Leo the Mer-Guy! Chapter Eleven: Initiation

 

Leo stood in front of the crackling flames all by himself.

 

Ruby shuffled forward, tossing a log that was as big as her onto the flames with a furious vigor. She looked up at Leo with a small smile. “Good luck,” she whispered, before slinking back into the shadows.

 

The rest of the witches were all behind Leo, watching him like an audience watching a stage performer.

 

“Think about yourself as you are now, what you look like and how you feel,” Ash called out, adopting their Gandalf voice.

 

Leo closed his eyes. He pictured his cobbled-together costume, his lanky shoulders and androgynously moppy hair. He felt the stress of the last day–the last month, the last year–and the increasing expectations being placed on him by his parents. He felt his exhaustion.

 

“Now think about where you want to be in the future. What you look like and how you feel.”

 

Leo stood up straighter. He saw himself as he saw himself. A brighter smile, broader shoulders. For some reason he was fixated with his arm hair. He’d always wanted to have hairy arms like his dad. He also wanted better glasses, glasses like Daniel Radcliffe wears. He saw himself as a well-meaning theater boy, someone sensitive and serious. Someone who felt confident, secure in their skin. Someone who was happy with where they were and had hope for where they’d be next. Not all of this confusion and uncertainty he felt now.

 

Ji-fu appeared by his side. He felt her presence more than saw it, blinking his eyes open and startling at her presence. “Jesus, you scared me!” Leo exclaimed.

 

She handed him a smooth, flat stone and walked away.

 

“Make a wish, and breathe that wish into the stone,” Ash said. “Then throw your wish into the flames.”

 

The little hairs on the back of Leo’s neck stood up, making him shiver. Okay, maybe he could get into the whole witch thing. The vibes here tonight were off the charts.

 

Leo cupped the cool stone in his hands, holding it up to his lips. He closed his eyes and whispered, “I want to be myself. I want to be accepted. I want to be happy. I want to be strong.”

 

He opened his eyes. He gripped the stone tightly in his sweaty palms and launched it into the flames.

 

He let out a breath. That felt good, really good. There was a kind of therapy to it. He felt more centered, more present in his body.

 

A loud pop emanated from the flames. A beat later, the stone launched itself out of the flames, arching across the sky, hot and molten orange. It fell into the pond with a steamy hiss and a muted splash.

Leo the Mer-Guy! Chapter Ten: Magic

“Why don’t we go around the circle and introduce ourselves,” the rainbow-haired person suggested. “I’m Ash. They/them pronouns.”

 

The backpack kid was next. “Ruby. She/her.”

 

There was a very tall person with long, straight, black hair and makeup like they were a member of the band KISS. “Onyx. They/them.”

 

Next, there was a kid who didn’t look so different from Leo. They offered him a lopsided smile. “Juan. He/him.”

 

Leo also met Tinashe, Yasmin, and Ji-fu.

 

It was a lot of names and a lot of people all at once, but Leo was really hoping to get to know them all much better.

 

Much, much, better.

 

He wasn’t alone here after all.

 

He wasn’t the only gay kid, wasn’t the only trans kid. Here he was, huddled in the woods with a group of people that understood him. Not all of them looked just like parents and society thought a boy or a girl should look.

 

It was awesome.

 

Oh, and they were all clearly super weird. Like the actual weirdest.

 

Leo had never felt more at home.

 

Ash explained that they were a secret order of kids who all lived in the neighborhood. They went through the agenda, including discussing whose house would host the next meeting. Juan said his parents hadn’t finished cleaning the basement, but that it would probably work for next week. Tinashe offered to bring snacks since her mom worked at CostCo.

 

Ash also explained to Leo that they were all queer, they were all witches, and that they practiced magic. That this field and this pond was where the magic was strongest.

 

That was something new.

 

Leo had never really had a goth or an emo phase. He’d never worn crystals to school and chanted spells at home. He’d seen plenty of theater kids at his last school who did, though, and he wasn’t one to judge, he just didn’t know if it was for him.

 

But he liked them all enough and was lonely enough to start embracing his inner witch. It couldn’t be hard, right?

 

He hoped he didn’t have to wear black all the time, though. It wasn’t really his color.

 

“So, Leo,” Ji-fu said, twirling her braids around her finger, “you interested in joining us?”

 

“Oh, yeah!” Leo exclaimed. “I mean, if it’s cool with you guys.”

 

Ruby offered a thumbs up. Ash nodded. “You need to go through initiation, then,” Ash said. “If you’re serious.”

 

Leo nodded emphatically enough for his bangs to fall in his face. “Yes. I am. Super serious.”

 

“Okay, then,” Ash said, the gleeful smile on their face illuminated eerily by the orange flames. “Let us begin the ceremony.”

Leo the Mer-Guy! Chapter Nine: The Order of the Night

The group murmured in shock, glancing left and right, capes billowing as anxious bodies moved beneath them.

 

The rainbow-haired person pointed the flashlight directly at Leo. “We have been followed.”

 

All eyes turned toward him, glinting brightly against the flames in darkness.

 

Well. Leo did not wake up today expecting to get murdered. He’d braced himself for a crappy day, but this was just about as crap as crap could get.

 

Mouth dry, knees wobbly, Leo stepped forward and into the light. “Uh.. uh…” His thoughts were completely empty. He offered a trembling wave. “Hi?”

 

“Name yourself and your intent,” The rainbow-haired person demanded, voice echoing powerfully.

 

“I’m L-Leo. Leo Castellan. I just moved here and I thought–“

 

“Why did you follow us?” they interjected, the edge to their tone growing ever sharper.

 

Leo swallowed. “Because you seemed cool?”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

Leo cleared his throat. “Because you seemed cool, and my parents wanted me to make some friends,” he tried again, his voice a little louder.

 

The rainbow-haired person blinked. “Oh.”

 

The group of kids glanced at each other, some spooky nonverbal communication passing between them.

 

“I can, uh, just go, or–“

 

“No, hold on,” the rainbow-haired person said. Their voice was normal now, instead of the Gandalf-y tone and power from before. “Did anyone bring an extra robe?”

 

There was some shuffling, some silence, some footsteps, until a voice piped up: “I did, but it’s kinda small.”

 

Leo looked to the speaker, who he’d previously assumed was some kind of hunchback toddler. They threw back their cloak, revealing the truth: they were just really short with a really huge backpack. They set the backpack down, pulling out a cloak from under some potato chip snack-sized bags. They held it out toward Leo. “Here.”

 

“Oh. Thanks.” Leo stepped into the circle, feeling like he was breaking some unspoken rule. He took the robe from the kid, the flames making his eyes water.

 

He put the cloak on. It ended just below his waist. He looked over to the rainbow-haired person, who seemed to be the leader.

 

They shrugged and nodded. “Alright, everybody, make room.”

 

The circle widened by just enough to let one more person join its ranks.

 

Heart still going crazy, but no longer out of fear of his imminent death, Leo stepped between the backpack child and the rainbow-haired person.

 

“Welcome,” the rainbow-haired person said to Leo, “to the Order of the Night.”

Leo the Mer-Guy! Chapter Eight: Caught

Without warning, they all stopped chanting at once. Their perfectly synchronous words were replaced with a jumble of conversations and whispers.

 

Crouching by the bushes, Leo steeled himself to stand up and introduce himself. Now was his chance. He might not be doing exactly what his parents wanted, but hopefully they’d be proud nonetheless that he managed not to be an antisocial hermit.

 

He ran through a few opening dialogues in his head. None of them were all that great. Some too formal, some maybe too weird, even for the weirdos.

 

He settled on “hey.”

 

The syllable hung in his throat, ready to come out.

 

He realized a beat too late that things had gotten quiet.

 

Too quiet.

 

He stood up, a smile he hoped was welcoming plastered across his face.

 

The pagoda was empty.

 

Leo’s smile dropped. He stumbled out of the bushes, peering left and right into the darkness.

 

There. Way off in the distance, bracketed by trees, was a bobbing flashlight, illuminating a brood of dark teens.

 

How had they moved so quickly?

 

Leo set off at a jog, pursuing them from a distance.

 

This was the end of the neighborhood, or at least, some far corner. The kids were setting off down a forest trail littered with benches, recycling bins, and woodchips.

 

They moved at a brisk pace, turning down paths seemingly at random, moving deeper and deeper into the woods. The trees closed in on all sides, shutting out the moonlight and the streetlights, swallowing the world in a blind, all-encompassing blackness.

 

Leo’s confidence was flagging, but he had no choice but to follow them. It was too dark to turn back, and he’d lost track of all the twists and turns they’d taken.

 

Finally, they stopped in a large opening. On the other side of it was a smooth, glassy pond, reflecting the dim starlight. Leo stopped at the edge of the opening, panting. He watched the kids drag sticks and branches into a dirt pit in the center of the glade.

 

Someone sprinkled a liquid over the sticks.

 

Someone else pulled out a lighter.

 

Then, they lit the whole thing on fire.

 

The fire swooshed up with a powerful, blinding brightness, hurting Leo’s eyes and warming his face. It was a huge bonfire, dancing like a 9 foot tall human being.

 

The kids encircled the flames, holding hands. 

 

They said their classic chant but just one time.

 

“Do it for yourself, do it for your health. Self love, self peace.”

 

Then, they all took a single step back, unlinking their hands and raising them to the sky, fingers splayed out. They held this pose for a few beats before they all slowly lowered their hands to their sides.

 

One of the kids threw their hood back. It was the person with the rainbow hair.

 

“There is an intruder among us,” they called out in a powerful, echoing voice.

 

Leo’s heart stopped.

Leo the Mer-Guy! Chapter Seven: The Pagoda

Walking deeper and deeper into the neighborhood, Leo kept his head down, pulling his costume closer to his body to protect against the chill. It was properly dark now, the world dulled into an indigo blue. He veered away from other kids, shying away from their glances.

 

This might be Leo’s worst Halloween ever, even worse than eighth grade.

 

He was so preoccupied with his own misery, staring down at his beat up sneakers, that he didn’t notice the sidewalk arced to the left.

 

He thumped down off of the curb and into the grass, tripping and falling to his knees with a grunt.

 

He stood back up, heart beating hard, face red and flustered, brushing dead leaves off his legs.

 

In front of him, there was a huge, kidney-shaped pond, the edges littered with wheaty fronds and lily pads.

 

On a pavilion sticking out into the pond was a pagoda of sorts, an octagonal, wooden structure with benches and bird feeders.

 

It was all really pretty, and might be the only thing Leo liked about the neighborhood, but that wasn’t what caught his eye.

 

No, it was the people who inhabited the pavilion.

 

There were about six or seven kids huddled in a tight circle in the middle of the pagoda. They were all wearing long, black robes, with hoods covering their heads. Someone was holding a flashlight to illuminate their faces from below in eerie, yellow lighting.

 

And they were chanting.

 

It was rhythmic, monotone, and quiet, like the foot stomping at the beginning of “We Will Rock You.”

 

Leo knew he was acting like the ditzy girl in a horror movie, but his fascination propelled him forward. He crept toward the pagoda silently, sticking to the grassy area. Nearing the railing, he looked up from the bushes at the gathering.

 

Their faces were clearer now. One person had a lot of piercings. Another person had rainbow hair. A whopping three–three! of them were wearing band t-shirts from bands Leo was obsessed with.

 

Now he could make out the words of their chants.

 

“Do it for yourself, do it for your health, self love, self peace.”

 

That was not what Leo expected, but when the words sank in, they pulled a wry smile up onto his lips.

 

It was a good message.

 

But most importantly, it was weird.

 

These kids were out here being weird as all getup and they didn’t care.

 

Leo was officially obsessed.

Leo the Mer-Guy! Chapter Six: Maybe Not…

Something caught his eye as he walked along, feeling sorry for himself, not even trick-or-treating.

 

One of the houses up ahead had the coolest Halloween decorations Leo had ever seen.

 

There was a big, inflatable ghost out front, and several tombstones with skeletal hands climbing out of them. The bushes and trees were laden with cottony cobwebs and giant spiders with glowing red eyes. Dry ice cauldrons filled the yard with eerie fog. There were purple and orange lights strung up everywhere, including a big, orange arrow affixed to the side of the house, pointing toward the back of the house.

 

Mesmerized, Leo forgot himself, following the flashing orange arrow with a mouth hung open in wonder.

 

He walked down a little brick path to a wooden deck attached to the back of the house. The deck was strung up with lights, too, and party music blasted from speakers. There were more kids here, mingling with one another and eating snacks and drinking pop.

 

Leo steeled himself, taking a breath.

 

He could do this.

 

If only for the snacks, he could do this.

 

Leo climbed up the deck stairs. He filled a red solo cup with Coke and walked over to a group of boys leaning against the railing and talking and eating.

 

Alright. Here we go.

 

“Hey,” Leo said, deepening his voice. He coughed.

 

The boys looked up. One of them nodded his head at him. Leo guessed this was the highly-studied “bro nod.” “Hey.”

 

Leo nodded back. “So.” He fished his awkward, stupid brain for something to say. “What’s up?”

 

“The costume contest is in like fifteen minutes,” one of the other boys offered.

 

“Oh!” Leo perked up. Then he schooled his expression, matching the passivity of the other boys. “Uh, cool.”

 

“Yeah, for kids,” a third boy piped up. “Look at that girl’s costume. Is she a ladybug or a pimple?”

 

That got some laughs. Leo laughed nervously along.

 

“What’s your costume?” one of the boys asked him.

 

“Oh, my mom made me wear it,” Leo said, and the annoyance in his voice was genuine. “I think it’s supposed to be, like, Aladdin, or something.”

 

“Bro, that sucks,” the first boy said. “My mom made me go as Batman but I ditched that shit the moment I left.”

 

Leo thought Batman was cool as hell, but he nodded anyway. “Yeah.”

 

“That’s the only good costume I’ve seen all night,” a dark-haired boy said, pointing to a kid swinging on the playground swingset. Leo leaned over the railing, peering at it. It was a jersey of some kind, with a number on the front.

 

“Yo! Drew Brees! That’s my GOAT,” one boy said.

 

“Nuh-uh. Matthew Stafford, he’s so underrated,” another one said.

 

“If he’s underrated, why is he benched all the time?” the first boy countered.

 

“Why are we stuck on quarterbacks? The game hinges on the wide receiver.”

 

For Leo, the boys had switched tongues, speaking gibberish instead of English.

 

He tried to contribute at all, to ask a question, but they just spoke over him, over the music.

 

Completely unnoticed, Leo backed away and left the deck.