Steadfast

Page 61

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Verlaine shook her head. “That’s not me.”

“It is you. Or, I should say, it ought to be. Who can feel joy when everyone else overlooks them? Whose heart can stay pure when they’re tormented by loneliness, and by jealousy for the simplest human connection? No one. Though you’ve come closer than anyone else I’ve ever heard of. There’s so much good in you, Verlaine—so much light, not even Elizabeth could take it all.”

“Stop,” she said, stepping back from him. “Please stop.”

“The theft is an illusion, really.” Asa’s voice was desperate now. “You still possess it, this ability to be loved, but the light shines on her instead. Like a candle that’s only visible in a mirror, do you understand?”

Verlaine shook her head. She was dangerously close to tears. “I don’t understand any of it. You have to stop.”

But Asa kept going. “The illusion doesn’t work on demons. I know you, Verlaine. No one else in the world does, but I do.”

“You could be making all of this up.”

“You know better.”

She did. But Verlaine had learned to deal with a hard world. She had learned to hold on to what she knew was true even when faced with hatred or indifference. She could hold on to it now, too.

“You’re a demon,” she said. “You’re helping the person who’s ruining my life. Whatever you feel doesn’t matter. Whatever I feel doesn’t matter. You’re here on this earth to do evil, and I’m here on this earth to stop you. So—that’s that.”

Asa straightened. He looked even sadder than she felt, and Verlaine had the absurd urge to comfort him.

Or maybe that was only the urge to put her arms around him.

“That’s that,” Asa said, and he turned and walked out into the cold. The door shut behind him, untouched.

21

NADIA SAT ON THE 22 BUS, HEADING NORTH ALONG Clark Street, cell phone clutched in her hand. Texts from Verlaine kept scrolling along the screen, one after the other, each of them explaining what Elizabeth had stolen from her, and why. Although Verlaine’s misery was clear even through textspeak, Nadia couldn’t bring herself to feel anything—and for once, she didn’t think dark magic had anything to do with it.

She was only ten blocks from her mother’s new home. Nine blocks. Eight. A powerful numbness had settled over her, which Nadia knew was an attempt at self-preservation.

Only a few minutes remained before she faced the person who had hurt her more than any other. She couldn’t afford to have feelings right now.

When she alighted at her stop, her boots sank down into days-old snow, already gray and crusty. Nadia had missed so many things about Chicago—Ann Sather, the “L,” real pizza. But she’d forgotten about some of the sucky parts, like snow that never melted and only became grimier. Or cold that bit through your coat and your flesh to make your bones quiver. Days like today: Nadia had managed to blot those out.

It was amazing, the things you could make yourself forget.

She double-checked the address as she walked along the street. Stupid, she told herself. It wasn’t like she hadn’t memorized this from the moment she’d first seen it. But her hands had started trembling, and despite the cold, sweat made her skin sticky beneath her thick coat and socks.

What else can Mom do to you? Nadia told herself savagely. How could this get any worse than it already is?

The apartment building was a nice one, but there was no doorman, and Nadia was able to slip in as someone else was walking out. As the aged elevator shuddered its way upstairs, Nadia clenched her fists, spread her fingers, clenched them again. She was ready for this. She had to be.

Finally she stood at her mother’s door. Only then did it occur to Nadia that Mom might not even be home; despite the ample settlement Dad had paid out in the divorce, she might have taken a job. Or just gone out, to shop or visit the Art Institute, something like that. Her mother had a life now, a life that didn’t include her at all. Nadia hadn’t thought of it because she couldn’t imagine it. Their lives still had that jagged hole torn in the center, the place where she had been. Maybe Mom had moved on.

But she still knocked on the door.

Mom answered it.

They stood staring at each other for a long moment. Nadia didn’t feel as though she could speak. All she could think was that Mom looked awful—even haggard. Her soft brown hair, which she used to always wear braided back in complicated, impractical, romantic styles, now hung lank around her face. She’d lost weight, though she’d been thin to start with. Instead of one of her rich cowl-neck sweaters in plum or rust or gold, she wore a plain T-shirt that didn’t look very clean. Even though this was the first time she’d seen her daughter in more than half a year, her mother’s face showed no reaction save a great tiredness.

Finally Mom said, “You shouldn’t have this address.”

“Don’t blame Dad. I snooped through his things.”

That should have earned her a scolding at minimum, but Mom merely shrugged. “I suppose it was inevitable. What do you want?”

What do I want? What do I want? For you to explain yourself, you worthless, miserable, hateful—

Somehow Nadia held back the angry words. “I want to know why a Sorceress says you traded me away.”

“Dammit.” Mom ran one hand through her hair. “A Sorceress?”

“Her name’s Elizabeth Pike. She happens to be in the same town we moved to—in Rhode Island—” Did Mom even know that much, or care?

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