Gimme Everything You've Got, Medusa Boy
by Lillian Fu
Author’s Note: This piece is very long, a bit over 5000 words. Please read if you have time.
The snakes liked her, which was fortunate. Theo was not gifted with the ability to understand their language even though they grew out of his head—an oversight on the part of the gods if there were any, and oh, there were—but a lifetime of having snakes for hair meant he could more or less tell what they were thinking through the tone of their hissing and the tempo of their constant writhing.
And they liked her. Which was fortunate, given that in the two weeks she’d been living in Theo’s house, he had not had nearly enough interactions with her to make a judgment on her character. It was good to know he was not housing a sociopath; Theo had social anxiety around normal people already.
“So, how have you two been holding up since the last time I checked in?” asked Leah over the speaker phone as Theo dumped Ellie’s clothes in the laundry machine. Leah was Ellie’s social worker as well as Theo’s closest friend. His only friend, if he was being truthful, which he generally tried to avoid on account of his ability to survive everyday life. Self-care, Jason had once told him as Theo rolled his eyes, comes in many forms.
Theo tried not to think of the things Jason had told him, but he took this one to heart. And in his opinion, lying to yourself was a wonderful form of self-care.
“Two less nervous breakdowns this week,” said Theo.
“Ellie?” Leah asked, alarmed.
“What?” He measured out the detergent, poured it in, pressed the start button. “No, me. Ellie’s…”
He trailed off, leaning against the machine as it started humming. He didn’t actually know if Ellie had nervous breakdowns or not. He had, again, not seen that much of her thus far.
Understanding this, Leah asked with a knowing tone, “Still not coming out of her room?”
Theo sighed in response.
“Give it some time,” Leah said. They’d had this conversation before; it was no more comforting in repetition. “A lot of foster kids, especially the mystical ones, have a difficult time opening up and trusting others. I’d imagine it goes double for Ellie.”
Theo, silent, pressed his fingertips white against the top of the washing machine, which was sticky with dust. For a moment, the child inside him inflated to press against the barrier of his skin, and he was overcome with the urge to tell her he knew that already. Of course he knew that, look at him, he didn’t need her to tell him that.
He sighed, fatigued with the same old shame. Leah spoke again. “Do you like her?”
Theo blinked at the bare branches brushing the window in front of him. Leah had shed her social worker voice for her ‘three a.m. confessions on a college dorm bed’ voice, and he suffered a brief attack of nostalgia.
Did he like her? The snakes liked her. And, well, Leah had been the one who strongarmed him into becoming a foster parent for mystical children; he’s not sure he would’ve done if not for her. He liked children, yeah, but he could barely take care of himself most days; he’d screw up any kid that came his way.
Leah had been the one, too, to bring Ellie to him not two weeks after he got certified, which was two weeks after Jason and he—in any case, he wasn’t prepared. He’d tried, repeatedly, to tell her that, but she said he was the only option. No one else would take her in.
And then she’d handed him her file, and he learned ‘Ellie’ was short for ‘Eldritch Abomination,’ no last name. And then she’d put a grim hand over his when it began shaking with an old, familiar rage. And then Ellie was on his doorstep, glaring at the ground while NorCal’s winter winds nipped her cheeks pink, introducing herself in short, clipped words and a voice surprisingly deep for her age.
And then he’d looked at her: white bangs obviously grown in an effort to hide her four extra eyes, one pair at the temples and the other at the crest of the cheekbones. But no amount of hair could disguise the unnatural black where whites should be and the searing gold rings of her irises.
She was an angel. A biblical angel, grotesque and awe-inspiring and likely just as hard to look at as a Medusa-boy was to the world.
Did he like her? She never spoke to him, never looked at him, never left her room if she could help it. She scowled whenever he was in her presence. Worst, she reminded him of himself—of course she did, look at her—and Theo had never liked himself all that much.
“I do,” he said to Leah. “How could I not?”
The next morning, Ellie came down the stairs to the kitchen in an oversized camo vest Theo had never seen her wear before. Upon closer inspection, he realized it was one of the pieces of clothing he’d bought in a panic before Ellie came, which he’d given to her as the conclusion of one of his numerous awkward welcome speeches. At the time, she had narrowed all six of her eyes at the closet of Old Navy and Gap merchandise, slung her duffel onto the floor, and proceeded to never touch a single one.
Upon even closer inspection, Theo remembered that this vest had not been a vest when he bought it; it had been a jacket, and Ellie had evidently found where Theo kept the scissors.
She slouched over to the kitchen table, hands stuffed in the pockets of the camo vest. She paused when she reached her chair, glared at it, then at her plate of eggs and pancakes, then, briefly, up at Theo. He would’ve been floored at the eye contact if he wasn’t still busy trying to figure out what was going on.
She plopped down in her seat. Theo swallowed his bite of bacon. “Good morning.”
Ellie’s scowl deepened, but after a charged pause she gave a small nod in response, which was better than the normal stone-cold nothing. Ellie ate in silence, tenser than she had been since week one. Theo wished briefly for his new legal case, a murder of a mermaid (a merder, Leah cackled) with eleven plausible suspects and no witnesses. It would be less confusing than this.
He snuck glances up at her. Though her voice was deep, Ellie was smaller than most 11-year-olds, and the vest dwarfed her skinny shoulders. Theo realized that in addition to the sleeves, Ellie must’ve cut two slits in the back to let the three pairs of white wings stacked along her spine to hang out; he’d forgotten about them when he’d bought the clothes.
She finished her plate, speedy as always, but instead of getting up to put it in the sink she just sat there, staring at the yolk residue—she liked them sunny-side up, a fact which Theo had gleaned through minute changes in her expressions alone—then looked firmly up at Theo. He tried not to startle too visibly, then fought back an instinctual reaction to shake his snakes in front of his eyes. Even now, he was unused to eye contact.
“I want cereal,” Ellie said.
Her small hands were clenched tight around her fork and knife. Theo set his own down. “Okay,” he said. “Um, they’re in the pantry.” He pointed, uselessly, towards the pantry.
She glared at him for another second, then pushed her chair back and marched off, extracted a box of Froot Loops, then went to the refrigerator for milk. Theo remembered his grandma lecturing him in heated Greek about the sugar content of American foods, but Ellie was scrawny to the point of malnourishment so he figured it was fine.
Ellie returned to her seat with a bowl, the Froot Loops, and a carton of orange juice. Her small mouth pressed into a fracture line and her eyes glinting gold at him, she poured the cereal into the bowl and then poured orange juice into the cereal. After, she waited, tense, not picking up her spoon.
Theo stared. “Um,” he said, then took his and Ellie’s empty plates to the sink for washing.
It was only as he was scrubbing them that he finally realized what was going on: Ellie was testing him. Two weeks of freezing to see how awful he was, then this to draw that awfulness out of him by force.
Theo, a lawyer, was good at tests. And Theo, it seemed, might have a chance after all.
Ellie finished her orange-juice-cereal, actually seeming to like it, all while flicking suspicious glances at Theo. He dropped her off to her middle school. She nodded again, grudging and wary, when he said goodbye.
Then he drove home, wind in his lungs, and spent half an hour hunting through his house for the unused sewing kit he’d bought with the furniture. He took the fabric scissors out of them, went to Ellie’s room and set it on her dresser with a note: These cut cloth better than the others.
When he finished, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the floor-length mirror mounted on the wall. A nest of oil-black snakes a few shades colder than his skin, the slitted pupils of his green eyes. He’d always hated looking at himself, could only stand it when he squinted his eyes so tight his image was just a blurry silhouette, and he could almost pretend he looked human.
Ellie had covered the mirror with a sheet from her bed, and it had slid so he could see half his body. The wind in his lungs condensed into fog. Theo adjusted the sheet so it covered the whole mirror again and remade her bed with a new one.
Theo’s house was a long, winding route off the main streets through a network of neighborhoods pressed against a slope of forest. He’d found it two years ago by accident on a long afternoon walk where he’d refused to admit he was lost.
Entranced already by the eccentrically decorated homes he’d passed and the large, gray-barked, bright-leafed trees that canopied the streets and scattered sunlight on the sidewalk, he’d paused before the warm-wooded corner house. On the cement in front of it was a yellow sign that said ‘DEAD END’ in the shape of a diamond; just behind it on the lawn, another read ‘Open House.’
He wasn’t looking to buy property—his one-bedroom apartment was already leagues better than the cramped Brooklyn room he’d shared with his grandma growing up—but he found his feet carrying him in anyways.
And then there was Jason, the young and handsome real estate agent who’d met his eyes without flinching, who led him through the spacious rooms and the wide backyard before taking him through it all again, steps slower, asking him about his job and Brooklyn and oh he loved that author too. The snakes’ hisses soothed into humming. Outside after the prolonged tour, as the afternoon caramelized around them, Jason told him that he’d grown up down the block and that all the families around here were mystical. He was a Chinese dragon—a dragon!—himself.
And Theo wasn’t looking to buy property, he made good money now but really this house was too large for one person and he had no time to upkeep it, really, a house, what was he thinking. But the streets buzzed with ambient magic: there were pixies in the leaves, twin-tailed cats on the windowsills, spices carrying a stranger’s memories on the breeze. A gnome had tried to sell him a pinwheel that giggled as it spun, and he was told the forest was home to a tribe of wind spirits.
And, well, the snakes liked it.
On the front lawn of the house grew an ancient pine tree that towered above everything else on the block. Theo loved that tree, had caught his eyes climbing its boughs while he argued to himself, fruitlessly, about why he shouldn’t buy the house those years ago.
He loved it less now, gaping up at Ellie crouched, wobbling, on the very top.
Next to her floated Laurie Parkson, which gave Theo a good idea of what had happened. The Parksons had lived in the house at the end of Theo’s dead-end street in the 1930s, died all on the same day but due to different causes, then proceeded to never move out of the house or into the afterlife. Their haunting had driven away all the humans and left the neighborhood open for mysticals to populate. Soon enough, the MCCC (the Mystical Creatures Connection Committee, or Micky C’s as they liked to call it) was printing photos of these streets in their pamphlets.
The Parksons weren’t malicious ghosts, but they were generally uncaring of mortality and social etiquette, which made them pretty bad neighbors. Theo was going to have some words with Laurie if he survived the heart attack he was about to have.
After that morning with the vest and the cereal, Ellie confronted him in the living room before dinner and bit out: “Stay out of my room.” He was sleepless that night with disaster scenarios and self-hate, but then she’d slunk down the stairs the next morning in the camo vest and a navy T-shirt he’d bought for her, the slits cut neatly in the back. And—she had said my room, after all.
It was a few weeks since then and she’d relaxed enough to sometimes respond to his awkward attempts at small talk, but Theo was pretty sure that this new level of familiarity still didn’t permit him to shout incoherent words of distress up at her now. Whatever, he would worry about the impact on their relationship once he made sure she didn’t die.
After several attempts, he managed to push down his panic enough to think through how to do that. “Wait here!” he yelled. “And don’t move! And don’t listen to Laurie!”
Theo sprinted down the sidewalk to the Parkson house, pounded on the door, then corralled a bemused gaggle of ghosts to the pine tree with a liberal application of his gorgon fury that he would feel ashamed about later. He couldn’t actually turn spirits into stone and he was certain the Parksons feared nothing, but it got them moving nonetheless.
Once they reached the tree, the collected Parksons flew up to where Ellie was and then floated her, yelping and thrashing, down to the ground. After her mortality was secured, and by extension Theo’s, he shared a brief dialogue with the Parkson parents in which he was half-grateful and half-admonishing, and in which they were a little amused and mostly disinterested. As they went back down the street, he heard them tell Laurie “We should be glad you never had a chance to marry if that’s how you handle flirting.”
And then it was Ellie and him alone on his front lawn. She had her arms around herself, shaking, her scowl at the ground a bad disguise of fear. Her fingers dug into her elbows like she was trying to press her body into stillness, but those shook too.
Theo couldn’t take it anymore. He expelled a chestful of held breath, dropped to his knees, and wrapped Ellie up in a fierce hug.
She flinched, then released a warble of sound that tried to be a shout but self-immolated before it got there, and Theo’s heart damn near broke again. He pressed her bony frame to his chest for another blind moment before letting her go and standing up.
Shock made her unselfconscious as she stared at him with six wide eyes. He tried for a wobbly smile, but it probably came out as a wince. “Sorry about that. I—should have asked first, but it just—” he shook his head, the snakes hissing and his tongue tied. “Let’s go in?”
Inside, Ellie sat at the kitchen table while Theo stress-cooked kraft macaroni and cheese with jittery hands. The room was silent except for the pot.
After the macaroni was ready, he set the bowls down on the table and asked, “What happened?”
Ellie didn’t reply for so long Theo nearly gave up. Then, her shoulders drawn up tight and glaring at the macaroni like it was keeping secrets from her, she said in bitten starts-and-stops, “That ghost. Laurie. Kept taunting me and following me.” She paused, mouth twisted. “She said I couldn’t fly.”
She clamped her lips shut, cheeks blushing furious red. The macaroni was becoming rapidly more offensive to her.
Theo remembered with an unwelcome force what it was to be young and reticent and not taken seriously by anyone, speaking about himself rarely and dismayed to find he had no words for his feelings that didn’t sound painfully immature out of his mouth when he did. Later, he would learn to articulate, how to talk without giving anything away with the memory of his early shame close in his mind.
Ellie was still 11. Theo said, carefully, “Do you want to learn how to fly?”
“Not really,” she replied, but then she glanced up at him with a caught look on her face, too raw to be intentional, and his body sank with the dread of what he knew he would have to do.
Nevertheless, he still spent a week desperately scouring for other options before he gave in. The next Friday, he picked Ellie up from school and drove them forty-five minutes to the Micky C’s community center (the Micky C’s CC, the MCCCCC) in the city. He signed in at the front, then led Ellie briskly through the halls, conscious of the stares they attracted together. Even among mysticals, gorgons were almost unheard of. Angels were myths.
Ellie matched his pace, throwing shy, curious looks at her surroundings when she thought no one would notice, her wings rustling against her back. They reached a door with the words “Flight Atrium” imprinted on them, and her spine snapped straight and stiff.
Theo wasn’t faring much better himself. He opened the door before he could run away, and before them stretched a gargantuan room with a high glass ceiling, multiple scaffolds of varying heights, and other contraptions Theo couldn’t identify scattered about. In the middle of the atrium was Jason and a handful of winged children doing stretching exercises at his direction.
Jason quit his job as a real estate agent halfway into their relationship to pursue a career in “I don’t know, I just wanna fly,” which entailed a plethora of odd jobs where he was allowed to transform into a dragon and take to the skies, one of which was as a flight instructor at the M5C. The only flight instructor. Micky C’s was horribly and perpetually understaffed, and Theo found himself newly passionate about the importance of participating in the cause.
Theo contemplated making his escape before Jason finished his lesson, but then a small hand fisted in his sleeve. He looked down to see Ellie gaping at the room in open wonder, the blacks of her eyes twinkling with reflected light. She didn’t even seem to realize what her hand was doing.
And then what could he do but stand there with his heart in his mouth and dodge Jason’s stare when he turned to find Theo and Ellie at the entrance. What could he do but stay there the entire hour, standing at the edge of the room and tracking Ellie’s body with anxious eyes. What could he do but brush off Jason’s “Theo, wait—” with a hurried thanks and goodbye afterwards, and flee the building with Ellie, pink-cheeked, beside him.
What could he do but bring her back the next week, and the next, and the next.
The decision to sign Ellie up for flying lessons (her flight feather were still growing in, but it was always good to start early) turned out to be crucial to the development of their relationship. So, thought Theo when Ellie grinned at him for the first time after her third session, the Jason situation was worth it. Not desirable, but a necessary sacrifice for the greater good.
Their conversations sized up from pleasantries into actual talk, and now dinnertime stretched long as Ellie grumbled about her teachers and told him of her discovery of anime, then listened with a concerning degree of fervor as he updated her on the mermaid murder (merder, she whispered under her breath) case. Theo’s periodic phone calls with Leah stretched longer now too; she often had to interrupt him in the middle of recounting something Ellie had done to tell him she had to go, but text her the details later, you two are so cute, I’m glad it worked out.
It wasn’t all perfect, of course: whenever Ellie got too deep into talking and started to rambe she would cut herself off and ice Theo out for hours. But even that didn’t prompt nervous breakdowns from him anymore. He knew that he would one day look back on this period of time and reminisce on Ellie’s clumsy introduction to safety.
Somewhere along the way it had become spring, and allergies ravaged them both. At least, that was the excuse Ellie gave as she glared through watery eyes at the ending credits of Lilo & Stitch playing on the TV screen. “Sure,” said Theo.
She made a rude gesture in response. He smiled, discreetly wiping away an errant tear of his own and playing dumb when she narrowed accusing eyes at him. Neither of them moved to turn off the movie, so they sat there looking at the scrolling names, the ending song “Can’t Help Falling in Love” sung by A*Teens punctuated only by periodic sniffles.
When the credits almost finished, Ellie broke the silence.
“People don’t look at me.”
She had her feet propped up on the couch and her arms around her legs, glowering at the TV from behind her knees. Restrained tears roughened her oddly deep voice. Tiny reflections of glowing names descended down and down the blacks of her eyes.
Ellie cast a quick glance at him, her arms tightening around her legs. “I think… that you’re okay though. Because you do.”
Theo’s cheeks grew warm. “Thank you,” he said, his voice coming out choked. He cleared his throat. “Agh, allergies.”
She snickered into her knees. Bold with the thrill of Ellie’s words and lingering Disney magic, Theo said, “People never looked at me, either.”
He cast a wry smile at the stretch of sofa between them. “They thought it would turn them into stone.”
Theo could turn people into stone with his eyes, but only through great effort and energy. But explaining that, showing the federal papers that approved him as a mystical fit to integrate into society, did nothing to lessen the monstrousness of a Medusa-boy.
“Even Jason?” Ellie asked. At his startled look, she shrugged, hunkering down more. “Laurie told me. And besides, you two are so obvious.”
Theo let out a helpless laugh, rendered doubly pathetic against the backdrop of A*Teens. “No, Jason always looked at me.”
“But he still left you.”
Theo sighed and reached for the remote. He turned off the TV. “I was the one who left him, actually.”
Shock opened up her features, and Theo instantly regretted speaking. Nothing good ever came out of being honest.
He dodged her questions for the rest of the night until she resigned reluctantly to her room. But for the next few days, she kept throwing curious looks at him and carried herself around the house with a quiet air of triumph.
Theo understood that to Ellie, the idea that someone like them could be the one doing the leaving was novel and empowering, but it still hurt to see the small, vicious delight in her smile on the ride home from flight lessons that week. It made him remember.
He supposed it would make more sense for him to recall dumping Jason by the lengthy argument in which Theo could offer him no satisfying explanation for why. It would make sense for him to think of how sick he had been afterwards, throwing up in the bathroom to the imprint of Jason’s face in his mind and all the ways it wore hurt that he’d never known before then.
But no; when Theo thought of dumping Jason, he thought of the sky.
One summer day, they drove out together to a stretch of highway surrounded by nothing but empty hills of California’s golden, dead grass. They parked on the shoulder and walked miles out into the hills until they could see nothing but the gold, the skies, and each other. Then Jason transformed into a great blue-and-white dragon, and Theo gripped his mane and clenched his thighs on his scales as he swooped through the clouds.
There was a moment at the highest point of the ride where Theo leaned back, let go of Jason’s mane, and looked up so all that filled his vision was bright, bright blue and all that filled his body was bright, bright light. But as he hung suspended in time, the light cracked him, and through the fractures the child inside him gusted out to subsume Theo’s body, and then all that existed of him was fear of the end of that moment where the bright, blinding blue would not be the only thing in his vision anymore. Where he would have to look down again and see the world and hear the snakes hissing in his ears.
He broke up with Jason two weeks later.
In his backyard lay a foot trail beaten by decades of past residents that twisted out to the forest behind the Parkson neighborhoods. On Ellie’s birthday, the last date in March, Theo led her onto it, and they winded between soaring trees, over jutting roots, past small streams.
It had been windy in the streets for the past week, but that was nothing compared to the cackle of the wind spirits as they tumbled into each other, play-fighting above them. Theo’s snakes pressed in tight, discomforted coils on his head, hissing at one another to get out of their way. He wondered if he should ditch the picnic blanket entirely and just sit on a log; it would certainly get blasted away immediately.
Then they reached a tiny clearing and the spirits kicked their rough-housing up into a frenzy: wind tore at their clothes, skin, Theo’s picnic basket. Overhead, the sky sung with the bloodlust of branches and leaves locked in battle, and the spirits sung even louder with the madness of freedom.
And there was Ellie, in the midst of it all, her arms stretched out and face tipped up, hair whipped off her face to reveal six twinkling black-and-gold eyes pressed into crescents by her grin, breathless laughter—bright and high despite her low voice—spilling out her open mouth and into the raging air. There was Ellie, this little wild thing entrusted to Theo, and he could do nothing but stare at her, brutalized by the knowledge that he couldn’t bear to be without her anymore.
That night, Theo lay sleepless in his bed, eyes opened wide in the swallowing dark, and thought of the sky. It was one thing to love someone and want to protect them; it was another altogether to realize how essential they had become to you.
Adrenaline pedaled his heartbeat into a deafening pounding. His body was frozen on his sheets, unable even to blink. Though he couldn’t turn his head or shift his eyes over, his mind conjured up the image of the child inside him sitting on the blanket next to him. As always, he couldn’t imagine his face besides an indistinct mass of snakes; he pictured instead his knobbly knees and his spindly fingers twisted in his lap.
But unlike after the bright blue sky with Jason, this time the presence of the child did not rob him completely of control over his mind. This time, through the paralysis of his body and the boom of his blood, he thought at the child: What are you so afraid of, Medusa-boy?
That night, the Medusa-boy didn’t leave, but neither did he. After all, Ellie was not Jason. She, too, had no one else in the world to call her own.
A couple months later, spring was ending early like it always did in California. As the sun beamed its irritating heat through the window, Leah sat across from Ellie and Theo in their living room and walked them through the thick legal wording of the adoption papers in front of them.
After they finished and Leah left with claps on their shoulders and a watery grin on her face, Ellie and Theo—who would from now on always be Ellie and Theo—went outside. Their feet, buoyed by giddiness, carried them aimlessly down the sidewalk, their arms swinging, their mouths grinning, their shoulders bumping into each other with every other step. Theo bought one of the giggling pinwheels from the gnome kid in his treehouse, and Ellie stuck it in Theo’s hair. The snakes wound around it, hissing curiously, and it took them too long to extract it again, their efforts interrupted constantly with bouts of laughter.
A block down, they almost walked right past Jason’s family home without noticing. They stopped, startled, and turned towards it. But Theo’s good mood was impenetrable that day and he found himself looking fondly at the persimmon tree in the front yard, remembering the taste.
Ellie said, “Wanna egg it?”
“Ellie!” laughed Theo. “I thought you liked Jason.”
She shrugged. “He’s meh. It would still be funny.”
Before the glint in her eyes could crystallize into intent, Theo steered her away and back down the block towards home.
Halfway there, the unmistakable tune of a particularly enterprising ice cream truck, the first of the year, drifted in from the direction of their house. Summer already, thought Theo. He looked down to see a strange expression on Ellie’s face; she had probably never bought from an ice cream truck before, but it was too far away for them to catch.
Theo opened his mouth to suggest they go for ice cream in the city, make an afternoon out of it, but before he could speak, Ellie bolted down the sidewalk. He shouted in surprise after her, but she just laughed, triumphant, in response, and he was forced to chase after her.
Then Ellie bellowed out a war cry, bent her knees and kicked off the concrete, her six wings unfurling and beating furiously against the air. Theo watched as her feet left the ground then touched it again as she fumbled her ascent, then again as she listed to the side, then cleared the earth for good as she rose three, four, five, six feet in the air.
He watched as she flew past the gnome’s house, past the towering pine tree, past the diamond-shaped dead-end sign in front of their home, her left foot cuffing the top of it as she went. She flew, and flew, and flew, shouting profanity so loud their neighbors came out to shake their fists. And the Parksons from their house to watch and cheer, and the pixies out the trees to buzz around her, and the spirits called from the forest to push wind under her wings and speed her along.
Theo stumbled to a gradual stop, panting and smiling so wide his cheeks hurt. Down the street, Ellie finally caught up with the ice cream truck and fluttered down to meet the gaping mouth of the vendor.
Black-and-gold eyes shining, she shouted, “Gimme everything! Everything you’ve got!”
And he did.