The Song of the Faerie Prince
Tay LaRoi © 2018
All Rights Reserved
“Woo-hoo, take it all off.”
“I’m going to stop going places with you.”
Zoe snickers and swings another bathing suit over the dressing-room wall. “Try this one next. You look great in warm colors.”
Warm colors look more like neon on my big frame, so they’re automatically vetoed. I don’t care what’s in right now. I’ve told Zoe to only get dark colors a million times since we walked into this store, but she’s what my parents like to call hard-headed.
At least, they call it that when I disagree with them.
“Yeah, try that one on, sweetie,” my mother calls. “It’s adorable.”
Apparently, Zoe gets a pass.
“I told y’all to grab something black,” I grumble, taking the suit and holding it up next to the aqua one I’m trying to take off. I have to admit that the swirls of deep orange and crimson are pretty. And there’s a little skirt on it. That’ll cover my thighs a little bit.
“There aren’t any more black ones, Gia,” Zoe says, lying through her teeth, no doubt. “You should have replaced your old one right after it got wrecked instead of waiting till September.”
She’s got a point. When my old suit got caught in the wringer-outer-dryer thingy at the public pool, I thought I could put off buying a new suit until next summer, but then Zoe and our friend Miguel convinced me to go to the back-to-school beach party. I don’t really belong at things like that, out where everyone can see me, and my heavyset body that’s impossible to miss, but Michigan’s warm-weather days are numbered. A hoodie and jeans would be acceptable, I guess, but I already know Zoe’s going straight for the water, with Miguel not too far behind, and being on the sidelines is no fun, even if people snicker at you while you get off said sidelines.
I squeeze into Zoe’s choice, calculating how many calories I can burn just by holding my gut in the entire time we’re at the party. That’s got to count for some sort of strength training.
“Shoot. Georgina, let me see that one real quick so I can go grab milk. I’ll meet you girls up front when you’re done,” Mom says.
I study my tubby figure in the dressing-room mirror. This suit isn’t too bad, I guess, despite the bright colors. Thanks to the skirt, it has a slight A-frame, giving me the hint of an hourglass, and the straps are thick enough to actually give me some support up top. I’ve learned the hard way that halters are neck-pain city when you have big boobs. The suit’s far from perfect, but perfect’s a long way off for me anyway, so I unlock the door to show my best friend and mother.
Zoe whistles a catcall and sticks her tongue out when I give her a dirty look. She gets to her feet and drags me over to the three-way mirror. I feel even bigger now that I’m next to her petite willowy frame. Her long silky black hair doesn’t help. There’s no denying she’s pretty. Not quite my type—I like my girls a bit more masculine—but Zoe’s definitely pretty. My hair looks okay in the cornrows that drape over my shoulders, but let’s be real—hair like Zoe’s is where it’s at. Especially in high school.
“Mrs. Johnson, what do you think?” Zoe asks over her shoulder.
Mom joins us at the mirror and beams with pride that sparkles in her blue eyes, probably at my hair. She always does a great job. “I love it. It’s very flattering. Is that the one you want?”
“I guess,” I reply with a shrug.
Mom tugs at the skirt, her smile a bit smaller. “Does it really need this piece, though? It’s a bit old-lady looking. Nothing against old ladies, except you’re sixteen.”
“That’s the most important part,” I joke.
“I could go find that bikini again, Mrs. J,” Zoe offers.
Mom puts her hands up in surrender. “Old-lady skirt it is.” She checks her wavy brown hair in the mirror, tucks a few loose hairs back, frowns at her laugh lines, then readjusts the jacket in her arms as she heads toward the dressing-room exit. “Get changed and meet up by the registers.” Pointing to Zoe, she adds, “Make sure she gets there. Don’t let her wimp out on that suit. It’s super cute on her.”
“As if I’d let her.” Zoe plops back down in her seat and crosses her legs. “I’ll drag her out of the dressing room if she tries.”
“Why do you have to make everything weird?” I mutter on my way to change back into my jeans and T-shirt.
“Life’s more fun when you’re weird. How many years are we going to be friends before you learn that?”
If I haven’t learned it after seven years, I don’t think I ever will.
Zoe and I met in the fourth grade when she and her family moved here from California. Cameron Davis made fun of the Korean food Zoe’s grandmother packed for her lunch. I kicked him in the shin and got sent to the principal’s office. We’ve been best friends ever since. Cameron still avoids us at school. Ah, the joys of growing up in a little town.
Size aside, Grand Harbor is a nice place to live. Lake Michigan’s beautiful and there’s always plenty to do outside. Not crazy about the winters, though. My dad says it’s because he passed on his Louisiana blood. At least, that’s what he says around company. At home he jokes, “It’s okay, baby girl. We’re just too black for this snow nonsense.”
Once I’ve got my clothes back on, we head up to the front of the store to meet my mom. All the while, Zoe babbles about the party and who’s supposedly going. It sounds like most of the juniors and seniors, so a good amount of kids. How Zoe manages to spend so much time with me and still knows everyone and everything going on at school will forever be a mystery to me. It doesn’t matter where she goes or who she’s around, she’s as comfortable as if she were in her own living room. I have to admit that I’m a tad jealous of her, seeing as I’m hardly comfortable in my own living room.
She doesn’t pause to breathe until we’ve gone through the checkout line and driven halfway to the beach, giving my mom a chance to lay the usual ground rules—don’t go out too deep in the water, stay where the teachers and parents can see us, don’t go in the woods with boys (Zoe) or girls who like girls (me). All rules we’ve heard before and have an easy enough time following.
I do, anyway. Trying to sneak off by your own would just be sad. Not that there aren’t any other bi or gay girls around—some of them will probably be at the party—and I went to homecoming freshman year with my first girlfriend, so I’m definitely out, but I don’t think I’m really anyone’s type. Hell, I didn’t even end up being my girlfriend’s type, hence the breakup.
I try not to let that sort of thing get to me. Less chances to wind up in trouble. That’s one thing I’ve got going for me: that doesn’t happen often. Being straight and narrow leads a person to good colleges (metaphorically speaking, obviously), and then a good career, which will last a lot longer than any high-school fling. Banking on one of those coming my way again is a sure-fire recipe for disappointment. Best to focus on the long-term.
“I’ll be here to pick you up at nine,” Mom adds as we crawl out of the car. “Be safe, make good choices, have fun. Love you.”
“Thanks, Mom,” I call back. “Love you too.”
Zoe’s “Thanks, Mrs. J” is hardly out of her mouth before she drags me toward the port-a-potties to change. One of the science teachers, Mrs. Badd, is stationed nearby to prevent any teenage funny business. And yes, she’s heard every joke you can think of.
Zoe bangs on my door as I pull up my suit straps.
“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” she calls, beating in time with her words on the bright-green plastic.
I unlock the door. “Geez, be patient, will you? I’ve got more to adjust than you.”
Zoe locks arms with me and takes off toward the water where small groups of kids are already tossing beach balls and Frisbees and bobbing in the gentle waves. I manage to wiggle away before I can make a fool of myself by sprinting through the sand. Zoe doesn’t even notice before flailing into the water, diving under, and then popping back up.
She parts her mane of hair to reveal a pout. “You’re no fun, Gia.”
“I’m plenty of fun,” I reply, dipping my toes into the water. “I’m just more of a slow-burn sort of fun.” Zoe begins to argue, but someone shoves me deeper into the cold water, then pulls me back, making me scream.
“Saved your life!” Miguel laughs.
I punch him in the shoulder, and he retreats deeper into the water where Zoe sits cackling.
“You’re such an asshole,” I say, unable to keep the smile off my face. I can’t be mad, seeing as I would have done the same thing to him if the roles had been reversed. Pretty sure I have at some point in our friendship.
I’ve actually known Miguel longer than Zoe. We’ve gone to school together since first grade, but we didn’t start hanging out until eighth grade. Andrew Weber kept pulling on my cornrows, so Miguel hit him in the head with his history book. Andrew doesn’t mess with us anymore.
The three of us have made a bit of a name for ourselves.
Miguel slicks his black hair out of his face. “You guys are late.”
“Gia needed a new suit,” Zoe explains. “Remember what happened to the old one?”
“You mean the one she ruined in the dryer on purpose?”
I roll my eyes and splash them both. “Yeah, because I love shopping for new clothes oh so much.”
The nearby slosh of water gets my attention, followed by, “Hey, we need a few more people for volleyball. Any takers?”
I turn and come face-to-face with Oliver O’Brien. Like Miguel, I’ve known Oliver forever. Well, sort of. We’ve been in classes together here and there, and talked, but I wouldn’t say we’re friends by any means. I even thought he was cute once upon a time, with those bright green eyes, curly red hair, and mischievous grin, but he went by Alice back then. Freshman year, he came out as Oliver and my little almost-crush got an immediate order to cease and desist.
It’s nothing against him personally. He’s just a guy. I don’t like guys. It’s as simple as that. You can’t jump back and forth in a small high school like ours. People talk.
His transition threw plenty of people for a loop, but from what I know, the school was pretty understanding and he hasn’t gotten too much grief. Now, about two years later, he’s just one of the guys. His hair’s shorter and messier and he dresses, well, like a guy, but those eyes are still the brightest green I’ve ever seen and that smile’s just begging some poor girl to run away and get in trouble with him.
And he clearly started working out. Until this moment, due to a lack of shirtless opportunities, I never realized how toned he is. His black swim binder adds to the look, making his chest lie flat as a washboard. Judging by his open, cheerful expression, none of the friends he’s playing volleyball with have badgered him with any uncomfortable questions about it.
“Sure,” Miguel says, taking a few steps toward the group. “We’re not doing anything in particular.”
Zoe stops wading and gets to her feet. “I’m game. Gia?”
I study Oliver’s other friends. They’re all at least mildly athletic with trim waists, hints of outlines of muscles, not to mention dazzling smiles. They joke, laugh, and splash each other as they wait. I recognize most of them from classes, even though we haven’t really talked.
Me attempting to play a sport would be a pretty lousy introduction.
Guess I’m winding up on the sidelines after all.
I run down every possible excuse I could possibly use until I find the most believable one. “You’re playing boys vs girls, right? I’d give the girls an unfair advantage. There’s already two more of them than the guys, even counting you and Miguel, Oliver.”
Miguel scoffs at my comment, and I splash him. I don’t need him blowing my cover.
Oliver raises an eyebrow and folds his arms. “Are you sure? We don’t mind a challenge, do we, Miguel?” No one’s ever been able to figure out where Oliver’s accent comes from. There’s something in the roundness of his vowels, the consonants he drops that make him sound like he’s not from around here, but he’s as small town and Michigan as I am, as far as I know.
“Trust me, it wouldn’t be an advantage,” I assure him, making my way up the beach to where I left my towel. “How about I keep score? By the time someone gets to ten points, the food will probably be done. Losers have to wait at the end of the line.”
Miguel, Zoe, and the others discuss it for a moment, then high-five and shake hands to indicate the challenge is on.
“And what will you do, Miss Score Keeper?” Oliver asks.
“I’ll get food with the losers. I don’t mind.”
“If you say so.”
Oliver shrugs and wades through the water to the others. He pauses and looks me up and down as I lay out my towel, making me want to hide behind it instead of sitting on it. There’s nothing wrong with the way he’s looking at me. It’s the simple fact that he is. I don’t like it when people do that.
“That suit looks very nice on you,” he finally says. “The oranges and reds bring out the warm hue of your skin. It’s very lovely.”
What’s that thing you’re supposed to say when someone compliments you again? I forgot.
Zoe’s voice snaps me out of it. “See? Told you so.”
“Oh, go play volleyball,” I reply.
She giggles and elbows Miguel as they join the others. I notice the way he tenses, and I shake my head. The boy’s got it so bad. Zoe looks over her shoulder at me, then to Oliver, whispering to Miguel the whole time. She’s got it bad too, but it’s a different sort of bad. It’s the “let’s try to set Gia up with everyone and anyone” sort of bad.
Due to the lack of a net, the place I’m sitting becomes the divider. The goal quickly becomes to hit the ball as far as possible for the boys, and to hit it as low as possible for the girls. Surprisingly, that ends up leaving them pretty evenly matched. The girls spread out more and the boys keep players closer to the dividing space.
As the shortest of the guys, Oliver is front and center. He does a pretty good job keeping the ball in play, but takes the most dives in the water as a result. Every time, he laughs it off with the others, slicks his hair back, and goes back to playing.
In all the years I’ve known him, I don’t think I’ve ever heard him laugh before. It has this way of mixing with the surrounding waves, creating this sort of music, like the sounds are playing off each other to create an interlocking melody. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s the only way I can describe it.
For a moment, I wish he was still pretending to be Alice, then promptly chastise myself for thinking something so selfish and shallow, as if a stupid crush that would never amount to anything is a reason for him to lie to himself and the world. Oliver needs to be who he is and I need to focus on this game. It’s all tied up and the girls’ turn to serve.
Zoe tries a fake-out, looking toward the back row of guys but serving the ball right to Oliver by accident. If he hits it back and they miss it, it’s game point. Oliver isn’t paying attention, however. His gaze is locked up the beach where the sand meets the dense tangle of pine, oak, and underbrush. There isn’t even a smile on his face anymore. His expression has gone blank.
The volleyball collides with his head and stuns him back to the game.
“Oops. Sorry, Oliver,” Zoe calls.
“It’s fine,” he replies, scooping the ball out of the water.
“I mean, not really,” Miguel argues. “Are you all right, man? You zoned out. And lost us the game, but more importantly, you zoned out.”
Oliver tucks the ball under his arm. “You didn’t hear that music just now?”
Everyone pauses to listen. The DJ for the dance segment of the party is doing a sound check, but it’s hardly what I’d call music. And he’s farther down the beach, not in the woods. The only thing in the woods are a pair of students getting chased out by the gym teacher.
Oliver looks back to the trees. “My mistake. Sorry about the game.”
Miguel takes advantage of his distraction, knocks his legs out from under him, and pushes him back into the water. “You’re forgiven.”
Oliver laughs with everyone else as Miguel helps him up, accepting his punishment, and follows them all out of the water at the sound of the dinner whistle. Everyone gathers their bags and towels and head toward the tables set up with hot dogs, burgers, and all the usual cookout goodies I probably shouldn’t eat.
The boys grumble a bit as the girls wave goodbye and go to get in line ahead of them. Zoe is particularly obnoxious about it since she scored the winning point.
“She’s lucky she’s cute,” Miguel mutters.
“She’d be luckier if you asked her out,” I tease.
He tries to sputter out an excuse, but I’ve heard them all before.
“Oh, come on. Everyone knows you’d be cute together.”
Miguel scoffs. “Everyone also knows you can’t just ask out a girl you’ve been friends with forever. Tell her, Oliver.” He looks behind us and finds empty sand.
I thought he was right behind us, too, but we look down the beach to find Oliver staring up into the trees yet again. I can feel Miguel’s hesitance to call to him. Whatever has Oliver’s attention, judging by his somber expression, it’s important.
It’s also freaking me out a bit.
It must be scaring Miguel, too, because he finally snaps Oliver out of it.
“Yo, Ollie. Come get food, man.”
Oliver blinks a few times, then smiles at us. “Sorry. Zoning out again, was I?”
“Hard-core. You feeling all right?”
“I assure you, I’m fine,” Oliver says, taking his place in line with us.
“Really? Because the school nurse is here if that volleyball messed with your head.”
“It’s nothing. I promise.” Oliver laughs it off, but I catch him glance back at the woods one final time. “I must just be hungry. My mind is playing tricks on me.”
Maybe he’s right. Maybe even the mildest of hunger makes you see and hear things that aren’t there. At least, I hope that’s what’s happening. As I study the trees myself in hunt for what could be distracting him, I swear I see a short lanky figure dart back into the shadows from the corner of my eye.
It better just be hunger. I don’t really want to consider any alternatives.