A/N: So it seems suspicions are on the rise that we may have a demon in our midst! Are they right? It may be too early to tell just yet!
The building was all but abandoned as Norman headed back through the middle school. The siren's song of the three o'clock bell had dispersed both students and faculty alike to the four winds as though they'd never been there. The boy shoved a hand through his broom-like hair as he stood in the science lab. Neil's things were gone. His locker had been abandoned. And to add insult to injury, the janitor was giving Norman that irritated glower that implied he had worn out his welcome for the day.
He dropped his head to his chest and turned his feet towards the front door.
It had always been easier for him to talk to the dead than the living. The living were so quick to judge, to take offense, and to flee. It seemed that no matter how carefully he phrased himself when he intended to speak, something was always misunderstood. And now? Now he'd accidentally hurt the first and only true friend he had by letting his mouth get in front of his brain. With a sigh, Norman adjusted the weight of his backpack and turned to trudge towards the door.
Since the incident, he suddenly had an abundance of acquaintances. People wanted to be around him, and it was so overwhelming for the cynical person that he had started to become to accept. Where before he had cold indifference or outright enemies, now he had groupies who watched him breathlessly for some evidence of a supernatural event. There were still a few people who sneered at his gift, but now they did so with a sort of awe. His abilities were real. They had seen it. And more than ever it defined who he was.
Through it all, Neil had stuck by him. The heavier boy had seemingly retained his ability to let everything roll off his back without taking offense. But now Norman had done what no bully had ever managed. He'd actually upset Neil enough for him to run off. What should he do? It wasn't like he had other real friends to ask for advice. Was it better to call Neil, or go to his house and try to explain himself in person? What if Neil didn't want to talk to him? What if, with one heated, thoughtless comment, he'd banished the one genuinely nice peer he had from his life? As he pushed open the school door, Norman noticed a familiar shape sitting on the stoop and smiled with relief.
Neil hadn't gone too far, after all. The other boy was sitting on the school steps, sniffling. He hadn't abandoned Norman just yet. He let the door swing shut as he considered his words carefully.
"Neil," he began, nervous over just how to patch up this particular rift in their still-new friendship. At last, he flopped down on the steps beside the other boy. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that. These girls... these girls and their weird problems are completely messing me up."
The other boy nodded, but didn't look over at Norman just yet.
"I know, I just... I just realized when you said that - I really did kinda use you at first, didn't I? I wanted to see Bub, or at least know he was around, so badly! And then I thought, hey! Ask the dude who can see ghosts!"
Neil let out a short puff of air. "I didn't mean to do that. It just... it hurt to think for a minute that you thought I was like the guys who just want to hang out with you since you saved the town and all. I know how much those people bug you. I- I know I can be pretty oblivious sometimes, but.."
"I don't think that," Norman confided, drawing his knees up to his chest. "I mean, to be honest? It was pretty great to have someone be excited by the idea that I could talk to ghosts, instead of thinking I was nuts, or doing it for attention."
"I'm sorry too," Neil allowed a faint smile. "Friends?" He held out a hand, which Norman shook gladly.
The larger boy stood, prompting Norman to do the same. "Well, I'd better get home. Salma's gonna kill me if I don't have her outline studied by the time she calls me." Neil glanced down at his shoes for a moment, then grinned up at his friend. "See you Monday, Norman."
Norman nodded with a faint smile, watching his friend until he disappeared in the distance. The mid-afternoon sky was still clear, and the boy couldn't help but feel that this was a good sign. The storm clouds of misunderstanding had been cleared up, and now it was smooth sailing.
"Good grief, you two are worse than a couple of girls, you know that?"
Aaaand cue disappointment. Norman turned to frown at Cass. The girl's messy hair obscured her eyes, and he wondered why she didn't have it cut.
"I didn't ask for your opinions," he retorted, turning and starting for home. Cass fell into step beside him, indifferent to his distaste.
"Dangerous to wander around alone," she observed, choosing to ignore his comment. "Anything could happen to a lone kid."
"I didn't volunteer to walk you home," he snapped, fed up with whatever the strange game she was playing.
"I'm walking *YOU* home," came the reply, "Since you don't know about that kind of.." again, the girl paused strangely before finishing her sentence, seeming to have trouble speaking for a moment. "Girl. What kind of girl you're dealing with." The two walked in silence for a moment longer.
"I wish you understood," Cass grumbled at last. "Bad things happen to idiots."
Norman nodded to the few faint apparitions still the alleys of Blithe Hollow, watching them from a respectful distance.
"I wish I did, too," he admitted, wondering why he'd become the target for the strangest bully he'd ever encountered. "Girls are so weird."
A few ghosts called softly to him as he and Cass passed by, but didn't approach. The boy felt an odd compulsion to try to intimidate the strange female shadowing him.
"Hey Wendy," he called to the ghost lady clutching a phantom blow-dryer, who paused in her eternal battle against the cowlick on top of her head to smile hesitantly at him and wave before floating back towards her customary place.
"Stupid," Cass grunted, pushing past him to press the button for the crosswalk signal. With relief, he noted that they had almost made it to his block. "You should have better things to do."
"Norman!" The boy looked up sharply at his father's distant call. Perry Babcock stood in front of their house, waving cautiously at his son from up the street. "Hurry up inside and clean up, we're going out for dinner!"
That ever-so optimistic voice in the back of his head gleefully chirped "Gee, he's actually willing to be seen in public with you! Things ARE looking up!" The boy crushed the annoying voice, waving back to his dad in lieu of an answer. Truthfully, he didn't entirely trust his malicious inside voice not to become an outside voice sometimes.
"Stay with them. You're safer when you're with someone, necromancer."
Norman's bag hit the sidewalk behind him. "W-What did you call me?"
"Necromancer," Cass repeated. "I'm surprised I can say it, but I'm not going hesitate to now that I do know."
Norman backed away slowly, memories of the angry mob screaming at him as he frantically tried to lull Agatha back to sleep clawed at his mind. "L-Look, I don't know what you heard," Norman declared, "But I have NOT been actually raising any zombies. Nope. Nada. No zombies."
He risked taking his eyes off of her for a moment to cast a frantic glance up and down the street to confirm that it was indeed zombie-free.
The girl rolled her eyes, moving across the crosswalk with nary a care about his over-protesting. "The modern world has corrupted many words, made them take on meanings in popular culture that they were never meant to have. Witches, zombies..." She paused in the middle of the road, glancing back to look at him significantly.
"What are you?" Norman whispered, slowly picking up his backpack before following her intimidating presence.
"Me?" Cass smiled ruefully. "Can't you tell?" She blew some hair out of her face before turning away from him and crossing to the sidewalk.
"Maybe you can't. Maybe you're too... sheltered or something. That may be your whole problem." She bit her lip, glancing down at the cracked concrete as though it could give her searching eyes some answers. "It means to speak.. to them." The faint apparition of the mobster and his school of phantom fish bounded past, still attempting to flee the city. They weren't making very good time, Norman's mind noted ridiculously. His feet gained the familiar ground of his home block, but a terrifying feeling of being somewhere alien pressed with grave insistence on his senses as he watched the ghost mobster bound slowly down the road.
"You're going to die, you know," the girl informed him, not bothering to move, or even glance over to where he was standing. His attention snapped back to her, and he found himself backing away again, positioning himself between her and his home. He wasn't sure whether he was preparing to run home or trying to shield his family from this stranger. In all honesty, fight or flight seemed to be warring it out over just which one of them had to take responsibility for the situation and neither wanted to make the first move.
"They won't all be soothed into peace. They can't, in some cases. You're going to die trying to talk about feelings to some specter that doesn't even remember it was ever human."
Norman shrugged at the frank and brutal assessment, trying to act as though he wasn't bothered that she seemed to know an awful lot that he wasn't sure she should. "At least I'll know I tried," he retorted. "That's all most of them want, is for someone to just try."
Cass's deadpan expression turned sour. "My brother used to say that," she grumbled. She ran a thumb over the strap of her own well-worn backpack. "Then he realized he was wrong."
"Why'd he change his mind?" Norman asked, despite the feeling that he probably shouldn't.
Cass favored him with one of the long, silent stares that had kept the school bullies from making eye contact with her. "I'll introduce you sometime," she promised softly, a faint note of sorrow touching her voice. The boy wavered. For a moment, the intimidating presence had faded from Cass, and he saw a sad, strangely lonely girl. Agatha's image flickered like a sputtering candle in his mind, but the similarity - and that was all he could rightfully recognize it as - faded away like a drop of blood in the ocean. This was not Agatha. Somehow though, they were similar.
Cass' gaze sharpened, and she straightened self-consciously.
"I'm not strong enough yet, but..." She furiously worked her mouth for a moment before spitting out the words "the time will soon be here." The boy furrowed his brow in consternation at the odd display, almost missing her words. "You should be careful who you find yourself alone with. Who you trust."
She loomed into his personal space for a moment, her dark eyes pinning him in place like a specimen in a display case. "I can't say why, but I will tell you this: be mindful of the salt. Keep your hands to yourself, Norman Babcock, and cover your mouth when you yawn."
Norman gaped after the girl as she turned and walked away at a brisk clip. When she had at last disappeared from view, he began backing slowly towards his house. He was a little afraid that if he turned his back on her, she'd suddenly appear in front of him again when he least expected it.
Perry looked up as his son entered the family home, looking more shell-shocked than usual. "Who were you talking to out there, Norman? We're going to be late if you don't hurry and change."
"I-I don't know," Norman stammered, glancing over to the living room door where his grandmother's spirit stared at him in concern. "I really don't know."