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Excerpt

Excerpt

Another Faust

Prologue
Five Years Previously
London

Victoria didn’t have time to play. She didn’t have time for friends or laughing or jumping or any other thing little kids do. Victoria was ten, but she didn’t like ten-year-olds. At all the London dinner parties, her job was to shut up and look well-behaved for the adults. She would sit in a big plush armchair, her feet barely touching the floor, and she would pick the petals off a bouquet of blue hydrangeas in a nearby vase. She would quietly brood as she watched the adults circle the room, drink tea or cocktails, and comment on the sculptures in the foyer.

Her little brother, Charlie, loved parties. He let old ladies pinch his cheeks and performed Mozart concertos on his toy piano, a Steinway baby grand. He was just five, but most of his babblings were in Spanish or Greek. Victoria was not amused by him. She wanted him gone. She watched her mother hold Charlie in her arms, while he laughed a happy, oblivious laugh. Charlie was the good-looking one. Victoria straightened her thick glasses in a mirror and turned away, disgusted. She hated those unhappy parties. She hated her graphing calculator and her schoolbooks, her tutors and instruments, her frizzy hair, her packed calendar, her father’s glasses, and her little brother’s genius IQ.

But that hatred was exactly what drove her to try to win — like a moth to a burning lamp. Because for Victoria, only one thing in life was valuable: winning — at any cost — and that she knew how to do. She spent her days in a blaze of activities, never fully enjoying any of them, just concentrating on her duty to win — bringing home prizes and certificates and good grades like a starved cat bringing a dead bird to its owner.

“In this life, you have winners and losers,” Victoria once announced to her startled algebra teacher. “The more you win, the higher you go. Professor at Oxford and a Nobel Prize — that’s winning in your field. Last I checked, private tutoring is not.”

Of course, she came back to the room a little later with her hands behind her back. She smiled for the nervous old lady and apologized. She had to. The hag would be grading Victoria’s exams whether she was a loser or not.

Victoria hated her schoolbooks and activities because they were her best friends, and like her mother, she had learned to choose friends she didn’t like. Riding, chess, piano, tennis, painting — she had tutors for each one, each unhappy like her. You’re slouching on the horse. Your moves are clumsy. Your fingers are fat. Your fingers are fat. Your fingers are fat. . . .

Victoria’s fingers were fat. Another imperfection to add to her father’s long list. Luckily, the list wasn’t all that long when it came to debate, her favorite activity, the one that let her vent her anger. “I suppose our daughter isn’t all that bad,” her father said once, when Victoria brought home a national trophy. No, Victoria wasn’t that bad at all. During her debate rounds, Victoria could humiliate her opponents (she always did) and pretend that she was finally older, away from her parents, and powerful.

Considering they were never around much, Victoria’s parents managed an enormous volume of criticism. As for family time, Victoria got their e- mails. And their occasional update meetings at breakfast were enough. Her father leafed through calendar pages and ate toast and jam as though food didn’t have a taste. It could have been butter on cardboard. Her mother stirred her tea and read the Times.

Her father: “Vic, it says in my calendar that you had some event. . . .”

“Yeah, I had a debate.”

Her mother: “Don’t say yeah, Victoria; it’s so common.”

Her father: “Did you win?”

“Almost. I came second to Liddy.”

Her mother: “Speaking of common . . .”

Her father: “And why would you let Liddy beat you?”

“She had a great rebuttal. I didn’t anticipate —”

Her father: “Didn’t anticipate? Then it stands to reason that you should lose.”

“Daddy, I’ve won the last four —”

Her mother: “You’re only as good as your last performance.”

It didn’t matter what they said. So what if Victoria stormed out when she lost at anything? So what if she obsessed over the paint on the ceiling, stood in front of the mirror, and tried to pluck every stray hair? So what? Victoria knew what was important. Her new debate tutor said as much; and Victoria believed. Because her new debate tutor was tall and regal, honey blond, and even prettier than Victoria’s mother.

Glasgow

A few hundred kilometers away, in a less- educated part of the island, a boy named Christian was running down an alley with a bag of hamburger buns and a package of hot dogs flapping behind him. He stopped by a moldy brick wall to catch his breath. The grocer hadn’t kept up, but he was hopping mad. Tomorrow the police would be looking all over Glasgow for Christian. He’d broken two of the shop’s windows. He looked down at his loot. He’d grabbed the wrong buns. He took a bite of one of them. Stale as the bricks behind him. Christian didn’t notice. He had eaten almost nothing for the last three days. That morning, he’d felt so faint, he got caught trying to steal a man’s wallet. Christian took another bite. The day had ended better than it started. “Happy birthday to me,” he said, and began to walk home.

Home was a shanty made of three sheets of corrugated metal and a mud floor. Spare tires and car parts lay discarded all around the shanty, which was settled in the hollow near a bridge. Sometimes volunteers dropped food or old coats from the overpass onto their roof; sometimes drivers tossed burnt cigarettes and dead batteries. Once someone gave a butane space heater. That was a good day. No one in the nearby town spoke to Christian, but they knew what had happened to his mom, the way his father had shut down and stopped working. They gave food, but they didn’t talk to him. It made them feel good, he thought, like they really took care of their own.

His last birthday had been different. They had had a house then, and Christian had had a mother. Everything had been better. Christian’s dad was a burly, red-bearded man, with a laugh as thick as the bogs. That was before his “bonnie girl” died, before his eyes went dark and he checked out of this world altogether.

Christian bent back the metal sheet and stooped down and into the hut. His dad was still asleep, wrapped in discarded coats, his beard gray and matted — a home for parasites. Christian’s last birthday had fallen on the day of the Ceres Highland Games. Back then, his uncles had been around. On any given night, as recently as a year ago, the town could hear his uncles and his dad at the local tavern, singing songs, telling stories of loch dragons, or just causing a ruckus arm wrestling one another to the ground. His last birthday, Christian had won the Junior Kilted Mile and the Junior Sheaf Toss events. Like his uncles, Christian was a strong athlete. But lately, he had given up the Scottish games, preferring to listen to football games on a handheld radio he had found outside the hut. He listened with hunger, dreaming of comforts that the players might have. He wondered if he could have that someday. When he played outside with the neighborhood boys, he imagined himself signing the next big football contract, the one that would get him out of this life.

Christian gently shook his dad. “Dad, Dad, I got some food.”

Christian’s dad groaned and tried to open his eyes. It was still tough for him; the nights were hardest. Christian could remember the nights not long after his last birthday: the lights would be off in the one room where they both slept. Christian would lie awake and listen to the faint sound of his father, the giant, whimpering to his dreams. Christian had had to take care of things from then on. He’d been caught stealing a few times. The landlord had finally kicked them out in the middle of an evening when the rain just wouldn’t stop. Christian thought to grab a few things, a picture of his mum, some coins from a coffee can, and his only prized possession, his journal — the one his mother had given him two birthdays ago, when he had asked for a series of adventure books and his mother had said, “Write your own, lad. Why rely on other people’s imagination?” The truth was, they couldn’t afford novels just then. On the night of the eviction, it had taken them only ten minutes to pack their belongings. His father didn’t have anything he wanted to remember or keep. As a parting shot, Christian had stolen the landlord’s pen.

The camping stove in their hut had run out of butane, so Christian couldn’t cook the hot dogs. He cut them up and arranged them on the hamburger buns. Christian hated hot dogs. He didn’t just hate them. They made him angry. They made him want to scream. For weeks, he had eaten practically nothing else. Hot dogs for breakfast. Hot dogs for lunch. Hot dogs for supper. Always in a different bun, whatever he could grab first. Of course, he hadn’t told his dad how much he hated it all. He never told anyone anything — except that pretty blond lady in the park, the one with the stylish hat and long black coat, who had sat down next to him and asked all the right questions. He had told her a lot of things. Even the disturbing things, like the fact that the smell of hot dogs now made him want to hurt someone and the fact that, if he had one wish, he would no longer use it to bring his mother back.

Christian reached under his bedding — more old coats — and got out his journal. As he sat on the dirt floor, he tried to think of something beautiful to write. There was nothing beautiful in his world anymore. He wrote anyway. It was his escape, his mother’s one legacy. But Christian hadn’t seriously considered being a writer for a while now, because for the past few months, all he could think about was being rich and free. It was a louder desperation, and it was growing at a heart-stopping pace until it was too big and unwieldy for Christian to control. It was gargantuan now, a longing far more urgent than any other desire. If you’re poor, you can’t afford to sit around dreaming up stories for your life. You follow the money. First he would be a sports star, then he would write. First he would be rich, then he would have time for everything else.

Christian felt a sudden, searing pain across his chest. With every pump, his heart felt clenched. He put his hand inside his shirt and tried to ignore the pain. It would be better in the morning. As he squeezed his eyes closed, Christian wished for anything but this. He’d give anything not to be hungry all the time. But he didn’t have anything to give, and so it was useless to wish.

A few kilometers outside Rome

Belle ran into the bedroom and plopped on the bed so that Bicé couldn’t possibly ignore her. “Hey, Bicé. Would you rather be disgustingly fat all your life and go to heaven or thin and gorgeous and then go to hell?”

“What?” Bicé snorted with laughter.

“C’mon, c’mon, which would you choose? Seriously!” Belle nudged her twin sister and gave her a mischievous look.

“Belle, there is nothing serious about that question.”

Belle rolled her eyes at her sister’s righteous attitude. She wished Bicé would play along.

“You’d pick hell, wouldn’t you?” said Bicé, her head still in a book.

“You could wear a red dress!” said Belle, determined to distract her sister.

“I’m busy, Belle. Anyway, who cares what you look like in heaven?”

“It would be forever. And I could be gorgeous,” Belle said breathlessly, posing like one of the starlets she had seen on magazine covers.

“I think you’re gorgeous,” said Bicé with a smile.

“You think you’re gorgeous.”

“Same thing.”

Bicé and Belle were identical twins — two raven-haired little girls who had an entire Italian town mesmerized. A few paces outside the big city of Rome, Belle and Bicé lived in a pretty little town with hills and tree-lined trails and old-fashioned gelato shops — the kind of town where ancient ladies, the village madres, still wore vintage nylon stockings and talked about handsome soldiers sweeping through the town square.

“Do you realize that you’ve been reading for six hours?” said Belle.

“What else am I going to do? Sit around and think about fat people?” said Bicé without looking up. “Ihrnaht euch wieder, schwankende Gestalten,” she practiced out loud. Apparently, she had moved on to German. The girls’ parents were linguistic scholars and travelers. They spoke seven languages. Belle only spoke two — barely.

“You don’t have to be such a show-off,” said Belle as she walked to the mirror. She picked up some tweezers and looked at herself in the mirror. “They already like you best.”

Belle thought about the lady from church, the one who had spoken to her mother for half an hour on Sunday. She was tall, blond, and the kind of beautiful that made Belle squirm with jealousy. “What a brilliant little girl!” she had said of Bicé. “I’ve never met one who speaks five languages.”

“Yes, well, she enjoys it, and we like to let our daughters do what they enjoy,” their mother had said. “Belle will find her niche soon too.”

“And so pious,” the lady had continued. “Is it true that she reads the Bible in Greek?”

Belle mumbled, “I hate being a twin,” and continued inspecting the curve of her brows.

“If it would make you feel better, I’ll dye my hair blue,” offered Bicé. Belle laughed, despite the pain she felt in her chest. It might not be so bad sharing a face if at least it was beautiful. If she were fantastically beautiful, no one would mind that she couldn’t blather out a few pleasantries in Mandarin. But Bicé had talent; there was no denying that. That was how she set herself apart from her twin. But what did Belle have?

Lost in thought, Belle stared at herself and then at her twin, her mirror image except for the tiny mole above Bicé’s lip.

“You know it’s not my fault,” said Belle.

“I know it’s not — wait — what are we talking about?”

“That you speak more languages than me.”

“Maybe if you didn’t spend so much time thinking about your cheekbones —”

“What’s wrong with my cheekbones?” Belle’s hand fl ew to her face.

“Don’t pout,” said Bicé. “It makes your face look swollen.”

“You mean it makes your face look swollen,” said Belle, pouting.

“Maybe if you didn’t try so hard to be the bad one, people would give you a break.”

Belle glared at Bicé for a second. Then she turned back around to the mirror. “No, they wouldn’t,” she said. “They’d never let me be different.” Belle looked at her sister in the mirror and saw that she was hurt. Deciding to drop the topic, she plopped herself onto the bed and rested her head on her sister’s lap. “Brush my hair, sis?” she said with a sweet pout. Belle could tell that Bicé wanted to say something, but for all her languages, Bicé just couldn’t communicate that well. Instead Bicé just grabbed the brush and began to stroke Belle’s hair, black and glossy, just like her own. It was Belle’s habit to let Bicé play the mother, pretending not to notice as she struggled to say the right thing. But even Bicé couldn’t give Belle what she wanted most. No one could.

Montmartre, Paris

Someone once said that “French is the language that turns dirt into romance.” Valentin knew this to be true because he lived in Paris, and when he wasn’t feeling romantic, he was feeling like dirt. Valentin’s parents were poets in Montmartre. They sat in cafés discussing love and the “tragedy of being” with other writers, sipping on deep red wine at all hours of the day. Somehow, they managed to make a good living, selling their work to journals and luring rich benefactors to their circle.

Valentin spent his time on his own. He was free to roam around the city, “learning from life,” as his father liked to say. He would walk through the streets of Paris, running errands for local shop owners, writing little poems for waitresses in exchange for cups of chocolat, and eavesdropping on conversations of cheery tourist families. As a result, he came to know something that most children should not have to realize until much later: that he was small and insignificant in this big world.

But as his father said, “Suffering is such sweet, stinging inspiration.”

“I’m going out,” said Valentin one afternoon. His father, who was already on his second bottle of wine, nodded and began to drift off to sleep. Valentin wondered why he had bothered to say anything. He walked out and thought that it was the perfect day to wheedle a few croissants out of Monsieur Genet’s barmaid or to read in the bookshops until they kicked him out or to visit the beautiful lady. The beautiful lady would never ask him to leave. She would only say the most reassuring things — that he was talented and bound for greatness. Valentin wanted to be a famous poet — not because he loved poetry but because he loved fame.

As he was getting up from an evening nap on the steps of the Sacré Coeur cathedral, something grabbed Valentin’s attention. In front of the massive church, in the crowd of tourists and worshippers, sat his own mother. What’s Maman doing there? thought Valentin. She’s supposed to be meeting with her publisher. It didn’t make sense. But that was definitely his mother, and the man with her was definitely not the priggish Monsieur Brottiere. This young man was wearing paint-covered jeans, with bits of paint in his wavy hair. Valentin’s first instinct was to approach them. But then he thought of his father, sitting alone, drinking himself into a stupor. He’d lost all hope in anything but the fact that his brilliant wife was going to “turn the brutish head of the world with the delicate yoke of her pen.” He was an awful poet but never stopped being proud of his wife.

Valentin crept a bit closer to listen. The pair began to walk. Valentin followed them. He crept among the crowds, close behind, all the way to a neighborhood in a wealthy district of Paris. He noticed the way his mother laughed; it was different from any laugh Valentin had ever heard from her.

“Have a good afternoon?” the man asked her.

“Boring. Nothing ever happens. I got no work done.”

“Well, everyone has dry spells,” he said, glancing at his paintstained shoes. “Do you want to come up?” They were standing in front of a doorway. Valentin had ducked into an alcove just a few feet away.

“All right,” said Valentin’s mother with a smile. “Do I get first pick of your new paintings?”

“Only if you dedicate your next poem to me,” said the man playfully. He was childish, thought Valentin, not like a grown man.

“Don’t be silly! Everyone would know,” said his mother.

They went inside. Valentin ran dizzily into the street and waited for a light to turn on in one of the windows of the apartment building. From the dark street, he could see the walls inside. They were covered with beautiful landscape paintings of the French countryside. Valentin noticed that they were exactly like the ones his mother had given him and his father for Christmas. Night was falling over the city. Street lamps burst to life. Valentin stood there too long, watching their backlit silhouettes. Finally he picked up a rock from the gutter and sent it flying through the glass. He heard his mother scream from inside as shards fell to the ground. By the time the man’s naked torso appeared at the broken window to see who’d done it, Valentin was already down the street.

At home, he found his father asleep at the table. I would teach her a lesson, thought Valentin angrily, instead of cowering at the kitchen table, hugging a bottle.

That night, when Valentin got into his bath, there was an unfamiliar spot on his chest. He tried to rub it off. But as his wet hand touched the small black dot, it only grew bigger. He lowered himself farther into the bath to wash it off. As the mark entered the water, it grew even darker and more pronounced. What’s this? Valentin thought. What’s happening to me? The mark was ugly, a black spot over his heart — as if his heart had exploded and spewed a black bile onto his skin. And no matter how hard he rubbed, it wouldn’t go away.

Victoria, Christian, Belle, and Valentin live far from each other and have never met. In fact, they are as different as four children can be . . . except for one thing.

Panic. Wherever they were, they all sat up in their beds. It was the middle of the night. What was that? Their nightclothes clung to their backs. When they moved, the cold sweat made their spines shake. Just a tree branch outside. But it didn’t look like a tree branch. It looked like hair — wild, snaky hair slithering in the wind. It could be hair. It could be hallucinations. Or it could be shadows from the clouds. It could be suffering fingers, scaling the walls of their unhappy homes. It could just be the storm . . . or it could be someone outside.

No, it would seem that these children have nothing in common. But by the next morning, they all had disappeared.

Excerpted from ANOTHER FAUST © Copyright 2011 by Daniel and Dina Nayeri. Reprinted with permission by Candlewick Press

. All rights reserved.

Another Faust
by by Daniel Nayeri and Dina Nayeri

  • Genres: Fantasy, Paranormal
  • paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Candlewick
  • ISBN-10: 0763648345
  • ISBN-13: 9780763648343