He’s fifteen when he almost OD’s for the first time.
He wakes up in Indianapolis with a fistful of dust and a face full of the same; white and angelic in the way Lucifer is; all bright promises and shining examples brought low to the filthy floor of some forgotten Hell.
His hair is haloed by the stuff; the fragrant, pungent stench of death hangs in the air and fills the warehouse with wont, with something evil and foul and forgotten. He digs himself up out of the grave of bodies; from the trenches of drug warfare and teenage casualties.
His fingers scramble for purchase and twinge with pain; it’s only then Eliot notices that he’s chipped and cracked his nails as if he’s been dragging them across the cement floor all night.
Judging by the way the rest of him feels; cold, bleak, and broken, he doesn’t rule it out.
He checks the marks on his skin and is secretly pleased to find his six important stars are still present; the black ink still fresh, but fading. He’s earned this. He’s earned the right to live, to survive, even in the backwater and backwoods of No-Man’s Land; of somewhere neither forgiving nor hopeful: in the corn and the chaos, he’s come back to himself, and he throws up last night’s failures to start over again today.
* * *
He’s sixteen when he first sees her—his ticket out of town.
She’s a city slicker, from the looks of her—high heels and a long coat; her red hair blowing in the wind. There’s a vindictive patience in every corner of her angular face as she checks the bar that’s half-saloon, half-convenience store the way the old Westerns always wanted it to be. She smells like decay and something floral; a garden gone to rot.
She asks him where he’s headed and Eliot doesn’t know. Doesn’t care. He’s scent-blind to danger and blind-blind to the promise of death.
She hooks her finger like a scythe and cuts him deep; gets inside of his head and inside of his heart.
“What’s your name?” She asks him. She already knows. He's why she's there. She heard what happened. She knows. She knows everything. Her eyes are green-blue like drowned skin; like the ocean before a riptide comes. At least he thinks they are, he’s never seen the ocean up close before, only in pictures.
He tells her his name and she pulls him away like a shepherd—he’s the sheep on her crook and she’ll take him to shear, to cut, to death.
He lets her, and knows he was partially right about her: her name is Marina, like the ocean.
* * *
He’s seventeen when he skips out of Jersey and into New York—moving up in the world, he’s praised, for his hands are quick and his mind is quicker. He’s capable of great things, his teachers say—a drunk woman from Nevada who crashes in alleys and a sore-riddled spectator who makes a home under the bridge; Marina, and some others.
Eliot makes due with what he has—he’s a fast learner. Always has been. The way he picks up on information is nothing short of magnetic; as all answers are drawn to him, pulled in either by the thrall of his unusual amount of charm or the actual telekinetic force he can barely hold in his bones; as they sing under his skin and try to splinter. Every part of him feels exposed; a raw nerve at all times, because it’d be so easy to just push things the way he wants them to go, but he can’t, because every time he tries to push, it all falls apart and out of control.
Just like he knows he will.
Just like he already has.
There’s an APB out for a missing kid from Indiana. The drawing looks nothing like him; a horrible excuse for someone he once was; maybe. Did he ever wear his hair like that? Why would they shape his nose so wrong? His family’s half-hearted search is stunted and uprooted repeatedly by the fact that nobody actually cares about a little gay runaway from America’s heart.
He picks up on the undercurrent of magic networking through New York like a subway system; crawling through alleys and following the grid. It runs electric in the streets; following the motherboard of planning and charging it from tower to tower. He learns to read cards and palms; he follows old patterns and the stories in books until he can command more than himself; until he can focus himself to the point of a deadly dagger. Marina laughs and calls him her little switchblade; for his quick hands and his sharp words.
Eliot comes to hate her as he turns from knife to chisel; and Marina continues to pound him into the city she swears is hers until it’s reshaped the way she wants it to be.
* * *
At 18 [or just about], he meets Kady. Defiant and freckled and ready, with her fists balled up and her eyes set straight ahead, refusing to veer from her path forward. Marina loves to make her stumble; to encourage her to meet her fate on the pavement or in the gutter. She hounds her relentlessly; pulls on her hair, tells her to do better, because she knows she can. Kady responds by leveling city blocks with her brain, screaming windows into splinters, and ripping up pieces of the ground beneath unsuspecting cars.
Kady is nothing but salt and fire and a thousand tons of nuclear energy crammed into tan skin and watery green eyes; purple knuckles and the smell of cigarettes.
Eliot relates to her. Kady hates him. She hates everything; she is only hate and the compression of her anxieties; her shortcomings, her fury and inability to change her fate.
Eliot relates to her.
Especially when Marina takes them; chisel and hammer, and drives them into the heart of New York City like a prospector looking for gold or oil. She strikes blood; she strikes fear, she relishes the way their abilities ravage her enemies and render her curses made known. She has Eliot spell out her proverbs in blood while Kady writes her philosophy in the sky. Marina is the religion of the New York underbelly.
She is their god, and she is wrathful, and not even her angels are spared.
* * *
By 19, he’s used up. He’s wasting away. He’s a wick of a candle burning on every conceivable side; his bones are brittle rope from a hangman’s noose and his skin is the tallow that sloughs across it. He’s all hollow edges and frightened; wild eyes, shaky hands and uncontrollable need.
He’s having difficulty holding back, now. He’s been unleashed for too long. He’s been an unchecked gun with the safety off, but the mechanisms are all ground down and the safety is OFF, he’s off, he’s off and he doesn’t know how to fix it, so he fixes it by seeking other means of control.
He can take whatever he wants. He can control it. He can do three pills at a time and enjoy the bite of whiskey on his lips or savor wine from the cellar of a target acquired and disposed of. He samples cabernets as one might sample colors; trying to find the shade to suit himself—even if it isn’t enough at all, and he’s still the not-so-artful Dodger under Fagin’s thumb, playing rich orphan in a dead man’s penthouse.
He steals and he hides and he scurries, but it catches up with him with a bang in the back of some restaurant where he usually bought spells, or pawned, or turned tricks for them—
The bang comes in the form of...her.
At 19, he meets Margo for the first time. Margo--or Janet--he never did get her name right—the one Marina warned him about. One of the Dean’s own, trained specially to track down hedges and discard them. To husk them of their magic and harvest their power, or so the bedtime stories intoned.
He remembers her soulless dark eyes and the subtle curve of her lips; the way her fingers frosted over with white-blue light that ran up her arms; elegant gloves of hoarfrost—the promise of “this won’t hurt a bit” in the dull lull of hypothermia [pins and needles across his bruised and battered skin], as everything slowed and everything melted together; a hand on his forehead and his eyes meeting brown ones above. Some boy was with her; with lank long hair and a vaguely troubled expression.
It was a moment of “do I know you” before, at 19, Eliot Waugh’s mind is wiped.
* * *
And he starts over. Wakes up. Retches and cries and shakes as Margo gathers him into her arms and assures him it was all just a terrible option; a possibility. Less probable than most.
But not impossible, he tells himself, staring at the spell work scratched into the floor.
He resets, but part of him stays in the probability.
He’s 21, and he doesn’t know where to begin.