"What would you do? If you had a pet monster, I mean?"

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Zoe is waiting for him on the sidewalk outside her house, eyes wide and phone clutched in her hand.

"Eli!" She starts running as soon as she sees him, and they crash together bodily in the middle of your street. "Eli, I got your text. What happened? What did you do?" She reaches a hand up to ghost it around the dark halo of his hair, currently even more fried than usual. "You look like you've been electrocuted!"

"I saw it!" Eli grabs Zoe's forearms, hauling her forward. "Zee, I saw it! I saw the monster!"

"Monster?" Zoe's expression twists, dubious, and she pulls back just slightly. "What monster? Ee, what are you talking about?"

"The monster, Zoe," Eli says. "The one that killed that dude. It's real. I saw it. Addi is out again and I was going to make tacos but we didn't have the ingredients," it comes out all in one big rush. "So I was walking to the ShopStop down that road that goes behind the houses, y'know? Where you wanted to do the photoshoot? And anyway I saw it. It was . . . it had these antlers and was kind of like a deer, but it had wings, too, and—"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa." This time, Zoe does extract herself, stepping backwards and out of Eli's grasp. "Ee, are you high?"

"No!" God. Monsters nothing. His Aunt would kill him. "Zoe, I know it sounds crazy but you gotta believe me. I saw the monster. It attacked me!"

Zoe looks him up and down, at the grazing on his hands and the bruise forming on his face. "I believe something attacked you," she says finally. "You said it was . . . a deer?"

"Kinda. I mean . . . part of it? It's hard to—" An idea strikes. "Wait. I'll show you. C'mon."

"I ain't gonna go see no monster," Zoe calls. But Eli is headed towards her house, and after a moment he hears her start jogging to follow him.

He leads her down into the basement, through the outside door (it's not locked, because things often aren't, in Rosemont Heights). Zoe's parents are even bigger nerds then Zoe, and they have a whole room beneath their house set aside for game nights. Of the Dungeons and Dragons variety.

The room is wall-to-wall bookshelves laid out around two huge tables. The remnants of past games are everywhere: piles of dice and pencils, half-built decks for whatever trading card game Ms. Chung is currently working on, Mr. Chung's armies of painted miniatures.

Eli finds what he's looking for on a shelf underneath a giant painting of a dragon, flying over grassy islands that float in the sky like balloons. He hauls the book from the shelf and starts flicking through the glossy pages.

"The Monster Manual?" Zoe asks, incredulous. "You go attacked by, what? Two d-four of kobolds at the ShopStop?"

"No," Eli says, finding what he's looking for. "I got attacked by this."

Zoe squints at the page, then at Eli, like she can't quite tell if he's yanking her chain or not. "A peryton?" she finally says. "You got attacked by CR-two of peryton?"

"Yes!"

"Har har, Eli. Very funny. And to think I was almost—"

"I'm serious, Zoe!" Eli says. "I know it sounds crazy, and I know what I saw. And it was this. It nearly bit my leg off," he adds, suddenly deeply aware of just how mad he must sound and just how strangely Zoe is looking at him.

Zoe glances back at the book's page. The image of the peryton snarls back at her; half-bird, half-deer. "And it looked, what. Exactly like this?"

Eli studies the images. "Not exactly," he confesses. "It was black. And the horns were different—"

"Antlers."

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