Zoe closes her statistics book with a snap and slumps back in her chair. She considers tossing her devotional pendant at the book for good measure, but she'd have to snap the chain, and it's still not worth it. Every single time she takes a math class, she is viciously resentful, again, that Mnemosyne doesn't consider numbers a language.
The book would be just as easy to read in Sanskrit or Tagalog as English, as far as Zoe's concerned. The math parts would still be pretty much impenetrable.
Zoe glances across the library study room, where a good dozen other students are taking advantage of the mid-morning sun streaming through the windows. The library reminds her a little bit of her friend Ghillie's house, with its wide armchairs and deep bookshelves. Both places feel like home; Ghillie's just usually comes with pop music and a sympathetic ear when Zoe wants to complain.
Unlike her study partner, who'd stood her up again. Presumably so he could enjoy the sun in the great outdoors -- Hasan was angling to join the soccer team, even if he'd been born with Nisaba's gift for numbers.
Zoe wishes she could join him, but they have a midterm at the end of the week, and her deity won't be of much use.
She's about to pick up the book when her phone buzzes.
911 ASAP need ur help if u ever loved me
Zoe blinks down at the message. what is it?
The answer appears almost immediately. throwing party 2nite come help
Zoe feels a spurt of irritation. Ghillie's her best friend, and she'd drop anything for him if he needed her. But a party? that's your emergency
im serious come help now
For a minute, Zoe considers breaking the library's phone rules and just calling the man. A party can't possibly be an emergency.
But Ghillie's the one who drove all night to come get her in another city when Zoe's last girlfriend broke up with her. He's the first person she called when she found out her dog had cancer.
And despite his tendency toward drama, Ghillie never says he's serious unless... well, unless he is.
Zoe throws her books into her backpack and starts for the subway station. She can get in another half hour of studying on the train. It might be her only chance, depending on how long it takes to get Ghillie out of whatever trouble he's in.
Zoe can hear the commotion while she's still walking down the sidewalk toward Ghillie's house. He has an old victorian in a run-down neighborhood; peeling paint and moss-spotted roofs abound. But the gardens are perfectly tended, roses blooming even now in the late spring, their thick scent hanging in the still air.
Down Ghillie's driveway, Zoe can see a dozen people helping set up a pavilion in the back yard. There are a couple of the neighbor boys washing the windows, of all things, as if anyone looks out the windows at a party. Megan and Andy from the local Queer Center are stringing up holiday lights along the bushes and the side of the house.
Ghillie himself is standing on the front porch in his favorite paisley caftan, his hair wrapped in a matching headscarf. He signs the delivery guy's pad with a flourish and points toward the kitchen -- taking possession of what looks like enough beer to stock a corner store.
"Zoe! You're here." Ghillie cries as she mounts the creaking steps of the porch, and pulls her into a tight hug. "I'm so glad."
Zoe eyes the general commotion. "Are you getting married?" It's the only excuse she can think of.
"Oh, hell, no!" Ghillie laughs loudly. "But I need someone to make phone calls. Here's a list of people who owe me favors--"
He pulls a folded piece of paper from one of his voluminous pockets and pushes it at her. "We need DJs -- maybe two or three, we're going all night -- and someone to handle the food. We need so much food. I need your help. Pretty please?"
The paper is soft in Zoe's hands and obviously old, the names written in many different inks, and sometimes different handwriting. This isn't a spur-of-the-moment thing; Ghillie's been collecting these names for years.
"Now, I'm worried." Zoe scrutinizes him carefully. "Are you dying?"
"No, not that either. I just, I need this. Tonight. It's gotta be..." Ghillie shakes his head, pleading. "It's gotta be the most fabulous party I've ever thrown."
Zoe stares around at the chaos and remembers the last party Ghillie organized. And the three weeks he spent working on it. "And you're just starting it now?"
"Well, how was I supposed to know?" He throws his hands into the air theatrically. "My sister only called this morning."
Another delivery person rolls up, cases of wine on her hand-truck, and waves for Ghillie's attention. "Just help me, Zoe-bird. I promise I'll explain everything over margaritas."
Zoe looks down at the list again. This time she notices that hers is the first name on it.
Zoe calls in every person on the list, for decorating, food, clean-up crew -- whatever they can do. The ones who are out of town are roped into issuing invitations, or calling their more local friends in to help.
Ghillie orders everyone around like a general in battle, and they go.
Furniture and breakables are cleared to the back rooms. Someone brings folding chairs. They get the sound system hooked up and playing disco music to keep them going. All the tiny sparkling lights will look gorgeous once the sun goes down.
Hours of hard work later, the house is transformed, a stage set waiting for the play.
Ghillie sends everyone home to change, and Zoe flops onto one of the last couches still accessible. She listens tiredly to the rumble of the margarita machine, her mind still spinning. Did she miss anything?
"As promised." Ghillie swoops in to hand her a margarita and sits next to her, his caftan billowing gracefully. He sets the rest of the pitcher down on a side table with a clink. A column of mist wisps up from it in the warm air. "How many people so far?"
Zoe checks her phone again. "You've got fifty yesses on Facebook and another two hundred maybes."
Ghillie sighs and leans back, obviously dissatisfied. "I guess that'll have to do."
Zoe rolls her eyes, but now that she's stopped moving, she aches too much to start up again. "I'll take that as 'you're welcome.'"
"I'm grateful. I am." Ghillie takes a slug of his drink. "I just want everything to be perfect."
Zoe drinks half of hers in one gulp. There's a sharp, fruity taste, more red than strawberry, and the sweet burn of rum going down. "You also promised you'd talk. Or I'll throw the rest of my drink at you."
Ghillie laughs at her. "Oh, honey, if you don't want it, give it to mama."
Out of the corner of her eye, Zoe sees his hand grab toward her mockingly. She laughs and pulls her glass closer. "Talk!"
"I told you I'm a freak, didn't I?" Ghillie sighs again, more serious. He pulls his feet up under himself; it makes him seem smaller. He doesn't do that a lot. "Did I ever tell you I grew up Immanent?"
It takes Zoe a minute to place the word. She remembers something breathlessly voyeuristic on television, about worship run amok. Something about forced possession, or invocations, or something like that, wasn't it?
She can't think of anything diplomatic to say to that, but isn't sure that 'I'm glad you got away from those creeps' is exactly the right thing, either. "Um. Okay. I really don't know much about them."
"Never play poker, Zoe-bird," Ghillie snickers at her. "They're a tiny cult with a god that gets all up in their business all the time. No outsiders, no technology, just the glories of an ever-present deity."
The last part is said with great bitterness. Zoe can't help but notice that Ghillie doesn't include himself there.
"That sounds pretty awful, honestly." Zoe tries to imagine that kind of relationship with a god. Sure, she's got a devotional, but she'd hate to be... watched all the time.
"Well. It sucks if you're not like all the other duckies." Ghillie adjusts his headscarf minutely. "I didn't even know I was gay, how funny is that? I just knew I was different, and it was either get out or drown myself."
That admission sends a chill down Zoe's spine. "Ghillie --"
"Oh, I don't mean that literally." Ghillie tilts his head, then admits, "At least, I don't think I do. Having a god mess with your head kind of messes with your head, you know?"
Zoe feels way, way out of her depth here. She's not sure where this is going, or what it has to do with the party, but it's awful to think that ever happened to her friend. "At least you're done with that."
He snorts. "Am I?"
"Please tell me we're not going to see your god at this party."
"No!" Ghillie waves the thought away. "Well, probably not. I mean, I was a baby the last time I went through this. It's not like I'd remember."
Zoe blinks at him. "You're really lucky my drink is empty."
"Let me fix that for you." Ghillie tops up her glass, and his own. The slushy ice is melting slowly, but the rum still burns going down. "Here's the thing -- When you die, Immanent, you come back. You spend a night with each of your living relatives, oldest to youngest, before going back to the afterlife. Last goodbyes, and all that."
Zoe stares at her drink and tries to wrap her mind around that. Coming back? From what? Her head is buzzing a little, but she can't tell if it's the alcohol or the revelation. "Who are we expecting?"
Ghillie has never, not once, talked about his family. It's not that uncommon in their circle of friends; everyone knows someone who's been disowned, or disowned their kin. Freaks stay together.
Zoe doesn't want to think about what it would mean, to meet a man who'd hated a kid like Ghillie.
"And you're throwing him a party?"
Ghillie laughs at her indignation. "I'm throwing me a party. An utterly fabulous, this is my life now party. Because... I've been thinking about this night my whole life. I don't want to be waiting breathlessly for whatever he has to say. I'm not that kid anymore. So he can either take me as I am, or face the music. Literally, if I have anything to say about it."
Now, that makes sense. Still, Zoe can't stop thinking about a younger, less polished version of her friend, and what might have happened to him. "I could punch him for you," she offers.
"Oh, honey. You can't punch a ghost. But it's the thought that counts, right?"
"I'm sorry." Zoe's not sure what she's sorry for -- Ghillie's family, what happened, or the fact that he's going to have to face down his dad again.
"I'm not." His leans forward and takes her face in both hands. "He's not my family. You are. You and Andy and Megan and all the crazy kids who're showing up tonight. He's the one who lost out."
There's something a little wistful underneath his certainty -- even Zoe dreams sometimes that her parents will wake up and be actual, real family someday -- but the words are true. This is their home, these people are their family -- and anyone who can't love them is losing out.
Ghillie very deliberately shakes it off.
"Come on." He offers her a hand up. Which she needs, she discovers when the room goes a little wobbly from the rum. "We both need to get changed before the hordes arrive. Wipe off that serious face!" He leans in, and whispers in a conspiring tone. "Think of it like prom."
Zoe snorts, but puts her arm around his waist and leans on him. "I hated prom."
Ghillie ruffles her hair and cackles. "That's because I wasn't there with you, dearie."