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Birds of the Ferngill Republic

Chapter Text

"Hope is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul - "

Emily Dickinson

 

oOo

The first storm of the summer came blowing through the valley, and with it, good news – The Big Man’s grandkids were coming to take over the farm. Nearly six months after his passing, mind you, but they were coming nonetheless. Pelican Town rarely got one new resident, let alone three, and the gossip spread like wildfire. The older folk remembered the Big Man’s daughter-in-law Cassie, and of course her husband Aurelio; he’d grown up there, and Cassie had lived on the farm with him and Herb for a year while she was pregnant with their oldest, but neither of them could look after the property. Too settled into their jobs and lives in the city, Lewis told Marnie over a pint in the saloon. He’d asked. But, he added, his foot brushing hers beneath the table, it was good that their kids had decided to take the reins before it was too late. Someone needed to keep Herb’s spirit alive.

Others were less generous in their assessment of the situation. “Just what we need. A bunch of city kids who don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground,” Pam grumbled when she heard. “Bet you not one of ‘em knows how to brew a decent beer.”

From his usual table in the corner, Shane took a sip and privately agreed with her, even if he’d never say it out loud – he didn’t want to risk starting a conversation. Emily made a noncommittal sound as she slid Pam another ale and hoped the reserves from the Big Man’s last batch would hold until summer. From the way Gus’s mustache was drooping, she doubted it.

 

“We’re gonna have to find a new spot once they move in,” Sam complained, holding out his hand for the joint. Abigail rolled her eyes and passed it along, exhaling through her nostrils.

“No shit, Sam.”

“I don’t care where we go, as long as it’s not my place,” Sebastian said. Abigail could barely see him in the shadow of the broken-down greenhouse, wearing all black and crouched on his haunches like some kind of golem. “My mom’s gonna kill me if she catches me again. She already took my bong.”

“Maybe we could keep doing it here.” Sam passed the joint to Sebastian. “If we only do it at night, maybe they won’t notice.”

“I’m pretty sure they’ll notice, man.”

“Well, where should we do it then?” Sebastian opened his mouth, then closed it. Sam shot him a triumphant look. “See? Nobody else is coming up with anything better.”

“Can you guys shut up for two seconds?” Abigail crossed her legs, then uncrossed them, prodding at her calf with a frown. Her new black tights already had a run in them. “Seb, quit camping that. You’re worse than Emily.”

“Calm down, it’s been thirty seconds. Here.”

“Wait.” Even in the dark, she could see Sam’s eyes bugging out of his skull. “You’ve smoked with Emily?”

“I can see it,” Sebastian said, digging his cigarettes out of his hoodie. “A bartender who doesn’t drink? There’s definitely something else going on there.”

Abigail took a hit and didn’t answer. Summer was already creeping in, the days growing longer and more languid, and when she tilted her chin up to exhale, there was the moon, its soft silver face smiling down at them. Something good was coming, Emily had told her the last time they hung out. Something to do with Herb’s grandkids. And yeah, Emily was a little weird with her crystals and patchouli and raw food diets, but she was also the only person who didn’t make Abigail feel dumb for believing in Ouija boards and ghosts, and she was usually right about that kind of stuff. Emily just knew things, like which crops were going to do especially well that season or who was going to get sick that winter, and she could predict when Marnie’s cows were going to calve, right down to the hour. The smoke from the joint mingled with the smoke from Sebastian’s cigarette, and Abigail watched it curl away on the wind.

Something good…

 

The rest of Pelican Town was too busy with their own endeavors to dwell on the news, once the initial excitement had passed. The season’s change was bearing down fast, and there was plenty left to do before they saw spring on its way. But the following morning, when Penny was getting Vincent and Jas settled for their lessons beneath the old oak in the square, a brilliant flash of color caught her eye, followed by musical notes falling on them like raindrops.

“Oh, look!” she exclaimed, and Jas and Vincent craned their necks skyward. A little brown bird flew by, throat and chest stained scarlet, and its song lingered in in its wake, clear and pure. “Do you know what that means?”

“No, what?” they chorused.

“A songbird flying due west means good luck,” Penny told them as she finished laying out her lesson plan. Sweet green grass poked through the blanket to tickle their ankles and the backs of their legs. “I haven’t heard one that beautiful in a long time.”

Vincent and Jas looked at each other, then back at Penny, mischief in their eyes.

“That means we don’t have to do our math worksheets, right?” Jas asked, and Vincent leveled his best puppy dog eyes in Penny’s direction. She couldn’t help but laugh.

“Sorry.” They both squirmed when she ruffled their hair, giggles bubbling up around them in the soft afternoon light. “Nobody’s luck is that good.”  

oOo

Whiskey Creek, the weathered sign on the gate proclaimed, the whole thing listing to one side after the latest storm. The letters had been branded into the wood, strong and dark once but faded now, and a splinter snagged the pad of Eli’s finger when he touched them. Beside him, Ava squinted down at the sign.

“Weird name for a farm.”

A droplet of blood welled up. Eli stuck his finger in his mouth and looked around. They were at the edge of the property, where the fence met the dirt road that led back into town. The ranch-style house their grandfather had built sat at the end of an unpaved driveway, surrounded by acres of sunbaked land. It still hadn’t sunk in that they were actually there; the hazy blue sky, the oppressive heat, and the droning of the locusts lent it a surreal quality, like standing inside of a dream.

“Was it always called that?” he asked, dropping his hand by his side. His finger still stung, but he ignored it. “I don’t remember that from when we were kids.”

Ava shrugged. “Maybe that’s why we only spent like, two summers here growing up.”

“So that’s why Mom and Dad fought us so hard on this. Trying to save us from the corruption of small-town living.”

Ava laughed, frightening a cloud of starlings from a nearby treetop. She had the loudest laugh of anyone he’d ever known. “Come on, we gotta head back. Robin’s truck just pulled up, and you know we can’t leave Mal unsupervised around new people.”

“He’s a grown-ass man, not a puppy,” Eli said, the heat making him uncharitable, but when she stepped over the broken fence posts, he followed, hands shoved deep in his pockets.

Dust rose up around her boots and his bare calves, red-brown clouds that drifted in their wake, and Eli glanced to his left, where a sea of overgrown farmland waited, green and shining gold. A red pickup rumbled into the gravel-strewn driveway ahead of them and clicked off, engine dying with a whine. Robin, the woman who’d come to greet them at the bus stop, climbed out of the driver’s seat. With her was an older man Eli didn’t recognize. They waved as the siblings drew closer.

“Hi Robin!” Ava chirped, face almost as pink as her hair from the heat.

“Long time no see,” Eli added, and Robin laughed.

“Sorry to bug you kids, but I had some free time today, so I thought I’d stop by and make sure the wiring in this place is holding up. Herb never did like to let other people fix his things.” She motioned to the grey-haired man beside her. “This is Mayor Lewis. He asked if he could tag along and officially welcome you to the neighborhood.”

“Last time I saw you, you were both knee-high to a grasshopper,” Lewis said, shaking hands with both of them. “Your grandfather was a good friend of mine. We’re all sorry for your loss.”

“Thanks. Nice of you to come all the way out here.” Eli shoved his hands back in the pockets of his shorts, trying not to fidget. Summer was bad enough on its own, but his binder was starting to ride up, sweat making it stick to his back. Hopefully the shower still worked, or he was going to have to throw himself in the lake. Lewis peered past him, up toward the house.

“If memory serves, you have a brother… Malachi, right?”

Eli glanced over his shoulder just in time to catch the shadow at the screen door as it moved away. He and Ava looked at one another.

“Yeah, Mal,” Ava said carefully. “He’s unpacking. He’ll come out later, I’m sure.” It was a lie, but a practiced one, and neither Robin nor Lewis pushed them on it. Robin clapped her hands together briskly.

“Right! Well, I’m going to go around back and have a look. Shouldn’t take me more than a few minutes.”

She disappeared around the side of the house, and Lewis took off his cap and wiped his forehead, balding and shiny with sweat. “I’m afraid I have a confession to make.”

Ava crossed her arms. “What’s that?”

“I came here for one other reason.” Lewis resettled the hat. “As it so happens, you’ve arrived at a special time here in Pelican Town.”

“We have?”

“Today is our annual Luau. I doubt either of you remember it, but it’s a tradition in the valley. The Governor himself will be here, too.”

The salt-sweat was starting to itch where it gathered. Eli scratched the back of his neck. “Sounds fancy.”

“It’s actually very relaxed,” Lewis assured him. “You’re not obligated, of course, but you’re welcome to join in. It starts at the beach in a couple of hours.”

In all the excitement, Eli had forgotten how close they were to the beach. He perked up. “Oh, yeah. Could be fun.”

“We’re in,” Ava said. “Do we need to bring anything?”

“You all just got here. No need to worry about it. Oh, and feel free to come and go whenever you want. These things tend to be an all-day affair.”

“And most of the night,” Robin chimed in as she rounded the side of the house, gravel crunching beneath her work boots. Her bright yellow vest flashed neon in the sun. “Good news! I took a peek, and it looks like everything’s in decent shape. Thank Yoba Herb knew his way around home repair, eh? I can still come out sometime next week and set up an internet connection if you want.” She winked. “Unless you really plan on roughing it.”

“Please,” Ava said fervently, and Robin and Lewis both laughed this time.

“You got it, kiddo. I’ll be here first thing Monday morning.” And then it was time for the two of them to head down to the beach and finish setting up, so Eli and Ava stood in the driveway and watched them go, pick-up bumping and rattling its way down the dirt road until it was out of sight.

“So,” Ava said, after a moment had passed. “Robin’s kind of a MILF, right? Or is that just me?”

“Holy shit, Ava. We’ve been here five minutes.”

“So? I’m getting a head start.” She elbowed him, grin widening. One of her back molars was missing – a souvenir from a barfight a few years back. “Gotta find something fun to do around here.”

“Dude, gross. I don’t wanna think about you trying to bang the neighbors.” He elbowed her back, trying not to laugh. “I’m gonna go find my swimtrunks.”

“Yeah, alright. I’m gonna see if we have anything to bring.”

“Why are you so obsessed with bringing something?”

“Uh, because Mom and Dad would physically manifest and kick our asses if we showed up to a potluck empty-handed. Get with the program, Eli.”

“That’s… true. Damnit. I’ll help you look.”

There was no air conditioning in the house, but it was cooler inside than out. Everything was made of dark, polished oak and cherrywood with silvery birch accents in the molding and window frames, every inch crafted by Herbert Lyndon’s own two hands. Only two bedrooms, though, so Eli had volunteered to sleep on the couch, where he could drift off to the comforting white noise of the ancient television against the far wall. The living room and kitchen nestled cozily together, and the front door opened into the adjacent walkway, which was decorated with their late grandmother’s paintings. Eli’s favorite was the one with the abstract blues and greens that hung beside the entranceway to the kitchen, paint running thickly down its canvas. It put him in mind of feathers, or rain. He poked his head around the corner.

“How’s unpacking going?”

“Fine,” Mal said, and shut the fridge door, water bottle in hand. “No thanks to you two.”

“We took a ten-minute break. Chill.”

“You could have taken one too, y’know,” Ava tossed over her shoulder as she sailed past, and Mal gave her the finger. Eli rolled his eyes and changed the subject.

“The mayor invited us to some luau thing this afternoon. You wanna come?”

“Nah.”

Mal cracked the seal on his water bottle and turned away, leaning against the counter. Eli watched him, guilt and frustration wrestling for dominant emotion. When he was younger, he would have given anything to be his older brother; he knew he looked alright, now, and Ava was pretty, but Mal had been in a class of his own. He’d inhabited an entirely different world than the rest of the mortal plane, coasting through life on a never-ending wave of free drinks and phone numbers scrawled on barroom napkins, red lipstick smudged at the corners. Eli had once seen a girl ride her bike into a planter when Mal smiled at her in a strip mall parking lot. But that had been years ago, before the accident and the scars – both physical and mental – had taken his brother and warped him into a sullen, angry recluse who worked at a corporate call center because it was the only job he could find where the customers wouldn’t stare. It was strange to think that he used to lie awake at night while Mal slept without a care in the world, burning with envy and wishing they could trade places.

“C’mon.” Eli didn’t touch him (he’d learned the hard way not to, after Mal came home from the hospital) but he sidled around to stand in front of Mal again, putting on his best I’m your brother and you love me, remember? smile. “We’re gonna be here for at least the next year. It wouldn’t hurt to get to know people.”

“Speak for yourself.” Mal set the half-empty bottle on the counter. “I’m just here to stick it to Joja. Everything else is you and Ava’s business.”

“What’s my business?” Ava reappeared at Mal’s elbow. She’d changed into a sky-blue sundress that showed off her tattoos, her swimsuit underneath, and her hair was tied back with a green bandana. “Your trunks are on chair in the bedroom, by the way.”

“Thanks, and our business is participating in the community,” Eli said. “Since someone’s pulling his shut-in Victorian spinster routine and doesn’t wanna see the light of day.” Mal gave them both a dirty look and left the kitchen, brushing past Ava. The door to the back bedroom slammed shut a moment later.

“Totally normal reaction for a thirty-year-old man!” Ava called after him. “Very mature.”

“Whatever. If he wants to throw a temper tantrum, let him.”

“We always do, don’t we?” She made a shooing motion in Eli’s direction. “Dude, get dressed if you’re gonna go. We gotta walk.”

Part of Eli – specifically, the part of him that wanted to take off his binder and spend twenty minutes with a cold drink and an even colder shower – was regretting going before he’d even left the house. But he did want to see the beach, and the promise of free food spurred him into changing his shorts and digging up an old t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. The bedroom looked like a tornado had swept through when he was done, but that was normal; the bedroom he and Ava had shared growing up was in a perpetual state of disarray. It both comforted and made him strangely homesick. They hadn’t lived together in years.

“Good news,” Ava said when he came padding back into the kitchen, shoes in hand. She held up a six-pack of unlabeled bottles. “Found something to bring.”

“Where’d you find that?” Pause. “What is that?”

“Vegetable crisper. Pops was holding out.” The deep green glass caught the sunlight when she tilted them towards the window, examining their contents. “I’m pretty sure it’s beer… think it’s a problem they’re not labeled?”

“Nah,” Eli said, slipping on his shoes. “We can’t be the first people in this town to poison someone via questionable homebrew.”

“I’m trying to make a good first impression! Ass.”

“I’m not sure attempted murder is the best way to do that, but hey. You do you.”

Ava chucked her sandal at him.

 

The walk was a long one, made longer by the sweltering weather, but beautiful, with lush fields on either side of them and a sea of jewel-toned forests in the distance. Spiny mountains the color of rust loomed, jagged teeth piercing the cloudless sky, and Pelican Town nestled in the center of it all, cupped by the welcoming hands of the earth. Eli only had vague memories of their summer vacations there, near two decades ago now, and it felt strange and familiar all at once with its quaint brick buildings and cobblestone roads, lampposts lining the square and flowers growing out of window boxes like relics of forgotten times.

“I didn’t think places like this still existed,” he said, looking around.

“Me either,” Ava said. “It’s so weird to be back. I don’t think anything’s changed since we were here last time, do you?”

“No. Just Pops, I guess.” And Mal, went the unspoken refrain. They smiled sadly at one another.

The town square was deserted, the streets and buildings eerie in their stillness, but as soon as they crossed the long, rickety bridge from town to beach, the entire atmosphere shifted from empty to joyous. Everyone was on the beach with the gulls wheeling overhead on the ocean breeze, their cries drowned out by the waves and the sounds of laughter and celebration. Colorful blankets decorated the sand like patchwork. A little girl tore past them as they stepped off the bridge and onto hot sand, shrieking gleefully. A boy about the same age chased after her, and from near one of the fold-out buffet tables loaded down with food, Robin caught Eli’s eye and waved.

“Hey, you made it!” She’d changed too, into a yellow sarong patterned with palm trees and parrots. It matched the shirt of the man with his arm around her waist. “This is my husband Demetrius. Demetrius, these are Herb’s grandkids, Ava and Eli.”

Demetrius shook hands with them both, grip sure. “Pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise.” Eli pointed at the enormous cooking pot in the center of the gathering, suspended over a stone firepit someone had dug out for the occasion. Mayor Lewis was chatting with the middle-aged woman overseeing it, flanked by a portly man in purple. “What’s going on over there?”

“Oh, that.” Robin waved her hand. “It’s The Soup.”

“The Soup,” Ava repeated dubiously.

“Every summer, the Governor comes to visit, and everyone brings something to add to that pot so he can judge it. It’s supposed to give him a taste of the local bounty.” Lewis was looking their way, a distinct note of panic in his expression. Robin smiled encouragingly. “You think Lewis would be less nervous about it by now,” she added through her teeth, still smiling. “The Governor’s come every summer for the last fifteen years.”

“Which has nothing to do with him getting his picture in the paper every one of those years, I’m sure,” Demetrius said. Robin swatted his forearm.

“Wow. And nobody ever… y’know.” Eli motioned vaguely in their direction. “Takes advantage of the situation?”

Demetrius shook his head, expression grave. “We don’t talk about the summer of the anchovies.”

“It’s better some years than others,” Robin admitted. “But you should stick around after it’s done. That’s when the real fun starts.”

Eli’s first instinct was to say something sarcastic, like how he couldn’t imagine anything being more fun than taste-testing the mystery soup, but he held himself back. He didn’t know these people yet, didn’t want to mock their traditions on his first day here – neither he nor Ava used to be all that concerned about first impressions, but there they both were, wanting their new neighbors to like them. Maybe that was just part of growing up: smoothing out the rough edges while you tried to become someone better. Maybe he was finally getting there.

“Sure,” he said. “It’s not like we have anywhere else to be.”

oOo

Sunset came to robe the sky in hues of orange and gold like autumn leaves, and Eli’s face hurt from smiling. He’d eaten too much and there was sand in every crevice of his body, but he was four beers deep and feeling too good to care.

Robin and Demetrius had kids in their twenties, only a year or two younger than Ava, but they were both off on different parts of the beach with their friends. “I’ll introduce you later,” Robin had promised, and then it was time for the tasting. Ava and Eli lingered in the back of the crowd, listening to Lewis extoll the Governor’s praises while they eyed the soup, which had taken on a greenish cast.

“I’m not eating that,” Ava whispered.

“Me either.” Eli nodded at Robin and Demetrius’s backs, just to see her expression. “Too bad they’re not on the menu.”

Ava popped him one in the shoulder, cheeks blotchy and red between her freckles.

“They’re gonna hear you!” she hissed.

Eli knew he was being an asshole, but he couldn’t resist one final jab. They pushed each other’s buttons like nobody else – part and parcel of your best friend and your sibling being rolled into one. “You’re the one who called her a MILF.” He nudged his shoulder against hers. “Hey, maybe they swing. You never know.”

“Dude, shut up.”

The Governor pronounced the soup pleasant, with much fanfare and posing for the camera, and everyone clapped politely and murmured congratulations to one another. Lewis looked like he might faint with relief. It was odd, Eli thought, but nice. You couldn’t do anything like that in the city. But as it turned out, Robin was right – once the Governor had departed and the leftover soup distributed and set aside for later, the chant of “Clambake! Clambake!” swept across the shore, and the real fun began.

The firepit was repurposed and set up with cinderblocks at the corners, and Eli and Ava helped Robin layer seaweed between the corn, potatoes and clams on their corner of the pit. Her daughter Maru showed up not long after to help out; she had her mom’s easy smile and her dad’s no-nonsense mannerisms, and her friend Penny was quiet and sweet with big doe eyes, hovering around Maru’s heels. Half the town was crowded around the pit, talking over each other while they waited for everything to cook, smoke billowing towards the sky. It was chaos, but the good kind, like Zuzu City when it came alive at night but gentler. Ava got up and came back a minute later, toting the six-pack.

“We found this in the fridge,” she explained, plopping down between Eli and Maru with the cardboard holder in her lap. “I don’t know if they’re any good, but – “

“Is that the Big Man’s homebrew?” Robin asked, craning her neck around her daughter to get a better look. “Pass two of those this way, quick. Before anyone notices.”

“Sure.” Ava handed two of them to Maru, who passed them along. “You’ve had this stuff before?”

“Absolutely,” Demetrius said as Robin handed one to him. “Your grandpa brewed some of the best beer this valley’s ever seen. Give it a try if you haven’t already.”

Eli snagged one, and Ava offered one to Maru, who politely declined before excusing herself. Penny had already disappeared as quietly as she’d come. Eli had a split second to wonder about it before the simultaneous crack and fizzle of bottles being opened drew his attention elsewhere. Robin cleared her throat.

“To Herb.”

“To Herb,” Demetrius echoed. “He was a good man.”

“To Pops.”

“To Pops.” The necks of all four bottles clinked, and they drank deeply. Eli wasn’t much of a beer drinker – he didn’t like to do things halfway, getting drunk included – but this was different. This was summer in a bottle, fruit and honey and sunshine spices thick on his tongue. He finished half the bottle in one go, gasping a little as the carbonation tickled his nose.

“Holy shit, that’s good.”

“Yeah, wow,” Ava said. She’d already finished hers, and was eyeing one of the remaining bottles. “You weren’t kidding.”

“I never kid,” Demetrius said. Eli couldn’t tell whether or not he was joking.

 

It hadn’t been long before food was ready, and there was salt and melted butter to go around, passed from hand to hand around the pit. Everything tasted smoky and briny like the sea, and Eli ate and ate and ate, licking his fingers clean. He was full now, and warm, and someone else had brought more beer to share; the fire was welcome now that the sun was going down, and the cooling breeze kissed his cheeks. A blond kid he didn’t know had whipped out a guitar and had half the beach singing a song he’d never heard. Nightingales cooed along from nearby treetops. Robin and Demetrius were dancing a little way away, kicking up sand and laughing like a couple half their age, and to his right, Ava had become heavily engrossed in conversation with a blue-haired woman. Something about auras, from the sound of it. Nobody noticed when he extricated himself from the circle, brushing sand from the creases in his shorts while he stumbled towards the bridge leading back to town. It was starting to get dark, the sky freckled with stars, but the bridge was lit by the same old-fashioned lampposts on either end. Here, it was cool, the noise from the beach so much crashing surf in the background, and he leaned against the low stone wall and ran his hands through his hair.

“I really do think this will be good for you, Eli,” Janice had said at their last session, two weeks before the move. “We’ve been talking about reducing the frequency of your sessions for a while now. Think of it as a test run.” Janice had been Eli’s therapist for the last five years. She wore cat’s-eye glasses and sensible cardigans no matter the weather, and she took no one’s shit, Eli’s included. He adored her.

“What if I can’t do it?” he’d asked, shifting on her overstuffed brown couch. “What if I get there and everything goes straight to hell?”

“Then at least you tried, and I’m only two hours away,” she reminded him with a smile. “If you need to make an emergency appointment, you can. I’ll still be here when you get back either way.”

It’s only a year.

A tendril of anxiety snaked in, piercing the lingering, beer-fueled glow. This was how it always went. Any time things seemed like they were going well, there it was, tapping him on the shoulder and whispering that things were going a little too well, didn’t he think?

He brushed it aside firmly. No. It’s nice here. Everyone’s nice. It’s going to be fine.

A deep bark snapped him out of his reverie, and he looked to his left just in time to see a huge, shaggy brown dog hurtling towards the bridge, leash whipping behind it. He had about two seconds to process what was happening before heavy paws on his chest nearly knocked him flat, and the dog tried to climb all over him, panting happily in his ear.

“Hey, whoa there,” he laughed, narrowly avoiding dog tongue in his mouth. “You’re cute, but I don’t kiss on the first date.”

“Dusty!” someone yelled, exasperated. The dog dropped obediently to all fours, tail wagging so fast it looked liable to burst into flame, and circled Eli’s legs, barking at the figure jogging towards them. Dusty’s owner, Eli presumed. He was tall and broad-shouldered, wearing a Zuzu Tunneller’s t-shirt and jeans, and when he got closer, the lamplight shone on green eyes and a strong jaw, both set firm with annoyance. “Damnit, Dusty – sorry, man.” He grabbed the leash, wrapping it around his hand, and Dusty barked again, trying to lick Eli’s shorts. “He likes meeting new people.”

“Hey, me too.” Eli wasn’t exactly short, but he found himself having to tilt his chin up to make eye contact. A pang of envy echoed in his chest. “It’s not as socially acceptable for me to lick them, though.”

The guy made a noise like he wasn’t sure whether or not to laugh. “Uh… sure. Good luck with that.” He gave Dusty’s lead a tug. “C’mon, boy. We gotta go.”

“I don’t actually lick people!” Eli called after him, suddenly embarrassed, but both man and dog kept walking without a backwards glance. He slumped back against the bridge, jamming his hands deep in his pockets. Smooth, dude. Real smooth. Still, as far as first impressions went, flubbing one out of thirty wasn’t bad. He just needed to keep focusing on the positive.

Cute dog, though.

 

“Where have you been?” Ava asked when he flopped down next to her in the sand. She’d switched to water while he was gone, and judging by her shoulders and the bridge of her nose, she was going to have a sunburn come morning. Eli didn’t envy her. All he and Mal ever did was tan in the summer. He shrugged.

“Getting some air.”

“We’re outside, dingus.”

“Different air.” People had been leaving as the night wore on, and now it was just them and a few others, scattered in clumps along the beach. He spotted Robin and Demetrius sitting at the water’s edge, her head on his shoulder as the waves lapped at their bare feet. “They look like Mom and Dad, don’t they? All disgustingly happy and in love.”

“I know. It’s adorable.” Ava looked at him, and he looked back. She had her knees hugged to her chest, the hem of her dress fluttering against the sand. Shadows played across her face, hazel eyes unusually serious in the firelight. “What do you think so far?”

“Of them, or the town?”

“The town.”

“Everything seems good so far. Why, what do you think?”

Ava’s gaze drifted to where the moon hung soft and full over the ocean, wreathed in stars. From where they were sitting, it stippled the whole thing silver, like diamonds scattered on black glass.

“I think I’m gonna like it here,” she said.

oOo

It was late by the time they left the beach, but the moonlight was bright enough to see by, dirt roads and surrounding fields cast in stark relief as they stumbled home with their arms around each other’s shoulders. Mal was asleep on the couch when they came in, giggling and trying to hush one another; an old copy of The Land Before Time whirred the in the VCR. He didn’t budge, even when Ava turned the TV off, so they left him to his dreams and took turns showering off the grime of the day’s events. Midnight found them sprawled on Ava’s bed in their pajamas like they used to do when they were younger, whispering secrets to one another in the dark.

“I can’t believe you were the one who sold Josie Russo and Daniel Dieter that bag of oregano,” Eli said, face buried in the pillow to muffle his laughter. “They talked about how high they got at Cory’s cousin’s party for like a month!”

“Daniel started that rumor about you, and Josie used to cheat off of me in Algebra. Mild humiliation was the least I could do.” Ava rolled onto her back, hugging her pillow to her chest. “I don’t miss high school.”

“Me either, but that’s not exactly a secret.”

“Yeah.” Ava paused, and her expression shifted in something somber. “This was Dad’s childhood room, I think. I told Mal he could have the master bedroom because I didn’t want to sleep where Pops died. Is that weird?”

“It’d be weirder if you did,” Eli said, and they both smothered a few guilty snickers. Ava looked over at him.

“Your turn.”

Once, when pressed, Eli had told her that the reason he quit sharing secrets with her was because he didn’t want anyone to know the nameless, brutal conflict raging inside him once puberty hit. That he was afraid of what he might say if he let his guard down for even a second. That was true, but it wasn’t the truth – there were some things he couldn’t share with her no matter how badly he might want to. He could feel them pressing against his teeth now, like birds trying to break free of a cage. But this wasn’t the time, and he swallowed it all down with a silent apology, digging for something else to fill the empty space between them.

“I’m afraid we won’t be able to keep this up for a whole year.”

“Me too.” Ava’s voice was starting to soften, slurring around the edges. “I really missed spending time with you like this.”

“Me too.” He reached out, took her hand. “It’s like… with everything that’s been going on for the last few years, everything else just kinda fell by the wayside. I’m sorry.”

“Nah, I get it.” Her eyes fluttered closed. “You, me, Mal… we all kinda fell by the wayside for a while.”

“I wish it was like when we were kids still, sometimes. When it was easier, y’know? It was all just… easier.”

“Yeah.” She squeezed his hand. “It was.”

That was how they fell asleep – fully clothed, stretched gracelessly on top of the covers with wet hair and their fingers tangled together. But in the space between dreaming and waking, after Ava had dozed off and Eli was almost there, he told the house the secret he’d been keeping. Old houses know all about secrets. Their walls have no tongues, but they have ears. It listened without judgment, without reproach or shame; it had heard worse in the four decades since Herbert Lyndon built it to win the love of a woman who could never really be his. It took his secret into itself, and there it would stay, between the two of them and the stars.

Chapter Text

“Remind me why I’m doing this again?”

“It’s called strength-training, Hales. And it’s because you love me.”

“When I said we should hang out more, this isn’t what I meant.”

Alex took a deep, sucking breath through his nose and didn’t answer her. The garden was in full bloom this year, lush waterfalls of color pouring from their planters and pollen swimming through the air. The best one in town, his grandma’s garden – way better than whatever was going on in Lewis’s front yard. And sure, he could have worked out inside or up at the spa, but he liked being in the yard, surrounded by the flowers she loved so much. It kept him focused on his ultimate goal, even when his muscles burned and his chest ached and he had to sit in an ice bath for half an hour at the end of the day, hating himself and the rest of the world: try out for the Tunnellers, go pro, take care of Grandma and Gramps for the rest of their lives.

(Try out for the Tunnellers four years running now, the metal bleachers unforgiving against the backs of his thighs, sweat burning where it dripped in his eyes – “Better luck next year, kid.”)

“You’re so sweaty,” Haley complained from where she was perched cross-legged on his back, waiting for him to finish his last set of push-ups. She was texting someone; he could hear her acrylic nails clicking away on the keypad. “Are you almost done?”

He grunted. “What time is it?”

“Just after one.”

“Shit. Okay, get off. I gotta go.”

“Gladly.” Haley climbed off, stuffing her phone into the pocket of her shorts. Even in the heat, she looked perfect, but that was just Haley. She put in a lot of effort to look effortlessly beautiful, and when you cut to the heart of the matter, that was why they got along – like Alex, she knew it was easier to focus on the surface. If people liked something on the outside, they usually forgot to look at the rest. “I’m going to wait in the kitchen.”

There wasn’t enough time to take a real shower, so he rinsed off with the garden hose and ducked inside to find a clean shirt. Back downstairs, Haley had made herself comfortable at the table, scrolling through some app on her phone, and his grandma smiled at him when he came through the door.

“There you are.” She was in the middle of stuffing their old picnic basket to the brim, a container of fruit salad by her elbow. Jars of jam and pickled produce were nestled inside a checkered blue-and-white cloth, a plastic container of cookies at their center. Alex came over and kissed the top of her head, one hand on her shoulder. Her bones felt impossibly light these days, almost hollow. Sometimes he was afraid he’d lose her to the wind when the summer storms came through.

“I gotta run, Grandma. Haley too. I’ll be back for dinner.”

“Ah, ah, ah.” She tutted at him and put the fruit salad in the basket, shutting the lid. Checkered cloth peeked out from both sides. “First, I need you to take this to the new farmers.”

“Have you met them?” Haley asked, perking up. Alex gave her a look – he didn’t really want to get sucked into town gossip when he was already in a hurry – but Evelyn just shook her head.

“Not yet, but Lewis has. He says they’re good people.” She reached up and patted Alex’s hand. “Good thing they showed up when they did, too… shame to let such a lovely piece of land go to waste.”

“Yeah, great. Can it wait? I’m gonna be late to open the stand.”

“It’ll keep for a little while longer.”

“But – “

“Alexander Travis Mueller,” Evelyn said, and his mouth snapped shut on reflex. “When we get new neighbors, we make them feel welcome. That’s the Pelican Town tradition. Now, all I’m asking is for you to take a few minutes out of your day to be kind. Can you do that for me?”

“Fine, alright,” he muttered, feeling about two inches tall. She hadn’t used his full name in years. “I’ll take it over.”

“Thank you, dear.” Evelyn looked over at Haley, serene once more. “Would you mind going with him? I just made fresh bread, too, but there’s no more room in the basket.”

“Of course, Granny,” Haley said, smiling sweetly at Alex. He gave her the finger as soon as his grandma’s back was turned.

 oOo

The farm was on the outskirts of town, in the opposite direction from where he usually set up his stand for the day, and Alex sulked the entire way there, Haley trotting along at his heels.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” she said. “You don't have to like, hang out with them. Just drop it off and go.”

Alex grunted. He didn’t really think Haley had room to talk, considering she picked fights with Emily over splitting chores every other week, but he wasn’t about to open his mouth and say so. One of the women in his life being pissed at him was enough.

It wasn’t the prospect of hanging out with the farmers. It was his grandma’s words sitting in his chest like a hot coal, shame and anger burning him up bit by bit. She didn’t need to talk to him like he was stupid. He already knew he was dumb. He’d heard it plenty growing up, everywhere he turned: his dad, his classmates, even his teachers when they reached the end of their rope. He didn’t need it from her too. And as much as it all sucked, that was the part that sucked the most – being just smart enough to know how dumb he really was.

“Hey.” Haley touched his arm, fingers damp and unbearably warm. They were both sweating. The sun beat down overhead, round and orange as a tangerine. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” He moved his arm away and picked up the pace. She pouted, but quit trying to talk to him after that. They turned onto the dirt road leading out of town in silence.

The closer they got, the worse the farm looked, wood sagging in all directions like it was melting and fields creeping up towards the road. Whiskey Creek, the sign said. He resisted the urge to kick it.

The dirt and gravel path led up to the sprawling ranch-style house, its porch populated with faded patio furniture and scattered shoes. Alex was going to suggest they leave everything next to the lawn chair and turn around, but Haley marched up to the front door and knocked, bread basket swinging from the crook of her arm. They waited, Alex lingering behind her on the steps, but no one came.

“Maybe they’re not home.”

“Maybe.”

She knocked again. Still no answer. She’d just raised her hand to try one last time when someone yanked the door open.

Alex recoiled. He didn’t mean to, but the guy standing there looked like the “Before” photo in a plastic surgery infomercial he’d seen once, and Haley’s audible gasp didn’t help. From the shoulders down, he looked normal, dressed in a plain t-shirt and jeans. From the shoulders up –

“What?” the guy asked, deep voice tight with annoyance. Scars fractured his face like cracks in a mirror, some cobweb-fine and others thicker and knotted. One long pink line cut across the corner of his mouth and disappeared past his chin, pulling his expression into a permanent sneer. The only thing left untouched were his eyes, cool and grey with long black lashes framing them. Almost too pretty to belong to a guy, let alone this guy. Alex cleared his throat, determined to ignore the weird, sick knot in his gut even as it pulled tighter.

“Hey, so, uh… you’re new here. Right?”

Great start, genius.

“Take a guess.” The guy folded his arms. “What do you want?”

“We’re your neighbors,” Haley interrupted, and Alex decided he was grateful that she’d come along after all, if it meant he didn’t have to talk. “I’m Haley, and this is Alex. His grandma wanted us to bring you a welcome gift.” She held out her basket, smile plastered on her glossy lips. “Pelican Town tradition.”

“Leave ‘em on the porch,” the guy said, and slammed the door shut.

Haley’s jaw dropped. Alex had never seen anyone’s jaw drop in real life before. “Jerk!”

“Seriously.” Under any other circumstance, he would have been pissed. He was pissed that he was even in this situation to begin with. But more than anything, he just wanted to get out of there. “Can we go now?”

Haley ignored him and knocked again, harder this time. She kept doing it until the guy yanked the door open, screen door banging on its hinges and his lips peeled back from his teeth in a snarl.

“Why are you still here?”

“Why are you being so rude?”

Right for the jugular, as usual. Haley didn’t really do subtle. The guy’s expression remained unchanged, the sneer on his lips tugging them grotesquely to the side.

“I don’t like surprise visitors.”

“Well, out here, we don’t like people with no manners.” She thrust the basket into his hands, her own lip curled. “Find some.”

Those too-pretty eyes narrowed, but before the guy could say anything, a second voice came from over his shoulder.

“What’s going on?”

The girl who appeared in the doorway was around their age, tall and sturdy, with a shock of wild pink hair spilling over her shoulders. Her bare feet poked from beneath some ruffled, off-the-shoulder hippie dress, nails painted navy. Silver rings glittered in her nose and eyebrows, and her bare arms were covered with tattoos, a kaleidoscope of color against her pale skin. She took one look at Haley’s furious expression and Alex’s clenched jaw and rounded on the guy next to her, grabbing the sleeve of his shirt.

“I swear to – can you act like a normal human being for five seconds? Please?” The guy’s scowl deepened, but he kept quiet. The girl switched on a smile in their direction, all sunshine and apologies. The contrast was jarring. “Excuse us. One sec.”

She dragged the guy inside and shut the door. There was a lot of muffled, furious whispering – Alex couldn’t hear most of it, even with the open windows, but he did catch something that sounded like ‘out to get you’ and ‘looking at me’. He and Haley exchanged uneasy glances. At that moment, he would have given anything to be somewhere else, but his feet were frozen to the splintered porch slats. Then, there was silence, and the door opened, the girl smiling like nothing was wrong.

“Sorry about my brother. He’s not great with people he doesn’t know.” The way she said it made Alex think she’d had plenty of practice. “I’m Ava. Are those for us?”

Alex muscled his way past Haley and practically threw the basket at her. He knew it wasn’t her fault, but he needed to leave, and every passing second on their farm was making him feel worse.

“Here,” he said, and stepped off the porch. He didn’t bother waiting for Haley. She’d follow him like she always did, but right then, all he wanted was to be alone.

 oOo

His grandma thought he hated Herb Lyndon the same way he hated Gus and Pam and living next door to the Stardrop – because the Big Man’s whiskey was his dad’s drink of choice, because the Stardrop was the only place in town to go, because everyone knew what went on and kept serving him anyway. Alex didn’t bother correcting her. It wasn’t like it mattered now that Herb was dead and his dad was gone, and he didn’t really want to talk about it either way, but that wasn’t the real reason.

He’d hated Herb because out of all of them, Herb was the one who had finally snapped. Herb was the one who’d marched into the Saloon one night, all six-foot-five-inches and three hundred pounds of pissed-off farmer, and beat the ever-loving shit out of Alex’s dad in front of half of Pelican Town. Threatened to kill him if he laid a hand on his wife or son again, from what Alex had been told. He hadn’t seen it, though part of him wished he had. It might have been something to hold onto in the days that followed.

As soon as he recovered, his dad skipped town, but not before he put Alex’s mom in the clinic and broke three of Alex’s ribs. He didn’t remember much from that night. Just a searing pain in his side, each breath like a knife, and his dad’s breath, hot and sour on his cheek.

It’s the Big Man’s fault you don’t have a daddy no more. Remember that.

Alex hated his dad, for what he did to both of them, but he’d loved him too. Love wasn’t like a light switch – he couldn’t just flip it off for the bad parts. And then his mom got sick, and he kind of blamed Herb for that too, even though he knew it wasn’t right. He just needed something to hate, so the anger chewing a hole in him had somewhere to go without his dad around. Even now, years later, he couldn’t quite let it go. He thought maybe Herb knew, too, and that was why he’d stopped looking Alex in the eye. Then again, so had a lot of people.

Herb died last winter. Alex never tried to ask him about that night. He didn’t go to the funeral. The whole town turned out, plus a bunch of people Alex had never met before, and their tears flooded the valley like the river after the rain. Alex laid in bed and listened to them weep while he stared out the window at the saloon, wishing it would all burn. Maybe he was more like his dad than he’d thought.

 oOo

The last thing he felt like doing was opening the stand, but it was getting close to three, which meant that Penny would be walking Jas and Vincent home soon, and she liked to treat them when she could afford it. Sometimes Alex pretended he was having a contest, and he’d give them free ice cream if they answered whatever dumb math problem he could come up with off the top of his head. It was never hard, so they always won, and he liked that it made Penny smile. He thought maybe they should have been friends – Pam wasn’t as bad as his dad, but he knew how it was. But he’d been popular in high school, and she hadn’t, and now they were past that but he still couldn’t think of anything to say to her.

“Can I come over for dinner?” Haley asked, head bent over her phone. He had no idea who she was texting. It wasn’t like she talked to anyone besides him and her sister. “Emily’s on this weird kick where she’s only eating red foods. The house reeks like beet juice and onions.”

“Yeah, sure.” The tubs of ice cream were starting to look soupy, even though the frosted glass. Haley practically lived at his grandparent’s house. Sometimes he thought his grandma liked her better than she liked him. Either that, or she was still holding out hope that they’d end up married. He didn’t know which one was worse.

“Hey,” she said, and he glanced at her. “That guy was an ass. But also a total shut-in? So we’ll probably never see him again.”

Haley wasn’t always the best at cheering people up – she was better at it than people gave her credit for, but retail therapy wasn’t really his thing. This time, though, he found himself weirdly comforted by the idea that she was right.

“Yeah, maybe.”

“Trust me. That guy probably hasn’t gone outside for more than an hour in years.” She shook her head, blonde curls tumbling down her back. “What do you think happened to his face?”

Alex shrugged, hoping she’d changed the subject. There was a part of him that wanted to feel bad for the guy, or did until he’d opened his mouth, walking around looking like an extra in a bad horror movie. Just thinking about it made his gut twist. But Haley carried on, oblivious.

“Whatever it was, it must have been bad. You don’t think he’s an army vet or something, do you?”

“Who cares?” He leaned against the stand, forearms braced on the cold metal. Even with the umbrella, the sun bit at his back, sweat gathering under his arms. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s just some douchebag with a messed-up face.”

“Sounds like someone I know,” a new voice said. “Is that ice cream?”

Alex and Haley both looked, heads snapping towards the bridge like startled deer. The speaker lifted a hand in greeting. There was something familiar about his crooked grin, but it took Alex a second to place him.

“You’re the guy who doesn’t lick people,” he blurted. The guy in question stared at him for a second, then burst out laughing.

“I’m never going to live that one down, I can already tell.” He looked different than Alex’s hazy sunset recollection, taller and broader, with curly dark hair and a scruffy beard just starting to grow in. He was wearing an old band t-shirt and cargo shorts, which Alex could tell Haley loathed without even looking at her. “It’s Eli, actually. My name.” He shoved his hands into his pockets. “You got strawberry?”

“What? Oh. Yeah.” Alex fumbled for a scoop while he slid the cover open. He’d been half-convinced that he hallucinated their meeting the other night; Eli showing up in the middle of the day, flesh and blood as any other man, was just the cherry on the bizarre sundae that was his summer so far. Pink ice cream dribbled down the napkin when he held out the cone, sticking to his fingers. “Five bucks.”

“That’s highway robbery,” Eli said, but he fished out his wallet anyway and slapped a five on the stand. “This ice cream had better be a magical fucking experience.”

“Only one way to find out.” Part of Alex wondered if he should be offended, but Eli’s tone wasn’t mean, and he was still smiling. It felt more like they were old friends giving each other a hard time than anything.

“Wait.” Haley looked between them, brows wrinkled together. “The guy who doesn’t lick people?”

“It’s nothing,” Alex said. “Ran into each other the other night when I was out walking the dog.” He looked away while Eli started in on the cone, because it seemed weird to just stare the guy down while he was trying to eat, but Haley watched, head cocked like Dusty when he heard a squirrel.

“Are you a tourist? We don’t usually get those until the fair.”

“In a sense.” Eli sucked the melted ice cream off his fingers, wiping at them unsuccessfully with the napkin. “Damn. Alright, you got me. It was worth five bucks.”

“Duh,” Alex said, pleased with himself and not really sure why. Haley brightened.

“From Zuzu City?”

“Where else?”

“I love Zuzu. The pink melon cake at Café Saucier is to die for.”

“Yeah, it’s good stuff. I used to busk all over the Gaslamp District when gigs were slow. There are worse things than getting paid in cake.”

Haley clapped her hands together, expression gleeful. “Finally! Someone cool comes to town.” Alex was still stuck wondering what busking was. “I thought for a second that you were one of those Lyndon weirdos.”

Eli paused. “Lyndon weirdos?”

Haley waved the question away, dismissive now that she’d found something more interesting to focus on. “One of the farmers who lived here died last year. His grandkids came to take over his farm, and so far? Not impressed.”

“The guy’s a total prick,” Alex said. Haley might have been over it, but he still felt like punching something whenever he thought about the sign and the door slamming in his face. “And his face is all messed up, too. Hardcore messed up. It’s creepy.”

“The girl seems nice enough, but she dresses like a thrift store reject,” Haley added, twisting strands of hair around her index finger. “Unfortunate, but what can you do?”

“Boy, that is unfortunate,” Eli said, and dropped the remains of his cone on the ground, bits of pink cream mingling with the dirt. “Whoops.”

A prickly feeling crawled up the back of Alex’s neck, a warning sign come a second too late. “Dude, what the hell?”

“Lost my appetite.” There was a definite edge to Eli’s words now, gone from friendly and open to sullen and detached in the space of seconds. His eyes were grey up close, too, some detached part of Alex noted. Soft and clear as morning mist, with long black lashes. Almost too pretty to belong to a guy, really. “I just remembered I have somewhere to be. Catch you later.”

“Hey, wait!” Haley called after him as he walked away, but he ignored her and crossed the bridge, back the way he’d come. She looked back at Alex, somewhere between angry and bewildered, blue eyes wide. “Seriously, what is with everyone today?”

“I think,” Alex said, and he was starting to get that sinking feeling he got sometimes, like there was a riptide in his guts, trying to drag him out to sea even though he was on dry land, “he’s one of them.”

Beneath her tan, Haley went pale. She looked towards the bridge, but Eli was already gone. A bird trilled, scolding from a nearby tree. “Are you messing with me?”

“No, dude, I’m sure. He’s one of them.”

For a second, she wavered, looking out over the town towards the square, where a hunched over figure could be seen growing smaller by the second, but then she pressed her lips together and turned away, nose in the air.

“Whatever. It’s not like it makes anything we said less true.”

“Yeah,” he agreed, and the queasy feeling in his stomach only grew stronger, almost slimy. “It’s not like we were talking about him.”

“Exactly,” Haley said, and went back to typing on her phone. “What a baby.”

The ice cream cart hummed beneath Alex’s palms. The remains of the cone Eli had dropped lay in front of it, broken and covered in grime. It’s not that big of a deal, Alex wanted to tell him, and that made him feel even more pathetic, trying to defend himself to a guy he’d spoken to for a total of five minutes. Your brother was the one who started it, anyway, and there was that feeling of being two inches tall again, hot and sweaty and small. He shoved his hands into his pockets, kicked the side of the cart.

Whatever.

 oOo

The sky blazed purple and gold, the sun putting up one last fight before it slunk off into darkness to lick its wounds, and when Alex opened the gate, Dusty was on his feet before the chain link fence so much as rattled.

“Hey boy.” He dangled the leash. “Wanna go for a walk?”

Dusty dashed around him in a circle, barking.

 

Normally they walked by the fields, but Alex was avoiding Whiskey Creek, so they went the other way, down to the beach. Dusty immediately flopped on his belly and rolled around, tail slapping the ground and sending clouds of sand in all directions. Alex let him. It wasn’t like his grandparents allowed Dusty inside, anyway, except during the deep freeze. He found a good-sized stick of driftwood and unclipped the leash, and Dusty pranced in front of him, begging and bouncing until Alex hurled it and both dog and stick flew down the beach. It was a good throw. Still not good enough for the Tunnellers, but better than anyone else on the team, back when he led varsity three years running. Dusty came back, panting around the stick. Alex wrestled it out of his jaws and threw it again, harder this time.

That was the trouble with life; it happened whether you were paying attention or not. He’d been so busy trying to get through one day at a time that when he came up for air, he realized he’d been out of school for five years and still had nothing to show for it. Everything kept on moving around him, and there he was, treading water while he tried to catch up. He was still trying to figure out when you went from “future gridball star” to “washed-up jock”. Was there a hard line you crossed at some point, or was that gradual, too?

“This year,” he told Dusty, who’d flopped at his feet to gnaw on the stick. “Fall tryouts. This is the big one, so we gotta train harder than ever now. You with me?”

Dusty woofed, stick caked in sand and drool.

“Thanks, bud.”

Waves rolled onto the shore, lapping at the sand with white foam tongues. The tide was coming in, the last gasp of sunlight nearly extinguished on the horizon, and for some reason he thought of them again, Eli and his brother with their cool, sea-grey eyes. Their sister’s eyes were different, he realized. Not grey, but hazel, like moss in the forest. She and Eli had the same smile, though. Friendly, until it wasn’t.

He didn’t know why he was thinking about it. About them.

It wasn’t like it mattered.

Chapter Text

Herbert Lyndon’s first love was a selkie.

She wasn’t really a selkie, their dad used to insist whenever Eli and Ava begged him to tell the story of how a seal-woman rescued him from the storm. Herb’s tales tended to mix fact and fiction, and he didn’t need to be telling them to impressionable children for Aurelio to sort out later. Herb would nod solemnly, and as soon as their dad’s back was turned, he’d wink at them and mouth yes she was. That was just how their grandpa was, though – full of stories for every occasion. Mal didn’t care one way or another, but Eli and Ava devoured them like starving animals. Eventually Ava’s interests turned to other things, but Eli’s curiosity remained, even as he grew older and saw his grandpa less and less. The last time they’d seen each other, on Winter’s Star a decade ago, Eli had woken up early and gone out to the kitchen, where he found his grandpa drinking a cup of coffee and watching the snow fall.

“I want to know the story,” he’d said, settling into the opposite chair. “The real story.”

He’d been eighteen then, awkward and still unsure of himself, but Pops never treated him that way, never treated him like he was weird or different even though he knew he was. Somewhere in the house, the ancient radiator groaned, but cold air slipped through the kitchen door and grasped at his bare feet. Pops had coughed a little, then smiled. He’d been on the decline even then, gaunter and paler than he’d been the last time they’d seen him, but his voice was still as rich as the earth he tilled.

“Her name was Cora,” he said.

They met the summer after Herb graduated high school, working on a fishing boat that ran a three-month route between Ferngill and the Gotoro Empire (well before the war, he added). Cora was half-Gotoran and the most experienced one of the bunch, five years his senior. He’d taken one look at her, with her sea-glass eyes and hair so black it was almost blue, cleaning an albacore like it was second nature, and that was that. Love snuck up and gutted him, same as the fish. He never even saw it coming.

“We worked together on that boat for three years before I found out what she was.” Pops resettled in his chair, wood creaking beneath his bulk. “I’d already asked her to marry me once, but she turned me down. In hindsight, I should have left her be, but your first love has a way of making you crazy.” He glanced at Eli. “You ever been in love?”

Eli shook his head.

“Good. Being young already makes you reckless. No need to add love into the mix.” Pops drank more of his coffee. “Anyway. It gets lonely out there, on the ocean for months on end… most folks ended up sharing beds more often than not. Helps keep you sane. But I’ve always been a light sleeper, and some nights, I’d wake up to find Cora gone. She’d always come back before morning, so most nights, I let her be. But on this particular night, a storm was brewing…”

Eli had heard this part before – how his grandpa had run up to the deck to find her, only to be swept over the side by the churning waves. How he thought he was going to die at twenty-one, only to be rescued by the biggest, sleekest seal he’d ever encountered before or since, with a blue-black coat and sea-glass eyes. How in return for saving his life, he promised to keep her secret, since the temptation of a selkie’s pelt was often too much for any human to resist.

“I kept her secret,” Pops said, his mouth unsmiling now and his eyes faraway. “I wish that was all I’d done. Yoba, if I don’t wish for that every day.”

The cold air snatched at Eli’s feet, and he tucked them up on his chair, shivering. “What… what did you do?”

Pops sighed, and in that one sound, there was forty years of regret.

“I kept her sealskin.”

oOo

Parrot cries lingered in Eli’s dreams like perfumed smoke, jeweled green feathers filling his vision, and then he was awake, sunlight spilling into the living room. The screeching and whistling continued, and it took him a second to realize that it was coming from outside. He scrambled upright and threw the curtains the rest of the way open.

“Oh, good,” Ava said as she shuffled into the room, coffee in hand. “They followed you here.”

“Huh,” Eli said, and laughed.

For him, there was never been a time before the parrots. His mom had told him the story countless times – how the day he was born, all the birds disappeared from the city. Nothing in the trees, nothing in the sky, and how all the people walked around feeling like they were missing something, even though they couldn’t place what was different. But on the third day, the birds returned. It wasn’t gradual, the way the news had predicted. It was all at once, a feathery patchwork quilt descending to cover the city, and it was more. A barn owl tried to get in through the fire escape and sent their mom’s old Siamese cat Lola into conniptions; albatross and macaws lit on lampposts while vultures circled the park and red-tailed hawks strutted along the boardwalk like seagulls. Mostly, though, it was the parrots. Scores of them flocked to the city to nest in the palm trees, and their cries could be heard from Citrus Heights all the way to the South Side. Things more or less settled after a few days, but the parrots stayed, and soon they were a common sight – palm trees full of iridescent green birds, whistling and gossiping up and down the block like the old women who played bridge after church.

As he’d grown up, the parrots had followed Eli from home to his first apartment and beyond; he was almost surprised they hadn’t shown up sooner. He whistled, a little three-note jaunt, and the trees outside the window exploded into cheerful cries and flapping wings. Like a little piece of home.

“Don’t encourage them,” Ava groaned. “Yoba, I forgot how loud they are.”

“You’ll get used to them again. Is there any more coffee?”

“Sorry, dude. You know me ‘n Mal need at least two cups each to function.” She prodded his ankle with her slipper-clad foot. “C’mon, get up. It’s already seven, and we have a ton of shit to do.”

Eli grimaced. Truth be told, he wasn’t looking forward to any of it. Debris and weeds needed to be cleared from the yard to the broken-down greenhouse on the other side of the property, and the old orchard needed tending, though Demetrius had done some testing and assured them that it was still viable; with a little love and care, they’d have apples and pomegranates to harvest come fall. Then there was the overgrown cornfield that needed to be watered and cut back along with the rest of the garden, and the path to the well that needed to be reclaimed from the wild grass that had taken it hostage, all without counting the cleaning and unpacking that needed to be done before Robin came to set up their Internet. “Ugh, fine. I’m up.”

He splashed some water on his face, got dressed, and plodded into the kitchen to find Mal brewing a fresh pot of coffee, murder in his eyes as parrots frolicked in the trees crowding the front yard.

“Can’t you make them go away? Or at least shut up?”

“You know I can’t.” Eli started rummaging around the cupboard for a clean mug, reaching past cloudy glasses and chipped plates. Before he could unearth one, somebody knocked. Neither of them moved to answer it, confused, and a second knock came, more insistent this time. Mal went for the door, but Eli beat him to it.

“Good morning,” the man on the porch said, leaning against their doorway, and Eli took a step back as a wave of cheap cologne hit him. “The Lyndons, correct? So good to finally meet you.”

“And you must be the rep from Joja,” Mal said from over Eli’s shoulder. He said ‘Joja’ the way most people would say diarrhea, or triple homicide. The man kept smiling like he didn’t notice.

“Morris Marston. I’m the representative for Joja in this town, yes.” He held out a hand for Eli to shake, which he did, albeit reluctantly. Even in the heat, he was wearing all black, save for the jaunty red bow tie at his throat. Eli had to wonder how he stood it. “Now that you’ve had a chance to settle in, I thought we could go over the stipulations of your grandfather’s will one final time.” His smile widened. At Eli’s back, Mal tensed. “We’re very invested in making sure everything is above board and running smoothly around here.”

“Sorry, but today isn’t a good day for us.” Eli held Morris’s gaze while he sipped his coffee, willing himself not to blink. “Farm’s not gonna run itself.”

Morris kept smiling, but there was a distinct plastic sheen to it now. “Of course.”

Might as well get this over with. “We’d be happy to come to Joja-Mart later this week and discuss it, though.”

“Wednesday, perhaps?”

“Wednesday should be fine.”

Morris’s composure never once wavered. “Excellent. I’ll be in touch.”

All three of them watched him leave through the kitchen windows until his black-clad frame was swallowed by the road, and Ava wrinkled her nose. “We already went over the will with the Joja reps back in Zuzu. Why do we need to do it again?”

“He’s just waving his dick around,” Mal said, pouring himself another cup of coffee. “Making sure we know they’re waiting to pounce the second we fuck up.”

“What a creep.”

“I’m gonna be choking on his cologne for the rest of the day, too.” Eli rinsed out his empty cup and set it in the sink. “Alright, who’s doing what?”

“Unpacking boxes,” Ava said immediately.

Mal pointed out the window. “Garden’s mine.”

Eli made a face at both of them. “Fine. I’ll go clear a path to the greenhouse, but I’m not doing the whole property myself. It’s my turn to do the easy shit tomorrow.”

“Quit whining,” Mal said. “Tools are in the shed out back.”

oOo

After five years on the fishing boat, Herb came home and brought Cora with him. Pelican Town was on the coast, still close to the sea, he reasoned. Surely she could be happy there. He had the deed to the old family farm, his last month’s paycheck in his pocket, and the clothes on his back. He was young enough to think that he didn’t need anything else, just the plans in his head and his own two hands, as long as he had the woman he loved by his side.

“I’m going to build you a new house,” he told her as they stood on the edge of the property, wooden structures sunk into disrepair and overgrown grass choking the road. “A beautiful house. One as beautiful as you deserve.”

Cora looked at him, dust on her dress and her expression weary.

“I can’t love you the way you want me to,” she said. “I don’t belong here.”

Herb built her a house anyway. It took a year and a day. He put it together piece by piece and tried not think about the haunted look in her eyes as she stood on the renovated porch, staring straight out to sea.

oOo

The parrots sang out with their long, whooping cries as Eli trudged along the path, pushing Pop’s rusty old wheelbarrow in front of him. He’d only been at it for a couple of hours and he already wanted to die. Less than a year since Pops passed, and the farm had been consumed by a thorny, overgrown mess, in defiance of anyone who might try to lay claim to it. Stones and fallen branches tripped him with every other step, hollow logs blocked the path at some points altogether, and waist-high sawgrass scratched his bare arms and legs whenever he swung the scythe to clear it. The greenhouse sat in the distance, taunting him. It hadn’t seemed so far away when he’d first gotten started, but now it might as well have been on the other side of town for all the progress he was making. He tossed the scythe back in the wheelbarrow and scrubbed the sweat off his face with the hem of his shirt. The parrots chattered at him from the treetops.

What the hell are we even doing here?

It was a fair question. They were city-dwellers, born and raised; it was only the guilt of not seeing their grandfather again before he passed that made Eli agree when Ava first proposed the idea.

“Come on,” she’d said, voice tinny on the other end of the speaker. It was the first time she’d called him in six months. They used to talk every day. He still wasn’t sure when that had stopped being the case. “The farm was all Pops had. We can’t just let it get turned into a Joja-Mart warehouse.”

“Well, yeah, but we don’t know anything about farming.”

“We can learn.” He’d hesitated, and she must have sensed that she had him, because her voice went all soft and pleading the way it did when they were kids and she was convincing him to do something he was sure he was going to regret. Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t. “It’s only for a year.”

A year was feeling pretty long right about then, so Eli sat on one of the logs for a minute to catch his breath, forearms braced against his thighs. If nothing else, the view was worth it – even though there was still plenty of work to be done, Whiskey Creek had a kind of wild beauty the city could only dream of. He thought about Pops standing where he now stood decades earlier, surveying the land and seeing the promise in it. He must have struggled at first. He must have had to learn too, the same way they were learning now.

Eli got to his feet and wiped his sweaty hands on his shorts, taking a deep breath. A second log blocked his path, and he fished the axe out of the wheelbarrow, steeling himself. One thing at a time.

 

After that, it seemed easier, the grass more cooperative, though he couldn’t say for sure if it actually was. But little by little he carved out a path, and mid-afternoon found him surveying the remains of the greenhouse, wheelbarrow resting against a boulder. Most of the glass had been shattered, leaving only a steel frame that had been warped in spots, half-melted by some great heat. Fire, if he had to guess, or maybe lightning. Robin had mentioned that Pelican Town was home to intense thunderstorms in the summer. Ivy and vines had gained a bitter stranglehold on the structure, twisting to cover every spare inch of metal, while lush plants he didn’t recognize spilled out of the empty doorframe and crawled up the path. Eli picked his way through the foliage and ducked inside, to where a couple of oak trees had fused with a maple to form a canopy, blocking out the worst of the sun. Poppies and spangles grew wild all over in the shade, sprouting up in bursts of red and purple and gold against the cool green stillness; the air smelled rich, like loam and dirt and honey-thick pollen. Eli sneezed.

A glint of silver caught his eye. It was an empty Joja Cola can, crushed and left to languish near the roots of the biggest oak, along with a couple of cigarette butts and the remains of what was definitely a joint. Eli picked it up and sniffed at it, then coughed. Ditchweed, gross. Not that he could blame them, whoever they were. He doubted Pelican Town had much to offer in the way of quality pot. He carried the trash out to the wheelbarrow, and it was then that Ava came jogging up the path, sunburnt and waving. A metal pail swung from her free hand.

“Hey, you actually did it!”

“Yeah, as it turns out, I’m not a total wuss. Surprise.”

“Don’t get your boxers in a bunch. Look!” She held out the bucket, half-full of dusky red berries the size of cherry tomatoes, plump and fragrant. He hadn’t realized until that moment how hungry he was, until his mouth started watering at the sight.

“Are those spice berries?” One of the valley’s native fruits, they grew in the dirt instead of on bushes or vines, and only in the early parts of summer. Eli had never tasted anything like them, before or since. Ava nodded eagerly.

“Mal found them while he was weeding the garden. There’s a whole other bucket back at the house.” She picked one out and handed it to him, bouncing a little on her toes. “I was thinking about digging up Pops’ old recipe book and trying to make some pies or jam or something. Dad said it should be in the basement somewhere. You in?”

Eli bit into the berry, and there it was, sweetness and heat all at once. He closed his eyes and swallowed, throat burning. “Yeah. Why not?”

oOo

Sunset came, and while Ava was showering and Mal was doing the dishes, Eli retrieved his guitar and took it down to the greenhouse, the parrots whistling dozily after him from their roost. His entire body ached, but he had a freshly-rolled joint in his pocket and a quiet place to smoke it – Mal had forbidden either him or Ava from smoking in the house – and that was enough to keep him moving. It was as empty as ever, the sun dipping low over the mountains, and he found a nice spot in the cradle of the oak tree’s roots to watch it fade into twilight, guitar on his lap and joint in hand. Ava would probably be pissed that he didn’t share, but whatever, she could smuggle her own bud down from the city. He dug his lighter out of his pocket, popped the end of the joint in his mouth, and lit up.

There was nothing like that first hit after a dry spell. He inhaled blissfully, lungs burning, and closed his eyes; when he exhaled, he could already feel his thoughts quieting. His fears, his doubts, his lingering anger at Alex and Haley… all fading into the background, where they would sit until he was ready to deal with them head-on.

His face is messed up, dude. Hardcore messed up.

Well. Mostly faded. Eli took another hit, smoke drifting towards the treetops. Yeah, Mal was an asshole most of the time, but he was still family, and they didn’t know him. Had no clue what he’d been through, and on top of that, to insult Ava? Completely uncalled for. Who cared how she dressed? Not that he planned on telling either of them what had been said, but still. I’d like to see Haley tell her that to her face. He stifled a laugh and took a longer drag this time, holding it in until his lungs rebelled. Out of the three of them, Ava had always had the meanest temper, and the longest fuse – it took a lot to get her there, but once it went off, the only thing left to do was get out of the way.

Something sounded in the distance, footsteps and hushed voices, and Eli paused, joint dangling from his lip. Snatches of conversation became clearer as the speakers got closer. The voices weren’t familiar, but there were at least two of them, and he exhaled through his nose and waited. He didn’t have to wait long. A tall, lanky blond came crashing through the brush, laughing at something, only to stumble to a halt over his own feet as soon as he spotted Eli.

“Shit! Uh.” Eli smiled at him, which only flustered him further. “Sorry, man, we didn’t know anyone was gonna be here…”

“Sam! What’s the hold-up?”

Two more people, a shorter guy in all black and a girl with purple hair, came into view. Eli waved at them. They froze. There was a moment of tense silence as the three of them regarded him, poised to flee at the first sign of trouble, until he stubbed out the joint and said, “So. You must be the ones who come out here to smoke.”

The boys exchanged worried glances, but the girl met his eyes, then looked pointedly at his hand, where the still-smoking joint was clutched between thumb and forefinger. Eli decided he liked her.

“Is that a problem?” the blond guy asked after a second. “Because we can go.”

“Nah, it’s a nice spot. You gonna come in, or just stand there?”

They did come and sit down after a moment, but slowly, eyes darting around like they thought it might be a trap. Eli remained where he was and let them settle, curious to see what they did.

“Are you the new farmer?” the blond kid asked. The girl rolled her eyes.

“Who else would he be?”

“Well, he doesn’t really look like a farmer… no offense, dude.”

“None taken. I’m one of them, yeah,” Eli said. “And you are?”

“Sam. That’s Abigail, and that’s Sebastian.” The girl waggled her fingers, and the guy in all black gave him an awkward nod. “Who else is there?”

“My younger sister and older brother. I’m Eli.” He held out the remaining half of the joint, and watched their faces light up. “Wanna help me finish this?”

He hadn’t planned to share originally, but he was in a better mood now, and they kept looking at him like he was seconds away from turning them in to… did Pelican Town even have a police force? Lewis, maybe. At any rate, they definitely believed he wasn’t out to play small town sheriff after that, and fifteen minutes later, Sebastian and Abigail were filling him in on all the local gossip while Sam fiddled around with the guitar.

“Oh, and Shane is new here too, but don’t try talking to him unless you wanna get your head ripped off. He hates everybody.” Abigail brushed some hair out of her eyes, thinking out loud. “He and his daughter live with Marnie at the ranch. She’s the one you want to talk to if you want animals.”

“I think we need to learn how to run a farm before we start trying to raise animals,” Eli told her. “None of us really know what we’re doing yet.”

“So why did you come here?” Sebastian asked. He’d gotten a lot chattier after a couple of hits, pale face grown pink and animated. “And why all three of you? Seems like a risky business venture if none of you know how to run a farm.”

“Rude,” Abigail admonished.

“Nah, he’s right.” Eli scratched his chin. “When our grandpa died, he left the farm to us, under the condition that all three of us live on it and work the land for a year. If not, the land goes to the highest bidder. Which, in this case, is Joja.”

“Oh, shit.”

“Yeah.”

“Why?” Sam asked after a second.

“Honestly? I don’t know. Pops was always kind of a mystery.” He spread his arms wide, encompassing everything. “But hey. Here we are.”

“Man, fuck Joja.” Sam strummed the guitar strings, a discordant jumble of noise. “Morris is the worst.”

“Sam’s mom made him get a part-time job there,” Sebastian said, ignoring Sam’s glare. “To ‘learn responsibility’.”

“Yeah, like I don’t know she just wants me to hook her up with that sweet, sweet employee discount.”

“So, what are you gonna do when the year’s up?” Abigail asked. Eli shrugged.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, I guess.” And then, because he didn’t really want to keep thinking about it – “So, this is one of those small towns where everyone knows everyone else’s business, right?”

Sebastian pulled a face. “Yeah. Unfortunately.”

“Thought so. Any rumors about the new farmers yet?”

The three of them exchanged glances. Eli waited. He had time.

“Well,” Abigail finally said, caution in her voice. “Haley was in my dad’s store yesterday, talking to Alex’s grandma about how rude one of the Lyndons was to her and Alex.”

Great. Eli groaned internally. “I wasn’t there, but yeah, that sounds right.” Damnit, Mal.

“Is it true that your brother’s face is all jacked up?” Sam blurted. Abigail smacked his shoulder.

“Sam!”

“No, it’s fine… I mean, not that it’s fine, but there’s no use hiding it.” The roots were starting to dig into him. Eli shifted over a little, into the dirt. “Mal was in a bad car accident a few years back. He, uh… doesn’t like it when people stare. Which is always. So you probably won’t see much of him.”

“Oh,” Sam said, quieter now. “Sorry.”

“Ignore Haley,” Abigail put in, after a moment of awkward silence had passed. “All she cares about is appearances. Total stuck-up princess type.”

“Yeah, I picked up on that,” Eli muttered. “What about Alex?”

“Alex? Male version of Haley. Gridball where his brain should be.”

“Kind of a douchebag,” Sam agreed.

“Asshole,” Sebastian said flatly. “You’re better off just avoiding him.”

From the abrupt shift in his tone, Eli was guessing there was more to the story, but he got the impression that it was useless to keep prying. “I’ll keep that in mind.” It really was kind of a shame – they’d seemed like they might be nice when he’d first wandered by the ice cream stand. Sebastian fished a plastic baggie out of his hoodie and unfurled it, lighter in hand. A second joint sat at the bottom.

“Wanna go again?”

 

Darkness had fallen by the time they parted ways, and Eli played his guitar all along the path back to the house, whistling through the long grass with deer and rabbits at his heels. They scattered when he left the field, the final notes of the song bobbing along behind him. Ava looked up from where she was sitting on the porch steps, beer in hand. Gnats and moths buzzed around the porch light, overlaying her curls with a soft orange halo.

“Where have you been?”

“Out. Doing a little exploring.”

“Right.” She sniffed the air as he came closer, eyes narrowing. “I’m going to pretend that’s a skunk, instead of you so obviously holding out on me.”

“Some of the local delinquents have been smoking up in the greenhouse,” Eli informed her, straight-faced. “I rounded them up and herded them off the property after a stern talking-to, as Grandfather would have wanted.”

“You fucking weirdo.” She pointed at him with her free hand, mock-stern, but he could tell she was fighting off a smile. “Next time you smoke with the townies, I want in.”

“Deal.” He plopped down on the steps next to her. “So, I guess people are already talking about what happened the other day.”

“Wow, I’m so surprised,” Ava said, and took a drink. “Yeah, Mal was rude. But to be fair, he said they basically recoiled the second he opened the door, so I don’t know what they expected.”

“Makes sense.” Eli sighed. “I just wish he’d talk to someone. Or us, even. Something.”

“Me too, but…” She shrugged. “What can we do?”

“Yeah.” Eli glanced over his shoulder to where the kitchen window sat shadowed and empty, curtains half-drawn. “I guess.”

“However,” Ava said, drawing his attention back her way. “Alex’s grandma, Evelyn? The one who gave us that nice welcome basket full of goodies? I thought I’d drop in tomorrow and return the favor.” She waggled her eyebrows. “Maybe while Alex is home? It’d be rude not to offer him anything.”

“You,” Eli said, “are evil. And possibly a genius.”

“It’s like Mom always says. If you can’t beat ‘em, make ‘em as uncomfortable as possible with passive-aggressive social niceties until they cave.” She reached over and plucked one of the guitar strings, low note ringing out. “You think Evelyn likes pie?”

oOo

When Herb showed Cora the finished house, polished and painted and built with her in mind, she burst into tears. He put his arm around her shoulders and she kept right on crying, tears running down her face and turning the grass yellow and brown wherever they landed. They blistered the earth, and he knew then that no matter what lies he told himself, nothing could grow where there was only saltwater. Not this far from the sea. The next day, he took her down to the docks and gave back her pelt, as beautiful as it ever was, and then it was his turn to weep for all the wrong he’d done her. Cora donned her skin, smiling for the first time in years.

“And just like that, she was gone and I was alone,” Pops said. Eli was shocked to see him weeping now, tears trickling down his weathered cheeks to make tracks in his beard. “I was so scared to lose her, and like a fool, I ended up driving her away.”

Eli didn’t know what to say, so he climbed out of his chair and gave his grandpa a hug instead of words. Eventually, the tears dried up, and Pops gave his shoulder a shaky pat before letting him go.

“Love don’t make you feel like you own someone, y’know. That’s being young and selfish. Don’t get the two mixed up.” He sighed and pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, dabbing at his face. “I just thank Yoba that I knew the difference by the time I met your grandma.”

“Is that why Dad didn’t want you telling us the story?” Eli asked after a second.

“Probably didn’t want you to think less of me. Or didn’t think you were ready to hear it.” Pops laughed a little. “He’s a good man, your daddy. Always been proud to claim him, even if we ain’t blood. Wish he would have stayed sometimes, but I understand why he didn’t. Reminds him too much of Dolores.”

Eli had seen how his dad got sometimes after looking at old photos or telling him them stories. How he’d put on old music from the valley, or sit and stare out the window at nothing until Eli’s mom came home from work to pull him out of himself and lead him to bed. How he cried sometimes, when he thought nobody was looking.

“I think he misses it too,” he said.

Chapter Text

“These damn birds,” George complained, chair wheels rattling along on the cobblestones. A parrot whistled at them from the roof of the clinic. “Never seen anything like it.”

Alex held the door open for him and didn’t say anything. His mom loved birds. She would have loved the parrots like she loved summer and all the flowers that bloomed in the valley, and then he had to quit thinking about his mom for a minute because he didn’t want to be sick all over Harvey’s freshly-cleaned floors.

“Hi Mr. Mueller! Hi Alex,” Maru chirped from behind the front desk. “The doctor will see you in just a second.” She didn’t seem put off by either of their muttered greetings, but then again, she never seemed rattled by anything. Alex wondered if she could teach him how to do that. Probably not. None of his other teachers had been able to make anything stick.

Harvey came out after a minute to take his grandpa back, and Alex sat in the waiting room, staring at the posters hanging on the wall across from him. A motivational sunset hung front and center, next to instructions for proper handwashing and an advertisement for some Joja-brand drug with a bunch of small print at the bottom that made his head hurt, even at a distance. Standard doctor crap. Alex hated doctors, hospitals, and everything to do with them – the florescent lights, the sterile whites and pale greens, the way disinfectant lingered in his nose for the rest of the day, smelling like bad memories. His grandpa hated doctors too, and the only reason he went to his check-up every year was the same reason Alex went with him: so Alex’s grandma wouldn’t worry.

He bounced his leg, wished he’d brought something to keep his hands busy. There was nothing to distract him but the posters and the rapid clacking of Maru’s fingers on the keyboard while she typed. What was she even doing? The clinic wasn’t that busy, Harvey saw maybe one patient a week. The typing slowed, and he realized he’d been caught staring, Maru’s face expectant. He smiled awkwardly and looked away, slouching down in his chair. The typing resumed its former pace.

Harvey opened the door an eternity later, and Alex jumped to his feet when his grandpa came rolling out, chair motor humming. Literally sprang up out of his seat, he wanted to leave so bad, and Harvey gave him a puzzled look before turning back to Alex’s grandpa.

“I’ll bring over that refill myself, as soon as it gets here.” He smiled and fiddled with the fringe of his mustache, shoulders stooped inward. Harvey always looked nervous, even when he was happy. “In the meantime, remember what we talked about, okay? I’ll see you for your next check-up in six weeks.”

Alex’s grandpa grunted and aimed his chair towards the front door. Alex went to open it for him, avoiding Harvey’s eyes.

“Oh, Alex! Don’t forget your annual physical next week,” Maru called after him, and he heard her clicking around on the computer again. “Ten AM Thursday, okay?”

“Sure, yeah,” he called back, knowing full well he was going to skip it – it wasn’t like he needed to go to the doctor, he worked out every day and never got sick – and then his grandpa was through the door and they were finally free.

“Doctors,” his grandpa spat, steering his chair towards the house. “I don’t need a fancy piece of paper to know what’s good for me.”

Alex nodded.

“I’ve been alive three times as long as he’s been a doctor.”

“I know, Grandpa.”

The day was already humid, even this early in the morning, and Alex was looking forward to relaxing, or at least, his definition of relaxing – a quick workout at the spa, then sunbathing with Haley while he continued avoiding all the things in his head that were better left alone. And then he walked into his kitchen and Eli’s sister was sitting at his table, laughing with his grandma. A pair of empty plates and a pie with two slices cut out of it sat between them, next to a pitcher of lemonade.

“Oh, you’re back!” His grandma beamed. “Look, George! This sweet young lady brought us a pie.”

“And corn,” Eli’s sister chimed in, motioning to the wicker basket on the counter. Alex couldn’t remember her name. Corn overflowed, bright yellow kernels peeking from sun-bleached husks. She smiled at Alex, and it made his heart beat faster, but not in a good way. “We just wanted to thank you for that welcome basket you sent us.”

“How lovely,” his grandma said, charmed as anything, and Alex bit his tongue hard enough that it actually hurt.

“What kind of pie?” George yelled from the living room. The television clicked on, muffled in the background.

“Spice berry,” Evelyn called back, and picked up the pie cutter. “I’ll bring you a piece.”

No sooner had she shuffled out of the kitchen than Eli’s sister hopped to her feet, brushing her hands off on her skirt. Alex stood his ground as she came forward, smile still firmly in place, and hoped he didn’t look as freaked out as he felt.

“I know I introduced myself the other day, but you left so fast that you probably don’t remember.” She stuck out her hand. Her fingernails were as pink as her hair, the polish chipping off in spots. “I’m Ava.”

Alex stared at her. He realized too late that he’d let the silence lapse, but his tongue felt like it was glued down, unable to move. Ava’s smile faded a little, and she dropped her hand.

“Look, I’m sorry about Mal. He can be a dick sometimes.” She paused. “A lot of the time.”

“Yeah, well.” Alex shoved his hands in his pockets. He didn’t have a follow-up.  

“But you gotta understand,” Ava went on, raking cotton-candy curls off her face. “I mean, how would you feel if everyone stared at you like you were some kind of sideshow attraction?” Alex had a pretty good idea of what that felt like, if not for exactly the same reasons, but she held up her hand before he could even open his mouth. “Look. You don’t have to like him, or me, but gossiping about his scars? That has to stop.”

“Tell him not to be a dick and no one will care,” Alex said, even though he knew it was a lie. Ava clearly did too, judging by her expression, but his grandma came back before she could say anything. She paused when she caught sight of their faces, hovering in the doorway.

“Is something the matter?”

“No, Grandma. Everything’s fine.” Alex brushed past Ava to get at the fridge, cool air soothing his face. They were out of milk again.

“It’s all good,” Ava said, cheery again. “I do have to get going, though. We still have tons of unpacking to do.”

“Of course, dear. And please, do stop by again, we’d love to have you around for dinner...”

His grandma insisted on walking her to the door, the two of them chatting about canning season come fall, and Alex took the opportunity to escape to his room, water bottle in hand. Listening to them talk was making his chest hurt, and yeah, it was fucking dumb but he didn’t like the idea of coming home to find Herb’s grandkids getting all chummy with what was left of his family. At least it had been her instead of Eli, or Yoba forbid, Mal. He cracked the seal on the bottle and chugged half of it in one go, plastic crinkling in his hand. Who’d told her she could do that, anyway? Sit at his kitchen table and laugh with his grandma a week after she moved there, so friendly, so comfortable? He’d lived there his entire life and he wasn’t that comfortable.

His room was too hot, soaking in the sun with the curtains open; when he cracked the window, a faint breeze rolled in, briny from the ocean. He dug his phone out of his pocket and unlocked the screen. He only had two contacts saved – his grandparent’s landline, and Haley, her contact photo permanently set to a sunflower. The messenger app popped up when he clicked her name, cursor blinking.

You busy?

The reply came back almost instantly. Skype call w the parents in an hour! Maybe later??

Right. The Hoffman’s monthly check-in. Always on a Wednesday, always from a different island or province. Last he’d heard, they were in Cerrin, headed for the Kestrel Islands via cruise ship. Alex turned the screen off and shoved his phone back into his pocket. Part of him wanted to lay in bed and avoid talking to anyone for the rest of the day, but there was no way that was happening. Not with how restless he was right then, liable to jitter right out of his skin if he held still too long. Dusty’s familiar bark sounded from the backyard, and Alex stuck his head out the window to see him leap unsuccessfully at a squirrel as it bounded over the fence.

“Alex!” His grandma’s voice came through the window. “Have you taken him for a walk today?”

Dusty’s ears pricked up.

“I’m on it!” He opened his door and went back downstairs to grab the leash, relieved. A distraction was a distraction.

oOo

The parrots had taken up residence in Cindersap Forest, too, their plumage mingling with the trees like living greenery. Alex did his best to ignore them. Dusty was in heaven, meandering from bush to stump to investigate a new smell every few seconds, and Alex almost envied him for a minute; being a dog seemed like a pretty sweet deal right then. Less complicated, anyway. At least it was cooler beneath the trees, and peaceful, river running soft and sunlight dappling the forest floor through the leaves. Peaceful and a little boring, just like everything else in the valley.

They wandered past Leah’s cabin, where Leah herself sat on the riverbank, bare feet dangling in the water. A giant pad of paper sat across her lap, covered in charcoal sketches. She was so absorbed in her work that she didn’t notice them, which was fine with Alex – she’d been in Pelican Town for at least a year and they’d never exchanged more than a handful of words. It wasn’t like she intimidated him or anything, he just didn’t know how to talk to artsy types like her and Elliott. He assumed they thought they were better than him for knowing how to make fancy lines on a page, which was bullshit. If they were any good at it, they wouldn’t be living in Pelican Town.

He figured a couple of laps around the lake would be enough to wear himself out, or at least shut his brain off for a while. They made it as far as the dock before Dusty froze, sniffing the air furiously. Alex sniffed too, but he didn’t smell anything.

“What’s up, boy?”

Dusty let out a single bark, deep and joyous. It sent birds scattering every which way, and the leash went flying out of Alex’s hand.

“Hey!” He made a grab for it, but Dusty was already dashing back the way they’d come, a mad blur of black and brown against the green. Alex swore and chased after him, but he was no match for a dog that determined, and Dusty had a head start; he was already on the northern path, past the paddocks surrounding Marnie’s ranch. “Get back here!”

But Dusty was gone, over the hill past the ranch, and there was nothing Alex could do but follow and hope he caught up, wondering what the hell was going on. Dusty was rambunctious, sure, and he had a tendency to chew on the furniture, but he’d never taken off like that before. As soon as Alex crested the hill, he spotted a furry figure in the distance, tearing through the green-gold cornfields as it made a beeline for Whiskey Creek. He swore again and ran down the slope, because of course that was where Dusty wanted to go, instead of literally anywhere else in Pelican Town.

The farm was a lot farther away than it looked from the top of the hill. Alex ran laps around the town a few times a week, but he usually left Whiskey Creek out of the rotation. Sweat drenched him from head to toe by the time he reached the sign, which was definitely just from the heat and not because it felt like someone had twisted his stomach and bladder into a balloon animal. That would have been dumb. He paced by the fence for a minute, hoping Dusty might hear him whistling and come back, but the field remained quiet, a faint breeze stirring the long grass. A whiff of something familiar and savory caught his attention, drifting from the direction of the farmhouse; when he sniffed again, the scent of charred meat obliterated any hope of Dusty coming back on his own.

Well, that was fine. Just fine. It wasn’t like he was scared of them.

The porch was empty, so he trudged around the side of the house to find Mal and Ava in the backyard, a set of ancient patio furniture arranged around a firepit and a grill parked next to the porch. Ava lay draped across one of the lawn chairs, purple-tinted sunglasses hiding half her face and a dog-eared paperback in hand while Mal manned the grill. Dusty lay at his feet, gnawing on the mangled remains of a steak. Eli was nowhere to be seen.

“Huh,” Mal said. He didn’t look upset, exactly, but it was hard to tell with the scars pulling his mouth to one side. A burger patty hit the grill with a sizzle. “Guess that settles that.”

“Settles what?” Alex asked, trying to sound casual. It came off more like he had something stuck in his throat. Dusty picked that moment to roll over and look at Mal adoringly, his belly on display. Traitor.

“We were wondering whose dog he was,” Ava said, still engrossed in her book. “What’s his name?”

“Uh… Dusty,” said Alex, who had officially moved from ‘on edge’ to ‘weirded out’. Neither of them seemed bothered by his presence, which was one thing, but watching Mal crouch down to rub Dusty’s belly, looking almost happy, was like stepping into the Twilight Zone. “We were out for a walk and I guess he smelled you guys grilling. I can take him if he’s bothering you.”

“Nah, he’s alright,” Mal said, and Dusty’s tail thumped all over the place, sending up little puffs of dust. First his grandma, now Dusty; if they won over Haley (or worse, his grandpa), he was going to… do something. He didn’t know what yet, but it wouldn’t be good.

“It’s no big deal,” Ava said. She might have been looking at him, but it was hard to tell with the glasses. “We have extras. Care package from home.”

“Your parents sent you steaks?”

The screen door behind him banged open. He flinched on instinct.

“Bunch of other shit, too,” Eli said, and came down the steps, dragging a cooler behind him. “What’s up, man?”

“Just looking for my dog.”

Eli nodded. “Cool.” He was wearing cutoffs and a shirt that said ‘World’s Best Grandpa’ in big block letters, which kind of made Alex snort without meaning to. The guy couldn’t be a day over twenty-two.

Ava crossed one leg over the other and turned the page. Alex hadn’t noticed before, but she was wearing another long hippie skirt, complete with a tank-top that had a cat wearing a flower crown printed across the chest. Her earrings were plastic pieces of sushi. Alex kind of wished Haley was there; she would have thrown a fit over both of their outfits. Mal was the only one of them that was dressed normally, which lent to the surreal atmosphere of the whole thing – his t-shirt and jeans were the kind that looked plain, but actually had a brand name slapped on the label and cost half a grand plus tax. Eli parked the cooler next to the firepit and flopped down in the lawn chair next to Ava’s, groaning.

“My back is killing me. I’m never leaving this spot again.”

“Not even for food?”

“Debatable.”

“If you don’t want your burger, I can give it to the dog,” Mal said, straightening up to check on their dinner. “Or whatshisface.”

“Alex,” Eli said, before Alex had a chance to be offended. “What, you can’t walk five steps to bring your little brother a burger?”

“You can’t walk five steps to get it yourself?”

Eli threw one arm dramatically across his eyes, which might have been more convincing if he hadn’t been fighting off a grin at the same time. “My own flesh and blood wants me to die of starvation. Heartless bastard.”

“Tough shit,” Mal said, and dumped his burger on a plate. “Come get your food.”

“Fine, fine.” Eli turned his attention back to Alex, who had started to wonder how much longer he was going to have to stand there before they remembered he existed, like the world’s most uncomfortable lawn gnome. “Hey, you wanna stay for dinner?”

“What,” Alex said.

“What?” Mal echoed.

“Why not? You’re already here, and we got plenty to go around. You like burgers or steak?”

“That, and Mal’s in love with your dog,” Ava added. “I don’t think you’re gonna be getting him back for a while, so you might as well stick around.”

Mal glared at her but didn’t say anything, even with Dusty drooling all over his shoes, and really, what was Alex supposed to say to any of this? Sure, let’s have dinner, like their previous interactions had never happened and this entire situation hadn’t been pulled straight out of Bizarro World? He wiped his forehead with the back of his arm, stalling, and Eli leaned over and flipped the lid on the cooler. Long-necked bottles poked out from a sea of crushed ice, and the bottom of Alex’s stomach fell out and landed somewhere around his ankles. Eli grabbed one and held it out, looking concerned. The beer dripped innocently in his outstretched hand.

“Dude, you’re sweating all over the place. Want one? It’ll cool you down.”

“Dusty,” Alex said, throat tight, and Dusty must have picked up on his tone, because he rolled onto his feet and came padding over to nose Alex’s hand, leash dragging behind him. Alex bent down and scooped it up, and now the silence had taken on a distinctly different flavor, Ava and Mal exchanging looks while Eli blinked at him, taken aback.

“If you don’t like beer, I can get you some water or something…”

“No, it’s… it’s cool. It’s whatever.” Alex gave the lead a tug, and Dusty followed, even as he stared longingly towards the grill. “I gotta go.”

“Okay?” Eli said, sounding more confused than ever, and Alex turned around and left the way he’d come, Dusty trotting along at his heels. He forced himself to walk normally. They already knew something was up, he didn’t need to make it worse. He still felt like throwing up. Their voices mingled together in the background – probably whispering about what a loser he was, like they had any room to talk.

“Dumb dog,” he muttered, and stepped onto the long road back to town. “No more steak. ‘s bad for you.”

Dusty barked, tail wagging.

oOo

A cold shower followed the remainder of their run, and Alex passed out on top of his covers soon after, too exhausted and unhappy to do anything else. He jolted awake shortly past midnight to something pelting his window, sky outside pitch black and mouth feeling like someone had sandpapered his tongue. For a minute he wasn’t sure where he was, and then another handful of gravel rained against his windowpane and it all came flooding back. The wooden frame creaked when he opened it, and for once, he was grateful neither of his grandparents could hear very well.

“What?”

“I’ve been trying to wake you up for like ten minutes,” Haley stage-whispered from the garden, face round and pale in the moonlight. “Come let me in.”

“Hold on.”

He yanked on a t-shirt and the nearest pair of shorts, then crept downstairs, avoiding the squeaky step third from the bottom. They used to do this in high school a lot, him and Haley. They’d sneak into each other’s rooms long after everyone else fell asleep so they could talk, or if it was really bad, lay there and watch shitty movies on Haley’s laptop without saying a word. Pretty much everyone had thought they were dating. Alex figured he should have wanted to date her, but what they had seemed more important than that, even if he hadn’t been able to explain it at the time. All the guys on his gridball team would have called him a faggot if they’d known how many times he’d slept in her bed and nothing had happened, but it was Haley.  She was the only person besides his mom and grandparents who’d seen him cry, the only other person who went with him to his mom’s grave year after year; he wasn’t going to risk losing that if things didn’t work out between them. He opened the front door and let her in. Neither of them spoke until they were safely back in his room.

“I don’t think my parents are coming home,” she said.

Part of Alex wanted to be mean on impulse – gee, what’s that like, Hales? Tell me all about it – but then he looked at her, sitting on his bed with no make-up and her hair greasy and unwashed, knees drawn up to her chest, and the words died on his tongue.

“Sorry.” She sniffled. “I didn’t know what else to do. I can’t talk to Emily about it.”

The mattress dipped under his weight when he sat down. “Why not?”

“Ugh. She’s so… optimistic! All the time, about everything!” She buried her face against her knees, shoulders hunched up tight. “She never wants to talk about anything bad and it makes me want to scream.”

Alex didn’t know what to say. He’d been too busy being relieved that he was an only child to wonder if he would have liked having a brother or sister, and Haley and Emily weren’t exactly a ringing endorsement. He thought about the Lyndons for a second, and his stomach started hurting so he quit thinking about them and gave Haley a tentative pat on the back.

“They’ve been gone for almost two years,” she said, voice muffled, and sniffled again. “I mean, when do we accept that they’re just not coming back? How much longer do we have to – “

She broke off suddenly, sitting up straight like something had zapped her, and her hand went to her mouth as she looked at Alex, eyes huge. He stared back, alarmed.

“Oh, Yoba,” she whispered. “It’s the fifteenth, isn’t it?”

The sick feeling came surging back, stronger than ever. “Don’t,” he warned her, but too late, she touched his cheek and his eyes started to prickle, hot and ugly.

“I’m sorry,” and the genuine remorse in her voice was what pushed him over the edge; Haley never apologized to most people, and only rarely to him. “I forgot it was today.”

“Stop,” he croaked, but it was definitely too late, and then he was crying, big gulping sobs where no sound came out. He ended up on his side, pillow soaked and Haley curled up at his back, which was completely humiliating but also kind of nice at the same time, even though it made him think of his mom and that got him started all over again. Crying was the fucking worst. It left him all gross and weak and wrung out like a used tissue, but Haley’s fingers were in his hair, petting him, and it felt too good to stop her, so he just laid there and stared at nothing instead.

“You want me to stay?” she asked after a minute, scooting closer. “I don’t really want to go home.”

“Sure.” He scrubbed his eyes roughly with the back of his hand, taking a deep breath. “Not worried about my grandparents anymore?”

“Please.” She scoffed against the back of his neck. “Your grandma’s been dropping hints since ninth grade. If she found me in here, she’d probably throw a party.”

It wasn’t all that funny, but Alex managed a watery laugh anyway. “Yeah, probably.”

Moonbeams came through the window behind them and spilled all over his carpet, shifting with the shadows, and suddenly he was homesick in a way he hadn’t been in years, longing for something that had never really existed in the first place.

“I miss her so much,” he said, and Haley’s hand snuck into his and held on tight.

“I know,” she said. “I know you do,” and then there was nothing left for either of them to say.

Chapter Text

He’d tried, hadn’t he? He'd really fucking tried.

“Dude, you gotta understand,” Ava had groaned while they were setting up the lawn chairs the previous night, her earrings bouncing every time she moved. “The whole time I was there, his grandma kept talking about how he’s such a nice boy, and it was so nice to have more young people livening up the community. What was I supposed to say? ‘Sorry, but your grandson seems like kind of a jackass’?”

“Yes,” Mal said as he dragged the grill out of the shed, and Ava stopped what she was doing long enough to point at him, shaking her head.

“Nuh-uh. You don’t get to talk about bad behavior, Malachi. This is as much your fault as anyone’s.” Mal had given her the finger and gone back inside to get their dinner from where it was defrosting in the sink, and she’d grabbed the last chair and looked over at Eli with big puppy dog eyes. “All I’m saying is that this is a town where everyone knows everything, and maybe it wouldn’t hurt to give the guy a second chance? I don’t want things to be this weird when we’ve only been here for like a week.”

“Fine,” Eli had said. “I can be civil. No promises about Mr. Sunshine in there, though.”

“I heard that!”

 

And they had done their best to be civil, hadn’t they? Even Mal.  When Dusty showed up, Eli had taken it for a flash of serendipity. A chance to smooth things over, if only for his sister’s sake. Maybe Alex wouldn’t be so bad when he was off the defensive. But then he’d stood in their yard like a startled deer, one wrong move from fleeing the scene, and when Eli had offered him a beer, things only went from bad to worse. It was like he’d offered the guy a severed head.  Although, according to Haley, he might as well have.

An hour ago, he’d been minding his own business, checking out the bulletin board in front of the general store. Robin had told him that it was the place to look if he needed to make some spare cash; people frequently posted notices about odd jobs they needed done for anyone to pick up. He was sifting through week-old ads for peach jelly and sink repair when a voice pierced the silence.

“Hey you! Farm boy!”

“Uh,” Eli said. Haley was stalking towards him, her delicate features twisted up in a snarl, and it wasn’t funny but a gust of nervous laughter escaped him anyway. “You know I’m from the city, right?”

“Well, right now you live on a farm, and you smell like a farm, so that makes you a farmer, farm boy.” She jabbed a perfectly-manicured nail at his face, blue eyes blazing. “We need to talk, now.”

“Jeez, okay, chill! What did I do?”

“Come on,” she snapped, and all but dragged him up past the general store and clinic and out of the town square. She was the same height as him, and she walked fast. He was forced into a trot to keep up with her, stumbling over his own feet until they reached a little clearing at the top of a gentle slope, a fountain burbling peacefully at its center. Eli’s attention was drawn to an old brick building further down the path, overgrown and abandoned, but then Haley snapped her fingers in front of his face and he forgot all about it in his irritation.

“Seriously, what the hell is your – “

“Alex’s dad was a drunk,” Haley said, and Eli’s mouth snapped shut of its own accord. “A horrible, shitty, alcoholic asshole.” He could tell she didn’t curse often, the words foreign and clunky on her tongue, and still she spat them out, hands balled into fists at her sides. “He… you weren’t there, okay? You don’t – “ She broke off, breathing deep. “You don’t know.

“You’re right.” Eli shoved his hands into his pockets, heat creeping up the back of his neck. “I don’t.”

“Well, now you do.” And just like that, she was the haughty small-town princess again, looking down her perfect nose at him with her blonde curls in charming disarray. “I guess nobody warned you.”

“Yeah, that might have been good to know earlier.”

“Whatever. Just don’t offer him alcohol.”

“It’s not like I did it to spite him,” he said, defensive now, and Haley’s eyes narrowed, calculating. The day was warm, but he could have sworn he felt the temperature drop ten degrees. “I wouldn’t do something like that.”

“Better not, Farm Boy. Because if you do, you’ll wish you’d never come to Pelican Town.”

“Little late for that,” he muttered, and left her there, her eyes burning holes in his back.

 

So.

An hour ago, he’d been minding his own business, and then Haley had come along and ruined it. It wasn’t like he’d known. How could he have known, if no one had told him? He wasn’t an asshole. It had been an honest mistake, and he had no reason to feel guilty. None of which explained why he was hanging around the ice cream stand, waiting for Alex to show up.

It was a long wait. He ended up sitting on the ground next to the cart, playing a game on his phone to pass the time and wondering if it would really be so bad to just avoid going into town for the next year. His battery was starting to die when he happened to look up and saw Alex standing on the bridge, expression closed off and wary. The phone beeped, low battery indicator flashing, and Eli shoved it back into his pocket and stood, brushing dirt off his shorts.

“Hey.”

“Hey,” Alex echoed. He was wearing a gridball t-shirt and shorts combo again – seriously, how much Tunnellers merch did one guy need? – and it looked like he’d gotten a haircut. Just another effortlessly masculine, good-looking country boy, the big jock superstar, like every guy in high school who’d knotted up Eli’s guts with a combination of lust and envy for four years running. “What do you want?”

Eli ran a hand through his sweat-damp hair, steeled himself. “I came to say sorry about the other day. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have offered you that drink. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

“Great,” Alex said, and the bitterness in his voice took Eli aback. “Haley told you, huh?”

“Yeah.” There didn’t seem to be much point to lying.

“It’s not her business to tell.”

“Never said it was.” Eli shifted his weight and scratched the back of his calf with his toes, where he could already feel a mosquito bite forming. Summer was the worst. “Look, man, I’m not trying to pry. I just wanted to apologize. It clearly bothered you, and I don’t make a habit of being an asshole on purpose. That’s all.”

Alex didn’t say anything. Eli hadn’t really expected him to. He turned, figuring he’d go hide out in the library for a while – Alex didn’t really strike him as the kind of guy who spent a lot of time in libraries – but he only made it about two steps before Alex cleared his throat and said, “Wait.”

Eli glanced back at him. He was looking away now, towards the beach, but his ears were a little red and he didn’t look upset anymore. Just reluctant. “I, uh… sorry. You know. About the stuff I said about your brother.” The flush spread from his ears to the bridge of his nose. “He was a dick, but I was kind of a dick too, so… you can tell him I’m sorry.”

As apologies went, Eli had heard better. But it was also more than he’d anticipated, and something about the visible effort it had taken for Alex to offer it in the first place plucked at his heartstrings. He really didn’t want to think about why.

“It’s cool. Now get Haley to apologize for calling my sister a thrift store reject, and we’ll be even.”

Alex laughed a little at that. “Good luck, dude. Haley doesn’t really do apologies.”

“Can’t say I’m surprised.” The conversation was about to fizzle, Eli could tell, and he didn’t want to deal with the awkward silence that threatened to follow either. He nodded and stuck his hands in his pockets again, so he couldn’t fidget. “Anyway, I should probably get going. I just came to say sorry. Clear the air. Y’know.”

“Cool,” Alex said, looking relieved. “Catch you later, man.”

“Yeah.” He kicked a loose pebble, watching it skitter towards the bridge. “See you around.”

oOo

The rest of the week drifted by in an uneventful haze. Robin came to install Internet access, apologizing for the wait; a pipe had burst in Joja-Mart’s back room, and she was the only person within fifty miles who had a clue how to fix it. Eli couldn’t help feeling like it was a personal slight on Joja’s part. With the way Morris had been salivating over their grandpa’s will, he was surprised the man hadn’t tried to smother all three of them in their sleep. Yet.

“You should be all set,” Robin said, accepting the glass of water he’d fetched for her while she finished up. “Just give it half an hour now that I’ve reinstalled everything.”

“Thank you again,” Ava said. She’d popped in from weeding the garden to say hi, and was caked from head to toe in soil and grime. “Seriously. You’ve done so much for us.”

“Please, don’t even mention it. Happy to help.” Robin smiled at them, eyes crinkling. If it weren’t for the faint crow’s feet at the corners and the silver hairs threading her ponytail, Eli wouldn’t have believed she had two kids in their twenties. “How are you all getting along, anyway? Making friends?”

Ava nodded, and Eli made a non-committal noise. He was pretty sure ‘we smoke pot with your son and his friends in my grandpa’s greenhouse’ wasn’t the answer she was looking for.

“Yeah, we’re good. It’s all good.”

 

He kept thinking about Alex. Not all the time, but every now and again, when he was exhausted after a long day of yardwork, or clearing debris from the field, or trying to install new sprinklers, or any of the other endless chores that went hand-in-hand with running a farm. Alex’s dad was a drunk, and clearly no longer in the picture, but what about his mom? Did he even have a mom? It was none of his business, he knew, but that didn’t stop him from wondering. After a few more days of fruitless speculation, he broke down and asked someone.

“What happened to Alex’s parents?”

Sebastian was quiet for a long moment, puffing away at the joint. When he handed it back and exhaled, a thin grey ribbon of smoke twisted skyward. “Why do you want to know?”

It was just the two of them that evening – Sam was stuck at home watching Vincent while Jodi and Caroline roped Abigail into a girl’s night down at the Saloon, and Ava was on the phone with their parents, chatting excitedly about their first couple weeks in the valley. Eli had snuck out the back before they could trap him in an hour-long conversation too. He shrugged.

“I offered him a beer the other day. Didn’t go over so hot.”

“No shit,” Sebastian said. “Someone finally told you, huh?”

“Yeah, Haley chewed me out the day after, so I’d kinda like to avoid any other potential landmines. Thought maybe you might have an idea.”

The joint had burnt down to a scorched nub, and Sebastian took one last drag before stubbing out on a rock. “His mom died when we were thirteen.” His voice was so soft Eli had to lean in to hear him. “I remember because he was gone for most of the year. When he came back, everybody acted like nothing was different. It was fucking weird.”

Eli sat with that for a minute, saddened and inexplicably guilty. That kind of loss was beyond what he could grasp. Losing his grandpa was one thing, but the thought of losing his mom was another entirely. A horrible thought occurred to him. “His mom. It wasn’t… because of his dad, right?”

“No, she got sick. His dad ran out on them the year before that. I think.” Sebastian dug out a crumpled pack of smokes and stuck one in his mouth. The other, he offered to Eli, who declined. His lighter clicked on, too loud in the impending quiet of night. “But if anyone asks, I didn’t tell you that. I don’t need my ass kicked.”

“Do I look like a snitch? Nah dude. You’re good. Thanks.”

Sebastian just nodded, and they sat together under the massive oak for a while long, watching stars emerge from a deepening purple sky. It was nice, hanging out with someone who understood the value of a comfortable silence. Who didn’t constantly expect him to talk, or to entertain. Sebastian exhaled through his nose, smoke wreathing his hair like a dingy halo.

“My turn to ask you something.”

“Go for it.”

He pointed up to where a score of parrots nested in the branches, heads tucked beneath their wings as they slept. “What’s with all the birds?”

 

They parted ways when the moon was full, Sebastian headed for the mountain and Eli back to the house. Clouds drifted across its waxy face, shadows shifting beneath his feet. He thought about Alex again, and pulled his phone out of his pocket.

To: Mama Bear

Will call this weekend.

I love you.

oOo

Three weeks in, and Eli tentatively decided they could be proud. For a bunch of clueless city dwellers, they’d done a lot to turn the place around. Paths had been cleared and a brand-new sprinkler system set up while they beat back the insistent growth of grass and fallen branches – it seemed like even the rocks were multiplying some days, which couldn’t be right – and both the flower garden and their ever-expanding field of crops continued to thrive. He and Ava were working to clear the greenhouse of any remaining debris, to see if the structure itself could be salvaged, and he’d even tilled a little plot out back to try growing something of his own. Nothing fancy, just some tomatoes and melons, but the burst of pride he got when he saw those first tender, pale shoots emerging from the earth was immense. He’d even stuck to watering them by hand, it felt so good to watch them grow. Ava had her eye on the blueberry bushes near the hedge, promising all sorts of preserves and baked goods once they were ripe, and Mal…

Well, he had no idea what Mal was doing, but it involved a lot of time in the basement.

He hadn’t run into Alex or Haley since their apology and confrontation, respectively, apart from one or two encounters while he was in town. Haley mostly ignored him, which was fine, while Alex had given him a nod and a casual what’s up, bro?, the way people asked when they didn’t really care about the answer. It annoyed him more than it should have. It wasn’t like he’d expected them to become friends, or anything. It wasn’t like they had much in common. Still, he found himself glancing towards the ice cream stand whenever he came out of the general store or the library, straining his ears to catch pieces of their conversations. He wondered what they talked about. Being incredibly good-looking, probably.

The heat was bad on this particular day, humidity clinging like a second skin, and Eli sat on the porch in a tank-top and cut-offs, tuning his guitar. That was another he liked about staying there, carrying on their grandpa’s work – with a sprawling piece of property this big, he could forgo the binder and no one would ever know. He could see any visitors coming long before they reached his front door. He whistled, giving the guitar an experimental strum, and a chorus of answering notes burst from the treetops. He grinned. It felt good to play again. To sing without his chest being constricted, his binder doing its best to fuck up his breathing. As soon as he saved up enough for top surgery, he was burning the damn thing.

Ava had been gone for the last couple of hours, having headed into town to do some shopping and check out the Saloon, and it was in her absence that he realized he hadn’t seen Mal for almost a full twenty-four hours. Not that this was unusual, but seeing how they were all living together again, Eli felt like he ought to be more concerned. He set the guitar back in its case and wandered inside, snagging a water bottle from the fridge. The basement door stood next to the kitchen, brass doorknob dull and frame wobbly. Eli stared at it while he drank, trying to ignore the warning cramp of anxiety in his gut. He’d hated the basement as a kid, on the rare occasion they’d come to visit – all his memories were of a rickety stairwell descending into a pitch-black void, strange humming and bubbling noises echoing from its depths.

(“A witch lives down there,” a younger version of Mal whispered in his ear, hands clamped on Eli’s shoulders. “That noise is her cauldron, and if Grandpa leaves the door open at night, she’ll sneak out and get you…”)

He yanked the door open. Light from the stairwell clashed with the sunlit hallway. The bubbling sound was back, though fainter than he remembered. He frowned and poked his head through the doorway, foot braced at the top of the steps.

“Mal! You down here?”

“Yeah,” came the reply, tinged with impatience. “What’s up?”

“What are you even doing?” Now that everything was illuminated, it looked like any other basement, stairs solid beneath his feet, and Eli felt stupid for the lingering fear. “You’ve been hiding down here all – woah.”

Mal looked at him as he came to a halt at the bottom of the steps. “All woah?”

“All week. What is this stuff?”

“Pops’ brewing set-up.” Mal stood up from where he’d been crouched in the corner, shucking his gloves and reaching for his thermos. He looked tired, eyes bloodshot and stubble coming in on his jaw, but his movements were sure. “I’ve been doing some reading and getting all the equipment cleaned up, and I think it should be good to go once I’m done sanitizing the fermentation vessels.”

“I only understood about half of that, but it sounds cool.” Eli took a quick look around, impressed by the sheer size of it. Metal tubs, steel cylinders, and pressure gages made it look more like a laboratory than a farmer’s basement, stretching from one end of the room to the other. They were flanked by rows of casks three rows high on either wall, wood discolored and worn smooth with age, and several shelves lined with empty bottles. “Gonna try to make beer?”

“That’s the plan. Maybe some wine, too. I haven’t tried opening the casks yet.”

“You don’t drink, though.”

Mal shrugged, looking vaguely irritated. “Don’t have to drink it to brew it.” Eli had to concede that this was true. “Besides, I figure this was how Pops made money during the winter, and we’re going to need income once whatever we grow during fall is gone.”

Another good point. Eli had assumed that they were going to have to scrape by with whatever they earned from their final harvest, and felt like an idiot for the third time in five minutes. He hadn’t seen Mal this interested in anything since the accident, and there he was, opening his mouth without thinking and ruining it. As usual.

“No, you’re right. This is awesome. Seriously. I was just surprised.” He rubbed the back of his neck, looked around again. “Can I help? Like, do you need anything?”

Now it was Mal’s turn to look surprised – at least, Eli thought he did. He was hard to read even at the best of times.

“Yeah, actually. I was going to order some hops from a greenhouse in Zuzu and have them shipped down here, but if you went up to get them, it’d be faster. And cheaper.”

“No problem,” Eli lied cheerfully. “I have to go up there on Saturday, anyway. They haven’t sent my prescriptions to the clinic here yet.” He’d been planning on taking the bus, and the plants would mean he’d have to find a different method of transportation, but he’d figure it out. For the first time in years, it felt like he was talking to his brother again, not some stranger wearing him like a bad costume, and he was going to milk the moment for all it was worth. “Just tell me when and where.”

“I’ll put in the order for Saturday, then.” Mal put his gloves back on and picked up the container at his feet, then paused. “Hey.”

“Yeah?”

He looked away, but not before Eli caught the beginnings of a smile. “Thanks.”

oOo

The rest of the afternoon crawled by, shadows growing long, and Eli sprawled on the porch, playing guitar while he waited. The parrots jostled for space on the roof with sparrows and starlings, squirrels peering at him from the trees; down below, rabbits emerged from their warrens and crept into the field. Even a pair of deer wandered up to the fence to listen, momentarily entranced.

People tended to be affected by his music, Eli had found over the years, but no one more so than children and animals. He’d had to stop busking in some of Zuzu’s more upscale districts after being asked to leave one too many times, a pack of stray cats and dogs at his heels and kids bursting into tears whenever he put a sad song into the rotation. At least on the South Side, nobody cared. There was one old woman in his building two floors down who paid him sometimes to come sit in her window and play songs from her childhood while she chopped vegetables and wept. But today, his heart wasn’t in it, and they all scattered as soon as he hit a sour note, leaving the yard abandoned.

Ava should have been home by then. He was trying not to worry – knowing her, she’d lost track of time at the Saloon and gotten into a drinking contest or something – but there was a part of him that couldn’t help it. They were in a new place, surrounded by nature on all sides. What if she was lost, or her phone was dead and something happened and she couldn’t reach him? Maybe it was a little late for the protective big brother schtick, considering that it was usually her defending him when they were kids, but still. He was getting ready to text her when snatches of laughter came drifting across the field, bright and delirious. Eli sat up. To his right, two figures cut through the field, one bubblegum-pink against wheat-gold. The other, he didn’t recognize. Then he remembered he wasn’t wearing his binder and sprinted inside.

“ – and so, my dumb ass spent the rest of the summer inside with a broken ankle,” Ava was saying when he came back outside, and the woman she was with laughed, adjusting the basket slung across her shoulders.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. All kids do thoughtless things.”

“Very true. Eli!” Ava waved as they came the rest of the way down the path, smiling wide. “C’mere, I want you to meet someone.”

Eli didn’t particularly want to meet anybody right then, but he plastered on a smile and came down off the porch, too-big sandals flopping with every step. He’d grabbed Mal’s by mistake. “It’s past your curfew, young lady. What do you have to say for yourself?”

Ava rolled her eyes. “This is Leah. Leah, this weirdo is my brother Eli. Feel free to ignore everything he says.”

“Nice to meet you,” Leah said, holding out her hand to shake. Eli took it. Her palms were callused, her grip sturdy; it was at odds with the rest of her, willowy and refined. A long braid fell over her shoulder, red-gold in the heavy orange light.

“I might have gotten a little turned around in the forest on my way back,” Ava admitted, scuffing her shoe against the dirt. “Leah found me near her cabin and offered to walk me home.”

“I live in Cindersap,” Leah explained, shifting the basket again. It was three feet deep and woven from plain fiber, with straps that looped around her shoulders. The legs of what looked like an easel poked out the top. “It’s not the easiest place to navigate when you first get here, but don’t worry.” She gave Ava’s shoulder a friendly squeeze. “I got lost more than once my first couple of months here. You’ll get the hang of it.”

“Totally.” Ava’s cheeks were as pink as her hair. Eli stifled a grin. “Thanks again for the tour.”

“No problem.” Leah glanced at the sky. “I should go before it gets dark. Nice meeting you. You too, Eli.”

“You too.”

“Bye,” Ava said, and Leah flashed her a smile.

“Come visit sometime soon, okay? Don’t be a stranger.”

They both watched her go, the long grass parting on either side of her in waves and her hair glowing in the sunset. As soon as she was out of earshot, Eli smirked. “You know, I’m starting to think you have a thing for redheads.”

“Shut your facehole,” Ava said, but there was no bite to it. She was still watching Leah’s ever-diminishing figure as it neared the border where the woods swallowed the road, flushed like she was sunburnt all over again.

“Shit,” Eli said, starting to laugh, and her head snapped towards him, blush replaced with a scowl.

“What’s so funny?”

“You are! You’ve known her for what, two hours?”

“Two and a half!” Ava shot back, and immediately dropped her face into her hands as he cracked up. A groan slithered from between her fingers. “Yoba, Eli, she’s so pretty. What the hell is wrong with me? I told her about breaking my ankle on that dare in fifth grade!”

“Did you tell her about sleepaway camp?”

Silence followed.

“You told her about sleepaway camp. Oh boy. Okay.” He patted her back. “Wait here. I’m gonna get us a drink.”

“Beer?”

“Vodka.”

“You always were my favorite brother.”

 

There was nothing to mix the vodka with, so they sat on the porch and passed the bottle back and forth, chasing each swig with mouthfuls of water.

“You know, I was mad when I found out you told Mom you were bi before you told me,” Eli said after a while. The stars glistened like fresh dew, the moon rising fat and gold over the treetops. He’d never seen so many stars. Ava took another drink.

“I didn’t think you’d care. You didn’t tell me you were trans until after you started T.”

“I know. I’m not saying it’s fair, it just… made me miss how we used to share everything.” Almost everything.

“If it makes you feel any better, she was kind of shitty about it.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Dad talked her down, though.” Ava held out her hand for the bottle. “I think it actually helped when you came out. She got a lot better after you had that whole big conversation with her.”

“Huh.” He hadn’t known that. He took another drink and passed it back. The vodka had stopped burning three swallows ago. “So. Leah, huh?”

“I don’t even know if she likes girls. With my luck, she’s as straight as… as…” Ava paused, thinking it over while she rolled the mostly-empty bottle between her palms. “Some straight thing, I dunno. I used up my last two brain cells trying to make her laugh.”

“But the sleepaway camp story? Really?”

“I panicked!” She punched his shoulder lightly, and he batted her hand away. “Look, it’s always been easy with guys. They do all the hard work. The flirting and asking you out and shit, I mean. When it comes to women, I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“Okay, well, ignoring all that other stuff for a second, what are you gonna do if she is into women? You barely know her.”

Ava shrugged and started peeling the label off the bottle. “I can get to know her.”

“I’m not saying you can’t, I’m just saying to think about it realistically. We’re only here until next summer.”

“A year is plenty of time.” She glanced at him, folding the torn label in half. “You could probably find someone too, if you wanted. You can’t be the only gay guy in the valley.”

“It’s not that simple.” He wished it were that simple. He hadn’t so much as kissed anyone since he and Jesse split the year before last, and some nights he couldn’t sleep for the aching. “Even if I did find someone I wanted to hook up with, we’d have to have ‘The Talk’, and there’s no fling worth being the Pelican Town freakshow. Y’know?”

Ava’s fingers found the back of his hand, their touch unsure. “Sorry. I wasn’t thinking about it like that.”

“It’s cool. Not your fault. Besides, we’re talking about you, remember?” He scooted around on the steps to face her, crossing his legs and motioning for the bottle. “Tell me everything you know about her so far. I wanna see if she’s good enough for my little sister.”

“Dork,” Ava said, but she was already back to swooning, a dopey grin spreading across her face. “Dude, she’s so nice, like… okay. Earlier today. I got lost as shit, right? No idea where I’m going, pretty sure I’m gonna die alone in the woods, all that fun stuff. And then I stumbled into this clearing, by the river, and there she was. She was sketching the parrots, and she even had one sitting on her shoulder, it was awesome, and I didn’t want to say anything at first because I didn’t want to interrupt, but then she saw me, so I had to go over there…”

Eli sat back and listened, careful to keep any residual bitterness out of his smile. He wanted to talk to Janice, but she might as well have been across the ocean right then for all the good that was doing him. More than that, though, he wanted what Ava had. He wanted those first stirrings of a new crush, and the terrifying thrill of possibility that accompanied them. To be excited that a cute guy was nice to him and squeezed his shoulder.

But if she was happy, and Mal was getting there… well. Two out of three wasn’t bad.

Not bad at all.

Chapter Text

Alex started playing gridball in fifth grade so he didn’t have to go home right after school. He kept playing because when his dad found out, he clapped Alex on the back and told him he was proud of him for the first time. That it was a man’s sport. He said it like it was a secret door Alex had unlocked without even realizing it, one that led down the path to being a Real Man. Alex didn’t know what that meant, but he’d seen his dad change the channel on the TV or shake his head reading the paper, muttering things like sissies and faggots, and the words gave him a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, like the time Jeremy Evans headbutted him during practice and then called him a pussy for crying. Maybe that was why his dad got angry and hit him. Maybe he could sense deep down that Alex wasn’t cut out to be a Real Man, because he cried sometimes and liked helping his mom in the garden. That year, for Mother’s Day, he’d made his mom a vase in art class. It was made of dull reddish clay, lumpy and misshapen, but he’d put her favorite flowers in it: pink and white tulips and deep blue jazz, with daffodils bright in the center like the sun. When his dad saw it, he broke the vase and smacked Alex so hard his ears rang, pieces of clay and flowers scattered across the kitchen floor and water soaking into his socks.

“If I wanted a girl, I would have knocked your mom up again,” his dad said. “Now clean this shit up.”

That was one thing Alex wished sometimes, when things got bad and the noise in his head was too loud – that his dad hadn’t skipped out before he was strong enough to stand up to him, before he was strong enough to protect his mom the way she’d protected him. Instead, he’d learned how to stop crying every time he took a hit, and his dad came to his games, and for an hour and a half once a week, it almost felt like they were a family. He’d hung onto that feeling like it was real, something tangible that he could keep if he grabbed it tight enough. All these years later, and he was still hanging on, even as the rest of him fought to let go.

After his dad left, he kept playing because he was good at it; when his mom died, it was all that was left. His life narrowed to the field, the grass on the pitch and the roar of the crowd. He didn’t remember much else from that time. It all blurred together, and sometimes little bits and pieces bobbed to the surface: his mom’s smile, the beeping of the machines and the smell of bleach, the hissing crack of a beer fresh from the fridge, insects buzzing on summer nights while his dad yelled in the background, his mom humming along with old songs on the radio while she cooked. Mostly there was the overwhelming sense of loneliness that clung to the edges of everything in a thick film, suffusing it all with grey. It was easier if he didn’t let himself think about it. If he just pretended that he sprang up in his grandparent’s house one day, fully formed. A blank slate.

But whether he wanted to think about it or not, it was because of his dad that he’d started playing, and because of his dad that he kept going back. Not that he’d tell anyone that, because they’d think he was crazy, but it was what drove him, year after year. If he was still out there – and he almost certainly was, miserable bastards like him kept on trucking while decent people dropped like flies – Alex wanted him to turn on the television someday and see his son score the winning goal. See that same son lifted high, cheered on by half the country while his good-for-nothing father rotted away in some backwater town, like something out of a movie. And when that happened, Alex was going to look right into the camera at his post-game interview and dedicate his win to his old man. He laid awake at night sometimes, picturing it. The bright lights of the stadium, the roar of the crowd, teammates celebrating all around him while a trophy found its way into his hands, shiny and gold.

What do you think now, Dad? Now that I’m a winner, and nobody knows or cares who you are?

Are you proud of me now?

oOo

“Can you believe the Moonlight Jellies are less than two months away? It feels like summer barely started.”

Alex grunted and rubbed another glob of sunscreen between Haley’s shoulder blades. Normally he’d agree with her, but he didn’t feel like talking much today, and she hadn’t shut up since she dragged him down to the beach to get some sun. He was starting to wish he’d just stayed home.

“I really want to get up to Zuzu before it’s over. Café Saucier only serves that pink cake during the summer.”

Another grunt.

“Want to come with me?”

He shrugged. Haley flipped her sunglasses up and craned her head around to look at him, lips pursed in a glossy pout.

“Seriously, what is with you today?”

“What?”

“You’re all boring and quiet. You didn’t even want to throw the gridball around.”

“You can’t throw, though.”

“Ugh, fine. Be a jerk.”

She slid her sunglasses back on and rolled away, facedown on her towel with her head pillowed on her arms. Alex still didn’t get why she bothered with bikinis when it was just them at the beach – the only other person they saw regularly was Elliott, and there was no way he was straight. Not with that hair.

“I didn’t mean it like a bad thing.” It wasn’t like she was the one trying to go pro. He leaned back on his elbows, squinting up into the blue. It was too blue, like even the sky was determined to piss him off today. “Just stating a fact.”

The top half of Haley’s face was hidden, but he could still feel her glaring at him. “Why are you being like this?”

“Being like what?”

He knew exactly what he was being like, and he knew it wasn’t fair, even as he said it. Haley was just trying to help, in her own way. But it was like the smallest, meanest parts of him crawled up and took over his mouth at times like these, and all the rest of him could do was stand by and watch.

“Like that!”

“I dunno, why did you tell Eli about my dad?”

Like a car crash in slow motion.

Haley’s mouth opened, but no sound came out. I’m sorry, Alex immediately wanted to say, but the words wouldn’t come, and they sat in stony silence until she looked away.

“If you didn’t want to hang out, you could have just said so.”

“But you – “

“Just go.” There was nobody alive colder than Haley when she was upset, and the disgust in her voice cut like winter wind. “I don’t like you when you’re like this.”

“Fine.” He got up, sand shifting and sluggish beneath his feet, and snatched up his towel from where it lay crumpled next to hers. “Whatever.”

He kind of wanted her to pick a fight with him, he realized. His head felt full to bursting, heart jackhammering against his chest the way it did after he ran a few miles, and he wanted her to tear into him, so he could let it out. But now she was ignoring him, and he’d already done enough damage as it was. He stormed off, the ocean vast and uncaring at his back, and the gulls screamed mockingly overhead.

He didn’t go back to town. He didn’t want to see anyone. When he reached the other side of the bridge, he shoved his towel back in his bag, slipped his tennis shoes on, and took off running towards the forest. No particular direction, no following the road, just tearing through the trees at breakneck speed, trying to leave himself behind, and all around him, Cindersap blurred parrot-green.

Little by little, his head emptied, and the sick, tight feeling in his chest faded away, leaving only shame. Sometimes Haley got on his nerves, yeah, but she didn’t deserve the way he’d treated her. He slowed to a jog, then a walk, sweaty and breathing hard. He had no idea where he was, but that was fine for now. He didn’t usually go this deep into the woods. Shadows darted overhead, disrupting the sunbeams breaking through the canopy, and he looked up to see small brown birds dart deeper into the trees. A faint thread of noise wound through the rushing of the river, and he stopped for a minute to listen, trying to separate the two. Then he found himself humming along and realized it was music.

His mom and his grandma had told him the same thing, growing up – if you hear a song in the forest that you didn’t know, don’t try to find the singer. Leave the way you came. Alex followed it upriver and told himself that whistling didn’t count.

The trees grew sparse as he walked, and the river narrow, until the path opened up into a half-moon hollow with a pond at its center. Here, the water came to rest, and it was lined with willow trees on all sides, long, delicate fronds trailing over its banks. Eli sat beneath the tallest one with his feet in the pond, strumming a guitar and whistling. Birds crowded in the branches above him, sunlight pouring through a lacy green curtain, and Alex didn’t know anything about art but he was pretty sure it made the kind of picture people paid to look at in galleries and museums. But then Eli spotted him and his fingers fumbled across the strings, his whistle faltering, and the birds all scattered to different trees. One parrot hopped down to the lowest branch and let out an offended squawk in Eli’s direction before taking off.

“Uh,” Alex said, because it seemed like one of them should say something. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Eli was still hanging onto the guitar with his fingers poised across the strings, a strange look on his face. “You come from the beach?”

Alex was about to ask how he knew when he glanced down and remembered that he wasn’t wearing anything but his trunks and shoes. “Oh. Yeah.” He scuffed his foot across the grass. “Just felt like going for a run.” It was a dumb excuse, but Eli nodded like he wasn’t a complete idiot anyway. The weird look was gone now. Maybe Alex had imagined it. “What are you doing out here?”

“Taking a break.” Eli’s hands plucked at the strings, restless. “I needed to get away for a minute, y’know? Clear my head.”

Alex knew that feeling all too well, and he scratched the back of his neck, glancing around. “Yeah. I get that.” He wondered if he should leave. It kind of seemed like it, but then again, Eli wasn’t acting like Alex was bothering him. He seemed pretty peaceful sitting there with his feet in the water and his eyes half-closed, sunlight kissing the planes of his face. A curious trout swam up to investigate his toes, then dove away. The guitar plinked like raindrops. “How long have you been playing for?”

He’d asked to fill the silence more than anything, but Eli looked pleased at the question. “Since high school, so… geez, a while. I’m mostly self-taught, though.”

“A while? What, like three, four years?”

Eli blinked at him. Then, he started to laugh.

“What?”

“How old do you think I am?”

“I dunno,” Alex said, confused and suddenly defensive. “Twenty-one, twenty-two?”

Eli laughed harder. “Even with the beard? Yoba, it’s worse than I thought.” At Alex’s blank stare, he clarified. “I’m twenty-eight.”

“You are not.”

“What, you wanna see my ID?”

“Yeah, because there’s no fucking way.”

“Prepare to have your mind blown,” Eli said, and dug out his wallet.

He really was twenty-eight, a fact which Alex was still having trouble grasping, but that was only the second most interesting thing on his license.

“’Elijah Herbert Lyndon’,” he read off the little plastic rectangle, squinting down at it. “Your middle name is Herbert?”

“After Pops, yeah.” Eli took it back and tucked his wallet away. “My dad says we look alike.” He stole a glance at Alex. There was something almost shy about it. “You grew up here, right?”

A pit opened up in Alex’s gut. “Yeah.”

“Did you know him?”

“Not really.” It wasn’t technically a lie. He picked at a loose stitch along the side of his swim trunks, avoiding Eli’s eyes, and heard him sigh.

“Yeah, I guess that makes sense. We stayed out here over a few summers, growing up, and I don’t think we ever went into town. Not that I can remember, anyway.” The water sloshed around his ankles. “Sorry. I just… I wish I’d known him better.”

Alex didn’t know what to say, so he just kept quiet. He ended up sitting next to Eli on the bank, in the shade of the willow tree, their knees almost brushing whenever one of them shifted. A little cramped, maybe, but well worth the quiet. Eli looked down at the guitar.

“Do you play?”

“Nah. My grandpa says I’m tone-deaf.” A gnat buzzed by his ear, and he swatted it away. “I play gridball. Trying out for the Tunnellers this fall.” Again.

“Oh, the pro team in Zuzu?”

“Yeah.”

“Cool.” Eli actually sounded like he meant it. More importantly, he didn’t ask why Alex was five years out of high school and still chasing a pipe dream. “I’ve never been much of a sports guy, but gridball’s alright. My ex was a huge fan.”

“She a gridball groupie? I heard there are a ton of those in Zuzu.”

It was inevitable, really – the Tunnellers were the number one team in the Western League five years running. Alex was about to make a crack about how he couldn’t wait for hot girls to come hang all over him once he made it, until Eli gave him an odd little smile and shook his head.

“I wouldn’t call him a groupie. A little obsessed, maybe, but we all have our flaws.”

I wouldn’t call him a groupie.

Him, him, him, in time with the erratic pounding of his heart.

“You’re – “ The word got stuck in his throat, and Alex coughed into his fist, trying to dislodge it. “You’re gay?”

“Yeah,” Eli said, like it was the easiest thing in the world.

“You don’t look gay.”

“Oh, sorry, I left my glittery thong and ‘I Like Dudes’ sandwich board back the house. My bad.”

“Fuck off, that’s not what I meant.”

“Oh?” Eli was enjoying watching him squirm, if the grin spreading across his face was any indication. “What did you mean, then?”

“Just…” He struggled to find the words, face burning. “Like, when I first met you, I wasn’t like, ‘oh, that dude’s gay’, you know? That’s all.” Because Eli didn’t look, or talk, like a sissy, and he might have said that too, if he wasn’t already pretty sure it was the wrong thing to say.

Eli rolled his eyes. “I get it. But yeah, I’m gay.” He met Alex’s eyes squarely, still smiling, which, how was he even doing that? Talking about it like it didn’t matter? “Is that a problem?”

“Uh… no,” Alex stammered. “No man, it’s cool, I just… never met a gay guy before.”

“You probably have. They just didn’t tell you.” Eli strummed his guitar again, absently picking out a tune. “Not everyone’s as comfortable outing themselves as I am.”

Understatement of the century.

“You ever thought about trying to learn?”

Momentary panic gripped him. “Huh?”

“Instruments.” Eli motioned to the guitar. “I know you said you don’t play, but have you ever thought about learning how?”

“Oh. No, not really. Always thought it might be kind of cool, though.”

“Yeah? I can show you some stuff, if you want.”

“Really?” Kind of an abrupt change in subject, but Eli was clearly done talking about the gay thing, and Alex was only too happy to move on. “That’d be kind of awesome. Thanks, man.”

“It’s cool. I’m always looking for more excuses to practice, anyway. It’s been a while since I played on the regular.” A fly wobbled past Eli’s face, and he yawned, squinting into the light. Alex had never seen eyes quite like his before – pure grey, without any blue or green to muddy the color. Weird, but cool, the way they almost glowed in the midday sun. “Do you have time now, or…?”

For a minute, Alex was tempted to say yes. The day was warm, the forest quietly welcoming; it would have been easy to sit there until sunset and forget about everything that waited for him back in town. But he didn’t have his phone, and Haley was pissed at him, and he didn’t want to risk worrying his grandma too.

“I should probably head back before it gets too late. Gotta take care of something.”

“No problem,” Eli said, and started digging through the pockets of his shorts. “You got a cell phone?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s your number?”

Alex told him, even as a part of him wondered if he should. He didn’t want to give the guy the wrong idea. But Eli just punched it in and typed out a quick message, fingers tapping away on the screen.

“There.” He put his phone away, smiled lazily. “Hit me up whenever you wanna learn some basic guitar shit.”

“Sounds good.” Alex stood, brushing his hands off on his trunks. “I guess I’ll catch you around?”

“Sure thing, man.” Eli whistled a quick little tune, punctuating it with a strum of the guitar, and all around him, the trees lit up with song, parrots warbling in harmony. It made something catch deep in Alex’s throat, and then it was gone. “See you later.”

oOo

He didn’t know what to make of Eli and his birds. Didn’t know what to make of Eli, period. He found his phone where he’d left it that morning when he got back to the house, shut in his desk drawer with one unread message.

Now you have my #, hit me up when you’re free

Were they friends now? He wasn’t even sure he wanted to be Eli’s friend, but he wasn’t sure he didn’t, either.

You wanna be friends with a faggot, boy? His dad’s voice echoed in the back of his head, sneering. Should have guessed you’d turn out to be one, too. You always were a candy-ass little bitch.

He didn’t delete the message, but it was a close call.

oOo

“Go away,” Haley said through the door, voice muffled, and Emily patted Alex’s arm.

“Good luck,” she whispered. “She’s been pouting in there since she came back from the beach.”

“I can hear you!”

Emily fluttered off to finish getting ready for work, and Alex knocked again, soft as he could manage. “Hales, c’mon. Open up. I’m sorry for being a jerk.” Silence followed, and he swung the Joja-Mart bag so she could hear it rustle. “Will you talk to me if I tell you I brought melon sherbet and those coconut candies you like?”

The door opened a crack, and Haley glared at him, only one of her eyes visible. He opened the bag so she could see its contents, and after a minute, she sighed and stepped back.

“Fine. Come in.”

He’d brought a spoon too, just to be safe, and as soon as he shut the door behind them, Haley snatched it from him and crawled back into bed, ripping the lid off the container. Her room still looked the same as it had when they were kids, with its pale pink walls and the white vanity across from the bed, gauzy curtains drawn closed across her window. Sometimes he wondered if she ever felt too old for it, but then again, it wasn’t his room.

“I was just looking out for you,” she said around a huge mouthful of sherbet. “You didn’t have to be so mean.”

“I know, I know. I’m sorry.” He sat down next to her, mattress springs squeaking. “I shouldn’t have acted like that. But like, maybe don’t tell people stuff about my dad or whatever unless I say it’s cool?”

She swallowed, dug another bite out of the carton in her lap. “Okay.” Pause. “Sorry.”

“Okay. You forgive me yet?”

“I will if you watch Practical Magic with me. And if you let me choose the next flavor for the ice cream stand.”

“You’re gonna pick something nasty like pistachio, aren’t you?”

“You mean, something amazing like pistachio.” She licked the spoon. “Or melon.”

“Gross. Fine.” Alex slung an arm around her shoulders, trying to hide his relief. He hated it when Haley was mad at him. He was never sure what to do with himself when she wasn’t around, and without her, who else did he have? Maybe it was a good thing he hadn’t deleted that text from Eli after all. He could stand to branch out, friend-wise. “Haven’t you seen Practical Magic like, thirty times?”

“Shut up, nerd,” Haley said, curling up against his side, and turned on the TV.

Chapter Text

At forty-eight, Cassie Lyndon was as vibrant and full of life as she’d ever been, even with crow’s feet and a full head of silvery-white hair – all the color had run out of it the day she discovered she was pregnant at seventeen.  She’d also insisted on weekly check-ins once her children made it clear they intended to go along with their grandfather’s wishes, and the concept of a brief phone call was one she had yet to grasp.

“Your father and I are just concerned,” she said for what must have been the tenth time, knife thunking rhythmically against the cutting board in the background. Making tamales for the church potluck, same as she did every month. Eli had already been treated to a fifteen minute detour concerning Mrs. Gunderson and the store-bought tamales she’d attempted to pass off as her own at last month’s dinner. “A farm that size needs tons of upkeep, and with that awful little man from Joja sniffing around…”

“Mom, relax. We went over the will with their corporate lawyers the other week. Again.” Thirty minutes of his life he’d never get back. Morris had practically been salivating under the cheap florescent lights. “As long as all three of us stay here for the full year, Joja can’t touch the place.”

“Thank Yoba. I have no idea what Herb was thinking.” The coffee pot bubbled, and Eli shifted his phone to his shoulder so he could pour himself a cup, listening to her run the sink through the speaker. “But what happens when the year is up? The three of you have talked about that, haven’t you?”

“Not… exactly,” he admitted. “But we will soon. The last few weeks have mostly just been us trying to get this place in order and figure out what we’re doing.”

His mom sighed. She had a lot of sighs. This one was her best I hope you know what you’re doing sigh, with a dash of I love you, my idiot children for flavor. “Well, let us know what direction you’re leaning, or if you need any help. Remember, your uncle Vinnie has his real estate license now, so if you end up wanting to sell – “

Someone knocked on the front door, screen rattling in its frame, and Eli silently thanked whoever it was for the distraction. “Hold on!” he called. “Mom, someone’s here. I gotta go, okay? I’ll talk to you later.”

“Text me!” she called back as he hung up. Phone tucked into the pocket of his robe and coffee cup in hand, he went to see what they wanted. Leah had shown up shortly after six, wanting to know if Ava was interested in going morel hunting with her, and no sooner had they left than Eli went outside to find a couple of especially bold crows terrorizing his tomato seedlings. He’d chased them off and added ‘buy a scarecrow’ to his ever-expanding To Do list. For his part, Mal had yet to surface; Eli was starting to think he’d moved into the basement permanently. He opened the door.

“Hi there! Sorry to bother you.” The woman standing on the porch was soft and round, comfortably settling into middle age, and beaming at him like they were long-lost friends. In one hand, she held a carton of eggs; a bundle of orange fur dozed in the crook of the other. A little girl of about six or seven hid behind her legs, peering out at Eli distrustfully. “I’m Marnie. I own the Sanctuary Ranch, just down the road? Thought it was about time we met our new neighbors.” She gave the girl a gentle nudge. “Jas, honey, say hi.”

Jas clung to her, staring up at him with big solemn eyes. Marnie chuckled. “This is Jas, my niece. She’s a little shy around new people.”

“That’s okay. I’m Eli. I’d shake your hand, but they both look occupied.” It felt impolite to just stand in the doorway, so he took a step back. “Do you want to come in? I just made coffee.”

“That’s sweet of you, but I need to get Jas to her lessons and get back to the animals. I’m afraid I had an ulterior motive for visiting.” Marnie’s eyes crinkled at the corners when she smiled, holding out the carton. “My girls have been laying like crazy since spring, and we have plenty extra, so how would you like some fresh eggs? They come with a kitten.”

Eli took the eggs, acutely aware that Jas was still looking at him. He wasn’t wearing his binder, but the way his robe and shirt hung hid his chest well enough. He hoped. “Well… thanks, Ms. Marnie. Is that a Pelican Town tradition, or just a bonus?”

“My barn cat had kittens, and I don’t need eight of them, so I’m trying to see that they go to good homes. Herb always did like cats. Thought his grandkids might feel the same.” The kitten in her arms rolled onto its back and yawned, paws skyward, and Eli’s heart melted into a puddle right there on the kitchen floor. “If you want him, he’s yours.”

Screw it. If Ava could go mushroom hunting at sunrise and Mal could run a brewery out of the basement, then he could have a cat. His apartment back in the city hadn’t allowed pets.

“Hey little guy,” he said as Marnie handed the kitten over, cradling him close. “How’s it going?” Blue eyes blinked up at him, half-lidded, then closed the rest of the way as the kitten fell back asleep. Eli looked up at Marnie, awestruck. “I can really have him? Just like that?”

“As long as you take good care of him,” Marnie said, looking pleased. Jas tugged on her hand.

“Aunt Marnie,” she whispered. “Can we go yet?”

“Yes, sweetheart. Just be patient for one more minute.” She dug a business card out of her pocket and handed it to Eli. “Here’s the information for the nearest vet’s office, just in case. They’re about fifteen miles from here, but they’ll make a house call if it’s an emergency.”

“Thank you. Seriously, I wish I had something for you, but…” Eli cast about for a suitable gift – spare produce, leftover pie, something – and came up empty. “I don’t think we have anything on hand. I’m sorry.”

“Please. If anything, you’re doing me a favor.” Marnie gave him a sly little smile, eyes twinkling. “But if you need to get rid of some of that melon growing in your backyard, you know where to find me.”

“You can have first pick,” Eli promised, and she chuckled and took Jas’s hand.

“Come on, let’s get you to Miss Penny. Don’t be a stranger, Eli.”

“Bye,” Jas said softly.

Eli waved at them as they trekked back down the road, his other arm still occupied with their newest resident. Behind him, the basement door creaked open, and Mal emerged, blinking, into the sunlight. He was wearing the same clothes he’d been wearing two days ago, hair greasy and stubble thick on his jaw, and Eli intercepted him when he made a break for the coffeepot.

“Dude, no. You fucking reek. Go take a shower.”

“Coffee first.” Mal swiped at him half-heartedly. Eli moved the pot out of reach.

“Shower and I’ll make you more coffee. Also, we have a cat now.” He scritched behind the kitten’s ears. “Go.”

Mal grunted, but went to the bathroom willingly enough. The sound of running water echoed behind the door, and Eli set the kitten down and picked up the eggs. First breakfast, then town – thankfully, he still had some money left in his savings. “You need food and a litterbox,” he told the cat. “And a name.”

In the distance, the water stopped running. The bathroom door opened.

“What do you mean, ‘we have a cat now’?”

oOo

In the end, it came down to a vote: two for, one against. Ava showed up an hour later with a basket full of morels and chanterelles and a dopey grin on her face, which only got bigger the second she laid eyes on their new tenant.

“He stays,” she said, tucking her feet up on the bottom rung of her chair. Her shoelaces were untied, and the kitten kept pouncing on them. “Majority rules.”

“Fine.” Mal set his jaw and stood, glaring at the kitten like it was personally responsible for his misfortunes. “But I don’t like it, I didn’t agree to this, and I’m not cleaning up after it.”

“He has a name,” Eli said. “Or will, as soon as I think of one.”

Mal shook his head. Eli was expecting him to go back to the basement, but he poured himself a fresh cup of coffee and went outside to the back porch, shutting the screen door behind him. Beneath the chair, the kitten chewed on Ava’s laces, purring gleefully. Ava didn’t seem to notice.

“How was mushroom hunting?”

“It was really cool. You wouldn’t think Leah’s from the city, as much as she knows about this stuff.” She picked up one of the fleshy orange chanterelles, as big as her palm, and brushed off some of the dirt. “She told me that right before she moved here, she and her ex were living on 96th and Fuller. We were practically neighbors. How weird is that?”

“Sounds like it was meant to be,” Eli teased. Ava tried to glare at him, but it didn’t work with the smile, and she gave up after a second and set the mushroom back among its fellows.

“So, what are you gonna name him?”

From his spot near the stove, Eli considered. The kitten was dozing again, one of Ava’s shoelaces still tangled in his paws. A patch of stark white fur was visible just below his chin.

“Dunno yet,” he said. “He’ll tell me when he’s ready.”

oOo

Okay, so. In retrospect, the guitar thing was stupid. But what was he supposed to do? He’d been minding his own business one minute, enjoying the sunshine and the water, and the next, there was Alex. Alex, damp with sweat, wearing nothing but his swim trunks and tennis shoes, looking like he’d strolled right off the cover of a Men’s Health magazine. Eli had figured the guy was in shape, but witnessing it for himself was practically a religious experience. Congratulations, you are now a convert to the church of Alex’s pecs. Go forth and worship. He was honestly a little proud of how well he’d held it together, all things considered. Every time he’d snuck a glance, his brain had threatened to short-circuit.

We talked about this, he told his reflection silently, puncturing his last vial neatly with the syringe. No more crushing on straight guys, remember? It never ended well. Not that crushing on gay guys always ended well for him, either, but at least it wasn’t a guaranteed disaster. After five years, his shot was a weekly ritual now, comforting in its own way – pinch stomach, slide needle in, inject T, pull needle out, slap band-aid on, dispose of hazardous materials, done – and he did it without really paying attention, lost in his thoughts.

It had been too long, that was all. He didn’t miss Jesse, exactly, but he missed their easy intimacy. Not the sex (well, not just the sex), but the other stuff, like casual kisses and being held, or the nights when he’d swing his legs over Jesse’s lap while they watched TV for a foot rub. He would have killed for a foot rub right about then. Of course he was having a physical response to the hottest guy he’d interacted with in months, even if said guy was kind of an asshole. Alex still hadn’t responded to his text. Eli was more relieved than anything. It had been an impulsive decision, and he needed to be spending less time around Alex, not more. At least, not until his brain caught up with his dick. He splashed some water on his face and went back to the kitchen, where he found Ava unpacking the last box of flatware.

“Oh, hey, there you are. Leah invited us down to the Saloon tonight with her friend Elliott. Wanna go?”

Eli’s first instinct was to say no and give them some space, but then again, it probably wasn’t a date if they were meeting Leah’s friend there. Maybe a night out was what he needed to get his head in order. “Sure. Have we met Elliott?”

“Not officially. Leah says he was the guy at the Luau who looks like a skinny Fabio. He lives in that shack on the far end of the beach.” Ava put the last of the plates in the cabinet and shut the door, brushing her hands off. “Sounds fun, right?”

“Yeah, why not? The Pelican Town transplants, all hanging out together. Should be a good time.” Eli watched her for a minute as she scrubbed her hands in the sink and dried them, hair falling in her eyes. She seemed oddly subdued, but he couldn’t say why. “You okay?”

It was either the right thing to ask, or completely wrong, because Ava flopped into the empty chair at the head of the table with a groan, burying her face in her hands.

“Is… that a yes?”

“Eli, I like her so much.” The words came out all in a rush, like she’d been waiting to say them for a while. “I’m sorry, I’m trying not to obsess and I know I basically just met her, but I haven’t crushed on anyone like this since fucking high school, and I’m scared I’m gonna fuck it up before it even has a chance to be anything, so – “

“Hey, it’s okay. It can’t be that bad.”

“Her hair smells like sunflowers,” Ava said through her fingers.

“I stand corrected.” He patted her shoulder. “Seriously, though, it’s okay. Enjoy having a crush, chill, and have fun. And tonight, I’ll be there to stop you if you get drunk and try to propose or something.”

“Oh, fuck off.” She swatted at him, but she seemed much more cheerful, so Eli figured he was in the clear. The walk into town was just shy of an hour, and while Ava went to shower and fret over her outfit, he poked his head into the living room. Mal sat on the couch, blank-faced while he flipped through their Netflix queue. The kitten sat on the back of the couch, staring out the window at nothing the way cats often did.

“Me ‘n Ava are going out. You want anything from town?”

Mal shook his head, expression unchanged. He’d always been distant, even at his peak, seemingly disconnected from the world around him; living with him felt like having a permanent houseguest. Someone was always tiptoeing around that last degree of separation. Before the accident, Eli had chalked it up to narcissism. Now, he wasn’t so sure.

“Okay, well… text me if you think of anything. And the cat better still be here when we get back. I mean it. Don’t let him outside.”

Mal cracked the tab on his sparkling water. “Yeah, yeah.” Over his shoulder, the kitten blinked once, whiskers twitching, and yawned.

oOo

“Hey, you made it!”

Thursday night wasn’t exactly primetime for the Stardrop, judging from its lack of clientele, but it still felt more welcoming than any of the bars back home, soft light from the gas lamps blooming on the walls and cheerful country music whistling from the jukebox. Old-school country too, with its distinct bluesy twang. Eli approved. Leah waved at them from the corner booth.

“I wasn’t sure you’d come.” Her cheeks were flushed, flyaway hair sticking to her temples. A half-empty bottle of red wine sat on the table, flanked by two glasses. “Elliott, this is Ava and her brother Eli. Ava, Eli, this is my friend Elliott.”

“Charmed.” Elliott smiled. He was handsome, if a little too polished to be Eli’s type, wearing a maroon velvet waistcoat with his hair falling over his shoulder in gleaming chestnut waves. He really does look like Fabio. Eli had to suppress a snort. Thankfully, no one noticed.

“Leah told me you’re a writer,” Ava said, sliding into the booth across from them. Eli crowded in after her, jeans squeaking against the cheap vinyl. “That’s pretty cool.”

“Not at all,” Elliott assured her, and Leah giggled. Eli assumed the bottle between them wasn’t the first of the night. “It’s dreadfully dull, if I’m being honest. Just me wrestling my ghosts via typewriter in an empty room.”

“Ghost wrestling sounds like the exact opposite of boring,” Eli said, and Elliott chuckled as he poured the rest of the wine into his and Leah’s glasses.

“I can tell you about it if you like, but if that’s the case, we’re going to need more wine. Garçon!” He waved a hand in Gus’s direction. “Another bottle, s’il vous plaî…”

It was a bit like getting drunk with the reincarnation of Oscar Wilde. Elliott was passionate, charmingly self-deprecating once the wine stripped away some of his polish, and at one point he made Eli laugh so hard that he almost spit his drink all down his front. Leah was the one who really surprised him, though – she was still quiet and self-possessed, but opinionated, with a sly sense of humor that crept out once she’d loosened up. He thought he could see why Ava liked her. The new bottle was emptied and replaced with a round of Gus’s summer shandy (“For variety,” Ava insisted), and at some point, the country music transitioned into gritty, stompy folk rock, the singer’s voice a mournful growl. Ava’s face lit up, and she slid out of the booth, leaving her empty glass behind.

“I love this song! Someone dance with me.” Leah shook her head, smiling, and Eli pretended to be interested in the foam at the bottom of his cup. Ava looked between them, mock-exasperated. “One of you bums is gonna dance with me before the night’s up. Just so you know.”

“Well, who am I to refuse a lady?” Elliott unfolded himself from the booth, and Ava cheered and grabbed his hand. Only Eli knew her well enough to catch the brief flash of disappointment in her eyes.

“C’mon, I wanna see how a writer dances!”

Not well, as it turned out, but no less enthusiastic for it. The two of them whirled around the room while Emily egged them on from behind the bar and Pam cackled her hoarse smoker’s laugh. Even Willy and Clint were craning their necks to see what the sudden commotion was about. Then Pam heaved herself off her stool and dragged Gus out from behind the bar, and Emily tossed her towel on the counter and dashed over to join them. Eli propped his chin in his hands and watched them, humming along.

“You don’t dance, either?” Leah asked. He shook his head.

“Gotta be drunker than this if you want to see that.”

She laughed, but she wasn’t looking at him. She was looking over his shoulder to where Ava spun arm-in-arm with Elliott, hair and freckles neon under the lights. “Maybe another time, then.”

The song ended, and Ava came bouncing back over with Elliott in tow, whose cheeks were as red as his overcoat. “You sure you don’t wanna dance with us?” she asked Leah, and Eli silently forgave her for ignoring him, since it meant nobody was pestering him to make a fool of himself. “Plenty of room out there.”

“Pretty sure,” Leah said, but there was that smile again, half-hidden by her glass.

“Not even if I buy us another round?”

“Another!” Elliott agreed, slapping the table, and Eli took the opportunity to climb out of the booth and squeeze past them – or would have, if Elliott hadn’t stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “What about you? Another drink?”

“Sure, yeah. Here.” He went for his wallet, but Elliott shook his head.

“No, let me. I insist.”

“If you’re sure,” Ava chirped, and Eli reluctantly took his hand out of his pocket. He didn’t like owing people, but Elliott was probably just feeling drunk and charitable.

“Alright, well… thanks, man. I’ll be right back.”

He went to the bathroom and took a piss, then washed his hands and splashed water on his face, florescent lights humming overhead. Nobody noticed when he snuck past the table on his way back and stepped outside. The weather had cooled considerably once the sun went down, and the breeze kissed his overheated skin when it rolled in off the ocean. Everyone else had already retired for the night, town square deserted and lamp posts flickering now and again in the silence. He leaned against the brick siding and looked up. Back in Zuzu, you could see the moon, but not the stars, not like this. Not these swirling, endless rivers of silver rushing through the deep blue sky. He still wasn’t used to the vastness of it all. Sometimes it terrified him, to remember how small he really was, but other times he found it comforting. Tonight, it was simply beautiful.

In the distance, a dog barked, and two now-familiar silhouettes emerged at the foot of the bridge. Eli waved. After a split second’s hesitation, Alex waved back.

“You take Dusty for a lot of late-night walks,” Eli said once they were close enough to hear him, crouching down. Dusty licked his hands, tail wagging. Alex shrugged.

“It’s not as hot out.”

“Less people around, too.”

Alex looked away, rubbing the back of his neck. “Yeah. I guess.”

He didn’t seem all that eager to talk, and Eli shoved down the disappointment that welled in his chest, scratching Dusty’s ears. Distance, dumbass. Distance was good. Better than doing something he’d regret. But when he stood up, Alex was right there, closer than Eli remembered him being a second ago. A faint dusting of stubble coated his jaw, and his eyes were green. How were anyone’s eyes that green? Eli swallowed.

“Sorry I didn’t text you back. I’ve been kinda busy.”

“Oh, dude. It’s fine. It’s been like a day.” Eli patted Dusty’s head, just to give his hands something to do. “Don’t sweat it.”

“Yeah,” Alex said. He didn’t move. Eli had to wonder if this was some sort of divine retribution for every unkind thing he’d ever said or done in his life. Why else would he be forced to stand inches away from someone so untouchable? “Maybe we could do some guitar stuff tomorrow, if you’re not busy. If you want.”

Eli blinked. He hadn’t actually expected Alex to take him up on the offer. “Yeah. Uh. That should be fine, I think… yeah, no, we’re good. I have to check and see if the tomatoes are ready for harvest, but other than that I’m all yours.”

He realized how it sounded the second it left his mouth, but luckily Alex didn’t seem to notice. “Cool. I’ll come by tomorrow afternoon, then.” But he still didn’t move, like he was waiting for Eli to say something else, and Eli had no idea what it could be. His head was full and the lights were buzzing, moths circling the lamp by the door. Alex had a nice mouth when he wasn’t talking, generous, with a dimple at the corner. Eli kind of wanted to bite it.

Fuck. He really was drunk.

“Cool.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “I guess I’ll see you later?”

“Yeah. See you.” Alex gave Dusty’s leash a little tug. Eli couldn’t read his expression. It was either relief, or disappointment. Maybe both. “C’mon, boy.”

Dusty woofed and gave Eli’s hand one last lick through his pocket. Eli refused to watch them go. He turned around and put a hand on the wall to steady himself, the other braced on his thigh. Not for the first time that night, he wondered what the fuck was wrong with him. The saloon door swung open, hinges squeaking, and he straightened up, not wanting to look as dizzy as he felt. But it was only Elliott, pink and smiling with his hair in artful disarray.

“I was starting to wonder if you left,” he said.

“Nope. Just taking a breather.” At least it was only Elliott. Ava knew him too well. One look at his face and she would have instantly realized something was up. “Everything cool?”

“Oh, yes. Leah and your sister are having a rather intense discussion about tattoos. Hardly my area of expertise, so I thought I’d leave them to it.” Even drunk, Elliott was graceful – he moved like he was waltzing. It should have looked silly, but he did it with enough conviction to pull it off. “Are you sure you’re alright? You look like you’re out of breath.”

Well, that was one way to put it. “I’m fine, no worries.” He nodded in Elliott’s direction. “Looks like you’ve been having a good time.”

Elliott chuckled. “I usually do.” He swept his hair forward, off the back of his neck, and breathed a contented sigh. “Much better.”

“All that hair has to be murder in the summer.”

Elliott groaned theatrically. “Vanity will be the death of me, it’s true. The summers here can be dreadful.” He twisted it up into a bun, then let it tumble back down. “Even by the ocean. Especially by the ocean, some days.”

“How long have you lived here, anyway?” Eli asked. Elliott thought for a moment, tapping his chin.

“Mm, going on two years now, give or take.”

“You like it here?”

A smile blossomed on Elliott’s face, broad and free from affect. “I do. I really do, even though I wasn’t sure at first. It’s like living in something out of a fairy tale.” It was still there when he looked at Eli, the smile, but there was something else there too, like he was searching for confirmation. “Although, it does get lonely at times.”

Eli knew that look. He’d seen it plenty of times – on the street, at the bar, in the photos of the men on sites like OKDate and Scruffed – analytical and longing all at once. He just wasn’t used to seeing it directed at him. “I can imagine.” Neither confirming nor denying. Just waiting to see what Elliott would do next.

“Living alone in a shack will do that, I suppose. Even if it’s rather nice as far as shacks go.” Elliott’s lips quirked into a smile. He had a nice mouth too, even white teeth and full lips. “I don’t suppose you’d like to see it?”

It would be easy, Eli thought. Elliott was making it easy. All he needed to do was say yes, he wanted to see it, and bury his hands in all that beautiful hair. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing, to be a little less lonely. Even if it was only until morning. Hell, Elliott was from the city, far worldlier than anyone else in town; he’d probably known trans people before. Eli might not even have to explain.

But as tempting as it was, it wasn’t what he wanted, not really. Not when they were both drunk and looking for temporary solace. They both deserved better than that. He clapped Elliott on the shoulder and motioned towards the door. “We should probably get back in there before they come looking for us.”

Elliott’s face softened in understanding. “Another time, perhaps.”

“I’d like that,” Eli assured him, opening the door. Music and light spilled out onto the steps, accompanied by the low hum of conversation, warm and inviting. Elliott gave him a gracious little nod before stepping back inside, and Eli went to follow him, but something held him back. He looked over his shoulder at Alex’s house, dark and still but for a single light, glowing like a beacon in the upstairs window. Alex’s bedroom, maybe. Dusty let out a low howl from the garden, hidden behind the fence. The light winked out.

Chapter Text

He dreamed that he was swimming, surrounded by the cool abundance of the ocean. He couldn’t see the shore, but he cut through the waves one stroke at a time, unhurried. He wasn’t tired. He’d find it eventually. But the more he swam, the more it swelled around him, and he struggled to remember which direction he’d come from. It hadn’t seemed to matter at the time. Not when it was just him and the sea for miles and miles, cradling him in wet hands, its waters strangely sweet on his lips. He looked down and saw clouds drifting along below him in scattered white puffs like dandelion seeds.

Huh. That was new.

Something kept urging him to look up, stronger by the second. Alex looked. There was the beach and the bridge leading back to town, and then all the rest, no bigger than patchwork squares on a quilt. It all looked so small down there, like he could cup it in his palms. He reached out.

Down?

It was below him, he realized with a jolt. Home was miles and miles below him, and he was swimming through the sky, suffocating in the endless blue. He woke up before he had a chance to fall.

It was just a weird dream, he told himself as he sat up in bed, sheets tangled around his legs and parrots chattering outside the window. Weirder than they usually were, yeah, but at least it wasn’t about his dad –

He kicked that train of thought right off its tracks. He wasn’t going to think about his old man right now. Not today, hopefully not ever. The parrots cried, long, laughing calls that went on and on even after he stuck his head out the window and threatened them with one of the books he never read. They weren’t afraid of anything as far as he could tell. He hadn’t realized it was possible to be jealous of a bird.

His grandma and grandpa were both waiting for him in the kitchen, his grandma smiling so wide her eyes almost disappeared into the wrinkles surrounding them. Even his grandpa had allowed one of his rare smiles to make an appearance, smaller but genuine. Alex stopped in the doorway. The table was covered with all his favorite breakfast foods: stacks of buttermilk pancakes, omelets with pepper and leeks, fresh milk from Marnie’s cows, and a plate heaped with hash browns. His grandma scurried over to give him a hug, and Alex’s throat closed up so tight he could barely swallow. He put his arms around her. 

“Happy Birthday,” she whispered, reaching up to cradle his face in soft hands, and her hair tickled his nose when he bent down and kissed the top of her head.

“Thanks, Grandma.”

His grandpa patted him on the back when he sat down. It used to make Alex flinch when he did that without warning, but he’d learned to trust that it wouldn’t hurt. He only flinched sometimes now.

“Twenty-three,” he said gruffly. “Hell of an age.”

Alex grunted and started piling food on his plate. Twenty-three was old. Not old-old, but old to start a professional sports career. He’d been avoiding it the last few months, but there was no getting around it now; this fall’s gridball tryouts would be his last. If he didn’t make it this time…

He shoved a syrup-drenched bite of pancakes into his mouth. He didn’t want to think about that, either. He and his grandpa ate steadily, the kitchen quiet except for the chewing, and his grandma sipped her tea and ate her toast and eggs, pleased with herself.

“Any big plans for the day?”

Alex shook his head, pushing his empty plate aside. Normally he would have gone for seconds, but he wasn’t feeling it today. “Not really. But I might go to the farm for a little while.”

“Hmph,” George said, and swallowed a mouthful of omelet. “Last I heard, you and the new farmers weren’t exactly getting along.”

“It’s fine, Grandpa. I’m over it.” He refilled his glass with milk, avoiding their eyes. “The younger brother, Eli? He’s alright. He said he could teach me some guitar stuff.”

His grandpa nodded and resumed eating, apparently satisfied, and his grandma smiled at him like she was proud of him for some reason. Like he was back in kindergarten, making friends for the first time. “That’s wonderful, dear. Just be back by suppertime. I already invited Haley over for you.”

“I will.” He didn’t really want to go to the farm, but it was better than having Eli come over. The thought of him permeating Alex’s space, seeing bits and pieces of Alex’s life and leaving traces of himself wherever he went was unbearably weird and intimate. He hated that word, intimate, but it was the only one that gave shape to the way Eli’s hypothetical presence in his home made his skin crawl. He took his dishes to the sink and rinsed them.

“Alex,” his grandma said when he turned the water off. “I made some cookies to thank Ava for the pie. Since you’re going up there anyway, would you mind taking them with you? My old bones aren’t what they used to be.”

“Of course, grandma.”

“Thank you, dear. Pretty girl, that Miss Ava,” she added slyly, and Alex fumbled with his still-wet plate. “Excellent baker, too.”

“All those tattoos make her look like a damn hoodlum,” his grandpa said, eyes still on his crossword, and his grandma tutted.

“George, honestly.”

Alex left them to it and went upstairs to get dressed. He’d take the cookies with him, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.

oOo

He honestly didn’t know why he’d brought up the guitar thing. He did feel kind of bad for ignoring the guy when he was trying to be friendly, and the next thing he knew, he was inviting himself over, distracted by the way Eli kept licking his lips. Well, not like distracted, that sounded pretty gay, but caught up in trying to figure out how drunk Eli was. Dusty didn’t like it when people were drunk. He usually cowered when they had more than a beer or two. Maybe it was because Eli smelled like wine? His dad never drank wine.

Alex really didn’t want to think about his dad.

He made it to Whiskey Creek by late morning, cellophane-wrapped plate of cookies in hand. Nobody answered when he knocked, but when he listened, he heard voices nearby. He stepped off the sagging porch and followed them around back, where he found all three of the Lyndon siblings plucking tomatoes from the vine. Twelve full trellises lined a neat patch of tilled earth, heavy with bright red and yellow fruit.

“Look, I know I might have overdone it with the tomato plants, but – “ Eli broke off when he spotted Alex, waving. He was sweaty, olive skin tinged bronze from the sun, and a tub piled with their harvest sat at his feet. “Hey, you came!”

“I said I would.” Alex held out the cookies, a little flattered despite himself. Nobody was ever that happy to see him, except maybe Dusty. “These are from my grandma. I can put them inside if you want.”

“I’ll take them,” Ava offered. Eli narrowed his eyes and pointed at the tub next to her, also overflowing.

“You don’t get out of tomato duty that easy. Let’s go.”

“I can help,” Alex started to offer, but Mal picked that moment to hoist the third tub like it weighed nothing and shook his head.

“We got it.”

He still didn’t feel right just standing around, so he propped the back door open and put the cookies in the kitchen while Eli and Ava wrestled the second tub onto the porch and Mal went back for the third. Alex hadn’t realized he was in such good shape. Then again, all three of them were looking more rugged than they had a month ago. He sat at the table and watched them demolish the cookies while they discussed what to do with their windfall.

“Whatever we keep, I’ll can for later,” Ava said, licking smears of chocolate from her fingers. “Pops has a recipe for tomato jam I want to try. Also, holy shit.” She looked at Alex pleadingly. “Do you think your grandma would adopt me? She has a spot open for favorite granddaughter, right?”

“Or you could just ask her for the recipe,” Eli said, snagging a third cookie. Alex shook his head.

“My grandma guards her recipes with her life. She won’t even share them with Lewis, and he’s been trying to get her cheesecake recipe for twenty years.”

“Hardcore,” Ava said approvingly.

“That reminds me.” Mal nudged Eli as he got up from the table, taking one last cookie with him. “Ask your friend if we can borrow his mom’s truck to haul all this shit to town. The emo one with all the hair.”

Alex snorted before he could stop himself. Eli glared at both of them. “His name’s Sebastian.”

“Of course it is,” Mal said, and disappeared into the basement, shutting the door behind him. Eli pulled a face, then glanced at Alex, irritation fading into apology.

“I gotta deal with the tomatoes and go back out to harvest the melons, so this might take a while. Sorry about that.” Something soft brushed Alex’s leg, and he looked down to see a kitten wind its way through the chairs to rub up against Eli’s ankle. Eli picked it up and scratched its ears, earning a muted purr. “Lemme text Sebastian and see if we can use Robin’s truck.”

“If you clean everything, I’ll take it to Pierre’s,” Ava said. Eli looked at her, surprised, and she shrugged. “What? I have plans in town tonight. Might as well.”

“You’re the best,” Eli said, and let the kitten climb up onto his shoulder, claws snagging the fabric of his t-shirt. “I’ll let you know when we’re done.”

“Have fun, boys,” Ava said, and wandered off, humming a song Alex couldn’t place.

He didn’t really want to just sit there – that left him open to too many stray thoughts, like wondering when and how Eli got to be that friendly with Sebastian, of all people – so he followed Eli back out to the garden, where the melons waited to be plucked from their vines. They worked in silence, the sun beaming down overhead, and Alex lost himself in the rhythm of cutting the stems from the tendrils and brushing the dirt from the rinds. The tub Eli had dragged between them filled quickly, and when they were done, they brought it back to the porch to rinse everything off. Then Eli grabbed a knife from the kitchen and split one of the smaller melons in half, and they sat on the steps and ate, fruit shockingly pink, juice running down their fingers and chins. The kitten sprawled out nearby, napping in the sunshine.

“I didn’t know you had a cat.”

Eli swallowed. “The lady down the road gave him to us yesterday. The one who owns the ranch.”

“Marnie?”

“Yeah. Sorry, bad with names.” He hopped off the porch, rind clasped in his still-dripping fingers. “I’m gonna go grab stuff and clean up. Be right back.”

Cleaning up sounded like a good idea, so Alex washed his hands with the garden hose while he waited, and Eli came back a few minutes later with his guitar slung over his shoulder.

“Alright, so I figured I could just start slow today, teach you some basic chords and scales. Nothing too fancy.” He plopped back down next to Alex, shifting the guitar to rest across his thigh. “I’ll go over it a few times, and then you can try when you’re ready. Sound good?”

Alex had started panicking internally when Eli left, and now it was ramped up to full volume, static in his ears. What the hell had he been thinking? He was tone-deaf and stupid, so why put himself in a position to be laughed at? If Eli didn’t already think Alex was dumb, he would after this. But he also didn’t want Eli knowing that he was freaking out, so he slapped on what he hoped was a convincing smile and nodded. “Sounds good.”

“Cool.” Eli’s teeth flashed, white against his beard. “I already tuned him, so I’ll show you how to do that later. First, strings.”

It didn’t go as badly as Alex had feared, mostly because Eli was a patient teacher. He was in no hurry, happy to demonstrate or repeat things as needed, and little by little, Alex relaxed. He even tried playing the chords a couple of times, just to feel the strings under his fingers. He wasn’t sure he was doing it right, but no one’s ears were bleeding, which was always a good sign. Eli listened for a moment, thoughtful, then said, “Try this,” and arranged Alex’s fingers differently, pressing them against the strings. Alex strummed again. “See how that sounds clearer? You don’t want the notes running together.”

It did sound better, now that he was paying attention. “Like this?” He tried again, and Eli nodded.

“Yeah. See, you got it. That’s all songs are, when you break ‘em down. A bunch of chords.”

“I never thought about it like that,” Alex admitted. It didn’t seem so intimidating when he put it that way. Eli shrugged.

“It’s all in the execution, man.”

Alex slipped the woven strap over his head. It skimmed his arms when he held the guitar out. “Play something.”

Whether it was a request or a challenge, he didn’t know. Maybe both. Eli looked a little startled, but he took the guitar back anyway, hand curling protectively around its neck. “Anything specific?” Alex shook his head, and Eli settled the guitar over his lap once more, taking a deep breath. “Yeah. Alright.”

Alex wasn’t sure what he expected, but it definitely wasn’t a song he knew. His grandma liked to listen to Summertime Suite(hearts) on her old record player while she baked sometimes, tunes wobbling out of the crackly old speaker; it was an album from back when she was young, performed by a quartet of musicians from the Valley that did seasonal anthems. He’d never heard it like this though, clean and bouncy and bright like golden fields full of corn and wheat and waves rolling in on the beach, and his foot started tapping along before he even realized what he was doing. He tried to stop, but all that did was make Eli grin at him and play faster, fingers a blur on the strings. Then the tempo shifted again, dipping into something sweetly melancholic, and let him go. He closed his eyes and let it wash over him like sunset on the last day of summer. When it ended, Eli kept playing, aimless sweeping bridges between chords, and Alex leaned back on his elbows. The sun was hot on his closed eyelids.

“How did you know that song?”

“My dad used to play it. Said music in the city was nothing compared to the valley.” Birds called to each other in the distance. “It’s been a while, so I’m kinda rusty. Sorry.”

Alex thought he’d sounded great, but then again, what did he know? He couldn’t carry a tune to save his life. Ant skittered in and out of the gaps between the porch slats between them. He wondered what they were looking for. “I thought it was good.”

He cringed as soon as it left his mouth, because seriously, ‘I thought it was good’? He sounded like he was five. But Eli lit up like he’d said something profound, so maybe it wasn’t as stupid as he thought it was. He hoped.

“Thanks.” He cleared his throat, glanced at Alex out of the corner of his eye. “You wanna play more? Unless you have other plans or something.”

“Nah, not until later. My grandma’s making me a birthday dinner and she already invited Haley over, so – “

Shit. He hadn’t meant to say anything. It had just slipped out. Eli blinked.

“It’s your birthday?”

“Um. Yeah. I guess.” Alex still wasn’t used to birthdays. He’d learned pretty quick not to make a big deal out of it, or expect anything besides the little gestures his mom could manage – a murmured happy birthday before bed, a cupcake stashed in his lunchbox, maybe new clothes or a toy if his dad hadn’t drunk away that month’s budget. Even now, he felt weird and guilty whenever his grandma insisted on making a big deal out of it, like he didn’t deserve it. But before he could say anything else, Eli got up and went into the house, taking the guitar with him. He came back a minute later with one of the biggest melons, rind smooth and glossy pink.

“Happy Birthday.” He smiled crookedly. “Unless you’d rather have some tomatoes.”

Why? Alex wanted to ask, but the word stuck in his throat. It felt like a trap. It always did, when people he didn’t know well were nice to him. Even his dad had been nice sometimes. But his grandma loved melon, and so he took it. It was the same size as a gridball, and he was gripped with the sudden urge to throw it. He set it down in his lap instead.

“Thanks. That’s really nice of you.”

“It’s a melon. You don’t have to pretend it’s special.” Eli sat back down, his bare knee bumping against Alex’s. His skin was warm from the sun. “Shoulda said something earlier. I would have gotten you a real present.”

They were sitting a lot closer to each other than Alex had realized. Insects droned from the fields, the same shrill harmony they played every summer. He didn’t know why he was just noticing it now. Too many little details were making themselves known – dust rising in the air, acres of blue sky like in his dream, the smear of dirt on Eli’s cheek and the faint spatter of freckles across his nose – and suddenly he felt exposed, that prickly feeling of intimacy, of being seen sweeping across his skin. He stood up so fast he almost elbowed Eli in the side of the head.

“Shit. I didn’t mean to – sorry.”

“It’s cool.” Eli squinted up at him. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Alex said. His chest felt all weird and tight, but he ignored it, shoving his hands into his pockets. “I just remembered that I told my grandma I’d help her with some stuff before dinner, so…”

“Oh. Yeah. For sure.” Eli might have sounded disappointed, but it was gone so fast that Alex couldn’t really tell. “Hold on, I’ll get you a basket.”

He left the farm with the melon in one arm and a basket of tomatoes for his grandma in the other, the song Eli had played running through his head. He looked back when he got to the road. Eli was still standing on the porch. When he saw Alex looking, he waved, then disappeared back inside, screen door swinging. Alex felt like he’d missed something.

oOo

Haley showed up an hour before dinner, shoving a brightly-wrapped package into his hand and pressing a lipgloss-sticky kiss to his cheek. She smelled like sunflowers.

“Happy birthday, loser.”

She’d given him the complete Wednesday Night Lights collection – only the greatest gridball drama ever made, and one of the few shows they both liked – and she squeaked when he picked her up in a bear hug, squeezing her in silent thanks. Where she got the money for this stuff, he didn’t know, but he wasn’t about to question it. In the kitchen, his grandma hummed, a stack of plump tomatoes sitting next to the cutting board.

“They were so beautiful, I couldn’t resist,” she explained twenty minutes later, setting out a tray of fresh bruschetta. The baked salmon was still in the oven. “There’s nothing like a fresh heirloom tomato. Very kind of your friends to send you home with so many.”

“They had a ton.” Were he and Eli friends? Kind of, yeah. At least a little bit. It was still weird to hear it out loud. He shoved a piece of bruschetta into his mouth and chewed. It was amazing. He ended up eating almost half the tray before dinner was ready, Haley telling him all about the Fashion Week livestreams she’d been watching while they snacked. She could always tell when he was out of words, and moved to fill the silence so he didn’t have to. In the background, the TV blared. Something about a protest in Zuzu, calling for an end to the war and to bring the troops home. His grandpa changed the channel.

After dinner, there was cake, and Alex’s grandma and Haley sang to him while he tried to pretend he wasn’t mortified, ears burning. Even his grandpa was fighting off a smile. He’d told them plenty of times that they didn’t need to do all of this, that he was fine just letting the day pass him by, but his grandma wouldn’t hear of it. He thought sometimes that it was more about her than him, wanting to make up for something that wasn’t her fault, and after a while he quit trying to talk her out of it. He’d sit through several lifetimes worth of embarrassment if it made her happy. Haley… Haley just liked to see him squirm sometimes, but he kind of liked that too. She never treated him like he was fragile, even when everyone else did.

(He was still starting his Wednesday Night Lights rewatch without her, though. She didn’t get off that easy.)

When they were done with cake and evening turned to night, he helped his grandma clean up before she went to bed, and Haley left not long after, her perfume clinging to his shirt. The grandfather clock in the hallway ticked below him as he climbed the stairs. When he was younger, it used to creep him out, especially when it chimed at night. Now he found it comforting. It reminded him that he was at his grandparents’ place, and not the house where he’d grown up. That he was safe. He still locked the door behind him.

The shoebox under his bed was starting to fall apart, battered with age and soft at the creases, but he couldn’t bring himself to get rid of it. Not yet. Haley had asked him what was in it once and gotten mad when he wouldn’t show her, but he still refused. It wasn’t anything he was ashamed of – all it held was old birthday cards and his mom’s music box. He just didn’t want to share it with anyone, either. He laid out the cards now and read them, one by one, while the music box tinkled softly beside him. They were like his version of the tarot cards Emily kept offering to use for a reading, except hers looked towards the future and his kept him anchored to the one good part of his past. When he got to the last one, he hesitated, just like he always did. It was the card his mom had written before she died, to be delivered by his grandma the year after on his fourteenth birthday. It made his chest hurt even now, whenever he saw her shaky handwriting. She’d been sick and in pain, but she’d pushed through it for him.

Dear Alex,

I’m sorry I’m not there to celebrate your birthday with you, but knowing that you’re safe and loved makes it easier. Fourteen already? You’re growing up so fast. Soon you’ll be a man. A good man with a good heart, like your grandfather. He and your grandma will be there to watch over you, and so will I. Even if it feels like I’m gone, I promise that I’ll never be far away. When we love someone, they’re never really gone. Not as long as we hold their memory in our hearts. Go eat some cake, and give your grandma a kiss for me. I’m thinking of you.

Love always and forever,

Mom

And just like every year, no matter how old he got, Alex sat on the floor of his bedroom and cried until the music box ran out.

oOo

Saturday morning crept in late, overcast and heavy with impending rain, and Alex turned off his alarms and stayed in bed. Neither of his grandparents bothered him, save a gentle inquiry as to whether or not he wanted breakfast, but it was barely past nine when another knock came at his bedroom door, followed by his grandma’s voice.

“Alex? Haley’s here for you.”

Ignoring Haley never ended well for anyone. Alex groaned and hauled himself out of bed, grabbing the nearest pair of sweatpants from a crumpled pile on the floor. He was prepared to tell her to get lost, but as soon as he opened the door, she muscled past him with the precision of someone who’d expected a fight and wasn’t aiming to go quietly.

“I hope that’s not what you’re planning on wearing.” She turned in a circle with her hands on her hips, surveying his room with pursed lips. “Where are those jeans I bought you for Winter Star?”

“Uh,” Alex said.

“Well, don’t just stand there. Put on a shirt or something.” One flew across the room at his face, punctuating her point. He caught it. “Try that. It’s nice.”

“Why am I putting on a shirt?”

“Because we’re going to be late to catch the bus if you don’t!” Haley undid the clasp on her purse, and he finally registered that she was more dressed up than normal, wearing a soft pink dress with her hair twisted up into buns on either side of her head. “We’re leaving in fifteen minutes. Go brush your teeth.”

“Leaving for what?” Alex asked, exasperation making him snappy, and she pulled her phone out and shoved it at him. An email lit up the screen, confirming her purchase of two tickets for The Revengers: Fractal War. He looked up to see her digging through his dresser.

“We also have reservations at that all-day brunch place you like,” she informed him, pulling out a pair of jeans. “So get your butt in gear, because I don’t want to be late.”

“Haley,” he said, his voice absolutely not cracking in any way, and she smirked and threw his pants at him.

“Don’t get all sappy on me. Now seriously, get dressed. Zuzu City is waiting.”