There are moments in life when everything pauses.
The earth hesitates, the atmosphere stills, and time shrinks and folds onto itself until it collapses into a big tired heap.
As I push through the small wooden door of the riad where Jennika and I have camped out the past several weeks, trading the hush of the rose-and-honeysuckle-scented courtyard for the chaos of the serpentine maze of medina—it happens again.
But instead of mimicking the stillness like I usually do, I decide to go with it and try something fun. Easing my way along connecting salmon-colored walls, I pass a small, thin man caught in midstride, press my fingers against the soft white cotton of his gandora, and gently spin him around until he’s facing the opposite way. Then after ducking beneath a mangy black cat that, caught in midleap, appears to be flying, I stop at the corner where I take a moment to rearrange a display of shiny brass lanterns an old man is selling, before moving on to the very next stall where I slip a pair of bright blue babouches onto my feet, decide that I like them, and leave my old leather sandals along with a fistful of crumpled-up dirhams as payment.
My eyes burning with the effort of keeping them open, knowing the instant I blink, the gandora-clad man will be one step farther from his destination, the cat will land on its mark, and two vendors will gaze at their wares in total confusion—the scene will return to one of perpetual chaos.
Though when I spot the glowing people hovering on the periphery, studying me in the careful way that they do, I’m quick to squinch my eyes shut and block them from view. Hoping that this time, just like all the others, they’ll fade away too. Return to wherever it is that they go when they’re not watching me.
I used to think everyone experienced moments like that, until I confided in Jennika who shot me a skeptical look and blamed it on jet lag.
Jennika blames everything on jet lag. Insists time stops for no one—that it’s our job to keep up with its frantic forward march. But even back then I knew better—I’ve spent my entire life crossing time zones, and what I’d experienced had nothing to do with a whacked-out body clock.
Still, I was careful not to mention it again. I just waited quietly, patiently, hoping the moment would soon return.
And it did.
Over the past few years they’ve been slowly increasing, until lately, ever since we arrived in Morocco, I’ve been averaging three a week.
A guy my age passes, his shoulder purposely slamming into mine, his dark eyes leering in a way that reminds me to arrange my blue silk scarf so that it covers my hair. I round a corner, eager to arrive well before Vane, so I can catch the Djemâa el Fna at dusk. Banging into the square, where I’m confronted by a long line of open-air grills bearing goats and pigeons and other unidentifiable meats, their skinned and glazed carcasses rotating on spits, shooting savory clouds of spice-laden smoke into the air … the hypnotic lull of the snake charmer’s tune emanating from cross-legged old men perched on thick woven mats, playing their pungis as glassy-eyed cobras rise up before them … all of it unfolding to the spellbinding pulse of gnaoua drums that continuously thrum in the background—the soundtrack for the nightly resurrection of a bewitching square returning to life.
I take a deep breath, savoring the heady blend of exotic oils and jasmine, as I cast a final glance around, knowing this is one of the last times I’ll see it this way. The film will wrap soon, and Jennika and I will be off to whatever movie, on whatever location requires her services as an award-winning makeup artist. Who knows if we’ll ever return?
Picking my way toward the first food cart, the one beside the snake charmer where Vane waits, I steal a handful of much-needed seconds to crush that annoying ping of weakness that grabs at my gut every time that I see him—every time I take in his tousled sandy blond hair, deep blue eyes, and softly curving lips.
Sucker! I think, shaking my head, adding: Fool!
It’s not like I don’t know any better. It’s not like I don’t know the rules.
The key is to not get involved—to never allow myself to care. To just focus on having some fun, and never look back when it’s time to move on.
Vane’s pretty face, just like all the other pretty faces before him, belongs to his legions of fans. Not one of those faces has ever belonged to me—and they never, ever will.
Having grown up on movie sets since I was old enough for Jennika to sling me into a backpack, I’ve played my role as the kid of a crew member countless times: Stay quiet, stay out of the way, lend a hand when asked, and never confuse movie set relationships for the real thing.
The fact that I’ve been dealing with celebrities my entire life leaves me not so easily impressed, which is probably the number one reason they’re always so quick to like me. I mean, while I’m okay to look at—tall-ish, skinny-ish, with long dark hair, fair-ish skin, and bright green eyes that people like to comment on, I’m pretty much your standard issue girl. Though I never fall to pieces when I meet someone famous. I never get all red-cheeked and gushy and insecure. And the thing is, they’re so unused to that, they usually end up pursuing me.
My first kiss was on a beach in Rio de Janeiro with a boy who’d just won an MTV award for “Best Kiss” (clearly none of those voters had actually kissed him). My second was on the Pont Neuf in Paris with a boy who’d just made the cover of Vanity Fair. And other than their being richer, more famous, and more stalked by paparazzi—our lives really aren’t all that different.
Most of them are transients—passing through their own lives, just like I’m passing through mine. Moving from place to place, friendship to friendship, relationship to relationship—it’s the only life that I know.
It’s hard to form a lasting connection when your permanent address is an eight-inch mailbox in the UPS store.
Still, as I inch my way closer, I can’t help the way my breath hitches, the way my insides thrum and swirl. And when he turns, flashing me that slow, languorous smile that’s about to make him world famous, his eyes meeting mine when he says, “Hey, Daire—Happy Sweet Sixteen,” I can’t help but think of the millions of girls who would do just about anything to stand in my pointy blue babouches.
I return the smile, flick a little wave of my hand, then bury it in the side pocket of the olive-green army jacket I always wear. Pretending not to notice the way his gaze roams over me, straying from my waist-length brown hair peeking out from my scarf, to the tie-dyed tank top that clings under my jacket, to the skinny dark denim jeans, all the way down to the brand-new slippers I wear on my feet.
“Nice.” He places his foot beside mine, providing me with a view of the his-and-hers version of the very same shoe. Laughing when he adds, “Maybe we can start a trend when we head back to the States. What do you think?”
There is no we.
I know it. He knows it. And it bugs me that he tries to pretend otherwise.
The cameras stopped rolling hours ago, and yet here he is, still playing a role. Acting as though our brief, on-location hookup means something more.
Acting like we won’t really end long before our passports are stamped RETURN.
And that’s all it takes for those annoyingly soft girly feelings to vanish as quickly as a flame in the rain. Allowing the Daire I know, the Daire I’ve honed myself to be, to stand in her place.
“Doubtful.” I smirk, kicking his shoe with mine. A little harder than necessary, but then again, he deserves it for thinking I’m lame enough to fall for his act. “So, what do you say—food? I’m dying for one of those beef brochettes, maybe even a sausage one too. Oh—and some fries would be good!”
I make for the food stalls, but Vane has another idea. His hand reaches for mine, fingers entwining until they’re laced nice and tight. “In a minute,” he says, pulling me so close my hip bumps against his. “I thought we might do something special—in honor of your birthday and all. What do you think about matching tattoos?”
I gape. Surely he’s joking.
“Yeah, you know, mehndi. Nothing permanent. Still, I thought it could be kinda cool.” He arcs his left brow in his trademark Vane Wick way, and I have to fight not to frown in return.
Nothing permanent. That’s my theme song—my mission statement, if you will. Still, mehndi’s not quite the same as a press-on. It has its own life span. One that will linger long after Vane’s studio-financed, private jet lifts him high into the sky and right out of my life.
Though I don’t mention any of that, instead I just say, “You know the director will kill you if you show up on set tomorrow covered in henna.”
Vane shrugs. Shrugs in a way I’ve seen too many times, on too many young actors before him. He’s in full-on star-power mode. Thinks he’s indispensable. That he’s the only seventeen-year-old guy with a hint of talent, golden skin, wavy blond hair, and piercing blue eyes that can light up a screen and make the girls (and most of their moms) swoon. It’s a dangerous way to see yourself—especially when you make your living in Hollywood. It’s the kind of thinking that leads straight to multiple rehab stints, trashy reality TV shows, desperate ghostwritten memoirs, and low-budget movies that go straight to DVD.
Still, when he tugs on my arm, it’s not like I protest. I follow him to the old, black-clad woman parked on a woven beige mat with a pile of henna bags stacked in her lap.
Vane negotiates the price as I settle before her and offer my hands. Watching as she snips the corner from one of the bags and squeezes a series of squiggly lines over my flesh, not even thinking to consult me on what type of design I might want. But then, it’s not like I had one in mind. I just lean against Vane who’s kneeling beside me and let her do her thing.
“You must let the color to set for as long as it is possible. The darker the stain, the more that he loves you,” she says, her English halting, broken, but the message is clear. Emphasized by the meaningful look she shoots Vane and me.
“Oh, we’re not—” I start to say, We’re not in love! But Vane’s quick to stop me.
Slipping an arm around my shoulder, he presses his lips to my cheek, bestowing on the old woman the kind of smile that encourages her to smile back in a startling display of grayed and missing teeth. His actions stunning me stupid, leaving me to sit slack faced and dumb—with heated cheeks, muddied hands, and a rising young breakout star draped over my back.
Having never been in love, I admit that I’m definitely no expert on the subject. I have no idea what it feels like.
Though I’m pretty sure it doesn’t feel like this.
I’m pretty dang positive Vane’s just cast himself in yet another starring role—playing the part of my dashing young love interest, if only to appease this strange, Moroccan woman we’ll never see again.
Still, Vane is an actor, and an audience is an audience—no matter how small.
Once my hands are covered in elaborate vines and scrolls, the old woman reminds me to allow the stain to take hold while she gets to work on Vane’s feet. But the moment her attention turns, I use the edge of my nail to scrape away little bits. Unable to keep from smiling when I see the paste fall in a loose powdery spray that blends with the dirt.
It’s silly, I know, but I can’t risk there being even the slightest sliver of truth to her words. The movie will wrap soon, Vane and I will go separate ways, and falling in love is an option I just can’t afford.
With our hands and feet fully tended, we make our way along the sidewalk grills, devouring five beef and sausage brochettes, a pile of fries, and two Fantas between us, before drifting through the square’s nightly circus that includes snake charmers, acrobats, jugglers, fortune-tellers, healers, monkey trainers, and musicians. There’s even a woman who’s set up shop removing black rotted teeth from old men, which the two of us watch in horrified fascination.
Arms slung around each other’s waists, hips rubbing together on every other step, Vane’s breath tickles the curve of my ear when he slips a mini bottle of vodka from his pocket and offers me first swig.
I shake my head. Push it away. In any other place I might be game, but Marrakesh is different, and mysterious, and a little bit scary even. Not to mention I have no idea what the local laws are, though I’m guessing they’re strict, and the last thing I need is to end up in a Moroccan jail for underage drinking.
It’s the last thing he needs too, but it’s not like he listens. Vane just smiles, unscrews the cap, and takes a few swallows before he tucks the bottle back into his pocket and pulls me into a dark abandoned alleyway.
I stumble. Squint. Grasp at the wall as I fight to find my way. Steadied by the warmth of his hands at my waist, and the reassuring phrase that flits through my head—the one Jennika used to wean me from my night-light back when I was a kid:
You gotta adjust to the dark so the light can find you.
He pushes the scarf from my head, leaving it to fall around my neck, as his face veers so close all I can really make out are deep blue eyes, and the most perfectly parting lips that are quick to claim mine.
I merge into the kiss, tasting the lingering traces of vodka still coating his tongue, as my hands explore the muscled expanse of his chest, the taut curve of his shoulders, the clean edge of his jaw. My fingers twisting into his silky mane of hair, as his slip under my jacket—under my tank top—seeking, discovering—bunching the fabric higher and higher as he works his way up.
Our bodies melding, conforming into a tangle of grinding hips—a crush of lips. The kiss becoming so heated, so urgent, my breath grows ragged, too fast, as my body ignites like a freshly struck match.
So delirious with the feel of him—the warmth of him—the promise of him—I surrender to the nudge of his fingers working inside my bra—circling, pulling, as my own fingers move south. Wandering over a well-defined abdomen, then lower still, down to his waistband. Ready to venture to places I’ve yet to explore, when he breaks away, his voice no more than a whisper when he says, “C’mon, I know a place.” The words thick, eyes bleary, as we fight to catch our breath, fight to keep from pressing forward and claiming the kiss once again. “Seriously. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before—it’s gonna be epic—follow me!” He finds my hand, pulls me out of the dark and back into the bright, lively square.
At first I go willingly, prepared to follow him anywhere. Though it’s not long before I’m seduced by the sound of that incessant pulsing rhythm—the trance-inducing lure of the gnaoua drum.
“Daire—c’mon, it’s this way. What gives?” He frowns, brows slanted in confusion when I drop his hand and keep going, not bothering to check if he follows—no longer caring about anything other than locating the source of that beat.
I squeeze through the tightly packed crowd until I’m standing before it—my head filled with the hypnotic rhythm of that red leather drum, my eyes swimming with the flash of crimson silk, gold coins, and a carefully veiled face revealing nothing more than a pair of intense, dark, kohl-rimmed eyes.
“It’s a dude—a trannie!” Vane shoves in beside me, mesmerized by the sight of the caftan-clad male with his hands thrust high, golden cymbals clinking, body wildly writhing.
But that’s all that Vane sees.
He doesn’t see what I see.
Doesn’t see the way everything stops.
Doesn’t see the way the atmosphere changes—growing shimmery, hazy, like peering through carnival glass.
Doesn’t see the way the glowing ones appear—hovering along the perimeter.
Doesn’t see the way they beckon to me—beg me to join them.
Only I can see that.
Even after repeatedly blinking, trying to return the scene to normal, it’s no use. Not only are they still there, but now they’ve brought friends.
Thousands and thousands of crows that fill up the square.
They land on the drummer, the transvestite belly dancer—soaring and swooping and settling wherever they please—turning the once-vibrant square into a field of dark beady eyes that relentlessly watch me.
The glowing people creep forward—arms outstretched, fingers grasping—stomping the crows to a mess of black, bloodied bits.
And there’s nothing I can do to stop their progression—nothing I can do to convince time to march forward again.
So I do the only thing that I can—I run.
Bolting through the crowd, pushing, screaming, shoving, shouting for everyone to get out of my way. Vaguely aware of Vane calling after me—his fingers grasping, pulling me close to his chest, urging me to stop, to turn, to not be afraid.
My body sags in relief as I lift my face to meet his. Wondering how I’ll ever explain my sudden bout of craziness now that everything’s returned to normal again, only to gaze past his shoulder and find the crows replaced with something much worse—thousands of bloodied, severed heads hanging on spikes that fill up the square.
Their gruesome mouths yawning into a terrible chorus that calls out my name—urging me to listen—to heed their warning—before it’s too late.
One voice in particular rising above all the rest, its grisly battered face bearing an eerie resemblance to one in a crumpled old photo I know all too well.
Copyright © 2012 by Alyson Noël, LLC
ALYSON NOËL is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Immortals series, the Riley Bloom series, and seven previous novels for St. Martin’s Press. She lives in Laguna Beach, California, where she is at work on her next book.