Elliot and Lynn rested in the slightly damp grass of his backyard, staring at the black sky dotted with glittering speckles of light. It was much too late for them to be awake, but they didn’t care. Elliot fiddled with the collar of his shirt as Lynn mumbled something to herself.
Suddenly, her face changed, and her tone turned serious. “El, I gotta talk to you about something.”
Elliot felt his stomach drop and sat up next to her. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m not gonna go to your school next year. My mama says we’ve got too little house and too many people.”
Elliot fell silent, his mouth hardening into a flat line. He attempted to force words out of his mouth, but they turned to molasses in his throat.
“I'm sorry, El... I really am. But nothing's gonna change, okay?” She offered a small smile.
He didn’t say anything for a moment more, then looked up. The stars’ light sparkled on the wet streaks that rolled down his cheeks as the words sulkily dragged themselves out of his throat. “You’re wrong. Everything will change. So, you gotta make me a promise, yeah? You won’t let go. You won’t give up on me. You’re my only friend, Lynn. I could never lose you.”
Her own eyes welled up as she threw her arms around him in a hug. “I promise. I’m not going anywhere.”
That was ten years ago.
Elliot keeps his eyes down as he weaves through the throngs of people, head throbbing from the noise. As he heads for the door, a hand firmly grasps his wrist, halting him in his path. Elliot mutters something to himself as he turns around to face Jace, his childhood friend and current nemesis. “What is it now?”
Jace flashes his signature Cheshire cat smirk--one Elliot wishes he could slap right off his face. “What’s the matter, Eleanor? Didn’t you miss me this weekend?” he teases.
Elliot flinches at the mention of the name. “Don’t call me that,” he warns, an edge to his voice. “Just leave me alone, will you? Jesus.”
An obnoxious, humorless laugh echoes from Jace’s lips, drawing people’s attention like police sirens. “You should try cracking a smile more often, Eleanor. It’d do you some good.”
“I’m not Eleanor,” he states, his voice rising. “My name is Elliot. Now stop making up for the lack of attention you get by making fun of me.”
Jace continues to cling to Elliot’s wrist like a child to a safety blanket. “You’re one to talk. You walk around with ‘he/him’ buttons begging people to pay you some mind. Why don’t you just drop this whole ‘I’m so special, look at me’ act already? Newsflash: no one cares. You’re just another depressed teenage girl with daddy issues and an ego four times the size of Jupiter. Get over yourself and find a hobby.”
“You seem to care. If you don’t, why don’t you just move on with your pathetic little life and leave me out of it?” Elliot spits back.
Jace says nothing in response for a moment. Elliot grabs the opportunity and pulls himself out of Jace’s grip, pivoting on his heels and walking briskly out the door.
Elliot keeps walking, rounding corner after corner, block after block until he reaches Crimson Rose Park. He grins as he spots Lynn. She turns her attention to him and runs over, wrapping him in a tight hug. He breathes deeply, letting her coconut-scented shampoo soothe him like a mother’s lullaby.
They talk for hours, laughing and washing the day’s hardships away. Like always, Elliot lets himself be comforted by her presence, just like he used to when he was a kid. They discuss everything under the sun, from Elliot’s mother to Jace’s ignorance to Lynn’s most recent spontaneous endeavor. When the sky turns dark and the first glittering light appears amongst the dim colors, the two go their separate ways.
The clock chimes 7:00 just as he steps inside his plainly adorned kitchen. “Mom?” he asks the space around him, his voice meek. When there’s no response, Elliot drops his bag onto the floor with a loud thunk! and plops onto the couch.
“Eleanor?” a strained voice calls out. He nearly jumps out of his skin, turning to the doorway to face his mother.
“Jesus, Mom, you scared me!” he laughs. When she remains silent, her face solemn, Elliot’s heart drops to his shoes. “Is something wrong?” He turns his attention briefly to the corner of the room, making sure his dog is still lying asleep in his bed.
“We need to talk,” his mother states, her voice flat and unwavering.
“Okay...” Elliot responds. He can barely hear himself speak over the pounding of his heart in his ears.
His mother swallows, clearly struggling to remain composed. “Someone came to visit me at the house today, about an hour or so ago. He claimed to be a classmate of yours, said his name was Jace. Do you know him?”
Elliot’s mind is blank; no thoughts run through his brain; no songs play on a loop in the background. He must force a nod, because his mother continues.
“Well, he claimed to have information I would be interested in; information about you. I decided to listen because he seemed concerned.”
Elliot's world falls silent. He knows his mother is yelling, and he probably spits something back at her, but it all twists into jumbled sets of sounds and not a single coherent thought occurs in his brain.
He forces himself to focus as his mother continues, tears streaming down both their cheeks. As her blurry figure comes into focus, he hears her say, “That’s it, Eleanor. You’ve spun too far. Next week, you are going to therapy, and we’re going to help you get out of this. You need guidance if you truly think you can just decide to be a man. That’s not how it works, and someone needs to help you realize that.”
Elliot clumsily rises from the couch, his vision blurry and his limbs weak. He stumbles up the stairs, his heart pounding in his chest. That did not just happen. His brain overflows with all the plans he could use to get out of this, but one thought persists above the rest. How dare he? Elliot waits a few minutes, maybe a few hours, until his mother goes to bed. Then, he carefully tiptoes down the stairs, cautious not to make any noise, and ducks out the door.
How dare he?
Elliot pulls out his phone, thankful he still has Jace’s number from when they were kids. His fingers shake as he types, “Crimson Rose Park. Come alone. Let’s settle this.”
He waits on him and Lynn’s bench, his breath coming out in spurts of mist as the snow falls. Judging from the thickness of it, it’s been coming down for hours. His eyes dart around, evaluating the icicles, snow piles, and grey, ominous clouds. A hand taps Elliot’s shoulder, and he whips around, expecting Jace’s smug, obnoxious face to be in front of him. But instead, he is met by Lynn’s kind eyes and concerned expression. “El?” she inquires. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m going to end this. He outed me, Lynn. My mom knows. If I don’t do something, she’s going to send me away. I just can’t do it,” Elliot lets the words collapse out of his mouth like rocks in an avalanche.
Lynn squeezes him tight, seemingly desperate. “El, listen. I passed Jace on the way here. He’s coming, so you have to promise me something. Promise me you won’t do anything stupid. We’ll figure out what to do about your mom, okay? We’ll find something. But if you do anything to him, there’s no going back. You have to swear you won’t. Please, El. I won’t lose you.”
Elliot stares at her, for once not finding comfort in her icy blue eyes. “I’m sorry, Lynn. But I’m not sure if I can make that promise.”
Lynn starts to say something, but Elliot’s stopped paying attention. Now, he glares dead ahead at the hulking outline of the boy who dared do this to him. “How could you?” Elliot spits, walking up to him in a blaze of fury, stark and bright against the cool tones of the snow falling onto his hair. His intention burns in the back of his mind, an unbearable, throbbing headache.
Jace tries to explain, but Elliot doesn’t let him finish. His eyes dart frantically to one of the icicles, sharp and glinting, hanging down from the building, then back to Jace.
How dare he?
The white walls overwhelm him, the only light coming from a small dome in the center of the ceiling. As the man in a white coat talks to Elliot's mother in the hallway, he attempts to read the infinitesimal writing on the sheet posted on the man’s clipboard. He can make out only fragments of the text; words like “potential threat; proceed with caution” and “hallucinations” stand out to him the most. Hallucinations. That’s what they say Lynn was. A hallucination. “I know they’re lying, Lynn,” he whispers, quiet enough so that the doctor can’t hear. “You were real. You had to be real.” He clenches his fists, muttering something to himself. “Don’t worry. I’ll find you. I’m going to get out of here, and I’m going to find you. No matter how long it takes. Because you promised. You promised you wouldn’t let me go.”
Elliot’s chest tightens as he releases the last sentence.
She has to be real.