A House Drawn
Disclaimer: I don't own The Faculty or its characters. That's probably for the best.
Author's Notes: My representation of Zeke? Incredibly different from most of the portrayals I see in the Faculty fandom. I'm really tentative about posting this. In the film, Zeke had this incredible mix of utter confidence and fleeting, very-tiny moments of startling vulnerability. So I decided to play with that. I think it got a little out of hand, hence the OOC-ish nature, but at the same time I want to explore the small indications of how kinda-really-yeah-fucked-up Zeke could be. So... yes. This is a big experiment.
Casey x Zeke. Yes, pretty much in that order. Also has some OC x Zeke, but it's, oh, three sentences worth. I hope someone enjoys this! Thank you for reading!
The city had fallen. We came to the window of a house drawn by a madman. The setting sun shone on a few abandoned machines of futility. "I remember," someone said, "how in ancient times one could turn a wolf into a human and then lecture it to one's heart's content."
- "Seven Prose Poems," by Charles Simic
The paramedics dab at his forehead with gauze and some shit that stings like a mother, and Zeke pretends their hands aren't shaking the entire time because fuck knows his are, too. The whole town's up on its head. The police can barely do their jobs—they seem to ask themselves as many questions as they ask Zeke and the others, about what went down tonight, about the aliens. Aliens. Fuck if that word doesn't even feel weird to say anymore. It's now a part of Zeke's well-abused vocabulary.
Eventually everyone is sent home or collected by their parents. Tomorrow's going to be an interesting day, but what does Zeke care? He's fucking exhausted. He's just help save the whole world from an alien invasion with scat. That takes a lot out of a guy.
He takes a hot shower and falls into an empty bed in an empty house and has empty, empty dreams.
People can't decide whether to believe them or to scoff at them. The townspeople walk on eggshells and drop crying into each other's arms the first few days. Then they "discuss" the situation. Then they just want to forget. The FBI and other various agencies made of acronyms take away most of the evidence, then the witness statement files, then the will to inquire. Only the media cares after that. Zeke doesn't mind. Casey does—he wants everyone to know, to remember, not because it makes him a hero but because otherwise, Zeke figures, he's going to doubt what happened just as much as they do—but Zeke likes the idea of moving on. He's always been that way. Major shit goes down, he survives, he keeps breathing, and then it's time to duck low until the next shell shock.
Everyone wins that way, right?
Zeke loves being the center of attention. He figures there's something addictive about it; the way people are alternately intrigued and offended by him is pleasing. He's smart enough to keep his teachers impressed but despairing, and clever enough to keep his feet out of the mud and still toe the line of reckless behavior, and fucked up enough to flaunt his involuntary independence while bristling at the mere mention of his parents. So he raises his hand during class, to ridicule and to show off at the same time. He can't keep from being a wiseass every time he opens his mouth, especially when he's right. But this kind of attention, the one with the reporters and the big city shrinks and the cops treating him like a dumb hick, that's the sort Zeke wants nothing to do with, thanks.
So he stays quiet. He doesn't deny, he'll say, "Yeah, it happened, you fuckwad. Aliens, all right? Now shut the hell up." But Zeke doesn't announce it, and he spends the first few weeks after That Night sitting at home, curled up in an armchair no one but himself uses, glasses perched on nose and Richard Preston's The Hot Zone propped against his inside elbow. The monkey is awesome.
(Then it's The Count of Monte Cristo, and then Macrobius' essays on physics, and then Where the Wild Things Are.)
Mary Beth was never supposed to mean much.
The pretty new girl with the charming accent. Zeke dislikes the phrase "another notch in the bedpost," but whatever, it's the same idea. Sex is sex, at the base of it, nothing but a physical act pleasurable because of biology and social conditioning. That she'd turned out to be an alien queen bent on taking over the planet is a bit of a blow to his ego, but only because he should've added up the pieces to make a whole. There have been plenty of girls. Prettier ones.
(Also, that one guy, that one time, that maroon wall that pressed into Zeke's back—and what sort of goddamn idiot doesn't carry condoms to a place like that?—it didn't go anywhere.)
And sometimes he dreams of her, but she turns into his mother before she eats him, which is all sorts of ways fucked up.
Delilah ignores him, which is normal, and Stan nods to him in the hallways and probably will do so until they graduate. Stokley says hi, but she's pretty alien herself these days, all lavenders and soft blues and smiles. Zeke doesn't give a shit. He hadn't been friends with them before, why should a life-altering (except not so much) event change that? He likes to be alone.
But Casey, now there's the hitch.
Zeke's spoken to Casey only a handful of times before, but they had what one might call an okay-kinda-easy truce. Of sorts. In that Zeke thinks beating geeks up is crass, but mocking them is just fine, especially if they're delightful in that way that they mock back on occasion. Casey is like that. The first time Zeke taunted Casey, the kid had blood leaking out of his nose (again) and Casey had bit back something just sarcastic enough to earn Zeke's appreciation, however mild. So their deal is that Zeke gets his kicks and Casey doesn't get another tormenter, and sometimes when they have a "verbal exchange" of eighteen seconds, it's not actually that bad. One lone wolf nodding to another, maybe. An exchange of barbs not meant to bleed, just to scratch. Zeke had been amused by Casey and Casey didn't care so long as he came out of it with his groin intact.
After the aliens (and man, Zeke keeps thinking of time like that now and it pisses him off, like the world has divided into "before the aliens" and "after the fucking aliens"), Casey changes. Sometimes they hang out and play video games. Sometimes Casey needs help with physics and other times, Zeke needs someone to tell him he's being an ass. Casey sits with Zeke at lunch; at first it had been tentative, Casey unrolling his brown paper bag lunch with all the nerves of someone who hadn't taken on an alien queen, and soon it's normal, Casey plunking down in the seat and complaining about the dark room smelling like sex again.
Sometimes Zeke gives Casey a ride—to school, to a remote and ideal location for his photography, to the local aquarium to make sure aliens aren't invading through cleverly disguised angel fish. Zeke doesn't really like Casey's company. It's okay, that is—just uncomfortable sometimes, because Zeke isn't used to "hanging out," not long term. He's got buyers and acquaintances and someone-to-make-out-with, but that's about it. Friends is stretching the English language too hard.
Casey is, maybe, a friend. Casey was smart enough to spot an invasion. He's also quick enough to catch onto Zeke's weird little habits and latent bitterness. He doesn't take offense to Zeke's irritable nature. That bugs Zeke. No one should "get" him, because that means someone gives a fuck and that—
Jesus, he's screwed up a little. He knows that. He knows that, and so does Casey, but Casey keeps giving him that creepy grin that says to join the fucking club.
He thinks about calling his parents. Except he doesn't know where they are, and besides, it's not like they'd care. His dad thinks Zeke acts too much like his mother and looks too much like the guy she fucked to have him, and Zeke's mother, well, there's a whole other cliché horror story. She's left nothing of herself behind in Ohio except Zeke and that's fine by him. Her marks would be more like gouges, anyway.
Zeke likes having no parents. He has plenty of cash and can use it however he wants. He likes having the house to himself. He grew up listening to silence in the rooms and in his head, and so now he fills it with whatever he can read or watch on television or hear on the radio. He's turned out a lot better for it, too. Most of the shitheads at school? They have parents and they're more screwed up than Zeke is on a bad day.
This house drives Zeke crazy. Most nights, he sleeps in his lab.
He's trashed his house a total of twenty-three times in his life. Keeps count, especially of the details: eighteen of those times because he was furious, sixteen of which he cleaned up before anyone ever came home to notice, three of which he got in trouble for (worth it), once when he cried, and twenty-three of which never did much of anything except make him bone-tired.
He trashes it again a week after the alien invasion. Flat out fucks the shit up. Rips down the curtains and throws the lamps against the wall. Crashes down the entertainment center. Yanks the phone cord out of the jack. Opens the refrigerator that he uses more to store chemicals than food, and pulls out every shelf, shattering glass tubes and splattering ketchup and two-week-old lo mein across the black-to-white-to-black floor tiles. His mother's third anniversary wine glasses (never used) take a dive. He kicks in a few doors until his toes hurt like a bitch, and his knuckles are bleeding at one point, slick and on fire, and he's sure he's bellowing all sorts of crazy ass stuff.
It feels pretty damn good. After that, Zeke feels balanced again. The town is not taken over by parasites. He's in control of his own brain. No one gives a damn about either, of course.
It takes him two days to clean up the mess, and Casey asks why he smells like Pine Sol and plaster. Zeke just grins slyly and says, "Wouldn't you like to know."
Then he says, "You wanna come see?"
Zeke really is a stupid shit sometimes.
Casey is stupider. When he sees the kitchen, which hasn't been touched yet (Zeke's gonna get to it tonight, he swears, but it's not like he uses it much), there's a moment where he pauses, as if caught on some ledge he can't see but knows is there. Then he takes a step forward and glass cracks underneath his sneakers.
"Cool," he says then.
The first time they all get together After the Aliens (it deserves its own capital letters now, Zeke decides), they start hushed and then they laugh and then they talk well into the night. But at some point, it turns to how it felt.
"It was so weird," says Stokley. Without makeup, her face is surprisingly gentle in its angles. She's drinking iced tea, which is also surprisingly gentle-like. "It was like I was aware of everything happening, but I wanted to do it, too. We all did, because there was no I. Like a giant pool. I wasn't trapped, I was just… going with the flow. Influenced."
"I wanted what she wanted," murmurs Stan. They exchange looks that make Zeke want to roll his eyes.
Delilah snorts and loops an arm through Casey's. "I felt pissed."
"You did?" asks Casey, surprised.
"Well… after." She glances at Zeke, troubled, and he knows what she's thinking about—that she doesn't want to talk, but since they're laying their cards on the table, she might as well. Delilah is similar to Zeke in the way that they both want to stand apart, aloof, but they're drawn just as badly to the opposite. They harbor—burns. Because of this. "At first… I was happy. It all seemed so simple." A card slid out amongst them, then, but not an ace. Maybe a ten of spades.
Casey squeezes her shoulder. "I was just terrified," he admits. "It was only a split second—but it was like a thousand voices were weaving into me. Like I could hear what was waiting, that it'd be okay, but I was just scared."
Zeke says nothing. He'd been crashed into a bus, knocked into lockers, and generally beat around, but that was the farthest an alien got with him. His brain is possibly the only one in the town that's never been invaded by aliens. (It's funny how everyone thinks he's on the inside with these guys—but on the inside, he's really the outside.)
"I wonder whether she was right, at least a little," whispers Casey, long after Stokley's fallen asleep on Stan's shoulder and Delilah's messing with her lips in the bathroom and the light has fallen, leaving Stan's garage in a well of darkness.
Zeke mutters, "I don't."
He's always hated swimming. Zeke's a guy who likes his layers; even in the heat, he'd been sporting at least three shirts, something to fall over his knuckles. He knows, if he examines himself from a distance, that's more for mental protection than the climate. Swimming is definitely out of the picture. Too much skin. He dislikes the sense of buoyancy. No firm ground to stand on, see.
When he was young, his mother took him to the public pool once. He'd worn orange trunks that were a little too large for him. He'd clung to the side most of the time, studying the temperature gauge, studying the kids splashing, studying the structure of the lifeguard chairs and the substance of the deep end rope divider, waiting to learn something about why this was supposed to be fun.
He would have hated all the fucking water on her planet. Endless oceans? Give him a fucking break, she should've been used to being alone.
He joins the football team.
Not because he particularly wants to, but because he felt like doing something different and hard-headed. No one expected him to demand a spot on the team. So that's exactly what Zeke did.
It's not bad, actually. He still gets to smoke, and Coach is an asshole. Zeke enjoys mean people. Football is pretty much a hell of a lot of mean.
Casey comes to some of his games. Zeke thinks that's hilarious, too, so long as he doesn't have to think about it.
"Bruni," says Casey decisively, rolling one of Zeke's cigarettes between his finger and thumb. He likes to do things with his hands while he talks.
Zeke considers for a second. "Points for style, but not subtlety," he decides, wrapping a plastic tube to one of his wire frames with Scotch tape. His lab is being rebuilt, stolen equipment piece by stolen equipment piece. He'd owe the science department big, but Zeke doesn't believe in one-sided debt. "Cambio."
"Um. Too old school for me."
"What? Too medieval, I'm sorry. Let's stick to High Renaissance, I know it better. Michelangelo?"
"Now that's fuckin' cheating. Everyone knows Michelangelo."
Casey cocks the unlit cigarette at him. "Exactly my point."
Zeke rolls his eyes and straps another tube down. "Crap work. But great attitude. He punched some guy in the nose once for shooting his mouth, and I can respect a man like that."
"Huh. And here I didn't think you respected anybody."
He swallows the 'I respect you,' that automatically surfaces in his vocal chords, uncommonly flustered. When he thinks it over, though, he finds the statement to be true. Which makes it all the more important that he never voices it. He's not even sure how it happened, Casey slumped on his ratty sofa, watching him work and chatting about fucking Italian academics of all things—
"Uccello," he says, and clears his mind of all but what's beneath his hands.
He wakes up, having dreamt of a slimy push at his ear and mouth and the corners of his eyeballs. His heart races, his breath heaving soundlessly and then, like a pop, altogether too loud in the stillness.
"Fuck," says Zeke. "Fuck."
His mother still has sleeping pills in the medicine cabinet, dated for prescription three years ago. Zeke doesn't think pills can go bad. A curious idea. He'll have to research that later, he's not sure. He takes one, stumbles back to the sofa in the lab, pulls the wool 49ers blanket over him, and sleeps.
He wakes up again well into third period, sun shafting through the only window and catching dust in its path.
"Freak," the girl snarls, catching Zeke's shoulder hard. He has to twist to avoid hitting the lockers; she just keeps walking, her red hair flouncing on her shoulders. He calls her a bitch behind her back and turns to do the same, minus the flouncing.
"Doesn't it get to you?" Casey asks quietly, the one time he witnesses what has now become a daily event (no doubt for him, too, the people who won't accept, and Zeke knows about the arguments with his parents). Zeke only shrugs.
It doesn't, really. "They're just jealous," he points out, which is either true or not true, and it doesn't matter, either. "C'mon, I'll buy you a beer."
"Maybe a Coke."
"Moving up in the world of drugs, are we, Casey?"
Casey grins in that special-strange-you-never-know way. "Well, I have seen what they can do."
One day, Zeke takes out all the shelves in the big linen closet upstairs and makes a fucked up, miniature version of a bomb shelter, except without the shelter part and without the bomb part. He stores some canned food, a few books, some essentials. He keeps the guns taped to the left wall, hidden behind a panel. (Yes, guns. One is obviously not enough, fuck that.)
He just feels like it, that's all.
Casey takes these pictures, right? Black and white, really high class and elegant. "Color says a lot," he tells Zeke, fanning out his latest work across Zeke's desk, "but if you strip away all the distractions, you find out what's right in front of your eyes."
"I see… a tree." A well-composed, precisely framed shot of a tree, actually, but Zeke's not about to tell him that. A tree is a tree. You can't get around that and no self-respecting person like Zeke would pay to see it in black and white when it's attainable for real just outside of a window. He tells Casey so.
"Here," says Casey, pushing forward one of Stan and Stokley.
"I see… gross, Case." They're so close that their foreheads almost touch, but not quite. Just enough to prove what they're thinking about doing. Zeke furrows his brow. "They're being dopey and shit. Also something I can see every day and don't want to, particularly."
Casey laughs. "Okay, and this?"
It's of him. Zeke blinks and then resolves his expression, eyeing the photograph and its shades of gray in all extremes. He doesn't know when it was taken, the image being far too familiar—but there Zeke is, glasses pushed to the back of his neck and tangled there, bent over a microscope but not quite looking into it, eyes distant, the vague hint of a smile ghosting across his face. The background is blurry, and his hands are overly bright. But what really stirs unease in Zeke's gut is the way Casey has caught his head, tilted just so with his chin down and neck twisted, so that the light catches him and he looks almost…
Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
"You don't like it," says Casey quietly.
He doesn't look like the confident rebel he is, nor like the intelligent and sharp person he becomes when sitting in front of a puzzle. Zeke wants to know, with a sinking stomach, what he'd been thinking about that day. This is—something else. Is it what Casey manufactured with his skills? Or is it that Casey caught something slight and brought it out on film?
His gut rolls. "I'll buy it from you, I like it so much," he says, far too glib. Casey only studies him, something sad in his mouth and eyes. "Come on, what do you say? For twenty-five? Fifty?"
"No. I… It's one of my favorites."
"Sorry," Casey whispers, "I didn't mean to."
Zeke can count the number of times he's let someone push him around on one hand. He'd figured out pretty damn early that it was a bad idea. Get pushed around too much and people see it branded on you. That's what happened with Casey.
It doesn't take much of a stretch. Zeke really is, on his good days, as laid back and collected as he appears to be. He's pretty sure he can take on anything. A feeling that only deepens after the invasion.
But not being pushed around doesn't mean fighting back, always—that's something Casey has always misunderstood. Like with Miss Burke after her strange transformation, their heated exchange in the school yard, Zeke understands the concept that sometimes to avoid humiliation and a direct hit, it's best to simply not give a fuck. He practices this philosophy rigorously.
So he doesn't care what people think of him. He doesn't spend a lot of time deliberating over his "ways" and his mistakes. When Casey comes down the hall, Zeke throws an arm over his shoulders because he feels like it, and that's all.
Before the Aliens, if you'd asked Zeke, perhaps over a beer or a toke or something intriguing enough to capture his attention for more than a minute, he would've had a different answer about the existence of extraterrestrials.
He would have taken a drag from his cigarette, letting the smoke cling to the roof of his mouth before releasing it. Considering, his dark eyes distant and yet sharp. He would have said, if the person asking seemed curious enough, or kept their attention so focused that it amused him, or just to listen to himself speak: "Well, now, that's a weird question that deserves a weird answer. Sure. Whatever gets your bananas in a bunch."
If prodded, he would have added, "Statistically speaking, when we consider the fucking ridiculous amount of star systems and the planets that are capable of sustaining life, it does make sense. It is proven that Earth is not the only habitable place for similar organisms to ourselves—and then, to be not similar, that's an entirely different idea. But if we claim that a living being needs the same fundamental properties that we do—food, water, a social order if possible of some sort, proper climate, cellular structure which is of course present—then there is no scientifically sound reason that our miserable little shithole of a planet is the only miserable little shithole with intelligent life on it. And I use 'intelligent' loosely, right?"
If urged further, he would have said, "The idea that we are alone in the universe is an egocentric concept. We think ourselves the best, invulnerable, so we must be the top of the chain as we are here. We want to think ourselves special—the idea of soul, of belonging. You take away that, basically, people don't want to be fucking alone, even if they are, every second of the day, really fucking alone. We're contradictory. We want to be alone, but at the same time, we don't want to be alone amongst each other. We're discriminatory, in other words."
If pushed hard, Zeke might have even quirked an eyebrow, made his slow grin with too few teeth, and leaned over to flirt.
But now, if someone asked, Zeke knows the cold that would light up inside of him. If they asked, "Do you think we're alone in the universe?" he knows exactly what he'd say to them.
We sure as hell are now. Thank the everlasting fuck.
Casey isn't someone Zeke would normally admire. He's short, he's not so much intelligent as quick to catch on, and he's your basic weird geek with bad taste in books. But there's other things about him, too. An unusual empathy with others and an even more unusual understanding of how the world works in reality. A way of hiding his considerations and then slipping into your life, right past the defenses he's already figured out how to disable. An optimism that does not war with his pragmatism. An irritation with the bullying, a sign that he's not cowed so much as outnumbered.
Zeke likes to watch him focus in on a picture with his camera, right to the point where Casey's uncovered eye flutters shut and his mouth grows slack. He likes how Casey does art and music better than physics, but isn't opposed to numbers. Casey thinks calculators are annoying. Casey bites ice cream instead of licking it. Casey isn't aware of his own alluring nature, never noticing when others reach out towards him in curiosity only to be rebuffed by his own incomprehension of how things should work. His hands are larger than his wrists, his slimness does not disguise the breadth of his shoulders or lithe musculature. The jocks mock Casey for being like a girl, and that's a little true, but Zeke disgusts of a Casey without the occasionally husky-gravelly-I-just-woke-up voice. The kid is short, a little skinny, but he's going to be something someday.
When he gets high, he giggles. Zeke doesn't tease him about it. Because sometimes when Casey gets jacked, his eyes also get dark like a summer storm, he leans into Zeke's space like he knows he's bulldozing through invisible lines, like it's deliberate, and fuck if that doesn't send a bolt of need straight down Zeke's body.
This is—he hates this, it's ridiculous. He doesn't care that Casey is a guy. One could make the argument that Casey's a little like Zeke's other conquests, like Mary Beth, too much good and nice and naïve. Someone to barrel over with his raw, confident approach to sex, to make his own. A pretty thing that's soft and warm at night, just to make him feel less of an asshole up until he fucks it up purposefully.
Except that's not at all how why Zeke wants Casey. And that's the problem. Zeke wants Casey like—he wants—
Stupid. Fucking stupid, that's what this is.
He gets another fail on one of his tests—slept through most of it—and Coach screams at him in a way that's humiliating instead of just mildly funny today. People are being bitches. Delilah's making out with Casey by the lockers for everyone to see, no doubt her idea instead of his, but he's not complaining. His fingers are very pale against her forearms. His parents, well, they're as usual scoring at a low 1000 on the scale of How Much We're Fucking Up Zeke's Day, and they're not even around.
Zeke goes home and his house is empty, empty, empty. He wishes his head could say the same.
(He goes to that place, impulsively, stupidly. Because sometimes Zeke hates that everyone leaves, everyone, and even Zeke is leaving this world for another and that's just not fair. There's another guy there, and this time Zeke's got the condoms, and he'd be nervous if he wasn't so fucking pissed off and it feels so wrong good to let go and let—dunno his name, but fuck his hands are huge, like spider legs wrapped around Zeke's hip and shoulder—just let—really fucking dumb—watches the ring on his hand as he clenches the sheet, waiting to learn something about why this is supposed to be fun—don't curse, but fuckfuckfuck—and Zeke leaves afterwards, calm and cool like he does this every damn day, even though his body twinges, and he shoves this to the corner of his brain where he absolutely does not look until it's necessary again. It's not about shame, but about survival. Hello, fuck you, where's the window latch?)
The next day, things are better.
"What happened to you?" Casey demands. He touches the skin exposed between Zeke's neck and where his shirt collar is stretched too loose.
Zeke pulls away. "Nothing," he says. When Casey stares at him, he demands, "What?"
Unexpectedly, he's not pissed off. He's afraid. He hadn't been scared when the aliens took over—too busy being collected, methodical, studying, enraged—and he hadn't been scared, ever, when he woke up and found out his parents had cleared out in the night, leaving only a phone message, a blinking red light behind to greet him. He'd been seven the first time. (They'd hired a cleaning woman, and she made him sandwiches and taught him German curse words and the joys of the Discovery Channel. She was gone two years later.) He dealt with it. That's what Zeke does when something needs to be done, he just deals. If it needs cleaning, he does it. If it needs shooting, he does it.
His throat is tight now.
"I just," he says, and then stops.
He lights a cigarette, concentrating so his hands don't shake. Casey watches him, blue eyes wide and bleached out in the sunlight, just the two of them standing behind the school after the bell has rung and students have filed themselves away. The grass is very green. Casey is very—something.
"I'm cool," he finally says, after the smoke settles him. "Sorry about that, man."
He searches for something to say that isn't crazy-fucked-up-whoa. He examines everything and says, almost surprised by its sincerity, "I don't want to stay in Ohio."
"Here." Zeke smiles, brief and tight. "I don't want to live here anymore." Not in that house. Not in the school where he remembers running for his life, head throbbing, furious that it wasn't fair—he'd been so close to having things work his way easy, but now it was ruined, and things mattered, and living was hard—or in the town that repeatedly screws him over. "I think, as soon as I graduate, I'm gonna go somewhere else. Maybe to the east." The city, somewhere with lights and where everyone is alone, and there is no water.
Casey works his mouth open and shut for a while. He's white-toned, in the way most kids who stay in their rooms and their own head all day are, and it's more pronounced now in the early morning than it is at night when he's surrounded by shadows. Washed out, maybe. "Are you…" He changes his mind, becomes sure of something. "You think so?"
"Yeah." Pretty damn sure.
"Me too," Casey says then, soft-like. "You think?"
Is he asking if Zeke agrees that Casey should go? Is he asking to go with Zeke, like he wants to get out, too, and together they should do it? The way he phrases it reminds Zeke of someone asking, in that simple and patronizing way, wouldn't it be better if I came, too?
"Whatever," mutters Zeke, which is as good as yes to all of the above. The why of it doesn't matter. It feels new, and relieving, and that's all okay.
Zeke is insanely intelligent. He reads constantly, absorbing information like a sponge, and twists the world exactly to his specifications for shits and giggles. He's a pro about manipulation because people read just as easily as books. But he's never been able to read himself—he's aware when he hurts, yes, and when he's pissed off, and when he's hungry or happy or high.
But he has no idea why, most times.
Maybe that's what keeps men sane, Zeke eventually decides. Not knowing themselves, but reaching out in the pitch black, anyway, hoping to touch. You may find a creature—an alien—but then, you might also find a way to Braille read your entire being. There are answers, if not always to your questions. Zeke needs the answers.
It's about taking risks. Go outside in a stadium of murderous parasites for a tiny, fleeting hope. Do something to prove someone wrong. Delete the message your parents leave you, even if it might be the answer you want but don't need. Make friends with the scrawny, gleaming guy that takes pictures of bugs and saves the world and still cares enough to hang around next time you feel like trashing your house—especially if, after you're raw and silent again, he puts a hand on your shoulder and says, "Let's just leave it for them to clean up, okay?"
He buys a new white lab mouse. He names it Bert.
"You're going to make it fat if you feed it that much," Casey remarks, disgruntled after Zeke slips another Cheeto through the cage bars. Bert nibbles enthusiastically. That could've been his Cheeto, Casey's face reads, but Zeke figures Casey never watched enough Sesame Street as a kid and so he is biased against the mouse, anyway. "Why do you need one, actually? You don't test your drugs on it, do you?" he asks, suspiciously. Zeke snickers.
"No—he's just really adorable." Said in all seriousness, and it's enough to make Casey throw his head back and bark out a loud, delighted laugh.
Days like today, Zeke feels alone in the universe but not alone in the room. And that, really, is all he's ever asked for.
Someone is moving and it's not him.
He opens his eyes, but the garage ceiling is blurry and all he can hear is night noises—crickets and shit. The sofa springs dig into his back. Casey is wedged on the edge of the cushion by Zeke's hip, head tilted in quiet contemplation, and it's enough to make Zeke's heart jump three feet into his throat.
"Jesus, Casey! What the fuck, man!"
He's about to curse more and sit up, but then Casey reaches out and grasps the drooping edge of one of Zeke's sleeves. It slides through his fingers and then Casey touches skin, the swell of Zeke's palm. Zeke stops breathing. Stops moving. Stops everything, just about.
"I wish I had my camera," says Casey, just before he bends down to kiss Zeke.
He tastes like Juice Box. Zeke restarts, reaches up to clutch the back of Casey's neck, and okay—
—maybe it's not all he's asked for.
But there's plenty of time before graduation and Ohio isn't so bad in the mornings, when it's just a little chilly and quiet and full.