The peasant girl could not believe her ears. “Cursed? Because of me?”
The prince looked past her toward the captain of the guard. “Leave us,” he ordered.
As soon as the door closed, the prince rose and removed his velvet surcoat and tunic, baring his torso. In the middle of his chest, a vine grew from his heart, its slender, blood-red stems twining around his body, his shoulders and his arms, sprouting clusters of tiny, black flowers. The prince turned, and the horrified peasant girl saw that the vines had coiled around his upper body completely, blood-red lines studded with black stars crisscrossing the smooth skin of his back in darkly graceful curves.
“The doctors and sages tell me that I have lost a piece of my heart,” said the prince. “The seed of this vine was lodged in the gap left behind by the missing piece, and as you can see, it has taken root.”
The peasant girl reached out to touch him, then dropped her hand. “You must be in such pain,” she whispered, tears in her eyes.
The prince gave a harsh laugh. “I welcome the pain. What comes after it is what I fear. This vine is growing deeper within me, and one day, it will either crush me from the outside or poison me from the inside and turn me into a monster. In either instance, it will be the end of me.”
– – – – – – – –
“I still can’t believe it.” I lowered my fork onto my box of takeaway pancakes, a second serving of breakfast that I’d bought at the House cafeteria so I wouldn’t need to buy lunch at the school cafeteria and risk getting lemonade spilled on me or garbage piled in my arms again. Jenneth and I were in the Biology 1 lab, where we were holding an informal meeting with several other House kids. “Really, it’s just way too ridiculous to be believed,” I added, shaking my head.
“We thought so, too, but we heard what we heard,” Honey replied, wiping her mouth with a bit of tissue. We were waiting for Maisha to finish her noontime prayers, which she performed not in the small chapel within the high school building but in the same bare room where Christian and I served detention. The school administration had decided that it was safest for her to do her prayers there while in school, given how deeply some of the other students and their parents felt about a Muslim girl infiltrating their sacred territory. It was yet another reminder of how different the House was from the rest of the school. In Ascension House, our little prayer chapel was open to every faith, and it was furnished with everything from kneelers to prayer rugs to meditation cushions.
“Same here, although with me it’s mostly rumors,” said Shanice, another House kid who was in Maisha’s section.
“Here, too, and we’re not even in the same year as you guys,” Annelie said while Gemma and Francis nodded.
“But—” I screwed my face up “—the ‘Protect the Prince Club’? And they weren’t laughing their heads off when they were saying this?”
“Come on, Joy, you know the kind of insanity that breeds in this school.” Kuya Simon sent me a jaded look. Beside him, Ate Kath snorted her agreement.
I groaned and went back to picking at my cold, rubbery pancakes. Last night, when Jenneth and I were doing our homework in the study hall, Maisha and Honey had appeared and dragged us up to the rec room for an emergency meeting. Most of the House kids had already assembled, including the other scholarship kids who were usually busy studying at this hour. In that meeting, I was informed of a new development that Maisha, Honey and the others had gotten wind of: A group consisting of an unknown number of girls had banded together with the stated goal of protecting Christian from any and every threat to his peaceful life in St. Helene—but mainly from me, the ogre-like Garbage Girl who was out to ruin him. They had a secondary goal, though: to protect his continued state of singlehood by making sure no girl was allowed to get close to him unless they deemed her worthy of his attentions. It went without saying that their standards were sky-high.
They really shouldn’t bother, I thought. Their precious prince already has a girlfriend, or did Nikki forget to mention that tiny, little detail?
“I’d believe it,” Nathan stated across from me. “Nikki’s in that group, and so are Tara, Leigh and the others. You know what they’re like. Nikki and Tara especially.”
“Yes,” I sighed. Malicious, vindictive, overindulged, boy-crazy, conceited, self-centered—
“Bitches, every last one of them, but especially those two.” Beside me, Jenneth lifted his head from his arms and eyed us blearily, his now empty box of takeaway school cafeteria food pushed aside.
Nathan nodded. “Pretty much.”
Grinning, I patted Jenneth’s head, smoothing down his hair. “Aww, you poor thing. That’s what you get for staying up late and not getting enough sleep.”
Jenneth gave me a flat stare. “Mandarin Chinese. I barely managed to finish the translation exercises last night. Mandarin freaking Chinese. Regret lies bitter in the ashes of my heart.”
“Chī le hěn duō kǔ,” I replied, laughing. It roughly translated to “Somebody‘s had a hard time of it,” and Jenneth responded by curling his lip and spitting out an oath in a language that was most definitely not Mandarin Chinese.
“And these girls are responsible for all these stupid posters, no?” Honey asked.
I cast back to this morning’s black-Sharpie paper in the front hall bulletin board. It had been a bigger sheet this time, made from two sheets taped together, and it was designed as a mock-up of newspaper’s front page. The headline screamed: “Prince Down! Garbage Girl Wins!” The accompanying “photo” was another drawing of a stick-figure guy who was standing at the back of a line of other stick-figures and looking up in terror at the black, obese monster-girl looming behind him in a clear allusion to our disruption of the principal’s speech during morning assembly. The two figures were surrounded by piles of garbage, which the monster-girl appeared to be shedding like fur. There had also been another copy of the poster taped to one of the doors of the cafeteria. Luckily, a few House kids had spotted it and taken it down before the lunch-time crowd hit.
Nathan frowned. “I’m not sure. Maybe.”
“You know, I kind of admire whoever is making those.” When all eyes turned to me in blank disbelief, I shrugged. “You have to admit, those posters are pretty imaginative. And think about the dedication it takes to make them every day and come to school so early in the morning just to put them up. Whoever this person is, she must really believe in what she’s fighting for.”
There was a moment of silence. “Oh my God, Joyous, are you for real?” Jenneth breathed.
“What? I’m just saying it’s amazing. You know, in a perverse sort of way.”
The others just shook their heads. Nathan smiled at me. “You really are the nicest, Joy.”
I smiled back as the others hooted and banged their hands on the table, making an assortment of lab equipment rattle. “Ay, you two love birds, you slay me,” Honey cried, pressing both hands to her chest and pretending to swoon.
Nathan blushed as he attempted to fend off the teasing. I turned back toward my pancakes, a smile still pasted on to keep anyone from noticing my lack of enthusiasm. For some reason, I found myself unable to get into the spirit of the moment. Even with Nathan giving me a shy, warm look. My heart should be racing by now, I thought. I should be getting a funny fluttering in my stomach by now. I should be feeling confused and happy and hopeful and scared and so incredibly alive all at the same time, the way I—the way I—
From now on, I plan to mess up your life even more.
Shoving aside all wayward thoughts of cocky grins and warm chocolate eyes, I stabbed the last piece of pancake with my plastic fork with more force than necessary, making one of the tines break. Fortunately, nobody noticed because Maisha burst into the Biology 1 lab just then, eyes wide, one hand clutching the folds of her turquoise hijab. She glanced furtively behind her then quickly closed the door.
“Guys, something weird just happened,” she announced as she sat beside Honey and took out her own food. “A bunch of girls stopped me on the way here and asked me where Joy usually ate lunch.”
“You didn’t tell them, did you?” Honey demanded.
“No, of course not. But I had to get away from them somehow.”
“How’d you do it?”
Maisha grinned. “I just kept saying ‘yar hamukallah’ until they gave up. At the time, I didn’t know what else to do.” When somebody else asked what the phrase meant, she giggled. “It’s just something you say when someone sneezes. Like ‘bless you’ or something. But the way they looked at me, you’d think I was calling for the death of all infidels or something.”
This sparked laughter in the room as well as a round of congratulations on Maisha’s quick thinking. The conversation turned to lighter matters, but just before we left for our classes, Ate Kath gave us one last warning. “Guys, remember what we talked about last night,” she said sternly. “Get rid of any posters or graffiti you find. Keep a lookout for any suspicious people with rolls of paper and tape, especially early in the morning or late after school. If those girls do anything beyond the pale, tell us and we’ll report it. And, Joy.”
I straightened my back when she turned to me. “Yes.”
“Don’t go around the school alone for now, okay? Stick close to your friends or with the other House kids. If any of those girls come after you, run like hell back to the House.”
Kuya Simon laughed and patted my shoulder. “Hey, you look like you’re about to go into battle or something. Relax. This will all blow over soon, you’ll see.”
“But for now, better to be safe than sorry,” Ate Kath added.
And as we were about to go our separate ways, Nathan’s hand brushed mine. “I’ll pick you up after your detention, okay?” he said softly.
I nodded, and Jenneth and I made our way to the other end of the building where our next class was. Jenneth was quiet, though, and when I glanced at him, I found him staring at the floor with a troubled look on his face. “What’s wrong? You can’t be that worried about Mandarin Chinese, can you?” I asked jokingly.
“No. I’m just wondering why we’re still not talking about the most important thing here.”
“And what’s that?”
“Those girls aren’t the problem. It’s Christian who’s the problem. All these bad things happened the minute he showed up, and he’s not even supposed to know about it?”
We both fell silent as a group of girls and boys came toward us. I felt the sting of their giggles and pointed stares and, once or twice, a muttered “Garbage Girl”. Fortunately, they didn’t try anything and simply walked on by. “Well, from what we heard last night, those girls seem to be working hard to keep him from even hearing about it,” I went on.
Jenneth’s face darkened. “This is all his fault. If he hadn’t shown up, none of this would’ve happened.”
“No, it’s not his fault,” I said with quiet conviction. “Christian has nothing to do with the black-Sharpie papers or that silly little club or whatever.”
“Oh please, Joyous, you can’t possibly mean—”
“No.” I shook my head, cutting his tirade short. “Look, I’m not saying he’s not capable of it. If he wanted to, he could turn the entire school against me. Well, okay, he’s already doing that,” I hastily amended, “but that’s really not his intention. His issue with me…I get the feeling he’d rather deal with me on a more, um, personal basis, if that makes any sense.”
I don’t know about trusting you, but you can trust this: in the end, I always get what I want.
I drew in a breath, a blush warming my cheeks as I recalled his words and the look on his face as he said them. Feeling Jenneth’s eyes upon me, I smiled and took his hand, giving it a grateful squeeze. “But thank you for staying with me through all this,” I said, raising my voice over all the laughing and yelling going on somewhere behind us. “You and everyone. And I’m so sorry I got you all involved in this mess.”
Jenneth squeezed my hand back. “I’m always here for you, Joyous,” he returned, the moment ruined somewhat by the fact that he was nearly shouting as well.
“I know. I—”
“Heads up! Whoa!”
A large body went flying between us, tearing our hands apart and nearly knocking us toward the opposite sides of the corridor like a couple of billiard balls. It turned out to be Christian, who landed on his feet with cat-like grace after that seemingly clumsy backward leap between us. He raised his hands, revealing the crumpled wad of paper he’d caught in mid-air, and tossed it back at the group of boys behind us as if it were a basketball.
“Now that was a great pass. We’ll keep working on that one,” he declared.
I gaped as the boys—all of them from 2A-Rizal, and all of whom I’d heard for years talk disparagingly about the dumb jocks in the sports clubs—brightened and cheered as though they’d just been presented with a championship trophy. Then my gaze swung back to Christian just in time to catch the now-familiar glint of triumph in his eyes.
Then the glint was gone, leaving nothing but contrition in his face. “Hey, I’m so sorry. Are you hurt?” he asked us solicitously.
“They’re obviously fine, Christian,” a trio of girls called out as they walked past us. “Come on or you’ll be late.”
I stared at him in horror. “What’re you doing here? You can’t be…” I trailed off, my eyes darting toward the door of our language program classroom just a few feet away.
Christian’s lips twisted. “Sorry to disappoint you, but no, my room’s the one next to yours. I’m in the Spanish program. By the way, the penalty for PDA within school grounds is, let’s just say, much worse than detention and a few essays. Just thought you should know,” he added silkily. Then he bowed with a flourish, his eyes never leaving mine. “Hasta luego, mi corazon.”
With that, he turned and headed toward his classroom, where the three girls waited at the door for him. I collected my scattered wits and turned toward Jenneth, who was looking both dismayed and suspicious. “He—he did that on purpose, didn’t he?” he croaked.
“Yes.” I fought to keep from grinning as I added: “But you’ll never be able to prove it.”
I told myself I wasn’t looking forward to detention. I told myself that the last thing I wanted was to spend another hour trapped inside a tiny room with Christian, with no means of escape. I told myself that the shivery rush of energy I felt was merely the stress of having to mentally prepare myself to field his attacks and anticipate the angles from which he was going to strike at me next. I kept it up until I waved goodbye to Jenneth, who’d escorted me to the detention room in accordance with the instructions from last night’s meeting, then nearly jumped when I heard a familiar voice close behind me.
“Seriously, are you his friend or his mommy? Or is that guy just completely incapable of functioning without someone literally holding his hand?” Christian grumbled, staring after Jenneth’s disappearing back as he pushed the door open for us.
I am not looking forward to this, I repeated to myself, ignoring the way my heart had picked up its pace. “You leave Jenneth alone,” I warned as I made my way to my chair. “You’ve got it all wrong, anyway. He’s not doing it for himself, he’s doing it for me, to keep me sa—”
I bit my lips, cutting off the rest of my inadvertent admission, and instead busied myself with taking my pencil case out and picking out a pen, and praying Christian hadn’t noticed my slip. No such luck, though, judging from the flinty expression on his face as he sat down in his chair. “He’s doing it to keep you safe from me. Is that what you were about to say?”
“No, that’s not it,” I said quietly, meeting his gaze. “That’s supposed to be my job.”
Something in his face shifted as his eyes went from icy and closed to merely guarded and a little confused. I looked away as our homeroom teacher came in to hand out our sheets of paper and assign us our new essay theme—“Obedience” this time, presumably to the teachings of Christ but given the reason we were writing these essays at all, I supposed obedience to the school’s rules also came under this heading.
We bent over our papers as our teacher settled down in the seat beside mine with a stack of papers to correct, obviously intending to stay. I ignored the pang of disappointment at the fact that we weren’t going to be spending the time alone after all, and tried to focus on the theme. Obedience…obedience…
Pretty soon, though, my thoughts drifted back to my exchange with Jenneth earlier. The truth was, I and the members of the laughable Protect the Prince Club had one thing in common: the desire to keep Christian from learning about the bullying I was going through. Our reasons were different, obviously. In my mind, I could still see that bench beside a streetlamp in a park where my nine-year-old self sat beside Christian and promised him that I’d become somebody strong enough to fight for herself, somebody who wouldn’t need to be protected. But six years later, I was still the same sniveling, cowardly crybaby I’d always been—still the same girl who hid inside restroom cubicles and relied on her friends to defend her instead of facing her tormentors head on. I’d changed schools and made new friends, but deep inside, I hadn’t changed at all. Nikki and Christian’s other fangirls, not to mention the mystery author of those black-Sharpie papers—they all knew it. They sensed how weak I really was. It was my weakness that drew them to me.
And now Christian was here with me again, literally right in front of me. He’d grabbed hold of his freedom and lived his life to the fullest in New York, even found somebody new to fall in love with, while I hadn’t grown up at all. I knew the promise I made six years ago meant nothing to him, if he even remembered it at all. But it mattered to me. And if he somehow found out just how little I’d changed from the child I’d been…
Something nudged my foot. I glanced up and found Christian looking at me with concern. With his eyes, he indicated my still mostly blank sheet of paper, while his own sheet was already more than half-covered with handwriting. I loosened my death-grip around my pen and mentally gave myself a shake. Where was I? Oh yes. Obedience…obedience…
Some minutes later, another teacher poked her head in to tell our teacher she had a visitor in the faculty room. After telling us to finish our essays and wait until she came back to collect them, she left, closing the door behind her. Still, I didn’t look up from my writing until something dropped onto the corner of my sheet. Three somethings, to be exact. I blinked down at the small, plastic-wrapped, red and white discs, then looked up at Christian.
He grinned as he tore open one of the plastic wrappers and popped his own red and white disc into his mouth. “Peppermint candies,” he explained. “I thought we both could use a bit of a sugar-rush.”
Murmuring my thanks, I opened one of the plastic packages and put the candy in my mouth. As I did so, a stray thought drifted through my mind: Our mouths taste the same now. The thought brought back the memory of the very first kiss we shared, back in that candle-lit cabana when we were eight years old. Then our second kiss. Then our third and our fourth and our—
I pressed my fist to my mouth and kept my head lowered to hide the blaze of color on my face. Oh my gosh, what is wrong with me? I thought in annoyance. I’m in detention writing an essay on obedience because of him. This is no time to remember what it’s like to k-k-kiss him!
The sound of his voice speaking my name sent a thrill through me, pooling somewhere in my stomach. Disgusted with myself, I bent lower over my paper and scribbled even faster, as though by focusing completely on my essay I could somehow render him mute.
“Joy, come back.”
That gave me a jolt, and I looked up at him in confusion. “What did you say?”
He leaned back in his chair and gave me a lopsided smile that seemed nostalgic and a bit sad, yet every bit as sweet as the candy in my mouth. “You went wandering somewhere inside your head again, didn’t you?” he said softly. “I remember you used to do it a lot. You’d get this faraway look on your face, like you’re watching something nobody else can see. It always made me wish I was some kind of telepath, so I could find you in there and just be with you wherever you were.”
I became aware that my candy was in serious danger of falling out of my mouth. “Oh,” I said as the blush I’d been trying to hide came rushing back. “Um, I was just finishing my essay, that’s all.”
“Is that so?” he replied, his eyebrows lifting playfully. “The thought of obedience makes you blush like that, huh? That’s…intriguing.”
“Oh, shut up,” I muttered, blushing even harder now. “Seriously, Christian, knock it off. I’m trying to focus here.”
The teasing light in his eyes died away, and for a moment I felt a twinge of regret at that. Turning away from me, he started tossing his pen up and down and making it spin as it flew up into the air, a sure sign that something was weighing on his mind. “Listen, I, uh—I was wondering if we could declare a truce or something,” he offered with studied nonchalance. “We’re going to be spending five more afternoons together and, well, it’s going to get pretty uncomfortable if we’re always at each other’s throats.”
I sucked in a breath, then laid my own pen down and fixed him a look. “That’s entirely up to you, isn’t it?” I said evenly. “After all, you’re the one who started this war between us in the first place.”
He winced, his own face flushing a dull red as he tossed his pen up even higher, made it spin even faster. “Yeah, I—I know. You’re right. So, uh, since I’m the one who started this whole thing, it’s only fair that I get to be the one to declare a truce, right?”
I fought to keep from rolling my eyes at his astounding leaps of logic. “Why did you say I lied, anyway? Why do you hate me so much?”
This time, he actually flinched, causing him to miss the pen as it came down so that it clattered to the floor. “I don’t hate you,” he answered in a barely audible voice as he bent down to retrieve his pen.
“What did you say? I couldn’t hear you.”
“I said I don’t hate you.” He straightened and looked me full in the face. “I’ve never hated you, Joy. Not once, not ever. I couldn’t. I can’t,” he finished brokenly, his gaze sliding away from mine.
I felt my chest tighten at the misery in his face. “Then why—?”
“A truce,” he cut in, shutting his eyes tight, his hand closing into a fist on the table. “Please. That’s all I’m asking for right now. We can pretend—”
“No.” I stood up as the pain and anger I felt at the way he treated me all these years condensed into a hard knot in my throat. “No truce. No pretense. I want an explanation. You owe me that much.”
“Are you two done with your essays? You may give them to me now, and then you may go.”
Our teacher came in, and I had to sit back down and scribble the last few sentences in my essay. Finally, we both handed in our essays, and without a word, I followed Christian out of the room, only to bump into him when he froze in mid-step right outside the doorway.
“Hey, Christian.” Nathan gave him a cautious nod, then looked around him toward me. “It’s gotten dark out. Let’s go home, Joy.”
“Excuse me, I have to go. Would you please let me through?” I had to push at Christian’s tense, unyielding back to get him to move aside so I could exit the door. Nathan smiled down at me and I tried my best to smile back even though I could feel Christian’s gaze boring a hole right through me.
Nathan and I hadn’t gotten more than a few feet away when Christian suddenly said, in a tone so icy it sent a shiver right through me: “It’s amazing how you can break a promise then go on with your life as if nothing happened. How do you live with yourself, Joy?”
I’ll come back someday and I’ll find you, so you had better be waiting for me or else.
My steps faltered then stopped altogether as the phantom-Christian inside my head dragged out my memories and hit me in the gut with them, robbing me of my next breath.
You’re not my girlfriend. You’re my bride. My future wife. Mine. Just like you promised. Don’t you ever forget that, or I’ll make you sorry.
I could feel my blood drain from my face, could feel my limbs start to tremble. Noticing my pallor, Nathan put his arm around me to steady me, throwing Christian a bewildered, accusing look. That look turned into alarm when Christian suddenly pushed us apart, then grasped Nathan by the front of his shirt and shoved him up against the wall. Nathan was nearly as tall as Christian and certainly heavier, but Nathan’s feet lifted almost completely off the floor. I gasped and looked around wildly, half-hopeful and half-terrified that a teacher would appear right at that moment and stumble upon this scene, but our luck or whatever it was continued to hold and the hallway remained empty.
“Christian, stop!” I squeaked, darting up to grab one of Christian’s arms and try to pull it away, but it was like trying to move a tree trunk. “What’re you doing?! Put him down!”
Christian didn’t even notice me. All his focus was trained on Nathan, and the dark fury blazing in his eyes filled me with renewed fear. “Stay the hell away from her,” he snarled. “Is that clear enough for you? Then how about this: Touch her again, and I’ll tear your fucking arms off.”
Nathan grabbed his arms and tried to pull them off, to no avail. Nonetheless, anger suffused his features, chasing away the shock and fear. “The fuck with that,” he spit back, albeit in a pitch higher than normal. “You left her behind. She waited and waited for you all these years, and you broke her heart with one shitty letter and one shitty photograph. You’ve lost any claim to her, Christian. I’m sorry, but you know it’s true.”
The two boys stared each other down for a moment that seemed to stretch and stretch and stretch, with Nathan’s face gradually turning a disquieting shade of red. All this time, I kept tugging and yanking on Christian’s arm, chanting “stop it, stop it, please, stop” over and over again. I wasn’t even aware I was crying until Christian caught sight of me from the corner of his eye. His eyes widened as the dark, burning rage cleared, and a shudder ran through his entire body. He released Nathan as abruptly as he’d grabbed him, and Nathan slid down against the wall, coughing and massaging his throat.
This time, Nathan was the one who was ignored as Christian stared down at me, taking in the tears running freely down my cheeks, horror, shame and remorse shining through in the ashen-whiteness of his face. “God, what am I—” he choked out, shuddered again, then swallowed. “Joy, I-I’m sorry—please don’t cry—I need to tell you—”
I drew my hand back and slapped him so hard I thought my fingers broke. He accepted my blow, standing stone-still with his head lowered. “I never lied to you. I told you I’d wait for you, and I did. For as long as I could. Why do you think I’m here in St. Helene?” I stated with quiet force. “The one who broke our promise isn’t me, Christian. It’s you.”
I wiped my tears away then turned to help Nathan up, and together we made our way back to the House. I looked back only once, and it was to see Christian standing alone underneath the fluorescent light in the hallway, his shoulders drooping, his arms limp, staring at the floor with empty eyes.
He looked utterly broken, and for a moment I wanted to run to him, to hold him close and tell him everything would be okay. Then Nathan took my arm, and I turned away.
Now you know how it feels. The thought was a cold comfort, tasting faintly of dust.