This part’s a little different from the others, but I hope you still enjoy it, my petals. You know the drill by now: free book-length story about the crankiest boy in a fantasy land.
This part is also dedicated to Courtney and Jen Lynn, who convinced me to go on.
After a week at home, Elliot was more miserable than he had ever been in his life.
The kids down the road—and they could hardly be kids anymore, any more than he was—were on holiday with their parents, their whole house shut up. Elliot felt as if his house was shut up, too: there was dust in his bedroom, layer upon layer of it. Nobody had come inside it all year.
The first day he was home, his dad did not speak to him or look at him. The second day, he looked up from his meal and said “Oh, you’re back,” half-way through dinner.
“Of course I’m back,” Elliot said in a small, furious voice.
Everyone else noticed him. Nobody could help but notice him. He didn’t know how to get people to love him, but he knew how to bang on the door of people’s attention, lean on their bell until they answered in the vain hope he would go away. He knew how to be inescapably irritating. But the one person he had learned it for was the one person it didn’t work on. He barely existed to his father, insubstantial as the dust in his room, only there because nobody cared he was there.
He threw his fork down on the table and stormed out. When he came down later to clean up the plates, he saw through the open door his father sitting in his usual chair. Elliot doubted he’d noticed the door slamming or his son being gone, any more than he noticed Elliot being here.
He had lain awake at night and felt alone for years and years, but it was much worse now that he knew about waking up with Serene, how it felt to reach across the bed automatically and have someone warm there, have someone happy you were there. At least when he was in his horrible unheated cabin he had his idiot roommates always telling him to keep it down for company.
Sometimes he woke up happy and reached for Serene, only to grasp a fistful of cold sheets. Sometimes he hardly slept, cataloguing all the ways he’d got it wrong with Serene, not been good enough or lovable enough, thinking of all the ways he could have done better now it was too late to do anything.
The days were unhappy and lonely too, but more than that, he found he was restless. He, who had always been happy being indoors before, was bouncing off the walls of the house, tapping the arms of his chair and kicking table legs and walls. He took several trips to the music store, where old Joe who worked there said he’d grown and was kind enough that Elliot stayed until closing time every time. He went down to the library, where no elves yelled at him for being immodest.
On the fifth day he got up from the window seat in his room, where he was tucked up much less comfortably than he used to be—he could stop growing any time now–and drumming his feet against the glass. He flicked the photo of Serene and Luke he had tucked up under the frame of his mirror.
“Thanks for ruining my life, jerkface,” he said, and went for a run.
He raced through the streets of the town, under telephone lines that looked like alien, spidery things menacing the clouds, down hard gray roads with cars running alongside. He jumped whenever anyone leaned on the horn, at every screech of tires, but he kept running until his lungs burned and his head was finally empty.
He went home long after it was dark, peeled off his sweat-soaked clothes and got into the shower. Usually hot running water cheered him up, but he was all alone and his own body had become a strange and treacherous thing.
What had he even been thinking, imagining staying out here? He wasn’t fit for this world. He wanted to go back to where there was one person at least who really liked him, even if she didn’t love him. He didn’t know if he could last the summer, let alone live here.
Maybe he didn’t have to, he thought. If he just showed up at Luke’s house, he would probably be allowed to stay. Like a stray starving animal.
You didn’t have to come running because of an invitation I didn’t mean, Luke had said. Elliot did not have to be more pathetic than he already was.
On Saturday, his father was home. It was so much worse to be silent and alone in company. Elliot bore it for a couple of hours, and then went down to the music store. The little shop was dim and arguably open as usual, but Elliot pushed at the door and found it open.
“Joe?” he called out.
No answer. He figured Joe was in the bathroom or taking a cigarette break, and knew he was welcome anyway.
“Hi, Joe!” he called out. “I’m trespassing! I’m shoplifting! I’m a teen delinquent and I must be stopped!”
He wandered in and over to the corner where you could play songs in privacy, fitted the giant headphones over his ears, and selected an album called Goodbye Blues. No harm trying. There was an electronic guitar near the station: Elliot only knew how to play piano, but he picked it up and played with it as he sang along.
The shop only stayed open until four on Saturdays. Elliot was going to have to go back to his house and his father.
Maybe he could go to Luke’s after all. Maybe Luke wouldn’t really mind.
Elliot shook his head at himself, and switched songs. The next was good, jaunty, with a clapping, swinging beat: Elliot vigorously strummed the guitar and sang at his own dumb feelings.
He looked down automatically at the touch of a hand on his: not in alarm, as Joe had tried to teach him the basics of guitar before.
When he looked down, the hand was definitely not Joe’s. Joe did not have barbed wire tattoos on his knuckles.
Elliot squawked, twisted around and brandished the electronic guitar in a threatening manner at a total stranger, some blond guy with a goatee and a few more tattoos.
“Whoa,” said the stranger. “Hi. Don’t worry, I work here.”
“What do you mean, you work here?” Elliot asked. “Nobody works here! Where’s Joe?”
“He’s having a cigarette break,” said the stranger. “He’s my uncle.”
Elliot lowered the guitar as his blood pressure lowered on its own. “Oh. You’re Jason.”
Jason nodded. “Jase. I assume you’re Elliot?”
Oh good, Elliot had now been rude to Joe’s beloved nephew, and he was about to lose his last sanctuary earlier than scheduled. “Crap,” Elliot added, heartfelt. “I thought you were like ten.” He was desperate enough to give the eyes for the elves a try, and willed: Don’t make me leave. “You could not be left alone with the musical equipment if you were ten. That would be highly irresponsible.”
“Well, we’re even then,” said Jase. “The way Uncle Joe talked about you, I thought for sure you were a little kid. But you look plenty grown up to me.”
“That’s me,” Elliot confirmed. “Mature. Like a fancy cheese. But unlike a fancy cheese, I can be trusted with the musical equipment. I won’t—I won’t come into the store and mess around unattended again, though.”
“You can come in and mess around anytime you like,” said Jase.
Victory! Elliot glowed and beamed.
Jase sorted idly through album cases without looking at them. Elliot glanced at the black barbed wire inscribed around his fingers.
“Uncle Joe said you went to a military academy in the north.”
“Uh…” Elliot said. “Sure, yes. Really north. Very military academy.”
Jase nodded and looked at Elliot consideringly. “I can see it.”
“What?” said Elliot.
“So, you like music?”
Here Elliot was in a music shop and wearing his Pink Floyd t-shirt, even though it fit all wrong now. Elliot wondered if Jase was simple. But he was on a mission to be allowed free run of the place, so… “Love it,” Elliot said cheerfully.
“Cool,” said Jase. “If you’re at a loose end later, maybe you’d like to come see my band practice. I’m the drummer.”
The beatific prospect of not having to go home at all opened up to Elliot like clouds to reveal the sun or ice-cream to reveal jelly. “Yes,” Elliot breathed with conviction. “I would like that very much.”
“Cool,” Jase said again, and then gave Elliot another considering look, this one a bit more worried. “How old are you, exactly?”
“Sixteen,” said Elliot. “In a week or so.”
From the vaguely startled look on Jase’s face, it was clear he’d thought Elliot was older. Elliot wondered why it mattered. Maybe the band practiced in a bar, but unless Elliot ordered a drink he should be fine.
Then it occurred to Elliot why it mattered.
“Oh, well. Sixteen. That’s old enough,” said Jase at last, relaxing. “’Cause this would be a date.”
He looked at Elliot, this time with his eyebrows raised, more challenge than consideration.
“I know, I just got that a couple of minutes ago,” said Elliot. “I’m not sure why I didn’t get it before. You were being pretty obvious about it. Also slightly clichéd. But I haven’t been hit on a lot.”
Jase looked extremely startled while Elliot was talking, which often happened while Elliot was talking and was usually a bad sign, but at the last thing he smiled. Elliot was entirely unclear on what he had done right or what he’d done wrong.
“No?” said Jase, still smiling.
“Only once before by a guy,” said Elliot. “My friend Luke’s cousin. And honestly I hated him and wanted him to fall into a pit of spikes.”
“So you’ve never…” said Jase, and did not seem displeased about that at all. “But you are…?”
“You need to learn to finish your sentences for more effective communication,” Elliot advised.
“You still wanna go on a date with me?” asked Jase.
“I don’t know, I’m thinking about it,” Elliot said impatiently.
Jase was back to looking startled. “Well… let me know.”
The thought of going back was like the idea of voluntarily stepping into an abyss: nothing but terror and darkness waited there. He felt a sick swoop of horror at the thought of condemning himself to that when he had another option.
But he could also just hang out in darkened parking lots on his own, he supposed. He didn’t have to go anywhere with this guy.
Jason had asked if he’d never, and asked if he was, and even if he hadn’t finished his sentences Elliot had understood. Jason was cute, and Elliot was flattered to be asked, and… Elliot had always known he liked both, had strongly suspected his teacher talking about him confusing hero worship with something else was idiocy. Elliot was rarely confused about anything.
Only he’d been really young when he met Serene, and he’d loved her at once, known at once that if he had her he would never want anyone else. He’d thought about guys occasionally, but in the same fleeting way he’d thought about other girls. He’d figured that he never had to work it out.
Except he didn’t have Serene. She didn’t want him. And somebody else did.
“I’ve thought about it,” said Elliot. “Yeah, I’ll go on a date with you.”
Jase grinned. “Cool.”
Jason really needed to expand his vocabulary, Elliot thought. But that was okay. They could work on that.
Elliot hung around in the shop all day and came to Jase’s band practice that night. They really did practice in the upper room of a bar. The group accepted him without surprise, and Elliot was pleased to see that Jase was actually pretty good, even though Marty the lead singer was absolutely atrocious. Elliot spent most of the practice talking to Alice, who did the lights and showed him how to as well.
He told her he was really behind on his technology, and she laughed at him, but nicely, as if she thought he was fun and was ready to accept him. They all seemed ready to do that, and it was absolute blissful relief, just to have people who would look at him when they spoke to him, who would listen when he replied.
He drank ginger ale at first, but they stopped practicing and went downstairs where the bar was turning into an overflowing room of people drinking and dancing. Alice bought Elliot a drink and Elliot drank it: he’d had mead plenty of times before at Luke’s house, so he was perfectly able to handle it. He danced with her: with the whole group. The room was packed enough that it seemed like dancing with a hundred strangers.
“Whoa, you can dance,” said a voice in his ear. Elliot looked around and down at a touch that felt deliberate, and saw Jase’s barbed wire encircled fingers, curled in the loop of his jeans. Then he looked up into Jase’s smiling face. “Enjoying yourself?”
Elliot smiled back, and Jase leaned in.
Even though he had loved Serene with all his heart for years, Elliot might have thought occasionally: I might want to… and will I ever….?
Jase kissed him. The question was answered. He would, and he had. Elliot kissed him back, felt the scrape of Jase’s stubble against his face and against his fingers as he touched Jase’s jaw, slid an arm around his neck, drew their bodies tighter together.
Jase asked him to come home with him at the end of the night, but Elliot said no. He thought maybe that he wouldn’t be asked back, but the next day at the music shop Jase was there and made sure to get Elliot’s number. Elliot had bought a phone that morning, in case he asked. He saw the band practice over and over, went out drinking and to a concert, and on his sixteenth birthday he let Alice put eyeliner on him and went out dancing again.
Jase asked Elliot to come home with him that night, and Elliot did.
It was so different to his house, Jase’s rented flat that he shared with Alice and Marty. The bathroom was filthy, the blinds broken and skewed like teeth in a prizefighter’s face, and Elliot did not wake up alone but woke up warm and had the other two laughing at them for sleeping in late.
“So, pretty different from girls, huh?” Jase asked as they made toast.
“Sure,” said Elliot, and winked. “You work out a lot less than Serene.”
Jase looked slightly vexed, but Alice laughed out loud and Marty said: “Finally you caught a live one” and Jase relented and laughed, too.
It was nice in the flat. It was nice to go to concerts. He’d never had someone his age—well, within five years was close enough–to talk about music with. He’d hardly had anyone to experience this world with, and this world looked better with someone else.
Elliot started to think, again, about not going back.
Elliot also could not talk to Joe about music anymore. The few times he came to the music shop when Jase wasn’t there, Joe was strange and curt when before he had been gruff and kind. When Elliot ran out of patience—which took thirteen minutes—and demanded to know what his problem was, Joe said: “You can’t ask me to approve of that sort of carry-on.”
“What?” Elliot demanded. “So Jase isn’t welcome here anymore?”
Joe looked away. “Jase is my blood.”
Elliot wanted to shout at him, wanted to argue, but he knew better than anybody that you could not fight people into caring about you or being fair to you. This was the punishment he got for trusting Joe, for thinking that because someone would throw a kind word to a kid that they were kind, that they could be counted on. He took the punishment. He bit down on what he wanted to say, and he walked out.
The closest he got to the shop, ever again, was when he walked Jase there. He told Jase what his uncle had said that morning, and Jase nodded, hands in his pockets, looking exhausted suddenly.
“Uncle Joe’s never been keen on that kind of thing.”
“And it doesn’t bother you?” Elliot demanded.
“It does,” said Jase, looking more tired than ever. “But I’m used to it. I know you’re not. You don’t have to… you don’t need to make anything public, if you’re not comfortable.”
Elliot stared at him, speechless.
“Anyway, I’d better get in to work,” said Jase, nodding as if that was settled, and he started down the road, tread heavy and shoulders hunched. It took Elliot a moment to realize he walking as if carrying a burden.
There was a low stone wall running along the pavement. Elliot jumped up on it and ran along the wall, catching up and grabbing a very surprised Jase by the collar of his jacket. Elliot leaned down and kissed him in front of all the tired commuters going to work and disappointed parents bringing their kids to summer school. Elliot held onto Jase’s collar and kissed him all he wanted, until he felt Jase smile.
“There’s something you should know about me, if we’re going to do this,” Elliot told him. “I always do exactly what I want, and I never care what anybody else thinks about it.”
Jase seemed dumbfounded and was breathing hard, but he was still smiling. “Yeah?”
“Yes,” said Elliot. “And I want to see you later.”
“See you later, then,” said Jase.
Elliot was alone at dinner one night, and knew that his father was on a business trip. His dad didn’t leave notes or tell him about them: that would be too much acknowledgement of Elliot’s presence. The first time it had happened when Elliot was old enough to be left alone without a babysitter, Elliot had been frantic and thought his father had been in an accident. He’d called the hospitals.
That had been years ago. Now he knew what his father’s absence meant. This time he called Jase.
“Hey,” he said when Jase picked up. “I’m home all alone. Come keep me company.”
He thought it would be nice to have a place to themselves.
It was kind of wonderful, to be able to request company and know the request would be granted. Even back at the Border, Elliot either had company or he didn’t. Elliot leaned back in his window seat, glass cold against his shoulders, and watched affectionately as Jase prowled around his room.
Jason whistled and plucked Elliot’s one picture from the mirror. “Hello, someone is crazy hot.”
Elliot beamed. “I know, right? That’s Serene. We used to go out. She actually went out with me. I don’t mean to brag, but we were physically intimate.”
It was funny: it would have been agony telling someone that a month ago, and it still hurt, but he was able to say it, and to feel mostly pride and remember being happy.
“Uh, okay,” said Jase. “Before you realized you didn’t like girls.”
“What? I like girls,” said Elliot. “I mean,” he added, because he didn’t want to hurt Jase’s feelings, “I like girls as well.”
“Sure.” Jase rolled his eyes and Elliot stared at him with mingled outrage and surprise. He wasn’t sure why Jase felt qualified to comment on a basic reality about Elliot. “Don’t worry about it. You’re young yet,” said Jase, and gave him a wink.
“I can’t say that being twenty seems to have conferred enormous wisdom upon you.”
“God, Elliot, settle down.” Jase sounded absent-minded but fond, which was worth a lot to Elliot: maybe Elliot was going a bit far. He knew he had a tendency to do that. “Anyway,” said Jase. “I was not referring to the bird. I was talking about the guy, obviously. Woof.”
“What, Luke?” Elliot grabbed his own hair by handfuls in despair. “That is a ridiculous picture of him! That is why I kept that one!”
“So you’re saying… he usually looks better? Jesus.”
“This conversation is a living nightmare,” Elliot announced.
Jase did not seem overly disturbed by this announcement. It was possible he was getting used to Elliot’s grand proclamations. He continued studying the photo. “So this is Luke. You’ve talked about him often enough. I can’t believe you never mentioned he looked like that.”
“It’s not a national emergency,” said Elliot.
“Uh, have you seen him?” said Jase. “It kind of is.”
“And I do not talk about him often. I have mentioned him once or twice. Rarely. Hardly ever. Who is Luke?” said Elliot. “Have you noticed this is a terrible conversation? Because I’ve noticed this is a terrible conversation.”
“Does his cousin look like him?” Jase pursued, and off Elliot’s reluctant nod said: “And you turned him down?”
“He’s a vicious moron,” said Elliot.
“Who cares when someone looks like that?”
“I do,” said Elliot.
Jase made a dismissive sound, but looked a little pleased too: it reflected well on Jase himself if Elliot was choosy, Elliot supposed. They had chosen each other. Elliot attempted to catch Jase’s eye, but Jase was still looking at the photograph.
“I guess he’s straight? Luke, I mean.”
Elliot tasted something bitter in his mouth. “No,” he said at last, feeling prickly all over. “No, he’s not straight.”
“Ohhhh. Well. Does he, ah, ‘like girls as well’?” Jase repeated what Elliot had said in a voice with just an edge of a sing-song lilt, a savor of mockery that Elliot could not quite pin down and be mad about.
“No,” said Elliot shortly.
“Sounds like quite a guy. He coming to visit?”
“No,” Elliot snapped. “Why, you want to dump me for him?”
It felt like Jase would. Of course, Elliot had never met anyone who wouldn’t, who didn’t instantly and instinctively value Luke higher. That included Serene. Jase wasn’t going to be any different.
Jase laughed, light and pleased, and came over and tipped Elliot’s chin up, kissed him with a kiss light as his laugh. “Nah. But I thought Marty might like him. I mean, who wouldn’t?”
Elliot let that last bit go in favor of laughing at the rest. “Marty has a lip ring and Luke would have a heart attack. This is someone who finds jeans scandalous and distressing. He has a crush on this guy back at school called Dale. They’re both want to play sports and fight stuff all day every day.”
“Oh, right, boring and mainstream,” said Jase. Elliot was pleased enough by Jase’s dismissive tone to let the fact that ‘mainstream’ was a pretentious label for human beings go. “Shame.”
“Luke’s not boring,” said Elliot. “Dale kind of is. But he’s a nice person or something, I guess.”
“He sure doesn’t look boring, I’ll give you that.”
“I’ve had enough of talking about Luke,” Elliot announced. He got up and whisked the photo out of Jase’s hand, tucking it back into the mirror frame. “I get it, you think he’s hot. But you’re wrong.”
Jase tilted his head quizzically. “He’s not hot?”
Elliot moved toward him, close so Jase reached out and grabbed his wrist. Then Elliot hooked an ankle behind Jase’s foot and sent him flying backward onto the bed. He kept his own balance, and smirked down at Jase.
“I’m your boyfriend,” he said. “Only I am hot.”
“That was hot,” said Jase, wide-eyed and leaning against Elliot’s pillows.
“Just a little trick I picked up in the, ah, military academy,” Elliot told him smugly, put a knee down on the bed and then crawled over Jase.
Jase tried to lift up to kiss him, but Elliot held his shoulders down against the mattress easily and shook his head. Jase raised a hand, Elliot thought to touch. He grabbed the back of Elliot’s shirt and tried to flip him over. Elliot pulled Jace’s hand off, though Jase tried to hang on, and held both of Jase’s wrists over his head with one hand.
“I really didn’t think you’d be like this,” Jase said, a little breathless and a little critical. “You seemed so sweet that first day. I thought you would be shy and kind of hesitant and in need of guidance.”
“My best friends are war leaders,” Elliot pointed out. “Good luck with your thing.”
“Uh, classic military academy humor!” said Elliot hastily. “Besides,” he added, and cast a look down Jase’s body and back up to his face, his blown pupils. Elliot’s grasp on his wrists tightened. “You may not have been expecting this, but…” Elliot leaned down and brushed his mouth against the edge of Jase’s, smiled, leaned a crucial fraction away when Jase tried to chase his mouth, and spoke softly. “You like it.”
Jase’s whole body had come to attention: he kept surging up and straining against Elliot’s hold, trying to get closer. Elliot smiled, leaned down and kissed him, catching the small desperate breath Jase let out against his smile.
“C’mon!” Jase exclaimed, his voice on a high hoarse edge.
“What,” Elliot asked, stroking the inside of Jase’s wrist with his thumb. “You don’t like it? Oh dear.”
“Yes, I like it!” Jase said. “Goddamn it, come here.”
Elliot laughed, delighted, and let Jase go, leaned in and gave him a long hot kiss with his fingers tangled in Jase’s hair.
Later that night, with Jase sleeping in his bed, Elliot went and sat on the window seat, looked out at the streetlights dyeing patches of night orange, and thought again about staying. The moon caught his mirror and made it into a well of light, the photo a small dark square drowning in the silver shine.
He wouldn’t see them again, and he wouldn’t see mermaids, but Alice said he was getting really good with computers and he was starting to think he and Jase could make this work. Jase might say ridiculous things sometimes, but Elliot thought it was because he was insecure. Elliot could understand that. He did it often enough himself.
He thought of Jase, thinking that Elliot would be different. He couldn’t quite figure out how to say: You met me when I was sad, but I’m not a sad person, and I don’t want you to like that sad person who wasn’t me better than you like me. Maybe if he stayed, he could figure it out.
He climbed back into bed, kissed the dragon tattoo on Jase’s shoulderblade, and said: “Wake up.”
Nights with company were awesome, but Elliot might have liked the mornings best. He woke up in his room with light streaming through the windows, and Jase awake and looking down at him.
“Hey,” said Jase, and kissed him. “Is there any food? I’m starving.”
“Are you in luck,” Elliot told him. “Because I can make truly terrible pancakes.”
He made the first pancake as Jase fiddled with the radio and turned it to a station that met with his approval. Then he gave Jase the first pancake, and Jase’s eyes widened and he went on the hunt for strawberry jam to disguise the taste.
“I know, I’m really not used to electricity when cooking,” Elliot said apologetically.
“Jesus, military academy is hardcore,” said Jase.
“Heh heh, uh,” said Elliot. “I know, right?”
Jase ate his pancake. Elliot sang along to the radio, using his wooden spoon as a microphone, and Jase beat time against the table with his fork.
“Maybe you should be our lead singer,” he said.
“You do need a new one,” Elliot said. “Marty is terrible and the band is not going to succeed.”
“No, I’m serious,” said Elliot. “Dropping out of college for the band was a terrible idea.”
“Yes, yes, I get it, you love school,” said Jase, kissing Elliot’s neck. “Sing again.”
Elliot swung around and sang, Jase laughing at him as he did so. Elliot pushed Jase, who slid in his socked feet to hit the oven, and Elliot pushed the bowl of pancake batter onto the counter and moved in, still singing.
The door opened with a treacherous little creak. His dad was standing framed in the doorway, still and startled. Elliot dropped his spoon.
There was no way it looked innocent. His dad was watching his sixteen year old son with a twenty year old tattooed guy. Neither of them were wearing shirts. They had clearly been just about to make out. Everything was terrible.
“I can explain this,” said Elliot.
“I’m gonna go,” said Jase.
He fled. Elliot eyed him darkly for this treachery but had to admit to himself that he would have liked to flee too.
“Do you want a terrible pancake?” he asked his father.
“No,” said his dad, but he came over and sat at the kitchen table instead of leaving the room, which was such unusual behavior that it terrified Elliot.
He could not help but wonder if he was going to get kicked out of his house, and then he thought that he would have to go back to the Borderlands. He couldn’t go live with Jase, that would be insane and he didn’t even know if Jase would want him to, and he wasn’t trained for anything in this world.
It was almost a relief, having the decision made for him.
“I didn’t think…” his dad said slowly. “That you were… like that.”
It was news to Elliot that his dad thought he was like anything. Had he noticed the photo of Serene, listened to the few things Elliot let drop? Elliot found himself staring at his father, feeling as if he was trying to glean clues about a complete stranger. His father was looking the same way at him, but with an added distance: as if he might look away, bored, at any time.
“I like girls too,” said Elliot. “But Jason’s my boyfriend.”
“That’s not what I meant,” his dad said. “I meant… how you were, with the singing. You looked… happy.”
Elliot stared at the spoon on the floor. “Did you think I was never happy?”
It was possible that his father had never seen him happy before, had thought of him as nothing but a bitter-eyed, bitter-tongued child ghost among all the ghosts of his more important memories.
“I don’t know,” said his father. “I never thought about it, I suppose.”
“Great,” said Elliot. “That’s just great.”
“I don’t care about that person being a man,” his father told him. “That doesn’t matter to me.”
“What does matter to you?” Elliot asked. His dad didn’t answer, and Elliot picked the spoon up off the floor. “Listen,” he said roughly. “I’m thinking about not going back to school this year. I mean—I could go to the school here. It might be better for me, to stay here, to live a—a more ordinary life. The other school’s pretty intense. I’m not sure about this, but I was thinking about it. What do you think?”
He looked over at his father. His father wasn’t looking at him. He was looking at something Elliot couldn’t see.
“I think you’ll go back,” said his father, at last.
He stared off into space for a while longer, then got up and walked away. Elliot poured his pancake batter down the sink.
An ordinary parent would have been more trouble, he thought vaguely, thinking of Serene’s mother lecturing her. He would have had to answer questions: about how they met, if they cared about each other, what the age difference was. A real parent would have needed to know Elliot was not in a bad situation.
Elliot did not even know why he was surprised. Elliot had been in bad situations before. He remembered being out playing when he was a little too old for a babysitter and yet a little too young to be left alone for the long stretches of time he was left alone for, and breaking his wrist. Dad had come home and found Elliot white-faced and clutching his wrist on the stairs, and driven him to the hospital, and paid for Elliot’s care. He’d done all the right things. He just hadn’t said anything: asked Elliot what had happened, scolded Elliot for putting himself in danger. He hadn’t cared.
Now he’d accepted that Elliot had a boyfriend, Elliot hadn’t been punished or hurt, hadn’t been subjected to the terrible, cruel unfairness of Jason’s Uncle Joe. But Elliot knew Joe loved Jason: knew Joe had liked Elliot, more than Elliot’s own dad had ever liked him.
Elliot had lost count of all the ways that people could betray you, out of love or indifference. He didn’t know which was the worst way to be betrayed. He sat down in a kitchen chair, put his head in his hands, and felt sick.
He knew one thing. His father thought he was going back, so he was staying,
Elliot stayed. The day he was meant to go back, he did not go.
He leaped up and packed his bag to go halfway through the day, then forced himself to unpack. He went and leaned against the window, looking out on buildings like strange square traps and the glaring eyes of electric lights, and he thought about never seeing mermaids and never writing all the peace treaties he’d dreamed of. Then he reminded himself of a life without computers, without electricity, without college, a life where he would be absolutely trapped. He was not going to choose something so stupid.
He crossed over to the mirror, picked up the picture of Luke and Serene, and said: “You don’t even want me there, you’ll be much happier without me,” because that had always been true of Luke and it was true now of Serene too, Serene who didn’t love him and didn’t want to deal with the awkwardness and inconvenience of his love. “It’s better this way,” said Elliot. “And if I came back—you’re probably both going to die. I’d be stranded and you’d be dead.”
They were soldiers. This way, Elliot would never know if they died.
He put the photo down. “I didn’t mean that,” he said. “You’re not going to die. I don’t know why I said that.”
If he stayed here, he would not be forced to worry about his friends being killed. He would be a normal kid in school, with a real life ahead of him, and with somebody who wanted him there. This was the right choice.
He went over to Jase’s, but Jase was not there. Alice was, though, and they played video games for a couple of hours until Elliot felt less like he was about to explode out of his own skin and run for the Border.
“You okay?” Alice asked. “Did you and Jase have a fight?”
“No, nothing like that,” said Elliot.
He answered quickly because it was true, but Alice clearly didn’t believe him. “You’re a lot to handle.”
“I know,” Elliot said, nettled. “Jase doesn’t seem to mind all that much.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Alice looked wary, as if she did not want her roommate’s boyfriend having a tantrum in her direction. Elliot leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “I have to go. Thanks for being kind to me.”
The next day, he called up the local school and pretended to be his dad so he could get information on enrolling. He tried to work out which of his classes he would have to catch up on, and which he would be okay with.
He also spent a while working out whether he could go back to the Border for just one more year, say goodbye, see mermaids, sort out what he could, and then come back and catch up and have that normal life with electricity and without mortal danger. He thought he could. Then he forced himself to stop making those calculations.
The next day he packed for the Border again, in a frantic terrible hurry, hardly putting in any electronics at all, wanting to keep his pack light so he could move fast, so he could just go now.
Eventually he left the bag on the floor, and fled to Jase’s. It was late enough so Jase was already at a bar, and he met Elliot outside. Jase was barely outside the door when Elliot launched himself at him: backing him up against the large glass window. Jase’s mouth opened under his, slick and hot with a sting of tequila, and it was a long time until they disentangled enough to go back to Jase’s.
In the morning, Elliot devoted himself to multi-tasking: buttoning his shirt, making toast and attempting to tell Jase that he was sticking around.
“I’ve been thinking that I want to make some changes,” Elliot tried out.
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking the same thing. With your dad knowing and all. It’s kind of heavy,” said Jase. “I think maybe… we should call it quits.”
“Oh,” said Elliot. He put down the toast, and did up his shirt: he only had one task, now.
Jase seemed to warm to his theme. “You’re a different person than I thought you were, and maybe we don’t mesh that well together, yeah?”
Jase had said much the same thing before, but Elliot hadn’t paid attention because Jase had clearly liked him. Elliot stared at Jase over the kitchen counter and the cooling toast, and believed two things: that Jase still liked him, and that Jase was a coward. Elliot remembered Jase not wanting to hear about college, about his band, about Elliot liking girls as well, about his uncle, about everything that Elliot had found understandable and forgivable but which taken all together formed a tower of things that Jase had not wanted to deal with.
Jase liked Elliot being the way Elliot was, but he didn’t want to like it: he was looking for something that wouldn’t push him out of his comfort zone. Jase didn’t want to be challenged.
It was strange how different the same thing could feel. Serene had dumped him and he would’ve done anything to get her back, had missed her every day for months. Now Jase had dumped him, and suddenly and simply, Elliot didn’t ever want to see him again.
“Okay,” said Elliot. “Goodbye, then.”
Jase didn’t seem to like that, either. “It’s just the way you are,” he said. “It’d be difficult for anyone to put up with.”
“That’s true,” said Elliot.
Jase softened, hearing what he wanted to hear, but Elliot saw it now as condescending instead of affectionate. “If you were a bit more grown up, maybe…”
“Oh my God,” said Elliot. “You can’t handle me now.”
He found himself almost laughing in Jase’s baffled face. He knew what was wrong with him: awkward, spiky, occasionally cruel, inherently unlovable, all of that. But he’d always had a certain intense belief in what he could do: write treaties, end wars, throw all the knives away, make people listen to him, accomplish whatever he wanted. He was getting better at it, too: by the time he was twenty, someone like Jase would be a haystack in the path of a hurricane.
Jase looked angry. Elliot felt nothing but that strange amusement and cold contempt, for Jase and for himself.
The key scraped in the lock of the front door, and Marty and Alice walked in.
“Oh my God,” said Marty, giving Jase a sad look. “Don’t tell me you’re doing this here.”
Jase was a terrible roommate, Elliot realized. They were probably counting the days until they could be rid of him. But that didn’t mean they would want to be friends with Jase’s latest castoff, either. He didn’t have anyone in this world, but he never had.
“I’m just leaving, guys,” he said. “Marty, please, please take a course in something that will be useful to you when you are trying to gain employment in the future. Alice, thanks so much for teaching me about lights. Everybody have a nice life.”
He walked out. Jase made a discontented sound, almost fretful, as if he’d pictured it all differently, but it was Alice who chased after him, who leaned over the rail to call down to him as he was making his way down the stairwell.
“I really do think you’re a nice kid!” she said.
“I’m really not,” Elliot called back up.
Alice smiled. “Well, I definitely think you’re going places.”
“I definitely am,” said Elliot.
He stopped off at his house and picked up his bag. He thought about leaving his dad a note explaining where he had gone, but then the thought made him laugh. He just went.
He’d already worked it out. He could go for one more year, and see mermaids.
He climbed the wall alone. Usually he saw someone else in the distance, going to the Border camp, or thought he saw someone else coming, but this time there was nobody in sight. Everyone else was already gone.
He climbed high gray stone steps into a bank of cloud that was like a white cliff he could disappear into. When he came walking out of the cloud and down into the Borderlands, the whole sky had changed. It was bright, light blue, sparkling as if it had been freshly washed. Elliot knew it was weird magic sky business, but it felt symbolic.
He went striding through the long green grass of the meadows that led home. It was an easy walk, though it had seemed farther when he was a child. With every step, he was gladder to be back.
There was time to become whoever he chose. There was still time.
There was even time to see if Jase and Alice and Serene and his father and everyone else he’d ever met so far was right, and nobody could put up with him for long. Serene had liked him for a while. Jase had liked him for a while. There might be someone who would like him for longer than that. Thinking of Jase made Elliot remember Jase’s reaction to Elliot saying he liked girls as well, and that made his lip curl. The odds were better for Elliot than other people: he could look for a boyfriend or a girlfriend.
Surely he could stop being stupid, sooner or later.
The sun was seeping through the thin material of his shirt, warm as a welcome. He approached the Border camp, the cabins and the tower, the practice grounds where unfortunate souls were hurling javelins and having swordfights, and he checked his watch. It was about time for the first Trigon game of the season. Elliot was so sad that he knew when the games were.
Luke would be playing and Serene would be watching, so Elliot shifted his pack from one shoulder to the other and made a beeline for the pitch.
He could hear the hum of the crowd as he approached the little scooped-out valley, with artificial hills at its center, and saw the filled benches with people leaning toward the game like flowers to the sun. Elliot looked for the people who had been knocked out, and saw there were four gone from the other year’s team already. So Luke was winning and all was as it should be.
Elliot was so sad that he knew the rules of Trigon.
On the pitch, a guy was taking off his shirt. Elliot supposed Trigon wasn’t all bad.
Then he noticed something much more important. There was someone lurking at the back of the Trigon stands, and Elliot was amazed and thrilled to see that they were taking pictures. He had given technology to this world. He was an industrial revolutionary!
“Hi,” he said affectionately to the camera-wielding stranger.
“I’m from the newspaper,” said the stranger. “I have permission to be here from the commander.”
“That’s awesome,” said Elliot. “The newspaper. That’s so awesome.”
“I’m doing a piece on the Sunborns,” he continued.
“No,” Elliot said faintly. He felt betrayed.
“With a particular focus on the young Sunborn champion!”
“Oh my God, so quickly I see the problems with a free press,” Elliot moaned.
The shirtless guy on the pitch was Luke, he realized suddenly, now he could see his hair. Elliot made a face. Everything was terrible. Now he came to think of it, his options were actually no greater than they had been, because what guys were there who liked guys in the Border camp? Luke, obvious emotional suicide, and Dale, obvious violation of the bro code. Maybe there was someone in the council training course. That would work better for Elliot anyway.
“Do you know Luke Sunborn at all?” asked the worst journalist of their time.
“I don’t,” Elliot said firmly. “But I have heard that nobody likes him, and he is dull. And he has an unhealthy and morbid attachment to lettuce. Write that down.”
The journalist didn’t write it down. Elliot looked back at the pitch, where Luke had just viciously fouled someone. Elliot was sad a third time that he knew this much about Trigon, and also sad because of wantonly violent warrior ways, but wantonly violent warrior ways meant Luke was turned in the right direction. Elliot waved, so that Luke would know he was there. He figured Luke could tell Serene. He’d talk to them both later, and unpack now.
He pointed at the reporter and repeated sternly: “Write that down!” Then he headed for his cabin.
He was only about ten steps away from the Trigon game when he saw Myra, walking through the gate of the enclosure around the tower, and she saw him. She started and then ran, right at him, smiling all over her face: Elliot caught her as she came. She was small but sturdy, and he was somewhat amazed at how easy it was to lift her off her feet and swing her around. She felt light and he felt light, too, all over.
“Elliot!” said Myra. “You’re back! We didn’t know what was going on. It’s been crazy. I’m so happy you’re back.”
She eased back a little and he let her, and looked into her sparkling dark eyes. He’d never thought before of how nice dark eyes were, how warm and welcoming.
“Yeah?” he asked. “You’re really glad?”
Myra punched him in the shoulder and eased away entirely, too soon. “Of course.”
“Well,” said Elliot, and put an arm around her shoulders. “Good. Because you’re going to be seeing a lot of me this year. I’ve decided we need outside the library quality time. What do you want to do? I want to do anything you want.”
“Er, I’m going to be working on the school play,” said Myra, looking puzzled but pleased. “Painting the sets and setting up the props. You’d be welcome to help out if you want, but—are you sure you’re a behind the scenes kind of guy?”
“Absolutely! I’d love to be behind the scenes with you.”
Elliot grinned at her and winked. Myra shook her head and laughed. This play idea seemed ideal to Elliot. He wasn’t going to do anything crazy, he’d broken up with somebody this morning, but here Myra was—smart, kind, happy to see him—and here was an opportunity to get to know each other better and view each other in a different light. He’d be a fool not to take it.
He wondered whether he should ask her to grab something to eat now, discuss this play, but then they were both distracted by the commotion on the Trigon pitch. Elliot turned and looked where Myra was already staring, her mouth open: the sound was that of a crowd protesting, people spilling off benches and off the pitch. There was the click of a camera under the rising storm of mutters and shouts.
Luke emerged from the crowd, shaking off people as a dog might shake off water droplets, and ran at Elliot. It was not nice, like with Myra. It was mildly alarming. Luke shoved something at Elliot, then grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. Luke was a mannerless barbarian.
“Where have you been?” demanded Luke. “Where did you go? I thought—I don’t know what I thought, you stupid, selfish, irresponsible—”
“Hey, loser, why are you bothering me?” asked Elliot, happy to see him also.
“I’m going to kill you,” said Luke. “I am literally going to kill you.”
That seemed excessive and mean to Elliot. He pulled away from Luke so he could study what Luke had shoved at him. It was the Trigon ball, its glass surface slick with grass.
“Thanks for this disgusting object I didn’t ask for and don’t want, by the way.”
“What?” said Luke.
Dale Wavechaser left the turbulent throng to join their little group. Summer was always good to people who looked like Dale, who burnished while Elliot honestly went all red and peeled after twenty minutes in direct sunlight.
“Hey, Dale,” said Elliot, for Luke’s sake. “Great to see you. Had a good summer? Hope so.”
Dale looked upset as well as burnished. “Luke,” he said. “The game—”
“Get lost and don’t bother me,” Luke snapped.
“Whoa,” Elliot exclaimed. “You do not mean that! He doesn’t mean that, buddy. He’s overwrought by—winning or losing the—game, I suppose? You know sports. Adrenalin run mad, emotions running high. Sports.”
“We didn’t win or lose the game!” Dale snapped, proving Elliot’s point. All these people, driven mad by sporting events.
“You have to have done one or the other,” Elliot informed him, kindly and patiently.
“We didn’t, because the game is not over,” Dale shouted.
“Oh,” said Elliot, and looked at the ball he was holding. “Oh wow, you probably need this, right?”
“Yes,” said Dale. He eyed Luke unhappily, and then his unhappiness eased slightly into appreciation. “I brought you your shirt,” he offered.
“Why would you go and do a thing like that,” said Myra, the minx, and Elliot glanced at her and grinned.
“Also, you should know that guy with the picture machine took your picture,” Dale continued.
“Why would he do that?” Luke demanded, unhappily pulling his shirt on. “I told him he could after the game when I was cleaned up.”
Luke emerged from the shirt, aiming a venomous glare all around.
“Why is everyone behaving in a ridiculous way that makes no sense? Why are you banging on about Trigon when nobody cares? And you! Where were you, what were you doing, why didn’t you come on registration day, why are you wearing those terrible clothes? Get rid of them! Come with me, I need to talk to you.”
“They’re not terrible,” Myra said. Elliot beamed, gratified, and she patted Elliot on the back. “Luke’s right, you should definitely change into your uniform before the commander sees you, but even though your garb is outlandish I think it looks quite nice.”
“Yeah, actually,” Dale agreed. “What do you call those?”
“Jeans,” said Elliot.
“Would all of you shut up!” Luke snarled.
“What is wrong with you?’ Elliot asked. “Why are you being such a moody baby?”
Myra took a discreet step back. Dale aimed an appalled look at Elliot. Luke’s shoulders bunched under his shirt. For an instant Elliot really thought, against everything he knew about Luke, that he was going to be hit.
He did not take a step back.
Luke did not hit him. “Elliot, I need to talk to you,” he ground out, instead. “Please.”
“Yeah,” Elliot said. “Okay. Of course. Myra, see you later. Dale, take this and go back to the game.” He pushed the ball at Dale, and Dale opened his mouth. “No, no don’t argue with me,” Elliot told him. “You don’t want to go and do a rash thing like that. Just run along.”
He grasped Luke by his upper arm and towed him toward Elliot’s cabin. Elliot really needed to put his bag down, and Myra and Luke were right: he should probably change before the commander spotted him. But he uneasily suspected that he had to hear this first.
Luke was silent as they walked. Dread drew a cold finger down Elliot’s spine. Luke had been with his family all summer: something could have happened to any of them.
“You have me kind of worried,” he said as they approached the cabin, shrugging off his bag and holding it on one hand, trying to keep his voice light. “What’s going on? Where’s Serene?”
He looked at Luke. Luke looked back at him, the anger gone from his face. He looked helpless. Elliot let his bag drop from his fingers into the dust.
“Luke,” Elliot said, and heard his voice shake. “Where’s Serene?”
Luke sat down, heavily, on the step in front of Elliot’s cabin. Elliot stood over him, his shadow touching Luke. He could see the silhouetted outline of his hands. They were shaking, too.
“She didn’t come back to school,” said Luke. “I don’t know—I don’t know if she’s going to. She’s with her mother, fighting in the eastern woods. The brigand problem got worse and worse, and all the elven troops were rallied, but they don’t want humans coming. The brigands are human—some people say they’re Border guards turned traitor—and the elves don’t like humans much right now. I should be with her, we swore an oath so we would always ride into battle together and always have each other’s backs. But the elf commanders—Serene’s mother—they all say it doesn’t matter. The oath doesn’t count, because I’m human and a boy. They’ve expressly forbidden me to go. There are, um, orders to shoot me on sight. Serene felt she had to go without me, for her people. She didn’t have a choice. And then you weren’t here, and word came back that the fighting had turned—that it was really bad. I haven’t had any word from her. I don’t know what to do.”
Luke put his face in his hands, as if he was tired beyond words. Elliot stared at his bag in the dust, at his shadow. He went and sat beside Luke, leaning against his shoulder. He looked at his own hands, hanging empty between his knees. He did not know what to do either.
Serene, Serene, Serene. If he had never come back, he would always have imagined her back at school with Luke, riding, fighting, laughing her rare sweet laugh. He would have believed she was safe.
He had lived all summer in a world where the idea of death was so faraway it was laughable, and now he had come back here. He had wanted to.