Mikey wakes up to a text from his brother that reads You’re late.
He rubs sleep from his eyes and squints at the uncomfortably bright screen of his phone. The rest of his room is pleasantly dim, and there’s no sunlight straining past the thin curtains at the windows above his bed. It feels too early to be up, and it wouldn’t be the first time Donnie lied to get him out of bed.
He glances over at the alarm clock on the nightstand, and groans. Levers himself up on an elbow to thumb back a quick Its only five am don. I dont have to meet leo till 8
The power went out during the storm last night. Your clock is wrong, and you’re late.
Belatedly, Mikey thinks to check the time on his phone. Then he yelps and throws back his blankets. Dog and cat both spring from the bed as Mikey disentangles himself from the sheets.
“You should’ve woke me up sooner, it’s almost nine!” he shouts down the hall.
Don slams a cabinet door in the kitchen, annoyed. Well, that makes two of them.
Mikey fell asleep four hours ago in jeans and a T-shirt, and those are rumpled but still clean enough, so he snatches Don’s hoodie off the back of a kitchen chair and pulls it over his head to complete the ensemble, bumping blindly into the wall as he goes. Cramming his sneakers on without untying them, Mikey grabs his bag off the floor.
“I’ll be back late tonight,” he calls over his shoulder, and then he’s rushing out the door.
Leo is too polite to leave more than two messages on his phone, and the last one is from about ten minutes ago. Mikey calls him while he’s waiting on the elevator.
“I’m so sorry,” he wails the moment Leo picks up. “My alarm didn’t go off this morning and Don was a jerk and let me sleep in.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m waiting downstairs. We can still get there in time if we hurry.”
“Give me two shakes,” Mikey says, jabbing the Down button more insistently. “And please tell me you have coffee.”
“I do. But yours is cold by now, I think.”
“Great, I’ll be able to drink it faster. Okay,” he adds, as the elevator doors finally roll open. “I’ll be down in a minute.”
True to his word, Leo is waiting in the lobby, and hands over a large paper cup of what was once a piping hot caramel cappuccino. It’s less than lukewarm at this point, but Mikey wouldn’t have gotten to where he is today by being picky about what he puts into his body. He accepts it gratefully, and they double-time it to the parking lot.
The gear is in the trunk of Mikey’s Jeep, two worn green duffel bags that they check and re-check before each gig, and they’re not about to cut corners this morning just because they’re running late.
“Everything’s here,” Leo says, zipping up the bags again. A few of Mikey’s neighbors pass by a little too close for comfort, and Leo slams the tailgate shut before they can get an eyeful of gasoline canisters and sledgehammers.
“'Morning,” he greets them awkwardly.
Mikey hides his grin behind his coffee, and manages a straight face by the time they’re both in the car. Leo is plugging the address into his GPS while Mikey pulls into the road, and only speaks up again when they’ve gone a few blocks.
“It’s been storming off and on since yesterday. Will that effect our – um, job? At all?”
“Man, Leo, you’re one quick study,” Mikey says cheerfully. “But that’s just a theory. Some people think spirits are a form of energy, right? So their idea is that certain atmospheric conditions – weather like this, for example – are more conducive to the job than others, because apparitions are able to draw on the energy generated by the storm to manifest more easily.”
“What do you think?”
“I think spirits used to be people, and some people like rain more than others. Everything else is way above my pay-grade.”
Leo rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling a little. Mikey’s lucky Leo puts up with him.
They met last year, the week Leo’s father died. Two days after the funeral, his father walked into his bedroom to tell him goodbye, as if he had never been gone. Leo was torn between the logical argument – that it was only grief, that he had imagined the entire exchange as a way to cope with the loss – and the more comforting idea of something else.
He made his mind up pretty quickly. He found Mikey on campus the next day, and asked to join his paranormal society – which brought the members count up to two (Mikey included). He had some doubts, and a lot of questions, and a wide-open mind. Their first conversation lasted four hours.
Leo found closure, and Mikey found someone to talk to. They’ve been friends ever since.
It’s nice having another believer around. Mikey’s been on speaking terms with the things that go bump in the night ever since he was a little kid, but no one took him seriously back then. Not even Donnie.
“Did you remember to ask your brother to look at the EMF meter?” Leo asks. Mikey nods without taking his eyes off the road.
“Sure did. He tinkered with it for awhile. It should work without a hitch this time.”
The homemade meter goes haywire the second they step foot inside the derelict house, and the feedback is so severe Mikey’s pretty sure one or both of his eardrums are ruptured forever. He yanks off the headphones, doubled over while his ears ring relentlessly, and Leo puts a hand on his shoulder to keep him steady.
The EMF meter is dead, and refuses to power back on. Mikey stuffs it back in his bag, with a winning smile for Leo. It probably looks more like a pained grimace, if Leo’s expression in turn is anything to judge by.
“Okay, no EMF. That’s cool. We still have the – ”
“It fried the thermal cam, too,” Leo says, in the tone of voice that means he’s very carefully not freaking out. He’s holding the useless camera in his opposite hand. “I didn’t even know they could do that.”
“They can do all kinds of stuff. Just depends on how old, how strong, and how ticked off they are. By the way, I don’t think I can hear out of my right ear anymore, or ever again, so do all your talking on my left side, okay?”
Leo frowns at him, an unamused, displeased expression that’s become pretty familiar over time. It reminds Mikey of his brother, which only means it’s easy for him to ignore.
“Should we split up?” he asks over Leo’s loud silent disapproval, looking around at the condemned property. He’s a little impressed at how gloomy the interior is. It’s early in the day, but with the heavy cloud cover from the storm, there’s no natural light to leak inside and fill all the dark, dusty pockets of the abandoned house. Mikey’s glad they brought flashlights.
“The last time you said that, a poltergeist threw you out a window,” Leo replies, deadpan. “And I had to explain to Don why you came home in a full arm cast. So no.”
Fair enough. Mikey passes him a light and leads the way further in. Without their gear, they can’t do much this morning aside from get a feel for the layout of the place, and maybe tick off whatever happens to be squatting there.
“Never let a ghost know you’re in a hurry,” Mikey grumbles, trudging up the stairs. The whole place is cold and drafty, thanks to all the holes in the walls and the inclement weather outside, so it’s hard to pinpoint an unnatural flux in temperature by feel alone. And whatever killed their equipment is either shy, or an asshole, because it’s not making its presence known as they wander around. “This is dumb.”
“It’s not the ghost’s fault we were late,” Leo says mildly. “We can come back tomorrow, when neither of us have school. We’ll have more time then.”
Heaving a sigh, Mikey says, “Yeah, I guess.”
His phone vibrates in his pocket, and he pulls it out. Unlocking the screen with a swipe of his thumb, lead settles in the pit of his stomach the moment he sees who the call is from. He answers with no small amount of caution.
“Get your ass out of that house now.”
“Yeah, it’s good to hear your voice, too, buddy.”
A resigned Leo leads the way back to the front door. The house shudders around them, and Mikey can’t tell if it’s making fun of them or sorry to see them go. Probably the former, since the universe seems to have it in for him today.
Raph’s car is parked next to Mikey’s Jeep. Raph is standing in front of the sagging front porch, arms crossed, scowling darkly. He recognizes the borrowed hoodie Mikey is wearing instantly, and it does something bizarre to his expression. However, true to form, Raph doesn’t let that slow him down for long.
“I knew you’d be here. What the hell were you thinkin’?” he bites out the moment Mikey and Leo make it outside. “This place is condemned, it could’ve come down right on top of you! And you, Leo – you shouldn’t encourage him, holy shit.”
“Okay, first of all, the house is solid. Totally sturdy.” The whole building chooses that moment to give a whistling moan, as if to prove his words completely wrong. Raph raises an eyebrow at him, daring him to go on. Mikey wishes he knew how to punch a ghost in the face. Maybe he can figure it out before they come back tomorrow. “And secondly, I don’t need encouragement, from anybody. If I did, I’d have found a different hobby years ago.”
Something goes soft in Raph’s face, worried anger relenting into guilt. Mikey can only tell because he’s known Raph since before he could walk. And he didn’t mean to make his friend feel bad, but it’s not like any of them have ever been big supporters of his extracurricular activities.
“Just,” Raph starts, then stops, and runs a hand through his hair. There are bags under his eyes. “Mikey, come on. You’re gonna get yourself arrested for trespassing, or hurt, or worse. There are other ways to cope.”
Uncomfortable territory. Mikey shifts his weight, tightening his grip on the strap of the bag hanging over his shoulder. “I’m not – ”
“Yes you are. We all are.” Raph takes a step that closes the distance between them, bright eyes searching. It’s hard for him to be so open, but he’s trying. It curtails any thoughts Mikey might have of fleeing the scene. “You’ve been keepin’ your distance lately, but you don’t need to, alright? We’re here for you, kid.”
He puts a hand on Mikey’s shoulder, up against his neck, fond and familiar. Mikey tries to remember the last time he did that, and comes up blank.
“We want you to move in with us,” Raph says, quietly. He talks a lot softer these days. “It ain’t right that you live in that big empty apartment by yourself.”
“I’m home!” Mikey calls, kicking off his shoes by the door. “The hunt was boring, class was somehow even more boring, I’m pretty sure I’m temporarily deaf in one ear, and most of my gear is broken again. How was your day?”
He drops into a chair as Don comes in, stepping smoothly through the wall between his bedroom and the kitchen, because the four extra feet to the doorway is apparently more effort than he’s willing to make. He reaches over, and his fingers pass through Mikey’s hair instead of ruffling it, but it feels the same in all the ways that count.
Sitting silently in the chair Mikey leaves pushed out for him, Donnie places a hand on the phone on the table.
What happened to make you deaf?
“Same thing that happened to all our stuff,” Mikey says once he’s read the text, doing his best to keep the whine out of his voice. “The ghost from this morning was a little camera shy. We just got through fixing everything after last time, too.”
Don’t complain. At least you weren’t thrown out another window.
“You and Leo share a hivemind, you know that? You’re linked in the brain.” Donnie rolls his eyes, which makes Mikey grin in turn, and he pulls the re-broken EMF meter out of his bag for Don to take a look at. “The rest of the stuff is in the car. I’ll run down and get it later, when it’s dark, and no one will see me hauling suspicious duffel bags out of the trunk.”
Don nods, and pokes at the homemade device Mikey set out for him. He was an engineering student before he died, and all of this comes so naturally to him. Mikey would be stuck buying his gear off eBay if it weren’t for his genius brother. He’s even learning a thing or two, since he has to do the physical building and wiring under Don’s careful guidance.
Donnie’s dog wanders over, a shaggy brown mutt with soulful eyes, and puts her head on Mikey’s knee. Mikey pets her, and weighs his next words for a few minutes. The silence isn’t uncomfortable; they’re both used to it by now.
“I went to Raph and Casey’s after class today,” he says, carefully. “I guess April’s been staying with them lately.”
His brother goes completely still. Mikey aches for him. The larger part of his heart wants to drop it, wants to avoid talking about anything that makes Donnie unhappy; but an annoying, insistent little voice in the back of his brain urges him on.
“She’s still really sad.” Mikey looks down at his hands, so he doesn’t have to look at Don. “I know you want her to move on, but … maybe you should let her decide that for herself?” Hesitating, he adds, “I think they’d like a chance to at least tell you goodbye.”
After what feels like an hour, his phone vibrates.
It’s more than he thought he’d get. Gratefully, Mikey lets the subject drop, and rests his chin on his folded arms. He’ll stay up late, the way he always does anymore, to spend this borrowed time with his only family.
“I’m glad I didn’t have to tell you goodbye,” he whispers. Don looks up at him, and smiles.
Not in this lifetime.