. But it’s not. It’s cancer. I’ve had cancer,” Marie named the enemy with savage fury, “since I was a little kid. That’s why I’m so weird. It’s all been homeschools and hospitals for years. That’s why my hair looks the way it does, it’s just starting to grow back. But I didn’t want – I’d rather be the weird kid than the sick kid. I didn’t want anybody to know.”
When Olivia turned to face her, the whole line of mirrors broke. Olivia’s reflection fractured a dozen different ways.
“But you’re all right now,” Olivia said commandingly, as if she could make it true.
“I might not be,” Marie whispered. “I was in remission, but I was feeling bad yesterday. They took me in for some tests.”
That was the word they always used. Remission, not cure. The cancer could always come slipping back in, like a monster who had the key to her house.
Olivia sat on the floor, near Marie, and when she lifted her hand Marie thought it might be to hold her. Instead Olivia slammed her fist down against the bathroom tile.
“This is so stupid,” she said. Her mouth curled in that terrible way it always did right before she said something that got them all into trouble, and Marie reached out to her instead, her arm sliding around Olivia’s neck. Olivia bowed into the touch and came closer, her hair falling around Marie’s shoulders. “This is so stupid,” she repeated. “The magic, it’s so stupid and useless. I don’t have enough power to change anything. I can’t help myself. I can’t help you.”
“It’s okay,” Marie whispered, and Olivia grabbed Marie’s shirt in her fist the way she had a month ago, to intimidate her, and hung on. “It’s okay,” Marie said again, rocking her a little. The glass from the mirrors began to fall, splintering on the ground, and Marie said: “We’re all going to be okay.”
It wasn’t cancer. It was just an infection. The doctors told them again that Marie’s immune system wasn’t as strong as another kid’s would have been, that Mum and Dad had to keep an eye on her, couldn’t let her overtax herself.
Marie was so grateful she staggered as she left the hospital, she felt like if she fell she wouldn’t get hurt. She staggered again when she was walking from the car to her front door, and didn’t get hurt because Daniel caught her.
“Marie,” he said. “Are you all right?”
Marie looked up about a foot into those summer-evening eyes, and nodded. His body relaxed so much she could feel it, so that instead of him being braced for her to lean on him, suddenly they were leaning together.
“Oh, thank God,” said Daniel, as if he really meant it. Then he remembered his manners and said hello and thank you and wonderful news to Mum and Dad and Tasha.
Despite her advice, Tasha looked a little charmed by him, a little smitten. Marie couldn’t blame her.
“I should go home and call Olivia,” Daniel said after a while. “We had a few words this morning. I was praying, and she was breaking stuff.”
He sounded wryly amused, as if that was them in a nutshell, and perhaps it was. Marie nodded and leaned against him for another moment.
It was at a picnic that Marie realized she wasn’t jealous of Olivia.
It was summertime and they’d all gone down by the river, and Daniel asked for music, and Marie stood on a rock with her feet wet and bare while Olivia and Daniel danced in the water.
Christopher Rowland came and sat on the rock at her feet. He’d taken to hanging around ever since her hair grew out enough to be cute: he’d called it a halo once. Daniel had laughed and murmured ‘Duckling.’
Marie played the flute and Daniel danced, Olivia’s skirt floating on top of sparkling stirred waters, his head glowing gold and bent to her black one. Marie couldn’t see her face, but she could see Daniel’s.
“Are you, um,” Christopher said. “Are you in love with him like all the other girls?”
All the other girls would be a pretty fair assessment. Olivia had the kind of beauty that scared people off, something to look at but never touch. Marie was all right now, she supposed, but she was most comfortable if nobody but people she trusted wanted to look or touch. She was an expert by now at not being noticed.
Daniel drew every eye. He looked warm and bright and inviting as the sun, and he pulled people in like gravity.
“It’s just I thought,” Christopher continued. “I know you’re like, Olivia’s best mate.”
Which meant she had to want the best for Olivia, and Daniel was unquestionably the best.
Even if Marie could have had Daniel by wishing for it, which she couldn’t, and had Olivia not be hurt by that in this same miraculous wish, Olivia would still be alone then. She would be at the mercy of her own dark thoughts, her restless curiosity, the magic that kept breaking in her hands and cutting her to pieces.
Marie wanted her as safe as she could be, wanted her guarded and loved. She might feel wistful thinking about Daniel, the only boy who’d smiled at her when she had no hair, she might feel sad sometimes.
She would not have changed it, not even the part where she fell in love in a lift and an hour. She'd chosen pretty well, she thought. It was good to know there was a guy like that in the world: good to think maybe someday she’d find another.
But not Christopher.
“What are you talking about?” Marie asked when she was done. “I was just playing a song.”
Durham was a college town. It was odd to be from the kind of place everybody went to and nobody came from, but it did mean that there were places to go where all the college kids hung out.
The summer Marie was sixteen, Olivia wanted to go to them a lot.
Marie suggested bringing the others, but Olivia always nixed that idea.
“What about Daniel?”
“Especially not Daniel,” Olivia said, hanging a necklace with a key on it around Marie’s neck, and sneering into the mirror through Marie’s hair. “That idiot.”
They were having another fight, then. Marie didn’t ask which this one was about: Daniel pushing too hard at Olivia’s secrets, Olivia asking Daniel to go to a college far away so he could take her with him when Daniel wanted to stay close to home, Daniel wanting to wait until marriage, Olivia being in trouble for vandalism or truancy.
Marie just went with her to another club, where Olivia could dance and feel better. College guys always bought them a lot of drinks when Olivia was in this kind of mood, starting out stunned by Olivia’s perfect storm beauty and then as the hours passed by and Olivia’s hair and laughter got wilder, transferring their attention to Marie.
“You look like a little angel,” one boy yelled over the noise of the club. “I love your hair.”
“It’s a wig,” Marie lied, and slipped under his arm to find Olivia, dancing alone and with frenetic energy, leather skirt going dangerously high, a wind rising through the club.
A purple light exploded, and tiny pieces of glass went flying. Olivia stopped dancing.
“I didn’t mean-“ she began when Marie reached her.
“I know,” Marie said. “Let’s get out of here.”
They went walking home down by the river at midnight. Olivia kicked off her gold wedge sandals and sat on the bank, dabbling her feet in the water, and stared into the night. Marie sat waiting, and eventually Olivia turned and threw herself on the bank, her head cradled in her arm, her hair trailing in the dirt.
“Sweetheart,” Marie said, brushing the glass from her hair. “Tell me what I can do.”
“You can,” Olivia said, raging, hands clawing up the earth. “You can help me – go back in time and get born right. I can’t – I keep messing everything up. It would be better if I left, without Daniel. Everyone would be happier.”
“It wouldn’t be better. You’d break his heart.”
“It would be all right,” Olivia said, and pressed her forehead against Marie’s hip. “He’d be with you.”
Marie hesitated while she was stroking Olivia’s hair, and then carried on. “I don’t want you to go anywhere.”
“It’s not like I will!” Olivia said harshly. “It’s not like there’s anywhere for me to go. There’s nobody like me. Nobody in the world.”
“There’s me,” said Marie. “I used to wish I could do that – go back in time, and be born right. Or not be born at all. Then my parents wouldn’t be so worried, God, even now they’re worried all the time. Then Tasha would be happy. She wouldn’t have grown up with this shadow hanging over her. I just wanted the shadow lifted from them all, but – but it came with me. The shadow’s part of me. I kept thinking, if I wasn’t here… But here we are. And people love us.”
“People love you,” Olivia said, her voice scratching. “For me, there’s Daniel. There isn’t anybody else who could.”
“Hey,” Marie told her, and swept all that veil of hair from Olivia’s hot face. “I love you. What am I, chopped liver?”
Olivia laughed a bit at Marie’s exaggeratedly indignant voice. It made Marie feel brave enough to speak.
“You should tell Daniel,” she suggested, very gently.
Olivia sat up, her back going very straight. “No!”
“I think he’d understand.”
“I think I’m not going to take that chance,” Olivia snapped. “Come on, Marie. You’ll catch your death out here. Get up, are you crazy?”
When they got back to Olivia’s room they lay spreadeagled on her bed, both of them wearing T-shirts, Olivia’s hair damp from a hot shower.
Marie couldn’t tell Daniel herself. It would be a betrayal, and she understood that Olivia was afraid, and furious because she was afraid: that she could not risk being even more alone than she was.
“Do you think it’s all going to turn out okay?” Olivia asked, her arm around Marie’s waist, long legs draped over the end of the bed. “In the end.”
“I hope so,” Marie murmured back. “But maybe not.”
That was another thing she’d learned at the hospital: just the knowledge that everything might not be all right. The treatment might not work, the cancer could always come back.
“It will,” Olivia said in a small fierce voice. “Say that it will.”
“I really hope so,” Marie told her. She couldn’t make any promises.
Olivia didn’t show up to the big Christmas recital down at the church. Daniel had two solos, and he’d been in rehearsals for weeks.
Olivia had not taken kindly to his attention being elsewhere for so long, and she’d announced that she had better things to do than go to church. Marie’s own family was very much a Christmas and Easter kind of family, so it did seem strange to go, but of course she wanted to support Daniel.
Daniel kept looking out the window, into the night where snow was falling.
“She won’t let me in,” he said. “And she won’t come out to meet me, apparently.”
They were standing in the drafty hall, watching the snow fall as the parents were seated.
“I’m sorry,” Marie said. “She’ll be sorry too, once she thinks about it.”
“Yeah,” Daniel said. “I just – I just want her to be happy.”
He looked so dear and so miserable, and the recital was starting in five minutes.
“That’s great,” Marie said briskly. “But for now, put on your choirboy cap and make me proud, all right?”
Daniel burst out laughing. “Okay. Hey, look at me, is my cap adjusted to the most rakish angle possible?”
“Yeah, you’re like the cowboy of the choir.”
“That was totally the look I was going for,” Daniel said solemnly. “High five.”
At the interval Daniel was surrounded by people telling him how awesome and marvelous he was, which Marie couldn’t disagree with, and Marie slipped out to get a breath of air.
She found Olivia hesitating outside the church steps, snowflakes settling like diamonds in her hair.
Olivia’s hesitation became tense, like a deer about to bolt, and Marie held out both her hands.
“I’m really glad the other stuff you were doing finished up early,” she said. “It’s really good of you to come.”
“Well,” Olivia said, shoulders going back. She looked like a queen. “Well, the other stuff was boring anyway.”
Since the only other stuff Olivia could’ve possibly had to do was sulking in her room, Marie had no doubt it was.
“I saved you a seat,” Marie told her. “Just in case.”
When Daniel saw them sitting there together, his voice suddenly surged, echoing off the stained glass windows, and even the mediocre instruments Marie had been bothered by in the first half seemed to play smoothly, and the music was beautiful.
The day Marie won the music scholarship to Goldsmiths’, all her friends were invited around for the party. Her dad popped bottles of champagne and Daniel danced her through the kitchen.
“Stop it,” Marie said, dodging his hands as he tried to spin her. “I like to play while other people dance, you know that.”
“You’ll be doing enough playing,” Daniel said. “Anyway, I’m just looking out for all the London guys. They’ll all want to dance with you. Don’t break their hearts.”
So Marie let him dance her about, for just a little while, and then she danced with Christopher, and then Eric, and it wasn’t bad. It was fun.
“Maybe I’ll come with you,” Olivia said, fiddling with her glass and leaning against the kitchen counter. “I could get a job. We could get a flat together. Might be fun.”
Marie leaned against the counter and Olivia, knowing Olivia would not leave Daniel, leave the constant assurance of sure love.
“I’d love that,” she said. “You have a think about it.”
Of course, Olivia did not come. Marie ended up getting a flat in London with a girl called Tina who was doing the same course, who wore her hair in twists and loved reggae and the blues.
Their flat had a toilet that occasionally hiccupped at them and caused them great alarm, and the oven didn’t work so they had to use Tina’s camping stove, but there was enough room for all their instruments.
They were getting ready for class, Marie so sleepy that she found herself trying to comb her hair with her bow, when the post came and the wedding invitation slid through the door and fell at her feet.
Daniel had written it, all about happiness and ducklings and love and curving writing and promises of forever, but Olivia had written the postscript.
You’d better be my maid of honour, she’d said in her dark striking script, the pen almost cutting through the paper.
“What is it?” Tina asked, seeing Marie frozen with the invitation in her hands.
“My best friends are getting married,” Marie answered, her voice still a little blank with surprise.
There was no need to explain who her best friends were to Tina. Tina’d seen the pictures in Marie’s room, Daniel grinning and being the most rakish choirboy in the church, Olivia posing like a fashion model, hair streaming in a sea breeze.
Tina whistled. “At nineteen? Can’t imagine it. Think they’ll be happy?”
If Olivia would tell Daniel, if he loved her a little less, if she had a little less magic, if one of them could be brought to accept things a little more.
“I hope so,” Marie said.
She believed in both of them. She thought there was a good chance.
“All right, we’re going to be late for class,” Tina said, losing interest and lunging for her case.
After class they were going to go for coffee with Ray, Tina’s brother the poet, who liked Marie’s music and who maybe would have liked Marie if he’d met her and she’d had no hair. That might work out. There was a good chance.
It might all turn out okay. Marie hoped so. And if it didn’t, that was almost okay, too.
Because I lived until today, Marie thought, I saw magic, fell in love in a lift, danced with my best friend under breaking glass, heard mermaids singing, played music in a river, and if that was all, it would be enough.
But it wasn’t all. She was going to live to see more tomorrow.
She and Tina pretended to be a marching band going down the stairs, imitating trumpets and drums, having a celebration.
Prove our almost instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.
- Philip Larkin, An Arundel Tomb