In the beginning there was the sun, and the sky, and the grass. That was before Kerah, although Opal doesn’t talk very much or very often about before Kerah. Back then it was all grass, everywhere, and the smiling man, and Opal didn’t know much about anything. She was just as small as Kerah was, back then.
There was the sun, burning in the corner of the sky, because back then the world had corners, and even though there were no trees, Opal felt safe, bounded in by something.
This was before although there was no before, just the smiling man and his sweet lilting promises, and his wicked thieving ways, and his effusive charm.
It took Kerah to make everything solid.
It’s wrong to say it was summer, when summer was ending. The beginning of summer was exciting, because Kerah and Adam had finished school and Opal knew that meant no more days with Maura and Calla and Orla and no more sitting and waiting while everyone did things. The beginning of summer meant that Adam left St. Agnes and moved into the house and he and Kerah were happy, even though they fought all the time.
But Opal knows things, even if people don’t tell her. Seasons were hard, the last year. Cabeswater didn’t have seasons so much as Cabeswater had moods. Things outside were different. Things outside changed for too many reasons, when Cabeswater changed for so few.
The first change came before Adam went away.
It was a firefly night, an Adam-and-Kerah-and-Chainsaw night, a night where the flowers in the field between the four barns, in the strange little dip in the landscape, bloomed with radiant silver light. Adam was swinging her, softly, from his arms. “Opal, Opal,” he said, and Kerah slept, and dreamed.
“What’s he getting?” she asked, because he had to be getting something. He didn’t just sleep like that unless it was for a reason.
Adam didn’t say anything at first, but he set her down. “What do you think about school?” he asked her, carefully. Adam was always careful with her, like she could break. She wanted to remind him, sometimes, that she was from the inside of Kerah’s head. The things in there were scarier than the things out here. The claws cut deeper, the screams were more shrill than any monster out here could produce.
But she knew the look in Adam’s face was as much nightmare as it wasn’t, and she thought that if he was gentle with her it was for a real reason.
So she didn’t say anything at first. School was one of those things she didn’t think about, like where her food came from or how many crickets she could swallow in one go. So she shrugged and put her legs out. “Kerah hates it,” she announced, firmly.
Adam took one of her hooves into his hand. It looked strange and brown and little, but then she’s strange and brown and little, too. “Ronan and you are two different people,” Adam told her.
She stared at him, then, because that’s not how it felt. She still understood the parts of Kerah’s brain that Kerah himself didn’t grasp, she knew the secrets that he hid from everyone.
She knew, for instance, how much Adam meant, in every way that counted for something.
And she looked away, then. Kerah was waking up, slowly. In his hands were pieces of paper. He was frozen, Opal could see.
Watching him wake up was always like watching someone breathe life back into the entire world. First his eyes, and then his body, and it was as though things were right again. In Cabeswater, in the corners of Kerah’s head, it was always him. Here, it was only him when he was awake, when he was holding her, when he was holding Adam. When they were both holding her, precious and careful.
And then he was sitting up, slowly, and Adam extended his hand out to look at it. The first paper he scoffed at. “Parrish-Lynch?”
“Do you prefer Lynch-Parrish?” Kerah replied, and Opal found her way to his side. “Get off,” he growled, but there was no real anger there.
“Better if she doesn’t have my name at all,” Adam said, and looked over at Kerah, and at Opal, who was now working her way into his lap. She didn’t like the direction of this conversation. This line of talk led to things like dentists and church picnics and other distasteful events where Kerah brooded and Adam sighed. State fairs sat heavily in her thoughts.
Kerah frowned. “Why are you so fucking difficult about this?” he asked, although Opal heard why don’t you want to share a part of yourself with her, because she’s me, too? and made a distressed noise. “Can’t you just fucking let me have it my way, for once?”
“For the love of-” Adam started. “She better off a Lynch, okay? It doesn’t mean shit except for school-”
“If it doesn’t mean shit then you’re just being-”
They were about to launch into something really horrible, so Opal made a decision and made a screeching noise that shocked them both into shutting up. Kerah touched his left ear in protest. “Fuck, Opal!” he snapped, and stood up suddenly, dumping her into the grass. The flowers spread sparks of light at her touch.
She watched as Adam scrambled up, and followed, and they argued in a tone that even her ears couldn’t catch, fast and smooth, with Kerah growling that low pitched rumble until finally Adam threw his hands in the air, and came back. “Opal,” he said, kneeling down to look at her. “You know I’m going to school, right? I love school.”
“You love the security of social structures, is what Calla says,” Opal replied, frowning.
Adam looked very annoyed at this particular turn of phrase, and Opal felt the stubborn Kerah part of her be savagely pleased with that. “Maybe,” he said, and Kerah made a displeased noise through his nose.
“He’s telling you you’re going to school,” Kerah interrupted, “starting in the fall.”
Opal’s sense of time was not particularly good. Cabeswater and the inside of Ronan’s head only had a few really prominent shifts - there was before Kerah, and then after the night terrors, and then there was outside. She didn’t know what they meant by fall.
“Why?” she asked, starting to make a noise that she knew would make Kerah pay attention to her, and it worked. His entire focus became her, and she could feel the weight of it like a blanket. It was security, his attention, it was a physical thing.
Adam was not so easily won over. “Because one day you might want to leave the Barns, and if you don’t go to school, it will be a lot harder.” Kerah was already scooping her up, though, carrying her as he headed back. “Ronan-” Adam started.
“I already fucking agreed,” Kerah snapped, “now let me handle the rest.”
Adam fell back, then, and Kerah took Opal up to one of the meadows, and sat with her. “Adam is being an asshole,” he said, “but I told him we’d try. One year. If you don’t like it, I won’t make you go back. I’ll fucking, I don’t know,” he said, and he he ran his big hands through her hair and tweaked her ears. “I’ll pay Calla and Maura to teach you or something. We’ll figure it out.”
Opal wasn’t entirely sure about it, but she curled up into a ball. “You’re going to make rules,” she said, in Latin, because when she spoke to Kerah it wasn’t always in English. He was getting better about following her. The practice over the last year had made them both better at it.
“There are always rules in the real world,” he replied. “But things will be the same here.”
“What if I don’t want to go?” she asked him, then, and curled up so that she could put her hands on her hooves. Going to church was a lot and that was just once a week. That was special shoes and special hat and not using her mouth to learn what things were. That was being quiet and sitting between Matthew and Kerah and that was waiting with Declan when Kerah went into confession. That was lunch where she couldn’t eat the napkin.
Kerah looked away from her. “It’s just a year,” he said, but she could tell he didn’t like it. Kerah didn’t like anyone telling anyone else what to do, unless it was Gansey. Kerah didn’t like a lot of things.
Opal considered it, and picked at her hooves again. “Is there going to be people there?” she asked, tucking her chin against her knees.
“Yes,” Kerah replied. “Other kids. But not like you. None of them will be like you.”
“Will anyone ever be like me?” she asked, suddenly feeling a burst of desperation. Kerah looked down at her, and his eyes were serious, his face was solemn. He looked nothing like the smiling man. He looked almost nothing like Kerah, and Opal was afraid. “Am I the only me there is?”
Kerah pulled her a bit, so she was close, and she thought about letting out a cry, but she didn’t. “Let’s try this shit,” he said. “It’ll make Adam happy.”
She wondered, for a minute, about what would make herself happy, but she realized that she didn’t know really what the answer to that was.
And so now they’re here, at the last few days of summer. Adam already went up to school, moving away so neatly that Opal barely realized it was happening until Kerah was driving her to Maura and Calla and telling her to behave, and Adam was trying to figure out how to hold her without making how much he was going to miss her obvious. Opal, exposed to the abundance of love for others that was so much of what made up Kerah’s dreams, recognizes the distinct lack of it in Adam, and she worries that it will destroy Kerah to realize it himself. That Adam does not recognize that sometimes he does not understand love.
Adam is gone and she and Kerah are in a Target, which they had to drive a full hour to get to. She’s sitting in the shopping cart with Chainsaw and they are getting nasty looks from perfectly respectable people, and Opal feels exposed.
Kerah does not seem to care as he stands there with a list. Calla was supposed to come too, because Calla is Opal’s favorite person who isn’t a Lynch or Adam, and because she wanted to “see the snake try and be a dad”, but she had a work emergency. She told Kerah to order things from the internet, and he said that he disliked the idea of mailmen. So they are here, unshielded and unprotected, three magical things in a world that is unkind to magic.
But Kerah is unkind back. People stare and Kerah stares back. People say things and Kerah snarls. Someone asks him to remove his bird from the store, and it’s not someone in a red shirt, and Kerah threatens to remove the man’s teeth from his head.
But at the end of it they are in the stationary section. “You need a pack of pencils, a notebook, and-” he lifts the list to read it again, “a box of kleenex, what the fuck do you need a box of kleenex for?”
“It’s for when the kids get sniffles,” a lady nearby says in an accent that sounds like Adam’s. She’s smiling at Kerah, who looks at her with a measure of suspicion. She’s not very old; she looks like she’s Orla’s age, and she has a little boy in her cart who looks like he’s Opal’s age, and a little girl who trots up next to her. “You know, because the schools won’t buy it.”
Kerah scowls and Opal mimics him, and the little boy opens his mouth to announce, “I’m going to kindergarten in Henrietta! Your bird is so cool! Is it a good bird? What’s your name?”
Social interactions are not either Opal nor Kerah’s strong suit, but Opal stares up at Kerah with wide eyes when he mutters, “That’s Opal.”
Opal wonders why suddenly her Kerah turned traitorous and is talking to this person instead of fiercely glaring at him and making him back off. She wonders this because then he looks down at her, expectantly. “Hi,” she finally replies, as if they’re at church and she’s talking to Declan.
“I’m Peter!” he says. “Can I touch your bird?”
The lady pushes the cart a bit, so they’re a bit further apart. “Not appropriate,” she tells Peter, and looks at Kerah. “Is she starting-”
“Kindergarten,” he replies, and Opal is staring at this. Who is this person, she wonders, who is being social? The lady is smiling more and more now. Opal feels like she should be displeased, but Kerah is just asking her a question and Opal is letting her curiosity take over.
The lady is pretty, she thinks, like Aurora was but younger, and dark haired. Kerah doesn't seem happy but he's not mad, either, and the lady can't stop smiling. Peter is staring at Opal. “You have funny eyes,” he announces, and Opal hisses at him. “What?”
“That’s not polite, apologize,” the lady says.
“But mommy, she does,” he argues, and Opal closes her eyes tight, and Kerah pulls the cart away.
She can’t see his face but a few minutes later he pokes at her. “Hey,” he says, and pokes at her again, and she opens her eyes. “Come on, shitheel, new clothes time.”
“Why don’t you dream all this?” she wails, and kicks at the cart.
“Because I’m not a fucking thief, you know that,” Kerah replies. She wonders if he thinks she has funny eyes, but she can’t ask. What if the answer is yes? She looks in the mirror and her eyes are perfectly normal. They’re not like her legs or her ears, which have to stay covered when they’re not home. They’re people eyes, she has a people face. “Here,” he tells her, and tosses a shirt on her. It’s green.
She tugs it on, over her other shirt, and Kerah smiles a little, for the first time, and she doesn’t know why. “What?” she asks, suspicious.
“The maggot would be so proud,” he replies, and she looks down and wonders if wearing a shirt is something to be proud of.
They go home after that, loaded with school supplies and some new clothes, and a salt lick from the feed store that Opal makes Kerah cut a chunk from so she can suck it on the drive back to the barns. School comes with rules, and she knows that the salt lick is going to be part of that. But she can have normal for a little while longer, she thinks.
Before she goes to bed, on the night before school starts, Adam calls and makes Kerah set up a video chat so she can see him. “It’ll be fine,” he promises her, but she thinks he’s probably wrong. Adam isn’t wrong about a lot of things. But he’s going to be wrong about this because this isn’t science or Latin or how to make Kerah turn red.
“I don’t want to go,” she says, when Kerah isn’t in the room. Sometimes she knows that Adam and Kerah talk about her, and it’s better to get one of them alone so they can have a talk. She stares at the screen and misses Adam so much it’s like pressing on a bruise to see him. She misses him and she misses Cabeswater and she misses Gansey and Blue and Henry.
And now she’s going to miss Kerah because he’s going to leave her at school, and she doesn’t like all these changes. It feels like when she was, before Cabeswater. She thought she would always be small and delicate and green.
Adam sighs. “I know,” he says. “I was afraid, too, when I had to leave the Barns.”
“It’s different for you,” she replies, and she can hear the desperation creep into her voice. There’s the edge of the bird in her, the slight soft rasp of a fear-song, or a warning. She can hear her voice getting higher. “You’re just like them!” she argues, and the cry is about to push out of her, she can feel it.
“I’m not,” Adam replies, but it doesn’t matter, because the agitation under Opal’s skin is too much, she’s feeling too much.
Kerah’s arms are around her, then. “Stop,” he commands her, and pulls her up so that she’s up against his chest. She can feel her heart beating against his arm, rabbit-quick, she can feel his nose against her hair. “That’s enough.”
“Ronan,” Adam says, and Kerah reaches over the keyboard, and Adam sighs. “I’ll call you in an hour,” he says, before Kerah shuts the screen.
Opal opens her mouth, but then she chooses to sink her teeth into Kerah’s arm, and chews there. He doesn’t hit her because he would never hit her, he just swears a vicious line of words, and she lets go. “God, you’re the fucking worst,” he says, and Opal knows he doesn’t lie, but she also knows he doesn’t mean it.
Still, she doesn’t apologize. She does, however, wrap her arms around his shoulders, and she’s comforted by the tender touch of his hand in her hair. She falls asleep there, cocooned in his grip. It almost feels like being back in his head, but better. Out here, sometimes touch means more. Inside his dreams it was always terror. Out here, it feels more like the way that she remembers love felt, when he was smaller, and love was all he knew.
In the morning, he wakes her up with a cup of milk and a plate of waffles covered in crickets and maple sugar. There’s playing fair and there’s playing fair, and making her favorite breakfast was not playing fair at all. “Eat,” he commands.
“I don’t want to,” she says, but she grabs a waffle and rams it in her mouth anyway. Kerah is smoothing her hair with a comb, putting her skullcap on. She fights him a little, with her hands, but he’s bigger than she is and his hands are faster than hers are. “Stop,” she says, drawling out the o.
“What are the rules,” he asks her as he ushers her from the table to the door, as he gets her shoes on. “Say them back to me.”
Opal thinks that his is the worst part of this entire experiment. If it’s going to involve a whole list of rules, then it is, by definition, stupid. She scowls at him so he knows she doesn’t like this at all. “No taking off my shoes or my hat. No speaking in anything but English. No learning things with my mouth. No bird noises,” she says, which is dumb, because he might as well tell her not to breathe, too, “and no talking about Cabeswater or home.”
Kerah stared at her. “What do you do if someone asks you who your mom is?” he asks, softly. This is the part he hates.
This is the part she hates, too. They are part and parcel of the same psyche. Her soul is a hammered out piece of his. “I say my mom is Aurora Lynch,” she says, clearly. The lie bites at the inside of her mouth like a bug. Adam came up with this fiction, and Kerah dreamed the papers, furiously. They fought about it for three days. Adam had to leave and Kerah broke a tractor over it. Aurora Lynch was nothing but nice to Opal, kindness incarnate, if a little vacant in a way that made Opal a little afraid. But she wasn’t Opal’s mother. Opal’s mother was the blackness behind Kerah’s eyes, the soft and gentle peace that no one would believe was there. Opal’s mother was at the heart of the dream that housed Cabeswater, cycling time around in ever-widening loops.
She said that in simpler words to Adam, and he had explained that they couldn’t put that on her birth certificate, and Kerah suggested anonymous, and Adam pointed out that was stupid because she was too old to be Kerah’s without the whole town knowing and also, there’s no way no one would know who her mother was unless she was abandoned and that made Kerah furious at just the idea, so Aurora it was. Declan even helped Kerah set something up for her, a trust fund, using a loophole in Niall’s will. Opal didn’t get it. They were words that, when people said them individually, she understood, mostly, but together they didn’t make any sense.
Kerah looks her over, and smooths the top of her head. “Good,” he tells her, and while she doesn’t really know why he says it, she can’t help but be a little pleased that he does. He means so much to her. Making him proud - even if it’s just because she can regurgitate these dumb facts - makes her bubbly and a little giddy.
She holds out her hand as they head to the car, and he looks down at her for a long moment, but finally he takes it with a sigh. She can make him agree to that, to hand-holding, as long as they’re alone.
She sits in the back with Chainsaw, who is hopping over her thighs. She’s wearing a dress that covers her legs, so no one can see that they’re hairy and they don’t really look right. Kerah told her she’s not allowed to run fast, because she can, faster than he can, and that it makes her look like a deer. He said it and he sounded proud of her.
Another dumb rule.
They get to the school, and the other kids are arriving too. The school is in Henrietta and not in Singers Falls because all the kids from Fox Way go there too, and Maura offered to help if there was any trouble. The kids who live in Fox Way all know Opal, and Adam thought it was a good idea in case there were any problems. In case someone made her so upset she couldn’t deal with them. Or in case someone found out something.
Kerah stops the car and looks at her in the mirror, and she looks back at him. He doesn’t look happy or relaxed. It’s the most scared he’s looked since right after the demon, when he would wake up with his hands covered in black ichor and holding pulsing black things that Calla had to come over and help him bury, all special. Those fields are far from the Barns but they’re dead now, barren land. It makes Opal’s stomach hurt to go there. Calla says the land will take care of it, but it will take a long time. She uses words like Chernobyl, and says that Kerah is a reactor that blew in a bad way. “Do you want me to go with you?” he finally asks.
Opal looks out at the building. They came here last week, to look at it, but they were late and almost everyone was gone. She can see the kids streaming into the classrooms.
She wonders if any of them are like her even a little.
“I don’t want to go at all,” she replies, so Kerah unbuckles his seatbelt and reaches in for her. She should protest more. She should scream.
But he looks so unhappy that she can’t do it. She can’t make it bad for him too.
So she lets him take her inside.
The classroom is sunny and bright. There are twelve other kids, all milling around, and their parents, and the teacher, who Opal did not meet but Kerah did. Miss Sunninblum, that’s her name. The first time Opal heard it she made Kerah repeat it, and protested that the sun was not a flower. He laughed.
He looks sick now, holding her hand tight enough that it would hurt if she didn’t want him to hold it tighter. The other kids are in various modes of kid, from distressed to excited, and that’s when Peter from Target runs up to the both of them. “Hi, Opal, hi!” he exclaims.
His mom isn’t there. Kerah doesn’t make Opal say anything back, which is why she just stares at Peter again. “Don’t you remember?” he asks, “we met last week.”
“I’m not stupid,” Opal replies, in case he thought she was. Kerah squeezes her hand; his lips are just slightly curved up. “I remember.”
“Oh,” Peter says, thoughtfully. “I can’t believe we’re in the same class!” he says brightly, all hostility ignored. He reminds Opal of Matthew.
“There’s only one class,” Kerah says, and Opal can hear the words he’s holding back, mean words that Kerah would say if Peter wasn’t six.
Peter reaches for Opal’s hand, and she pulls away, then, tripping her way behind Kerah’s legs. The look on Peter’s face says he’s surprised, but like a farm dog he just smiles and waves. “Okay,” he says. “That’s okay. I’m sorry,” he replies immediately, and he doesn’t seem upset.
Kerah looks down at her. “It’s four hours. I’ll be back to get you for lunch.”
“Please don’t go,” she says into his shirt, but he lets go of her hand. “Ke-” she starts, and he looks and her and shakes his head, then moves so he’s looking her in the eye. “Please?” She tries, and wobbles her lower lip, and he presses a smooth kiss to the top of her head. She knows what that means. That means that he’s not going to stay.
She turns back to stare at the other kids, who are all saying goodbye, too.
And then he’s gone, and she’s staring at the other kids whose parents are gone too, and they’re staring at her. She wants to hide behind something.
So she finds her way to the closet and closes the door.
Miss Sunninblum immediately knocks on the door. “Don’t you want to come out?” she asks, and her voice is nice, but the closet is dark and it makes her feel safe.
“No,” Opal replies, pressing all of her weight against the door. She knows she is small. She knows that she does not, in the grand scheme of things, weigh very much. She knows that it would not take a very strong or big person to open the door. Blue could do it. Or Henry. Well. Blue, yes. Henry, maybe.
“But we’re going to say hello and introduce ourselves,” she reasons, and Opal curls up against the door. “But okay, you don’t have to come out until you’re ready.”
Opal thinks she cries, but she isn’t sure. It’s dark and reassuring and she feels the wet against her kneecaps, and she thinks she sleeps because then there’s a knock and it surprises her awake. She didn’t dream, and it was a very unpleasant nap. “Opal?” Miss Sunninblum’s voice asks, and Opal stares at the door. “We’re having a snack. Do you want to come out and join us?”
Opal puts her hands on her stomach. She’s a little hungry. If she were at the Barns right now, Kerah would be feeding the chickens. She’s not stupid, she knows that’s probably what he’s doing anyway, and that she isn’t needed to make the process go smoothly. She would tell him she was hungry and he would tell her to wait, and then they would finish feeding the chickens and find something to eat together.
She looks at the door and considers all this, and weighs it against the snack that waits outside. She doesn’t know what it would be. She decides she doesn’t want to know. “No,” she says, finally, firmly.
“Okay. We’ll be here if you change your mind.” The voice stops, and it’s quiet again.
Opal hates this.
It’s not the dark that’s the problem. It’s not that she’s alone in the dark. She’s been alone in the dark before. After the smiling man disappeared, all there was in Cabeswater was dark, for a while. All there was in the inside of Kerah’s dreams was an absence of light. She and the dark are old friends, comfortable with each other, sure of what the other is. She is a dream, and she was born and raised in the dark.
It’s something else. She kicks at something and it thuds satisfyingly. She thinks of Adam’s knees and kicks again, and it thuds a second time. She hates that they decided this for her, that they’re making her do this. She was better at the Barns, with Kerah. She doesn’t need to know to read or write because Kerah will never ever make her leave, and he will never ever leave her. So this is betrayal, it’s outrage, and she kicks the whatever-it-is again.
And she kicks and kicks and she cries and she is a small sun, going nuclear in the closet of this stupid place, and she can hear the other kids laughing and they have to be laughing at her, don’t they? Because she’s not a baby but she thinks, sometimes, that Kerah didn’t make her for this, he made her for himself, and he’s not here, and she’s alone, alone, alone.
And of course, she sleeps again, because then the door is opening. “Brat,” Kerah says, and she looks up at him, and zooms past him. Chainsaw is waiting outside; her weight is satisfying. Kerah is storming out after her. “Come on,” he said, grabbing her hand. She thinks it will be rough, but the second he touches her it softens, gentles, and it doesn’t hurt at all as he pulls her to the car. He can. But he would never.
When they get home the first thing she does is pull her shoes off and drop them on the ground. The second thing she does is run into the long, dipping fields, out into the copse of trees that make her think most of Cabeswater and considers getting lost. No one would make her go to school if she was a wild thing, wild things didn’t go to school.
(She knows monsters do, though. She knows because she remembers the monster, black-eyed and pale, his mouth like a gash and red inside, laughing, whispering in and out like a motherfucking thief. She knows that monster went to school with Kerah, before a dragon ate him. She remembers the dragon, too.)
She considers wildness when she hears it. She turns in a circle, and sees a flash of black and white in the underbrush. Opal has Kerah’s curiosity - literally, she thinks, sometimes, she contains all of it - and so she squats down, inching forward on her hooves.
There’s that sound again, and she can pinpoint where it’s coming from. There’s a tiny black and white animal, the length, maybe, of her hand, and it is staring at her. Skunk, her brain provides, a piece of something that Kerah gave her. She has memories he put in her, memories and practicalities. She can’t read but she can identify birds with unerring accuracy. She doesn’t know how to tie a bow, but she knows all the kinds of animals that ever frequented the Barns.
This skunk is tiny. A baby, she realizes, and she follows it, carefully, as it goes back to where it’s mother is.
Only its mother isn’t moving. It’s mother, or, at least, a bigger skunk, is still. She looks like she’s asleep, but there is a hole in the side, gashed out by something with talons and a fury. The baby skunk makes a noise when Opal gets too close, so she stays just out of range, just where she can see it curl up and stay with its mother.
Opal knows that it won’t live if she leaves it, and she doesn’t know what to do. She thinks that Kerah would be all right if she brought it back, but she doesn’t know if it will bite. That’s not programmed into her. She waits, still, and watches, and finally it comes up to her, sniffing and making a tiny strange noise that presses against Opal’s chest like a wound. She thinks that this is the same way that Kerah must feel, when he hears Opal cry. She thinks, too, that maybe it isn’t fair to use it because it feels terrible.
She picks up the skunk, carefully, and carries it. It sniffs at her and doesn’t seem afraid, doesn’t bite, and curls up in her hands.
She gets back to the house and Kerah is on the porch, a bottle of beer next to him. He’s taken off his boots, and he’s watching her. “Better?” he asks, and then he sees what she’s carrying. “Shit,” he says, and Opal looks up at him as he stands. “Where the fuck did you find that thing?”
“In the woods,” she replies. “It’s alone,” she continues, and Kerah reaches out, lets the skunk sniff him. That’s when Opal knows it’ll be okay. Kerah likes animals. He feeds the wild ones that come near the house. “Can we keep it?”
“Fuck, I owe Parrish twenty bucks,” Kerah replies, and he’s already ushering her and the skunk inside the house. “You have to figure out how to take care of it, I already have enough shit to deal with.”
“Does this mean I don’t have to go to school?” she asks, thinking she’s being clever.
He snorts. “I’ll handle it during the four fucking hours you locked yourself in a closet,” Kerah responds, and he’s already getting his computer and picking up Opal and the skunk to sit on the stool at the kitchen table. He’s looking at it and squinting a bit, and then looking at the skunk. “You must have been born late,” he says, and shrugs. “I have some formula, come on.”
Kerah sits with Opal and for the next while, they sit and quietly feed the skunk. Kerah teaches Opal carefully, and the skunk - who Opal wants to name Stripes, but Kerah tells her he refuses to let her call it that, she’ll have to think of a better name - is cuddly and warm. They call Adam and he says something about disease and Kerah doesn’t seem too worried, but he settles her for bed and promises Adam he’ll give it medicine so if it’s sick, none of them get sick too. Adam wishes her a good night from his room halfway across the world. Kerah says it’s not that far, but Opal feels it, because she can’t feel him on the leyline anymore. He could be just ten miles away, but if he’s not close to the leyline, he might as well be on the moon.
As Kerah brushes her hair back and lets her curl up in her bed, which is not really a bed but the space underneath it, surrounded in blankets and pillows, she asks him if she has to really go back to school the next day.
He nods. “You’ll be okay.”
She’s not okay.
The next day is the same disaster as the first, and the day after that, too. The closet is a very easy place to hide and no one makes her come out of it. But on Thursday, she wakes up just as Kerah comes to pick her up, and she hears Ms. Sunninblum talking to him. I don’t know if this is the right place for her, she says, and her heart beats a drumline.
Kerah’s voice is deep and she almost feels it in her bones. Give her another week, he says, and she thinks he’s a traitor. She’s almost free. But she knows she can just go back into the closet, and if it’s another week, that’s fine.
Ronan, Ms. Sunninblum says, and it’s familiar, and Opal realizes that she knows him.
She knows him and Kerah never said. Just a little more, he asks, and there’s a strange tone in his voice. Almost like desperation. Opal never thought that Kerah really wanted this. Opal always thought that he was doing it because Adam asked, and Adam could make Kerah do anything. She always thought that this was a strange stupid thing that Adam had thought would be a good idea.
She never thought that the sound in Kerah’s voice would be to beg for just a little while longer.
She isn’t sure if this is better or more upsetting.
They’re in the car, and Kerah brought the skunk with him in a box, so Opal has it on her legs. She’s looking at it, and it’s sniffing her and playing with her fingers. “Kerah,” she starts, “why do you want me to go to school so much?”
Kerah looks at her in the mirror. There is a certain amount of hesitation in him, but he answers anyway. “You need to learn to be a real person. You wanted out, Opal,” he tells her, “you can’t just stay at the Barns.”
“You do,” she points out.
He rolls his eyes. “Yeah, and I did my fucking time to get there. I made a decision. Besides if I hadn’t gone out I wouldn’t have met Gansey or Adam or the maggot,” he points out.
The skunk stares up at Opal, and she looks down at the skunk. “What if I don’t want friends?”
Kerah is quiet a moment. “What did you want to come out for, if it wasn’t for the whole world, asshole?”
Opal looks out the window. The world whirs by, and she doesn’t know how to answer that.
She sits on the very edge of the Barns that night. There’s an invisible line, she thinks. One one side is Kerah’s magic, and on the other is endless nothing, overgrown forest and fields of flowers, tall meadows and pastureland, farms of plants that Opal doesn’t know or care about. She stares out at it. Once there was a girl, she thinks, in a world where the sun was in the corner of the sky, and there was a smiling man. Then there was a girl in the forest, a psychopomp for a boy who was trying to find his way. Then there was a girl who saw that there was more than just Kerah, and that there was more than just the quiet. There was a girl who hid from monsters and a girl who made them.
She wanted out. She thinks about Kerah’s words. He thinks the whole world could be him, and Adam, and her, and the Barns. But maybe this isn’t really him pushing her away. Maybe this is her being born for the third time.
She has a skunk with her.
She holds that skunk and it makes a strange little skunk noise at her, and then, like it’s easy, it squirms out of her hands and out past Kerah’s magic line. It crosses and sniffs and does skunk things, and then it comes back, just a few minutes later, and makes more skunk noises at Opal.
She hates it when the world speaks to her in clear metaphors. She thinks it’s tacky, to engage that way. Even when Kerah’s dreams were nothing but rotting symbols and decay and dark, it was never this pathetically easy to read.
But here she is.
She picks up her skunk – not hers, not really – and carries it with her back towards the house.
The next day she wakes up and gets dressed, and when Kerah comes down the stairs in his jeans, rubbing the top of his head, she and the skunk are ready.
He drives her without saying anything and he takes her into the building, and he says goodbye to her, and when the moment comes where she normally goes inside the closet, she sits on the big colorful rug, instead, and looks at the crowd of kids who are watching her back. Ms. Sunninblum asks her, “Do you want to introduce yourself?”
Opal has never had to do this before. Everyone who has ever spoken to her before this has known who she was. And that’s the point, maybe. “Hi,” she says. “My name is Opal.”
The first chill in the fall was always when Kerah’s nightmares got more active, after. When he was small, it was still a chill, but there was something creeping but ultimately benign to it. Opal remembers it less and less now. With every day that she’s not in his head, the memory of it fades, quietly. Sometimes she forgets that she came from that part of him, until she looks down and sees hooves where there should be feet.
She thinks when she came out of his head, pulled and twisted and shaped from nothing into a real thing, that that she was less a girl. That they didn’t know how little of little girl comprised the thing that was Opal. But then Adam gave her a watch, and Gansey gave her a name, and Blue gave her real clothes to wear, and Maura and Calla gave her a fortune, and Kerah gave her everything else, that it was as though they shaped the thing that Opal was into the thing that Opal is.
Peter, whose last name is unwieldy and when Kerah found out he muttered southern white trash, is following Opal across the playground.
The other girls like her okay. They taught her, for instance, the best painting technique and Maggie Kepler, who has the prettiest red hair, pushes her on the swings if Opal promises to return the favor. But it’s Peter who keeps following her, attached to her in a way that she isn’t particularly sure about. Kerah told her if he bothered her, to kick him, and then he remembered that her knees don’t bend that way and her hooves are hard and amended that to punch him.
She doesn’t do either. She climbs like a goat, and she climbs a tree and watches him. “What are you doing?” he asks her.
“What does it look like I’m doing, shitheel?” she replies, and he laughs. When Kerah says it, people don’t laugh. She thinks of Stripes, standing on his hands, threatening Chainsaw when he’s afraid, and how the first time he did it Kerah laughed. It’s not threatening, coming from him. It’s cute.
The same thing applies, maybe, here. Whatever it is that makes people laugh, she hates it.
“It looks like you’re having fun. Can I have fun with you?” he asks, peering up the tree. It’s just starting to turn orange. October is a month of cooling down, of longer sleeves and more layers, of Calla making tea that tastes like fall leaves and dying moss. Opal isn’t sure why no one else wants to drink it. “Please?” Peter adds.
Opal gathers all her limbs up around her. “I don’t know why you want to be my friend,” she tells him. “I’m never nice to you.”
“Because you’re funny,” he chirps, “and because my mom thinks your brother is cute.”
Opal stares at Peter for a long minute. She knows what thinks your brother is cute means. She knows it means sex. She also knows that she’s not allowed to talk about sex - once she did it in front of Gansey and Gansey nearly choked, and Calla and Maura had to explain that there were things that non-dream children didn’t know. “My brother has a boyfriend,” she replies archly.
“And I think it’s cool you have a skunk,” he adds. Everyone knows about Stripes now. He’s almost weaned, and Kerah says they’ll have to let him go soon, but he’s come into show and tell and everyone thought he was cute except the people who said he smelled (which led to a fight where Opal did punch someone, except that was Noah Gallagher and it was in the teeth, which led to an apology that Opal didn’t mean, and confusion over the entire institution of violence, school, and socialization). “Come on, we can play ball or something. Are your socks furry?”
Opal looks down at him and tugs her skirt to hide the scant amount of skin he might be able to see. “You shouldn’t talk to girls about their socks, or look up their skirts,” she begins, and he starts to climb up the tree so she screams, a bird-scream, like an owl, and he stumbles back, startled.
Miss Ryans, the playground monitor, looks up, alarmed. This is Virginia, and birds aren’t uncommon, but Opal knows she’s loud. Peter looks over, surprised, and Miss Ryans watches for signs of distress, but none come, so she goes back to watching the other kids. Peter looks hurt, and Opal wants to use her words - not to reassure him, because she doesn’t regret what she did - but to try and tell him it wasn’t okay to, that it violated some boundary she didn’t know was there. To try and make sure he wouldn’t do that again. But she can’t. The words don’t come. They don’t even stay in her mouth, because that would imply they got there. It’s like they’re lodged somewhere under her stomach, so far away from even being nascent, budding things that they are impossible to even pretend she can create them.
So they stare at each other, at an impasse, when someone whistles from across the playground, and Opal looks over and is down from the tree before she knows it. Declan is warm when she crashes into him, when he picks her up. “Declan Declan Declan,” she says, and he smells like pine and musk and a little bit like something spicy. “Declan,” she whispers, right into his shoulder.
“Hey, squirt,” he says, and that’s how she knows that everything is okay, that he isn’t here because Kerah is in trouble or because Matthew is hurt. “Did you eat lunch yet?”
“No,” she tells him. “We’re at recess. That’s Peter,” she says, when he comes trailing her. “He tried to look up my dress.”
“I did not!” Peter yells, at the same time that Declan says, “that’s asking for trouble,” and Miss Ryans is cutting across in their direction.
Declan is wearing a sleek shirt and he looks polished in a way Kerah never does, so she stops about five feet from the three of them. Opal doesn’t understand, always, how Declan does this. Kerah does it by looking scary and unbothered, by looking toxic. Declan does it by doing the opposite. One time Opal watched as a woman followed Declan around a store, always keeping a distance, but entranced. When people follow Kerah around a store, it’s because they think he’s stealing.
She doesn’t not understand the magic of it. She just sees his smile and the warmth of him, the part of him that loves her because she’s a Lynch too, the part of him that loves her even when she’s frustrating and screaming and tired. She doesn’t know, some days, if she loves Kerah or Declan more. It’s easy, when Declan doesn’t ever make her do anything she doesn’t want to do.
So when Declan smiles, easily, and extends a hand, and says, “Hi, I’m Opal’s brother, Declan Lynch,” she knows that Miss Ryans will melt. Miss Ryans is at least twice as old as he is, and married, and uncharmed by everyone.
But when she takes Declan’s hands, everyone turns into everyone but Declan Lynch. “I’m Melanie Ryans, the playground monitor,” she says. “How many brother does Opal have?”
“Three,” Declan replies, “but only Ronan lives in Singers Falls. I’m in D.C.,” he explains, “but I’m on fall break from school. Can I take her to lunch?” he asks, and Opal feels the patter of her heart increase. Lunch with Declan means something interesting; a new Ronan story and somewhere out where she can be something spun from dreams and not a little girl with hairy legs.
Miss Ryans agrees, and then Opal is in Declan’s Volvo, in the front seat, and he’s driving her to a diner that they both like and he’s playing music that Kerah never plays, and he’s not saying anything. She puts her hands up on the dashboard. She’s been out of dreams for a year now, and she still can’t fathom how anyone could ever lose their wonder about cars. She loves how fast they go, how smooth it is, the way that the sounds change if they’re on a dirt road or a paved one, how when you can’t see the ground it must be what flying is like.
When they get to the diner Declan doesn’t get out of the car right away. He looks at her, instead, funny for a moment. “I’m not going to turn into a pumpkin,” she tells him.
He raises an eyebrow, and snorts before he leans over and undoes her seatbelt and gets out, coming around to let her out too and hold her hand to walk her up to the entrance. She doesn’t need him to hold her hand, and he doesn’t need her to hold his, but he does anyway and she does anyway, too. She doesn’t let Adam hold her hand like this, and suffers it from Kerah, but from Declan, it’s not the same. Declan is different. She couldn’t explain how.
After they order he hands her his straw wrapper and rolls his sleeves up, and she starts shredding it and surreptitiously slipping it into her mouth. “Why are you really here?” she finally asks.
“It’s fall break,” he replies smoothly. Declan is a liar and Opal knows this, but he very rarely lies to her. More likely, it’s the truth, but it’s not the whole truth.
She doesn’t know why he’s not telling her. Either it’s something she won’t want to hear, or he’s being coy, and she doesn’t know which one. “Are you staying at the Barns?” she asks.
He nods, and drinks his iced tea.
She stares at him. He doesn’t stare back, because Declan doesn’t really stare. Instead he keeps in motion - checking his phone, smiling at the waitress when she checks in on them, fidgeting with the napkins. Finally, she asks. “Where is Kerah going?”
He stops fidgeting, then. “To see Adam,” he replies, coolly. Declan doesn’t dislike Adam, Opal doesn’t think. She doesn’t dislike Adam-and-Kerah. Sometimes, though, she thinks he’s jealous of Adam. There is a hole inside of Declan and it’s shaped like the smiling man, and that means it’s shaped like Kerah, too. “He asked me to stay with you during my fall break.”
“Do I have to go to school?” she asks, eyebrows up high.
He just laughs. “Why do they have you going to school, anyway?” he asks, and the waitress sets their food down. Opal asked for liver. Declan is having a cheeseburger.
“They said I need to learn to be like a real girl,” Opal replies, and picks up the fork even though it’s stupid, in her opinion, to eat liver like this.
Declan watches her cut it up with her knife and doesn’t offer to do it for her, or just take the knife without asking. She loves him a little more. “You’re not, though,” he says, not unkindly, and takes a bite of his cheeseburger.
Opal doesn’t reply. She takes a bite of her food and thinks about that. She knows why he says that, she knows what it means. It’s not mean, or rude, or horrible, although she thinks that someone who didn’t understand might think of it that way. “Sometimes I forget I’m not,” she finally admits, and sets her chin on the table. Even liver seems a little unappetizing. “Sometimes it’s easier to be what people see.”
Declan moves around the table, scoots in a little closer to her. She looks up at him, and she thinks he understands. “You probably should go to school,” he tells her, and she presses her face against his arm. This is comfortable, this is something that she could make become familiar without any hesitation. Declan’s arm, and her face against it. “But not because Ronan doesn’t know what to do with you,” he says, and the validation of it sparks through her, both as fury and as relief, “but because one day, you won’t have the Barns to protect you.”
She looks up at Declan and she thinks she understands him, a little. The hole in Declan is old, the edges are worn smooth. In a dream, he would be hollow. But the hole in Declan isn’t just people. Once the Barns protected him, just like the edges of the world and the corner that the sun lived in protected her, when it was just her and Kerah and the dream world. But they’re both cut loose from those things, by choice and by design.
She offers him some of her liver, and he eats it uncomplainingly.
When he drives her home Kerah is still there, looking uncertain and uncomfortable. She scowls at him the best that she can, and he scowls back, one hundred times better at it than she’ll ever be. “He’ll call me anytime you want.”
She gallops past him and into the house, and hides just at the door. Stripes is bigger now, and he loves her so much that he comes snuffling to press against her fetlocks as she listens to Kerah explain things to Declan, as if Declan has never done this before, and Declan just tells him to head out, because he looks terrible.
He comes back in the house. “No messes this time,” Kerah commands, and she purposely reaches up to the kitchen counter and with one hand knocks over a box of cereal. He snarls. She frowns. This is an old game, and sometimes she thinks she understands just why she plays it. “For fuck’s sake-”
“Go, Ronan,” Declan says, smoothly, already taking his things up into his bedroom.
Kerah looks at her. “It’s just a week.”
She doesn’t respond, only flattens her mouth out, but then he takes her cap off, kisses her on the top of her head and smooths her hair down a little. It makes her feel glowing. He turns to go and the glow remains, sweet and soft and warm as he clicks his tongue and Chainsaw swoops to land on his shoulder.
And then he’s gone.
Declan is down the stairs and she stands in the doorway. He doesn’t make her move, not even when it’s dark outside and all that’s left of Kerah is the slight smoky smell of his shirt. She opens her mouth, to wail. The last time this happened, when he left her with Declan so that he could spend a few days with Gansey, and Adam, and Blue, and Henry, back in that endless summer, she had cried the whole time. Being separated from Kerah was strange, even now when they didn’t reside in the same place anymore.
She opens her mouth to wail, but no sound comes out. She looks at Declan, who tilts his head to look down at her. He’s waiting for the screaming, but the screaming doesn’t come. She feels inoculated against it, against the pain. It’s still there, battering her heart around and slamming into the precious spaces between her ribs, but it’s different now. It’s not sharp like a blade.
Declan holds his hand out. “Did you really adopt a skunk?”
“You knew that,” she argues.
“Intellectually I knew,” he replies. “I didn’t actually realize it was a skunk.”
She just stares up at him. “What did you think it was?” she asks, and he snorts.
“When you do that you sound just like him,” Declan tells hers, “only maybe a little bit more mannered.”
He takes her to school, the next morning. It helps her anxiety, she thinks, that Declan is so sturdy. He’s just like Kerah, the same height and the same size, the same shape nose and the same color eyes, like the sky right at dawn, all smoky blue. But he doesn’t have any wispy wistfulness about him. He doesn’t have any brittle and airy dreaming. Where Kerah sometimes looks like he might shatter, Declan is made from earth and rock and steel. Where Kerah is a flame, Declan is solid wood.
Peter is there right when she fumbles her way to class. “Hi, Opal,” he says, and she makes a snarling noise in response. This, unsurprisingly, doesn’t deter him. “Did you have fun with your brother? We pressed oak leaves.”
“Into what?” she asks, because that comment doesn’t make any sense.
“Huh?” he replies, tilting his head, and they are confused at each other for a minute, until he reaches into his bag and pulls out a leaf coated in a waxy paper. It’s red and tan and she holds it. “Like that,” he tells her. “Because it’s fall.”
“What comes after fall?” she asks. In Ronan’s head, after fall came death, and she was pretty sure that wasn’t how it worked outside of it. In Cabeswater, fall came when fall came. There was no way to predict it.
Peter does not seem to think that this is a strange question. “Christmas,” he announces, and Opal understands that. Christmas is important. Christmas is in the special part of Kerah’s dreams. He didn’t let himself think about it much after the smiling man, but it was always sacred, held tight against his heart. Christmas was safe.
Last year they did a big Christmas and Adam and Kerah fought, and Gansey and Blue rubbed their noses together under the mistletoe, and Opal drank eggnog and ate pine from the Christmas tree and stayed awake until she heard Adam and Kerah stop fighting, which is when she went to bed under her bed, where she had pressed a nest of blankets into the hay.
“Maybe fall needs to hurry up,” she proposes, and Peter laughs. “Why do you want to be friends with me?” she asks, suddenly, suspicious of the laugh and of his motives in general.
He looks down a little. “Aren’t we already friends?” he asks, a little shy, and Opal thinks this is why Kerah hates people, because they never make any sense.
“I don’t think I have any friends,” she says, and Peter shakes his head.
“Everyone thinks you’re weird but I like you,” he argues. “Do you want to play ball?”
Ball, Opal thinks, is up there in the heights of insipid things that people at this place do. She likes to run, and make noise, and pretend to fly, but ball is stupid. It’s just passing around a red ball that looks like it might be interesting to put in her mouth, and sitting in the middle of the room while doing it. There’s no point. But Peter is making a face like Matthew and Opal is sighing and going to get the ball from where it lives in the closet, and they sit on the floor and pass it, one to the other.
Miss Sunninblum is watching them, and finally she sits with them and pushes the ball towards Opal. “Why don’t you try reading a book with Mary Ellen?” she asks.
“Because Mary Ellen has no sense of humor,” Opal replies, and Peter honks out a laugh.
Miss Sunninblum looks a little surprised, but she also looks like maybe she’s trying really hard not to smile. “Okay, how about Davy Kim? I know you both like music.” She pushes the ball to Peter, who catches it.
Opal looks at Miss Sunninblum. She is being very transparent about what is happening here. “I like real music,” she drawls out. “Ker-” she starts, but doesn’t finish. “Ronan says I don’t have to like anyone as long as I come and learn to read and write and all that garbage,” she adds, the last bit in Latin. Her Latin is still better than Kerah’s, conjured from the part of his mind where his Latin was flawless.
Miss Sunninblum has an expression on her face that is half-impressed and half-annoyed. Opal knows, now, that she knows Kerah from church, so she knows that Opal is speaking in Classical Latin. Opal also knows this is the easiest way to annoy her. It’s a little pleasing to do. “You should make friends,” she says.
“I’m her friend!” Peter volunteers, cheerily.
“Yes, more friends than just one,” Miss Sunninblum argues. “Opal, you’re very different from the others, I know, that makes it hard. But you should try.”
She stands up and takes the ball. “Come on. Library time,” she says, and everyone packs up to go to the library, to pick out a book to take home.
Later, Declan picks her up, and in the back of his car there’s a violin case. “Why did you bring the violin?” she asks, because she didn’t think anyone could touch it. Kerah was fussy about it, he didn’t like anyone to touch it.
“Because it’s my violin,” Declan responds.
Opal didn’t expect that. She sits up in her seat. “Kerah said it belonged to-”
“Ronan wants to forget more than he wants to remember,” Declan interrupts, and Opal makes a honk so he knows it was rude. He ignores it. “It’s mine, the violin. I’m the only one who played it, anyway.” He looks back at her. “What else did he say about our dad?”
Opal suddenly thinks maybe this is too far. She knows what she remembers - the Kerah before and the Kerah after. She knows about how the Kerah now looks at the things that once belonged to him, about the photographs that Adam wrapped up and put away in a closet, about the way that when his hair gets too long and begins to curl, Kerah can’t look at himself in the mirror until he shaves it off again. She knows the way that light is when Kerah thinks of him and that light is when Kerah doesn’t, and she knows that the lights are different.
She also knows things that Delcan and Kerah both don’t know, or they don’t know she knows.
She slumps back against the seat of the car. “Do you really want to talk about it?” she asks.
There is a look on Declan’s face in the mirror, then. It’s like his eyes have turned from the color of the ocean to the color of steel. “No,” he replies.
They drive in silence for a little while, before Opal sits up again. “I got a book at the library,” she says. “It’s full of stories.”
“Are they still rationing stories to you?” Declan asks, a smile on his lips as he looks back at her in the mirror.
Opal nods. “But now I can read. It was easier than I thought.” She goes into the backpack that Blue sent her, it looks ragged and torn but it’s not, and she likes that about it. “It’s German fairy tales,” she clarifies. “Kerah only reads the Irish ones.”
“Those are the books we had as kids. And Alice in Wonderland. Jesus, they were fucking obsessed with that book,” Declan says. “If you want books I can take you to town. We can buy some.”
“No,” Opal replies. “I’ve had enough of people for an entire lifetime.” She holds her book up. “Will you read me some?”
“I thought you said you could read.”
Opal bites her lip. She doesn’t know how to explain to Declan that yes, she can read, because she’s always really been able to even if she didn’t really know how, but that even when she says things like she’s tired of people, she’s not. She’s endlessly fascinated by how they act, she wants to know about them. She wants Declan to read to her because it means he loves her, and even though she knows that’s true, she wants it to be more true than that. Declan does love differently than Kerah. Kerah has a soft spot in the center of him. Declan is more human than Kerah, and it makes him more precious. He’s more human than anyone else she knows, really.
Except maybe Peter but the thought of Peter is irritating, so she brushes it aside.
She thinks that once, in Kerah’s head, she would have said what she felt. She thinks that now, outside of it, she has to speak to people who aren’t herself. “Will you read it anyway?”
He’s smiling, she can see it in the mirror, the upturn of his lips. “You’re the only girl I can’t say no to,” he says.
“You say that to all the girls,” she argues. She knows.
He laughs a little. “Ronan doesn’t know me that well,” he says, and maybe she realizes then that Declan knows that she and Ronan are parts of the same soul.
They get home and she helps Declan feed the animals, and she sits and watches as Declan rolls his sleeves over his forearms and makes her dinner, and he hands her the green parts of the leeks to chew. She does, with some amount of relish, stuffing them in her mouth and rolling them around her tongue. They eat together, and she goes to sit outside to look at the stars when she hears the violin.
It’s like a part of her that was asleep wakes up. Declan is playing something fast and faster, something that she can’t hold onto in her head, but she knows that there is supposed to be a flute here and a bouzouki here. He keeps playing and she crawls inside, to look him over. He is so focused on the music. He looks like Kerah more than ever, even more than when they are both proud of Matthew or scowling at something they don’t like.
She watches him and she feels all the muscles in her body go slack, and her mouth drop open, and she watches him and she feels like maybe she’s been here for days. It feels like time has stopped. It feels like Cabeswater.
And then he stops and time speeds up again to compensate. She feels so sick that she thinks she’s crying, and he looks at her, surprised. “What? What happened?”
“I miss you,” she says, and she wraps her arms around his waist, even though she isn’t sure why she’s saying that. She doesn’t know how she can miss Declan when he’s right there, right in front of her. “You’ll always be my favorite,” she assures him, and she doesn’t know why she’s saying that, either. She gets the feeling that he is her only friend, but that can’t be right. He’s not her friend. He’s her brother.
He sets the violin down and picks her up, and she’s crying into his shoulder. “You’re not Ronan,” he tells her, assures her. Or himself. She can’t tell.
The next day at school, she walks up to Peter. “I don’t know how to really make friends,” she says, and she thinks that it’s because Kerah didn’t dream it into her.
He beams. “I’ll be friends enough for both of us, okay?” he says, and she makes a noise in her nose.
But she doesn’t run away when he goes to get one of the toys from the toy basket and brings it back.
She never knew winter felt cold.
Kerah didn’t feel winter like cold. Winter was dark, but the kind of dark lit up from the inside, the kind of dark where the curl of light was cheery and bright. Kerah’s dreams tasted like hymns and prayers in the winter, like gifts and dinners, the music like Aurora’s perfume or the sharp wood of pine and the smiling man’s smoke.
Kerah felt winter like love.
The first winter without he barely dreamed at all. Opal thought that maybe he was gone, then, really gone. It was hard back then to tell where she went when the dream ended. It was hard to tell if she was asleep when he was awake. She decided in that cloudy moment between awake and asleep that she could find light, she could bring him towards it.
She was always good at self-determination.
Opal liked Christmas: Christmas meant presents and it meant Adam and it meant Declan and Matthew, and it meant Kerah happy in a way that she hasn’t thought of for a while. Winter break meant that Adam had to stay at the Barns, that Declan took her north for a day to where there was snow and they went sledding with Matthew, that things felt like home.
Christmas meant no school.
But then Christmas was over and everyone was gone, and Kerah was cranky and lonely and that he was more likely to yell at her, and she was more likely to screech at him, and that Stripes, annoyed, was more likely to hide under the floorboards. No one knew how he got there, but he did.
So actually, when school started again, Opal found herself happy to go. January was colder than inside of Kerah’s head, and she didn’t mind the boots and the hat so much. And as February turns, Peter marches up to her. “I’m not getting you a Valentine,” he announces.
Opal just stares at him.
“You know. For Valentine’s Day. Next week.”
She keeps staring at him. They are friends now, sort of, except that Peter can’t run as fast as she can and she can’t put numbers together the way he does, and sometimes they yell at each other. But one time he invited her over to his house and she had to tell him that she wasn’t that kind of girl.
They stare at each other a lot, anyway. Half the time Opal has no idea what he’s saying. Strange, outside-of-Kerah’s head things that she has to have Declan or Adam translate later. And he can’t always follow what she says, especially when it’s easier to say it in Latin and she has to pick through the words in English. It’s not her fault that word order matters so much in English. It’s definitely not her fault that there are no conjugations. How is she supposed to be clear when she has to add words to indicate who and what and where instead of just inflecting it? What kind of garbage language is English, anyway?
But now they’ve stared at each other too long and Peter sighs, “It’s a holiday, Opal.”
“I’m not stupid,” she says, although she feels kind of stupid. “I don’t know why you would get me a Valentine, anyway.”
“Because Mary Ellen says you’re my girlfriend but I told her you’re not,” he replies. “I told her that girls are gross.”
Opal finds this too unutterably stupid to dignify it with any response outside of a curt “Flocci non faccio,” and Peter nods sagely even if he doesn’t understand what she just said.
“I told her that too,” he lies, and Opal scowls at him. “Floki-nun-fuck-io-” he repeats, poorly, his accent mangling it, and giggling at the swear word in the middle. “Why do you talk so funny, anyway?”
“Because my brother taught me,” Opal says, gritting her teeth through the lie. She hates lying. She hates lying about who Kerah is. He’s so magical, everyone should know. “Mary Ellen is an idiot,” she says, and resists the urge to stuff something in her mouth and chew it. Why does she care what Mary Ellen thinks? She wants to say she doesn’t, again, but now she knows it’s not true.
So in the middle of open play, when Mary Ellen is puzzling over a lego set that look like glistening candies and Opal has wanted to eat since the first day she made her way out of the closet, she angles her leg and kicks her so that the bottom of her boot pushes more than anything else. Mary Ellen cries, and Opal screams, and then Opal is hitting her with open hands and she feels more like herself than ever. Like a wild thing. Miss Sunninblum has to pick her up to get her to stop, and sit her in her office while Opal kicks the wall in a fury. There’s no calming her down, except with time. Opal has a glaring match with the wall.
The wall is losing.
Miss Sunninblum calls Kerah, who comes to pick her up. He has his muck boots on and he scowls as he drips mud onto the Sharing Rug, growling as he picks her up under his arm. None of the other kids looks even remotely shocked by this. All their dads and moms work like that, too, covered in mud and dirt. All their dads and moms would be equally annoyed to lose work, but Opal knows that’s not why Kerah is angry. There’s nothing here about losing time and money. The difference is that they do it because there’s nothing else, and Kerah does it because he wants to. “What the fu-” he starts, but Opal kicks him, and he drops her.
Suddenly the entire class is staring at them both. Miss Sunninblum looks nervous and Opal doesn’t know why. “Ronan,” she starts, and he pushes Opal out the door. She can hear muffled talking, and then Kerah comes out the door and stalks past her, grabbing her hand as they walk, which makes her think that he isn’t angry with her.
They get in the car and Opal slumps back in her seat and Kerah drives, fast, and picks up the phone. He dials and hands the phone to Opal. “What happened?” she hears, the voice on the other end tinny and faint. It’s Adam.
“I kicked Mary Ellen,” she says, “because she doesn’t mind her own business.”
Adam sighs. “I owe Ronan 5 bucks because of this,” he says, and she wonders why they keep betting on her. “What did Mary Ellen say?”
“That Peter was my boyfriend,” Opal says, and she feels so stupid just putting the words in that order. Kerah makes a noise. “He’s not!” she assures him.
“Well, considering the rest of your class is made up of six year olds, of course he’s not,” Adam says. “Tell Ronan to keep his eyes on the road.”
“Kerah, Adam says to keep your eyes on the road,” Opal repeats.
“Keep your head out of my ass, Parrish,” Kerah says, and Opal sighs. Adam sighs.
She’s quiet for a minute. “I wanted her to stop.”
“You’ve never really been violent before,” Adam says, sounding a little worried.
Opal doesn’t say much, but then she speaks, tiny. “I don’t think you know me well enough to say that,” she says, and Kerah stops the car and pulls over. She hears Adam’s breath catch, though.
“Give me the fucking phone,” Kerah says, opening his hand, and Opal doesn’t do it, too stubborn and not malleable. She holds the phone tucked to her ear. “Opal-”
“What do you mean by that?” she hears Adam ask.
She’s about to answer when Kerah yells, “Give me the fucking phone!” It makes her close her hand around it more tightly.
“Why are you yelling at me?” she asks, plaintive. “I’m not going to lie to him!”
Kerah takes the phone from her then, because he’s bigger than she is, and she considers screaming her fury but then Kerah is saying, “Don’t listen to her, she’s just being a pain in the ass,” and that’s when it occurs to her that she might have hurt Adam.
She doesn’t know why it didn’t occur to her before she said the words.
She goes quiet as she hears Adam say something, but she can’t make out the words, and Kerah is pressing his head against the seat, like he’s forgotten Opal is there. “Parrish, she’s just being a fucking asswipe-” and then Kerah is silent for a while.
After a minute they’re all silent, all three of them, and finally Kerah whispers something that even Opal can’t hear, and he sets his phone down. He looks over at her, and she stares back at him. “I’m supposed to give you a fucking lecture,” he tells her, “but that’s crap. You hit some other kid.”
“She deserved it,” Opal replies.
“You said a nasty ass thing to Adam,” Kerah says, and that makes Opal squirm a little, because he didn’t deserve it. But the thing about Kerah is that he always just presents facts. He doesn’t press on them. Not with Opal. Not with Matthew.
Opal is quiet as he turns the car back on, and stays quiet as they drive back to the Barns. He opens the door and gets out of the car, but Opal sits there and thinks. She thinks about what happened, she takes it apart in her head.
The longer she’s outside the longer that she feels normal, but maybe it’s not just her feeling that way because she’s outside. Maybe it’s outside, thinking she’s normal. Peter thinks she’s normal. Mary Ellen thinks she’s normal. Miss Sunninblum, and Matthew, and the ladies at Kerah’s church, they all think she’s normal, a little girl.
She comes into the house a little while later, and Kerah has a beer when she trots up. “Want some?” he asks her, but she shakes her head and presses herself against his side. He loops an arm around her, kisses the top of her head. He takes another drink, presses his nose into her hair. She makes a tiny noise, a sigh, and curls tighter against him.
“I think I need to see Calla,” she says, and Kerah raises his eyebrows at her. “I want to see Calla,” she rephrases.
Kerah’s mouth turns into a flat, thin line, and he gets up a minute later, sets his beer down. “Come on,” he says, without arguing. Maybe he recognizes that it’s nothing simple. The more that Opal is outside, the less she thinks she understands simple, anyway.
He drives her to Fox Way, and Calla is already there, so Opal knows she did the right thing. “Snake,” she says when Kerah opens the door, but she smiles when she sees Opal. “You’re trouble, you know.”
“I asked to come,” she tells Calla, and Kerah watches them from the car, pulling his beanie over his ears. He doesn’t say anything as Opal walks to Calla. “I don’t think Kerah is staying.”
“I have shit to pick up in town anyway,” he says, and while Opal knows it’s not exactly a lie, she knows it’s probably not the entire truth, either. He was in town earlier and he marched them right home. Kerah acts like the Barns will vanish if he spends too much time away, Opal knows. Even when he’s gone with Adam, she thinks he must be counting down the minutes before he can go home, home, home.
Calla opens the door and lets her in, and there’s hot chocolate on the table. “Lyre called me. She said that you were hauled off by Ronan about an hour ago.” Lyre is Calla’s eyes, she’s Blue’s little cousin, she’s in the third grade. She’s psychic, too, though all of her visions come as nightmares, and everyone is very gentle with her, even Opal.
Opal takes the hot chocolate and stares at it. “I don’t understand anything that they say,” she admits, finally. She’s not sure why it took so much work to get that out of her.
“That’s not right,” Calla says shortly. “Rephrase,” she commands, though Opal thinks she knows what she means. But Calla is worse than Miss Sunninblum, because Calla doesn’t give Opal any leeway at all. That’s why Opal likes to come talk to her. Calla makes her more.
More what, she isn’t sure.
So she thinks about it before she tries again. “People are difficult. Kerah is easy to understand, but I don’t understand anyone else. I mean, why are they so strange? Why do they do the things they do?”
Calla looks utterly unamused by this; she doesn’t laugh. She just takes a flask from her pocket and pours a dollop of something into her hot chocolate. It smells cinnamon-y and strong, even from across the table. “Opal,” she says, “the snake is easy to understand because you sprung fully formed out of his broody little forehead. But outside of you and that masochist he calls a boyfriend, the rest of us don’t think he’s all that intelligible.”
Opal is about to argue that Matthew, but that proves Calla’s point, so she shuts her mouth. Calla looks pleased about that. “But what you’re going through,” Calla continues, “it isn’t a mystery. This isn’t because you’re a magical faun. It’s because everyone has little orphan girls in their heads, and you’re only acquainted with your own.”
Opal frowns at the thought of not being the only one of her. “I don’t know how to be someone who isn’t Kerah,” she admits, finally, and it surprises herself, too. She thinks of the dark forest in Kerah’s brain, of the deep spaces that make up Kerah and that make up Opal, too. She thinks of how easy it was to ask him why do you hate us, because us was Kerah and Opal.
She thinks of what Declan said, when he was taking care of her, months ago. About how they didn’t know him that well. About how she was someone who wasn’t Kerah.
“What happened in school,” Calla asks, finally. Opal knows that Calla knows. She knows because Calla’s hand is on Opal’s, and she closing her eyes a little. “Time to say the words.”
“I kicked Mary Ellen,” Opal says, “Because she made me think I might love something that isn’t connected to Kerah at all.”
There’s silence between them for a minute, and Calla moves across the table, to press her hand on top of Opal’s head. “There we go.”
The thing about it is that once she says the words, it’s like a dam burst. She doesn’t love Peter like Kerah loves Adam – that’s stupid, they’re six - well, Peter is six, Opal is six-adjacent. She loves Peter like she loves Calla or Declan or Matthew or Gansey or Blue. She loves him because he treats her like a real person, because he’s stubborn about them being friends, because he doesn’t run when she screams or stop talking to her when she snaps, because he’s kind and patient and good.
And she realizes, too, that the thought is terrifying.
Calla is still touching her, but then she stops, goes to the oven. “Jimi got it in her head to bake brownies,” she says. “Most of them I can’t feed you without getting arrested, but this batch is okay.” She cuts a chunk of chocolate and puts it on a plate. “We don’t let her make pie.”
Opal puts it in her mouth, and she feels better almost right away. It has a silky feel, and she thinks this is what food should be. If she has to eat things that aren’t crickets and Styrofoam. “I hurt Adam’s feelings.”
“Coca-Cola shirt can handle a few honest words, he’s tougher than that,” Calla says. “But you can write him a note, if you want. I have to send him a package of Persephone’s things,” she says, and Opal thinks if she listens closely she can hear the pain in Calla’s ribs whenever she says Persephone’s name. “We can send it too.”
“It made Kerah angry,” she adds, “but he didn’t stay angry.”
“Then it doesn’t matter,” Calla replies, “because the snake is good at grudges.” She sits again, pours another shot, this time into an empty cup, and sips it thoughtfully. “Opal,” she says, and her tone says that she means it. “Most of us learn that we’re ourselves without remembering it. You don’t have that luxury. It’s going to hurt. Realizing that you think and feel and breathe on your own hurts.”
“I know,” Opal says, because she does.
“Ronan doesn’t,” she replies.
“I know that too,” Opal says quietly.
They’re there, quiet a moment. And finally Opal takes the paper plate her brownie came on and puts it in her mouth. Calla doesn’t looks pleased but she doesn’t stop her, so Opal doesn’t stop. “I don’t want to write Adam a note,” she says, finally. “I’m not sorry for what I said. I meant it.”
Calla gives her the faintest Calla smile. “Well. That’s fine too.”
Kerah comes to pick her up almost an hour later. She and Calla don’t talk for most of that hour. Calla tells her a story about a girl who ran away from home because her grandmother told her that she had the family curse, and Opal told Calla the story of the smiling man and his promises and the sun that burned in the corner of the sky. “It must be strange,” Calla says, “to remember the day you’re born.”
“I think it’s stranger to remember the day you’ll die,” Opal tells her, and Calla laughs.
“They could have named you something more fitting for someone who guards the crossroads,” she says, “if only the snake had the intelligence and imagination to make you a little less Celtic,” and Opal smiles over the half eaten paper plate Calla found her.
When Kerah comes, Opal stands in the doorway a moment. “Why do you like me so much?”
Calla scoffs a moment. “You’re not all that unlikable,” she starts, but then she takes a breath, like she’s considering a great secret. “Sometimes we hide the things that make us feel bad about ourselves, when we’re alone and afraid,” she says, finally, but she doesn’t add to that information, because Kerah is calling her name, and she’s finding herself drawn to the sound of his voice.
The next day, Kerah leaves her at school and Miss Sunninblum greets her at the door as she’s putting her coat up in her cubby. “Are you feeling better?” she asks, and Opal’s eyes flick up and then away from her, and then back to her. “Opal?”
“I’m not sorry,” she says, feeling honest, but not defiant.
Miss Sunninblum frowns. “You know that hurting other people is wrong,” she says. “You can’t just use your hands and fists to hurt other people.”
“Lying is wrong too,” Opal argues. “Kerah says I don’t have to lie to make anyone feel better.”
Miss Sunninblum sits down with her, there in the cubby room. The other kids are putting things away; Mary Ellen is watching warily from the other side of the room. “I don’t want you to lie,” Miss Sunninblum says. “I want you to know that what you did wasn’t right, and the decide what to do about it. We all have to be responsible for the things that we choose to do. Do you understand what that means?”
She stops talking so that Opal can supply a response, and Opal wants to tell her that she knows more about action and consequence than anyone in this room. She wants to reveal that she’s less a little girl and more a force of nature, and they’re all lucky she hasn’t blown the school apart yet. She wants to do all that, but she thinks that’s the loudest part of Kerah in her.
So she thinks, instead.
She thinks about why she did what she did. She thinks about the real feelings that pushed her actions. She thinks about Peter and how he’s friends with everyone, even though Opal is cross and stubborn at school. She thinks of Kerah and how he just wants her to prove how she can be a grown thing instead of a wild thing. She thinks of Adam and how he loves working inside of the system.
She thinks of what Calla told her. About hiding feelings.
So she shakes her head. “I won’t tell her I’m sorry.” Miss Sunninblum frowns. “And maybe it wasn’t the right thing, but I’m not sorry.”
There’s a long, drawn out moment. “You can’t hit anyone again, no matter how badly you feel,” Miss Sunninblum says. “Do you understand.”
“Yes,” Opal says, because she isn’t stupid.
“And I can’t let you have free play, you have to sit in time out. Do you understand that too?” she asks,
“Yes,” Opal repeats, stubbornly.
“Is it worth it?” she asks, finally, curious.
Opal wants to shrug. She wants to be belligerent. She wants, really, to kick over a chair. But she won’t. Because Kerah might, doesn’t mean she has to. She knows that there is a difference between them, that Kerah might be one way, but she’s not him, not anymore.
And maybe that’s fine.
Peter shows up in the middle of Opal’s sulk, during free play, when she could be running around the playground but is instead sitting on the curb next to the sandbox. He sits down and Miss Sunninblum reminds him from the bench she sits on, “no talking over there!” and he nods.
He reaches down into the sand and draws a tic-tac-toe board, and points to Opal. The rule is no talking, not no tic-tac-toe.
She wrinkles her nose a little, but then she’s smiling, she can’t help it, and she starts with an O. Peter taught her this game a month ago, and wondered how she didn’t know it, and Opal might think it’s simplistic, but it’s better than nothing.
She remembers the smiling man because she remembers Kavinsky, too. She remembers all the dreamers. She may not be theirs, but they took from Kerah. Kerah was the dreamer, and the rest of them were thieves, equipped with magpie magic.
She thinks that the sun started moving across the sky when Kerah wasn’t small anymore. She thinks that the smiling man was the one who maybe suggested it to him, gently and persuading. She thinks that Kerah forgot about her in the years between, before he was big but after he was sad enough that dreams became his refuge again.
She worries, sometimes, now that she’s out, that without the smiling man, without Kavinsky, without Cabeswater, that he’ll forget how to dream.
Henrietta doesn’t really thaw out from winter, because that supposes it ever really gets cold enough to freeze. Which it does, for a little while, but it’s a kind of cold that is damp and that leaves everyone sweating even when they’re cold and wrapped up. So really it just goes from Virginia damp to Virginia damp and hot, and Opal isn’t really convinced it’s any better. Singers Falls had a mild winter, which means that the Barns had a mild winter too, an inverted valley of hills winter where the fog rested heavy in the hidden vales and pooled around Opal’s fetlocks in the morning.
The riot of flowers is wild and wondrous, and Opal loves it, if she’s telling any of the truth. She picks flowers and eats flowers and puts flowers in Kerah’s bed and gives bundles of them to Calla, who comments, “Foxglove, it’s always nice when I’m given poison by sweet little girls,” and winds flowers into Declan’s hair when they’re at church. She brings baskets of them to school. The flowers at the Barns are big; the best ones look like trumpets, hanging thick and dense from the trees, in a whirlwind of colors, and smell like grape soda and taste like bright hot peppers.
It’s wild because the springtime makes her feel wild, raw, it reminds her of Cabeswater and dreams and it makes her bright and agreeable. Last spring was strange, because Kerah was still trying to get the trees to behave, and he was fighting with Adam all the time, and he and Gansey were in a strange place too. This spring feels right. She and Kerah make up new traditions; they release dream birds into trees, brightly colored things that match the flowers and never leave the Barns, they lace the fenceposts with dreams that keep out foxes from the henhouse, and they stay on top of the barns at night and wait for fireflies.
But it’s not so simple.
Because one day Opal gets up in the morning and puts boots on over her hooves and puts her hat on over her ears and puts on a dress that Maura sent her and catches sight of herself in a mirror. She presses her hands against the mirror, or against where her hands are in the reflection, and puts her nose really close to the glass. She can see the strange light in her dark eyes, which aren’t Lynch blue, she can see her freckles, which look more human each passing day.
And she isn’t sure what she’s looking at, at the same time that she thinks she finally recognizes herself.
She’s oddly quiet as Kerah drives her, and when she gets to school, when she puts everything away, Peter comes up to her. “No flowers today?”
She realizes she forgot them right then, and scowls, and swears a blue streak that would make a priest’s ears bleed, but it would have to be a priest because it’s entirely in Latin. Peter mimics some of the words, and it comes out as gibberish. “Are you distracted?”
Yes, is what Opal thinks, frustrated. The warmness is making her complacent. The inside of Kerah’s head was only warm when he was happy, and so it was a rare and fortuitous thing. When he dreamed and he was pleased to be dreaming, instead of scared or lost or angry. It was warm a lot before the smiling man disappeared.
They go to sit and Miss Sunninblum says, “We’re going to talk about families today.” She announces this like it’s an entirely rational topic. “Does anyone want to go first?”
Max Jackson goes first because he can’t get over the sound of his own voice. He prattles at length about his dad, who works in a trailer factory and who makes Max peanut butter sandwiches for dinner. Then Mary Ellen talks about her mom, who is also a worker at the same factory. Everyone says something about a parent.
Opal has lied about hers. She stays quiet and almost gets away with not talking about family when Miss Sunninblum asks, “Is that it? Did anyone not go?” and Peter, who has no brothers but three sisters and whose mom is in community college rats her out.
Opal doesn’t want to talk about her family, because her family is simple but not shaped like the others. How does she explain that she has Adam, who is obsessive and engineering and careful, who gave her a watch to chew and didn’t care that she had no interest in the concept of time? Is there a word for a relationship where she knows, one day, he’s going to die, and she’s going to take his beating, frantic soul in her hands and give it to Kerah to put in the dream of the leyline?
She doesn’t know how to explain Declan. She doesn’t know how to explain someone so painfully normal that he could cause magic to collapse around him, but who knows just how normal he is, and who, despite all that, Opal loves best. She doesn’t know how to define a relationship that’s built on the fact that one day Kerah dreamed a little girl and hid all of the feelings he had about his older brother in her, so he wouldn’t have to face them when he fought with him. She doesn’t know how to explain that one day Declan will die without her, and she won’t know what to do, because he’s so divorced from their world that she can’t lead him anywhere, and that thought terrifies her.
She doesn’t know how to explain Calla, who knows everything, and who knows she doesn’t know anything, and how it works in one single person. She doesn’t know how to explain someone she is not related to at all who is more a mother to her than Kerah’s mother could be, in the few fast beating days that they were together. Who is more a force of nature than a person, but who loves as fiercely as she is able. Who Opal thinks she will lead into dreams one day, when Calla and Maura and Persephone all decide that they will be the fates as the fates were meant to be.
And she doesn’t even know how to begin explaining Kerah, except that he’s the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and the air and the trees and the ground below, how he made her world and how she thinks he probably could make this one, too, except that he doesn’t care about this one.
She thinks about all of this, and there aren’t any words, and she thinks that Miss Sunninblum sees that because suddenly she is holding out her hands and speaking, “Okay, okay. Everyone, there’s homework,” she says kindly, and everyone buzzes with excitement because they almost never get homework. “I want everyone to go home and make a family tree. I want you to ask your moms and your dads their names, and then your grandparents names, and show me who you came from, all right?”
Everyone buzzes again, and Miss Sunninblum spends another hour explaining, and finally everyone goes home that afternoon with a piece of paper that outlines the project with clear instructions written in large font. Everyone has a picture of a tree with blank spaces for names.
Opal stuffs it in her bag and sits at the edge of the curb near the monitors as she waits for Kerah to come. Peter ambles up and sits next to her. Sometimes his mother takes forever, and while Kerah is almost always on time (the snake feels responsibility Calla said, more than once) today he’s taking his time. “Do you have a mom?” he asks, when he sits next to her.
Opal turns her head away from him, and picks at her boots. She doesn’t have an answer, because she doesn’t like the lie they built, and she doesn’t think the truth is very believable, if you don’t come from magic. “My mom likes your brother,” Peter adds, then.
“Likes him for what?” Opal asks, latching onto the change of topic.
Peter snorts. “Likes him for liking him, I guess. Like a boy likes a girl. She thinks he’s handsome, she says so,” he explains, sounding a little disgusted. Opal has literally no clue what he’s talking about. She stares at him, blankly. “Likes him like she wants to kiss him.”
Opal makes a face. “Ronan?” she asks, like she’s making sure. She thought they covered this. That Kerah has a boyfriend, and frankly, the entire idea is weird.
“Yeah,” Peter replies, and Opal realizes that Peter has the memory of a goldfish, so he doesn't remember that conversation. “She says he’s handsomer than my dad was,” he adds, but Opal knows for a fact that Peter doesn’t know if that’s true, because Peter doesn’t remember his dad. His family is complicated in a different way from Opal’s, but in a way that’s so similar to so many people in her class. Love, she thinks, is rarer than Kerah would imagine it. She wonders what would have happened, if he hadn’t fallen in love with Adam. He would never be like Declan, who pretends because he’s afraid of love, or Matthew, who is free with it but close to no one. He would just. Be alone.
Opal doesn’t really know how to respond to that too. A part of her, that knows how girls her age (if her age is dictated by the way she looks) talk, knows she should reply with something like gross or grown-ups are weird, because she's pretty sure that Peter doesn't actually understand anything about Kerah, but especially Kerah's love life. But she doesn’t really think she needs to do that with Peter. Pretend.
She’s getting pretty sick of pretending.
Chainsaw shows up, first, landing on the ground next to her. “Hi, Chainsaw,” she says, and gets up, looks up. Kerah is coming slowly, he’s on the phone, which means Adam. Kerah doesn’t bother speaking to anyone else on the phone for more than a minute, not even Gansey. Gansey sends long, winding letters instead.
Peter stares at Chainsaw with moon eyes, and she hops up a little closer to him. “Can I touch her?”
“She’ll bite,” Opal replies, “not because she’s mean, though. It’s because she doesn’t have any manners.” The only thing that Kerah has ever bothered teaching manners to is Opal, who disregards them at will.
Peter risks it and Opal feels a burst of warm, platonic affection. “My family doesn’t have these things,” he says. “Birds and skunks and farms.”
Kerah is still talking to Adam but he’s next to Opal now, his hand extended to her. He doesn’t even look at Peter, which makes Opal feel strange. Not like Kerah should. But she thinks of what she said to Calla, how it’s weird to love something that he doesn’t care about, and she reaches up, takes his hand. It’s callused from farmwork and boxing, the scars on the back from countless fights, laid on top of each other, rough and strange. She looks over at Peter, who is looking at them with a kind of hunger that Opal remembers from Adam’s face, whenever the Lynches are together and talking. She thinks that’s the look of someone outside who desperately doesn’t want to be, even when the inside is difficult and painful.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” is what she says, which is different from what she originally intended to say.
He waves as they go off, and Kerah says, “I’ll see you soon,” which makes Opal look up and Kerah look down. “Spring break,” he tells her, and she shrugs, accepting it. That means Adam soon, she knows, and she misses him, but it’s easier to not keep track of that time, too. There’s too much time outside of Kerah’s head.
“I’m supposed to make a family tree,” she tells him as she climbs into the car, because there’s no reason to delay the inevitable. She knows it won’t make Kerah happy to hear.
And because Opal knows him, he rubs the top of his head in a way she knows means he doesn’t like it. “Shit,” he says. It’s even more telling.
Opal doesn’t say anything after that. They drive home and she finds a spot in a meadow and Stripes sleeps with his head on her arm, and she avoids Kerah all afternoon, until the night swoops in and she comes back to the house. Stripes is really getting too big for her to carry; the skunk is right on her heels.
Kerah is staring at the assignment as if it was calculus and not a kindergarten assignment for people who couldn’t correctly differentiate a b and a d. She stares at him, and his upper lip starts to curl up in distaste. “You don’t have to do this,” he tell hers, and she knows that. This is kindergarten. She doesn’t need to do anything. It’s not like it really matters.
She sits down on the chair next to his and stares at it. “I don’t like to lie,” she finally admits, as if he didn’t know. Of course he knows. He’s why she doesn’t like to lie. She purses her lips, blows air through them to make a sound like the cry of a wood dove. He glances at her in a way that makes him look irritated, but she doesn’t think that he is. At least, he’s not irritated with her. Finally she looks up at him.
He looks like Kerah, like the whole world and like everything about her. Inside her own head, they’re shaped the same way, even when she thinks of him as huge, bigger than life, bigger than anything. He looks like Declan, too, when the sharp edges of him fade, when he looks more tired, when he looks more patient. He looks like the smiling man the most.
“I met your father,” she blurts out, then, and Kerah looks like Matthew then, dumbfounded, stupid. Opal likes Matthew except that Matthew is so unfinished, so raw. She can practically see the empty parts of him. If Matthew’s heart was out of his body, she thought back in February, it would look like one of those crude paper valentines. Badly formed and all good intentions. “Kerah-“
“Don’t lie,” he growls, and she knows that it’s not really that he thinks she’s lying. It’s that Kerah can’t bear the truth, when it comes to his father, sometimes. His grief isn’t as bad as it was when she was still inside of his head, but it’s still tremendous, a vibrant living beast, held back by tenuous threads of love and responsibility.
Opal makes a tiny noise, like a whimper, and he straightens his spine. “Opal!” he snaps. “Don’t. Fucking. Lie!”
“I’m not lying!” she yells back. The last word comes out as a high pitched cry. “I met him, he smiled at me and held me and loved me, and he used to pull flowers out of my ears!”
Kerah snarls then, and gets up, the sound of the chair against the floorboards thick and ugly and grating, and he storms out of the house. Opal tries to follow him, her hooves skittering against the floor, but Chainsaw caws and flies low, making Opal scream and duck her head for fear that the bird might fly right into her, and by the time she looks up the door is closed. She hears the squeal of tires.
Kerah left her.
This is not the first time Kerah has left her. School nonwithstanding, he used to fall in and out of dreams like an errant Alice, smashing into her life and then vanishing from it for hours. Days, sometimes. He’s left her with Calla and Declan and on one memorable occasion, with Gansey and Blue.
But he’s never left her like this, angry and sullen and purposeful. He’s never left her alone in the Barns, without even Chainsaw. All she has is a skunk, who comes up to ask to be picked up, and so she does, and finds her way to the couch. The silence without Kerah is oppressive. It isn’t like a gentle blanket. It’s smothering, pressing hard against her ears, hurting her. It’s the sound of her blood thumping in her head in fury and embarrassment.
But she goes to the assignment, and sits there and stares at it for a long time, and then takes another piece of paper from her notebook, and a big fat pencil from her pencil case. She sit there and she presses her head down on the table. She wonders if she should call Declan, but thinks no, because he would get angry, he would fight Kerah for leaving. Adam would get angry, too, because sometimes she thinks that Adam hears someone yell and it’s not their voice that echoes in his head. Calla would burn the house down.
She thinks of what Calla said. About how people hide what makes them feel small and afraid. She thinks of the smiling man - of Niall's face, that day, when she found him in the middle of the glen in Cabeswater, how she took his dreamer soul and he held her hand and told her that she had to take care of him, that he didn't do it right. She thinks of where she led him, of the way that the trees shook her free of him, of how he got into that car and drove off. She thinks of how he found Kerah again.
She thinks she might be the sad, small, afraid part of Kerah, or she was, once, and now she's not. And maybe Calla thought that was all she was, but Opal doesn't think so. She doesn't think that's really what she ever was. She thinks, instead, that she was all the courage Kerah had, only Kerah is still brave. The courage to deal with the feelings of sadness, and death, and that's why she can do what she does.
She doesn’t think a lot of time passes, though, before he’s there again, at the door, and she’s clattering her way over. In most cases, she thinks, she would run to him, jump on him.
In this case she holds back. “Why did you leave us?” she asks, as if she’s still inside of his head. Why do you hate us, when us was Kerah-and-Orphan Girl, before she was Opal. Before they were two people.
Kerah is holding himself so still, it almost hurts to look at him, like he might explode with violence. “You can’t know him,” he finally says, “he died before-“
“I know him from before,” she blurts out. “From Cabeswater.”
“Don’t fuck with me,” Kerah says, and goes silent and still after that. “You never said anything.”
Opal considers what he knows. She considers what they’ve been through the past two years. She considers Declan and Adam, and their relationships with Kerah. She considers her friendship with Peter.
She didn’t realize what she was learning until now. Not about reading or math or how to paint with her fingers (and how to control herself from eating paste) but about people. About how everyone treats each other. About how they treat Kerah. About how to talk about feelings. About a pet skunk who trusts her not to step on him, when her hooves are sharp and she’s heavy.
She never wanted a sharing rug at home but she kind of thinks maybe Kerah needs one. She reaches for a piece of paper and a fat crayon, and draw. “At first,” she starts, because she thinks it’s important to start at the beginning, “all there was in your head was this square, and the sun was always in the corner,” she begins, and she etches out a sun, burning in the corner of the sky, only a quarter of it visible. “And everything was half formed and new and I could see forever. And you were there, but you were small, and I was smaller. So you were still big.” She looks at him. She thinks this is the most she’s ever spoken in one sitting, and she’s not nearly done.
“But then you would go away, and sometimes I would be alone, and the smiling man would come,” she says, and she’s still drawing. Kerah is coming closer, now. “He didn’t understand Cabeswater, at first. He thought that it was a new dreamplace. His dreamplace didn’t look like that, he told me. He told me a lot of stories. About his son, who was a warrior, and not a spear.” She sets her pencil down. “And then there was Cabeswater, and he couldn’t always come, but when he did he had presents. My hat-“ she says, and she stops, because Kerah is crying.
She thinks that she has seen him cry before. She thinks of everyone alive, she has seen him cry the most. “Kerah,” she tries, softly, and her hooves click on the floor as she makes her way to him.
“You can’t know,” he says dully, wiping the heels of his hands across his cheeks. He looks so young and so tender. “You can’t know.”
She takes his hand, and he crumbles over her, until then he’s kneeling and she’s holding him. “I was there too,” she says, finally. “He didn’t love me because I was me. He loved me because I was you,” she explains, and that’s the difference, she realizes. Niall loved her because she was a part of Ronan, and maybe to a degree, that’s why Declan and Adam and Calla love her too. They know she’s not, more than Niall ever knew. But they all hold Kerah close, in their own ways, even Calla, who doesn’t really like him very much.
But Peter is different. She was afraid that she liked him when Kerah didn’t, because it meant she wasn’t Kerah. But he likes her, and he doesn’t even know. He doesn’t care.
And none of this matters now except that this is the moment that it clicks together in Opal’s brain, in the dark space behind her eyes where dreams are formed. The space that she was born in, when she lived inside, and now is her own.
Kerah is raising his arms to hold her, to press his face into her hair. “You’re not me,” Kerah says, pressing his mouth against her temple. “Don’t let anyone say that about you. Ever.”
He sounds so fierce; angry at the idea of it. She wonders if this is the first time he’s been angry with Niall. She always thought of Kerah’s father like him – bigger than her, bigger than life, like the sun or the moon or the trees. Something constant and maybe gone for a while, but always to come back. Something unchangeable.
But people change. Opal thinks she understands that now.
“No,” she assures him. “I’m not you.”
The next day at school she turns in her family tree; she is at the bottom. Adam is there, linked to Kerah, and so is Declan and Matthew and Gansey, and Calla and Maura and Blue. She and Kerah redid it, so some of the branches are tenuous at best, but it all makes sense to Opal, and she figures that all that matters is that.
“I don’t think I did it right,” Peter admits after he looks at Opal’s. “Mine doesn’t look anything like yours.”
Opal shrugs. They sitting on the playground, in the sand. “I wanted to put you on it, too, but Ke-Ronan said that you either had to almost die for me or actually die for me first. Or be there when I was just born.” She squints. It had been one hell of a fight. They extended just born to within a few weeks to be able to include Declan, because that much Opal was unwilling to budge on.
Peter laughs at that. “I’m not in your family!” he exclaims. Opal scowls. “Well, I’m not!” he argues, starting to turn a little red at the idea. “Am I?”
She frowns and looks around. There isn’t anyone nearby, but she picks herself up, and tugs Peter with her. “Come with me,” she tells him.
He follows because he always does. He’s like Stripes; doggedly loyal. She leads him into the bathroom that’s one stall – the door locks.
He clearly doesn’t know what’s going on. She frowns again. “I am going to show you something, but you can’t tell anyone. Do you promise?”
He looks nervous, now. “You’re not going to lift your skirt, are you?” he asks, “because I think that wouldn’t be okay and I would have to tell.”
“No,” Opal replies, and he relaxes a little, because at the very least, Opal has never lied to him. “But you have to promise, first.”
He looks unsure. “I can’t tell anyone?”
“No one would believe you anyway,” she assures him, and he sighs, then. “I’ll open the door if you don’t want to-“
“-no, I promise,” he says, resolutely, and Opal takes off her boots in front of him.
Her hooves click on the tile, and he stares down at them. And stares. And stares. Opal feels her face turning red, and then he whispers, “this is so cool” and she feels her face flush up like it’s a cherry tomato. “Where did you get hooves? Are you part deer? Is this like one of those Greek stories?”
“I was born this way,” she tells him, resolutely. “Only my family knows.”
He looks up at her as if he just got it, his eyebrows going up towards his hairline. He looks older than he did a couple of minutes ago. Opal knows, right now, that he’s going to be like her version of Gansey. Someone who will be in her life forever, whether she wants him to be or not, and vice-versa. When Kerah finally lets her grow up because the words you’re not really a little girl don’t mean anything to him, it’s going to be Peter who she grows up with.
It’s comfortable, the idea of having a best friend who is as much like a brother as he isn’t.
And maybe a little scary.
“Oh,” Peter says, a little quietly. Then Opal puts her boots back on and he looks at them. “How do they work?”
Opal shrugs. “Kerah made them for me,” she says, honestly.
“Why do you call him that?” Peter asks, then. She’s slipped before. She slips a lot. But he’s never asked that. He’s never asked a lot of things. Maybe it’s time he can.
And maybe it’s time that Opal thought about the answer. “Because it’s his name. Not the one his father gave him. The one that Chainsaw and me gave him,” she says.
Peter seems to find this an acceptable answer. “Is this why you don’t run?”
“I’m faster than you,” she challenges, and he grins, and opens the door.
So she does.
Opal doesn’t think of dreams like home anymore. She doesn’t think of when her entire world was boarded up because it was a drawing, and Kerah was just imagining the world like that, fierce yellow sun in the corner of the sky, as if skies have corners.
Now she thinks of home as the Barns, and home as the smell of grass and the way the leaves look in real sunlight. It’s more than the space behind Kerah’s eyes.
School is over, and one day Kerah sits with her. “Do you want to go back next year?” he asks her, and she’s nodding before he even finishes. “Really?” He sounds so surprised.
“I’m not you,” she reminds him, and he scowls. She grins, and takes a stick – it’s a good stick – and puts it in her mouth, chews thoughtfully.
He snorts, and takes her hand. The sun shines, ripe and red, in the middle of the sky.