“It’s for the best,” his mother had said, smaller and frailer than anyone Chris has ever seen, nevermind his mother, always so bigger than her frame, strong and his, always. Now she’s brittle and and wasted away and using the last of her strength to lift her trembling hand to his cheek and tell him she loves him. “Be good for your father, but only if he’s good to you.”
Two days after the funeral, Madison shows him to his room. Tells him to make himself at home and there’s casserole in the blue tupperware in the fridge. Then she and Travis go out to the movies.
He touches the post of the bedframe, wooden and chipped and the paint gone from white to something grungy over time. The closet smells like dust, and there’s lining paper in the old dresser, faded pink florals. He makes the bed and sits on it. Stares at the four boxes, two duffel bags, one suitcase, and a backpack in a lopsided pile against the wall. All the things he has left in the world.
He pokes around the house while he’s got it to himself. Cracks open the door at the end of the hall just long enough to confirm it’s the master bedroom. Takes a piss in the bathroom and notes with satisfaction there’s already shampoo in the shower stall, still-packaged razors in the mirror cabinet above the sink.
The second bedroom is clearly occupied, rumpled bedcovers and a towel slung over the back of a chair, shoes kicked over messily by the closet, a hoodie on the floor near the window. Madison’s got a son, he vaguely remembers, and there are pictures of one on the mantel, the walls.
He pauses on his way out, by the doorway. There are notchmarks carved into the doorjamb, varying heights, and he can only just make out years-old faded dates written beside them, Nicky, and then another name he can’t make out. He touches his fingertip to it, rubbing like he can wear away the grit of time like dust. An ‘A’, for sure, and maybe--
The door slams shut, Chris rearing away to avoid losing a finger. He gasps, heart thundering, and wrenches it back open, looking up and down the hallway for the perpetrator.
The windows are closed and the hallway is empty. He’s alone.
Chris stays in his room. There’s two weeks until school starts, another new school., another year of being the new kid. Chris has no illusions it will go any better than his last school. Travis asked him at dinner one night if he’ll try out for the football team and he actually laughed in response; he’s since stopped going to the painfully performative family meals.
He keeps the windows open, he walks down to the liquor store three blocks away to buy air freshener. It doesn’t matter, his room always smells like it’s been locked up for years and years, mothballs and layers of dust and linens beginning to rot. And still, lying on his mattress staring at the ceiling, the stench thick in his nose, it’s far more preferable than anywhere else in the house.
“I know you’ve got a mother already,” Madison tells him, coming into the kitchen while Chris is foraging in the fridge for leftovers, startling him upright, clutching tupperware to his chest and his fork falling to the tiled floor with a metal clatter. “Even if she’s gone now, that doesn’t change a thing.”
Chris is silent.
Madison smiles at him, the sweetest she’s looked since Chris has met her. “My son is coming home tomorrow. He’s been… away for a while. Sick. He needs stability.” She steps forward, gripping Chris’s shoulder before he can withdraw out of reach. He feels pinned, trapped, her gaze keeping him frozen in place. “This is a chance,” Madison says, almost softly, “to be part of a family. Is that what you want, Chris?”
“I,” Chris stutters. The handle to the freezer is digging into his shoulder.
“You need,” Madison says, taking the tupperware out of his suddenly limp grasp and stacking it neatly on the counter. “To decide what you want. And what you’re willing to do to get it.”
Travis tells him to wear a tie. “Where’s he coming back from,” Chris mutters resentfully, “New York’s Fashion Week.”
“This is important,” Travis says shortly. “I told you to iron that.”
Chris shrugs. His suit jacket is rumpled; it’s been lying on the floor of his closet since he took it off after his mother’s funeral.
Madison is in a cookie cutter dress, the perfect wife, the consummate homemaker. Pie warming in the oven and a roast waiting on the table for Travis to carve. If they’d owned bowties Chris thinks he and Travis would be wearing them. By contrast, the boy who shuffles through the door is in a two shirt two sizes too big, sweatpants that hang off his too thin hips. He looks fragile, he moves like an old man. His hair is lank and his eyes are vague. He eats slowly, fumbles with his water glass. It’s possibly the most awkward meal Chris has ever had in the entirety of his life.
He picks at his pie, just trying to get through the experience and escape back to his room. Madison is clearing the table, pouring coffee, tousling Nick’s hair and kissing Travis’s cheek. Chris looks up and Nick is staring at him. It’s an unnerving, flat, unblinking stare, like Nick’s staring straight through him.
“Um,” Chris says.
“Who’re you?” Nick says, strung out slow and stumbling. “Who… where is she?”
Chris blinks. He points with his fork to the kitchen. “She’s… dishes?”
Maddie comes back out, beaming to see Nick engaging with the world. “More pie, sweetheart?”
Nick blinks, finally. His eyes focus. “Mom? Where is she?”
Maddie’s smile freezes. Her hand clenches on Travis’s shoulder. “Go to your room,” Travis orders, and Chris, for once, doesn't need to be told twice.
“Where is she,” he hears faintly, from behind him, Nick’s lost little boy voice.
Chris dreams that he’s short. He can’t see over the counter so he drags a chair over, climbing up and peering at the stove. His hands are very small and chubby and clumsy but he can see the cookie jar, heavy and porcelain and juuuust out of reach. He climbs up onto the counter, knocking his ankle against the sharp edge, and wiggles on his belly, arms outstretched.
His fingers nudge the jar, he’s so close--
He’s scooped up. Nick’s face swims into view, younger and happier and cleaner, hair cut short and no lines in his face. Chris can hardly recognize him against the boy who had dinner with them the night before. He giggles when Nick swoops him around and kisses his nose, sets him safely on the floor and tsks at him. And then Nick’s exaggerated finger to his lips, a chocolate chip cookie passing from his hands to Chris’s. “Our secret,” Nick says, and winks.
Travis and Madison are going on a trip. Madison fusses about, clucking about leaving Nick alone so soon after he’s come home, packing the freezer with frozen casseroles and carefully laying out medication organizers, each filled with bright capsules and little round pills. “He needs stability,” she keeps telling Chris, when she catches him in the hallway (and once, the bathroom, standing in the doorway blocking his escape. “He needs calm, and routine, and twenty minutes in the oven at 350 should do it.”
“Do it,” Chris repeats, his towel clutched around his waist.
“The casseroles,” Madison repeats, impatiently. She touches his shoulder, except it’s bare this time, her nails into his skin, against his bone. “I know you’re younger, Christopher, and that it’s not right. But this family needs you to step up. We’ve got to look out for each other.”
Chris dreams he’s a little girl. He knows because he can see his reflection in the pool water. Chubby cheeked and dirty blonde hair starting to turn brunette. He’s dangling his legs in the pool, kicking his feet and watching the ripples it makes while the sun beats down hot on the back of his neck.
He’s sweaty, and uncomfortable, overheated and there’s a reason he’s not supposed to get all the way in the pool but it slips away when he tries to remember it. He plants his palms on the hot concrete rim of the pool and pushes himself forward with a splash.
It’s perfect for the first twenty seconds, refreshing and welcomingly cool. Then he kicks his legs and moves his arms and realizes the glowing dot of the sun, distorted through the water above him, is getting smaller and dimmer instead of bigger and brighter. He flails, panic sparking in his chest when he tries to shout and all that comes out is bubbles. His chest gets tighter and tighter, his vision narrower and narrower.
And then a hand, plunging, gripping his forearm tight enough to bruise. Lifting him up into the sunshine, the first big gasp of air into his lungs like being born again. Cradled against a bare chest, Nick peering down at him with his bangs in his eyes. “Careful,” he murmurs to Chris, lifting him up to sit on the edge of the pool. “What’d I tell you about waiting for me?”
“Sorry Nicky,” he says, except his voice is higher pitched, his hair too long. “I didn’t mean it.”
Nick kisses the tip of his nose. “It’s okay. I’ll always be here to save you, Lee--.”
Chris wakes up in a cold sweat, his stomach flipping like someone had yanked the floor out from under him. He flails, falling off his bed and landing painfully on the wooden floor. “Fuck,” he mutters, when he’s managed to catch his breath. He feels damp, he can smell chlorine.
“Christopher,” someone whispers, and he shouts, sitting upright, kicking to free his legs from the tangle of his sheet.
It’s Nick, standing by his bed like a ghost, thin and wan and shadowy in the dark of the moon slanting through the window.
Chris’s dream wells up again, vivid and visceral. “Nicky,” he says, before he can stop himself.
Nick moves snake strike quick, a fistful of Chris’s shirt, hauling him to his feet and slamming him into the wall. “That’s not yours to name!” he shouts. And then, quiet and hissing: “You’re not supposed to be here. This isn’t your room.”
Chris’s breath catches. Then he exhales, hard, and shoves NIck away from him. “Get off me, man. Get ahold of yourself.”
Nick rocks back, releases his grip on Chris. Lifts one corner of his lip in a snarl, then turns and shuffles away. The door swings after him, back and forth, back and forth, creak creak creak even though there’s no wind blowing through the house, until Chris crosses the room and slams it shut.
Chris’s room is fucking freezing. Not just in the early hours of the morning, when his alarm has just gone off and the lure of his thick duvet is strong. But in the middle of the day, when the heat is sweltering and he’s sweated through his deodorant on the sofa. A cold that sinks into his bones and makes them ache, a chill that sets his teeth on edge.
“Is your room cold?” he asks Nick, while they’re standing in the kitchen staring at the stove clicking away, the timer counting down for the latest casserole to be ready.
Nick is looking at the four pills in his palm, taken from the plastic organizer on the counter. “It’s hot as fuck,” he says, and lays the medication on his tongue, crunches them between his teeth.
It’s Friday night and Chris is alone in his room, boxers and thick wool socks and oversized hoodie and goosebumps raised on his thighs, his laptop humming away on the bed in front of him. Free internet porn and a handful of tissues and it’s a grainy shitty video but he doesn’t need much, a squirt of lotion and his own palm and the sound turned low.
He chokes out a soft noise of his own, spreading his legs, leaning back against the wall and rocking back and forth into the loose grip of his hand, thumb playing over the tip just the way he likes. He’s close, he’s close, the tissues ready--and his laptop goes suddenly dark. He yelps as a sharp chill strikes him, ice right on his bare dick, and he squeaks, high pitched, flinging himself sideways with a desperate noise, curled in on himself in protection. He falls to the floor, and after a moment, sits up with a groan.
He stands, fumbling to his feet. His breath is fogging out in white clouds; there’s frost on the inside of his window. He shoves it open, sticking his hand out into the night air: it’s balmy, the warm air making his cold sweat feel colder. A breeze ruffles through the room, through his hair; he can hear the echo of a feminine giggle.
He wrenches the door open, stepping out into the hall, the wooden floor creaking under his bare feet. “Who’s there,” he snaps. “Who the fuck--”
The door of the room beside him opens. Nick sticks his head out. “Can’t you jack off quietly, like everybody else?”
Chris feels his face flush. “No, I--I heard someone, I heard…” he trails off. “Nothing. Sorry.” He blushes a little harder. “You could hear me?”
Nick raises an eyebrow. “Your dick is out, baby brother.”
Chris looks down. He spins around, fire engine red, and he tucks himself back into his boxers. “I’m not a baby,” he mutters.
“Big boys xyz,” Nick drawls. When Chris turns around Nick is much closer. He ruffles Chris’s hair, dodges Christopher’s swat. “Come on, kiddo. I’ll look under the bed for you.”
He’s past Chris into his room before Chris can stop him, yanking open the closet. “No big bads in here,” he sing songs. It’s the most present in-the-moment he’s been since Chris has met him, and he half-wishes Nick would go back to being spacey and ambling.
He steps forward, into the room, to tell Nick to fuck off, and stops short. His room is in thaw, the back of forth of warm and cold making his nose run. “How’d you do that?”
Nick, now shamelessly rummaging through Chris’s desk drawers and pocketing a loose dollar bill he finds within, looks up. “Do what?”
“You--nothing. Nevermind.” Chris sits on his bed with a sigh. “Just… go away.”
“Don’t be like that.” Nick flops onto Chris’s bed, on his back. “You’ll hurt my feelings.” He pauses. “I’m not in a wet spot, am I?”
“Fuck you,” Chris says, without heat. He lays back, arms outstretched. “This house is weird,” he says. “This fucking room…” He turns his head to look at Nick. “And you.”
Nick is staring at the ceiling, abruptly absent in a very different way. “This fucking room,” he echoes.
Chris falls asleep, just like that, watching Nick keep watch.
When he wakes up Nick is still there. Sleeping, his face softer, his chest gently rising and falling. Chris follows the lines of his body, his shirt slightly rumpled up from his hips, his sweats hanging low, the waistband of his boxers. Pale biceps, dotted scars inside his elbow, the blue of the veins in his forearm. The thin bones of his wrist and his fingers, loose and unfurled. They twitch occasionally, like they’re grasping for something out of reach.
Chris stretches, actually enjoying the faint sensation of being too warm, the blanket over his legs, his room a normal fucking temperature for one goddamn day. His bladder interrupts his comfort, and he sighs, levering himself up and going into the hall bathroom. Flips the shower on and kicks off his boxers, tugs of his shirt. He pisses with a little sigh of relief, the sound of it tinkling against the porcelain, the faint noises of gurgling water through the pipes. He flushes the toilet with a yawn, shuffling to the sink to wash his hands and drink from the tap.
There’s a splash to his right. He looks and pauses, blinking blearily as his gaze focuses. There are pills, floating in the toilet water.
“What,” he manages to say, and then a pill bottle flies out from the the cabinet above the sink, hitting him in the center of his forehead as the mirror shatters, glass flying. He yells, flailing and trying to step back, tripping over his own underwear on the floor and smacking painfully against the wall before lying, sprawled and knocked breathless, on the tile. He groans, getting to one knee, hands outstretched to grip the counter to stand, before a figure steps out of the bathtub. Dripping water and formless, shaking at the edges, it walks with dragging steps, leaving puddles in its wake.
“Mine,” it groans, throated and hard to make out. “Mine,” it repeats, “Mine.” With every iteration the voice focuses, becomes more human. “Mine,” it says again, angry. “You’re trying to take it all away from me.”
“No,” Chris says, hands outstretched in a plea for mercy. “No, I--please.”
Its hand closes around his throat, lifts him. Its facial features shift under the mist, rippling. It looks… girlish. It looks sad. And then it contorts: furious. Its hand squeezes around Chris’s throat. “You’re trying to take him away from me.”
The door bangs, hammered under Nick’s fist. “Hey! What the fuck is going on in there?”
The figure sways towards the door, Nick’s voice calling out. “Mine,” it says, lost like a child, and disappears just as Nick crashes through the door, forcing it open by splintering the cheap lock out of the frame. Chris drops to the ground, limbs askew.
Nick surveys the room. The shower running, steamy, the broken mirror, the water on the floor, Christopher sprawled out naked. “Do you ever put your dick away?”
Christopher grabs a towel off the rack on the wall. “What the fuck!” he shouts. “What the fuck is this fucking house!”
Nick ignores his freakout, peers at the toilet, the medication slowly dissolving in the water. “Dropped it?” he asks dispassionately, shrugging a shoulder. “Been there.” He nudges a shard of mirror with his toe. “Barking up the wrong tree, though. Can’t get high off that shit, just muddy.” He smirks sideways at Chris. “Trying to be my muddy buddy?”
“What?” Christopher lurches to his feet. “No!”
Nick shrugs again. “Did me a favor, I guess.” He reaches out a hand. “C’mon. I’m finally hungry again.”
“So you weren’t at college,” Chris ventures, sitting at the dining room table in a towel while Nick stands in front of the stove, humming an odd song. “I thought maybe… that you were at college.”
“No,” Nick says with an amused snort, stirring a pot. “Not college.”
“Rehab,” Christopher guesses, remembering the bruised looking scars on the inside of Nick’s arm, prickmarks between his toes.
Nick makes a buzzer sound. “Wrong again.”
Christopher is silent. The third night he was alone in the house with Nick he went out into the kitchen at night, creeping on the creaky floors, and googled the names on the orange pill bottles, neatly stamped with Nick’s name and long long lists of side effects and warnings. “The hospital,” he says, his tongue thick in his mouth. “The mental hospital.”
Nick brings him a bowl of macaroni and cheese, thunking it before him cheerfully. “I always thought you were bright. Well, actually I thought you might have been a hallucination, but this is better.”
“Why were you there?” Chris asks, so far past politeness and feeling like he may be in a prolonged hallucination himself.
Nick waves a hand, a spoonful of pasta falling with a wet plop to the tabletop. He licks it off, tongue on the sticky placemat. “Why is anyone?” He nudges Chris’s bowl. “Tuck in.”
Christopher takes a bite, the food feeling like heavy cardboard. “I think I’m going crazy,” he tells his sauce streaked spoon.
Nick shrugs, taking a big bite and speaking with his mouth full. “Get in line.”
Chris waits until he can hear Nick snoring through the wall. His room is cold again, but he ignores it. Goes into the bathroom with his shoes on, crunching on the glass. Runs the shower, same as before. Sits on the closed toilet lid. “Hello?”
“I just want to talk,” he calls out. “Please. I’m not trying to… I’m not trying to take anything away from you.”
Silence greets him, the echoey sound of the shower spray against the tub.
“I don’t want to be here either,” he says quietly, a secret whispered into the steam. “I’m just as stuck as you are.”
He crawls onto the mattress beside Nick, knowing how fucking weird it is. Nick stirs, looking at him incredulously. “You’re cute,” he says, “but the boys are still waking up from Big Pharma’s Sleep, if you know what I mean.”
Chris is silent, picking at the threads on the edge of the sheet. “I can’t sleep in that room,” he says. “That room, I---please.” His voice cracks.
Nick looks at him for a long time. Then he surges to his feet, walking with purpose towards Chris’s room while Chris scrambles after him.
Nick throws the door open, keeping his hand out to prevent it from rebounding against the wall and striking him. “That room,” he repeats. “This fucking room, this--” he stalks forward, lifting the mattress with both hands and flipping it. “This fucking room!”
Chris has his back against the wall. “Nick,” he tries, but Nick can’t hear him.
“This room,” he says, legs folding under him, slumping in on himself. “This… this room.”
Chris takes a hesitant step forward. He touches Nick’s shoulder. “C’mon,” he says, and draws Nick to his feet, catching Nick’s arm around his shoulder as Nick stumbles. He drags Nick towards the other room, but Nick catches a hand around the doorframe, halting their progress, a fingernail in one of the notchmarks.
He presses his thumb to the name Chris can’t make out. “Her room,” he says softly, and then goes pliant, stumbling with Chris back to his room, his bed.
Nick is gone when Chris wakes up again. There’s a post-it on his forehead: ‘Rock out with your cock out, I’ll be back later.’
Chris goes to the attic. It’s a trapdoor one, a ladder that rattles down full of dust and makes him choke, makes him cough. But the rungs hold under his weight, and he climbs up into the rafters, testing each step gingerly before he eases himself forward, inch by inch, to the boxes taped up and labeled along the walls.
‘Nick, Elementary.’ he reads. ‘Christmas.’ ‘Nick, Little League.’ ‘Nick, Little League. ‘Nick, School Projects.’ ‘Nick, High School.’ And then a few others. Christmas ornaments and Halloween decorations, boxes marked ‘Steven’ and ‘Old Books’ and ‘Winter Things’. He settles on one of the high school boxes, rifling through faded project folders, PE uniforms--and then, at the bottom of the box, yearbooks.
He digs one out, hand smoothing over the cover. It’s generic, titled with the name and the year and a picture of the front of the school, the same one Christopher registered at near the beginning of summer, that he’ll start in less than a week. Tries to do the math and realizes he’s not sure how old Nick is, when he would have graduated. He flips to the index in the back, finger tracing the names. Clark, he finds, but right above Clark, Nicholas there’s a Clark, Alicia. His fingernail rests under it, surprised. It doesn’t sound like it’d be an uncommon last name, but for there to be only two…
He flips to her school photo, Clark, Alicia, Sophomore, and searches the small black and white square for a family resemblance. She does look a little like Nick, he supposes? A tad like Madison? He rubs his finger on the glossy cast of the paper, thoughtful, and it’s the page just before the class photos that makes him realize: a full size spread, with color photos of the same girl. And the cursive ribbons that frame the collage: In Memoriam. Chris does some math based on the dates listed at the bottom of the page. Sixteen, he thinks. She was sixteen when she died.
He barely has time to realize the chill falling across the attic, the frost in the air, before the yearbook snaps shut on his fingers. He yelps, recoiling in pain, falling backwards onto his ass. The wood of the attic is freezing through his jeans. He’s gasping, panicked breaths, and they fog out in white clouds. A wind whips through the attic, its chill a knife’s edge, and slashes at his face, his throat. He opens his mouth to cry out and can’t catch his breath.
He ducks to the floor, covering his head with his arms, and inhales deep, tasting dust and something rotten. “Alicia,” he calls out, muffled into his forearm. He raises his head as much as he can. “Alicia Clark!”
The wind dies immediately, but the cold remains. Chris sits up fully, on his knees. The attic looks empty, but…
“Hello?” he calls out quietly. “Are you here?”
A box, in a shadowy corner, rustles. Like someone's brushed up against the open flaps, or leaned against the rafters behind it. Chris shuffles towards it, still on his knees. He stretches out a hand, a plea and a supplication. “Alicia?”
It rustles again. “You said my name,” she whispers. It’s still raspy, deep. Almost androgynous if Chris hadn’t know it was a girl speaking. “You saw my picture?”
Chris picks up the yearbook where it had fallen to the side. The last few pages are covered in scrawled messages, phone numbers, empty promises to stay in touch. “Where’s your copy?” he asks, keeping his voice soft.
The wind roars to life, ripping the book from his hand and throwing into the wall with an angry bang. “Gone,” the voice groans. “Gone, gone, gone--” her voice raises, it roars. “She threw me away! GONE GONE GONE--”
Chris flees down the ladder, tripping over his own feet and missing the last two rungs; thumping to the hallway floor.
Chris spends the next two days on tenderhooks. He starts talking: at first he thinks it’s for himself, his own peace of mind. But it shifts, more quickly than he’d like.
“I like the crusts,” he says, while he’s toasting bread for peanut butter and potato chip sandwiches. “Did you?”
“Blackberry,” he says, while he’s spreading jam on wheat bread for pb&js. “Fancy. No lowbrow grape for you, huh?”
“You guys need some spice in your life,” he says, while he’s eating their boring low salt low fat potato chips.
“How about taking a fucking nap,” he mutters, while he’s huddled in his room under four blankets.
Nick comes back on the third day. Chris comes out for something to eat and he’s sprawled on the sofa, in the same clothes he left in, smiling unfocusedly at the ceiling. “Hello,” he drawls, when Chris walks over and looks down at him. “It’s good to be home.”
He’s high, Chris realizes, looking at Nick’s pupils and the way he reaches twice for the glass of water Chris offers before he can grasp it. “I thought you were clean,” Chris says.
Nick sighs. “I am. I was. I will be, again.” He turns his head, reflected in the dark screen of the television, and looks at himself. “I had to… just one more time. I thought, if I could--just one more time, then…” he trails off. Then he laughs, hollow and aching.
“Alicia,” Chris says, his voice loud in the silence.
Nick’s gaze catches him like a wire. “What the fuck did you just say?”
“Alicia,” Chris stammers. “I--I found this book--”
Nick grabs him by the wrist, bruising, grinding his bones together. “What book? Did you go into my room?”
“In the attic,” Chris says, twisting in vain to escape. “The--the yearbook.”
Nick releases him. “Oh.” He rolls over, smushing his face into the couch cushion. His hair, lank and unwashed, spills over his collar, grown too long. There’s something there, under the strands, on the nape of his neck, but Chris can’t quite make it out. “Shouldn’t go snooping,” Nick mumbles, clearly about to drift away again. “Not in this house, kid.”
“I’m not a kid,” Chris says, but Nick’s eyes are glassy, turned away, his chin nodding off.
“Alicia,” Nick repeats, so full of longing. “You’d have liked her.”
Alicia Clark, Chris thinks, and goes to the library.
There’s not much there. Too big of a town for a full news article, not about a sixteen year old girl who died alone before she could see seventeen. There’s a tiny obituary, static and stiff, for one submitted by a presumably grieving mother. Or so Chris thinks, until he imagines what Travis would write about him.
She leaves behind a grieving mother and a devoted brother he reads, his finger tracing the words on the old newspaper, on its wooden dowel.
He goes online. Three different cemetery directories and he can’t find a listing for her. He remembers her howl: She threw me away!.
Nick isn’t on the couch when he gets home, tiny bouquet clutched in his hands. The florist winked at him, asked if it was for a pretty girl, laughed goodnaturedly when Chris had blushed. He’d only been able to afford daisies.
He climbs the rickety attic ladder, one handed, approached the yearbook lying in the dust against the wall, open to the memoriam page. She was very pretty, he thinks. Strikingly so. “I’m starting school,” he tells the chill in the air. “I won’t be around as much. I’m sorry you have to be alone again.”
He lays the flowers atop the yearbook, under her smiling face.
He’s packing his bag the next morning: pencils, notebook, binder, bus pass, schedule.
“You’ve got Mrs. Newman for english,” a girl says, right in his ear.
Chris shrieks, flinging himself backwards, catching his knee against the bedframe and falling to the floor. He’s spending a lot of time falling over onto the floor.
“She’s a bitch,” the girl says, matter of factly. “But she keeps everyone quiet, and she grades fair.”
Chris stands, quickly, coughing slightly. “I--okay.”
A coldness trails over his shoulder, like a friendly caress. “You brought me flowers.”
Chris doesn’t know what to say. He nods.
She blows into his ear, to make him jump, then giggles again. “Good luck,” she sing-songs, and he’s alone.
That didn’t take long at all, Chris thinks, slamming into the house and hurling his backpack at the wall. Not even a week. He shoves into the bathroom and braces his hands on the sink, fighting the urge to sob or scream or punch the wall or throw up. “You look like shit,” she whispers from behind the bath curtain.
“Not now,” he snaps, slapping the extra toilet paper roll off the counter in a burst of emotion. There’s silence for a moment, just the trickle of water out of the faucet where his hand nudged it on. Then the mirror cabinet squeaks, opening on its own. The small first aid kit, in its white plastic case, floats out and bumps against Chris’s chest.
He closes his hand around it, swallowing. “Thanks.”
He makes the bed up with fresh sheets. Lays out an extra pillow and takes his own, with his blanket, to the floor. A breeze ruffles through his air, oddly curious. “It’s your bed,” he says, scuffing a nail on the wood floor. “I feel bad taking it.”
There’s dead silence, long enough that Chris fluffs his pillow and settles onto the floor. Then someone pokes him in the ribs; the sheet on the left side of the bed pulls down.
“Okay,” he says, and slides in beside her.
Well shit, Chris thinks, his feet pounding on the concrete, his backpack discarded behind him, arms pumping. He can hear the jeers behind him, see the faces of bystanders turning away. He doesn’t bother calling out for help, he’s been down this road before. It’s a different street and different pursuers, but he doesn’t have any illusions it’ll end any different than it has before: a split lip and a black eye and without the ten bucks he’s got stuffed in his sock.
And just there--hope, perhaps. The front door and Nick’s home and they’re not blood brothers by any stretch but he thinks Nick would object to teenage assholes rampaging through the house, other than himself.
He vaults the side gate, heading for the back sliding door and hoping Nick’s not throwing up into the sink the way he was when Chris left for the bus that morning. A hand grasps his ankle and he kicks out; he makes it just over, falling hard to the patio tiles. He groans, hearing shoes thump down around him, the jeering laughter.
A foot nudges under him, flipping him over onto his back. A boy in a baseball cap and a toothpick playing between his teeth: the ringleader. And how was Chris supposed to fucking know he’d be the kind of boy who’d chase him off a bus five blocks and over a residential fence just for stepping on the back of his sneaker on accident in the locker room.
“Fag,” the boy in question jeers. Chris takes a breath; curls his fingers into his palms and tucks his thumb in tight, reminds himself to keep his wrists straight. Just because it’s inevitable doesn’t mean he has to roll over and take it.
It’s different this time, he realizes, when he feels the chill on the back of his neck. He’s relieved instead of scared, and he laughs when frost crystallizes on the scrabbly crabgrass of the lawn.
“What,” the boy starts to say, and then he screams, the toothpick jutting through the bottom of his mouth, the bloody tip through the bottom of his chin. A paving stone flies off the wall it was propped against and smashes into one of the other’s boy’s knees with a wet crunch; he howls as he crumples, a high pitched wail of pure pain.
“Stop!” Chris is shouting, as a vine whips from the trellis, thorned and oozing black to sink viciously into the side of the third boy as he tries to flee. “Alicia!”
Everything goes still in an instant. Nothing except the sun, erasing the frost and the sobbing of the three boys.
“They hurt you,” Alicia says in his ear, sounding wispy weak again after her show of strength. “You’re mine.”
Travis and Madison are less than pleased to be called back early from their holiday. “I thought I could trust you,” Travis says, one hand on the back of Chris’s collar, hauling him upright with an angry shake from the metal police station chair. “One week of just going to school and doing what you’re supposed to do, Christopher, and it was too much to ask?”
“They fell,” Chris says, staring at his shoes, repeating what the officers had assumed had happened when they’d finally arrived. “Fell chasing me.”
“Alicia,” he calls into the dark, later at night when he’s in bed, his blanket tucked up over his head. “Are you there?”
A flutter along his forehead, a weak creak of the floorboards. A whisper he can’t make out.
“Thank you,” he whispers, just before he falls asleep, and feels cold lips against his temple.
Chris brings the yearbook down from the attic. Keeps it tucked under his pillow and talks to her at night. What happened at school, how the boys went pale on their crutches and in their bandages and kept away from him. How Mrs. Newman went and had a baby and is no less a bitch, but is somewhat sleep deprived. He picks jasmine from the bush beside the bus stop and keeps it on the windowsill for her.
“I bet you’re cute,” he muses, laying out an empty plate next his bowl of reheated casserole. “I mean, in person. Some people are photogenic, but they’re like… cardboard in person. I bet you’re not like that.”
He leaves the plate out until he’s done, eating at the table instead on the sofa, and washes it with his own.
He dreams of the pool again, the chlorine and the bubbles and Nick fishing him out. Wakes up in a sweat and creeps through the house, out the sliding door. To where the tarp is spread out over the patio, held down by concrete blocks. Moves them in a haze, feels like he’s dreaming. Peels the tarp away like a scab on a wound.
And underneath, the filled in pool. He finds the spot where he sat in his dream, where Alicia pushed herself into the pool and Nick saved her. When he finds the exact spot, he sees her.
Cross-legged in the center of what used to be the pool, wispy about the edges and translucent, but clearly recognizable. Her fingernails scrape on the rough stone. “You found me.”
“Alicia,” Chris repeats, greeting her properly for the first time. “Alicia Clark.”
“Christopher Manawa,” she names him, and cups his face in her hands.
He wakes up shivering in the early morning grey, the dew on his skin. There’s a braided bracelet around his fingers, too small to fit over his wrist. Baby pink and pale green and when he brings it close to his face he can smell chlorine.
Alicia sits on his bed while he does his homework. “Wrong,” she sing-songs, and he sighs, erasing the entire problem before tossing his pencil aside. “Poor boy,” she teases, her giggle floating in the air. His desk drawer opens on its own, exposing the tissue box, the lotion.
He slams it shut, blushing. “Jesus!”
She’s stronger every day, he’s noticed, and today enough to pat the bed next to her with a solid sounding noise. “Christopher Manawa,” she calls, and he answers.
Flops onto the bed beside her and sighs at the cold touch to his hair, the tickle of nails under his chin. “Play hooky tomorrow?”
He tilts into her caress. “But I have trig tomorrow.”
She hums. “I’ll tutor you.”
His eyes are heavy, his body heavier. His head slides further into her lap, the duvet under his cheek and his nose where her hip would be. He can feel something more than sleep tugging at him. “Stay with me,” she murmurs, and when she kisses his forehead all the hair on the back of his neck stands on end.
He’s in the pool. In the pool proper, floating on a plastic raft, sunwarm and his fingers trailing in the water. He blinks at the sun, stretches out his toes and rolls his ankles. The water next to him splashes, Alicia emerges. Alicia as she must have been, as he’s never seen her. Solid and opaque; vibrant and so alive. “Wow,” he says, before he can stop himself. The pictures had nothing on how she looks in person.
She grins. “That’s what I like to hear.”
“We’re dreaming?” Chris asks, wiggling his fingers in the water.
“You are,” she replies. “You said you’d play hooky with me.”
“Hmm,” Chris agrees. He looks down at his bathing shorts. “This Nick’s?”
“Not my doing,” Alicia says, vague and a little knowing, her grin sliding into a smirk. “He is charming, isn’t he?” She taps the side of the raft before Chris can respond. “Budge over.”
She lifts herself onto the raft, dripping on him and giggling while he flails, trying to move over without upending them both. And then she’s tucked against his side, damp and slick and making him shiver, her head against his shoulder, his arm around her.
Chris can see the water droplets on her skin, the goosebumps from the air. Feel the curve of her smile against his neck. He feels brave; he touches her arm, sliding down to her elbow. The lightest of caresses, and his held breath. She sighs, wiggles a little closer. He exhales on a smile.
“This is nice,” he says, soft. And they float, under the sun.
When he wakes up, he’s still in the pool. He blinks. The sun is still high in the sky, the same place it was before. Hours before. He yawns. Then yelps, as he’s abruptly dunked into the pool. He opens his eyes underneath, moving his arms to keep himself submerged. He can see her legs, pale and distorted through the water. He grabs one and yanks, hearing her muffled yelp, seeing the splash and the bubbles.
And then her eyes, opening. Her hands on his face, bringing him close. And her lips on his, blowing air into his lungs.
She makes peanut butter banana sandwiches. “Needs chips,” he says, coming up behind her. And it’s the easiest thing, the most right, to prop his chin on her shoulder and lean some weight on her.
“Keep your gross chips out of my brainfood,” she says, turning her head and blowing a raspberry against his cheek.
He wrinkles his nose at the slobber and sticks his tongue out at her. “It’s a crunchy surprise.”
“It’s a crunchy surprise,” she mocks, high pitched.
His mouth is open to respond when the world tilts sideways.
“--Christ,” Nick is saying, leaned over him. “I thought you were dead, Jesus Christ.”
Chris tries to ask him what’s wrong but his tongue is thick, stuck to the roof of his mouth. He gurgles weakly and lifts one arm, sluggish and uncoordinated. “Wha,” he manages, after a great effort, and Nick helps him sit up.
“You were sleeping,” Nick offers, hesitant and oddly careful, easing Chris upright and then hovering. “And I thought--but you wouldn’t wake up.”
“I was dreaming,” Chris mumbles. He feels stronger by the second, but the sleepiness is hard to shake, his eyelids drooping.
“You were comatose,” Nick mutters. He runs his finger through his hair. “Scared me,” he says gruffly, then coughs to cover the admission.
Chris yawns. He eyes his pillow longingly.
“Nope,” Nick says, yanking at his arm. “Get up, we’re going to the store.”
Chris scowls. “I don’t want to go to the store.”
“Cheer up kiddo,” Nick says, ruffling Chris’s hair and then tossing his shoes into Chris’s lap. “You can buy oooneee candy.”
Chris wakes up in the middle of the night because someone is crying. “Licia?” he mumbles, rubbing at his eyes and shivering from the chill as his blanket falls away. The floor is like ice on his feet. He tiptoes into the hall, teeth chattering. “Licia?”
She’s kneeled on the hallway rug outside Nick’s room, her hand pressed to the doorframe, her hair around her face. She’s keening, a low noise of pure grief. She looks less solid than she has before, and she wavers around the edges as her hand passes through the door. Then she flinches, and withdraws into the hall.
Chris creeps closer. “Alicia?”
“It’s not fair,” she says, low and rasped. “Not fair.”
Chris hovers a hand over her. “Are you okay?”
She makes a lost noise, and then--her hand in his. “What,” he sputters, staring. “How--”
“Just a little,” she murmurs, her face tear-streaked. “Just a little, I promise.”
Her cold lips touch his.
Chris wakes up in the car, Nick’s fingers against his throat. “What,” he croaks, trying to sit up and only getting halfway before slumping back down.
“You stupid fuck,” Nick curses. The car’s tires scrape against the road when he takes a turn too fast. “What did you take?”
“Nothing,” Chris protests.
Nick snorts. “Sure. I collapse in hallways and don’t wake up because of low blood pressure.”
Chris slaps his hands away. “You’re the junkie,” he snaps. “Not me.”
Chris rubs at his face, tired and drained. “Where are we going?”
“The hospital.” Nick pulls over and cuts the engine. “You wouldn’t wake up. I heard, like… a thump? And my bed shook, the walls…” he trails off, then refocuses. “You were in the hall.”
“I passed out,” Chris realizes. “I must have--I just fainted, I guess.”
NIck frowns at the steering wheel. “That house,” he mutters, and then: “that fucking room.”
Nick moves Chris into his room. Drags the pillow and the blanket in onto the bed and makes Chris stuff some clothes into a duffel bag and leave it against the wall.
Chris wakes up the next morning and realizes how groggy he’s been lately, the heaviness in his limbs lightened, his eyes less gritty. He mashes his nose into the pillow, stretches his toes under the blanket, and enjoys a lie in, Nick’s warm bulk against his side.
After they get up, Nick makes pancakes, barefoot and shirtless at the stove, yawning and scratching his hipbone while Chris watches drowsy soft from the kitchen table, cheek leaned on his hand. Nick makes his in the shape of dicks, because being an asshole appears to be an inherent Clark trait.
Alicia finds him in the shower, when he’s alone. “I’m sorry,” she whispers, wispy and shapeless with him under the spray, bringing barely any chill with her. “I didn’t mean it.”
Chris closes his eyes really tight. “Alicia Clark,” he names, “Go away.”
“The parentals are gone again,” Nick announces, barging in holding a wad of cash. “Topping preference?”
Chris shrugs. Nick rolls his eyes, grabs his wallet and keys off the dresser, tells Chris to throw a few soda cans in the fridge so it’ll cold by the time Nick gets back. Then he sprawls out over the expanse of Nick’s bed and half-heartedly does his English reading.
A car honks outside and he drops his book, muttering a curse as it bounces off the mattress and falls half under the bed. Wiggles on his belly over to the side and reaches a hand, feeling blindly for it. His searching fingers hit the edge of a box and he flops over onto the floor to drag it out. Cardboard and dusty, the flaps worn and tape holding the bottom of it together. He opens it.
The first few items are cards. Happy Birthdays, mostly. The odd Christmas tree craft, one of those turkeys that’s drawn by tracing a hand. Blocky letters and childish scribbles. Stick figures on lined paper, starting to yellow with age. A stuffed bear, the ear falling off and one eye replaced with a black coat button. Nicky, it says in faded permanent marker on the foot. Nick’s childhood bear, Chris supposes, and sets it aside next to his knee on the floor.
A red baby blanket, a cassette tape, a hair ribbon, a sweater. It’s the ribbon and sweater that makes Chris pause, the sweater so clearly not Nick’s. It makes him unfold the blanket to find the name stitched onto the corner: Alicia. Chris’s breath catches. He fumbles through to the envelope, a locket spilling out on a delicate chain, the letter folded up neatly and Nick’s name at the top. He skims it: looks at her handwriting and her turn of phrase before he starts to parse the words.
His attention jumps around the page, but it’s the bottom half that catches his eyes. A story about summer camp, about saving her. How she loves him, and she’s sorry. She wants him to get better, wants him to be happy. She forgives him and she’s so sorry.
“What are you doing,” Nick says coldly form the doorway, and Chris looks up, startled. Realizes he’s sitting on the floor surrounded by the last things of Alicia’s life, saved from the trash heap and the rubbish bins by Nick and carefully collected, the sweater and blanket neatly folded, everything arranged--and Chris has spread it out on the floor around him in a jumbled heap.
“I…” Chris stutters, but he doesn’t eve get the chance to try and justify his actions, Nick crossing the distance between the immediately and snatches the letter from his hands. There’s a rip of paper, and then Chris is just holding a scrap, ‘love you always, Leeshy’ in blue ballpoint ink.
Nick makes a sound like Chris stabbed him. “Get out,” he says, gently scooping up the stuffed bear and smoothing its fur away from its button eye. “Before I kill you.”
Chris stumbles out on jelly legs. “I see her,” he tries to say, but Nick slams the door in his face.
Chris waits outside Nick’s door. “I see her,” he insists, when Nick glares. “I’ve talked to her.”
“You are cruising for a bruising,” Nick warns, trying to sidestep him into the hallway.
Chris blocks his route. “She’s talked to me. She--”
Nick grabs a handful of his collar and slams him against the wall. “You shut the fuck up, I swear to god.”
“She bites her lips,” Chris babbles, “she closes one eye when she laughs, sometimes. Her bathing suit has polka dots--”
Nick punches him in the gut, knocking the breath out of him, then releases his grip, allowing Chris to collapse into a heap at Nick’s feet. “Do you think I didn’t try?” he asks, and from Chris’s crumpled position all he can see is NIck’s clenched fists. “Psychics, seances, LSD…” he takes an unsteady breath. “I know how this house is. I know how it can seem… but I tried. I tried everything, and in the end it was just me. Just me screaming at an empty house.”
He crouches down beside Chris, who’s still wheezing for breath. “Alicia Clark is dead. And if we have to have this conversation again, I’ll send you across the divide to confirm it.”
Chris dreams he’s sitting with his legs in the pool. There are dead leaves around the edges of it; the pool cleaner stutters and moves sluggishly. There’s six white pills in his left palm and and a razorblade in his right. The envelope behind him in the grass, Nick’s name across the front of it, tucked against his Nicky bear.
There’s a quiet peace in his head. The water feels nice around his ankles and he lays back, feels the last of the sun’s warmth through the patio tiles into his shirt, seeping into his skin. His long hair tumbles around his shoulders and tickles at his neck.
“Nick,” he thinks quietly, and falls asleep.
Nick is odd, the next few days. His anger seems to have faded, but he’s odd. Staring into the middle distance, standing at the sink staring out the window at the tarp that covers the filled in pool.
“Alicia,” Chris hears him call at night through the walls. “Are you there?”
“Alicia,” Nick screams in Chris’s dream, bent over him beside the pool. “Licia, please god--”
Chris in Nick’s arms, weak and limp, Nick loading him into the backseat of the car. The screech of the engine and the blare of the horn. “Leesha,” from the front seat, begged. “Leesha please--”
And in the hospital, Nick’s shirt red and sticky, his hand dripping, carrying Chris inside and screaming for help. Chris on a gurney, and the bright glare of a doctor’s penlight. And Nick’s whisper plea, as the doors close him away and he watches Chris disappear down the hall. “Please don’t leave me all alone.”
Chris wakes up screaming. Nick bursts through the door, wild eyed and hair on end, his gaze casting around the room. “I’m not lying,” Chris says, and bursts into tears. “She slit her wrists,” he says, “by the pool. She left you that note and the bear and she took six of your pills and I’m not lying.”
He rubs at his inner forearm, feels the echo of a vein slit open. Nick’s broad palm catches his fingers. “Where did you get this?” Nick asks, his thumb brushing the braided bracelet around Chris’s wrist.
“She gave it to me,” Chris mumbles, wiping furiously at his eyes.
Nick is pale, his throat working. “She was buried in this.”
“I’m not lying,” Chris mumbles, petulantly victorious.
“No,” Nick agrees. “You’re not lying.”
He moves Chris back into his room.
Nick has questions. Chris answers him the best he can. “I saw her once,” Nick admits. “I had--I was pretty far gone. But I saw her.”
Late at night, just before they fall asleep, in the quiet comfort of the deep dark night, Nick asks: “Does she ever… it was my fault, I know that. Do you think…” he trails off again. “Is she angry with me?”
Chris remembers her kneeled at Nick’s door, her mournful cries. “No. I don’t think so.”
Nick exhales, long and low. “Tell her I miss her,” he requests softly, and is gone when Chris wakes up.
Chris goes into his old room. Alicia’s room. “Hello?” he calls out.
The air vibrates. “You sent me away,” she says sulkily. “Left me alone.”
“Nick believes me,” he says, settling crosslegged onto the bed. He pats the mattress in front of him. “C’mere.”
A breeze ruffles through the room. “What do you mean he believes you?”
“He knows you’re real,” Chris says. “I told him, and he believes me.”
Alicia appears in front of him, her eyes bright. “He does? Does he--” her brow furrows. “I can’t see him,” she says, lost. “I can’t even be near him. Is he mad at me?”
Chris touches above where her knee would be. “No, Licia. He’s not mad.”
Nick comes back with a ouija board. “Buckle up,” he says, and tosses it at Chris when Chris isn’t looking, so the edge hits him in the back of the head. Chris glares.
They set up in the living room. Nick carries out the box that was under his bed, the stuffed bear and the child’s drawings. The note, lovingly smoothed out and taped back together and gently eased back into the envelope, worn around the edges, Chris realizes, with many readings and re-readings.
Alicia’s things spread out around them, the oiuja board under their fingers. Chris takes a deep breath. “Alicia Clark,” he calls out.
“Leesha,” Nick pleads. He turns to Chris, scowling. “Why isn’t she answering?”
“I don’t know,” Chris admits. “I’m not--she did, before. She moved things, spoke.”
Nick stands in one motion, throwing the board against the wall in an explosion of frustration. “Leeshy,” he says in a whisper, shoulders slumped.
Chris remembers her kneeled outside Nick’s door. “I don’t think she can,” he says slowly. “I think something’s… stopping her.” He frowns, thinking. “You said you saw her?”
Nick blinks. “Yeah. A long time ago, before I went away.”
Chris taps his fingers on his knee. “Before you got that tattoo?”
Nick stares. “I don’t have a tattoo.”
It’s Chris’s turn to blink. “Yes you do.” He’s seen it up close now, lying in Nick’s bed, sitting next to him on the couch. An odd sort of glyph looking thing, or maybe a celtic knot of some kind. Just under his hairline on the back of his neck.
“I would know if I had a tattoo.”
Chris shoves at Nick’s shoulder, turning him. “I’m literally looking at it right now.” He moves Nick’s hair aside, preses a fingertip to the center of the black mark.
“What?” Nick bats at his hands. “Get off.” He beelines to the bathroom, Chris on his heels, and contorts in front of the mirror above the sink. “I can’t--”
Chris raises his phone, taking a few quick snaps with the camera, then passes the device over for Nick to stare at.
Nick swallows. “Madison,” he says, heavy like a stone.
Chris sits alone on the patio while Nick and Madison scream at each other over the phone.
“Licia?” he asks, tentative.
“She keeps me away,” she whispers in his ear. “She took him from me.”
“I’ll go to library,” he promises. “I’ll figure it out. We’ll figure it out.”
He sits in silence for another moment, then, suddenly, she shouts in his ear, startling him out of his seat with a yelp.
He bursts into the bathroom, heart pounding from the sprint, and his foot smears the blood droplets on the tile. Nick is at the sink, handheld mirror in one hand, a knife in the other. There’s blood all down the back of his shirt, soaked through. It’s dripping from his fingers.
“Jesus,” Chris says, yanking a towel from the rack on the wall.
“It’s the only way,” is all Nick will say, over and over. “The only way,” a whisper while Chris holds the towel to his wound and takes the knife out of his hand, fumbles with the first aid kit and leaves blood on the clasp of it, the edge of the counter, on his own clothes and the white towels and streaky in the sink basin.
“You should go to the hospital,” Chris says, but all Nick will let him do is layer gauze over it and tape down the edges.
Chris picks up the ouija board from where it’s crumpled against the wall on the floor. Smoothes it out on the coffee table. Nick, carefully, props Alicia’s bear in the center of it. “Alicia,” Nick murmurs, his fingers curled around a tattered ear.
“Alicia Clark,” Chris echoes, and just like that, she comes.
Sitting on the floor across from them, legs folded up and her chin on her knees.
“Licia,” Nick says, gutpunched. He lifts a trembling hand to her cheek, his fingers passing through her.
“Hi,” Alicia says, more timid than Chris has ever heard her. “I missed you.” She blinks, owl eyed. When she touches her bear the fur moves under her fingers. “You’re hurt.”
“Yeah,” Nick agrees, starting to list to the side. “It uh. Really hurts.”
Alicia turns to Chris. “Under his bed, by the window. The third floorboard from the wall.”
Chris trots down the hall, dutiful and quick, pries the floorboard up with his fingers. There’s a black zip case inside, slim; when he opens it there’s a syringe, a loop of hose, a spoon and a vial.
Alicia appears at his shoulder, visible when he turns his head but not in the reflection in the wall mirror. “Do what I say,” she murmurs, and lays her cold translucent hands over his as a guide.
Nick is lying in his bed, eyes pinched and face lined. Chris and Licia walk in step. He can feel her, around his bones and laid into his muscle, as they slide the needle into Nick’s vein and push the poison home.
“You’ll be alright,” Alicia says through Chris’s mouth. “Sleep now.”
Nick reaches out. “Alicia.”
“Sshh,” Chris says. “I’m here.”
Chris wakes up because Nick is crying. “I’m sorry,” he’s saying, and Chris is thinking he should check Nick’s bandage when:
“Shh,” Alicia murmurs, and then, impossibly soft: “I missed you.”
Chris keeps his eyes closed in the dark, his hands outstretched. He leaves them alone together and sleeps in a curled up ball alone in the bed that used to be hers.
Chris dreams Nick is making them pancakes. Alicia and him perched on the counter, Alicia distracting Nick while Chris sneaks pancakes from the plate and passes them to her under the counter. They nibble bites when Nick isn’t looking and blink innocently when he pauses, staring at the plate and counting in his head before shooting them an accusing glance.
Licia likes hers drowning in syrup and so pale blonde they’re only half a second from raw. Nick likes them deep brown and studded with chocolate. Chris likes a pat of butter on top and grapes cut in half, just like his mom used to do.
They sneak bites from each other’s plates with sticky fingers. Nick washes, Chris dries, Alicia puts away.
Chris wakes up because the alarm has been beeping in his fucking ear for sixteen and a half minutes, according to the clock. He groans. “I gotta go to school,” he mumbles, slapping his hand out. “Fuck, I gotta--”
Nick barely stirs by his side. He groans.
Alicia slams the front door in his face three times, Chris’s fingers rattling the knob. “I gotta,” he says, frustrated and exhausted and teary. “I’ll come right back, I promise.”
He rests his palm on the wall beside the light switch. “I promise, Leesha. As soon as it’s over.”
The doorknob turns, the door opening a crack. He kisses the doorjamb. “Soon,” he promises, and runs to the bus stop.
Chris bursts back in, winded from a straight sprint. “Nick?” he calls. The house is still, unnaturally so. “Alicia?”
He walks down the hall and his shoes echo on the floor. The walls groan as they settle onto the foundation. His fingers, splayed out, on the wood of Nick’s bedroom door, thawing the thin layer of frost that covers it. And the slow creak as it opens, centimeter by centimeter.
Nick on his back on the bed, hands folded on his belly. Pale and waxy, his breath a weak white cloud. Chris remembers how Nick said he wouldn’t wake up, how heavy and sluggish he was after his dreams with her, how he couldn’t remember his schedule as he stood just inside the front door of his highschool and didn’t know a single person he saw.
“You’re killing him,” he says, his voice shaking. “Leesha, you’re killing us.”
The window rattles in its frame.
“There’s a shop,” Chris says. “We can--I know what that symbol looked like. And there’s rituals--sage.”
The window shatters.
Chris flinches. “I don’t want to!” he shouts, as the debris settles. “That’s just--we can do more research. We can figure out how to help you, I’ll--”
Alicia appears, curled around Nick’s back, the big spoon. She’s more alive than Chris has ever seen her, even in the dreams. Her smile rosy and glowing, her hair in perfect loose curls. She kisses Nick’s forehead and his breathing gets weaker.
Chris steps towards her and--
He wakes up in his bedroom. But it’s not his bedroom. The paint isn’t faded, there’s no dust or that thick mothball smell of disgust. The marks on the doorframe are bright, there’s polaroids strung up on Christmas lights on the walls and a flowerpot on the windowsill.
Alicia sits in the middle of her bedspread.
“This isn’t real,” Chris says, getting to his feet. “How did you… this isn’t real.”
“Ssh,” Alicia says. She’s rosy, her smile glowing. “Can you hear the rain?”
The light coming in through the window is grey, dull. The house is dark and the world is gloomy.
Alicia extends her hand. “Do you want me, Chris? Do you want us?” She rises, her bare feet on the floor and shorter than him.
“I,” Chris says, and can’t think of anything else. Unbidden, his hand rises up, until there’s just a grasp of distance between them.
Alicia unfurls her fingers. “Aren’t you tired?”
Chris is in Nick’s room, upright, facing the window. The skies outside are dark, the clouds heavy, the concrete wet and dark. Nick breathes, weaker and weaker, and Alicia is still there, hand outstretched.
Chris is tired. He can hear the rain. Her palm is soft against his, his eyelashes gentle on his own cheeks. He lets go.
And wakes up in the sun.