These are the first two chapters of Homecoming, the second book in my Animal Affinities Series.
WALKING HOME from school on Thursday, Raqia tells her best friend Anabelle, “This week has been stupid long.”
Anabelle nods. “As long as a swan’s stretched neck.” She knots her blonde ponytail into a bun and shifts her backpack to the other side. “Lord Jesus, I’m so ready for the weekend.”
It’s late September in Houston, and the trees are still as green as ever, the sun hot enough to make the girls sweat through their t-shirts. Raqia lifts the thick black braid hanging down over her shoulder and piles it on top of her head to catch the furtive breeze.
“This weather would be so much easier if we were birds,” Anabelle continues. She lifts her arms toward the sky and makes graceful, determined flaps as if she might actually surprise herself by taking flight. “I wonder if we could create our own air currents.” She looks at Raqia with a hopeful seriousness. “Do you think the feathers would be noticeable for long? Are they insulating or cooling?”
Raqia shrugs. “Taita doesn’t have hers anymore,” she says, referring to her grandmother. “I don’t think they last longer than pinfeathers.” Then she grins. “And I’m pretty sure she’s never actually flown––outside of an airplane.”
“Oh, ha.” But Anabelle isn’t really annoyed because she can’t completely hide her smile. “Do you think you’ll have the same Affinity she has?”
Raqia shrugs again. Animal Affinities don’t really run in families very often, and Raqia hasn’t shown any sign of hers at all yet, so there’s no telling how she’ll turn out.
Then Anabelle sighs and kicks a small crumble of cement into the yard they’re passing. “I’m really tired of waiting,” she mumbles.
“Yeah.” There’s no point in saying much else about it. They’re both already in eleventh grade, and neither has shown any hints of their selves at all. Raqia knows––they both know––that it isn’t unusual to get most of the way through high school before evincing definitive signs. So Raqia tries not to worry about it yet.
“It just feels like everyone else at school has found their Affinity already,” Anabelle continues, shuffling lightly through purple wisteria blooms that have fallen onto the sidewalk.
Raqia nods. She longs for the ability to feel grown-up and powerful, confident like the girls who prance around campus, all fluttering feathers in their long hair and strong footfalls in their gait. They know they belong, and where. Nothing can touch them. And that doesn’t make the waiting any easier. She and Anabelle are both weary of being written off as Plain Ones.
“It’s been a long week,” Raqia says again.
The summer is one thing. They don’t spend a lot of time around the other kids from school when it isn’t in session, so their Plainness––their presumed Plainness, Raqia reminds herself––isn’t often tossed in their faces. But this August, even more of their peers came back all figured out, their animal natures evident and sometimes on full bragging display. Ready to be considered full people by the adult world. So many of them, it surprised her a little.
As they turn the corner at the entrance into their neighborhood, someone calls Raqia’s name from a driveway just behind them. A few guys from school are lounging next to a car parked there, and one of them, Ramón from her French class, stalks up to her. He has a striking red coxcomb. Normally he keeps it sandy brown like the rest of his hair, but he’s gone full scarlet in honor of the game tomorrow night. He stands quietly in front of her. Raqia and Anabelle look at each other in confusion, but before either of them can speak, Ramón crows loudly in Raqia’s face, causing both girls to jump. The other guys near the car laugh.
“Looks like you’re growing a wattle,” Raqia mutters, pointing dismissively at the uneven beard under his chin, also dyed red for the occasion.
Ramón then volleys a word at her she doesn’t know, but his inflection and sour expression tell her it isn’t meant to be flattering. He says it amid a string of advanced French that includes Liban, the name people use to refer to when Lebanon was under colonial rule. She knows enough about history to feel both insulted and a little afraid of Ramón’s attitude. A couple of the other guys snicker and one gives a low whistle. Anabelle doesn’t speak French at all and looks around uncomfortably.
Ramón lifts his angry eyebrows at Raqia in challenge. “Et alors. T’as quelque chose à me dire?”
She translates in her head as quickly as she can. So then. You have something to say to me? She wants to tell him off, but she doesn’t speak French––or, frankly, Arabic––well enough to do it in either language with real confidence, and in English, her comeback might be parroted back at her by his friends for weeks. Still, she tries hard to remember how Taita had once told an obnoxious telemarketer who wouldn’t stop calling their house to piss off in Arabic.
“Oh, look.” Anabelle snorts into the awkward moment of silence. “The French kid can speak French. So what? If you really wanted to challenge yourself you’d learn Mandarin. Or whale song.”
One of the guys standing by the car laughs at that, too. Ramón takes a step forward toward Anabelle. A woman comes out of the house and calls to someone in the driveway.
“Let’s just go,” Raqia mutters, pulling Anabelle by the arm and pushing past Ramón, annoyed that she couldn’t think of anything better to say. She glances back.
He walks over toward the car in the driveway. One of his friends has painted red tiger stripes across his bulky arms, and another has spiked his hair into horns; they high-five and whoop like the zoo exhibit they are. Tomorrow night is homecoming, and the mania surrounding the football team is enough to make Raqia feel nauseated. She and Anabelle keep walking away, and though they look back over their shoulders now and then, until they’ve passed the next block, Ramón and his friends haven’t followed them.
So yeah, Raqia is ready for the weekend, but she’s maybe even more ready for next week, when all of the primate frenzy about this game will be over.
She and Anabelle finally reach Raqia’s house. A sign hangs from the streetlamp in the front yard, decrying the loss of a neighbor’s platypus. The frantic text offers a hefty reward and warns in large black marker: “Wolves suspected. Proceed with caution.” They look at the sign and at each other, and Anabelle glances at her own house across the street, then looks down at her shoes, waiting for an invitation.
“Want to come in and see Taita?” Raqia asks, just like pretty much every day.
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Anabelle says with a cheery smile. She likes being specifically invited over. Something about southern manners, she said once; Raqia just rolls with it. It’s easier than forgetting to ask and then hurting Anabelle’s tender feelings over something that doesn’t matter.
When they come through the front door, they find Taita watching a special news bulletin, her face pinched and a half-rolled grapeleaf wilting on the wax paper in front of her. The television is turned up too loud and set at an odd angle, so she can hear and see it from the kitchen table. She jumps at the sound of the door closing.
“Taita, is everything okay?” Raqia asks. She and Anabelle drop their backpacks behind the couch and dutifully walk across the room to greet her.
“Oh, yes, habibti, I’m fine,” she insists, wiping the corner of one golden-brown eye. She gives them each a quick kiss hello and turns her attention back to the food in front of her, her sharp fingernails slicing through the larger leaves to make each one the correct size.
“What’s going on?” Anabelle asks, gesturing to the television. A shaky cell phone video shows some aggressive looking guys scattering outside a store front somewhere. It’s hard to tell what’s happening: the phone zigzags around as its holder obviously runs from the fray, and the noise of people shouting and cars stopping short, of someone trying to direct people around the area, muddies everything. The news anchor’s voice-over trying to make sense of things only adds to the confusion.
“Wolf packs again,” Taita answers, pushing her large round glasses up onto her beaky nose.
“Did they say who?” Anabelle asks, biting her lip. “Is it here in Houston?”
The anxious clench of Raqia’s stomach comes on quickly. At summer’s end, the packs started prowling around, making trouble in Dallas and San Antonio. It started as pranks, a few busted-up mailboxes and the air let out of a police car’s tires. A bunch of young twenty-somethings acting out on their wolfish natures. But things escalated when some guy home from college was beaten up––badly––for being Plain, even though it is possible for one’s Animal Affinity to emerge in adulthood. Theoretically.
“I heard a few weeks ago, some packs have turned up in Galveston and Beaumont,” Taita says, resignation sitting heavily in her throat. “It’s like Beirut all over again.” The infamous Beiruti wolf packs, their violence, drove Taita to emigrate, although no one else in the family had been willing to leave. Even Raqia’s widowed father stayed behind, citing his important position at the Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth. He made no objection to his mother’s taking her only grandchild with her. Raqia was three. “And now they’ve found wolves in Magnolia,” Taita continues, waving a moist hand at the television.
“That’s still a ways off,” Anabelle says, but she looks uncomfortable. Magnolia is only an hour and a half away. “And I’m praying every day that it stays a long ways off.” But Houston is the biggest city in this region, so it’s just a matter of time before a wolf pack forms here.
Taita sighs and murmurs softly in Arabic. Raqia knows what that means. Taita left behind family, friends, and homeland to protect her granddaughter from the wolf menace. Once they emigrated, she focused on speaking English to integrate into their new home. Raqia’s own use of their native tongue has lapsed considerably in the last several years, but she catches in her grandmother’s tone the flavor of a lament, a phrase that suggests they might as well have stayed in Lebanon.
The news anchor describes a litany of offenses the pack in Magnolia has perpetrated over the last week. It seems they’ve graduated from smashing car windshields to robbery. The candid video is back, now that the phone’s owner has apparently moved far enough away from the action to get a decent shot. Raqia watches the pack fleeing the scene. They have on jeans and black concert t-shirts and wear their hair long and shaggy; they howl and holler to each other as if in glee against a soundtrack of sirens and burglar alarms. The butcher whose shop they’ve blown over stands in his doorway shouting and waving a cleaver. His apron, stained with the smears of his trade, reads “Joe’s Halal Meats.”
Raqia’s insides churn as she remembers the stories Taita told her about Beirut. She has always taken comfort in the idea that the bad wolves are confined to another part of the world, even while feeling guilty that she doesn’t mind if they are in her homeland, as long as they aren’t in her home-now. She might feel worse if her father doesn’t insist, every time Taita calls him, that he is safe. Most wolves aren’t the university type.
Suddenly the footage on the television zooms awkwardly on what must be the alpha, from the way he’s directing the others. His face flashes across the screen too fast to be identifiable, and the camera focuses on the wads of money he’s stuffing into his jeans pockets. He shouts some guttural command at the others then bounds away just before the first police car arrives. Soon an officer comes up to the bystander filming and shuts down his phone. The news report cuts back to the anchor, who introduces an Affinities Behavior Psychologist from Texas A&M University.
“Being a wolf is different from having other Animal Affinities,” this Dr. Crystalle Delacourt explains. She has golden skin and a wild mane of hair that frames her noble face. “Whereas most people enjoy animal traits that enhance their appearance or senses or even talents, over time more wolves are evolving to become more lupine than human, and the path to that transformation––especially lately, as we’ve seen––can sometimes go savage.”
Anabelle fidgets and begins playing with her hair, chewing on her lip. Raqia recognizes the signs of her anxiety.
“The historical record shows it was not always this way,” Dr. Delacourt continues. “The change began around one hundred fifty years ago but was so gradual at first, the best accounts we have of it are only anecdotal. Perhaps one in a thousand violated the bounds of polite society. The greatest shift we’ve seen, this trend toward violence, has become more pronounced only in the last generation or so. Preliminarily, we suspect that increased social divisiveness, the growing polarization in politics and other cultural wedges, may have something to do with it.”
Raqia doesn’t need a psychologist to tell her that people are becoming angrier these days, that the world is growing more hostile.
Dr. Delacourt’s voice again: “The causes for this are still being studied––which makes a good segue into a new research program I’m heading. We’re looking for volunteers, people with wolf Affinities––”
Anabelle turns the television off. “We don’t need her commentary,” she mumbles. Taita looks at her with compassion. “I’m just tired of hearing about wolves, that’s all.”
“You are tired of worrying about them,” Taita observes.
Anabelle sighs. “I’m tired of worrying about one of them.”
Raqia knows her friend has been watching the news report for one reason: to see whether her brother’s face will turn up. It doesn’t. Eddie, Anabelle’s older brother and only sibling, is the kind of wolf who defies the stereotype: he isn’t a Big Bad.
“It’s frustrating,” Anabelle says. “I can’t understand why sometimes I’m worried sick about him, and sometimes I just wish he’d go away and live his own life somewhere else far apart from mine.”
Sometimes Eddie and Anabelle get along and sometimes they don’t, just like any siblings Raqia has ever observed. She doesn’t think this is a big deal, but as she lacks any brothers or sisters of her own, Anabelle is rarely inclined to listen to what Raqia has to say on the subject. It occurs to her that Anabelle could be worried their fighting might increase the odds Eddie might turn Bad.
“This is all just sensational anyway,” Raqia says, gesturing to the television. “Plenty of wolves don’t turn into criminals. But the normal ones with normal lives don’t make it onto the news.”
Taita clucks under her breath and turns back to her grapeleaves. “I don’t know, habibti, I don’t know.” She sniffs. “These wolves today are not like the wolves I knew when I was your age. Back then, a wolf and a lamb could still be friends.”
A couple of years ago, when news broke of the first pack on American shores, Taita lectured Eddie soundly about pack wickedness, but he swore nine ways to Sunday that he wasn’t involved in any of that. Taita has known Eddie for years, ever since elementary school when he and Anabelle started spending most of their free time at Raqia’s house. Otherwise, Taita might have banned him from her home when his Affinity showed up.
Raqia puts an arm around Anabelle. “Some of the wolves have turned bad, but some definitely have not.” She waves dismissively at the television. “Nothing about those guys means anything for anyone else.”
Her friend hugs her back. “It’s like I keep telling Eddie,” she says. “Pray away the prey.”
Raqia gives her a half-hearted nod at the platitude; she doesn’t think prayer is going to stop a wolf’s predatory instinct, but there’s no shaking Anabelle’s faith. She herself would feel better if science could figure out why the wolves are changing. She heard some Affinity Behavioralists talking about it on a radio program lately, about how the most brutal lupine instincts seem to be following other negative social trends: gang violence, crime rates, even corporate and political corruption are all spiking in places where the wolf Affinity shows the most concentration. But no one has yet offered any reliable conclusions why, at least not that Raqia and Anabelle have heard about.
They join Taita in the kitchen.
“Can we help?” Raqia asks.
Taita swivels her head around to smile at them. “If you like,” she says. After washing up, the girls sit at the table and pull sheets of wax paper and a short stack of grapeleaves in front of them. Taita long ago taught them how to roll an inch or two of raw lamb and rice into a tender leaf, to wrap it tightly so it won’t unravel in the boiling pot. “How was school?” she asks.
Raqia shrugs. She doesn’t want to tell her grandmother about the rando bully who was a disparaging ass to her and Anabelle in the lunchroom. Anabelle came back from gym class a little dewy, and when her moist hands left prints on the table, he slug-shamed her and loudly commented that he was going to start carrying a box of salt with him. “It was fine.”
“Homecoming is tomorrow,” Anabelle says, blushing as a smile replaces her worry over the news report.
“Ah, I’d forgotten!” Taita clucks. “Homecoming––I never did understand. How are the football players coming home? Whose home are they going to?” Her grin is subtle. “It never made sense to me.”
Raqia and Anabelle both groan at the old joke. “You know that’s not what it’s about, Taita!” Anabelle says, her hands pausing mid-roll. “It’s just a name. The alumni are coming home to watch the game.”
Raqia didn’t know that was the idea behind the word, though she has always liked the sound of it. “Homecoming” calls to mind permanence and predictability. Something a person can depend on being there when they need it.
“Are you girls going to the game?”
“No,” Raqia says. Eddie was starting quarterback in high school, and Anabelle was required by their parents––their dad, mostly––to show up when he was playing. She insisted Raqia go, too, to keep her company, even though neither of them like football: it’s just a bunch of loudly grunting boys crashing into each other, proving how rhino they are, no matter their Affinities. Raqia hopes they can spend their Friday nights doing more fun things now that Eddie has graduated. She has visions of movie nights and pedicures and taking silly magazine quizzes instead of getting a sore bottom from sitting on cold metal bleachers for several hours.
“We’re definitely going to the dance Saturday night,” Anabelle says, smiling, her mood improving by the minute. “Taylor asked me to go out to dinner at Franco’s and to the dance with him.” Her crush, the one taking her to homecoming, the one guy Anabelle has ever liked who doesn’t seem to mind that her Affinity hasn’t come out yet.
“Ah,” Taita says. “Franco’s is very nice.”
Raqia gives her grandmother a sly grin. “She hasn’t been this excited since Eddie left for college.” Raqia will go out to eat with Taita and meet up with Anabelle and Taylor at the dance later, since she doesn’t have a date herself.
When they finish rolling the grapeleaves, Taita carries them to the enormous boiling pot on the stove and drops them carefully in, then covers them with water and lemon slices.
“Do you want to stay for dinner?” she asks Anabelle, who shakes her head.
“Thanks, but Eddie came home today, and I’m supposed to be there.” In high school he was an All-American, and this is Texas, where football is practically a religion. No chance Eddie won’t come back for his alma mater’s homecoming game.
Raqia smirks. “Hail the conquering hero.”
Anabelle looks at her while she washes her hands. “I was hoping you’d come over, too.”
“Are your parents also going to be home?” Taita asks, her eyes narrowing into keen circles.
Anabelle snorts. “Oh, they wouldn’t miss their favorite boy in the world.”
Raqia wonders sometimes whether Anabelle worries so much because their parents seem to worry so little. Eddie can do no wrong in his father’s eyes, after he proved himself such an alpha on the football field.
Anabelle looks back at Raqia. “Do you mind?”
And suddenly Raqia wants to. It will make her feel better to see Eddie––fun-loving, friendly, not malicious in any way. The news bulletin has unsettled her. She wants to be reminded that not all wolves are criminals. “I don’t mind,” Raqia says then looks at Taita. “Can I go over to Anabelle’s house and buffer her from her scary older brother?”
“Rocky!” Anabelle swats her with a dish towel. “Don’t tease!” Raqia giggles and snaps her own towel back.
Taita laughs, a throaty sound that shakes her shoulders and feathered, brown-and-gray hair, but it’s strained. “Of course,” she says, then points to the grapeleaves she has already boiled. “And take him some of those. He can’t get them homemade up at school.”
Anabelle hugs her. “Thank you, Taita.”
“But you must get your homework done.” The girls both nod. “How much do you have tonight?”
“Only biology and history.” Raqia’s two favorite subjects. “I’ve done everything else.”
“I don’t have much, either,” Anabelle says. “Some math, and the same bio homework Rocky has. We can work on it together.”
Taita nods. “That’s fine. But come back home by ten, habibti,” she warns Raqia. “It’s still a school night. And you never know who’s prowling around in the dark.”
RAQIA KNOWS the first thing Anabelle will do when they get to the Fosters’ house is try to find her cat. It’s the same every time. Anabelle bursts through the front door and drops her backpack immediately; Raqia moves it out of the way so she won’t trip and puts hers next to it.
“Chuy!” Anabelle calls in a singsongy lilt. “Where are you?” She checks the chairs in the dining room to see if the cat is hiding under the table. “Meow?”
Raqia stifles a laugh. Anabelle thinks saying meow is like speaking cat and has started doing it ever since Jessika in their math class bragged that her Aunt Lois’ cat can understand her when she speaks. Anabelle’s efforts haven’t produced any results yet with Chuy, though.
“There you are!” Anabelle squeals when she sees the cat lounging halfway up the staircase and runs to scoop it up in a hug. The tabby submits to her affections but doesn’t reciprocate. Raqia watches her friend coo at the thing, its tortoise stripes undulating as it wiggles in her grasp.
Soon Eddie saunters through the front door, dark brown hair tousled and wearing an old Def Leppard t-shirt that looks a little too small for him. He’s flanked by four other boys from school Raqia doesn’t know well. They’re seniors who worship Eddie and his full-blown wolf nature even more than his status as a college freshman, although most of them have less wolf in them than a toy teacup poodle. One or two of them are real dogs, Anabelle sometimes says to make Raqia laugh, but both of them know these guys are confident where they will land. As soon as the cat hears Eddie’s rumbly voice, it hisses and scrambles away from Anabelle’s grip and trips up the stairs as fast as its short legs can move.
Anabelle groans. “Eddie! Why are you always scaring my cat?”
“Hi to you, too, sis,” he shoots back, then he bares a smile at Raqia. “Hey, Rocky.” He tugs on the side braid she always wears. “Always nice to see you.”
“Hey.” She points to the kitchen. “Taita sent over some grapeleaves. They’re in the fridge.”
“Awesome! Tell her thanks.” He heads off in that direction, his fanboys following. “You guys won’t believe how good this food is.”
One of them, with unkempt black hair and bright blue eyes, hangs back. He puts a boot on the bottom step and leans close to Anabelle. “I’ll bet kittens taste good, too,” he says with a leering grin.
“You leave my cat alone. It’s bad enough you’re even in my house,” Anabelle hisses. Her long blonde hair seems even paler in contrast to her angry red face.
“Watch it, puppyface,” Raqia says and pushes his shoulder back. She doesn’t know his real name but knows he has a goading disposition Anabelle doesn’t like.
He snorts a laugh and saunters off after Eddie and the other guys.
“I don’t trust them,” Anabelle says through clenched teeth. “Not any of them. Who knows what they’ll do once they aren’t worried about getting suspended from school anymore?”
“Puppyface sucks,” Raqia agrees, “but Eddie’s not so bad.”
Anabelle scrunches her nose in response. Having them all in her house must put her on edge more than usual.
Then all the guys walk back through the hallway and toward the front door. “I’ll be back in a few,” Eddie says, his baritone barely audible over their boisterous voices. He stuffs two grapeleaves in his mouth at once on his way out.
Puppyface looks back over his shoulder and blows Raqia a kiss. She rolls her eyes.
Anabelle mutters, “I just know one of these days he’s going to come home for the weekend and wolf out, and I’m going to walk into my room and find Chuy’s bloody guts all over my bedroom curtains!”
Raqia tries not to laugh at the melodrama. “Wolf out? What does that even mean?”
“You remember that camping trip he went on, don’t you?” Eddie found his Animal Affinity really early, in seventh grade. It was a novelty when he gained the ability to grow a full beard over the span of a weekend in middle school. But then on one of his boy scout camping trips, he caught a rabbit and then went a little frenzied when he was supposed to be learning to clean it and dress it for cooking. He tore the thing in half and took a bite out of its raw flank, and for a while some people gave him a pretty wide berth.
“That was six years ago! And your cat is not a wild rabbit, and Eddie has had pretty incredible self-control ever since.” Enough even to pacify Taita.
Anabelle shifts her weight and sniffs, a sure sign she doesn’t have a rebuttal. “Still,” she says.
“Maybe if you talked to Eddie about it, you would feel better.”
“I don’t want to.” Anabelle is closing off; Raqia can see it in the hard set of her jaw. Stubborn. “It won’t do any good, anyway. He never listens to me.”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
Anabelle glares. “Whose side are you on?”
“No one’s––there are no sides here.”
Anabelle sniffs again. “I’ll think about it.”
But Raqia isn’t sure how much she believes her.
Chuy ventures back down the stairs, now that things are quiet again, and Anabelle coaxes him into her lap with a catnip mouse she keeps in her pocket. Raqia knows she keeps it there in part so people at school will think she needs it for herself on stressful days.
Anabelle found her ancient cat perched on the rim of a dumpster, his tail in the air and his nose buried in a bag of day-old pastries. She begged her mother to let her bring him home. They took him to a vet, who found the animal to be of mature but indeterminate age despite a youthful attitude. That was twelve years ago. Then three years ago, Anabelle decreed the cat might be immortal and renamed him in honor of her favorite person ever, Her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. His nickname is Chuy, since that seems somehow less sacrilegious.
Eddie calls him The Immortal God-Cat of Westbriar Drive. And when he really wants to upset his sister, he calls him Lunch. Eddie likes to upset his sister a lot, and conflict-averse Raqia has often, over the years, stepped in to smooth things over between them.
He walks back in, alone this time. Before he can speak, Anabelle says, “Your friends are a problem. They shouldn’t be coming over here.”
“They’re fine,” Eddie dismisses her. “It’s not like you’re going to see them much anyway.”
“True, you hardly even live here anymore.” Anabelle is putting on her priss, and Raqia makes ready to intervene. “It’s probably best if your thugs just stay away, since this is still my house, and I don’t want them here.”
“Come on, Anabelle.” Raqia’s hackles rise at the unfair name-calling. It hits too close. “They haven’t done anything to you. Saying they’re thugs is a bit much.”
“This is my house just as much as it’s yours,” Eddie says, focused entirely on his sister. The fine brown hairs on his arms stand up. “Technically, it’s Mom and Dad’s.”
Anabelle tightens her grip on Chuy, who mews in protest and tries to squirm away. “You leave my cat alone.”
“What? I didn’t touch your cat!” His eyes darken. “But maybe one of these days I will.” He stalks back through the hall and off to the kitchen.
“I just wish he would go back to school,” Anabelle seethes. “Everything is easier without him.”
Easier, Raqia knows, because she doesn’t have to balance her worry for his safety with how much he irritates her. “You know he wouldn’t really do anything––he’s only trying to annoy you. Why give him the satisfaction?”
Anabelle doesn’t have an answer for that and just sits there, huddled into her furious self with Chuy, grinding her teeth.
Raqia has never been able to decide what might be worse, having an Affinity that people are afraid of, that marks her as a threat and even more obvious pariah––or having none at all. Every time she or Anabelle has felt doomed to Plainness, Taita has reminded them, one more time, that there isn’t a timetable for this. That it isn’t unusual to get most of the way through adolescence before one’s Affinity makes its debut. But their parents all showed their Affinities early, and Eddie’s being The Wolf from a young age makes Anabelle even more impatient.
Raqia can’t forget the desperate vow Anabelle made them swear in ninth grade that they’d remain best friends forever, just so if they ended up Plain they wouldn’t end up alone, too. At first Raqia thought the oath over the top, but when her social life failed to blossom in high school––
Eddie bangs around in the kitchen, still sounding annoyed. He and his sister were close when they were little. And now? Well, he’s moving on into the world. People like him, people respect him. He’s popular and really always has been. And he has done things the people around him consider worthwhile, and now he’s playing football for a college that wanted him on their team so badly they gave him a four-year full ride.
Raqia has yet to demonstrate any extraordinary talent at anything. She wants success in her life, not just for herself, but also to show Taita the sacrifices she made to bring Raqia to the U.S. have been worth it. She has often wondered whether she could make her grandmother proud and get her father’s attention by going into an academic field of research, making some important breakthrough or solving some big problem. But she will need to distinguish herself in some way to locate that path, and so far, there isn’t much distinctive about her other than the place she’s from. And even that––when she doesn’t even speak the language––isn’t something she feels she can claim with a lot of confidence. Raqia is fascinated by zoa-psychology and wants to study behavioralism in college, but she doesn’t imagine any reputable Affinities Studies program will take her if she’s Plain.
Not having an Affinity is just one more way Raqia doesn’t measure up.
The thought of never reaching her full potential is a scary thing, and it’s something she and Anabelle share. Raqia thinks that fear might be what has made Anabelle so religious, praying the rosary and even novenas, even though her evangelical pastor disapproves of such things. Every once in a while someone stays Plain into adulthood, and they’ve all heard stories of Plain Ones having it rough; sometimes they can’t find good jobs or get mortgages. Raqia is afraid of being lonely and alone, looked down upon for not having an Affinity, no matter what else is inside of her. She has often wondered whether Anabelle’s weird devotion to Chuy is an attempt to cultivate an animal nature.
Eddie walks back in with a half-eaten loaf of pita bread from the package Taita sent over. A slip of butter and a light dusting of crumbs smear the edge of his mouth. Raqia smells the warm snack and finds herself hungry. He stands in front of Anabelle, who is still stewing on the stairs with her cat.
“Let go of that thing,” he says to her, the heat of his anger, at least, dissipated. Now he’s just the exasperated older brother again. “It doesn’t like being held like that.” He takes another bite.
“Let him go, why? So you can play with him?”
“No,” Eddie says, his mouth full. “It clearly doesn’t like you.” He sighs through his nose and swallows the bread. “Anabelle, you’re going to figure out who you are. I have no worries that you won’t.”
Her eyes water and she relaxes her grip. The cat stops struggling and darts up the stairs. “Do you really believe that?”
“Of course.” He smiles at her. “I’m not worried about either of you.” He transfers his grin to Raqia. “I can’t wait to see how you both turn out.”
“That makes three of us,” Raqia says, glad the tension between Anabelle and Eddie is evaporating. It’s exhausting.
He looks at his sister again, more seriously. “But that cat isn’t going to save you.”
Anabelle’s face closes up again. “We’ll just have to see,” she says primly. “You don’t know everything.”
Eddie shrugs. “Suit yourself.” He trudges toward the living room and plops onto the sofa and turns on the television. Within just a moment, live coverage breaks in of another pack attack, this time in nearby Baytown, and he swears under his breath and switches the television off again right away. He leans forward, rakes his fingers through his dark hair, rests his elbows on his knees and his chin on his hand.
Anabelle’s phone rings from the side pocket of her backpack, a bouncy dance tune, and she jumps up to retrieve it before the voice mail catches. She smiles, her mood suddenly bright. “It’s Taylor,” she says. But their conversation, the part Raqia can hear, doesn’t sound cheerful. Anabelle hangs up. “I can’t believe it. He canceled.” She plops back onto the stairs. “He found out Eddie’s back and doesn’t want to come over.”
“Why would he do that?” Raqia sits down next to her.
“This is so stupid.” Anabelle shakes her head. “He said maybe he’d see me at the dance.” She leans onto Raqia’s shoulder and starts crying, the scent of her frustration, the rapid pendulum swing of her emotions, suddenly pungent and alarming.
Raqia pats her hair. “I’m sorry.” Her sympathy feels sharp and anxious.
Eddie walks in. “What’s wrong with her?”
“She lost her dinner date for the homecoming dance.”
Eddie shrugs. “No problem.”
“I think it’s a problem for Anabelle,” Raqia says. “Look at her.”
He smiles, and his eyes flicker, two dark stars that suddenly look to Raqia like the whole universe. “Y’all can come with us.”
“Why are you going to the dance?” Anabelle snarks into Raqia’s shoulder. “Aren’t you a little grown-up for that?”
His glance lights on Raqia for such a short second she isn’t sure she’s seen it right. “The guys want me to. What else am I going to do on Saturday night? Everyone will be there.” He reaches out and pats his sister’s arm. “Come on, sis, it’ll be fun. Like old times.”
Anabelle looks up, her face a puff of pink blotches. “Old times is not what I had in mind.” Raqia thinks about how happy Anabelle was when Eddie left for college. She thought her life was going to start fresh. And Taylor seemed like part of that.
“Raqia, convince her.” He looks so earnest. “Please.” How can his eyes be so dark and so bright at the same time? “Come out with us.”
Even though his fanboys irritate her, she hears herself say, “Going to the dance with them won’t be that bad.” Eddie’s look then could consume her. Raqia cocks her head. She can’t have missed him while he was off at college, can she? “That’s really nice of you.”
He grins at her. “All right then.”
Anabelle, however, groans. “That’s just perfect,” she says. “Can’t freaking wait.”
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