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Monday, November 7, 2016

Family Demons (Ch 1)

Alex and Nick weren’t cheaters. They just... specialized.

It made sense to specialize. No one could be good at everything, right? And if the world insisted on treating them like one person, then they might as well take full advantage.

That was why Alex did math while Nick did creative writing and history, why Alex did all their magical theory homework and most of the application too, but Nick helped provide a little extra power if the spell needed more oomph.

For anyone else, it might have been cheating. Sometimes Alex still wondered. But it wouldn’t have been fair to do the work twice over, either- they only had 24 hours between them, after all, and homework took so much time.

Part of Alex- the angry part- figured it served the world right, if he and Nick lied and cheated to get by. It wasn’t like the world even believed Alex existed. When he was angry, it seemed like nothing he did could possibly be as unfair as the situation he’d been born into, like he could never damage the world as much as it had tried to damage him. In those moments- which he always regretted later- he could do or say anything, no matter how hurtful, no matter how awful.

Nick usually stopped him. Alex was glad. It was another kind of specialization. Alex was the angry one. Nick was the calm, happy one. The one with people skills and kind words for everyone. Alex had only ever had a chance to be kind to Nick, and, in the past couple years, to the students who came in for peer tutoring in math.

Despite all of his anger issues, Alex was a good tutor. He was good at breaking ideas down into manageable chunks and figuring out which chunks the student wasn’t getting. He’d managed to get Nick halfway through pre-calc before they’d decided to split their subjects up like they currently did, and if he could teach Nick math, he could teach anyone math.

Alex had been able to pick Friday afternoons for tutoring because he’d gotten first dibs on tutoring slots as a senior. Friday was the calmest day, and Alex just couldn’t deal with too many people at once. Last year he’d had Tuesdays, and that had been hell. He and the other Tuesday tutor had always been swamped with students, and it was hard to teach anyone anything when they were all vying for attention and no one would shut up.

Quieter times were easier.

Today only one person needed help- a senior in Alex’s calculus class with fire truck red hair and a grin too big for his face. His name was Mateo, and he’d been coming to Alex’s tutoring hours for the past couple of weeks. He was picking up material fast, but it was obvious he was a little behind. Alex hadn’t seen him before this year, so he had to be a transfer student or something. Maybe his old school hadn’t offered the same kind of math classes. Alex couldn’t think of another reason why such a bright guy would be so behind.

Mateo breezed through another practice problem without much difficulty, now that he had the basics down.

“How’d I do?” he asked, pushing the paper towards Alex.

Alex checked it over. “Yeah,” he said. “Looks good.”

Next to him, Mateo stretched, and his too-tight t-shirt rode up a little. Alex did not stare at Mateo’s abs. Really he didn’t. (A peek was not the same as staring.)

“Want to move on to something harder?” Alex asked.

Mateo checked the time on his phone. “Better not. But maybe I’ll catch you again next week.”

“Sure,” Alex said. “I’ll be... here. Have a nice weekend.”

Mateo grinned at him. “Same to you.”

Once Mateo was out of sight, Alex let his head hit the table in front of him.

I am such a dork, he told Nick.

Nick just gently took control of their body, chuckled to himself, and began to gather their things. It was time to go home.

It was October now, and the days were starting to get shorter, and chilly. Nick put on a hoodie before leaving school, which helped keep the chill away, but didn’t do anything about the dark. Alex had always hated the dark, ever since he was a kid, and that was why Nick was the one who walked home after school. It was stupid. Alex hated feeling afraid, especially when Nick had no problem with the dark.

Even when Nick was in control, darkness still made Alex really uncomfortable. From time to time he tried to convince himself that it wasn’t the darkness that scared him, but the things that might be hiding in it. This didn’t help. Thinking about what might be out there just made him more afraid.

Now, he just tried to think that it was safe. Nothing was waiting for him out there. There were things that went bump in the night, but they were rare, and most of them were just ghosts, totally harmless to anyone unless they were angry about how they’d died or something. The occasional other things, the ones that could hurt you- well, usually they killed you fast enough that you didn’t have time to worry. It was only demons that tortured humans, and demons were rare enough that Alex’s magical theory teacher refused to take sides on whether they existed or not.

Alex figured they were probably real. They were too horrible to be made up. But Alex was a pessimist. He left the optimism to Nick.

In any case, Alex and Nick made it safely home without encountering anything dangerous, or even strange. Nick smiled at his mom and started to untie his shoes.

“Hey,” he said, balancing on one foot as he pulled his right shoe off.

“Hello, Nick. Did you have a good day at school?”

“Yeah,” Nick said, without going into too much detail. “The usual. You know.”

His mom smiled at him and went back to stirring something delicious-smelling on the stove. “You had a math test, right? How did that go?”

“Fine,” Nick said, finally getting his other shoe off. “You know I’ve been doing well in math.”

Alex was doing well in math, anyway. But that was how they did things. Nick took the credit (and the blame) for everything both he and Alex did. Alex liked to think he did more to deserve praise than blame, but he was never really sure. He tried, anyway. Sometimes it was hard, being basically invisible. But he had Nick to keep him on-track, and that had to be enough.

“I’m proud of you,” his mom told him. “I used to worry- you struggled in some classes, and I was worried about college. But you’ve really pulled it together.”

Nick grinned, totally fake and cheesy. “I try,” he said uncomfortably.

He walked to the living room and flipped on the TV. Alex and Nick had a brief internal scuffle about who got to hold the remote, which Nick won, and then Nick began to flip channels. There was nothing really exciting on. Alex and Nick hardly had time to watch TV anyway, between homework, school, chores, and Nick’s social life. Alex wasn’t sure what shows were even on. Eventually Nick settled on some old detective show, which was dumb because they’d missed the beginning and had no clue what was going on.

Just when Alex was starting to figure out the what the mystery even was- something about a missing necklace and a murder, and they were blaming a ghoul like this was Scooby Doo or something- the garage door opened, and, a moment later, the back door opened and closed.

“Hi, Dad,” Nick said.

“Hi, Squirt,” his dad said. Nick made a face. He hated that nickname, mostly because Asher had picked up on it a few months ago and insisted on calling him that all the time. It wasn’t like Nick and Alex were even that short- they were maybe half an inch below average, and okay, maybe a little on the skinny side. It was more that they had a youthful face and kept being mistaken for a freshman that bothered Nick, Alex thought. Alex didn’t really care one way or the other about their appearance, except that it drove him nuts when Nick rolled out of bed and went to school with their brown hair sticking up at weird angles- which Nick would do every day if Alex didn’t yell at him.

Nick’s dad sat on the couch beside Nick with a sigh of relief.

“Hard day at work?” Nick asked.

“They’re all hard lately,” he said. He grabbed the remote from Nick, who let him, and flipped to the news. They were still covering the earthquake from last week. There wasn’t a lot of other news this far from the city. The town was too quiet to be interesting.

The earthquake was the reason that Nick’s dad was so busy- they didn’t get a lot of earthquakes in the Midwest, so none of the wards- which protected everything from public parks to banks- had been ready for it. Nick’s dad made and installed wards, and while it was never exactly slow business, it had really picked up in the last week. Nick’s dad had been leaving early and coming home late. Today was pretty early- it was only six.

“Dinner’s ready!” Nick’s mom said.

Alex wanted to be the one to eat dinner, but he didn’t want to make conversation with Nick’s parents. It was always strange, to be on the receiving end of their affection and concern. They didn’t really care about him. He wasn’t their son. He was just a hanger-on. For all that Nick insisted they were like brothers, Alex knew that no one but Nick would ever want him around. It was just part of life. He wasn’t sad about it anymore- he’d had years to adjust- but anyone who knew the situation would think Nick was just insane, or maybe possessed. Who knew, they might be right. Alex had looked into multiple personality disorder, and it didn’t seem to fit very well, but a failed case of possession was always an option. Alex hadn’t been able to find any information about cases of possession in infants though, and Alex had been in Nick’s head as long as he could remember. They’d learned to talk together, been potty trained together, been taught their ABCs and how to read together. Those memories were fuzzy- some of them really fuzzy- but they were there. If Alex had ever been a malevolent spirit, he couldn’t remember that far back.

Nick talked to his parents a little over dinner, about school, and how tutoring was going, and his date with Tiffany the other day. The news played in the background, and Alex paid more attention to that. Apparently there was an infestation of zombies in a little town nearby, but firefighters and the police were taking care of them. Something to do with the wards on the graveyards being disturbed- there’d been a lot of cases like that lately. It was bad enough that the president had declared a state of emergency, had come to a couple of the bigger cities to give speeches- which meant Alex had gotten to see her, from a distance. Their city was one of the largest around (more by default than because it was actually large or anything.)

Finally, dinner was over. Nick helped load the dishwasher and then Alex went up to his room to do homework.

“You know,” Nick murmured to him, as Alex worked through a particularly complicated integral, “it’s Friday night. Most people are out having fun.”

“Most people aren’t in 4 AP classes,” Alex pointed out, keeping his voice low. The last thing he wanted was for Nick’s mom to come in and ask if Nick was talking to himself again. You’d think after nearly 18 years she’d be used to Nick muttering to himself as he did work, but apparently not. “Don’t you have homework for your creative writing class? Don’t you want to get it out of the way before your date with Tiffany tomorrow?”

“Ehhhh,” Nick said. “I have all weekend. Besides, I don’t feel inspired right now.”

Alex scoffed.

Nick turned his head to the mirror on the door and stuck his tongue out at his reflection, because obviously only one of them had ever really grown up at all ever.

“Come on,” Nick said. “Play a video game with me or something.”

Alex looked at his math homework. There was a lot of it, and it was a little tricky- but as Nick said, they did have all weekend.

“Fine,” he said. “Just for a little while.”

Playing video games together was hard when you only had one set of hands. It was kind of special when they found one they could play together. The important thing about this one, the real reason they were playing it, was that one player could control the mouse while the other controlled the keyboard.

Alex was using the mouse this time, strategically healing Nick’s party and slowing down enemies. Nick was controlling the main character and her party, so he got to do a little more, but they switched off from time to time so they both got to play both parts. It helped that Alex was right-handed while Nick was left-handed. They would have figured a way around it if they had to, but it made video games easier when they didn’t have to fight for control of the dominant hand.

All in all, it was a good night. Relaxing. In that moment, Alex could see the rest of his life stretching in front of him- their life, because it was always going to be Nick’s life, too- and it wasn’t too bad. College together at the state university, only an hour and a half away, where they were going to double-major in math and creative writing. They’d already turned in the application, and there was no way they weren’t getting in with grades like theirs. Maybe Nick would get married to Tiffany eventually, or maybe another girl. Alex was fine with it either way, though Tiffany was nice. And Alex would always be there, ready to work a well-paying day job and be the bread-winner while Nick did his writing thing at night. Having kids was a weird area, but they’d figure it out someday, he was sure.

Yeah. It wasn’t a perfect life, but no one had one of those. It was good enough. Alex wasn’t sure it would be fulfilling, exactly, but he’d settle for “okay.”

He brushed his teeth and got ready for bed. Nick had already dozed off, a heavy weight in the back of Alex’s mind. It was hard to be awake when Nick was sleeping. Alex went to shut the curtains, and caught sight of something pale and human-shaped just outside the property line, just where Alex knew from long lectures as a kid that the wards ended.

He would have said “human” and been done with it, but... it wasn’t. It was pale and naked, and it wasn’t standing like a human. From this distance it was hard to make out details, but it was standing at a weird angle, as though it didn’t have real bones and wasn’t sure how humans actually moved. It was bald, and he couldn’t make out its features. And it was staring at the house.

Creepy. But not dangerous- Alex knew the wards on the house were nearly perfect. Nick’s dad had made sure of that. Even if it was one of the zombies running around like on the news, it wouldn’t get through. In fact, the wards had probably already silently notified the police that there was something undead nearby…

The thing looked up at the window where Alex was standing, though Alex wasn’t sure how it could see him when, he realized with a shudder, it had no face. Where a face should have been, it was just... skin. Its head tilted sideways, and there was a flash of something, like he was seeing through a particularly strong illusion- but it was too fast, and he couldn’t make out whatever showed through, especially at this distance.

And then it dashed away, movement fluid and alien.

Alex was officially freaked out, but he just closed the curtains and laid down in bed. He was safe behind the wards, he tried to remember. Everything was fine. Some places had rabbits that got into gardens and ate all the tomatoes. Some places had an annoying number of pigeons, or mosquitoes. Their town- the whole Midwest, really- just had a zombie problem right now. Just another dumb animal, though they were definitely a lot creepier than rabbits.

Even with that thought- even with Nick as an anchor weighing him down- it took a long time to fall asleep.

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