My Faire Lady
“Rowena! Are you home?”
Normally, the sound of my mother’s voice would have been enough motivation to get me to turn off the talk show I was watching and get off of the couch. Normally, I would have grabbed a book or picked up some sort of cleaning supply and acted like I was busy learning or making myself useful around the house.
Today there’s no reason to even fake it, though. I haven’t moved since this morning. I’m still in the pajamas I wore to sleep, I haven’t bothered to run a brush through my hair, and the bowl of cereal my mother set in front of me before leaving for work is untouched. The multigrain rings have swollen up to three times their normal size. There’s a disgusting amount of used tissues scattered all around me—evidence of the many times I’ve burst into tears today.
I lift my head but don’t move my eyes from the TV. “In here.”
My mom appears in the doorway. She’s impeccable as always, with her curls pinned back into a tight chignon and a suit that I’m sure looked impressive to the members of the jury she spoke in front of today. Out of the corner of my eye I see her shoulders sink.
“Ro . . . this is the fourth day you haven’t moved from that couch.”
Yep. Four long, horrible days since finding out my boyfriend was cheating on me with another girl. A freshman girl. Dante may have failed to mention it, but finding out your boyfriend is cheating on you with a freshman is definitely the Tenth Circle of Hell.
“You’re home early,” I say, half annoyed and half glad.
“The case got postponed.”
Just then a fight breaks out on screen and I point at it. A woman is getting in a man’s face, screaming about what a liar he is. The show’s security guard has moved behind them, at the ready if it should come to blows. “This girl’s boyfriend cheated on her, too.” My mother doesn’t move to look at the TV, so I feel the need to show my solidarity. I shake my fist at the screen. “That’s right! Tell him what a scumbag he is!”
My mother sighs so loudly that it sounds like she’s deflating. Then she walks into the room, plucks the remote from the coffee table, and turns the TV off.
“Rowena,” she begins, sitting on the couch, close to my head. “I know he hurt you, but lying here watching trash isn’t
going to help. You need to get out. Hang out with Meg and Kara. See a movie. Head to the mall.”
I let out a frustrated groan and do my best to bury my head, ostrich style, in the pillows of the couch. “I can’t go to the mall. Kyle will be there. With her.”
“Even better,” my mother says brightly. She pets my head. “It’s like your father always says. You can’t keep a Duncan down. Do your hair and put on a cute top and go have a good time. Show him that you’re just fine without him.”
I look up at my mother. “But I’m not just fine without him.”
My mother’s smile is pitying, and she takes a moment before she responds, her voice soft. “I know. But sometimes we have to pretend until it’s true. Besides, lying on the couch for four days is—”
“Undignified?” I finish for her, thinking of another thing my father always says: A Duncan is always polite and dignified.
“Unhealthy,” Mom says. “And I hate to say it, but you start at TK’s next week. You’re going to have to face the mall sooner or later.”
TK’s. That elicits another groan. I’d totally forgotten about TK’s, my summer job. Before the rumor that wrecked my life, and consequently, the confirmation of said rumor from my now ex-boyfriend, TK’s seemed like the best job ever. Just like last summer, I am going to be a waitress for the tiki-themed restaurant where the only uniform is jeans, a Hawaiian shirt,
and a lei. The problem is that TK’s is inside the mall, and there’s no way I won’t run into Kyle there all summer long. Our town is small and mostly quiet, so the only places for us to hang out are the mall, the beach, and sometimes, just for a little variety, the parking lot of the mall, if we don’t get in trouble for loitering. And TK’s is popular as well. There’s a luau every Friday night, and loads of people come in to see the ukelele player and drink sugary drinks out of fake coconuts.
The thought of seeing Kyle with his new girlfriend, Lacey, makes my stomach do an unsettling flip, and I look up at my mom. “Do I have to work this summer?”
“You know the Deal. You’ve got to pitch in for college.”
The Deal, all part of my father’s great plan to instill me with some sort of work ethic. I nod to my mother, but allow myself one last indulgent whine. “I just don’t want to see him with her . . .”
“I know how much you liked the Anderson boy, Ro, but there are other fish in the sea.”
With that statement, my mother confirms exactly how much she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. He’s not just the “Anderson boy,” the son of the town’s pharmacist, he was my boyfriend for over a year. He was the romantic boy who asked permission before our first kiss, the thoughtful boy who would whisper with me on the phone until the early morning so we wouldn’t wake our parents, the cute lacrosse player who took me to junior prom. He was so, so much more than just “the Anderson boy.”
I guess now, he’s also the first boy to break my heart.
My mother jolts me out of my thoughts with a pat on my arm. “Come on, Ro. Get up. Shower. When you’re finished, you can help me start dinner for tonight.”
When I don’t immediately move, my mom issues a threat. “If you don’t, I’m going to call Kara and Meg and have them come over and get you up.”
Talk about motivation. Kara and Meg are my two best friends in the world, but their methods are devious. They’d come over and be as obnoxious as possible to get me off this couch, and they are gold medalists in being obnoxious. I’m up and moving so fast that I practically knock my mother off the couch. I hear her chuckling to herself as I head up the stairs to the shower.
The shower washes away the funk I’ve been accumulating for the past few days, and a good portion of my sour mood, too. It’s not enough to make me want to do my hair and head to the mall, but it’s enough that I continue my effort to look a little better. I take out my giant box of nail polishes and open it, sinking back into the big pillows on my bed.
Before a particular shade can catch my eye, an instant message dings on my laptop, which is sitting on my desk. I flip over onto my stomach and pull the laptop toward me.
Briansgurl: how are you? we’re worried.
I smile at Kara’s message and type back.
CrazyCurls27: I’m ok.
Briansgurl: are you lying?
CrazyCurls27: Is Meg with you?
Briansgurl: this IS meg! i’ve taken over Kara’s computer. don’t avoid the question. are you lying or not?
CrazyCurls27: Not lying.
Briansgurl: then you should come out tonight. we haven’t seen you since you broke up with Jerkface McGee.
CrazyCurls27: Nah. I’m helping Mom with dinner later. You guys have fun. I’m going to paint my toenails. I know. I’m super exciting.
Briansgurl: OK, but mall monday? it’s our last day of freedom before we become TK slaves!
CrazyCurls27: No mall. NO. I would freak if I saw them.
Briansgurl: um . . .
There’s a pause in our conversation.
CrazyCurls27: WHAT Meg???
Briansgurl: kyle’s taking HER to six flags monday. but that means the mall’s safe!
I blink at the screen. I don’t know how many times I suggested to Kyle that we go to Six Flags together, and every time he had some excuse. He had practice, he had to work for his dad, it was too cold, it was too hot.
Funny how all those things don’t seem to matter now. I clench my teeth and type back to Meg.
CrazyCurls27: OK. Mall. Monday. See you then!
I log off before she can type back, and push the computer
away, my gaze drifting back to the nail polish colors in my box. A perky bubblegum pink catches my eye, so I start with my big toe, jabbing the brush at it a little angrily. As a result, the paint job looks bad when I’m done. Kind of awful, really, as if I’ve forgotten every single lesson Mrs. Robertson ever taught me in art class. She’d probably be appalled that my brushstrokes look so jagged, but that’s how I’ve felt since Kyle said, “I’m sorry, Ro. I like someone else.” Jagged. Like all my edges are rough and sharp.
I look back to my big toe and the awesomely bad job I’ve done painting it. Maybe pink isn’t my color. Red is more suited to my current emotional state. As in, “When Rowena Duncan heard that her boyfriend had been seeing a freshman cheerleader behind her back, she saw red.”
Yep, red is the way to go.
I pick out a garish candy-apple color from my box and move on to the next toe, whispering to myself, “A freshman. She’s not even that pretty.”
I wiggle my toes and admire my handiwork. The red looks much better than the pink, as far as technique goes. The two colors look good next to each other, too. Like a valentine.
Which of course makes me think of Kyle. Last Valentine’s Day he sent me pink roses during school, so I got to carry them around all day, bragging about what an excellent boyfriend he was. What a lie that turned out to be.
Okay, so maybe I should throw in a different color so my toes don’t look like Valentine’s Day threw up on them. Perhaps
something that won’t remind me all about the cheating loser who ruined my life. But as I’m picking out a blue from my toolbox of nail polish, I think, “Why stop there?” and dig out more bright shades. A whole rainbow of colors on my feet. If that won’t make me smile, nothing will.
Though I love every color I choose, my favorite is a bold orange I found in the bargain bin at Target after Halloween last year. Orange always makes a statement, or so Mrs. Robertson says. It can be angry, or joyful, or passionate. It can be calm or restless, cautious or dangerous.
“Colors can speak louder than words, Rowena,” she told me during my first art class. “And they can invoke as much emotion as music.” If that’s true, then I bet Mrs. Robertson would love this color therapy I’ve got going on with my toes.
I lift my feet and admire the result: a whole palette of color on my feet, each nail a different, bright hue. It will look really awesome at the beach, maybe when I get a little more tanned.
That thought punches me in the gut. The beach. That was also part of the summer plan. Working at TK’s, hanging out at the mall, going to Kara’s parents’ beach house on the weekend. All of it was supposed to be spent with Kyle, but now everything’s messed up. Not just because we aren’t together anymore, but because Kyle is part of our group. Kara’s boyfriend, Brian, is Kyle’s best friend. Now the whole group will be awkward, or she’ll be along with him, and I just can’t take it. I don’t want to see them together. I don’t want to see him
kiss her the way he used to kiss me, or wrap his arm around her waist, or put sunscreen on her back. Lacey gets all of that now, I suppose, and every time I think about it I get this horrible, cold feeling in my chest. That’s the worst of all of it: I miss him.
There’s just no way I can face a summer filled with seeing Kyle but not being with Kyle. But I have to work. It’s part of the Deal.
Although . . . my parents never said I had to work at TK’s. Just that I had to work.
Inspired, I grab my laptop, where I have the entire World Wide Web and Google at my disposal. All it takes is a couple of clicks of the mouse and I have options for my summer.
Most of the summer job postings leave something to be desired. There are openings for tutoring (too boring), house cleaning (too dirty), lawn mowing (too sweaty), and canoe instructing (too many flesh-eating bacteria scenarios). But there are a few openings I might like. I’m about to click on a roller-skating waitressing gig when something else catches my interest.
Body art specialist, the ad reads. I frown. What on earth is body art? And how do you specialize in it?
I read on.
. . . for a remote community of artists in the woods.
Now that has merit. Remote? Woods? Ha. It’s just about perfect. Goodness knows, Lacey doesn’t seem like the outdoorsy type, what with her perfectly straightened hair, her
designer skinny jeans, and her penchant for heels. I bet she takes one look at a tree, smacks the wad of bubble gum in her mouth, and goes, “Oh my god. You can’t, like, be serious. Nature is SO LAME.” There’s no way she and Kyle would show up out there. No way, no how.
I’m pretty qualified, too. At least for the art part. The body part . . . well, even if I knew what exactly that meant, I’m sure I don’t have experience in it. But art I can handle.
I look around my room for a minute. Nearly every wall has a painting that I’ve done, either for my art classes or on my own time. I even have a few finished paintings leaned up against the walls because there’s not enough space to hang them. They’re decent, really, even if I don’t always get the shading right, or my brushstrokes aren’t as skillful as they could be.
That’s when I decide: Whatever a “body art specialist” is, I can do it. Especially if it’s truly a remote community of artists, far away from Kyle and Lacey and their sickening new romance.
I look at the website again and gasp so loudly that I’m sure my mom hears me downstairs. In-person interview required. Deadline, June 1.
“Today is June first!” I exclaim to nobody in particular, and grab my phone.
I punch the number in and cradle the phone against my shoulder as it rings. It rings so long that by the time someone picks up, the sudden human voice in my ear makes me
jump. I miss his entire greeting because of this surprise, and because his voice is heavily accented. It sounds . . . British, maybe, but not quite.
“I just saw your ad,” I explain. “About a body art specialist? If it’s not too late, I’d like to interview.”
The accented voice tells me, distractedly, that I can still interview but I need to get there before four o’clock. Then he mumbles something obviously not meant for me that I could swear sounds like, “Make sure the swords look sharp” before rattling off an address. I’m about to ask exactly what a body art specialist is, and why the swords need to look sharp, and why there are swords at all, but then there’s just silence in my ear.
For a moment I keep the phone pressed to my ear, as if the silence can somehow soothe the uneasy feeling in my gut. I may be desperate to get away for the summer, but I’m not sure I want to spend it with people who have sharp swords, and goodness only knows what they mean by body art. Especially if it’s truly remote, as in far enough from civilization that no one could hear my screams.
Curious, I take out my laptop again and type in the address the man gave me. Google finds it for me and shows me a map. The end point, the little thumbtack-looking destination, is right smack-dab in the middle of a huge patch of nothing but green. The only thing close to it that even mildly resembles civilization is a creek and a rest area a mile or two north of it.
“Well, Ro, you did want to be in the middle of nowhere,” I whisper to myself, and click on the driving directions.
I let out a curse when I realize that if I want to get there by four, I have to leave in ten minutes, because this place is a full hour away and it’s nearly three.
The next few minutes rush by in a frantic blur as I cram in all I have to do. I print out my resume and the job info. While that’s printing, I throw on a green V-neck tee and a long, flowing skirt—the only skirt I own that doesn’t require ironing. After that I apply a coat of mascara, brush my teeth, comb my hair, and spray on a metric ton of body spray. Then I slip my feet into my nicest pair of sandals, grab my resume from the printer, and dash toward the front door.
“Rowena?” My mother appears in the front hallway. She’s changed out of her power lawyer suit and is wearing jeans and a T-shirt with a lighthouse on it, with an apron over that. My mother is the only woman in the world, aside from Martha Stewart, who actually wears an apron. “Where are you going?” she asks.
“I’m going to go see about a job,” I say, hoping that will suffice. There are too many follow-up questions I don’t want to answer. Questions like, Where is it? What will you be doing? And what about TK’s fine Hawaiian dining?
Somehow, miracle of miracles, she’s distracted by another thought entirely. “You said you’d help with dinner.”
“I’ll be back in a few hours, I promise,” I say, which seems to appease my mother, and I’m out the door and in my car before she has time to remind me that the Duncan family dinner is at seven p.m. sharp.
I’m almost to the interstate before I put the address into my GPS, but it’s a no-brainer that I’ll have to use the interstate to get there. You can’t get anywhere from my dinky little town without using the interstate. I just don’t remember whether Google said it was north or south.
North it is, or so says the snooty British voice of my GPS as she commands me to turn on to the on-ramp. I obey. Although the voice is usually good with giving me clear directions, she’s terrible at reminding me about those other pesky details involved in driving. I forget to check my mirrors and try to merge straight into an eighteen-wheeler’s lane, and nothing, I mean nothing, will get your attention like the deep, frantic honk of a huge truck.
I grab the wheel and swerve out of his lane with a drastic, tire-squealing curve to the right, until I can safely put my car in park on the shoulder. It’s not until the truck whizzes by me, still honking, that I finally scream.
I’m shaking, my elbows like jelly on the steering wheel, my leg barely able to keep the brake pedal down. I rest my head against the window and try to breathe. In and out, in and out.
“Get a grip, Ro,” I whisper to myself after a few minutes. I glance at the rearview mirror and see that I still look terrified, with wide eyes and a line of sweat on my brow. I’ve had my license for a year and I pride myself on being a good driver, an aware driver, but today there’s too much going on in my brain. It’s too filled with thoughts of getting the heck out of town, and Kyle’s cheating and Kyle’s everything else.
Somehow, the thoughts of him strengthen my resolve. I will get this job. I will spend my summer in the middle of nowhere. I will get over Kyle.
I smooth down my hair, take a deep breath, and ease the car back onto the road, taking care to check all mirrors before I merge. It’s as if my GPS senses my newfound determination, as she gives me what must pass for words of encouragement in her little world. “In one half mile, veer right onto County Road 4.”
Once again I do what she says, and I find myself on a wandering country road with quaint old farmhouses and ancient-looking trees.
Soon I start seeing fewer and fewer houses, and more and more trees. Pretty soon I’m also the only car on the road, and there’s no sign of civilization anywhere. I’m still on track according to the GPS, though, so I keep driving, but it’s unnerving feeling like I’m the only one out here, and it seems as if I’ve been driving for days. Probably because the road is so curvy, I can’t go any faster than thirty miles per hour. Finally, Snooty British GPS tells me to turn right, and my only option is a dirt road, which can’t be it.
But then my eyes fall on something strange. It’s a wooden post about three feet high that might have had a mailbox on top of it at one point. In place of a mailbox, however, sits a little troll.
Not a real troll, obviously. I’m not hallucinating or anything. It’s a wooden one, and it’s charming in the way all trolls are charming—ugly enough to be cute. Its arms tuck under
its fat belly, its legs bow in so that its knees touch, and it has the funkiest looking beard I’ve ever seen.
I take the weird little guy as a sign and turn down the road. After all, the ad did say remote. Maybe these artists don’t want to be disturbed.
My car rumbles and shakes along the dirt road, kicking up a cloud of dust as I go. A canopy of trees arches over my head, and the sun flashes through gaps in the leaves, bright and golden. The colors blur like watercolors as I drive, and I long to be able to capture them with a brush and canvas. I’m grinning like an idiot, thinking about how beautiful the woods are, when they suddenly stop. I’m so startled at the sudden change that I slam on my brakes.
In front of me, stretching as far as I can see in either direction, is a wide open field cut into the forest. And in this field, like glistening sequins, hundreds of cars are parked in neat rows. To my right is a tall pole with a large painted wooden sign that points to the left. I read it desperately, trying to get my bearings.
THIS WAY TO THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY, it says. What?
I stare at it some more, as if the words will somehow make more sense if I just give them more time. A knock at my window makes me yelp in terror. A guy in a leather vest and a billowy shirt motions at me to roll my window down. I do.
He flashes a smile that, in any other situation, might be handsome. Right now I just find it confusing. “Good morrow, my lady. May I be of assistance?”
All I can do at this point is hold the printout of the ad in front of his face and make some sort of weird noise meant to ask a question. His smile becomes an amused smirk.
“Aye, my lady. You have come to the right place. If you would allow me the honor, I can escort you to the king myself. If you would kindly park your carriage, I will assist you anon.” I stare in response, which makes him clear his throat, possibly to cover a chuckle. He motions toward an empty parking spot at the end of one of the long rows, politely telling me to get a move on. In my rearview I can see that I’m holding up a line; a few cars have appeared behind me, and the driver of the one directly in back is tapping his steering wheel impatiently.
I ignore him and turn back to the guy at my window, finally finding my voice to ask, “But what is this place?”
The guy dips his head in a slight bow, eyes twinkling at mine as they connect. “My lady . . . Welcome to King Geoffrey’s Faire!”