Ari grabs my arm and pulls me up. “Perfect!” he yells. He looks deeply into my eyes. “Zephyr,” he says urgently. I squint, turn my head away, afraid of what he’ll say. “Do you have an agent?”
I open one eye and peek at both Ari and Mercedes, who are inches from my nose. “Huh?” I ask, trying desperately to figure a way out of this mess. This is the time when knowing how to lie would come in handy. Or being able to cast a backward timespell. But since I can’t do either, I’m stuck.
“Do you have an agent?” Mercedes repeats.
“An agent?” I ask. “Is that like a lawyer?” Maybe I’ll be snatched away to some secret laboratory where I’ll be studied like a mouse. My family will come looking for me and then they’ll be captured, too. The others in Alverland warned us about this. They didn’t want us to move to Brooklyn, but my father insisted and I was thrilled. Now I imagine sitting sadly in a large cage with my little sisters while erdler doctors poke us with needles.
“Yeah, kinda,” says Mercedes. “But a lawyer can only negotiate your contracts after you get a gig. An agent helps you get the gig first.”
“What’s a gig?” I ask, my heart pounding as urgently as a beaver’s warning slap against the water. “Is that like a trial?”
“No, that’s the audition,” Ari says.
“Audition?” I ask, thinking of the black binder. “What’s an audition got to do with it?”
Mercedes sits back on her heels and studies me for a moment. “Look,” she says slowly, as if I’m very, very stupid. “Casting agents come to this high school looking for new talent all the time. It’s part of the reason everyone wants to go here.” They both look at me to see if I comprehend what she’s saying. I nod, but I’m unsure what this has to do with my family not being human, because I’m picturing a police raid in Alverland. My aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents rounded up like stray dogs and hustled into the back of unmarked vans.
“Last week,” Ari tells me, “the ad agency that’s working on a new camera campaign announced that they’re going to cast the lead for their new Web ads from this school.”
“This camera is called an ELPH, because it’s small and cute, you know, like an elf,” Mercedes says.
I shake my head, annoyed by the stereotype. Where did these erdlers ever get the idea that all elves are small and cute and slave away in Santa’s workshop? The small mischievous ones are the brownies or pixies or magical dwarves of fairy tales, not elves. Not real elves anyway, who are tall, strong, great hunters and healers. Just another race, more or less. Except for the whole magic thing and the fact that we live for hundreds of years. But still, we put our pants on one leg at a time just like everybody else.
“So the idea is,” Ari continues, “they’ll film a cute, perky girl and then digitally shrink her so she looks small next to the camera. Then they’ll put those ads up on the Web and maybe, if they do well, eventually on TV. Do you get it? ”
I shake my head. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I admit, still confused and scared.
Mercedes huffs, annoyed with me. “Listen,” she says. “Bella Dartagnan gets cast in every freakin’ part that comes through this school. I don’t know what it is, if her agent has some kind of secret power or something. But seriously, she gets everything and we’re sick of it.”
“Hey,” Ari says to Mercedes. “I thought you were going to audition for the ELPH thing.”
Mercedes waves him away. “I audition for everything, but you know I won’t get it. I never do. Zephyr, though, she could whoop Bella’s butt into Tuesday.”
“That’s true,” Ari adds, looking at me. “You would be the perfect competition for this ELPH thing.”
I wrack my brain trying to put it all together. “Why me?” I ask.
“Because,” Mercedes explains, “you totally fit the description that the agency wants.”
“You’re pretty and perky. And you just have this quality. I don’t know what it is,” Ari says. “You’re not . . . ,” he searches for the right words, “a normal, average girl.” I gasp at the insult but Ari looks at me puzzled. “That’s a compliment, Zephyr.”
“Yeah, Ari’s right,” says Mercedes. “You’re sort of elfin.” My mouth drops open. “But not in a bad way.”
“Why would being an elf be bad?” I demand, incensed.
“I don’t know.” Mercedes shrugs. “I meant it as a compliment. Like, you know, you’re nice and sweet but also maybe kind of mischievous or something.”
Then it hits me. Ari and Mercedes actually think I’m just another kid like them, unlike when my cousins and I would go into Ironweed, the tiny erdler town near my home. The local kids there know we’re from Alverland and they torment us. They call us hippies and freaks, say that we’re inbred, pagan communists. Our parents tell us to ignore them and to be nice so that someday they’ll see what kind and loving creatures we are. But here, for the first time outside of Alverland, being a little bit different is a good thing. The heavy weight in my chest lifts. I breathe deeply and a huge smile takes over my face. “So, will you do it?” Ari asks.
“We’ll totally help you,” Mercedes promises.
I pick myself up off the floor and say, “Sure. What do you want me to do?”
“Audition,” Mercedes says.
“For what?” I ask.
“Is there something wrong with her?” Mercedes asks Ari.
“For the camera ad,” Ari tells me.
Even though I still don’t know what that means, I say, “Yes! ” because at this point I’d do anything to keep Ari and Mercedes as my friends. They whoop and slap hands. I sit back and smile because finally things are going according to My Plan for Life in Brooklyn.
When my first day of school is (finally) over, I’m so exhausted that I could fall into a hundred-year-sleep, but of course I can’t because I still have to get home. As I’m standing with my head against my locker, trying to muster enough energy to leave, I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn to see the wolf-boy from earlier in the cafeteria grinning at me.
We stand nearly eye-to-eye, but he’s about an inch taller than I am. His hair is thick and dark, falling messily but perfectly around his face. His eyes are a deep-set gray with flecks of vivid blue. And his smile is dazzling, like cut quartz shimmering in the sun.
“I didn’t get a chance to properly introduce myself earlier,” he says, slick as fresh dew on the morning grass.
“Your name’s Timber, right?” I ask.
“Yeah, like a tree. TIM-BER! ” he shouts, and pretends to fall over. I laugh at his unexpected goofiness. He stands up tall again and extends his hand to me like a branch reaching toward the sun. “So, it’s nice to officially meet you.”
I hesitate, remembering what Mercedes told me about being too nice and holding my own so I stop smiling and I say, “I don’t think your friends liked me.”
“Who, Bella?” he says as he withdraws his hand and rakes his fingers through his hair.
“And Mary, Kate, and Ashley.”
Timber fills up the hallway with his laughter. “Oh my God, you’re so right. Chelsea, Zoe, and Tara would crap themselves if they heard you call them that.” Then he leans in close to me. “But, of course, they’d be secretly flattered, you know.”
I don’t know at all, but I’m not going to tell him that. “Well, anyway, my name’s not Nancy.”
Again he cracks up, shaking his head and grinning at me. “Obviously,” he says. “So what is it?”
“Zephyr. Zephyr Addler.” This time I hold out my hand.
“That’s a great name.” He hangs on to my hand for a few seconds too long.
“Thank you. I like yours, too.” And it’s true, I do. Timber is the kind of name someone in Alverland would have. “But I have to go now.” I pull back my warm and tingly hand.
He falls into step beside me as I head down the hall. “You live in Brooklyn?”
“Yes,” I say, then hesitate again because for the life of me I can’t remember how to get home. What train am I supposed to take? Where is the subway station? Am I going to have to rely on the kindness of strangers to get me where I want to go . . . again?
“My mom lives in Brooklyn,” Timber says. “But my dad’s uptown. East Side, so you know.”
“Why do they live in different houses?” I ask. Then I remember that erdler families split up a lot, which is very rare for elves. “I mean, which place will you go today?”
“Probably my mom’s. Closer.”
We pass a tangle of kids hanging out on a bench, passing around little machines with headphones and singing three different songs all at once. One of the girls looks at us and jams her elbow into another girl’s side. That girl smacks one of the guys on the leg. They all stop singing and stare, but Timber ignores them.
“What ’hood are you in?” he asks me.
I try to remember the name of the area we live in. Something about a park or a hill or a slope. We push through the big green doors at the end of the hall and just as I’m about to admit that I don’t know where I live, I see Ari and Mercedes on the steps outside. I run and fling my arms around both of them.
“Do you know my friends?” I ask Timber.
He hangs back by the doors. “Uh, no.”
“Ari Mendelbaum,” Ari says from his perch on the stoop. His voice is different than I remember. More hard-edged and deep now. “We’re in the same improv class.”
Timber shrugs. “Yeah. There are a lot of people in that class.”
“I sit in front of you,” Ari tells him. “We were paired up last week for the tug-of-war exercise.”
“And this is Mercedes,” I quickly interject.
Mercedes lifts her hand in a weak wave. “How’s it going?” she says. We all look away from one another awkwardly.
Timber moves first. “Okay, so, yeah. See you around, Zephyr.” He jogs down the stairs with his fist in the air. “Rock on,” he yells without looking back at us.
“That wasn’t very nice,” I say. “The way he just left like that.”
Ari and Mercedes look at each other and groan. “Such a jackass,” Ari says.
Mercedes stands up, then she bumps down the steps exactly as Timber did with her fist above her head. “Rock on,” she bellows in a deep voice, just like him. Ari cracks up and so do I because, hey, at least it’s not me she’s impersonating this time. Now all I have to do is find my way home, and with my friends by my side I feel like I could do anything.
MY SECOND DAY
of school goes better. I think I’m starting to figure this whole erdler thing out. I got there without a problem, found all my classes, aced a botany quiz, and managed not to cause a riot in the cafeteria by upsetting the delicate balance of who can sit where.
After school Ari and Mercedes decide to escort me all the way home.
“We have so much work to do, Boo,” Mercedes says as we wait on the crowded subway platform. A sour wind picks up and blows my hair around as the next train approaches with a roar.
“That ELPH audition is only two weeks away so we’ve got to start now,” Ari yells over the noise.
I don’t argue because I’m glad for the company on the train. It still feels strange to me to be whooshed around the city in a metal box full of vacant-eyed people. I learned pretty quickly to stare at the advertisements overhead instead of smiling and saying hello to everyone around me. But today, I hang on a pole and listen to Ari and Mercedes plot how to turn me into a superstar.
I don’t mention that I’m having second thoughts, though. I’d like to try acting, but I’m terrified that I’ll make a fool of myself in front of Bella and her evil minions if I audition and that’s not what I need right now. On the other hand, I’m so happy to be with my new friends that I go along with Ari and Mercedes, nodding my head as they make plans to transform me into the next ELPH elf.
As we get closer to my stop, I start getting nervous. “You know, you guys, my family’s a little bit weird,” I tell Ari and Mercedes.
“Whose isn’t?” Ari says.
Three seats have opened up, so we sit side by side, swaying to the
rhythm of the train.
“You ain’t seen nothing,
, until you meet my twin sisters and my crazy
,” says Mercedes.
“But my family is a little bit, um,” I search for the right word to describe us. “Traditional,” I say.
“You mean like religious?” Ari asks.
I shake my head. “No, I mean my mom and my older sister are really focused on being at home and taking care of everyone. They don’t understand why I go to school.”
“I got an aunt like that,” Mercedes tells us. “She’s real old school. Keeps her kids home and teaches them there. Makes my cousins wear dresses. I think she’s a Jehovah’s Witness or something.”
“It’s been hard for the rest of my family to get used to Brooklyn,” I say. “So don’t be surprised if they seem out of place.”
“That’s the great thing about living here,” Ari says. “You can be anything you want to be and nobody cares.”
I lean back against the hard orange seat and smile. “That’s exactly why I love it. Where I’m from everybody is the same and if you’re different, nobody gets it.”
“Yeah, well, welcome to New York, baby,” Ari says as the train emerges from an underground tunnel and climbs up an elevated track. He points out the window to a green statue far away in the harbor beyond the graffitied buildings and the highway choked with cars. I squint until I see that he’s pointing to the Statue of Liberty, torch raised for all the newcomers like me.
“It’s good to be here,” I say.
After two more stops I stand up.
“You live in the Slope?” Ari asks.
“I have no idea,” I say.
“If you get off here, then you do,” he tells me. “And so do I, which must mean we’re practically neighbors.”
We run up the stairs and I realize that my neighborhood is finally becoming familiar to me. I recognize the Pavilion Movie Theater on the corner and the Connecticut Muffin coffee shop across the street, where I’ve already imagined my first erdler date. First we’ll see a movie, then, holding hands, we’ll walk over to the coffee shop to discuss the film while sipping something hot and sweet. I’ve got the plan, now I just need the guy.