Eli ends up outside the Rosemont Heights Rec Centre a little before six, clothes damp from the rain and backpack still heavy with the weight of Jake’s chem book.
Jake hadn’t been home. Eli had found the address easily enough, and had been . . . sort of surprised, actually. It’s not like he’s been to a lot of trailer parks in his life, but the neat, modern, wood-paneled trailer with the double glass front doors and rooftop patio is not what he’d been expecting. Seemed like nothing in Rosemont was immune to gentrification.
No amount of knocking or ringing of the doorbell or peering in through windows had enticed anyone—Jake or his grandmother or otherwise—to appear, however, and things had been getting late. So Eli had moved on.
At the rec centre, Arthur and Zoe greet him at the door which, Eli has to admit, is a sight he thought he’d never see.
“Dude!” says Arthur, at the same time as Zoe announces, “You’re soaked!”
Zoe has changed since Eli last saw her, into a simple black dress. He almost thinks she’s out of cosplay until he sees her earrings, shaped like tiny silver bees. “Are you . . . dressed like a witch?” he hisses at her, while Arthur is busy off to one side doing something with a table full of finger food.
Zoe draws a sort of triangular shape in the air with her fingers. “My hat is full of sky,” she says, then winks.
Eli finds Morgan doing something with her violin in one corner of the room, not far from where a table has been set up with a memorial for Val. There’s a photo of him in a sombre, black frame, surrounded by pale white lilies and roses, plus a big book and fancy looking fountain pen for people to write messages. Morgan comes over while Eli is studying the arrangement, wondering if he should write something and, if so, what. Sorry I couldn’t save you, seems like the sort of thing that Zoe would sneer and call “manpain,” although maybe it doesn’t count when it’s another dude.
“I still can’t believe . . .” Morgan trails off. Her fingers are resting lightly against Eli’s forearm even as she focuses on the photo of Val on the side table.
“Yeah,” Eli says, because what else is there to say?
“Should we, um. Warm up? There are some, like. Side rooms?”
Eli nods, and lets Morgan lead him through a door and out a short corridor. The rec centre is laid out a bit like a house. One big den, when the main wake is being set up, plus a few smaller rooms tucked away down one side. Eli glimpses tables and armchairs and so on, so assumes they’re used by, like, the Rosemont Bridge Club or whatever, for when the main room is too noisy.
Morgan takes them into the third room down the corridor, which turns out to have a large bay window looking out towards the woods.
“This is pretty cool,” Eli says, walking over to the window. It’s one of the ones with the little built-in couch thing, an assortment of pillows making the whole set-up look pretty inviting.
“I practice here a lot,” Morgan says. “The way the morning sun comes through the glass . . . it’s so beautiful. And sometimes there are deer.”
“Wow.” Eli, who grew up in Manhattan, and didn’t see a wild animal bigger than a squirrel until he was a teen. Right now, however, there are no animals, deer or squirrels or otherwise. The rain has settled in like it means to stay, and the bay window’s glass is smeared and blurred with the downpour. Somewhere, far off in the distance, Eli hears the low purr of thunder.
There’s an order of ceremonies for the wake, and it isn’t until Eli sees those words written on the rain-warped handout Morgan shows him that Eli realizes how much he hates them, how much they remind him of son there’s been an accident and the smell of white roses and the shiny beetle black of the coffins as they lowered from the podium and away, deep down into the belly of the beast that would burn all that was left of Mom and Dad until they were nothing but two neat littles boxes of ash, hidden in the back of Eli’s cupboard.
He must stare at the schedule for too long, because someone is calling his name and when his fists unclench from the edges there are marks in the paper that look more like claws than fingernails.
“ . . . Drake? You ready?”
Eli blinks. Arthur. Arthur, right. He’s standing in the doorway of the little practice room, and for a moment he just looks so impossibly young. They really are just kids, Eli thinks. Not nearly old enough for any of this.
“Yeah,” Eli says. “Yeah, sure. Just let me move my stuff.”
All Morgan needs is her violin, but it takes Eli a little longer to grab his laptop and his Launchpad and get everything set back up in the main room. There are a whole bunch of people here now, way more than Eli was expecting, all standing around holding red Solo cups and making subdued smalltalk in a mishmash assortment of black clothes ranging from jeans to suits. No adults, Morgan had been clear on that earlier. There’s a separate wake tomorrow for family, after the real funeral. Tonight, though, is just for Val’s peers.
“You need a hand?” Zoe materializes in the little hallway as Eli is hauling his laptop, and he shakes his head.
“Nah, I got it.”
“Cool. So, uh. What did you do to Morgan?”
“She, like. Apologized to me.” Eli hasn’t seen Zoe so disbelieving since she first set eyes on Eli’s dragon-self.
“That’s . . . good, right?”
“I don’t know.” Uncertain, but thoughtful. Like Zoe’s still working through her own reaction. “She said, like. All this”—she gestures back towards the main room—“has made her rethink a bunch of stuff. Plus she told me you’re pretty convinced I’m not an evil murderous sorcerer so, like . . . thanks?” She bumps against Eli’s arm to show she’s joking, and he bumps back to show he gets it.
“Oh, hey. You know Jake is here?”
“Yeah. I saw him, earlier.”
“Huh.” They’ve entered the main room by now and Eli scans around, trying to catch a glimpse of their third wheel. “I didn’t think he knew anyone here?”
Zoe shrugs. “I mean, half the school is here, so . . .”
“Guess Val was a popular guy.”
“Small towns, y’know how it is.” Then, at Eli’s incredulous look: “Okay, well. Maybe you don’t. So, like, Ee? This is a small town. Everyone knows everyone here, it’s just how it is.” She’s smirking, though, and Eli bumps her with his shoulder again to let her know he’s onto her smart-assery.
Morgan comes over just as Eli’s plugging in the last of his peripherals. She’s already looking paler than usual, what with the black clothes and subdued makeup, but there’s something about her that seems almost translucent. Fragile. Even Zoe must notice, because she shoots a worried look Eli’s way.
“Hey,” he asks. “You okay?”
“I . . .” Morgan starts, then stops. Then shakes herself. “It’s nothing.”
“Doesn’t look like nothing,” Zoe comments.
Morgan startles again like she didn’t realize Zoe was there, but she doesn’t shy away or sneer or anything. Instead, she bites her bottom lip as if trying to decide whether to speak, before blurting out:
“I thought I saw something. In the woods.”
Eli and Zoe exchange looks. “‘Something?’”
Morgan laughs, but it’s shrill and forced. “It’s nothing. I’m just . . . y’know. Because of . . . because of Val.”
“But . . . you saw something?”
“I went to, y’know. The ladies’,” Morgan says. “There’s a window in there that looks out into the woods—”
“‘Poo with a view,’ my Dad calls those,” Zoe interjects.
Morgan does laugh for real at that, just one single huff, but afterwards she looks a little less rattled. “I thought I saw a shadow. Between the trees, y’know? But it’s . . . it’s probably just the rain.”
The rec centre is warded, Eli reminds himself. Zoe did it herself, with dragon-fueled magic. So long as they’re inside . . .
“Yeah, not gonna take any chances.” Zoe must be thinking the same thing as Eli. “I’ll go check the w— y’know. The ‘perimeter.’”
Eli nods, and she slips off into the crowd.
“You think . . .?” Morgan starts.
“I think Zoe’s right; no use taking chances. And we’re not. So long as everyone’s inside, they’re safe.” And with the way things are coming down outside, Eli thinks there’s not much chance of any impromptu picnics.
“She did something, didn’t she?” Morgan asks. “Something magic. Against the . . . the things.”
“Yeah. Zoe knows what she’s doing. We’ll be all right.” It occurs to Eli he isn’t sure if Morgan knows about Arthur’s sudden interest in witchcraft. He decides not to mention it.
“I told you I saw one,” Morgan says, instead. “How it chased me. I only escaped because—” She cuts herself off, biting her lip and looking away. At the memorial table, in fact. “It could’ve been me,” she says. Quiet, like she doesn’t really mean for Eli to hear.
“Shit,” says Eli, because he doesn’t know what else to say. You’re welcome seems like it’d be giving too much away. Widow Adeline might’ve forgiven him for telling Zoe about the whole dragon thing, but he doubts he’d get away with a Lacroix.
“That’s why I thought it was her,” Morgan says, voice still barely above a whisper. “Zoe. Because . . . because she hated me, right? She must’ve. After—” She cuts herself off. “After,” she repeats instead.
“I don’t . . . I don’t think Zee ever hated you, exactly,” Eli says, slowly. “I think she just . . .” He trails off, trying to think of the right words to wrap around the feeling he has in his heart.
“Just . . . really, really didn’t like me?” Morgan offers it with a half-smile, bleak and self-deprecating. “I don’t blame her,” she says, before Eli can answer. “I just . . . It’s Mom, you know? She gets . . .” Morgan waves a hand, indistinct, as if to encompass Yvonne Lacroix in her entirety. “It’s easy to get swept up in it.”
“My dad was convinced AIDS was a plot by the government to kill us. Black people, I mean.” Eli’s voice forms the words before his brain’s realized what he’s saying. After they’re out, he blinks, startled at his own . . . what? Boldness? Candor?
Morgan looks about as unsettled as Eli feels. “Oh,” she says. “I, um . . .”
“It’s dumb, right?” he adds, in a rush. “But it was . . . I dunno. A thing. He was totally convinced about it, and listening to him . . . it all sounded so reasonable, y’know? Like, he’d talk about how the government had had a cure for, like, decades? But that they’d been holding it back, or . . . or only giving it to white folks. And I believed it, for a real long time. Because it was Dad, y’know? And Dad . . . he was so smart, and knew so much shit, and . . .” He cuts himself off, biting his lower lip between teeth that want to form into fangs to stop the awful words. It feels like a betrayal. Dad is dead. Eli shouldn’t be—
Except all Morgan asks is:
“What . . . what made you change your mind?”
Eli thinks about this. Morgan sounds sincere, looks sincere, and so Eli decides to give her a sincere answer.
“I had, like . . . this friend, I guess? At school. Back in Manhattan, I mean. He was, like . . . super gay. Like, the real—” He makes a flapping gesture with his hand, and Morgan gives him a dubious expression in return. Not undeserved, he supposes. “So, I dunno. One day, I was talking some shit, and . . . and Jace, he kinda flipped out. Like, he was such a chill dude, I don’t think I’d ever seen him mad before. But he just . . . I dunno. Went off. Starting saying all this stuff about . . . about Reagan and shit. Like, how he’d laughed ‘cause ‘the homos’”—Elis makes the air-quotes—“were finally getting theirs from God. And it just made me, I dunno. Rethink things? That maybe Dad . . . he was kinda right, but also kinda wrong? Maybe the government was still a pile of shit, but it wasn’t just like that for us, it was like that for a whole bunch of people.”
“I think they did fuck it up,” Morgan offers, voice slow and careful like someone picking their way across a crumbling bridge. “AIDS, I mean. I read that on the internet. Other countries . . . not so many people died.”
“Yeah.” Eli’s read the same Wikipedia page. At least, after Jace he’d read it.
“You know Marsha P. Johnson was Black,” Morgan says. “She, I dunno. Started the Stonewall riots. For gay rights or whatever. So it’s not like it’s one or the other.”
“Yeah.” Eli’s read that Wikipedia page, too. “And Dad . . . I mean. He wasn’t, like. Homophobic, or anything. But . . .”
But. So much hanging there, in that “but.”
Morgan nods. “Yeah,” she says. “Yeah. I mean . . . it’s different, with Mom, y’know? But, also . . .”
“It’s kinda not,” Eli finishes.
“Yeah. I mean . . . Mom’s all, like, ‘witchcraft this’ and ‘demons that’ . . . but how many people through history have, like, had those things thrown at them? Just because they were, I dunno. Women, or gay, or Muslims or Jewish or scientists or . . . or whatever.”
“Yeah.” Or fat, Asian-American nerds, Eli doesn’t say.
Morgan sighs. “I’ve been . . . I’ve been kinda shitty,” she says.
“I, um. I apologized to Zoe. I know it’s not enough, but . . .”
“Just . . . Zoe’s cool,” Eli says. “Make it up to her, and she’ll be cool.”
“Yeah,” says Morgan. Then, more determined: “Yeah. Yeah, okay. I’ll . . . I’ll try.”
“Cool,” says Eli and thinks, just maybe, that it will be.
The service goes . . . pretty well, Eli thinks. Eli also thinks he’s been to too many of these sorts of things in the last year—with “too many” being “any non-zero number”—but Arthur and a bunch of other people Eli doesn’t know real well give some nice speeches about Val-slash-Mo, and his big duet moment with Morgan is a hit, judging by the amount of tissues being passed around.
Eli does see Jake, lurking around the corners of the room with Zoe, and they do the whole subdued nod thing at each other when their eyes meet. Zee, meanwhile, makes a shrugging gesture Eli takes to mean she’s checked for any lurking peryton and come up with nix.
Whether it’s the wards or the weather, Eli won’t complain.
They take a break from the music after Mo’s younger brother gives his heartfelt tribute, mostly because the storm is getting kinda loud. The rain is absolutely hammering down and the last flash of lightning came only moments before its accompanying slam of thunder. Eli unplugs all his gear from the mains, just in case, and Morgan lays asides her violin to spend some time getting a drink and having a mingle. She brings Eli back a cup of punch he’s ninety percent certain is spiked, and he takes a sip of the too-sweet concoction while surveying the sea of people he really, maybe, should’ve taken more time to get to know these last few months.
He supposes there’s no time like the present to start, but another glimpse of what he’s pretty sure is Jake reminds him of the whole textbook thing first. So he makes his way back to the side-room where he’d left his bag and Morgan’s violin case.
No-one’s bothered to turn on the lights in this part of the rec centre, which makes it kinda dark. But Eli’s night vision is better than, well. A human’s, he supposes, and he successfully manages to locate Jake’s Chem book, lying half-spilled out onto the floor.
He picks it up, flipping idly through the dog-eared pages. As he does, a spear of lightning crashes down so big and so close that the thunder is immediate and rattles all the windows in their frames.
It also, judging from the shrieks coming from the main room, cuts the power. Eli freezes for a moment, focused on the sound, scales itching and alert for danger. But the screaming dies off quickly, and is followed by laughter and excited voices. Just the lights, then. Nothing else.
Eli looks down, preparing to close the fallen-open textbook in his hands.
Except, funny thing. Turns out, like a lot of kids, Jake writes shit in the margins of his books. And there, right next to the heading introducing valence bond theory, are the words:
Fuck this is so、so shit。When will we ever need to know this crap?
And Eli’s blood runs cold.
The tōten and kuten. The same Japanese-style punctuation they’d found in the book Zoe took from the sorcerer’s cabin, what seems like a million years ago. The same that’d been on the note, tipping Morgan off to search Zoe’s locker. And here it is, in blue-and-white, scribbled in cheap biro between the pages of Jake’s textbook.
I saw him talking to Mom, Arthur had said, and the memory feels like fire in Eli’s veins. Jake. All of this, and—
“Fuck!” says Eli, and bursts into a run, abandoned book crashing to the floor behind him.