In the background, shouting—the voice sounded like Holmes’s. A hand pulled at my arm. In the second I was distracted, Dobson broke free of Randall’s grip and tackled me to the grass. He was the size of a steam liner, and with his knee on my chest, I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. Leaning into my face, he said, “Who do you think you are, you little prick?” and spat, long and slow, into my eye. Then he hit me in the face, and hit me again.
A voice cut through the blood-roar. “Watson,” Holmes shouted, at what sounded like an enormous distance, “what the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
I was maybe the only person to ever have his imaginary friend made real. Not entirely real, not yet—she was still dream-blurred to me. But we’d run through London’s sewers together, hand in muddy hand. We’d hidden in a cave in Alsace-Lorraine for weeks because the Stasi were after us for stealing government secrets. In my fevered imagination, she hid them in a microchip in one small red barrette. It held back her blond hair; that’s what I’d pictured her with, back then.
Truth be told, I liked that blurriness. That line where reality and fiction jutted up against each other. And when Dobson had said those ugly things, I’d lunged at him because he’d dragged Holmes kicking and screaming into this world, one where people left litter on the quad and had to leave a conversation to use the toilet, where assholes tormented a girl because she wouldn’t sleep with them.
It took four people—including a visibly shaken Tom—to haul him off me. I lay there for a moment, wiping the spit out of my eyes, until something leaned in to darken my view.
“Get up,” Holmes said. She didn’t offer me a hand.
There was a crowd around us. Of course there was. I swayed a little on my feet, flushed with adrenaline, feeling nothing. “Hi,” I said stupidly, wiping at my bleeding nose.
She looked at me for a measured moment, then turned to face Dobson. “Oh baby, I can’t believe you fought for me,” she drawled at him. There was a smattering of laughter. He was still restrained by his friends, and I could hear him panting from where I stood. “Now that you’ve won me, I guess I’ll lay down and spread for you right here. Or do you only like your girls drugged and unconscious?”
Shouts, jeers. Dobson looked more shocked than angry; he went limp against his restrainers. I snickered; I couldn’t help it. Holmes spun, and stared me down.
“And you. You are not my boyfriend,” she said evenly, the drawl completely vanished. “Though your wall-eyed stare, your ridiculous rambling, and the way your index finger twitches when I talk says you so very much want to be. You think you’re defending my ‘honor,’ but you’re just as bad as he is.” She jerked a thumb at Dobson. “I don’t need someone to fight for me. I can fight for myself.”
Someone whistled; someone else began a slow clap. Holmes’s expression didn’t change. Some teachers showed up, and after that the dean; I was questioned, given a compress, questioned again. The whole time I couldn’t stop replaying it. As I bled onto my shirt in the infirmary, waiting to see if I’d be expelled and shipped back home, it was still the only thing I had banging around in my head. You’re just as bad as he is, she’d said, and she’d been absolutely right.
But I had never wanted to be her boyfriend. I wanted something smaller than that, and far, far bigger, something I couldn’t yet put into words.
The next time I sought out Charlotte Holmes, it was because Lee Dobson had been murdered.
IT WAS CLOSE TO DAWN WHEN THE SHOUTING STARTED.
At first, it only registered as part of my dream. The shouts were those of an angry mob; someone had armed them with torches and pitchforks, and they chased me into a barn under a sky full of stars. The only hiding place I could find was behind a nonplussed cow, chewing her cud.
You didn’t need to be a psychologist to understand what it meant. After my fight with Dobson, I’d gone from being unknown to notorious. People who didn’t even know me suddenly had opinions about me. Dobson wasn’t very popular; he was a meathead, and nasty to girls, but he had a number of thick-necked friends who made their presence known when I walked into the dining hall. Tom, for his part, was secretly thrilled. Gossip was Sherringford’s favorite currency, and by his reckoning, he’d found a key to the Royal Treasury.
But for me, not much had really changed. I was still uncomfortable at Sherringford, only more so. My French class began falling silent when I walked in. A freshman girl stammered out an invitation to homecoming one morning outside the sciences building while her friends smothered giggles behind her. She was cute, in a blond, wispy kind of way, but I told her that I wasn’t allowed to go. It was almost true. I’d been suspended from all school functions for a month—clubs, days in town, and thank God, the rugby team, though I’d been assured I would keep my scholarship—but they’d forgotten to ban me from the dance. It was a light punishment, I was told by the nurse who examined my broken nose. To me, it didn’t seem like a punishment at all.
After the fight, I’d kept an eye out for Holmes, though I didn’t know what I could possibly say if I did see her. That week, she canceled her poker game, though I wouldn’t have gone anyway—showing up would’ve made me look like the awful stalker she already thought me to be. It was hard to avoid someone at Sherringford, with its five hundred students and postage-stamp campus, and yet somehow she had managed it. She wasn’t in the dining hall; she wasn’t on the quad between lessons.