VERONA, ITALY, 1304
Tonight, he could have come through the door--the castello is quiet, even the servants asleep in their beds, and Nurse would have let him in--but he chooses the window, climbing through the tangle of night flowers, carrying petals in on his clothes.
He stumbles on a loose stone and falls to the floor, grinning as I rush to meet him.
He is a romantic, a dreamer, and never afraid to play the fool. He is fearless and reckless and brave and I love him for it. Desperately. Love for him steals my breath away, makes me feel I am dying and being reborn every time I look into his eyes or run trembling fingers through his brown curls.
I love him for the way he sprawls on the freshly scrubbed stones, strong legs flexing beneath his hose, as if there is no cause for worry, as if we have not broken every rule and do not face banishment from the only homes we have ever known. I love him for the way he finds my hand, presses it to his smooth cheek, inhaling as if my skin smells sweeter than the petals clinging to his coat. I love him for the way he whispers my name, "Juliet"--a prayer for deliverance, a promise of pleasure, a vow that all this sweet everything he is to me will be forever.
Forever and always.
Despite our parents, and our prince, and the blood spilled in the plaza. Despite the fact that we have little money and fewer friends and our once-shining futures are clouded and dim.
"Tell me that tomorrow will never come." He pulls me to the floor beside him, cradling me on his lap, hand curling over my hip in a way it has not before. Heat flares from the tips of his fingers, spreading through me, reminding me I will soon be his wife in every way. Every touch is sanctified. Everything we will do tonight is meant to be, a celebration of the vows we have made and the love that consumes us.
I drop my lips to his. Joy bleeds from his mouth to mine and I sigh the lie into the fire of him. "It will never come."
"Tell me that I will always be here in this room. Alone with you. And that you will always be the most beautiful girl in the world." His hands are at the ties on the back of my dress, slow and patient, slipping each ribbon through its loop with a deliberate flick of his fingers.
No urgent, shame-filled fumbling in the dark for us. He is steady and sure, and every candle shines bright, the better to see the tenderness in his eyes, to be more certain with every passing moment that this is no youthful mistake. This is love. Real. Magnificent. Eternal.
"Always," I whisper, so full of adoration the emotion borders on worship. A part of me feels that to love so is sacrilege, but I do not care. There is nothing in the world but Romeo. For the rest of my life, he is the god at whose feet I will kneel.
His cheek presses to mine, his warm breath in my ear making mine come faster. "Juliet . . . you are . . ."
I am his goddess. I can feel it in the way he shudders as my fingers come to the buttons of his cotehardie and pluck them from their holes, one by one, revealing the thin linen of the shirt beneath.
"You are everything," he says, eyes shining. "Everything."
And I know that I am. I am his moon, and his brightly shining star. I am his life, his heart. I am all that and the answer to every unspoken question, the comfort for every hurt, the companion who will walk beside him from now until the end of our lives, reveling in the bliss of each simple chore done in his name, overflowing with beauty because I am blessed to spend my life with my love.
My love, my love, my love. I could hear the words a thousand times and never grow tired of them. Not ever.
"Forever," I whisper into the hot skin at his neck, sighing as the last tie holding my dress to my body falls away.
SOLVANG, CALIFORNIA, PRESENT DAY
Dying is easy. It's coming back that hurts like hell.
"Oh . . ." I press my hands to my forehead, where hot, tacky liquid pours from a cut above my eyebrow.
There is a lot of blood this time. Blood on my hands, smeared onto the dashboard, dripping through my fingers onto my jeans, leaving black spots I can see in the dim moonlight shining through the car's glass sunroof. It's messy, frightening, but, amazingly, the accident hasn't killed her. Killed me.
Me, now. Her, sometime again soon, depending on how long it takes to ensure the safety of the soul mates I've been sent to protect. Or how long it takes Romeo to convince one lover to sacrifice the other for the boon of eternal life.
It might not be long. He excels at his work.
Either way, Ariel Dragland will wear this shell again. Until then she'll wait in the realm where I've spent most of my eternity, in the mists of forgetting, that place outside of time where the gray stretches on forever.
I've been assured by my contact in the Ambassadors of Light that there are worse places, realms of torment where the boy who bartered our love for immortality will suffer someday. Nurse never uses the word hell, but I like to imagine that Romeo will number among hell's inhabitants. Of course, she never mentions heaven, either, or whether I might go there when my work is finished . . . if it is ever finished.
There are a lot of things Nurse sees fit not to mention. Including the exact workings of the magic that pulls me from the mist again and again, now more than thirty times in seven centuries. All I know is life comes suddenly. One moment I'm numb and bodiless, the next I'm slipping into another's skin, another's life--the ultimate, dreadful disguise.
I shiver as the memory of Ariel's last moments sweeps through me. I watch her snatch the wheel from the driver's hands before a deadly turn in the road and pull hard to the right, hoping the dive into the ravine will kill them both--her and the boy who hurt her. My eyes flick to the driver's seat. The boy--Dylan--slumps forward, the downward tilt of the car making his limp body curl around the wheel. He is still, not a puff of breath escaping his parted lips.
It seems one half of Ariel's wish has been granted.
I shiver again, but I can't say I'm sorry. I know what he did, can feel Ariel's shame and rage rush inside me as the rest of her life pours in to fill the empty corners in my mind.
Behind my eyes flash images from her eighteen years. I focus, sucking in every detail, taking her memories as my own.
Tiptoe, tiptoe, always on tiptoe. Up the stairs, across the kitchen, down the hall to the room where the crayons live and I can breathe. Where she isn't watching. My mother, with her sad, sad eyes.
Seven, ten, fifteen, eighteen years old and still there is nothing finer than a blank sheet of paper, the white promise that the world can be what I make it. A magical place, an adventurous place, a possible place. Erasers take away the mistakes. Another coat of paint to cover them up. Black and red and purple and blue. Always blue.
Mom sees in blue. She sees the scars she made. I was six. She sees Gemma, my one friend, as a mistake, not a lifeline. She sees my hours alone and feels more powerfully every hour she's wasted. I am the waste, the thing that's eaten her youth alive. Refused to cough up the bones.
Sometimes it seems all I have are bones, scraps, a frame with nothing to fill in the empty space. Sometimes I hate her for it, sometimes I hate myself, sometimes I hate everyone and everything and imagine the world melting the way the grease melted my skin.
Skin and bones. Mom and I are both so thin. Hugs hurt, but there aren't many. Not for years. There are surgeries and pain and bright lights and then days trapped in the house with the shades drawn on our shame. There is the darkness inside, that baleful intruder that comes just when I dare to believe I might one day be whole.
There is school and the misery of being a person unseen, the jealousy that I can't be wild and beautiful like Gemma, that I am always an audience, never a player. There is the frustration of words that won't come out of my mouth no matter how hard I try. A D in public speaking. The one step up to the podium is an impossible climb. Everest. Higher. I hate Mr. Stark for his frustrated sighs, hate the class for their muffled laughter. I want to hurt them, to show them how it feels to have your insides twisted into knots you can't unravel.
Gemma doesn't care, tells me to get over it, stops sharing her adventures, closes the window into her vibrant world, forgets to pick me up for school at least twice a week. I'm losing everything. My only friend, my perfect GPA, my mind. How much longer can I live like this? Can I make it four more years, sleeping in that room, commuting to the nursing college in Santa Barbara, learning to live with more sickness and pain, when all I want to do is escape?
But then . . . there is him. His smile, his voice singing so strong, cutting through the curtains where I hide with my paints, curling into my ear, spinning dreams I want to come true.
It's a joke.
We're kissing--slow, perfect kisses that make my heart race--when the text comes, asking if he's taken the Freak's virginity yet. He tries to hide the phone, but I see it. I start to cry, even though I'm not sad. I'm angry, so angry. He offers me fifty dollars--a piece of the bet--if I let him have what he's come for. I explode. I try to run from the car, but he grabs my hand, squeezing as he pulls back onto the road, telling me to "chill the hell out," promising to take me to a better place.
But there is no better place. I know that by now. There are only mirrors reflecting disappointment, shattering it in a million different directions, filling the world until there is no way out. It will always be this way. Always, even when I finally leave the house on El Camino Road.
The road, the road is . . . impossible. I won't let him drive it a second longer. I won't let him steer through the hole in the mountain down to the beach, where the cold, dark ocean waits like a nightm...
--This text refers to an alternate