We were on the way back from the party when I mentioned that I was hungry. We had eaten dinner there, but it was kind of small and hours ago by this point, but I was only mentioning it in passing as something I was planning to amend when I got home. But Matteson took that as a request, and ended up pulling into an Eat’n Park that was still open. When we were asked about the smoking or non-smoking section, he looked at me, so I sighed and said smoking was fine.
“So,” he asked, while we were looking over the menu, “how about them flying squirrels?” I gave him a confused look over the top of my menu.
“What…about them?” He laid his menu down.
“Well, the thing, where they were proposed as having rebounded enough that they didn’t have to be endangered anymore?” I thought about that for a moment before remembering an email I’d received the day before.
“Oh! Yeah, I heard about that, but I hadn’t looked into it yet. I probably should. What did you want to say about it?”
“Oh, uh, well, that was basically all I know about it.” I started laughing, and he tried not to as he continued. “I just kinda hoped you would know more about it.”
“It’s a two-day-old news story, Matteson. I haven’t had a chance to dig into it much.” He kinda blushed and picked the menu back up, and I set mine down and reached over to touch his hand comfortingly. “But I appreciate the effort.” He smiled at me, and I picked my menu up and continued looking. The waitress came by and we each ordered, and after she was gone he leaned back in his seat a bit.
“Are they cute?”
“The squirrels?” He nodded. “Yeah, they are, though that’s hardly the point. It’s always so much easier to get people invested if the animal is cute, you know, but that isn’t a real ecological niche. Things need to be protected even if we don’t want to put them on Lisa Frank notebooks.” He laughed and told me he had forgotten about those notebooks, and I confessed that I had a few during my school years. We spent the next couple hours talking about our time in high school, and answering each other’s questions about them, since we apparently had very different experiences. I had been in private school, and generally tried to do the best I could with it, while his school sounded far more chaotic and violent than mine. He told me it wasn’t too bad—it didn’t have to involve most people if they didn’t want to be involved, and it’s fairly easy to let it become background noise—but I had to know if he’d been in any fights himself. He said that he had, though they rarely lasted long. His dad had taught him to fight at a young age, and he had always had a habit of working out, so he always had an upper hand. I told him that most of the drama at my school was academic or something to do with money, and while I’m sure there were some fights after school I never heard more than rumors about them.
I told him that his childhood sounded odd. Most people I know don’t have parents who teach them multiple languages, let alone dead ones, and intricate metaphysics, and how to fight. So what was going on in his house? He was quiet for a moment, then told me it was his grandpa. He didn’t say much about it, but he did tell me that his paternal grandfather, the son born to the couple we saw as echoes in my house, was apparently very powerful and very deranged. His dad had been involved in battling him longer than Matteson had been alive, and all the evidence Matteson had found so far suggested that he had been trained specifically to finally put an end to the old man. He warned me that this might be a thing if I keep hanging around with him, if this grandfather finally showed up. I took his hands in mine.
“John, this…this doesn’t sound healthy. Are you okay?”
“I mean, it’s been fine so far.”
“No, I mean. Have you ever talked to someone about this? Kids shouldn’t be raised as weapons.” He hesitated.
“I never really thought about it, I guess. But I mean, what do I say? Just tell some shrink I can see ghosts and my century-old grandfather controls water and I might have to kill him someday? There’s no way that ends in a way that will help me.”
“He’s a hundred years old?”
“Something like that. I don’t know exactly what year he was born, but I’m under the impression it was nineteen-oh-something.”
“Okay, well, you can talk to me. I’m not a professional, but I mean, I care.” He pulled his hands back and lit a cigarette.
“That kinda depends on you sticking around, though. And I gotta tell you, if he shows up and things go south, it’s gonna be a lot worse than a bit of ghost fire.”
“Do you want me to stick around?” He took a thoughtful drag, and watched my eyes for a moment.
“Look, Alice. I like you, I really do. And I like to think this is going somewhere. I just. There are only so many people in this world who can put up with this stuff very long. I can’t get away from it. It’s always going to be a part of my life, and I just—”
“You want to know if I’m easily scared off.” He paused, then nodded. “Look, I don’t know. This is all very new to me. I don’t know what I can and can’t handle when it comes to magic and ghosts and everything else you do. But, you know, I’m willing to find out. If you’ll let me.” He smiled, and reached down with his left hand to lightly rub my hands.
“And how do I let you?”
“You tell me a whole lot more about this stuff and what you do. Preferably, all of it.”
“That’s gonna take a pretty long time.”
“We’re young yet.”
“Okay. But it’s late, maybe I should start telling you stories tomorrow.”
“I’m on break from classes. Do you work in the morning?” He shook his head. “Then come on. I’ll make us some cocoa, we can bust out some thick blankets for the couch, and you can tell me some ghost stories.” He laughed, but he got up and tossed some cash on the table for a tip and jammed out his cigarette before we went to pay and head back to my place.