Love Under Glasse
When El runs away, Riley feels responsible. She knows what it’s like to be alone, and she can’t deny her deep desire to learn El’s story. In a move she might end up regretting, she makes a devil’s bargain with Mama Glasse to hunt El down.
Riley isn’t trying to bring her home though, because she knows an evil spell when she sees one—a spell of fear and shame El is finally starting to break. This huntress might lose her own heart, but it’s a risk she’s willing to take.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
Sexual Assault (references to it throughout and 2 attempted assaults)
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abuse, angst, bullying, child abuse / neglect, coming of age, coming out, family, feminism, first love, homelessness, homophobia / transphobia, hurt / comfort, internet culture, isolation, lovable rogue, marriage of convenience / fake relationship, misogyny, pining / UST, politics / power struggle, racism, religion, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection, young adult
The girl slid down the tree trunk, her coat tumbling up over her shoulders in a mantle of black and deep greens. Knees peeking from her torn jeans, she reclined against the roots. As if dismissing the world, she inserted earbuds with the flick of a wrist. Seconds later, she was mouthing lyrics, kissing the humid air with a pout.
El’s skin tingled and her pulse rattled in her veins. She was never going to run out of reasons to stare at Riley.
She pressed against the classroom window as the girl performed a recumbent dance move, face dappled in shade. She moved as if every single tiny gesture had a deeper meaning, and all of it could be decoded if set to music.
There was just no other way to think about Riley. Her face was always composed. Her eyes were always glittering with awareness. She didn’t hide in the shadows she could make for herself. Her height and shape were perfectly defined in the mind of every person around her, because like her or hate her, Riley Vanator never folded herself up for anyone . . .
Startled, El’s forehead cracked against the cold glass and woke her to reality. At once, she felt small again as a heavy arm fell across her shoulders to the tune of a mean-spirited laugh.
“Hey, I’m gonna pick you up today, okay?”
Shrugging uncomfortably, El clutched her notebook to her chest and tried to look as if she’d been doing something more productive than yet again fantasizing over the gorgeous figure beneath the tree.
Jay was fresh from gym and ruddy, but even physical exhaustion couldn’t wipe the perpetual smirk off his face. “Because you’re my girlfriend, and I want to take you out.”
“Where are we going?”
“It’s cool! I already cleared it with your mom.”
“Look, you haven’t been out with me in a couple of weeks.” His arms coiled around her waist. He clung to her like some kind of sweaty sloth and tried to fondle her. “I’m starting to think you don’t like me.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d said it, but it was the first time she wanted to spit her agreement in his face. He didn’t want a girlfriend. He wanted an orgasm. El shoved at him, but there was no disentangling, and not a soul in the quickly emptying study hall seemed to care. While he rooted around in her neck like a pig, she leaned against the glass and rolled her face to the view below.
Riley was sitting cross-legged, eating a small snack before she went to work as she always did right after school. Her thin fingers picked it apart delicately. When her tongue slid out and cleaned them each in turn, El sighed, and the boy attached to her body like a leech gave himself a congratulatory snicker.
“You’re gonna have fun tonight. I promise.”
“What if I don’t?” she whispered.
“What’s that mean?” He pulled back and stared at her, brows drawn together in a confusion of wrinkles that somehow painted a perfectly predictive image of his face in twenty years, after he’d done a failed stint in the Army, or bought a car dealership, or something.
Why wouldn’t El like him? Jay was the boy. The one everyone fought over, the one that the other girls would slander her to obtain, if not for the fact that El was demure and had a powerful family. He was the boy that could do no wrong. He was the boy who just had to be left to be, because boys were boys.
“I don’t want to go out tonight.”
“Uh . . . but we are.”
That was that. His smug grin said it all. He’d long ago figured out that if he went to her mother, it meant that he held the power. El could never get in a moment of defense, because Jay kept her safe. And that came with certain sacrifices.
As he sauntered away, she pictured her mother’s face, perfectly feminine makeup below her meticulously highlighted hair. All the little smile lines around her mouth would harden. Her eyes would turn to lead. Her lips would pinch over words that were harsher than anyone else could ever manage.
Why wouldn’t El want to go out with a boy, especially that boy? Didn’t she like boys?
Her mother could make doubt into a knife, and carve out the truth like she was delicately eviscerating a quail in her neon pink hunting jacket. Life was bad enough already without the distractions of her sister’s pageants and admirers, with her mother downing two bottles of wine a night to counter the stress from the election, with school about to be out. El was alone and center stage.
She hated it.
El packed her things, the world around her blurring in and out of focus. Normal sounds were harsh. Skin numb, feet thudding like dead weights, she dragged herself out into the sun. Her chest ached. Her stomach always seemed to quake. Her heart was constantly trying to claw its way out. Every day was an exhausting dance between blending in and biding time, politics and patience. Every night she went to bed like a narcoleptic, and every morning she woke like a soldier in an air raid.
Soon it would get much, much worse, because Riley, the beautiful respite from the rest of her life, would be gone. Riley didn’t have time for this place. She was an explorer. She would move on, and El would be left behind. But that was the way it should be.
Riley was untouchable.
A thrill went through El’s body, as Riley’s beloved motorcycle growled at the world. Its lithe mistress was astride it, about to charge into battle instead of her shift at Sam’s ice cream parlor. Her seamless black helmet was more like a crown. As her high boots coaxed the feral machine backward out of its parking space, Jay leaned from his car window and hurled a wadded-up bag at her. It bounced to the ground lamely, the victim looking after it in a stoic gleam.
“Next time it’s a rock, dyke!”
His car jolted, cutting off the motorcycle, but Riley was unperturbed. Slowly tipping at the waist, extended to her full length like a dancer, she plucked the litter off the ground. The boys cackled, but Riley didn’t move. Beneath her faceplate, El hoped she was rolling her depthless eyes, wearing that crooked grin that turned her mouth into a beckon. While Jay screeched to the head of the line, Riley squeezed a tighter ball in a gloved hand, tipped forward, and torqued her wrist. Before El could blink, the bike was beside the carful of idiots, the wadded-up bag was bouncing off Jay’s face, and the girl was shooting past them, protected by a wall of sound like a legion of demons.
The boys sat for a moment in shock, but there was nothing to be done. It was Riley, and nothing she did was at all surprising, because every glance and word from her was a warning. Jay would have to tackle his hurt pride by himself, because divinity had no time for foolish boys.
El’s taut smile was reflexive. She wanted to open her notebook and transcribe every second, but her mother was already there, tapping her watch and making faces.
The car was like a walk-in freezer. Patriotism and bigotry were boxed side by side in every seat and the windows were crowded with campaign signs.
“Come on, Elyrra! I have an appointment at headquarters. Your father has a photo shoot with some magazine.”
The radio buzzed with angry voices, debating each other’s fitness to live. Someone maligned the local favorite and the host called him “liberal scum.” While El sketched her day in ciphers, her mother muttered under her breath in unintelligible venom.
“Mom, can we turn the station?”
“I’m listening to the news,” was the flat reply.
“All it does is make you angry.”
The smile could be disdainful in the wrong light, but there never seemed to be a right one. “Spiritual warfare doesn’t break for your feelings and God doesn’t listen to excuses.”
Excuses. She’d never really made excuses to God. To herself, sure, but to God? No point. If there was anyone who’d watched her whole life twist into this painful thing, it was God. Which was probably why she was beginning to resent the idea of Him.
As she watched the town drift by in the charm of previous centuries, El realized she measured her life in a series of acquiescences. Every moment was an instance of defeat and compromise, and every day, she became more skilled in being faceless. She was sure that no human could be happy if it came to lying to one’s self. It seemed impossible that that could really have been the intent of God.
The radio cut off.
“I sent your camp fees in today, sugar!”
Something about the cheer in the voice was wrong, but then again, there was nothing right about the situation. Three months of perfect girls all wearing bathing suits around the waterfall, ignoring her because she was famous. Three months starved for touch, lonely and cast out into the forest, being bullied by those far more comfortable in their identities. Three months of torture while her mother had a peaceful house and could get all her interviews about family values done without the bother of her family.
“You’re gonna have a great summer! I think you’re gonna like this camp. It’s much more for the artistic types!”
El’s instincts cut in with a warning. She had never declared herself artistic. That would be strategic suicide, because it would mean she could think creatively. Her mother’s award-winning works on how to raise godly children in the modern era specifically warned parents about how to sculpt the imagination. Fairy tales were fine so long as they glorified God, but fiction was a kind of lying and so the storyteller had to have a firm hand. El would have done better to pick up the Bible from the center console and slap her mother across the face with it rather than to be “artistic.”
Swallowing, she tried to sound content. “What’s it called?”
A manicured hand swept the question aside. “Fair Meadows or something. I can’t remember. But it’s just perfect for you.”
“You need to learn the skills of making healthy friendships!” Exasperation dripped from every word. “You need support! You need to really examine yourself and measure yourself by God’s standard and learn to channel everything you feel into a better relationship with Him. You need to rekindle your faith!”
El needed no help with faith, whatsoever. She had plenty, but her holy words were in her lap in a made-up shorthand. Her worship service took place every Friday evening at an ice cream parlor, where she prayed in daydreams. Her hymns were silent, but her congregation thousands strong—the population of a city hanging on every homily she typed. She needed no fellowship but reblogs and comments, no communion but likes and notes. Her blog of her adoration and suffering was the only religion and a secret sin.
God had apparently only made a few people in His image. The rest were fodder for the Devil.
“So! Jay and a date! I think he has something special planned!”
Something in El’s soul began to vibrate like a rung bell. She felt it deep in the center of her abdomen. Soon it filled up her esophagus and was in her mouth before she could stop it.
“He wants to have sex with me. You know that, right?”
Her mother blinked into the silence. El watched that face, fighting to catch her breath, fighting with an unspoken hope that for once, this woman would do right by her. The conflict raged in the air, and then was dashed aside with yet another chemically paralyzed smile.
“The Lord never said a man and woman couldn’t be a man and woman. He simply said you have to guard your chastity. You have to demonstrate your virtue to Jay too. You have to learn to strike a balance between your lust and your self-control! That can’t happen without testing yourself! You can’t beat the demon if you don’t ask for the Lord’s help.”
But the demon wasn’t a demon. It was a boy who already wrestled at a professional level. It was disgusting whispers in her ear. It was helplessness. It was fear of being mocked by buxom cheerleaders, or worse still, by boys. It was losing herself to guard herself.
“Why doesn’t he have to be chaste?”
“He does, Elyrra, but men have urges.”
“And if he dumps me for it? If he makes up stories about me—”
Incredibly, her mother turned in the seat and glared at her. “Stop it. Jay is a clean-cut boy. He is going to make some woman very happy one day, and it might as well be you.”
The car coasted to a halt at the curb. The church sat back from the street like a red brick castle. El latched her eye on it forlornly.
“So what’s wrong with Jay?” Mama demanded.
“I don’t like him . . . I mean he—”
“You’re too picky! You won’t meet a prince.”
Closing her eyes, she took a breath. “You love Tom. You never say one bad thing about him. So I guess Rose found a prince.”
There was a loud hiss. “Yes, but you’re not your sister! She’s a beauty queen. And there aren’t that many men like Tom! The way you carry on . . . the way you dress—”
“You buy my clothes.” El stared at her notebook, caressing its cover. “What if I don’t ever want to get married?”
Her mother’s eyes were wide and blank. Her lips were parted, but petrified. It was as if she was having a premonition of a life without the herd of grandchildren she could parade across the internet for the world to use as a metric of her worthiness. Ever since her father had been elected and her mother’s website had gone viral, all she cared about was her reputation. Every week was a list of Mama’s radio appearances, podcasts, or website statistics. The whole Christian world knew the faces of Rose and Elyrra Glasse—test subjects of their devoted mother and living proof that God still possessed the heart of modern hedonistic America. Without progeny, the whole experiment was a shambles.
“It’s a woman’s duty to have a family. The Bible says a woman does not have authority over her own body—”
El opened the door and jumped out. “First Corinthians: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman. But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations only with his wife.’ So wouldn’t a woman be more godly if she never married at all and kept men from immorality?”
“You are not a nun, missy! You don’t have the fortitude—”
She shut the door and walked toward the shade of the church. Normally, the window would have rolled down and a list of consequences for her disobedience would have been screamed at her, but her mother was late, and the car lurched away.
No fortitude? If Mama only knew what it took her just to get through the day . . .
Reverend Williams was already waiting for her. Everything about this place made her nervous, from the perpetual stink of burned black coffee and dust to the tenacious look in his eye. His questions were pointed, his demeanor intrusive, and his knowledge of her extensive, but it was private sessions with the priest, or her mother would pull her out of school.
The notebook stayed in her lap like a talisman. He dropped into the other chair and patted her hands, knotted anxiously atop it. His knees practically touched hers, but she couldn’t retreat, because he would interpret that as withholding.
“So . . . tell me about this week.”
Thoughts were squeezed by Jay’s hungry fingers, nettled by the other girls’ constant jibes at her generically girlish clothes, squashed by the teachers who saw nothing special in her because she hid anything unusual, crushed by the way her mother excused insults as honesty. But then she thought of Riley, stretched out on the grass, her pixie hair at odd angles, her strong limbs, her defiant grin. Suddenly, there were no tests. There were only chances that she wasn’t taking, opportunities she was forced to let pass by.
She shook her head. “This week was good.”
“And your . . . uh . . .”—he tapped the book—“your little fixation?”
Little? There was nothing little about it, but it wasn’t the first time he’d tried to compact it into a more pleasing shape. It was at best a phase and at worst a mortal sin, and to him, her future would either result in marriage counseling, or a laying on of hands.
“I wrote about her ten times.”
“That’s less than last week!” This seemed a relief. It couldn’t be easy trying to logic away a feeling so intense it invaded her dreams. “Progress!”
“But we still have a lot of work to do.” His sigh whistled like munitions out at the Fort. “The Devil doesn’t want to let you go. He had to try for one of you. Especially now that everything is going so well for your family.”
El’s flesh began to ache like a fever. Suddenly, the quiet ticking of his wall clock and the warmth of the room were too much.
She should never have told him, but her emotions had been a tangle of self-loathing and shame. She’d looked to him for guidance, but only got more confusion, more things to hate about herself, and more reasons to question. The only answers that ever made any sense were gleaned from anonymous online well wishes and emailed articles. Her only real advisors were people she had never met who cared for her as no one had ever cared for them. Without her secret life on the internet, she’d be little more than an automaton.
He took hold of the edge of her book. “May I see?”
El loosened her instinctual grip and watched as he flipped slowly through the pages. Her hieroglyphics were illegible, but the fact that she still wrote in them at all seemed to tell him enough.
“Elyrra, who is the Keeper of Secrets?”
She licked her lips. “You know why I do it, Reverend.”
“The Devil is giving you these thoughts to drive a wedge between you and your family. He wants you to be alone and sinful. He wants to cut you off from God.”
“But . . .” She caught herself; his insistent look, however, persuaded her to let it out. “Isn’t God everywhere? How can he do that if God is everywhere? Why would God let him?”
He leaned back, taking her scriptures with him. He seemed to be debating something, and as he rose to his feet to pace, her heart plummeted through her sandals. There would be a new exercise, a new prayer, a new prescription for her sickness.
“My dear, you cannot keep doing this to yourself. We’ve been working on this for months now.”
“I know,” she breathed. “I’m trying. Really, I am.”
“I don’t think I have the expertise to help you.”
El’s pulse began to thrum in her temples. Stillness seemed impossible. She wanted to jump up and bolt, but he was already shaking his head.
“I think I know a way.”
As long as he didn’t tell her mother, El didn’t care if he suggested walking over hot coals; she would do it.
“There’s a place where you can go, and they can give you the kind of counsel you need. You’d be with people like you. They would know exactly what to say to you, because they’ve helped so many already to come back from sin.”
Suddenly, it felt as if she couldn’t breathe, though her chest rose and fell in the usual fashion. There was simply no oxygen in the room.
This was one of those places her online friend Oscar had talked about. It had to be. The articles he’d sent, the testimonials about conversion therapy, the confessions of people who’d been through it were terrifying in so many tiny ways. He’d warned her. He’d shown her her father’s affiliations. And now here they were, affecting her directly.
Tears welled in her eyes, but there didn’t seem to be an alternative. If she didn’t do what Reverend Williams said, he would tell her mother. If her mother found out, she’d never escape. Her senior year would play out in their parlor with a private tutor, or worse yet, her mother playing educator. Her parents would refuse to pay for college. El would end up living in a studio apartment and picking up roadkill. But if she went to one of those places, if she gave in again . . .
There’d be nothing left of her.
“It’s a beautiful camp, right on a lake!” He was smiling, which was supposed to make her feel better, but only made her sick for a variety of reasons. “They have a gourmet chef! And it’s more like a summer camp!”
El’s throat seemed to swell, but she coughed words out at last. “What’s it called?”
The ground swung out from beneath her feet as the world floated away. She knew she was standing, that she had snatched the book from his hand, that she had thrown open his office door, but strangely, it was more like time travel, because suddenly she was outside the church and he was calling after her.
“You told me everything I said was safe!” she shrieked. Her face was wet. Her legs refused to stop. “You told me I could trust you!”
“Elyrra, calm down!”
“No!” He reached for her elbow, and without conscious thought, she swiveled and evaded. “You lied to me! You told her!”
“I did not, young lady!” His voice burned her ears with indignation. “Your mother told me!”
And there it was. El’s robotic movements clicked to a halt. She stared at the swirling chartreuse beneath her feet and flinched as he put a hand on her shoulder.
“Your mother wants to help you. You’re too young to know what’s best for you. You need to listen.”
She pulled away, and in a fierce trot, broke for downtown.
No, what she needed was some ice cream.
“You’re early,” he said, as if it were a curse.
Riley hung her motorcycle jacket on the hook with a forced smile. “Yeah, Russ? Really?”
He looked down a weasel nose at her. “You can’t clock in early.”
It had to be today. Just a few more hours, and holy shit, was she going to enjoy her revenge. Knowing what was coming, Riley danced up to the ice cream bar and lounged against the cold glass, blocking the line of patrons.
“My shift doesn’t start till 4:30! I get bored!”
He wasn’t impressed. “You clock in early so you can get paid more. You can’t have any more hours.”
“Relax, dude. I’m gonna take my half hour and eat ice cream.”
“You can’t come behind the counter if you’re not wearing your uniform.”
What a stickler for the rules, she marveled. When they suited him, of course. “That’s okay! I’m cool with you serving me, Russ. Gimme the secret flavor!”
It was amazing how tiny his eyes got when he was angry. “I don’t like your attitude.”
“Feeling is mutual. One scoop, please!”
He worked the utensil as if using it to carve a hole in her face, and then slid the cup across the bar so fast, it almost fell on the ground—which would have been awesome, frankly, because Riley also wasn’t allowed to clean things unless wearing a uniform. Winking at him as he seemed to realize how close he’d come to the germ-coated mop in the backroom, she sauntered to the outdoor seating area and spun one of the heavy iron chairs to face the park.
The first spoonful was . . . interesting. Riley was pretty sure it was supposed to taste like caramel popcorn. Really it tasted like popcorn jelly beans and salty caramel combined. She rolled it around her mouth and couldn’t say if she liked it or hated it, but like all of Sam’s weekly experiments, it was sure adventurous.
In fact, it was pretty much the only adventurous thing about this fucking town.
Riley missed the city—the snippets of foreign languages, the music out of every window, the food Abuela would cook. All that action and sound traded for Hicksville, hidden somewhere on the Devil’s Southern Regions. Now she spent weekends doing weird shit to her hair and disassembling engine components, but it was the way it had to be to keep her dad out of The Life. So it was caramel corn ice cream and mermaid dye jobs, grease and a galumphing mechanic who at least allowed her to get whatever she wanted pierced.
The flavor was giving up more secrets; it had a spine like sweet cream butter and an odd smokiness to it that reminded her of whiskey. Sam would get a detailed note from her on his desk tonight.
She wondered if Miss Glasse would like it—if for once, the girl’s hooded, sea-blue gaze and porcelain, deadpan face would change expression. Somehow, she doubted it. Elyrra had been coming every Friday for almost a year, always picking the weekly mystery flavor with a voice so soft that Riley had taken to dishing it up as soon as she walked in, just to prevent the awkward conversation, and never in all that time had she looked as if she had emotions.
Kind of a waste of a pretty face, really.
The swish of Russel’s broom scraped against her nerves. “Are you going to put that chair back?”
Tilting her chin over her shoulder, Riley stared him down. “Are you sure I don’t need to be wearing my uniform to do that?”
“You’re a customer, but it’s polite to put the chair back.”
Riley rolled her eyes at the park. “Yeah, but not mandatory. Aren’t you always telling me how impolite I am?”
“Do I need to talk to Sam?”
“Do what you gotta do, Russ, but I’m pretty sure the customer is always right.”
He brushed his way around her, and Riley cracked her knuckles.
Plans came together with patience, she told herself, again and again. It was critical that she wait for the two of them to be alone, for silence and his sticky fingers to start itching. If she didn’t get up and walk away at this moment, she was going to end up punching him out before it came to that.
Riley left the chair right where it was, sticking out like a sore thumb that Russel could cram right up his ass. A circuit of the park would only take a couple minutes, if she walked slow. What was she going to do with herself after that?
A feeling tugged on her mind, and triggered a comfortable warmth. By the sorcery that governed the senses, Riley found the girl sitting beneath a tree, and as usual, once she was caught staring, Elyrra Glasse dropped her eyes to her book.
When Riley had recognized the Friday pattern, she was angry. Mama Glasse’s opinions about people like her were pretty well known, and there was her daughter coming to stare at the freak, caged in her striped uniform. Over two years and four shared classes, however, Riley had begun to realize Elyrra was painfully shy, polite to the point of getting trampled, and probably just hadn’t seen a teenage girl with tattoos. Which, fair enough, since it took parental consent to get ink, and not many parents in these parts would be so liberal.
Coming level with Elyrra, Riley spotted the moist face and the damp spots on her skirt. She had been crying, and even though it was in the 90’s and humid as balls, she was shivering. Riley kept going for about ten paces, halted cold, and knew she needed to learn to leave things alone.
She couldn’t, though. It was just a fact that defined her as a person.
Riley Vanator was a busybody.
Tiptoeing around the tree trunk, she looked down over the girl’s shoulder. Page after page of Elyrra’s notebook was marked up with weird symbols, as if the kid spent hours copying pictographs from temple walls.
“Are you trying to crack our recipes for Baskin Robbins?”
Elyrra startled as if there were gunfire, the book tumbling off her knees. Shoving her hair from her face, she righted her papers and pushed them into her backpack without a reply.
Riley let out a hiss and plopped herself onto the ground; this was going to be a tough nut to crack. “Look, I get that your mom has this checklist of demonic elements you’re s’posed to avoid, but queers don’t carry spiritual plague.”
The girl froze and cut the silence with a sniffle. “I . . . don’t think like that.”
Surprised, Riley propped her back against the bark and offered the cup of half-eaten ice cream to her. “Good, because I don’t have cooties, I think I hate this, and I want to save you the trouble of paying for it. It’s the mystery flavor.”
The girl hesitated, but only for a moment, and with two careful hands, accepted the gift as if taking communion. Riley shook her head in amusement as Elyrra lifted the spoon and slowly made her own opinion about Sam’s latest alchemical disaster.
Elyrra swallowed. “It tastes like jelly beans.”
Waving her hands in the air, Riley laughed. The trembling mouse beside her nearly fell backward in shock, but she pretended not to notice. “Exactly! It’s like those fucking Harry Potter beans, but ten times sweeter.”
“I’ve never had those. Mama doesn’t like—”
“Oh shit, forgot. Right. They’re so gross. Here, give it back, I’ll throw it away for you. No one should suffer through that.”
“No . . .” Elyrra’s cheeks were finally getting some color to them, but the rest of her was still so white Riley wondered if she always wore pink so that her skin would reflect it like some kind of cosmetic optical illusion. “It’s okay. I’ll eat it.”
Riley dropped her wrist onto her knee and let the birds take over the conversation. Dad always said that humans couldn’t stand open spaces, gaps, holes. They had to fill them, cover them over, explore them. That included silence, and sometimes what a person chose to put into the silence was the best way to read them. She waited and waited, but Elyrra said nothing. Apparently, the girl was more than happy to be a mystery. Finally, enchanted, Riley fell to her own subterfuge.
“So what happened?”
Dad would scold her. She just couldn’t be patient.
“Why do you ask?”
“Uh . . . because I’m not an asshole, and I hate when people cry. Especially girls. Especially pretty girls. It’s like kryptonite.”
Elyrra seemed to be swallowing very hard, but not getting anywhere. It was probably some weird Glasse family rule that they had to choke down whatever food was given to them. Riley regretted handing her the horror.
“Call me observant, but you’re not usually sitting in the park casing our parlor before you come in, are you?”
The girl wiped her face and set the cup on top of her bag. “No.”
“So you’re not trying to steal our secrets?”
“Your mom usually picks you up from there.”
With a shake of her head, Riley gave up. “This is going to be a really boring conversation if you stick to one-word answers. I mean, I know we don’t talk at school—”
“I’m sorry.” Elyrra was hugging herself, as if to hold all the other words that might come spilling out in check. “It’s so rude.”
“It’s cool. I understand. If your mom found out you were talking to this social pariah, she’d probably have you exorcised or something.”
The mouth twitched. “True.”
“Well, see?” Riley reached out with her pinky finger, the tiniest part of her body, and tapped the pale forearm. “Then you’re safe. You can tell me what’s wrong. Who am I gonna tell?”
Absentmindedly, Elyrra rubbed the spot she’d touched, and Riley tried not to be offended, succeeding only by reminding herself that the Glasse family was pretty stiff. There probably wasn’t a lot of physicality in their home.
“Not sure who to trust anymore,” the girl mumbled.
“Maybe you could talk to that boyfriend of yours—”
“He’s not my boyfriend.”
Eyebrow cocked to the branches above, Riley cleared her throat. “Maybe somebody should tell him that, because he really shouldn’t be pawing at you if you aren’t dating. Hell, he probably shouldn’t be doing it if you are, but I dunno, maybe straight girls are into that.”
She glanced over. Elyrra’s face was a perfect glow of passion fruit punch sorbet. “I’m not into it.”
“Okay then. Time to uh . . . set up some boundaries? Just so I can walk down the hall at school without having to scrub my eyeballs with that powdered soap grit? Can we do that? Save my corneas, save your pride as an added bonus?”
In painstaking inches, Elyrra’s gaze had climbed Riley’s torso to reach the flowers on her collarbone, but now, in one instant, it was back in her own lap. Riley folded up into a ball and wondered if appearing smaller would make this doll next to her any braver.
“So tell me what’s wrong. Talking helps get the facts out there. Somebody lied to you?”
To her shock, Elyrra seemed to shake herself from head to knee like a tree in the wind. Then she twisted in place, stretched out her ghostly white legs, and ran her fingers through her long mass of pitch-black hair.
“I had this secret . . . something . . . something I didn’t want my mom to know. And today, I found out she has apparently known about it for a while.”
Riley closed her eyes and let the frail voice tremble through her mind. She caught every note and tenderly examined it for importance. She had an exceptionally sensitive ear, something developed while living with an ex-con. It made keeping track of the truth pretty easy, but it made listening to commercials almost a physical impossibility. That blender/ladder/cubic zirconia was the solution to life’s woes? Really?
“I’m guessing that she has some way of dealing with it that you know is gonna suck.”
“Okay, and why is that upsetting?”
Elyrra’s thin fingers were wringing, her expensive manicure of chipped paint sparkling. “It’s bad . . . because . . . because my mother is so much worse than you think.”
“Naw . . . You don’t look like I do without an expansive imagination.”
To her relief, the girl managed a tiny smile. “I’m worried.”
Shocked into normal etiquette, Elyrra looked her in the eye, was evidently stunned by the contact, and ricocheted back into her solitude. “That’s not obvious?”
“No, I mean, I get it. Your mom’s a wicked witch, no offense.”
“Yeah. Right? It’s not really debatable. What I mean is, if she’s known all this time, what’s going to change? Are you worried she’s going to find out that you know she knows? Is that going to change what she does about this horrible secret?”
Tiny confused ripples gathered above Elyrra’s brows, as she combed the grass with her fingers, looking for an answer. “I don’t know . . .”
“I mean, in a way, you’re in a great position. Because she’s shown you her play, but I can see why you wouldn’t want her to know you knew it, because then she might change it, right?”
“I . . . guess I didn’t think about that.”
“So really, all you have to make sure of is that she doesn’t find out you know she knows. That way you have time to work out what to do next.”
As they sat there, in a lengthy silence, Riley could feel an impression forming. At school, Elyrra was meek, largely mute, seemed always to be writing in her book. At one time, Riley had glossed over all the details she couldn’t fathom about Elyrra Glasse, by assuming there was nothing deep about her. Like she was just a hole in space that walked and whispered. Now, however, Riley was beginning to think that Elyrra was actually brimming with complexity and thoughts, but had no idea how to set them free.
She tried again, this time searching for something a little more profound, a little more foundational—it was something her dad had said to her and Riley couldn’t imagine how it couldn’t make as great an impact here. “How long are you going to let other people turn simple math into magic, huh?”
Elyrra blinked. “What?”
“Math is just facts, objects. They have to balance and equalize. If something is an unknown, it’s given a letter or a symbol, and then it gets balanced too, until we can figure out what it actually means. But magic looks at those unknowns and substitutes all sorts of weird shit, makes all these assumptions about the missing pieces that basically screw with the ability to put in real info. Turns a simple equation into miracles and demons and whatnot. Takes understanding out of human hands, you know?”
Riley hugged her knees as Elyrra processed this. Eventually, the girl’s voice snuck out between her pursed lips. “I’m not sure I understand what you mean. How . . . how does that apply to my situation?”
“Everyone has facts they know about themselves—things that don’t change, won’t change. Even teenagers. I mean I know we’re nervous balls of utter batshit rebelliousness, or whatever, but we still have that core in us, and we know what sort of people we want to be.” She tilted her head at the girl. “You’re quiet, that’s a fact, but what does it mean? To me, it means you think about things all the time, which is good. Like, maybe if you were in a different environment, it wouldn’t be shyness, but strength, but that’s an unknown variable and my opinion doesn’t matter. Are you going to let other people interpret those in crazy ways, or are you going to take charge and tell people how they're allowed to think of you?”
Even dumbfounded, Elyrra was pretty. She was nothing like her older sister—Miss Superficiality—who had bleached hair for days and a perpetual vagueness to her expression. She was nothing so brittle as her mother, who had a face of sharp edges she dulled with the three B’s: botox, booze, and bibles. Elyrra was a contrast of ivory and jet and a complete mystery, probably even to herself.
Riley was a sucker for a good mystery.
“You know most kids think that their parents have control over them. And I mean yeah, they have power, because they get to decide consequences, but they don’t have control. They don’t get to tell you who you are.”
Riley unfolded and sat up. She was going to have to go soon, or risk the wrath of Russel. Those were some fucked consequences, but the power balance was about to change.
“Nobody has control over you, but you. Everything else is magic. They interpret what they see of you and force you to live by it. They cast a spell. Maybe you need to just declare who you actually are.”
“So . . .” It was faint, but there was a musical note of whimsy in that voice, all of a sudden. “What are the facts of Riley Vanator?”
With a snort, Riley grinned at her boots. “That’s easy. I don’t like when bad things happen. I get bored really easily. I’m stubborn. I’m nosy.” She glanced backward and watched the blue eyes dip to the ground, but the rosy lips were smiling. “I have a temper, so I keep it under control by giving it things to do. I’ve got a handle on it. I’ve sort’ve figured out an important thing to help me with that.”
The whisper was back, and lifted the hairs on Riley’s neck as Elyrra asked after her discovery.
“This shit we’re going through isn’t about learning stuff. I mean, sure we learn a few skills here or there. Like last week, dude . . . in Chemistry, I learned how to make napalm!”
It happened so suddenly, Riley forgot what she was going to say—Elyrra laughed, and it wasn’t the tinkling of glass she expected, but a low and smooth song that glided through her soul so easily it left only a ticklish feeling behind.
Hearing it once, Riley was addicted and grinning like a fool.
“I haven’t decided yet how I am going to use this information, but I’m pretty sure it’s valuable.”
“A good graduation prank?”
“I’m pretty sure burning down graduation is a terrorist act.”
Riley let out a goofy chuckle. “I think I was making a point, here!”
Elyrra’s laugh coughed to a halt. “I’m listening.”
“I was saying that kids think they’re in school, or scouts, or whatever, to learn facts, but they’re not. We’re learning how to interpret facts, the process, you know? We’re learning how to think about truth, because truth is already there whether we know it or not. We find it, we pick it up, and we have to make sense out of it. See?”
“I really don’t.” She sounded confused, but she was still smiling in Riley’s periphery, so it was all good.
“The hoops are all laid out, right? A person who jumps through all of them graduates, gets a merit badge, or wins the pageant. But life isn’t about diplomas and crowns. It’s about making sense of yourself and being happy in spite of the bullshit the world throws at you. So while kids think they’re supposed to be learning all this useless knowledge, they’re not seeing the bigger picture. They’re not learning the most important thing.”
“What is that?”
“That kids who jump through hoops have normal lives. Kids who set hoops on fire with napalm . . . have interesting lives.”
Elyrra tipped forward, her palms pressed to the earth as she shook with laughter. Her face was hidden behind a black curtain, but she was happy, and that was what mattered.
Riley stood up and smiled down at her, finally managing to catch her in a shared look. “Outsmart magic by being clever. See what I mean?”
“Yes, I think I do.”
“Good, because I’m not really sure what the hell I just said. Like talking to the sphinx.”
The laugh evolved into a giggle, quavering slightly as Elyrra braced herself against the tree and got to her feet. “No, it was good.”
Riley pointed at the grimoire of graffiti, peeking out from her bag. “Is it ghostly communication from the other side?”
The long hair swished back and forth. “It’s not a spell book, I promise.”
“So you’re not a closet Wiccan?”
“I don’t even know what that is.”
“A girl who wears a lot of black and hangs in the broom cupboard, I guess?” Riley was granted a parting laugh and danced backward, her spine tingling. “Don’t you tell anyone about my napalm, Elyrra!”
“I won’t! And please . . . call me El.”
She tossed the girl a casual thumbs-up, and jogged into the parlor, nearly tripping when she realized El was still watching her.
Russel glanced at the clock much too happily as she stopped to catch her breath. “You’re five minutes late. I’ll have to report it to Sam.”
Riley let out a huff, and smiled with every microscopic trace of sweetness she could manufacture. “That’s cool, Russ. You do that.”
Normally, El made full use of every second away from her mother to turn her notes into email drafts with a fervor that caused people to stare. Between school, in which cell phones were banned, and home, in which cell phones were confiscated until the next day, she only had so long, and Friday was the one day a week that bought her a few spare hours to sing Riley’s praises to her salivating fans, but at the moment, the phone was a dead weight in her slack hand. She couldn’t even use it to call Oscar and gain some of the comfort he offered.
Today was the end and beginning of the world, and El had no idea what to say.
Mama knew. She had known all this time, or suspected it. She’d told Reverend Williams. She’d arranged to have him ask the right questions and say the right things, to make El doubt herself and fear for her spiritual purity. Like some sort of expert interrogator, he had pulled the information from her, gained some of her trust, and all to betray her.
How much had he then told her mother? Had he shown Mama the camp, or had her mother enlisted him? Neither made sense. If Reverend Williams were working for her mother, why would she have mentioned the camp, instead of leaving it to him? If Mama were following Reverend Williams’ instructions, then she still would have waited until after he’d mentioned it to convince El it was the spiritual path. They had to have come to it independently of one another.
Which meant that it was possible Reverend Williams had not shared any information with her mother. If that was true, she could still fix the situation before it spiraled out of control.
Riley, that snarky angel, had put her terror to rest in but a few moments, and finally El could concentrate without her mind running in circles.
She leaned back against the tree and stared up into the leaves. Why, of all days, had Riley chosen today to notice her? Why couldn’t it have happened sooner? If it had, it likely wouldn’t have mattered. El would have been too afraid to whisper one word, let alone have a conversation. It had to be today, the day her inhibitions were utterly crushed by the sheer immensity of her circumstances, or she would never have been desperate enough to open her mouth. It was today because she was falling to pieces and Riley enjoyed puzzles.
That much, El had observed. Dog-eared detective novels, metal knots hanging from keychains just waiting to be untied, the look in those brown eyes that could solve a problem before anyone noticed it existed. Colorful hair that confused others, makeup that defied an adult to tell her it was “too much,” a kind of aesthetic that mysteriously turned Army surplus and denim into feminine couture. Riley had crafted herself to always be a cipher; that much El understood.
Compared to that, El was timid, bland, boring.
But Riley had called her pretty. As she baked in the warm air, she knew it had to be because Riley was the most amazing individual the earth had ever known, and was being kind. Mama had told her that more than once—that people complimented her to be polite, not because she’d earned praise.
El’s spine jerked her upright with a surge of insubordination.
Wait a moment.
That was something Mama had said. Which meant it was more than likely a self-serving lie. When Mama felt threatened by another person’s value, she just reinterpreted it. El wasn’t allowed to be her own person, and if someone told her she was pretty or smart, it had to be twisted.
That was the magic Riley was talking about!
The spell could only work if El allowed it to. All she had to do was stop believing it. Stop believing anything Mama said. Stop reaching for love and praise that was never there, stop accepting conditions for care and protection. If El wanted the suffering to end, she’d have to resist her own blood, her own mental conditioning that screamed about how children had only their parents as advocates against the world. It may be true for many, but nothing was universal.
Her mother was the enemy. El could not allow the witch to usurp her feelings anymore. If she did, it would eventually kill her.
The thought had physical consequences. Almost at once, El’s stomach tossed with anxiety. Even as she remembered all the terrible things her mother had done, she wondered if it was possible to turn the magic around. Perhaps, if she worked at it, if she was clever, she could redeem her mother and help her be a good person. Perhaps if El could be patient, find a way to open up and discuss herself honestly, she could create a path into her mother’s heart. They could heal and actually be friends. They could have that relationship other kids seemed to have with their parents.
As the idea burned and then dimmed, tears fell, because her body knew what her mind could not say—that the magic didn’t work that way. The good could be overcome if they were too docile. The evil could only be overcome by themselves.
She dialed the church. Reverend Williams answered, sounding distracted.
“Elyrra! Are you all right?”
She cleared her throat. “I needed to think.”
He let out a sigh. “I understand.”
“Mama was already going to send me to that camp, but she didn’t tell me what it was.”
“I see. I had no idea.”
This was the moment she began taking back her identity, in tiny deceits and ever-increasing increments of strength. “Please don’t tell her I was so upset. She’d think I was being ungrateful. I don’t want that.”
To her relief, he agreed in a warm voice. “Will you come back to finish our session? We didn’t get to say our prayers.”
“I can’t. She expects me to be with my boyfriend now. But I’ll come next week, as usual.”
“Okay. I’ll see you then. Remember the Lord always comes to those who place their trials in His hands.”
She thanked him, even as she knew that if she left it to anyone but herself, her fate would be decided against her best interests. If God existed, then she was as she was meant to be, and the only way to keep being that creation was to stop listening to the Bible and to the people who represented it. If God didn’t exist . . . the same was true. Either way, she could not keep pretending to be someone she was not.
A person like Riley would never love or respect her if she didn’t stand up for herself.
A text message summoned her to Jay’s car. El gathered her things as the lump settled in her throat. Tonight would end the same as last time—in his heavy breathing and her cold compromise. She would drive to the river and get a little further from herself. It was the only way to subdue her mother and convince the world she was a normal teenager.
She came to a halt in the middle of the road, only vaguely aware that Jay’s tires squealed to a stop at her very legs. Lost in a sudden epiphany, she didn’t give the honking horn much thought.
Who decided “normal”?
It hadn’t been her. El hadn’t looked around and declared that the standard was everything she wasn’t. She hadn’t chosen to be an outsider. She was just being herself.
More magic . . . and she’d bought right into it!
“Elyrra! What the fuck are you doing?”
El turned and looked at the boy behind the wheel—this person she’d come to loathe. As she stared at him, he made faces at her, and while once she would have feared him, she now began to see that his power over her was that which she had given him.
She didn’t owe him anything. If Mama was going to send her to a camp anyway, why even bother getting into the car?
Even as she asked the question, she knew the answer; she needed time to plan, and going with him would give her that time. Even so, she wondered what their date would be like if she simply refused to let him undermine her integrity, and decided she wasn’t going to wonder. She was going to find out. Walking around the car and opening the door, she told herself that tonight would end on her terms.
“Are you retarded or something?”
“I don’t like that word. Don’t use it again.”
He blinked. “The hell?”
“You heard me. I don’t like that word. If you use it again, this date is over.”
He let out a snort. El ignored him and gazed out the window at the ice cream parlor. Riley was in her classy turn-of-the-century uniform, giving it a rakish quality it could not have had on its own. Hat cocked at an angle, sleeves rolled up to reveal her rubber bracelets and compass rose tattoo, the girl chatted at her customers irrespective of their age. It brought a smile to El’s lips and gave her confidence like nothing else.
Jay had been talking, but she wasn’t paying any attention. At last, he pulled away from the park, ending El’s moment of peace. He took them to the drive-in restaurant, all the while carrying on. When her name followed something sounding like it might have been a question, El drifted back to this reality.
El blinked at him. “I wasn’t listening to you.”
“What is wrong with you? You’re in my car! If you’re in my car, you listen to me.”
“Why should I? All you ever talk about is the team, what stupid, cruel thing you’re going to do next, and what I’m supposed to be doing to make you happy. I don’t care about any of that stuff.”
The waitress’s voice came over the ordering speaker, but was silenced by an irate boy. “The fuck did you just say to me?”
“You heard me.”
“Why are you being such a bitch? Is it that time of the month?”
“To realize I dislike you to the point I don’t actually want to date you anymore? Yes, I think it’s that time of the month.”
What could he do? Hit her? It wasn’t as if she hadn’t been hit before. Numb to all consequences, she stared straight ahead and waited to see what would come of her rebellion.
“Why are you being like this? What did I do to you?”
“I think the real question is, what have you done for me, because I can’t think of a single time you’ve ever cared about what I want. Do you know that Tamara got flowers on her birthday? Matt took Kayla to Disneyworld with his family over Easter. All you do is order me around and call me names. Well, that and try to have sex with me whenever you can.”
He looked so stupid with his mouth hanging open that she couldn’t help but laugh. In a moment, his face had turned crimson, his brows knitted together, and something in his eye changed. They’d been dating for almost a year, and it was the first time she’d ever seen thoughts register on his features. My, how they trudged through that muddy gaze, coated in mental muck by the time he muttered, “Do you want a hamburger or a hotdog?”
“I don’t want anything, thank you.”
“This is dinner,” he spat. “If you don’t eat this, you don’t eat.”
She had to suppress her smile as she calmly pointed out that she had a refrigerator and a cook at home. “I’ll be just fine. Take care of yourself. You do anyway.”
“I’m getting sick of this. I wonder what your mom would think of how you’re acting.”
In the past, that threat would have frightened her. It still did, truthfully, but the fear was secondary to a greater purpose. “Are you going to tell her? Because I’m happy to just break up with you right now and get it over with.”
The car lurched away from the stall. In seconds, Jay was steering away from town toward the forest. As the buildings grew farther apart and his speed picked up, a nagging doubt pricked at El’s courage, threatening to burst that bubble before it ever even had a chance to float skyward.
“You want to go on a trip? Let’s go on a trip! I was going to use my money to get a new stereo for Heather.” Jay loved his sports car almost as much as he loved himself. It was like an extension of his anatomy, and El was fairly certain she could identify the exact body part.
“What money? You don’t have a job.”
“I do too.” He stifled whatever he was about to say. His hands were gripping the wheel as if to bend it, and his eyes kept flicking to her in a weird kind of rhythm. “Let’s go on a trip! Where do you want to go?”
“With you? Nowhere.”
“You said you wanted to go somewhere!” He was shouting now, and the car was beginning the winding ascent through the range. El’s pulse picked up speed with every quarter mile.
“This isn’t about a vacation, Jay. I don’t like you! You don’t like anything about me. I don’t understand why you even want to date me!”
The car swerved off the main road onto an old logging trail and came to a dead stop in a patch of cool shade. Out of insults with which to goad him, she undid her seat belt and waited, her muscles tense. Jay stroked the wheel and took measured breaths, though she wasn’t sure she understood what was upsetting him. He had never acted like this before, but then again, she’d never challenged him.
“I’m sorry,” he said at last, though his voice was strained. “You’re right. I haven’t been a very good boyfriend.”
Stunned, El turned to get a better look at him. Something was off. Jay never apologized.
“I promise I’ll be better. It’s just that . . .” Suddenly, he was a perfect rendering of contrition, his knee braced against the steering column, his face twisted in anguish. “I never know what you’re thinking. I can’t figure you out. I can’t tell if anything I’m doing is right.”
Unsettled, El could not form words. Even her thoughts were a nonsense of incongruous impressions and half-framed realities.
“I really do want to make this work, because I really do like you!” He carried on inexplicably. “I mean, I want to talk to you more, and get to know you better! I don’t even know your favorite color! We’ve been dating a year, and I don’t know what kind of music you like. You’re so pretty, Elyrra, and you get amazing grades. But you’re like some kind of sphinx.”
That was the second time she’d heard that word today, and yet it sounded so different. As she stared at him, El knew that this sort of act might have worked on other girls, but she was completely immune. Firstly, because he held no attraction for her, and secondly, because where she came from, compliments said in that tone were always weapons.
“Why would you ask me out? Why would you even want to date me?”
It had been so awkward. He’d come to her lunch table one day, after a fresh breakup with Claire, a girl he’d been dating off and on for years, and just insinuated himself into her day. Then all of a sudden, he was offering to take her on a date and wouldn’t accept no for an answer. He’d even shown up on her doorstep to formally request becoming a suitor in antebellum fashion. She wouldn’t have gone out with him at all, if not for her mother’s encouragement that “he seemed like a clean-cut, blue-blooded American boy” that any girl would be lucky to snatch up . . .
El’s body went painfully cold, her limbs cramping with the magnitude of the realization as if she’d awoken to an icy blizzard raging around her.
Word Count: 103,000
Page Count: 325
Cover By: L.C. Chase
Release Date: 08/26/2019
Release Date: 08/26/2019