From critically-acclaimed author Sarah Porter comes Never-Contented Things: a standalone surreal young adult fantasy of teenagers ensorcelled into a wicked bargain with otherworldly beings…
Every moment of the night—
Forever changing places—
And they put out the star-light
With the breath from their pale faces…
—Edgar Allan Poe, “Fairy-Land”
Bound by haunting tragedies, Ksenia Adderley and Joshua Korensky have shared a home as foster siblings since they were children. Despite their opposite personalities—Ksenia is prickly, mistrustful, Josh, flamboyant and outgoing—they are fiercely protective of one another. As teens, they’ve grown even closer. Some say unnaturally so.
With Ksenia's eighteenth birthday approaching, their guardians expect her to move out. They want to free Josh of his obsession with the foster-sister whom they regard as a strange, unhealthy influence. But they don’t understand the depths of Josh’s feelings for Ksenia and how desperate he is to ensure they stay together—forever.
The one called Prince understands all too well. Attracted by the intensity of Josh’s desires and Ksenia’s fears, he can grant them a home among his kind: beautiful creatures not of this earth. All they have to do is surrender their very humanity and succumb to the cruel whims of Prince and his fae courtiers…
“A creepy new world like none I’ve seen before. Eerie, edgy and filled with mystery, Porter takes us to the depths of the magical and psychological.”—Danielle Paige, New York Times bestselling author of Dorothy Must Die
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how could i leave josh behind?
I think about it a lot, how it all happened, how we came to be here. It's not like I have anything else to do in the dull ebb of this place. Even the days here feel like a technicality, as if they don't actually mark time. As if they have no function, except to help keep up the illusion that this is a real town, and that we still count as real people now that we live inside it.
I don't know why I'm so preoccupied with going over my memories, getting them exactly right. My story won't save anyone else. No one else will ever know it. Or if they do, that will mean it's too late for them too.
Because I have to assume that this is it for me, for life. More of the same nowhere, with everything that makes it seem like somewhere just an empty gesture. A fraud. Because even if I could find a way out, how could I leave Josh behind? He'd never agree to escape with me.
After all, he's the one who chose this world for us.CHAPTER 2
we'd never seen them before
It was blue, the night, though dusk should have been over and done with, and we were already at least half-drunk. I should have pried the flask away from Josh half an hour before. He was barely sixteen and not much for pacing himself, at anything. But we'd been talking — about the future, which usually seemed too sickening to contemplate, since I was eight days from the age where foster care implodes with a pop — and though Mitch and Emma were actually kinder than otherwise, and wouldn't want to spew me out on the street, they were reminding me on a frequent basis that I should explore my options, make arrangements, think about my next steps. The whole thought of where and what next felt like a giant blowing-apart, unthinkably steep and wide and high all at the same time. I was suffering from a kind of omnidirectional vertigo that must be what the helium feels inside a balloon as somebody leans in with a lit cigarette.
So we kept wandering, and the night colored blue all over us like it wanted to steal our shapes and paint us into being part of it forever. It was almost comforting, and better than being at home, where no one was waiting for us. Mitch and Emma were on vacation and they'd told me to take good care of my foster brother — which I thought I was, in my way — and to not trash the house, which they said half-kidding, almost trusting me. And even almost-trust shows how lucky we were to have them, and for six unbroken years at that, after the various dicey pseudo-homes Josh and I'd both cycled through before we found each other. I'd make sure that Mitch and Emma found their house pristine, cleaner than they'd ever seen it before. If we drank or smoked, we'd keep it outside in the dark, and there would be no spilled scotch on the sofa or burns scored into the carpet.
I couldn't imagine what next, though I knew what Mitch and Emma had in mind: a group home for ex–foster kids, clear across the state. A lousy job and community college classes at night. They wanted me to have a decent life, as long as it was far away from Josh. There were programs for kids like me; the state would help with my tuition.
And I said yes, yes, but privately I kept hoping I could come up with something else. A different what-next, one good enough that I could bring Josh with me without destroying him. That was the goal: to hold on to my unexpected brother, the one who'd lurched into my heart out of nowhere when I was already twelve, without that being a cruel and stupid and careless thing to do.
But I couldn't see how to pull that off on minimum wage, and I didn't have a realistic prospect of earning more than that. Should I run off to the city and try desperately to make it as something-or-other? I wasn't deluded enough to think that would work. So Josh and I didn't like to say it, not directly, but we both knew we'd have to separate.
Mitch and Emma had said, to our faces, that our relationship had an unhealthy intensity. That it was compensatory, a punch in the teeth to all we'd lost. And they loved Josh, had even started the process of adopting him. Legally, he was too young to leave the system. If they knew we were hoping to live together as soon as we could figure out some way to do it, they'd do anything to stop us. Maybe even forbid me from visiting. Josh wouldn't turn eighteen for two whole years. Neither of us was willing to face that long without the other.
That's why, even drunk, Josh was getting restless. Twitchy with a conversation that kept reminding us of all the ways we could blast apart. If you let yourself feel how empty the sky is, you know you're always falling into an enormous hole. An oubliette, I think is the right word: a place for things meant to be forgotten. Even starlight forgets the brutal fusion it came from by the time it reaches the Earth, because the sky is just that fathomless.
"Kezzer," Josh said, with an odd waver in his step, "let's go see if there's anybody at the gorge."
It was edging toward midnight and our flask was almost empty. I said okay.
We swung by Carly's Pizza first — it was the worst pizza in town, with strange gummy cheese, but it was also close by and open — and bought slices.
"You and your sister partying hard tonight?" the college boy at the counter asked me. Sandy-haired and smug and too dumb to deserve the education he was getting, or at least that's what I assumed — though at the same time I knew it was my own vile mood talking, and he might not deserve my contempt at all. Even so, I wasn't about to reply with more than a snort.
But Josh grinned, even though the joke was getting old — that strangers can never look at us without saying you and your sister to me, or you and your brother to Josh. Josh's glitter eyeliner and long hair layered in three colors are enough to make him a girl to them, or my bowler hat and straight body are enough to make me a boy. Either way, it seems people take us for necessarily two of the same, and most often we play along.
At least they always understand at a glance that we're family and not just friends, even though we don't look alike so much. That, I appreciate.
"Raging," Josh said, and draped his torso sideways over a stool with such a blast of sex appeal that the boy gawked. He looked to me like the type who'd be horrified if he realized he was ogling another guy. "What time are you off, anyway?"
Not that we'd ever show, but the counter boy started scribbling down an address on the edge of a paper plate, trying to sell us on meeting him at a party in an hour. We got free sodas out of it and Josh doubled up laughing as soon as we were through the door.
It was Friday night, it was lush buzzing June, and only a week into summer break. I'd just graduated, along with the rest of the senior class. The gorge's rim should have been thick with kids we knew. I'd been expecting that our friends Lexi and Xand would be there, at least, though maybe Lexi was out of town and I'd forgotten, and Xand wouldn't come looking for us without her.
But there was no candlelight staggered by the tree trunks, no visible slices of sequins or denim. It was silent apart from the rattle of the bugs, and it was blue and banded violet where the gorge opened into midnight, and our faces went a blending-in blue again as we walked along chewing our pizza. Josh stopped and nuzzled his cheek, kittenish, into my shoulder, which is a thing he does and the way he is, especially with me.
"Doesn't anybody want to see us, Kezzer? Doesn't anybody care?" His voice was teasing, but also not. And of course I thought it too: that there must be something else going on, something better than the usual beers and mason jars radiant with sweating candles, and we'd been left out. Which might be understandable if it was just me, but who doesn't want Josh at a party, to sass and dance and smile, never showing off or getting in the center of things but just softly glimmering in the corners? Who doesn't want the chance to maybe make out with him, right before dawn, behind their parents' hydrangeas? He's a shade chubby, in a sinuous way — it's part of what makes people take him for a girl — and he makes chubby look prettier and sultrier than anyone else can.
That was when we heard sounds coming from a clearing farther along than the one we typically used. Laughing voices and a song that was new to me, dark but piercing, with languid harmonies and scattered bells. That was when our eyes opened wide to take in their lights, still mostly blocked by trees, but with a crystalline sharpness that wasn't like candle flames. Maybe they were rich college kids with some kind of new LED setup. It didn't make a lot of sense that we were only noticing them now, and so out of the blue, but there they were, and we crept closer. I wouldn't have bothered with people I didn't know, but Josh was already smiling. I knew he could follow that smile straight into their circle; even if he was young, he was so unmistakably deft, so ready to be one of them.
And I felt guilty, for no reason at all. I might have been edging toward weariness, I might have preferred to go home and watch a video together, but I knew Josh was eager to play. I felt like I had something to make up to him, though there was nothing I'd actually done. So it seemed like he should go have his fun, and I'd look after him, and get him safely home no matter how late it got or who tried out the softness of his skin.
That was what I thought, but that wasn't what happened.
"Ooh, Kezzer," Josh crooned. "Just look at them!"
Because they were beautiful. Maybe nineteen or twenty kids who looked like high school juniors or seniors, college freshmen at most. Josh and I should have known them at least by sight, but we'd never seen them before. For half a moment I thought they must be models, dancers, on break between takes of a music video, because they had the glitz and seduction of pure images. Most of them were spinning, undulating their arms, but a few perched in intimate pairs on boulders around the edge of the clearing.
There was a girl with blue-black skin and pink dreads past her hips and patterns like neon butterfly wings painted up to her eyebrows, a pale boy in shiny black leather tights and a white billowy jacket like a ship under sail, a milky blonde dressed in surreal Victoriana with a mink head sewn, openmouthed and snarling, right over her heart. Dripping red poetry was written on her skirt, and I thought she might have used blood. I looked, and looked again, and then gave up trying to take in all the details. It was too much, it scattered and refracted when I looked too hard. All that I could truly see of them was their glamour.
Josh stepped out of the tree shadows before I could catch his arm, and they pivoted toward him.
They smiled knowing, comfortable smiles. I wasn't sure I liked them, but I couldn't leave Josh there alone, so I followed, into the ice-blue twinkling of their lights.
"How can I not know you?" Josh asked, with a full-on blast of wonder. His tone was beguiling, disarming; I could feel the strangers warming to him. "Unless you're just visiting here?"
"We've met before," the pale boy said. His white jacket caught too much of the light. There was a burning cast to its pallor that made me look off, but I could feel how his stare lanced at us. "I can't believe you've forgotten that ... Josh."
There was a lilt to the way he said Josh's name, and I was nearly certain of what I'd heard: it was the ping of a lucky guess. A long shot, maybe, but I knew that no one who'd met them would forget them. It wasn't possible.
But Josh's eyes widened, then spun searching through the leaves. "That's right! It was here. Was that sometime last spring?"
"Something like that," the pale boy agreed. "We had a thoroughly wonderful time." The pink-dreaded girl shimmied up to Josh and wrapped her arms around him, giggling confidentially, and the pale boy's attention beamed toward me. "You and your brother here stayed up till dawn with us." When I looked at the boy, his smile leaped all over me. Prodded like a dog's claws.
He was waiting for me to introduce myself, but I didn't. We'd never seen them before, I was sure — and Josh is common enough that him saying it didn't prove anything. But if he could hit on the name Ksenia, I might start to question my own memory.
That, or question if they'd spied on us somehow. Either way, it set me on edge. If part of me thought I should be more open to new people — especially to gorgeous, wild new people — the offness of how they were acting completely killed the impulse.
"I'm sorry, I can't recall your name," the boy said. Too formally, I thought, for a teenager. "It begins with a K, I think? Kelvin?"
"Close," I said. Josh was absorbed in the dark girl's banter but now he glanced at me, and I shot him a look to say Keep your mouth shut. "It's Keyshaun, actually."
"Keyshaun," the stranger repeated. I felt the tiny slap of his doubt. "I remembered the K, and that it was something a bit unusual."
Josh had been gawking, on the edge of outing me, though it wasn't anything new for us to invent names to match what people thought we were. He didn't like me lying to these brand-new, very old friends of his, but at that he subsided.
"Keyshaun," Josh said, and smiled blissfully. "You remember now, don't you? How much fun we had? You were dancing for hours with ..." And he scanned the crowd like he was trying to find his own memory out in the night, pick it up, and slot it into his brain. "With that guy in the blue."
A boy in blue holographic leather came up to me then. Amber-skinned, deep-eyed. The look of him, the look of all of them, was too perfect, too cutting, but for Josh's sake I didn't shy away when he slipped an arm around me and pulled me into the center of the glade.
The gorge yawned ten yards distant. We were dancing and the music chimed and chattered in a way that made my tongue prickle. Bells seemed to be ringing in my head. The night took on an unctuous gloss that sent me gliding too fast through time.
I watched Josh from the corner of my eye. Pink Dreads and White Jacket had him in a triangular hug, three faces leaning in together, cheeks touching, and that was how they were dancing. No one had told us their names, I realized, but my thoughts felt slippery and it seemed too late to ask.
I watched them press a drink into Josh's hand; not the usual beer, some kind of moody, earth-smelling wine. He gulped it down. I had a full glass too, and I couldn't remember taking it from anyone. Something in the scent of it bothered me. When I got a chance I set it down on a tree stump, and if anyone noticed they didn't say anything. A girl wearing — what? Silver snail shells? — smiled at me sidelong and reached to run a nail along my cheek.
The night started to feel like the continuation of a story I'd begun and then lost track of somehow. I could see how Josh had believed them, but why had they lied? He swooned backward, supported by their crossed arms, his head upside down and his red bangs trailing over the stones. They spun him like that and he laughed.
The boy in blue tugged me back against a tree and kissed me, hard, and the prickling in my mouth got louder, like something was singing in there. It should have been thrilling, but I wasn't sure how I felt about it. I thought dawn must be coming soon; I thought that then I would have an excuse to drag Josh away, though it was clear he'd never choose to leave on his own.
I'd closed my eyes, but I opened them in time to see the pale boy in white and the dark girl streaming pink as they led Josh away into the shadows. He fired me a last round-mouthed Oh my God face over his shoulder, like he couldn't believe his luck. My muscles flinched with the urge to go after him, pull him back, though it wasn't our way to interfere.
The boy in blue pressed in harder and slid his hands up my shirt, at which point he should have realized that my name probably wasn't Keyshaun. He didn't seem to care.
Because they'd given up on me for the moment, though I didn't understand that then. They'd picked their first target and I just needed to be kept out of the way. The kiss slid down my throat like biting insects, like a prancing thing with too many needle-fine feet.
I was getting dizzy, and I tried to push him off. And then my mind was one big black buzz and I was down on the grass and stones. I could feel the cold lumps digging into my shoulder blades. The ground seemed too chilly, and too unsteady, for June.
There was a fading-away, where I had just enough of my mind to catch the trail of disappearances: voices dialing out in mid-sentence, the music shedding its notes. I remember trying to stand up, even thinking I was up, only to feel my body still sucking the cold from the sod. I remember trying to call out for him. It was up to me to keep Josh safe, so I couldn't just pass out. That thought kept blaring at me in anxious bursts. I held on to it — Get up, get up — and clawed at the ground.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Never-Contented Things"
Copyright © 2019 Sarah Porter.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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