|A post by Mary Fan|
thought it would be easier this time around since this story has already through to a handful of beta readers but... yeah, putting your stuff out there never gets any easier. Not for me, at least *bites nails*.
Okay, here goes. For your scrutiny, I present the first chapter of MIDNIGHT SWAN, my YA retelling of Swan Lake. Except it's contemporary fantasy instead of the traditional fairytale. And it's from the black swan's POV.
If I've done my job right, you shouldn't need to know the original fairy tale in order to get my story, but here's the high-level synopsis anyway: Once upon a time, an evil sorcerer cursed a girl to transform into a white swan by day, returning to human form only by night. A vow of true love can free her, but her prince is seduced by her evil twin (who can transform into a black swan). He makes his vow to the black swan instead, dooming the white swan to death (in some versions she kills herself, in others, the curse kills her). Cheery, ain't it?
There are many variations on the tale (I've seen the ballet multiple times, and no two companies have used the same ending), but the above is the version I used as my basis. And here's my take... Any and all comments are appreciated :-)
And in a flurry of light, the maiden was transfigured by enchantments beyond her knowing into a graceful white swan. Only by moonlight would she be able to return to her true self, and only upon the lake could the magic take place.
My heart is out to screw me over. Getting chatty with patrons always comes with the risk of them liking you, but I never thought the tables would turn on me. Clearly, I was wrong.
It’s not just that he’s cute. Cute I could handle. Especially since I’ve found that guys who look like him, the ones who could have they stepped out of a Ralph Lauren ad, are best observed from a distance. Get too close and the elitist douchebaggery comes out.
Yet if there’s any of that hiding behind his bright hazel eyes, I can’t see it. There’s something true about him. I know myself well enough to recognize what it means when my pulse is speeding, my palms are sweating, and my lips are stuck on a smile.
Seeing another patron—twenty-something pixie with eyebrow rings who’s more our usual clientele—wave at me, I go take her order and tell my heart to shut the fuck up. I’m not allowed to like anyone. Because liking can lead to love, and, for me, love can only lead to death.
His eyes—infuriatingly pretty and too earnest for his own good—linger on me as I grab a glass for Eyebrow Rings then approach the tap. I wonder what his name is. His real name, not the one on the fake-ass ID stating he’s a 28-year-old named Siegfried Prince with a photo that looks nothing like him. Not only does Siegfried Prince sport cropped black hair instead of tousled chestnut locks, but I can’t imagine this boy ever looking as smug and punch-worthy as the man in the picture.
Whoever he is, I can’t judge him. I find it stupid that at 18, I can serve booze but can’t drink my own cocktails. Plus, I’ve got a fake ID of my own, saying I’m a 30-year-old named Odile von Rothbart. It’s ridiculous how often I get away with using it.
Still, part of my job is to flag anyone underage, and I should have done so when I saw him slip past the bouncer, Josh, who was busy telling the homeless woman who hangs out by the bar’s door that the boss won’t allow her in here. Something about the boy’s wide-eyed appearance told me right away that he’s too young for this place, but he looked so stressed that I decided to cut him some slack. When Josh noticed him half a minute later, I made a show of checking “Siegfried’s” license. Though Josh is an intimidating presence—reminiscent of a Klingon with his large build, shaved head, and brown beard—he’s a softie at heart. Which is probably why he sat back down with a knowing grin that said, I know you’re bullshitting me, Kali, but I’ll let it slide. He probably figures I have a crush on the guy. If only I could say he’s wrong.
I hand Eyebrow Rings her beer, and she gives me her credit card. “Want me to close it or keep it open?”
“Keep it open.” She turns back to her friends, and they clink glasses. She grabs a shoulder to lean in and tell a secret. Gets a light elbow to the ribcage in return. Laughs.
It’s a familiar sight—close friends, practically family, having a good time together. It’s something I can never have.
A pang runs through me. As I go to the register, an angsty indie rock ballad billows from the speakers. The air is thick with the smells of beer and bodies, though it’s still early. No matter how hard we scrub, the scent lingers in the walls, the floor, the furniture. In this bar, I’ve seen old friends gather and new friends connect. I’ve watched today’s acquaintances become tomorrow’s love stories and strangers build ties that could last a lifetime.
Funny thing is, I ran away from Red, my so-called mom, because I learned what she’d done to make sure I’d always be alone. Yet here I am, alone anyway because of who she is—and what she made me.
“Hey, are you okay?” Prince Charming—that’s what I’ve been calling him, since I can’t say “Siegfried” with a straight face—leans against the bar, his face creased with worry.
I didn’t realize my expression had changed, but it must have crinkled itself into something pretty miserable if he can see my gloom through the feathered black mask the boss makes me wear over my eyes. It’s part of our gimmick; the bar’s called Masquerade.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Dragging my eyes across the banged-up tables, the cheap masks plastered over the walls, and the artfully graffitied windows, I search desperately for something that needs my attention. Finding nothing, I grab the hair tie from my wrist and spend far more effort than needed tying my thick, black locks into a bun. Anything to avoid talking to him.
To be fair to Prince Charming, I’m the one who invited him to chat. He had that need-to-talk-to-someone look on his face, and he looked rich enough to leave a nice, fat tip in exchange for a pair of ears. With rent due in a week and not a lot else to occupy me, I decided to be sociable, so I gave him my best Wise Bartender smile and said, “I’m Kali, by the way. What’s your story?”
I was expecting something from the usual grab bag of relationship troubles and work stress—or, more likely in his case, school stress. What I got instead was an existential crisis.
“I needed to get away,” he said when I asked what a preppy guy like him was doing alone at an East Village dive bar. “I needed to see real people with real problems, living real lives.”
Between that and his banker blue shirt, which fit too well to be anything other than designer, I pegged him right away as a one-percenter. Probably goes to a private school and has a Wall Street internship for the summer. But in his eyes, in his voice, I perceived a kind of pain I know too well—the kind that comes with not being who you’re supposed to be. Some of the things he said could have come straight from my proverbial diary. Like how he’s so entangled in the expectations of others, he doesn’t know if he exists without them. How his life was picked out for him the moment he was born. How he’s trapped by a destiny he never asked for.
Maybe these aren’t huge problems in the grand scheme of things, but when it’s your life that’s being stolen from you, it’s the biggest deal in the world. Thanks to Red, I’m trapped too. She’s like a cancer in my mind—both part of me and not. Impossible to get rid of. And slowly eating me alive.
Eyebrow Rings calls me over, and asks me to grab her friend a beer. I try to focus on my task, but it’s too mindless to distract me from the gentle yet magnetic presence reaching toward me from Prince Charming’s direction.
What’s wrong with me? When did he go from Pretty, but not my type to Shit, I’m starting to like this guy? Maybe it was around when he made his little speech about how he wanted to change the world, which went something like this: “I know I ‘have it all,’ and I know don’t deserve it. No one does. This life, this… privilege… it isn’t earned. It’s given—by luck or by blood—because at a certain point, there’s nothing you can do to earn so much. Especially people like me, whose only talent was being born. But I can’t ignore what I have or what I am, and I want to use it to make the world a better place. Maybe if I were better with words, I’d find a less lame way to put it, but it’s true. I want to earn my place in the world.”
Like I said—existential crisis.
I don’t know why, but the way he said that got to me. I wish it were only because the crooked tilt of his mouth as he said the bit about being lame was adorable beyond all reason. If anyone else had spoken as he did, I would’ve rolled my eyes so hard they got stuck. Maybe he struck me because he has this halo of honesty around him, and I’ve been lied to so many times, seeing someone genuine is like finding a goddamn unicorn.
Or maybe it’s because hearts are irrational as fuck, and mine’s a traitorous sonuvabitch.
Hearing a cacophony of shouts, I glance at the door. A group of guys saunters in. They’re your typical skinny-jean-wearers in bold t-shirts and dude jewelry, but noisier than usual. Probably already buzzed.
I rub my nose, brushing the small, silver ring in my right nostril. “What can I get you guys?”
“Where’s the hot girl?” one guy demands. He has a lion tattoo on his bicep. How cliché. Not that I can talk—the black feather on my left collarbone isn’t exactly original.
“Yeah, we want to see the hot girl!” another shouts.
Thanks a lot. Too bad telling customers to fuck off is a one-way ticket to unemployment.
I glance around for Ava, feeling kind of bad for her. I certainly don’t want to deal with these assholes. But either she spotted them checking her out and fled, which I wouldn’t blame her for, or she’s in the bathroom. “Ava will be back soon,” I say as politely as I can.
I glimpse Prince Charming giving the Asshole Brigade a death glare and for some reason, that makes me smile.
“You know, you’d be hotter if let yourself fill out.” Lion Tattoo presses his elbows into the bar. “I know girls are all about skinny, but you’re starting to look like a stick figure.”
It takes all my self-control not to give him a good old-fashioned bitch slap. I want to yell that I can be a stick figure if I want, and that he’s a total douche.
Unfortunately, he’s not finished with me yet. “So, where’re you from?”
None of your business. “Right here, New York City.”
“No, where are you really from?”
Wish I knew. The New York driver’s license saying I’m “Odile von Rothbart” isn’t my only fake ID. As far as the U.S. Government is concerned, I don’t exist. I’m 99 percent sure I was born here, but when the woman you grew up calling Mom admits to having kidnapped you as a baby, nothing’s certain.
I know that’s not what Lion Tattoo’s asking, though. I’ve been through this drill enough times. While his question annoys me, I just want him to leave me alone, so I give him the answer he’s undoubtedly looking for. “I’m Indian, okay?”
It wasn’t until I was in first grade that I realized my sandalwood complexion bore little resemblance to my mom’s skin, which is as white as the poison she sells. My childhood pestering got Red to admit that my father is Indian-American. Wish I knew who he and my real mother are.
“Indian?” Lion Tattoo cocks his head. “This kind”—he jabs his finger at his forehead—“or this kind?” He slaps his hand over his open mouth.
I’m too astounded by the stupid to even be offended. Now am I allowed to tell him to fuck off?
“Hey!” To my surprise, Prince Charming marches up to Lion Tattoo. “Apologize to the lady!”
Lady?! Can’t remember if anyone’s ever called me that un-ironically.
Lion Tattoo scowls. “For what?”
“For being racist!” Prince Charming looks ready to punch the other guy’s face. He could probably take him. They’re both about six feet tall, and while Lion Tattoo’s got a broader build, righteous rage is a powerful thing.
It’s also irritating as hell.
“Cool it, Prince Charming.” I give him a hard look. “There’s no problem here unless you start one.”
The anger drains from Prince Charming’s face, and he looks away, embarrassed. Josh eyes me from the door, and I nod to let him know that everything’s okay. But it really isn’t. Now that the shock has worn off and the almost-fight’s been diffused, Lion Tattoo’s comments sink in. A whirlpool of fury churns in my gut. I want to call him a racist myself, but I remind myself that I’m at work.
“You okay, Kali?” Ava reappears, sweeping a few blond locks off her sequined silver mask. With her double Ds and luscious lips, it’s easy to see why she’s “the hot one.”
“There she is!” One of Lion Tattoo’s friends points at Ava with a grin.
I give Ava an apologetic look. “If you don’t mind, I’ll let you take care of these guys.”
Ava flattens her expression—narrowed eyes, pursed lips—in a look that’s her way of saying, “I’m so not impressed by this bunch.” Then she plasters on a fake smile and asks the Asshole Brigade what they’d like.
“Sorry about that.” Prince Charming returns to his spot, and I notice his beer glass is still mostly full. “I just… The way that guy was treating you…”
“He was being a dick.” I don’t know who I’m more annoyed by—Lion Tattoo for his assholery or Prince Charming for butting in. “It happens. I don’t need you to be my hero.”
His lips quirk, but his eyes are sad. “Of course not. No one does. They just need me to be their puppet.”
Great, here comes the existential crisis again. I wish my heart could be as irritable as my brain, but despite myself, I feel bad for thinking that. Though I shouldn’t care about him and his first world problems, I just do. “Sometimes you’ve gotta let people fight their own fights. Picking up a battle flag that isn’t yours and using it to make yourself feel good… it’s kind of a dick move when you think about it.”
“That’s not what I was doing,” he says quickly. “I… I had good intentions.”
“The road to hell is paved with those.”
He gives me an almost-smile. “So is the road to heaven, if there is such a thing. I guess heroes and villains start in the same place.”
“I don’t believe in heroes.” I lean my elbows against the bar. “They’re made when people see what they want to see, when they thrust some high-minded ideal onto a poor sonuvabitch who maybe did something amazing, but is still as screwed up as the rest of us in one way or another. When people realize their hero isn’t perfect, they go nuts, and it’s not fair for anyone. So forget heroes. I’d rather believe a screw-up can do something great than find my illusions shattered when someone supposedly great screws up.”
“Maybe you’re right.” His gaze turns contemplative. “But letting things sit when you know there’s something wrong isn’t right either. Maybe all I’ll do is make an idiot of myself—like I did just now—but is it so wrong to try?”
“Of course not.” I angle my mouth. “And if you end up succeeding someday, you’ll be one of those screw-ups who does something great. Now, that’s a lot less pressure than trying to be great without screwing up, wouldn’t you say?”
This time, he smiles for real. “I like the way you think.”
And I’m starting to like you. Fuck.
Luckily, Eyebrow Rings chooses that moment to call for another round. I start toward the tap, then freeze as my eyes land on a man leaning against the mask-covered wall, his arms folded and his cold gaze fixed on me. He’s not tall—maybe five-foot-eight, same as me—but his bulk is intimidating. Though his face is shadowed, the tattoo on his pale wrist tells me everything I need to know.
A menacing owl glares at me in red ink with its wings outstretched and its talons outreached—Red’s signature. All her most loyal enforcers have it, and if you know what it means, you’ll get the hell out of their way. Piss off one of them and you piss off Red, and if you piss off Red, you end up rotting in some New Jersey swamp.
A shudder runs down my spine. I’ve tried a hundred times to get away from her for good, but she won’t let me leave the city. The first time my train ticket got denied, I thought it was bad luck. The second time, I noticed a subtle shimmer in the air, like I was watching that bit of the world through a reflecting pool. It meant there was magic at work, and it as good as told me that Red was behind my thwarted attempt to get out of New York. Only those who manipulate the Aether through spells can see it. After a few more useless attempts and more “bad luck”—buses with their engines blown, taxis that never arrived, the mysterious shutdown of the PATH train—I got the message.
Red won’t drag me back to her place. But she won’t let me leave her territory either. And she’s watching me. Through this goon, she’s keeping an eye on my every move—and silently reminding me to behave.
“Did you hear me?” Eyebrow Rings’ voice cuts through my momentary shock.
“Sorry… Coming right up.” As I fetch her order, I feel the enforcer’s eyes—really Red’s eyes—and wish I could hide under the bar.
By the time I’m done taking care of Eyebrow Rings and her friends, Prince Charming is gone. Though I should be relieved, disappointment settles in my stomach. A white envelope sits next to his virtually untouched drink, and I grab it, wondering what’s inside. Answer: a shit-ton of cash.
Red’s henchman is still watching me, but I’m not worried about him taking it. If money were all Red wanted, I’d be over the moon. Also, she wouldn’t let her people mess with me. I’m her daughter. More like her property.
The envelope’s not thick; the bills are all hundreds. Guess I was right about Prince Charming being a good tip source. Who carries around that much cash anyway? Only drug dealers as far as I know, and he’s certainly not one of those. I’d know if he were; Red’s the queen among pushers. Or rather, the Baroness.
I should be high-fiving myself. Even though I’ll split the cash with Ava, my half is enough for rent. Instead, I feel slimy. I take all of thirty seconds to decide I’ll give my share to the homeless woman outside. Get rid of that thing that’s making me feel gross and make up for three months of pretending I don’t see her as I come in for work.
Great. Half an hour of talking to Prince Charming and suddenly I’m trying to be the hero I don’t believe in. I have to purge him from my mind and make sure I never see him again. Because if I fall in love, one of two futures will happen: The one where he doesn’t love me back, and I end up heartbroken, or worse, the one where he does, and the curse Red cast on me destroys us both.
Either way, I’d be totally fucked.