Cleaning always helps me clear my mind. I’m humming under my breath and scrubbing when Jack comes into the room, red-eyed and with her hair in a tangled mess. She eyes me like I’m a bomb that might go off. “Is there anything to eat?”
I think about snapping at her, telling her off for asking me, like I would know. But for some reason Noah’s voice is in my head, saying, These are nice people. You might even like them.
I put the sponge down and turn to face her. “I was thinking about making pancakes,” I say. “But it depends if we have the ingredients.”
She pulls open the refrigerator door and nods. “There’s actually a lot of food here. Milk, eggs…”
“Great.” I wipe my soapy hands on a towel. “Do you want to help?”
She hesitates a moment, and then smiles. “Sure.”
Cooking is the other thing that helps me clear my mind. I’m a whirlwind, cracking eggs, mixing batter, throwing the towel over my shoulder. Jack is laughing as she watches me. She looks pretty when she laughs, less sullen and scary. She’s wearing a pair of tiny hoop earrings with zigzag patterns etched into the metal, and I realize with a funny jolt that I have the same earrings at home.
“Pancakes. Awesome.” Lisle appears, draping herself over one of the bar stools. She reaches out and sticks a finger in the batter. “Yum.”
“Ew. Unsanitary!” I swat her away with the corner of the towel.
Jack hands her a bag of the chocolate chips I was about to dump into the batter. “Here. Eat these.” She gives me a conspiratorial grin.
The kitchen is filling with good, warm smells, the smell of comfort and breakfast. I feel weirdly fine, even though I ought to be miserable. I see Ben file into the room, rumpling his hair, a scowl on his face. Ennis trails in behind him, looking vaguely embarrassed. I glance over at Jack, who’s blushing, so I hand her a bowl of batter and a spatula. “Mix!”
She mixes, looking grateful to have something to do. Ben looks over at me and then away, sauntering toward the patio doors, Ennis following him like a puppy. I know I ought to feel jealous, heartbroken, all those other things. But I don’t. I never really liked Ben. I just liked the person I thought he was.
I liked the person who wrote those letters.
As if on cue, Noah comes in. He doesn’t saunter, just gives me a look through his hair and ambles over to the couch, where he parks himself behind his graphic novel. I don’t have time to think about him, though, because Xena’s suddenly here, clanking her jewelry and clapping her hands. “Pancakes! Fantastic! Thanks so much, Cathy!”
I don’t bother to correct her about my name when she reaches out and hugs me. It’s a squishy hug, but kind of nice. The kitchen is half-full of people now, chattering, grabbing glasses, setting the table. Everyone seems appreciative of the pancakes. I realize Noah was right. These are nice people. I look over at him on the sofa, but he’s hiding behind the pages of his book like they are a curtain.
I even have fun at breakfast, with everyone laughing and chattering. We don’t have maple syrup, so people sprinkle sugar and smear jam on their pancakes—“Like they do in France!” Lisle announces, scattering sugar everywhere.
When the meal is over, I start carrying stacks of plates into the kitchen. Everyone’s in there, bumping, jostling, and pushing, but it’s a friendly sort of crowding. Jack is over by the sink, running hot water, wrist-deep in soap suds. “Oh, no you don’t,” she says, taking the plates from me with a soapy hand. “You shouldn’t have to clean. You cooked, you set the table, you didn’t even have a mimosa….”
“You cooked, too,” I point out. ”And I already have a hangover.”
“This will be the best thing for you, then,” she says, picking up a glass filled with champagne and orange juice. “Besides—you have somewhere else you should be. Don’t you?”
She’s looking out toward the deck, through the big glass doors. Noah is out there, sitting on the wooden railing, staring out toward the lake. I look back at Jack, who is smiling.
“Go on,” she says, handing me the glass, which I take without thinking. “We can wash up without you.”
I mouth “thanks” at her, and go. The air out on the porch is cold and sharp as an ice sliver. Noah has his feet braced against the lower railings and is looking at me warily, as if I might be about to throw my drink in his face. His hair is messy, his eyes bright hazel behind his glasses. “Look,” he says, before I can open my mouth, “if you came out here to ask me why I’m still here, it’s because Ben wanted to stay for breakfast. But we’re leaving right after.”
“That’s not why I came out here.” I stare down at my drink, which is the pale orange color I associate with Tang and orange candies. “I want to know why you wrote those letters. In the first place. Did Ben ask you to?”
Noah glanced up toward the sky, the heavy clouds overhead. “He didn’t ask me to. I wrote them for a class project. Write in the voice of a literary character. I left them out on my desk and Ben must have found them. It wasn’t until a while later that I found out he was using them online—with you.”
“How did you find out?”
“He told me. Ben’s never ashamed of anything he does. It’s just his way.” Noah shrugged. “He thought I’d think it was funny.”
“And did you?” Something cold hits my cheek and slides down my neck; it’s starting to rain. “Think it was funny?”
“No,” Noah says shortly. “He showed me all the e-mails between him and you, and trust me, I didn’t think what he was doing was funny. But I did really like your letters, Jane. I liked the way you wrote. I liked the things you wrote.” He still isn’t looking at me. “I know. Stupid. But I started looking forward to your letters. Ben would forward them to me and I’d write the responses. And because you were responding to my letters, I felt sort of like you were writing to me. That was why I wanted you to walk down to the lake with me. Because I felt like I knew you.”
My head is spinning. “So you never were Mr. Kool-Aid?”
He shrugs. “Ben gave me an account on the Game eventually. I just wanted it so I could read your journal entries. I picked Mr. Kool-Aid because I figured I’d never actually have to do anything. No one wants to interact with Mr. Kool-Aid, trust me.”
I know I should be mad, but I’m not. I feel strangely relieved. It all makes sense now—why Ben’s letters didn’t sound anything like his instant messages. Why when I met him, I felt absolutely nothing, no connection at all, but when I met Noah—
“You should have told me,” I say.
Rain is pattering down on the deck, turning the wood dark brown. Noah’s hair is stuck to his cheeks and forehead in black swipes. “Why? It wasn’t me you came here to see. It was Ben.”
“That’s not true.” I take a step forward. “The person I wanted to meet was the one who wrote those letters. That was all I ever cared about.”
I’m vaguely aware that there are faces pressed to the glass doors behind me, watching us, but I realize I don’t care. Noah is shivering inside his wet jacket, rain running down his face. He looks at me like he doesn’t believe me.
I look down at the glass in my hand. Rain is mixing with the alcohol, diluting the orange color. “I never,” I say, very carefully, “yelled at someone because they told me something I didn’t want to hear, even though it was the truth.”
I lift the glass and take a drink out of it. Rainwater and oranges and champagne. When I lower the glass, Noah is staring at me.
“I never,” I say again, “made a totally stupid mistake about who it was I really liked, and only realized it when it was too late.”
I drink again. I feel a little dizzy, but it isn’t from the mimosa. The rain has diluted the alcohol so I hardly taste it. He’s sitting completely still, just watching me. I can feel my heart pounding, wondering if I have the nerve to say it, the last thing I want to say to him.
I do. “And I never,” I say, “wanted you to kiss me, right now.”
I lift the glass and drink the rest of it, fast. A second later Noah jumps down off the railing, his boots splashing up water from the deck. He comes over and puts his hands on my shoulders. I can see Lisle behind the glass doors, giving me the V for victory sign with her fingers. Ben is standing beside her, scowling.
“You mean it?” Noah says, water running off his eyelashes. “You want me to kiss you?”
“Cathy never says anything she doesn’t mean,” I tell him. “And neither do I.”
His kiss tastes like rain. When he lets me go, he’s grinning. “I’d tell you I’ve never kissed anyone like that before,” he says, “but I think we’re out of drinks.”
He tightens his arms around me as I laugh. Someone behind the glass door whistles—I think it’s Jack—and I know they’re laughing and cheering for us, and I don’t even mind that I just met all these people and don’t even know their real names. It’s nice. I know they’re cheering because it just feels right—however strange it might seem—Catherine Earnshaw and Mr. Kool-Aid, kissing in the rain.
Cassandra Clare is the New York Times bestselling author of City of Bones, City of Ashes, and City of Glass.City of Bones was a 2007 Locus Award finalist for Best First Novel. She is also the author of the upcoming YA fantasy trilogy The Infernal Devices. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her boyfriend and two cats. She is also the author of the extremely geeky online Lord of the Rings parody The Very Secret Diaries.
Text by Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci. Illustrations by Hope Larson.
THE KING OF PELINESSE
by m. t. anderson
It was not until the final moon had risen over Brondevoult, lighting the carnage with its spectral dweomer, that Caelwin, called the Skull-Reaver, saw that the battle was won, the anthrophidians defeated, so he could at last lower his incarnadined blade and cease his work of destruction. The enemy was vanquished; Caelwin and his hired barbarian swords might at long last storm the basalt citadel. They rushed through the obsidian gates, shrieking with beserker rage, the white knights of Pelinesse behind them, bearing up the oriflamme of the swan and scythe, and the bus reached Portland, and Caelwin stormed up the stone steps and found the Princess of Yabtúb chained beside a cauldron, prepared for some fell thaumaturgic distortion, and he said, “I am Caelwin, called the Skull-Reaver, and I have been sent by the King of Pelinesse to bear you hence,” and she regarded him with astonishment, and I got off the bus and went into the station in the dark of the night to wait until the 6 AM up Route 1.