3 – Character Development
Alex dragged his feet, his mind numb.
“You’re boring,” Melody said. His gut squirmed at the thought. “You’re completely generic.”
It didn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter, but Alex couldn’t stop thinking about what Melody had said. Back in Boston, he’d always faded into the background, at least before word of which way he swung spread like wildfire through the school. He’d been nobody until he became ‘that gay guy’, and neither of those things were him.
Melody had hit home when she said he had no hobbies. He had nothing to feel passionate about. What was Alex even interested in?
Coming to England was his chance to reinvent himself, to get away from both extremes, but here he was, already falling into anonymity. Desperate to please everyone, he never did things on his own. What had he done since arriving in Rilhey but follow Kari around like a lost puppy? It was as if he wasn’t even the protagonist in his own life. How long could he keep living like that?
“If you stress any harder, you’ll burst a blood vessel,” Kari said.
Alex blinked back to the present. “I’m fine.”
He walked into the seawall and stumbled, cursing as pain shot up his shin. The seagulls overhead cackled in response and he glowered at them. Feathered bastards.
Kari folded her arms. “You look like you’ve witnessed murder.”
Alex hesitated, his mouth dry. Would Kari understand his dilemma?
“I have no personality,” Alex admitted. It felt weird to say it out loud.
“And?” Kari shrugged. “People tell me I have no emotions all the time.”
A stab of bitterness welled up in him but he swallowed it down. Kari wasn’t human; it wasn’t her fault she didn’t understand.
“I… I don’t…” Alex threw out his hands as if to summon the answer to him, trying to phrase it in a way an outer god could comprehend. “I don’t want to be boring.”
“Boring people are good friends, though,” Kari said. “They make you feel better about yourself.”
Alex’s shoulders drooped. “Thanks.”
The walk home was taking longer than usual, or perhaps Alex was slowing his pace subconsciously. The thought of being home alone again made him wince.
“You’re welcome.” Kari smiled, a small expression. “What brought this on, anyway?”
Alex bit his lip. It was okay to mention Melody around Kari, right?
“Melody… said some things to me,” Alex said. “About me not having hobbies.”
“Oh, her.” Kari rolled her eyes, a gesture so unlike her Alex did a double take. “You shouldn’t listen to what she says. Melody isn’t very good with people.”
Alex bit back the retort on his tongue. “She’s an… interesting person.”
“She’s a Knight.” Kari shrugged, the gesture radiating nonchalance.
“A what?” Alex sucked in a breath.
He couldn’t have heard that right. There was no way that Melody, the person who’d accused him of genericism, was actually more interesting than him.
“A member of a secret order of warrior-mages that safeguard the world against foreign entities.” Kari’s lips curled in an I-can’t-believe-I’m-actually-saying-this kind of way. “If you keep an eye out at night, you might see her doing cool ninja stuff. It’s all very de cape et d’épée.” She swished her hand as she said the last bit, her pronunciation so perfect she sounded like a different person.
Alex swallowed dryly, unsure how to process this new information. Try as he might, he couldn’t picture Melody as any kind of warrior. If what Kari said was true, however, that would lend Melody’s criticism even more weight.
Both an outer god and a Knight thought he was boring. Never had he felt more insignificant.
Kari stopped suddenly. “That’s it.”
Alex froze. “What is?”
A cold wind whipped in from the coast and goose-bumps broke out on Alex’s flesh.
“Come with me.” Kari took off, her pace so quick Alex had to jog to catch up. Determination glinted in her eyes. “I know why you have no personality.”
Alex’s legs trembled as he stepped past the threshold of Kari’s house, but he forced them to still. Hana wouldn’t hurt him. His heartbeat raced. The kitchen door lay open and the sound of someone washing-up bled through the air.
“Kari?” Hana called.
Alex flinched at her voice and a chill sweat covered his skin. He slipped off his shoes. A tendril curled around the kitchen doorframe and a hell-green eye blinked on its writhing surface.
“Alex, sweetie!” The tendril grinned. “How lovely to see you!”
“Y-You too.” Alex’s blood was icy with fear.
Kari walked into the kitchen and he followed, each step a fight not to flee. Hana stood by the sink and no fewer than five arms protruded from her sides, all sinuous and spindly. She washed up, dried and put away utensils at the same time, working with a terrifying efficiency. An eye split open on the back of her head.
“Kari, why didn’t you tell me Alex was coming over?” Hana chided. “I’d have baked a cake if I knew.”
“It was a spontaneous decision,” Kari said.
“You can spontaneously teleport,” Hana replied.
Kari tensed. “Mum.”
Alex forgot to react until Kari glanced at him nervously. He quickly fixed his face into an expression of surprise, one someone with a personality would show.
“You can teleport?” The words came out as dull as the rest of him, though, because of course Kari could teleport.
Kari hid her face behind her hair and mumbled something inaudible. So much for Kari not having emotions.
“Don’t worry about the cake,” Alex said.
“Oh, you’re such a good boy.” Two more arms grew from Hana’s back and she pinched his cheeks. Her touch was warmer than Alex expected, and he almost didn’t flinch..
A clacking sound scrambled down the hallway and Shub burst into the kitchen, bleating in excitement. Kari picked Shub up and the goat bounced its legs. Alex’s heart lightened.
“Let’s go upstairs, Alex,” Kari said.
Alex followed Kari to her room and his curiosity outgrew his apprehension. What would an outer god’s private sanctuary look like? Did they even need to sleep? Knowing Kari, Alex wouldn’t be surprised if her whole room was bubble-tea-themed.
It was not.
Kari’s room was surprisingly bare. A bed was tucked into the corner, the green sheets so perfectly straight that Alex was fairly sure the bed had never been slept on. He could see homework he’d forgotten to do on Kari’s desk, and the other wall was covered in manga.
Alex blinked. Most of the titles were in Japanese so he had no idea what they said, but a lot of the covers had illustrations of men in embraces of varying consent. He could guess what the subject matter was.
Shub hopped down from Kari’s arms and Kari pointed at her bookshelves. “This is the problem.”
“The manga?” Alex didn’t like where this was going.
Shaking her head, Kari grabbed a volume and held it up for him to see. “This.”Fortunately, the cover was tame.
“I don’t get it.” Alex scratched his head. Was Kari trying to rub in how she could read Japanese? Because with English and French in her repertoire, too, Alex already felt incompetent.
Kari sighed and opened the volume to a full-page spread of the woman in a bikini slaying a dragon. “Here, see? Compared to me, you’re just not interesting enough.”
For a split-second Alex thought she’d read his mind and a cry escaped his lips, his hands flying to his head. Then he realised she’d just stated an obvious truth and his hands fell to his sides, dangling uselessly.
“That was rude,” Alex said, because he couldn’t bring himself to admit she was right.
“It’s true, though.” Kari put the volume back. “Compared to Melody and me, you’re always going to be boring.”
Alex was so offended he could feel it in his chest like the sharp twist of a knife. Did the truth always hurt this much? Kari had bubble-tea; that counted as a hobby, right? Compared to her, Alex was the plainest of background characters. He probably wasn’t even drawn in colour!
Wait, what was he even thinking about?
“I think we’re getting off-topic.” Alex frowned.
“How old are you?” Kari asked. “Sixteen?”
She sat on her bed and Shub chewed on her sock. Kari didn’t seem to notice.
“Seventeen,” Alex corrected.
“Exactly,” Kari said. “You’re still a baby. How many babies do you know with unique personalities?”
“That’s not helping.” Alex sat on the floor with a sigh. Even an actual baby would be more interesting than him. Maybe he should start bawling for attention, too.
Kari picked Shub up and set the kid on the bed, away from her sock. Shub bleated indignantly and munched the bedsheets, a mood Alex appreciated.
“If you’re so concerned about not having hobbies, you should join a club,” Kari said.
“That’s a good point, actually,” Alex said. “Are you a part of any clubs?”
Kari shook her head. “They aren’t my thing.”
Of course. Kari was interesting by herself; she didn’t need hobbies to do that for her. Then Alex remembered how socially awkward she was and an image flashed in his mind, of Kari sitting alone in the cafeteria.
Had anyone ever asked her?
“We should join one together,” Alex said. No matter how inadequate he felt, he couldn’t use it as an excuse to be spiteful to her.
Kari laid back, her eyes fixed on the ceiling. A moment’s silence.
“If you try any non-sports ones, I’ll go with you,” she said at last.
The sound of pencils scratching paper filled the room, and sunlight filtered in through the window. As per gender stereotypes, Alex was the only boy in the art class. A bowl of fruit sat on the desk in the centre of the room, arranged in a precarious balance the instructor had dubbed ‘artistic’.
He peered at the girl next to him. Her piece was in watercolour and her fruit had a surreal, dreamlike quality to it; she was clearly talented. Alex’s drawing, on the other hand, was a disaster in graphite, and he was beginning to suspect there was no way to draw a banana without it looking phallic. How was Kari doing?
One glance at her paper told Alex she’d ignored the brief and was instead sketching a photorealistic cup of bubble tea. Kari swallowed hungrily. Alex stared back at his monstrosity.
Perhaps art wasn’t for him.
“What about rounders?” Kari pointed at the advertisement on the noticeboard.
Alex frowned. “You said you didn’t want to do sport.”
“I can watch,” Kari said.
Alex gripped the bat with both hands and kept his gaze fixed squarely on the bowler. He wasn’t that far away; how fast could he really throw the ball? Alex had played a bit of baseball back in Boston. He could do this.
A bead of sweat traced his spine.
The bowler threw and the ball hurtled through the air.
Alex swung with all his might. The bat’s momentum tugged him with it and he stumbled forwards, his arms jerking in their sockets. The ball landed squarely in the keeper’s glove.
Alex readied himself again, his brows narrow with concentration. He could feel the rest of the players’ eyes on him and self-consciousness pawed at his lungs, but no, he had to concentrate. Eye on the ball. Eye on the ball!
He swung. He missed.
“Relax,” someone said. “You’re way too tense.”
Alex took a deep breath and steadied himself, settling into his stance. Third ball; last chance. You had to be good at something to have it as a hobby, right?
The bowler threw the ball and Alex relished the crack! as the bat hit it. The ball shot across the field and Alex ran forwards, adrenaline buzzing through his muscles, then he realised where the ball was headed and the person who stood there.
His heart skipped a beat. “Kari!”
Kari caught the ball in a blur of movement, so impossibly fast it smoked in her hand. Alex sighed in relief.
“Be careful.” Kari chucked the ball back and it bounced a couple of feet away from her, rolling to a stop in front of a fielder.
The fielder picked it up, chucked it to another fielder and she touched first base, which Alex still hadn’t reached.
After a hellish hour of stretching, the soccer match finally started. No, damnit, not soccer. Football. He’d earned enough glares for that mistake already.
Sweat drenched his shirt and lactic acid dragged at his limbs as he chased the ball, but by the time he reached it the ball was already across the other side of the field. Mud splattered his shins.
This continued for another two hours.
“You look tired,” Kari said.
Alex mustered a grunt in reply. He’d been trying different clubs every day this past week and it was taking its toll, football in particular wrecking his stamina. If he’d known Rilhey College took it so seriously, he would have steered well clear.
“Music?” Kari suggested.
Alex shook his head. “I’m not musical.”
He tried to focus on the worksheet he was supposed to be doing but the classroom was warm and the fog in his head made sleep ever so tempting. A comfortable murmur of conversations drifted through the room, most of it off-topic. Maths. Why had Alex ever chosen to do Maths?
“There’s not much else left you haven’t tried,” Kari said. She’d already completed the worksheet, her handwriting so neat it could have been print.
A yawn escape Alex’s mouth. “I have to find something.” It was about more than proving Melody wrong at this point. Alex wanted to find a hobby. He wanted something he could get excited about, something he could invest his time in. Something he could be happy doing.
Someone cleared their throat behind them.
“Might I interrupt?” Melody said.
“You already have.” Alex groaned, his eyelids heavy. He was not awake enough to deal with Melody right now.
Melody leaned over from the desk behind Alex and Kari’s, her torso twisted yet her blazer miraculously free of creases. A plaited skirt completed the look, and Alex had to wonder what the point of no school uniform was if you were going to wear what was basically one anyway.
“I can’t help but feel this is my fault,” Melody said.
“It is.” The words escaped Alex’s lips before he could stop them. God damnit.
Melody was a Knight, whatever the hell that meant. Looking at her now, with her every hair fastidiously in place, it was difficult to believe she did even remotely strenuous exercise.
“I’m sorry,” Melody said. “I didn’t mean to offend you.” Her brows creased in concern.
“You told me I’m completely generic,” Alex deadpanned. “How else am I supposed to take that?”
“It’s not a bad thing,” Melody protested. “You have no idea what I’d give to be—” She clamped her mouth shut with a glance at Kari.
Even through the haze of five hours’ sleep, Alex could read the expression in Melody’s eyes, a strange mix of envy and guilt. He frowned. Now that he looked closer, a strand of loose hair escaped Melody’s ponytail. She noticed him staring and tucked it away quickly.
Alex sighed. “Apology accepted.”
The guy in front of Alex turned around and, to Alex’s embarrassment, it was the person whose back profile he’d admired on his first day. What was his name again? Nathan, that was it.
“I hear you’re looking for a club.” Nathan grinned.
Heat rose to Alex’s face. Nathan’s smile dazzled against his dark skin and Alex could see the planes of his muscles even through his shirt. It was a nice shirt, beige and tight.
“How about rugby?” Nathan said. “I captain the club, and we could use more players.”
Rugby was absolutely the last thing Alex wanted to do. His muscles ached and his head pounded, but Nathan’s eyes were so hopeful and god, was he handsome. God, did Alex hate his hormones.
“Sure.” Alex grinned weakly.
“Great!” The way Nathan beamed made Alex’s stomach flutter. “I’ll see you after class, man.” Nathan turned back around.
“You’re exhausted.” Melody frowned. “Why would you agree to that?”
Kari snorted. “It’s because he—”
“Don’t you dare finish that sentence,” Alex warned.
Kari closed her mouth.
Running. How long had Alex been running? He didn’t know. What was he doing again? Sweat coursed down his skin and his foot slipped in the mud. So tired. A ball flew past him, all strange and pointy, and without thinking he snatched it from the air.
Huh. Perhaps he was getting the hang of rugby after all.
Nathan slammed into Alex and he hit the floor hard, the breath knocked from his lungs. Black spots danced in his vision, and his last thought as unconsciousness claimed him was huh, the ground is actually quite comfortable.
Light drifted into his vision, twin pinpricks of emerald. Tendrils and gaping mouths flashed in his mind and Alex shot up, but it was only Kari, her expression as unfathomable as ever.
“He’s awake,” Kari said.
Alex sat up, gulping down breaths to slow his racing heart. What happened? He recognised the fluttering curtains of the nurse’s room, and Melody and Nathan sat on seats next him. Wait, Nathan. Rugby.
With a groan Alex covered his eyes. He’d collapsed out on the field, in front of everyone. In front of Nathan. Death might as well claim him now.
“How are you feeling?” Nathan asked. A twinge of guilt in his eyes.
“Like shit.” Alex winced as he rolled his shoulder.
“You look it,” Melody agreed. “You should get some rest.”
Alex swung his feet off the bed and for a moment the world spun, but then it settled. Thank goodness it was Saturday tomorrow.
“I’m sorry for tackling you, and for pressuring you into rugby,” Nathan said. “I didn’t know you weren’t feeling well.”
“No, it’s…” Alex nodded. “I enjoyed it.” Or at least, what he remembered of it.
“Really?” Nathan’s face lit up. “That’s great, man! You’re welcome back anytime.”
Alex grinned. “So long as you don’t knock me out again.”
The man unlocked the door with a careful precision, his every move calculated to draw as little attention as possible. He was a regular citizen, an upstanding member of the community. At least, that was what his neighbours had to believe.
The man reflected the house he lived in, every inch of his appearance carefully sculpted until it was so ordinary no one looked twice at him. Invisible, as he should be. The door creaked as he closed it behind him, and stood in silence for a moment. Glorious, abhorrent silence.
His keys jangled as he set them on the counter and slid open the door to the garden. An evening breeze ruffled the hedgerow, and he could taste brine in the air. A smile. Rilhey was perfect in every way: the burial sites, the sea, the ley lines… He wouldn’t fail. He couldn’t.
Chickens clucked in their coop at the back of the garden and the man turned his nose at the scent of excrement. Covering his mouth, he reached inside the coop and grabbed a chicken by its neck. The bird squawked and flapped in protest, and the man had to wrestle it with both hands to keep it still. His face grim, he lugged it inside and down into the basement.
The windows were boarded up and candles flickered through the darkness, their smoke thick and heady. Books filled the basement, sheaves of parchment littered with arcane scrawls and dread knowledge. It had taken the man years to amass his collection, time and money and more than a little blood.
A chalk circle decorated the floor and the man threw the chicken into it. He grabbed a knife, its handle yellowed bone, and sweat dripped down his spine. Words whispered from his lips, a horrid sibilance the human mouth was not designed to utter. Something undulated through the room.
The knife fell.
A spray of blood.