On the second day of school, Theo leans over their shared desk in Physics with a manic grin on his face. “Did you know, Lily dearest,” he whispers, “that Elizabeth has never had boba?”
“No?” Lily whispers back.
It’s not that much of a surprise. Lots of people have never had boba. Lily and Theo got into it because bubble tea was cool in Taiwan for a while, and Lily finds the whole experience nostalgic rather than trendy. Theo just enjoys having an excuse to hang out with her and have something sweet.
“We should swing by somewhere before I drive you guys home.”
The teacher, Ms. Okoye, finishes her lecture by giving out a reading assignment, which she claims is just the skinny on what calculus the class requires. Lily is scared to even think about it. Judging by the slight acid-burn smell that billows through the air, she’s not alone.
The bell rings, and the overall scent of the room immediately shifts to bright, sappy sugar. The burn lingers, but it leaves the impression of creme brulee, not smoke.
“I actually have a thing today,” Lily says.
“Sorry,” Lily continues. “Sorry. I should have mentioned earlier. I have to swing by the library for a while. I um. I’m meeting up with some people.” She gulps, tries to ignore the subtle way Theo’s smell shifts into browned butter instead of regular butter, and starts shoving her stuff into her backpack. She doesn’t need the smell to know Theo is hurt. His face pulls into flat lines, and he frowns like he’s constipated, even though he’s really just trying to puzzle her out. She can’t tell if he’s hurt by her leaving him alone, by the fact that she never told him about these people before, or by the vague way she talks about said people. Maybe it’s all three.
“Maybe Elizabeth will still need a ride?” Lily offers.
Theo’s face doesn’t brighten, but he does relax. “I’ll ask her. Do you need me to drive you to the library?”
“I don’t want to put you out of your way.”
“It’s fine,” Theo says, smiling again. “I don’t have anywhere else to be. If you want me to stick around and drive you back home, I can. I even have a hold that just came in.”
That last part is probably a lie, but Lily keeps quiet about it. If Theo wants to waste his gas on her, then that’s his decision. “We’ll see what Elizabeth is up to.”
With that compromise made, they stand and haul up their bags. Lily and Theo weave their way towards Elizabeth’s desk, through the other bustling students, and they find her just zipping up the back pocket of her bag. She looks up with a smile and then lets out a breath as half her face falls in apology.
“Hey, uh, thanks for yesterday.”
“No problem,” Theo says. “You’re on our way.”
Elizabeth gulps. “Look, uh. Thanks a lot for the ride? Um, I would definitely go with you again but I kind of have a thing at the library today, so like, next time?”
“The library?” Theo and Lily ask at the same time. Theo shoots her a quizzical look, and Lily shrugs, letting her hands come up in that what-can-you-do gesture. She accidentally whacks a passing classmate.
“Lily is also”-
“Is it like a whole bunch of girls that you met online over the summer?” Lily blurts. Because this means her gut feeling yesterday was right. She really does know Elizabeth from somewhere. The stupid domino masks covered nothing. Elizabeth is Batty, and Batty is Elizabeth. Lily can see it in the other girl’s long limbs, the familiar curve of her arm muscles, and the soft lines of her cheeks.
The exact same realization flashes across Elizabeth’s face. She raises her eyebrows for a split second, and then her gaze darts to Theo, and she schools her expression. “Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, that’s exactly it. We’re meeting up for coffee.”
Theo looks between them, one brow arched. His stern, European features look even more angular than usual. “Huh. What a coincidence. Guess I’ll just drive you both. You can text me when you’re done.”
For some reason, Lily wants to tell him no. She’s never felt bad about inconveniencing him before, but this is different. This time, she’s putting him out of his way and not telling him the whole truth about why.
“Um,” Elizabeth says. “I guess if you really want to?”
And so it’s decided.
Elizabeth swings her backpack over one shoulder as she stands, and she sends Lily a strangled smile. She probably feels bad too. At least Lily isn’t alone in that.
The hallways smell so sweet that they’re suffocating. Lily feels like someone mashed up fondant and cantaloupe and doughnuts and shoved the whole mix up her nose. This might be what snorting drugs feels like.
The student body flows like a river. Streams pour from the branching hallways and into the great, slow procession towards the parking lot entrance. Magic swirls toward the open double doors, churning overhead like eddies while the students move, strong and steady as the undertow. The early afternoon light is blinding, and it washes out the lawn and cars outside.
Theo drives a tiny red sedan with a collection of traffic safety charms hanging from the rearview mirror. He and Elizabeth have to fold themselves in half to fit, and Lily sits in the middle of the back row so their seats don’t butt up against her knees. After slipping off one shoe, she props a socked foot on the center console and leans forward, straining against her seatbelt.
“What book are you picking up?” she asks Theo. His face is right next to hers, and his neck muscles stretch as he looks through the back window. If she wasn’t afraid of startling him, Lily could hook her chin over the arm he has slung over Elizabeth’s seat.
Because Theo is a responsible driver, if not a good one, he waits until he’s pulled the car out to answer. And even then, with the air conditioner on full blast, and the hum of the motor under them, he’s difficult to hear. Lily thinks he might be muttering.
“What was that?” Elizabeth asks.
“Don’t worry about it,” Theo says, eyes fixed to the crowd of students meandering in front of his car. As soon as they pass, he shoots Lily a brilliant smile. There's absolutely nothing to worry about. He's not lying about having a book on hold at all.
Lily scrunches her face and chooses not to press him. He's giving her a ride to the library; she shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.
The scenery outside passes in a blur of familiar houses and businesses. Lily has seen this a million times, in too many modes of transportation. Her stomach rumbles preemptively a block away from the ice cream place she and Theo used to stop at after school their freshman year. Her eyes flit to the purple house with the lavender in the front just before it slides across the window.
As Theo pulls into the library parking lot, Lily leans across the back seat to peer out the window. The same familiar facade of the library lobby greets her. Its glass curtain glitters in the sun, blinding her to the goings on inside, and the metal overhang at the doors casts a deep black shadow on the bright white sidewalk.
"You know, I've been wondering all summer," Elizabeth says as they all pile into the lot. "Why do the windows look like that?"
"Oh!" Theo gasps, leaning casually over the top of his car. "Someone who's interested in the fine art of building buildings!"
Lily lets out a strangled noise and inches towards the library doors. This is awful. She can't believe Elizabeth, her Batty, would betray her like this.
"It just looks weird?" Elizabeth tries, also inching towards the doors. Okay, so the betrayal was an accident.
It's too late though. As they cross the parking lot, Theo waves his hands in poetic exaggeration. His voice booms over the asphalt, echoing off the cars and ringing in Lily's ears like some kind of unavoidable opera number.
"You see, the original library was built in the late nineteen-forties, in this really strong mid-century modern style." No one knows what mid-century modern looks like. Except Theo, of course. And Lily, because she spends too much time with him.
"Is being friends with you guys going to require a running google list?" Elizabeth asks.
Lily nods. Theo keeps going.
"I'm talking skinny windows, patterned bricks, sleek furniture, the whole nine yards."
"Oh," Elizabeth says, understanding somewhat.
"So five years ago," Theo continues, "when the city figured it was time to renovate, because there was this national public works grant going on, the architects decided to reference the old building by doing... that." He gestures vaguely at the glass as the trio approaches the doors.
The public library's glass curtain has a strange pattern to it, with alternating skinny and wide panels, offset like vertically placed bricks. It's strange, and Lily remembers her father complaining about the unecessary expense after one of the public design hearings.
"Oh," Elizabeth says again.
Lily pulls the doors open with a sharp tug, and her taller companions follow her inside. Immediately, the chill of air conditioning tingles across her skin, pulling up goosebumps and sending a jolt down her spine. For a moment, everything inside the library is dark and dim, but she's been inside enough that her feet know exactly where to carry her.
While Lily's legs put her on a beeline for the library coffee shop, her eyes blink to adjust. As soon as she can see, she starts searching for the other girls.
"Do you see any of them?" Elizabeth asks.
"Not yet," Lily replies. She leaves unsaid the fact that she only barely recognized Elizabeth. It's far more likely that the group will just sort of coalesce, drawn to one another by the sheer fact that they will all be sitting awkwardly in the library coffee shop.
Theo's voice reverberates from over her shoulder, and Lily nearly whacks him as she faces him. She's not sure how she forgot about him being there. "Can I help look?" he asks, a hopeful, lopsided smile growing on his face.
Lily stares, and then looks to Elizabeth, who twists her mouth in trepidation. "Maybe not."
"No, um- not that we don't want you to?" Elizabeth blurts. Her face freezes in a panicked contortion of muscles, and her hands grasp at nothing. "It's just, um"-
"It's kind of a girls' thing," Lily finishes, looking at the floor. She and Elizabeth are a mess.
When she manages to look up at Theo, her stomach sinks. He's looking at her with his mouth half open, his eyebrows furrowed, like he's studying her, but also like he's hurt. Lily can't tell which one it is.
"A girls' thing," he repeats, his face still bunched up in that weird, studiously hurt expression. Then he laughs, bright and buttery and smooth. His magic smell wafts over, clean and sugary and mixed with someone else's gooey, delicious determination. Lily peers around him to find a stranger marching straight into the library proper, face set like they're on a mission.
"Well, I'll go pick up my hold," Theo says, and he pats Lily's shoulder with a brotherly grin. "Find me in the magazine section when you girls are ready?"
"Of course," Elizabeth says, her voice quiet in the great expanse of the lobby. "Thanks for driving us."
"Thanks," Lily echoes.
And then they watch, silent and still, as Theo walks away. His steps bounce, and he waves with his usual, jovial enthusiasm. He even smells right. And yet Lily can't help but feel like she's done something wrong.