dedication: to Phil, and to everyone else who's stuck around this long.
notes: HONEY I'M HOME
notes2: y'all know the drill. if I've said anything shitty and/or racist, hit me with a stick and spray me with cold water.
notes3: in the androgynous dark — brambles.
title: ghost hunter
summary: Alex, stumbling through an exorcism. — Alex/Jonas.
Alex wakes up drowning.
The dream shatters.
For a second, it's totally silent. All she can taste is seawater and gasoline, bitter acrid at the back of her throat, and god, god, she'd been drowning, the pressure of the water made her ears pop and it had hurt, her teeth ache, it's startling that she's not black and blue all over—
And then she's coughing over the side of her bed, shoulders heaving, stomach clenching. It's salty as fuck, and she vomits up the ghosts until there's nothing left inside of her except bile.
Alex wipes her mouth, and tells herself not to check. Don't do it, stupid. It's not worth it. Just because—
(She can't help herself. She looks.)
God, there's kelp on the floor.
"Holy shit, what is that?"
Michael leans over Alex's shoulder in their parents' kitchen. It's a Saturday afternoon in early September, still too warm for the leaves to change. Sunlight filters in watery grey through a patchy cloud-cover, and Alex blinks at her spread of pamphlets. They're glossy and bright-coloured, exactly like college pamphlets with laughing people on every cover, and Alex thinks that's probably what her mother thinks they are.
Jesus. College pamphlets.
To be clear:
The pamphlets on the table are not, in fact, college pamphlets. They are not college pamphlets at all.
Mothman peers out of one of the glossy pages, behind a smiling woman whose pupils disappear in certain kinds of light. A werewolf, a witch, a boy with flowers growing up and out of his throat. That one's kinda gory, actually, Alex hasn't looked at it in detail and doesn't think she's going to. There's a vampire sipping something gross and thick out of what's probably a crystal wineglass, because vampires are extra like that. There's a snake with seven heads and ruby red eyes.
"That's a Chupacabra," Alex says, squiggling a mustache over the vampire's smiling mouth with a Sharpie. Vampires are nerds. "Obviously."
"What's obvious about any of this?"
"God, where's Jonas when I need him," Alex huffs, rolls her eyes. Jonas would get it. Jonas always gets it. "Look, Mike, it's like—okay. You know how Mom's been—"
"The whole get your life together thing? Oh, yeah, she told me she was gonna start, she's annoyed you haven't picked a college yet."
Alex shoots him a dirty look, squinted-flinty eyes. "Stop that, you sound like Dad. Anyway, Mom's been doing that thing she does with her face, and man, I have to do something. I have to—I can't stay here. Not after—not after everything, you know?"
Michael looks at her in the crystal morning sunlight.
"You know what," he says, after a very long pause where they dead-stare at one another, "You're right. You'd scare all the college boys into devil-worship. It's probably a good thing that you're not going."
"Wow, okay," says Alex. "No one asked you."
"Pretty sure you did," Michael says, because he's smug like that. He loops his arm around her neck and drags her in for one of those too-close-too-fast sneak-attack lightning hugs that he's so good at, and Alex lets him because there are lifetimes inside of her where her stupid brother couldn't touch her at all. She can feel them behind her teeth like ghostlights. They all taste like blood and berries.
"Not on your life, bucko," she says, and kind of flops against his stomach.
The morning light gleams on the pamphlets like an oil slick. An awful shudder goes up Alex's spine, and she doesn't say anything at all.
"You gonna take Jonas with you?" Michael asks, so casual.
"Mike, don't," Alex says, a warning in her throat. Her hair scrunches up into her face. It tickles, teal and feeling like straw against her cheek. Nona has a hair mask thing—maybe that's something they should do, before Alex goes and maybe never comes back. The far-away fading blue of twilight hums along her bones. God, she misses that. "I mean it, don't start, it's not like that."
"So you are, huh?" Michael says cheerfully. "Knew it, Ren owes me a Snickers."
"Mike, I swear to—"
"Hey," Michael cuts her off, gone quiet and serious. Her older brother's face pulls down into something solemn, something real, and Alex feels the tension draining out of her shoulders. It's not like it's a big thing, but Michael always knows what to say. Even when he was dead, he knew exactly what to say. Maybe that's what older brothers are for. "You know it's cool, right? You and Joe, you guys are—whatever you crazy kids are, it's cool."
"Mom hates him," Alex says, quiet like being inside on a stormy day. She doesn't know why it matters, except that it does.
"Mom hates Clarissa, too," Michael says, a little wry. "She, uh, hates pretty much everyone, last time I checked."
Mom didn't used to hate everyone, Alex doesn't say. Maybe that's just bleedover, one of those weird edges where the universes didn't quite integrate right. Their mom used to tell stories, and used to laugh, and used to—
She used to a lot of things.
Alex used to a lot of things, too. It's been two years, but she's actually, maybe, kind of getting better. Slowly. In little steps.
The point is that she is.
And whatever else he is, Jonas is a part of it.
Alex just wishes their mom could understand that.
(I want him and he's mine and they tried to take him away but screw that, because if literal actual nightmare creatures couldn't pry him from her fingers, cold and dead or not, absolutely nothing in the universe will. Alex never learned to share.)
"I wish she didn't, though," Alex confesses, finds herself confessing. "Like, I just—I dunno. I wish she didn't."
"You're gonna have to make that choice pretty quick, Alex," Michael says. He reaches over to ruffle her hair. "But hey, if it makes you feel any better, I think he's pretty good for you?"
Alex squints at him. "Who are you and what have you done with my older brother? Ugh, I can't believe I'm about to say this, but can you go make out with Clarissa or something?!"
"You know what, I could! Thanks, kiddo, maybe I'll go do it in your bedroom!"
"Ugh, Mike! Gross! Were you always this annoying?!"
Michael laughs like a hyena. "Annoy or do not annoy, grasshopper, there is no try!"
"You're bastardizing Yoda, now? Is nothing sacred?!"
"Nope. Whaddaya know, sacred nothing!"
Alex jerks her head to look at him, something cold slipping down her collar. Sacred nothing. It rings a horrible bell, bubbles of memory pop-pop-popping like rose-coloured glasses. She thinks of a star-boy, and dust, and the bright red burn of Clarissa's eyes.
Sometimes the memories still take her over.
Sometimes it still hurts.
Alex pushes away from the table, scrunching one shoulder up. The glossy eyes look up from their glossy brochures, every horrible disappearance that she's ever heard about. She's pretty good at putting her own thoughts away in boxes, but that's mostly because she had to learn to be.
"Yeah, whatever you say, bucko," Alex says. "Hey, I've gotta go meet Nona. I'll talk to you later, okay?"
Without waiting for an answer, she jumps up from the table and dashes for the door. God, she loves Michael, but he always manages to find her soft squishy bits without even trying. Maybe that's just brothers, though. Alex wouldn't know. She's only really had one.
But just like that, Alex goes, and leaves the glossy pages of her future and the glossy pages of her past behind.
"Do you think the lady who runs Monty's is a witch?"
"Ren, my man, you have gotta lay off the weed," Jonas says shaking his head. Nona's basement is pretty quiet, during the summertime. She doesn't have any siblings, at any rate. "Her name's Joanne."
"Who says a witch can't be named Joanne?! I'll have you know that I can think of three witches named Joanne off the top of my head, and they are all—"
"Boys, this isn't a competition," Nona says. "You're both very pretty."
"I'm prettier," Ren half-shouts, and drapes himself dramatically across Nona's lap. They're dating again, this week, which means he's even more intolerable than normal. Nona's petting his hair. That's gross, and Alex is going to tell them so.
"Gross," Alex pronounces. "You are not."
"Oh, so he's prettier, then?!" Ren gesticulates at Jonas, who is lounging at Alex's side like he couldn't be fucked to do anything. He's got a cigarette tucked behind his eaar. It's kind of unfairly attractive, actually, and Alex wishes that she didn't like him so much.
"I am prettier than you, I just don't feel need to say it," Jonas says, lazy. "Alex agrees with me."
"Yeah, but that's Alex," Ren sniffs. "She doesn't count."
"Excuse me? What do you mean, I don't count?"
Ren waves a hand like he didn't totally just insult everything that Alex is, because, um, he kind of did. "I'm your best friend, I'm allowed to say these things. Of course you think he's prettier, you're not objective about it! And objectively, I am prettier!"
"You were the one who called him a strapping young lad, Ren," Alex reminds him.
"Is no one ever going to let me live that down?! He moved a dumpster, it was accurate!"
"No, never," Jonas says. He flicks a popcorn kernel at Ren's hair, where it sticks out amongst the bright red pretty magnificently. "And I have excellent aim. If it's a contest…"
"Everything with you is a contest, my good lad!" Ren says, and drapes himself more thoroughly over Nona. He shakes his head up at her, says, put-upon dismal, "They don't love me like you do, my dear. Why is that?"
"Please don't call me that," says Nona, but since she doesn't actually stop petting Ren's hair, it kind of negates the sentiment, and Alex has a sneaking suspicion that Nona is actually one of those girls who loves eighteenth-century endearments. "Besides, no one loves you the way I do."
Alex struggles valiantly not to vomit. Gross. Double gross!
"Why are they like this?" she asks Jonas.
"I wish I could explain it," Jonas says, grave. "Sorry Als, but I can't help you."
"You two aren't much better," Nona observes. When Alex glares, she just shrugs. "What? Don't look at me like that, it's true. You two aren't much better."
Ren is unbearably smug about this. Alex is never going to get him to stop, not now.
"Anyway," Ren says loudly. "No one's answered my question! Does anyone think that the lady who run's Monty's is a witch?"
"I'm gonna have to go with Jonas on this one, Ren," Alex says. She's been thinking about it for the last ten minutes, an undercurrent of thought beneath the squabbling. "She's, like, forty-five and has two kids. There's no way! She's a mom, she probably doesn't even have time to sleep."
"Your mom sleeps," Ren says, by way of dismissal.
"My mom doesn't count, an you know it," Alex says, which shuts that line of questioning right down.
Because while it's true that Alex's mother doesn't count—in so many ways, Alex's mom doesn't count, because God knows she remembers the fact that once upon a time, Michael was dead and Jonas was her brother, and her mom was definitely married to someone who is not her dad, but the thing is that Ren doesn't remember that, actually, so she can't really use it. Even without it, though, Ren… Ren knows—it's more for Jonas' benefit than anything else. Ren doesn't always think things through, and while he is ridiculous, he is never intentionally cruel.
And moms, for Jonas, will always be an intentional cruelty.
Better to shut it down before anyone gets really hurt, Alex thinks. Jesus, as though she's not still smarting from Michael earlier. Really, only one of them should be hurting at a time; they don't really handle it well when it happens to be both of them at once.
Doesn't work, and all that.
Jonas casually slips an around her shoulders. It might be a thank you.
Alex leans into it, and it's like, yeah, I know, don't worry about it.
(They don't always need to talk to talk, you know? There's a lot of things that they don't have to say, and so much of it is tied up in remembering and late-night driving and milkshakes at four o'clock in the morning. One day they might even be able to listen to music, again. They're getting pretty close to it, even. Maybe. Possibly. If they're lucky.)
Nona is watching them with very level, very dark eyes. She's tied her hair back, today, and it makes her look older than nineteen. She's also not in a giant sweater, which probably helps. Julliard is good for her. New York is good for her.
It's pretty amazing, though, that she's still dating Ren, of all people.
Alex thinks that maybe Nona is way too good for all of them.
"Hey, Alex, wanna come get some snacks with me? These two need to bond."
Strike that, not maybe. Definitely. She is definitely too good for every single one of them.
"We really don't," says Jonas, but Alex knows that he's been dying to try to murder Ren at Mario Kart for the last fifteen minutes. He's not great at hiding it, either, especially because Ren always wins t Mario Kart. It's, like, a law of the universe or something.
"Yeah, well, you probably should," Nona says, coolly. She extricates herself from Ren's languishing, dusts her metaphorical self off, and pops her hip out. "You comin'?"
"Yeah, sure, gimme a sec," Alex says, because it's gonna take more than a second to reassure Jonas that she is, in fact, going to come back. "Don't be pissed when he wins, okay? You really just gotta accept that Ren is better than God at Mario Kart. It's his only talent, let him have this."
"Hey! Rude! I have more than one—"
"Over my dead body," Jonas says flatly, and loudly enough that it drowns Ren out, but he allows her up. Ren's already reaching for the Switch controls, because he has absolutely no chill.
"I can't believe we like them so much," Alex says to Nona under her breath.
"Neither can I," Nona agrees, and together they ascend the stairs up into the main house, and the muggy summer heat of a place without air conditioning. It's not late outside, not quite, but it's golden the way August gets at the very end, just before fall begins. They're all going to be leaving again soon, Ren south to California, Nona east to the coast, Michael for his internship at MIT, because, yeah, of course her perfect brother has the best engineering school in the world at his beck and call. Plus, Clarissa is out that way, too, at Bryn Mraw.
And then it'll just be Jonas and Alex, again, all alone in this little piece of the universe.
But for now, it's Alex and Nona, shuffling across the floor, trying to decide on chips and dip or more popcorn.
"Man, I want some chocolate," Alex mutters, rooting through the cubboards. Who lives without chocolate? That's, like, a personal insult? That's like people who live without peanut butter, those allergic not withstanding!
"We're going to have to go out to get that," Nona says. "My mum's allergic."
"Your poor mother?!" Alex says, aghast. "Oh my god?!"
"I know," Nona shakes her head. "I try not to think about it. Like, what if I spontaneously develop the same thing? It's in my family, it could happen!"
"Horrifying," Alex says, nodding sagely.
"Almost as horrifying as the amount of cuddling I saw happening downstairs," Nona says. She has nonchalance down to an art, and if she wasn't so sweet, Alex would hate her on principle. She might hate her regardless, because Alex is super not ready to talk about this yet. Not with Nona, at any rate; Nona is still Clarissa's best friend. It's one thing to tell Ren, hey, this person is my person, and I don't think I want another one, but it's another thing entirely to say it to someone who… hasn't seen her naked in bath tubs when they were too young to know better, you know?
"It's—I know it's—"
"Hey," Nona cuts her off, easy with it. The thick braid of her hair thuds against Alex's shoulder. "I just think it's cool, that's all. You guys fit pretty good. You're less… squirrelly than before. Is that weird to say?"
Alex looks down at her hands, at her brown skin and her chippy-polished nails and thinks that maybe it's a little weird, but maybe it's not weird at all. Nona lived through the island, too. It's why they're friends. Why they're both still here.
"I dunno what I wanna do with my life," Alex says. "But I know that I want him there. Does that count?"
Nona looks at Alex out of the corner of her eye. Nods. "Yeah," she says, "yeah, it does."
"Oh," Alex says, and feels all of her breath rush out of her. "Hey, do you do this to everyone you know?"
"Like, try to emotionally murder them with words?"
"Only the people I like," Nona says, smirks out of the corner of her mouth. "I don't waste my time on people I don't actually like talking to."
"You're pretty horrible, aren't you," Alex says, with the kind of admiration that she reserves solely for Clarissa when she's being her most vicious self. "Man, I see why you and Clarissa get along. I always think it's 'cause, like, she adopted you, but actually it's 'cause you're as terrible as her, isn't it?"
Nona laughs. "Yeah, kinda."
Alex bumps her shoulder against Nona's. "That's pretty cool."
"Yeah," Alex nods. "So are we gonna go get some chocolate so I don't die, or what?"
"Someone's dramatic," Nona tuts.
"You're dating Ren!"
"I never said I wasn't also dramatic!"
Alex snickers, and pulls her friend towards the door. There are worse things than having a friend to snip at and get chocolate with, all things considered; she could be Clarissa. She could be into burning shit. Instead, Nona's just into weird foreign film and ballet and can play the piano like a badass, someone who can see the playground for the trees.
And Alex is going to miss her, when she's gone.
"How do you breathe under there?"
"Do you think oxygen just… disappears from underneath my truck when I'm down here? Is that how you think this works?"
"Doesn't it?" Alex asks, genuinely curious.
Jonas rolls out from under the truck, wrench in hand, a smear of oil on his cheek, to squint up at her. She must be a silhouette because the sun's at her back, a sun-dark shadow-thing. She's all keyed up, and god, she hopes he can't see that on her face, because she's still not twenty yet, and it always seems like it's summertime, and maybe this is just another loop, and if it is—
If it is, Alex is going to lose her tiny mind.
"You can come down," Jonas scooches over to make room on the pair of taped-up longboards he's using to slip under the jack and get at whatever it is that's causing his truck grief. Or maybe he's just into it because he's into it; Jonas is kind of a weird dude, all things considered. Not that Alex is much better, but between the cigarettes and the cars and the leather jacket and the criminal record, it's actually kind of astounding that Alex's mother hasn't tried to ban her from seeing him yet.
It wouldn't go over well, and both mother and daughter know it, so maybe that's it.
Alex drops down next to him.
There is definitely not enough room for both of them on this thing. Alex elects to just sit next to him with her knees up to her chest, watches as he wheels himself back beneath the truck.
"You're gonna get grease on you," Jonas says. "Sorry."
"Don't care," Alex says, because she doesn't care. She watches him work, only his legs in scruffy jeans sticking out from beneath the truck. It should look funny. She should be laughing, because here's her garbage snowman, on his back beneath a vehicle that Alex still categorically refuses to learn to drive, and there's no one else like him in the entire world.
He works silently for a minute.
But eventually she must have been too quiet, because he pulls himself out again, shades his eyes, and goes, "Alright, what's eating you?"
"It's—Edwards Islands. A girl drowned, Jonas. They found her this morning."
"Shit," Jonas breathes. "Shit, Alex."
"Yeah," Alex says. She picks at the faded friendship bracelets tied around her wrists. It's easier to concentrate on them than to concentrate on everything else. She hasn't told him about the seaweed on the floor of her bedroom. It had been a one-off. A drowning, but more for the dreams. "It's probably a coincidence, but—"
"But it's never a coincidence," Jonas finishes the sentence for her. "What d'you wanna do?"
He's got grease all over his hands. He wipes them down on his jeans, and it leaves ugly dark smears. Alex thinks of a tiny scar on metal, the bright cherry of a cigarette going out, and thinks that she hasn't actually changed at all. Nothing has.
"What we should have done in the first place," Alex says.
"Huh," Jonas makes a little noise. "Do you know how to do an exorcism, Als?"
"Not a clue," Alex says. "We could go to the library?"
"I don't think I'm allowed in libraries," Jonas says dubiously.
"Yeah, well, they can suck it up. I need your help," she tells him, her lip between her teeth. The pain helps keep her in place, and totally stops her from panicking, because Alex may or may not be on the verge of totally losing it.
"I'm impressed you think I can read," Jonas says, straight-faced.
Alex kicks him. "Can you not?"
Jonas snorts laughter. "You just want me to drive."
"I mean, you don't have to," Alex says, even though she knows that he's just being annoying. It's Jonas. He's the only stable person she's ever met, and also, he's liable to follow her off a cliff. Alex knows what they are to each other. She's not even really finished the sentence, and he's already cutting her off.
"I'm gonna, though," he says. He sits up, touches her knee. "Hey, Als?"
"It's gonna be okay."
Alex looks at him. She feels like a cracked broken thing, lofi static crickling through the night. White noise. "How d'you always know what to say?"
"There's this great girl I know," Jonas says, shrugs. "She taught me."
"Fuck you," Alex says, and bends over to kiss his stupid mouth.
Mint and ash. Mint and ash and the slick edges of his teeth. Mint and ash and late summer heat, the dome of the world turning blue-green around the edges. The sparkling twinkle of fairy lights. Cherry red, cherry pie, fingers run red on the pitting.
In the back of her head, Alex thinks she hears laughter.
Half a litre of chicken blood is a lot of chicken blood.
Alex had wrinkled her nose when she'd been packing things into Jonas' backpack, because it was weird shoving plastic bottles full of thick red liquid down to the bottom of the bag, piling food and blankets on top so that they wouldn't have to look at it. It'll have congealed by the time they make it onto the ferry and over to the island, but, like, congealed chicken blood is better than no chicken blood at all, you know? And there's enough seaweed on the island for burning rites, so she doesn't bother with bringing any.
She's got a couple of tobacco-mixed joints, too, because red cedar is sacred, and she doesn't know if she should ever even touch peyote; that's not part of her roots. But there's only so many times Alex can ask about exorcisms before her mom starts to get suspicious, and Ren's weed stash is a way easier raid target.
Half a litre of fresh chicken blood, way too much kelp, two joints of Ren's weed, some bark that may or may not be red cedar, and three days in the library's worth of research on ghost dances. Plus snacks and her old radio for collateral and communication and maybe just for comfort. It's… not a lot. Seriously, like, it is really not a lot, but it's what she's got, so?
(God, Alex hopes it's gonna be enough.)
"You ready to go?" Jonas's voice floats in from the doorway.
Alex looks over her shoulder at him, takes stock. Leather jacket, beanie, old jeans with holes worn in the knees. His eyes are cool and old, deep dark lines beneath them like cracks in the sky. She wants to go and bury her face in the centre of his chest to breathe in smoke and cheap laundry detergent, but that's super unhelpful, so she decides not to do that.
"Yeah, I guess," Alex says, instead, and hoists the bag up over her shoulder.
"I can take that," Jonas says, voice mild, as Alex slips past him.
"I know you could," Alex says. "Don't worry about it, I got it."
For one half of a split-second, Jonas looks like he's about to protest. She can see it in the slight tensing of his jaw, but then it smooths out and disappears into nothing. Jonas gets it. He shoves his hands into the pockets of his jacket, and just lets her go.
But Alex can feel the way he curves towards her, can feel the way he follows just a bare step behind her, and all her muscles unknot at the old familiarity of it.
Man, Jonas just gets it.
(Alex doesn't turn around to slam her mouth over top of his, but it's a close thing. It's always a close thing with Jonas, especially now. Sometimes, Alex thinks she might actually be growing up. Weird.)
They don't talk all the way down to the pier.
They most definitely look like they're up to something, but, like, they are up to something, so Alex figures that that one probably evens out. The wind blows hot through the open windows, lifting her hair from her neck, and everything feels like straw. Jonas has a hand on the steering wheel and the other on the stick shift, and she'd rather have it on her knee because she could use the grounding, right now.
Use your words, Alex, she tells herself. He won't know what you want if you don't tell him.
But she doesn't.
Jonas parks in the stall furthest from the ferry, and for a minute they sit in the purring idle of his truck. Alex thinks about all the days and all the summers and all the lives she lived in the bed in the back, and she thinks:
Yeah, love's nice.
They talk much, her and Jonas. Not when they're alone, but that's because they don't need to. There's an understanding between them. A wordless thing. Soundless. In the scratch and the sway of the resets, when the temporal shifts had been the only thing Alex had really understood, they'd had the quiet to themselves. But here the ocean sings them home, the lonesome siren song of sand and waves, stars and spit and sunshine, the bitter bright burn of salt. Alex finds herself humming along, the heat rising from the asphalt beneath her feet in waves.
She has a vague idea about circles, and dancing, and sacred old smoke.
Alex knows that she's probably about to break, like, fifteen laws of nature and at least twenty real, actual laws, and that's she's dragging Jonas along with her.
She'd tried to tell him that he didn't need to come. That he could leave her on the pier, come get her in the morning, and she'd probably be okay.
If the ghosts are still around, it might even be better than Jonas isn't, actually.
But he wouldn't listen, and Alex can't quite explain why she's grateful, for that. Maybe she doesn't have to.
Maybe she shouldn't.
Maybe there are a lot of things that Alex shouldn't do.
She keeps thinking about it all the way to the ferry, picking their way across the old silver wood. It hasn't rotted away beneath her feet like so many other things. Alex counts her steps like blessings, and when she finally finds the courage in her lungs, she reaches out across the space between them to take Jonas' hand.
He blinks down at her.
"You okay, Als?"
"Yeah," she says. "Let's just—let's just do this."
Jonas hoists the backpack higher over his shoulder. He's carrying the weight of both of their sins, and maybe also the weight of all the sins of all of human history combined; he's carrying the things they need to clean it up, too. Or at least, she hopes he is. Half a litre of chicken blood is seriously so much chicken blood, it's not even funny. But that's Jonas. Her garbage snowman. He wouldn't know how to say no if his life depended on it.
The ferry horn bellows last call.
Edwards Islands, ho.
The woman standing on the pier with her hands on her hips and scowling viciously is, like, creepy reminiscent of Alex's mom at her worst.
Alex lists against Jonas' side, squinting out over the water, shading her eyes with her hand from the glitter of the sunrise diamonds off the water. She doesn't know why the scowling woman sticks out so much, except that it's not even eight AM and who even is awake this early? There's no one else on the pier, so maybe that's it.
(Alex doesn't think about how much time she spends on this stupid ferry coming home, because it's starting to get to be a little embarrassing.)
"Uh, Als?" says Jonas. His grip on her hip shifts tenser. "Someone's glaring at us."
"Isn't that the sandwich shop lady?" Alex squints some more. The woman's hair is mouse-brown bleached white in the morning sunlight. She's wearing an apron and the scowl gets deeper the closer they are to docking. "Joanne?"
Jonas groans. "Jesus."
"I hate it when Ren's right," he mutters into her hair.
"What does Ren have to do with—?"
"He swore she was a witch. Shit, Als, he's never gonna let me live this down."
"Just 'cause she's scowling at us doesn't mean she's a witch, man," Alex says, dubious.
Jonas just stares down at her flatly, and Alex has to concede that he might actually have a point when Joanne aggressively stomps her way towards them as they disembark. No one who isn't a witch has that many sigils stitched into the hems of their clothing, and they're all, uh, kind of glowing.
Which, aw, hell.
That's not good.
"She reminds me of your mom," Jonas says into Alex's ear, voice low, underneath the intensifying depth of Joanne's glower as she powers her way towards them. They have one minute of privacy before she's in earshot.
Alex has to muffle her snort into Jonas' shoulder. Yeah, he's not wrong, that is one hundred percent a look her mother has down.
"So, d'you wanna do the talking, or should I?"
"It was your exorcism," Jonas says, crooking an eyebrow.
He makes a decent point; Alex has to admit. She sighs, mutters something vulgar under her breath, goes, "Fine, I guess."
Jonas has the gall to snicker. Alex refrains valiantly from punching him in the kidney.
"Uh, hi, Mrs. Addison—" Alex starts, but she doesn't get very far.
Joanne Addison, co-proprietor of Monty's Panniniery up on tenth, looks fit to spit fire. She's like five-foot-two, and the kind of forgettable that every spy aspires to be. there's not one ssingle thing remarkable about Joanne Addison, except that her clothes are glowing, and also that she is probably, definitely, for sure a witch. And she is, Alex remembers belatedly, Maggie Adler's niece.
She is also, apparently, Camena's resident witch.
"What did you two do?! There was this wave—why can't I—what were you doing on my aunt's island?!"
"Uh," Alex starts again. "We, uh, it was, um, see—"
"Oh, my god, you've got blood on your shirt!"
"It's not ours!" Alex blurts, suddenly desperate to stop the influx of accusations. No, she hasn't done anything horrible or illegal! She didn't even kill the chickens! She's just here for, like, the aftermath! "It's chicken blood!"
Joanne Addison goes very still. "Chicken blood," she says, but it's not a question.
Alex says, "Yeah, chicken blood."
There's gotta be more than only one use for chicken blood, right? Right?
The woman surveys the pair of them for what feels like a very long time. Her gaze catches over the tears in Jonas' jacket and the tired slump of Alex's shoulders, and Alex wants to yell we're just kids, okay! We're just kids and we're trying our best! I know I'm covered in blood! It's not weird!
Or it is weird, but it won't be weird for much longer.
"For god's sake," the woman sighs out heavily through her nose. "What goddamn exorcism book told you that chicken blood was the way to go?"
Alex and Jonas gape.
"No, never mind, I know exactly which one it was," Mrs. Addison says. She makes another deeply put-upon sound, the same sound that Alex's dad makes every time he goes, I'm not paid enough for this shit. Alex thinks that the sentiment probably stands. "Gods. It doesn't matter. C'mon, kiddos, let's get you two cleaned up and fed. You look like you've had one hell of a night."
Yeah, Alex wants to say, we kind of have.
And she's not exactly wrong.
They have had one hell of a night.
But this is how Alex and Jonas find themselves herded into one of those ancient suburban-mom vans that always have crumbs in the creases of the mats on the floor, the kind with squashed Nutribars stuck in the pockets behind the front seats, the kind with beige corduroy upholstery so old and frayed it's almost a sepia photograph. There's a very odd relief in not having to think about it: Jonas' truck is still parked by the quay, but neither of them says anything about it.
They're not going to get murdered by the sandwich shop lady.
(Probably not, anyway?)
Monty's is only six blocks from the pier, anyway. Streetlamps flickering off blur by as the sun rises further in the sky and the morning creeps over the city. It's a Sunday; the picture-perfect homes along the way don't stir, the blinds still closed over the windows, dew on grass fenced off behind white pickets. Alex watches them whiz by, and thinks about her own house, with its rotting porch and its screen door that doesn't quite fit. They've still got Christmas lights up in July, and half the bulbs are broken. None of these places look like they lack that kind of care.
Something cold holes up in Alex's chest, and she doesn't know how to make it go away.
Just then, Jonas' fingers lace through hers.
Alex looks up at him through teal-green bangs. She just looks at him. God, how does he always know exactly what she needs? How does he always know just what to do? How does he always know?
Jonas kind of shrugs, kind of grins out of the corner of his mouth. He squeezes her fingers, and somehow, that's enough. It, like, shouldn't be? It shouldn't be.
But it is.
Mrs. Addison parks, shuffles them quick and high-key super suspicious out of the car like she's trying to herd cats, and then unlocks the sandwich shop like this is a totally normal Sunday morning and it is totally normal to have a couple of exhausted, covered-in-blood young adults in her care.
She leaves the sign flipped to CLOSED, at least. Alex can appreciate that.
"Sit," Mrs. Addison says, orders, and disappears into the kitchen. She leaves the lights off, and that's nice, too; the morning sun is bright enough now to paint the place in glowing gold. It's one of those disappearing fifties diners, and unlike the last fifties' diner Alex had been in, this one probably isn't haunted! Cool! The place kind of looks the same, though, red and white striped vinyl and speckly tables so clean they shine. The hum of the refrigerator in the back is a modern cadence of radiation calm that shivers along Alex's wavelengths and settles her down, settles her, yeah.
Breathe, Alex, breathe.
Alex and Jonas sit.
There's something carefully staged about the way that Jonas slings an arm over Alex's shoulder, some weird, protective thing. Like she even needs it, when she's pretty sure she's totally crossed over the threshold from normal into exorcist, and there's probably not any going back.
But at the same time, it's kind of—right? Somehow? Alex drops her head back to rest against his shoulder, and she pretends not to notice the way he grins.
"So," Jonas says, under his breath. "What are we betting she's gonna yell at us?"
"Ten bucks and an ice cream," Alex says, because, yeah, they are definitely going to get yelled at, and she's totally down to get an ice cream out of it.
"Make it twenty, and I'll buy you a lollipop," Jonas says judiciously.
"That's garbage," Alex says, fond. "I'll make it twenty if you buy me a beer."
"I'm not old enough to buy beer, Als."
"Fine, but I'm gonna wear your jacket."
"You can do that," Jonas says, and he's grinning, and it's—again, that whole-body yeah, okay feeling washes over her, that feeling like they could take on vampires and demons and every undead thing that has ever existed ripples over Alex all over again. He's the worst. He needs to stay right where he is for the rest of forever, or Alex will be seriously put out. She's about to say something to that effect, just to make sure that he knows, because, god, he has to know what he is to her, but—
Just then, Mrs. Addison comes back out of the kitchen with two steaming sandwiches, plops them down in front of Jonas and Alex, and says, glowering, "Eat that."
"Are we in trouble?" Jonas ventures.
"No," Mrs. Addison says. "But I figure you've both been up all night, and if you're anything like my kids, you probably haven't had anything to eat in twelve hours. So eat that, and then we'll talk."
Alex, who has no manners, falls on the food like something rabid. Jonas, who does, is a little more couth about it.
It's quiet, while they eat.
Quiet and sunny and warm, and it remains that way until both sandwiches are gone and Alex feels a little less like a drowned rat. Which is amazing, actually, because Alex hasn't not felt like a drowned rat in… weeks. Months. Maybe years, even.
"Alright," Mrs. Addison says, and for the first time she doesn't sound like she's about to feed them to sharks. More approving, and it way humanizes her. "So. First thing, call me Joanne, I can see you struggling, and it was only funny for the first ten minutes. Second, how are we feeling?"
Alex looks at Jonas out of the corner of her eye. The emotion's died on his face, retreated, that's the word, and his mouth is all hard lines. She gets that Jonas isn't so great with authority figures. Actually, Jonas is, like, really bad at authority figures.
So she can do the talking, on this one. Alex is pretty okay at talking. "Better, thanks."
Mrs. Addison—Joanne seems to recognize that that's all she's going to get, from the way her lips purse. Her mouse-brown hair is very fluffy. She crooks an eyebrow at the pair of them. "How did it go?"
"How did what go?" Alex plays dumb, because she doesn't even know why. Maybe it's like a predator, and if she pretends to be dead, it'll lose interest?
Probably not, but it's worth a shot.
Okay, so definitely not. Alex shrugs a shoulder like a crow. "I mean, it went—okay? We didn't die, and we're not possessed, and, uh, they've moved on? So?"
"Are you sure you're not possessed?" Joanne asks, squinting at them very closely.
"Yeah," Jonas breaks in, firm. "Pretty fucking sure."
"Oh?" Joanne asks. "Have you been possessed before?"
"Yeah," Jonas says again. "Once."
Once. Twice. A hundred times. A thousand times. A million times. Every minute of every day. Alex doesn't say any of this, because she'd never been the one possessed. That had always been Jonas. She links their hands beneath the table, and finds that his knuckles are clenched.
"Huh," says Joanne. She looks between them again, a little softer, now. "So I guess you'd know."
"I guess I would," says Jonas. Alex wants to smooth down all his ruffled feathers. God, he gets so knotty that she just wants to untangle him like a cat with yarn. Instead, she digs her nails into his skin, and watches him relax.
If Alex can be normal, Jonas can be cool.
(It might just take a while.)
"They're gone, though," Alex says. "All of them. Even the ones from before."
"And how did you manage that? I've tried it, and I'm not the only one," Joanne says, and Alex knows, just knows, that there's probably been all kinds of exorcists and priests and other occult folk all over Edwards Island, because it was haunted as shit, and weirdos are always drawn to places like that.
Alex was. Is. Will be.
"Chicken blood?" Alex says, like a question but also not. She doesn't really wanna talk about the red cedar or the weed. Those'll probably get her in trouble. "Definitely for sure the chicken blood."
Joanne just stares at her for a very long minute. Alex doesn't know what the older woman sees in her face, but it's gotta be something weird, or maybe something stubborn, or maybe something else entirely. But whatever it is, it's enough to have Joanne sitting back, shoulders relaxing, like maybe she's done with the questions for a while.
"Are you two okay?"
Or maybe not.
"I think so?" Alex says. "I was really hungry."
"Don't be a brat," Jonas says into her ear, too low for Joanne to hear. Alex jabs her elbow into his side in retaliation, because he is not one to talk about being a brat to authority figures!
"You shut up," Alex tells him out of the corner of her mouth.
(She can feel him grinning. Worst, worst, worst!)
"Kids, focus," Joanne says. She dusts off her hands. "I'm assuming you want to do something stupid, like start hunting other ghosts. Am I right?"
She's so right it's a little scary. Alex ducks a little closer into Jonas' side, and doesn't answer.
"I thought as much," Joanne continues, grim, now, like she's not just totally deconstructed Alex's life plan, or anything. "But neither of you know anything about sealing, and you were using chicken's blood—for god's sake, chicken's blood, kid, it's a miracle it didn't coagulate and break the whole circle down, next time use a goat like the rest of us—you're going to need some help!"
Jonas is going to say no thanks, Alex can just tell.
They could, uh, probably use some help, though. A lot, honestly. Or something.
Because, yeah, she can still feel the last lingering touches that the ghosts left, streaked out over her skin like cool lines of filth. Alex needs a shower, or twelve showers, and also maybe a hot cocoa? She'd kind of forgotten how ghosts are, how they suck all the warmth out of your bones, so deep it's like you've got nothing left inside of your soul.
Alex doesn't want to ask for help, but she's not dumb enough to turn it down if it's offered.
She's about to open her mouth to say this, but Jonas gets there first.
"We'd like that," he says, very quiet.
Alex realizes in this moment that she likes him so much that sometimes it's properly disgusting.
"Good," Joanne nods. She smiles, all sharp edges, the way Alex's mom does when she's about to assign like, fifty chores that need doing and that both Alex and Michael have skivvied off of for the last three days because it's gonna suck to do them, honestly. It's like that, exactly like that, and Alex gets a sudden premonition of horrible dread.
Something tells her she is probably going to regret this.
But the smile doesn't drop from Joanne's face.
"Let's get you home and cleaned up, kiddos," the old witch says. "We've got work to do, and you kids covered in chicken is not the way to do it!"
Three weeks and two days later, in a whole-ass different city and with, like, twelve dollars and three exorcism books and three separate phone numbers of people that Joanne knows in her pocket to her name, Alex looks up at a crooked-hanging sign.
(There was… not a lot of money in the school fund. At least, not a lot of money in Alex's school fund. So not a lot of money, period. But Jonas has a dead mom, and with a dead mom comes a lot of dead-mom life insurance money, and because Jonas is Jonas, he hasn't touched it even though he's had every right to. It's not something they've actually talked about, which is not super great, and is something they should talk about probably, like, asap, but—this is something they both want to do. They can't stay in Camena; something about too many witches and only one pot, and honestly, Alex didn't want to stay there much longer, anyway. Her parents are getting even more snippy about Jonas than they used to be, which is fair, because Alex did come home covered in blood, and her mom did catch her. And there's nowhere within a hundred miles of North Valley that'll take Jonas on as an apprentice mechanic, anyway, so they've had to go further. Seattle is a pretty big city. Too big. Portland is better. Somehow, it's even rainier, here.)
It's a cheap-ass place, right on the edge of town. A friend of a friend of Joanne's owns it; the dude is willing to lease it for, like, next to nothing because of the connection. Nepotism! But it's big, and kinda derelict; it's missing bits of the roof, and one of the walls needs to be rebuilt completely. But a good coat of paint and some new windows would go a long way to making it liveable.
It's got a pretty great garage for whatever it is Jonas wants to do with it, anyway, and they're far enough out of the city that Alex doesn't feel like she can't breathe.
There could be something here, if they let it be.
"It's got good bones," Jonas huffs. He's staring kind of wide-eyed at the garage.
Alex looks up at the crooked-hanging sign again.
The place does have good bones. For all its cricks and cracks and nothing-walls, it does have strong foundations. Settled foundations. Foundations that could hold up against whatever Alex throws at it, whatever the world throws at it—it's lasted this long, hasn't it? Sun and wind and rain haven't taken it down. And Jonas is here, and he's not going anywhere, and—
Real good bones.
"Yeah," Alex says, nodding, sucking in cool clean air, some wretched fragile thing like possibility blooming in her chest. "This is it. Let's do it."