The Fake
Fairy Tale of New York
Mr. Gallo texted me as I arrived at Claire’s door. “Any good news for me?”
I flicked back a quick reply, “Working on it.”
When I looked up, Claire was there holding the door handle in one hand. She nodded at my phone. “Something important?”
I shoved it into my back pocket, turning it off on the way. “Not at all.”
She’d dressed up for this occasion, but she still had a bright-eyed honesty about her that made me want to keep the dirt of New York from rubbing off on her. “You look adorable.”
Adorable? I actually called a girl adorable.
Instead of laughing at me, or teasing the way Sydney would have, Claire lowered her eyes and turned a deep shade of scarlet.
“So do you,” she said.
George Foster appeared behind her with a Prom-night-father look on his face. This date felt a lot heavier just looking at him. “Where are you planning on going?” he asked.
“Nowhere special, sir. I just thought I’d show Claire some of the touristy sights of New York.” No father other than my own ever looked at me with an expression as stern as the one George Foster wore. Even Sydney’s.
“Shall, we go?” Claire asked, moving to stand next to me.
I nodded, but before we could move, George Foster set his sights on me again. “Claire is new in this city. Her life in Idaho was very different to the way you live here.” His nostrils flared as he spoke, as if he could sense some of New York’s less-sweet-scents on the air. “I am counting on you to keep her safe and have her home well before 10 p.m. Do I make myself clear?”
Some of the same sarcasm that I usually saved for my father nudged at my brain, but I needed George Foster’s trust to be allowed in his home to photograph his work. Plus, the idea of being forbidden to spend time with Claire bothered me more than I liked.
“Absolutely, sir. I will have Claire home in plenty of time.” I held out my hand to shake his, but he didn’t take it. Instead, he nodded and kissed Claire’s head before disappearing back inside.
“Sorry,” she whispered, as we headed for the lift.
“No big deal,” I said. Although, I knew it would be if we were late getting back.
Claire was a New York tourism newbie, despite other trips to the city in the past. All she had ever seen was the Met and a few Soho galleries. She needed a real day in real New York.
“Ever been to Washington Heights?” I asked.
Her face lit up. “I’ve never even heard of it. Is that where we’re going?”
I nodded, and stuck my fingers into my mouth to whistle for a cab. She looked impressed when one pulled over, so I made a show of opening the door for her.
“Impressive,” she said, as she slid across the seat. “They never stop for me.”
I watched her face as I pointed out landmarks while we drove further and further north. Once we hit 156th street and left the posh walkups and doormen behind, she leaned closer to the window for a better view of the other side of the tracks.
“I never saw a homeless person til I came to New York,” she said.
I raised an eyebrow. “Wish I could say the same.”
I passed a few bills to the driver and we got out of the cab in front of a run down convenience store. Claire’s eyes flicked back and forward, scanning the trash-lined street and shadowy spaces. “Are you sure this is safe?”
Trying not to sound too wicked, I said, “No, but what would be the fun in being safe all the time?” I knew this area, and I knew it was dirtier than it was dangerous.
Her eyes went so wide I could see the whites all around the blue-green irises.
“It’s safe. Don’t worry. I promised your dad.” I grabbed her hand and led her down some steps into the subway station.
“Mom took me on the subway once. Years ago.” She talked fast, running her words together, as if I was about to take her for a long walk off a short plank. “It was loud and crowded and smelled really bad.”
We reached the bottom of the steps and the escalator with its long ride to the platform. “Do you have an alternate suggestion for transport, then?”
She narrowed her eyes as she looked at me. “I—guess I would like to see what you have in mind, first.”
That was the answer I hoped for. “Magnificent.”
The escalator ride down to the platform lasted a full five minutes. Long enough for me to forget Mr. Gallo and photographs and concentrate on the girl whose eyes flicked back and forth at every new sound. Her wide-eyed wonder would seem like an act on anyone else, but it worked on Claire.
We finally emerged into the dim tunnel. There were very few people down there, which seemed like a shame to me. It was a miracle that such a place could exist, seven stories below the ground, holding strong even though the walls and archway gave every impression of crumbling.
Humans created this. The world was made of possibilities.
Something in Claire’s expression changed, curiosity replacing worry, and I knew she could see it too—the beauty in the ugliness. She let go of me and headed for the mosaic above the dirty white wall, an attempt to beautify something beyond ordinary beauty.
I moved with her and pointed upward. “A chunk of ceiling came down a few years ago. Amazes me that it’s halfway serviceable after a hundred years.”
She looked ready to ask for a cab ride. “The ceiling caved in?”
I grinned and headed for the middle of the platform. “Don’t worry. It was repaired. It’s probably the safest station in New York, now.”
“How do you know all of this? You come here a lot?” she asked, not looking convinced.
“No. This is my first time too, but I’ve wanted to forever.”
She moved in closer to me, but it had nothing to do with romance. A man who had apparently never met a razor and smelled like he slept in a cheese factory had stepped beside her, even though the platform had a million other spaces for him to occupy. I met his eyes and pulled her closer to me.
As the train pulled in, her gaze swept around the underground, crumbling cathedral, one last time before we got on board.
The subway was standing room only. We grabbed the overhead handles and hung on as the train moved on. Her hand curled around my arm as she watched the New Yorkers being New Yorkers all around us. I spent the trip examining my own motives. Was I trying to impress a girl, or grooming a mark? Something inside me tightened when I realized I wasn’t entirely sure.
We got out at Battery Park for the full New York experience.
People pressed in on every side. Street performers spun and danced, steel drums rang out, and performers ran through the crowd asking for money. Claire breathed in short, excited puffs, head zipping first one direction, then the other, eyes bright with delight.
“This is amazing!” she shouted so I could hear her over the racket. She took out a few dollars to give to one of the performers, and I pulled her close. A man in a super hero costume held out a baseball cap to Claire. “Five dollars?” he asked. “It’s for the kids.”
Claire looked at him, then up at me as if she wanted me to tell her what to do. I just grinned at her. It was a sucky lesson, but if you wanted to keep hold of any of your money in New York, you had to learn it eventually.
Frowning, she pulled a five dollar bill from her wallet and handed it to the guy.
“Thank you, ma’am. Seriously, thank you,” the guy said, and ran off.
“I just got hustled, didn’t I?” she asked.
I grinned. “So hustled.”
She punched me playfully in the arm. “Why didn’t you rescue me?”
“Because this way you’ll be mad enough to say no next time.”
“Bah!” She shoved her wallet under her armpit.
A clown spun up to us, tossing handfuls of glittering confetti. “Young love!” he yelled, bringing back her smile. He spun around us, making kissy faces as he twisted a balloon into the shape of a heart. Claire laughed as he handed it to her.
Claire held the love heart up to her face and giggled at me through its center. “Does it suit me?”
Oh, yeah. It did. I nodded.
The clown held out his money pouch for a tip, but Claire scowled and handed him back his balloon. “No, thank you.”
I laughed and I slipped a single to him. He gave the balloon back to Claire, bowed and danced away as I took her hand. “Now who is the sucker?” she asked, teasing.
“It’s okay if they actually did something you like,” I said, winking at her. “Now I better feed you.”
We followed the walkway toward the Staten Island ferry stop with the sea on one side, the park on the other, until we found a hotdog vendor. Claire ordered a hotdog piled high with everything. I stuck with plain with mustard and ketchup. We bought hot chocolate from the next vendor and sat on the grass under the trees with Ellis Island right across the water.
“This is the closest I’ve come to the Statue of Liberty,” Claire said, through a giant mouthful of hotdog, a gob of sauerkraut smeared across her cheek. I lifted my hand and hesitated, then wiped away the smear with my thumb.
“We’ll have to do something about that, then,” I said. I don’t think she heard me, she just stared at my hand, which made it hard to wipe the smear off on my pants.
“What’s your family like?” she asked, snapping me out of it.
Now she had her eyes on mine, I rubbed my fingers in the grass. “Standard. Mother, father, two kids, housekeeper.”
“Brother or sister?”
“Sister. Edie. She’s a year younger. She goes to Schrager Art’s College.”
On more familiar turf, she smiled. “You have an artistic family too?”
I shook my head. “Nah. She makes giant bugs out of wire. I like that she does what she wants, but I do not get it.”
Claire grinned. “I’d like to meet her some time.”
My eyebrows shot up. The idea of introducing Claire to my family made my skin creep. She grinned. “Some time. Not now, or anything.”
I relaxed a bit. “How about your family, your mom?”
She stiffened worse than I had.
I grinned at her. “Forget it. Families suck. I get it.”
Taking a deep breath, she stared down at the place where her folded hands rested on her feet. “One day I woke up and my mother was packing. When I tried to get her to talk to me she’d hold up a hand and shake her head. I thought she was angry at me. She hurried out the door so fast we didn’t even say goodbye. She told me that in a postcard a few weeks later.”
“A postcard?” I asked, unable to believe that her family had mine beat.
“I visited her in Bali once. Three days travel for a four day visit. Her boyfriend picked me up at the airport. She took me to this touristy market thing on the first day, but after that, she told me to do whatever I wanted and sent me to the airport in a cab on the last day. That was it. Nothing but a few emails since. She never even asks how I am.”
“She was probably afraid you’d give her an honest answer,” I said.
She made a half-hearted attempt at a giggle, but I noticed a tear bead up on her lashes. I took her chin and turned her face toward me. This close, leaning in for a kiss would be nothing but a matter of an inch or two. I couldn’t. Not yet. I wanted to make her feel like she was more than a bit of trash stuck to her mother’s shoe. But I also wanted to be worthy of her, not some spy.
So, instead, I rubbed the tear from her cheek with my palm.
“Fun is the best revenge.” Before she could protest, I tugged her to her feet and walked her down the path so fast, she half-jogged to keep up with me.
“What now?” she asked with a giggle in her voice, which I liked.
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