2 – Who Are You?
“Let’s go get bubble tea,” Kari said. She stood straight as a skeleton, her bag clasped in front of her.
Alex started at her voice and scrambled out of his chair. “I… Yes.” He didn’t have much choice. Besides, after what happened yesterday, he’d never ended up drinking his tea.
Kari nodded in approval. Alex gulped, a shudder running down his spine. Tendrils writhed in his mind and his brain throbbed with unknowable horrors, but he’d survived. Alex wiped his palms on his trousers. He was alive, and he had no idea how. The human mind could break from seeing things it did understand, let alone abominations it could never hope to comprehend.
“Are you coming?” Kari said. She glanced over her shoulder, her emerald eyes sharp in the afternoon light.
Alex shrugged his bag onto his shoulders and hastened to join her. Whispers followed him from the room and he caught Melody’s expression for a moment, the purse of her lips, but he’d worry about her later. God knew what Kari would do if Alex made her late for bubble tea.
Seagulls wheeled through the winter air and brine rode the wind. Alex walked on top of the seawall, gazing across the ocean. The English seaside felt completely different from Boston, cold and grey. There was no sand either, the beach littered with smooth pebbles, and the whole scene felt rather miserable.
Something crested the waves close to the shore, its skin a smooth, greenish-grey. A dolphin? Shark? Sunken god hellbent on ending humanity? Alex swallowed. Any manner of things could lurk beneath the ocean’s surface, just beyond science’s reach.
“I’m sorry about my mother.” Kari’s voice broke the silence. “She can be overprotective.”
Countless eyes and mouths burned in Alex’s mind and sweat dripped down his back. “I gathered.”
“I would have warned you if I’d known she’d reveal herself,” Kari said. Her words were casual, relaxed, as if eldritch horrors were an everyday occurrence.
A nervous laugh escaped Alex’s lips. “I don’t think anything could have prepared me for that.”
“True.” Kari smiled softly.
The road veered into town and Alex hopped off the seawall. He ran a hand through his hair.
“So,” Alex said. “You’re alien gods, then.”
“Outer gods.” Kari’s eyebrow twitched. “Calling me an alien is like me calling you a faggot.”
“Sorry,” Alex said quickly. His heart raced.
She shook her head. “Don’t worry about it.”
Alex pulled on the straps on his bag. “How come I didn’t…” He trailed off, unsure how to phrase this without offending her.
“Go crazy?” Kari supplied.
“Yeah.” He’d woken today feeling surprisingly okay, and mostly sane.
Kari sighed. “Mother didn’t even come close to showing you her true form,” she said. “If she’d had, you’d be dead in milliseconds.”
Alex mouth went dry. “Oh.”
That nightmare he’d witnessed wasn’t even the real thing. Hana’s true form… Did Kari have one, too? She looked so human. Alex studied the way pale skin stretched over her smooth features and her black hair blew in the wind. Ordinary, yet almost too ordinary. Kari’s perfection was carefully sculpted, a gilded cage for what hid beneath.
She noticed him staring. “I’m not like my mother.” Kari met his gaze. “Not entirely.”
“You’re not an outer god?” Alex said.
“I am,” she said. “But I’m different.”
Alex got the feeling Kari wasn’t going to elaborate.
They neared the town centre. Schoolchildren milled around bus-stops and middle-class mums pushed prams down the street. It was a typical, suburban scene, and none of them so much as blinked at Kari. A strange feeling spread through Alex. Was he the only one who knew the truth?
“Why bubble tea?” Alex said. It was something he’d been wondering.
Kari perked up and a smile lit her face. “It’s delicious.”
A bell tinkled as they entered ‘Rainbow Tea’ and the smell of sugar hit him like a physical wall.
“Kari!” The man behind the counter grinned. “My favourite customer.”
Kari smiled. “Hello, Gregory.”
Gregory bore all the hallmarks of someone who ate too much sugar: he jittered with nervous energy and his face was a canvas of acne.
“Is this a friend?” Gregory smirked.
“This is Alex,” Kari said. “He’s gay.”
Gregory nodded. “Cool.”
Alex smiled awkwardly, then dragged Kari over to a table.
“Why did you say that?” he whispered.
Kari frowned. “But you are gay.”
“He doesn’t have to know.”
“Do you not want him to know?” Kari said. “Gregory is honourable, I assure you.”
“No, I…” Alex sighed in exasperation. “You wouldn’t like it if I introduced you as an outer god, would you?”
“Oh.” Kari looked down. “Sorry.”
Red brushed her cheeks: embarrassment. It was the most human expression Alex had seen on her to date. That strange feeling was back, a warmth curling through him, and Alex was beginning to suspect he might genuinely want to be Kari’s friend.
“It’s okay.” He smiled. “Just don’t do it again.”
Kari brightened. “You have my word. Now then,” she cracked open a menu, “are you ready for the best experience of your life?”
Alex browsed the options. “What would you recommend?” There were so many flavours and combinations, he had no idea where to start. Custard? In tea?
“Milk oolong is good for beginners,” Kari said. “And black pearls, of course.”
Alex scratched his head. “What are you getting?”
He blinked. “Sorry, what?”
Kari’s eyes flashed. “Everything.”
“Alex Howard,” said a voice.
Like the first time she’d spoken to him, Melody First waited until Kari wasn’t around to approach Alex. She caught him in the corridor outside psychology, a place nigh deserted on Wednesday afternoons, and the letters on her school-council badge shone: PRESIDENT. Of course she was.
“Yes?” Alex said.
“I told you to be careful around Kari,” Melody said. Her words were as haughty as ever, her shoulders square.
“I know.” Alex’s brows creased. The question was, did Melody? Alex wanted to ask, but anything he said might reveal Kari and Hana. He sure as hell didn’t want that mess in his life.
Melody glanced around then leaned in, her eyes hard. “This might be difficult for you to believe, but…” She exhaled. “Kari’s family worship dark gods.”
Alex bit his cheek to stop himself snorting. Kari’s family did a lot more than just worship dark gods.
“I’ll bear that in mind.” What else was Alex supposed to say?
Melody folded her arms. “You don’t seem to understand the gravity of what I said.”
“No, I…” Alex nodded. “I’ll be careful.”
Alex’s gut twisted from all he didn’t know. What exactly was Melody? Alex was fairly sure she wasn’t the same as Kari, but she could still be magic, or alien or whatever the correct term was.
“Careful won’t cut it,” Melody snapped. “There’s no telling what she’s planning. For all we know, her interest in you could be as a potential sacrifice.”
Alex rolled his eyes. “Right.” He understood Melody was worried about him, but her fears seemed a little extreme.
Melody sighed. “I just… I don’t understand what else she could see in you.”
“Excuse me?” Alex quirked his eyebrow.
“She hasn’t talked to anyone else nearly as much as she has you,” Melody said.
Alex wanted to point out that in the two days he’d been at Rilhey College, he was the only one who’d actually approached Kari, but he didn’t think Melody would appreciate that observation.
“Where did you come from?” Melody asked.
“You speak with an English accent,” Melody said.
“Because I’m English,” Alex replied. “I moved to the U.S. when I was fourteen.” His dad had briefly taken up a teaching position at Harvard.
Melody frowned at him with such intensity Alex shuddered. “Why are you here now?”
What was she after? His character description?
“Where are your parents?”
“On a dig in Iran.”
“So you live on your own?” Melody asked.
“Yes.” He could see the thoughts spinning through her mind, that if he lived alone then there was no one to notice him going missing. Alex’s gut twisted as he realised she was right.
“And you have no hobbies,” Melody said.
“I do,” Alex protested. “I do… things.”
Melody raised her eyebrow. “Things?”
Alex huffed. “What does that have to do with anything?” He may not have any pastimes, but that didn’t make him any less of a person.
“You’re boring,” Melody said. The word stabbed into him. “You’re completely generic.”
Alex had no idea why Melody was attacking him like this, but she’d been absolutely right up until that last point. One thing set him apart from the masses.
Alex grinned. “I’m gay.”
“Being gay is not a character trait,” Melody deadpanned.
Her words pounded through his head. Alex’s smile shattered and he clutched his face, his fingers digging into his skin. She… She was right.
Oh my god.
I… I have no personality!