Eli Whitman lifted his hands and screamed. He was sitting in the front row of Animal Kingdom’s roller coaster, Expedition Everest. The thing was older than his parents! He could imagine the views from outside. Giraffe and hippos in the Kilimanjaro Safari. White seagulls perched atop the Tree of Life.
His friends cried out as the roller coaster dove. Parents weren’t on the ride. Fine with him. At twelve and thirteen, he and his friends didn’t need hand-holding.
As the roller coaster stopped, Eli had a brief view of Pandora, an attraction more than twenty years old. The Siberian Forest Climb and the Great Barrier Reach had opened two years earlier. That had been Animal Kingdom’s fortieth birthday. Other kids might have gone there for a birthday party. Not Eli. Expedition Everest was his favorite. And this was, after all, his birthday party.
Animal Kingdom was super crowded. Tomorrow there would be a total solar eclipse. The Disney Parks had special shows planned, including a Star Wars Sky Search.
When the roller coaster entered the double loop, Marie-Claire grabbed Eli’s hand. She squeezed and held on tight. That made it the best day-before-his birthday ever.
When he got off the ride, he stopped at the show wall to see a video of himself on the ride. The other kids looked strong or pretty. He saw himself as boring looking. Freckles. Brown hair. Darkish skin. (His mother was part Asian; his father, Caucasian.) In the video, the wind pushed back his hair. It gave away a secret: He kept his hair long to hide his gigantic ears.
The July air felt hot and damp. He was sweaty. Jungle trees and vines lined the path back toward the Monkey Temple. It was a place Eli liked to stop and watch for a while. He and Marie-Claire and a few other friends did just that. The sound of laughter filled the air. Happy birthday, he thought.
The group explored the rock canyons leading to Harambe. His parents had once tried to explain what the park had looked like back in 2020. But it was impossible for Eli not to see the solar holograms of the Disney Cast Members—Solograms—moving around throughout the park. He knew the hover carts were new. And so were attractions like Loch Ness Nessie, that he counted as favorites.
He knew he was lucky. Not everyone got to live in a place like Epcot’s CommuniTree. He had things others didn’t. But he also wanted to travel more, like his parents did. They were currently riding the Hyperloop from Atlanta to Los Angeles. Instead of being with them, he was in the park. He had asked them if he could come along. His parents listened; they just didn’t seem to ever hear him.
Maybe things would change tomorrow. Thirteen had to be better than twelve.
“Did you know that people in India don’t eat during a solar eclipse because they think any food would be poisoned?” At ten, Lily Perkins was too young to hang out with sixth- and seventh-graders. There were unwritten rules about such things. But she was funny and smart, and she always made him feel better. To Eli, that was the definition of a good friend, and so he’d invited her.
“I did not,” he admitted.
“In some cultures, pregnant women stay indoors during an eclipse.” Her eye color matched her straight hair perfectly—brown with flecks of highlights in both. Her hair was very fine, and hung past her shoulders. She smiled for Eli and giggled, sounding like a complaining squirrel.
“Because?” he asked.
“Superstition.” Lily wore a light blue V-neck pullover, dandelion yellow baggy cropped pants, and aquamarine retro-Moana flip-flops.
Eli’s parents listened to extremely old music, including a singer named Stevie Wonder who’d written a pretty good song, “Superstition.” The music started swirling in Eli’s head and he felt his foot tapping. Ver-y super-stitious. He loved music. Any kind. But, he didn’t tell his friends that. So-called friends judged you on all kinds of stuff that shouldn’t matter. He’d learned that the hard way.
“It’s not all scary,” Lily said. Thing about Lily: If you let her get going, it was hard to stop her.
“Is that so?” An only child, Eli was really nice to other kids, especially younger girls, whom he saw as little sisters. Like little Lily. Lily was the best, funniest, most unexpected creature on the planet.
“In Italy, some people think that flowers planted during a solar eclipse turn out more colorful than others. So, what do you think it means when a boy’s thirteenth birthday is on the solar eclipse?”
“I dunno,” Eli said nervously.
“Maybe you’ll grow a beard or something.” “Doubtful.” Eli longed for the day he would start shaving.
“Maybe you’ll start to age faster than everyone else your age.”
“Now you’re just being creepy,” Eli said.
“Or find a princess.” She giggled. “Other than Marie-Claire.”
Eli swung to hit her playfully, but Lily saw and dodged the hit. Marie-Claire, who was French like her single mom, had transitioned from being Eli’s science class lab partner, to friend, to someone he now regularly texted with. The more they texted, the more Eli had trouble not texting her back. It was becoming a habit. If someone like little Lily had noticed, he had big problems.
“You know what I think?” Lily said.
“I’m not sure I want to.” Eli hoped she would stop. “I think you only wanted to ride Expedition Everest so Marie-Claire would freak out and hold your hand in the dark.”
“Are you a mind reader?”
“Not exactly,” Lily said sheepishly. “Kinda close, though.” She giggled nervously.
Something about the way she said that interested Eli. He made a mental note to ask her more later. “Keep that to yourself, will you, Lily?”
She ran off, skipping like a six-year-old. Eli smiled.
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