Evelyn sat on her bed with her head hanging over the edge, her ashen hair trialing down like a waterfall to the ground, and her eyes shut in concentration. Her face was scrunched up. “Nate, I can’t remember the next line to the poem my tutor taught me.”
“So? What am I supposed to do about it?”
“Can you grab the book for me?”
The guard hesitated. “Um, which one?”
“I don’t remember the title,” she sighed. “Didn’t you see it?”
“Well, you’re no help,” the girl griped. “Look for it. Please. I think the cover was leather bound.”
Nate picked up the nearest book with that vague description and held it out to her, displaying the front cover. “Hey, Evelyn, is this it?”
She didn’t open her eyes. “What’s the title?”
“Why don’t you look for yourself?” he suggested sardonically.
His charge made a guttural sound of indignation then overdramatically opened her eyes to glare at her friend for half a second then at the book. “Yes. That’s it, that’s the book,” the girl said dryly. “Thank you so much, my dear friend.” Her eyes fluttered shut again. “Can you find the poem for me?”
Evelyn groaned. “If you’d look, you’d see that it’s bookmarked.”
“Oh,” she parroted in a deep, mocking voice.
He shot her a scowl, but realized it was pointless since she couldn’t see it. After a groan, he held out the book to her again so that she could see whatever it was that she wanted to see. “Here. I found the page for you with the dumb poem.” When she didn’t open her eyes after a long minute, Nate lowered the book and stared down at her with a raised brow. “Are you asleep, little girl?”
“No, I’m not, guardboy,” she sighed. Her fingers massaged her temples. “I’m trying really hard to remember the line from the poem so I don’t have to look at the book.” With a grumble, the hands dropped in resignation. “Ugh, but I’m failing miserably.”
“Then why don’t you just look already?”
“I don’t want to.”
“Then I’m putting the book up.”
Evelyn frowned. “No, don’t put it up,” she whined. “I need to remember the line.”
“Then open your eyes and look at it,” he huffed.
“Can you read it to me? Please,” she added.
“I said please.”
“I heard you.”
“How about I add a pretty to that please?” She clasped her hands together and put on a toothy smile, all the while, her eyes remained shut. “Pretty please, Nate. Will you read me that line? Pretty please.”
“Read it yourself.”
“Read it, Nate.”
“I’m not reading the stupid poem,” the teenager snapped. “I don’t care for this stuff. Why should I have to read it?”
“Because I’m asking you to.”
“And my answer to that question is no.”
“Alright.” She crossed her arms now. “I’m not asking anymore.”
Thank the lord. “Good.”
“Now I’m telling you to read it. That is an order, guardboy.” An upside down smirk was visible on her lips. “And you have to listen to me because you’re my personal guard and you do as I tell you.”
“I don’t have to listen to you.”
“Hate to break it to you, but, yes, you do.”
He mocked her voice. “Hate to break it to you, but, no, I don’t.”
“It’s one diminutive poem. One measly line from a poem. Probably less than ten words. Just read it for me. I bet it won’t even take five seconds.”
“No,” he said for what felt like the hundredth time.
Evelyn finally opened her eyes again. “Oh, for God’s sake, Nate, it is not going to kill you to read one simple line from a poem.” She snorted. “Please do stop with this nonsense or you might lead one to believe you can’t read at a basic level.” And then she continued to laugh at her friend’s expense for another handful of seconds before abruptly cutting herself off.
Absolute silence stretched between them.
Nate had to take a step back and look away. It wasn’t as though it was a big secret. And he wasn’t exactly ashamed of it, but it greatly bothered him that a girl three years younger than him could read and he could not. No, it bothered him that this girl could read and he could not.
“You … can’t read?”
He just shook his head in shame.
This was beyond her comprehension. “At all?”
“But … why?”
Nate tried to tower over her, to look more menacing, but the red on his cheeks was obviously not there because of anguish but embarrassment. “Because I’m some dumb little farmboy from the countryside not a spoiled little rich brat whose parents can afford to pay tutors to come over and teach me stuff I’ll probably never use in the first place!”
“Does … does your mother know?”
“Yeah, she knows,” he exasperated. “Of course she knows! Hardly anyone without money can read! We’re too busy working our butts off trying to make ends meet on a daily basis!”
“I’m sorry. I just thought—”
“You just thought everyone has the opportunity, the privilege, to waste time sitting around staring at books all for fun,” Nate spat. “Well, you are sadly mistaken! Not everyone does! Consider yourself lucky! Before I came here I could literally count on how many people I knew that could read with one hand!”
“I had no idea.”
“Well, now you do!”
“I’m sorry,” Evelyn murmured, sinking onto her bed.
“Stop saying that! It’s not a big deal!”
“If it’s not a big deal then why are you getting so worked up about it, Nate?”
That shut his mouth.
Evelyn couldn’t wrap her mind around this. There were people out there who couldn’t read, something she’d been doing for as long as she could remember. The girl did not thing everyone had tutors, but she just presumed children’s parents taught them everything. Up until that moment, she never thought there were things she took for granted. Her eyes flickered over to her friend, his gaze locked on his feet with his hands shoved in his pockets.
Then something occurred to her. A smile broke out on the Brooks child’s face. “You can’t read!”
His gaze hardened to cover the hurt, but also the humiliation. Evelyn did not miss either. “Are you making fun of me?” For some reason, he didn’t see that coming.
“No, no,” she chastised. “But think about it, Nate. You can’t read, but I can read. Do you know what this means?”
“What, that you’re smarter than me?”
The smile dropped in the opposite direction. “Why would you say that?”
“Because we both know it’s true.”
“That’s not true.”
“You’re always saying it. Always reminding me.”
“I’m always kidding and you know that.” The frown deepened. “Don’t you? You know I’m always kidding about that, right? I’m only ever teasing.”
He didn’t answer immediately.
“Do you always mean it when you call me a brat?”
The hurt and vulnerability in those big gray eyes of hers melted some of his hostility. “No,” the teenager admitted. “Not really. I don’t really think you’re a brat.” Not for a while at least. “But you’re still smarter than me. You know a ton more stuff than I ever will. All because you can read and junk.”
“There’s a lot I don’t know, but you do.”
He snorted. “Yeah, right. Like what?”
“How about anything that involves doing something outside your home.” Nate recoiled at that comment and he opened his mouth to apologize, but she won’t didn’t plan on listening. “Don’t bother. Now is not the time for a pity party, Nate. I just wanted to point out that we both possess knowledge the other does not. And at least you can gain some of mine.”
“And how can I go about gaining said knowledge?” Nate asked, sarcasm dripping from his words.
She was beaming now. “It’s so obvious! Nate, I could teach you to read! Better late than never, right?” He didn’t say anything. She took that as a good sign and went on. “I could teach you.” The girl blanched. “Or … my tutor could if you’d prefer a real scholar. Whatever gets the job done and gets you reading.”
The boy sneered. “God, no!”
“But, Nate,” Evelyn begged. “Think of the possibilities!”
“Hey,” he snapped. “No, listen, Evelyn. I meant that I don’t want your tutor teaching me,” the boy clarified with a groan. “His lessons are the most boring thing I’ve ever had to sit through in my life. It’s a struggle for me not to fall asleep while waiting for it to be over.”
Evelyn’s tiny hands flew to her mouth to mask a slight gasp. “Wait, so does that mean …?”
“Don’t get too excited about it,” he warned.
She gnawed on her bottom lip, a squeak building up at the back of her throat. “But does that you’re going to let me … you know … Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“Yes.” Nate pinched his nose. “You can teach—”
He didn’t even finish the sentence. “I can teach you to read,” Evelyn shouted to the heavens. “Oh, Nate! I’m going to be your tutor! This will be wonderful!” She ran to her bookshelf, tugging her personal guard along, and started stacking books I his hands. “I’ll have you reading just as good as me in no time!” Then she pulled him over to her desk. “We’ll have to work on your script as well!” A pen and parchment was added to the pile.
“Didn’t I say not to get to excited?”
“How does one not get excited about this?” she countered, spinning once in a circle. “This is going to be so much fun!”
“Yeah,” Nate drawled, looking from behind the tower of novels, plays, and poems. “We’re going to have a ball.”
The little girl nodded, not picking up on his sardonic tone. "We are!"
"As long as someone's happy about this," he sighed.
"You will be happy about this, too! I promise."
"Whatever you say. We'll see." She turned to give him a curious look. Nate gave her a sheepish smile. "Don't worry. You not one to break promises, Evelyn." And she returned with a grin.