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Slow Shift by Nazarea Andrews (1)

Chapter 1

He’s thirteen when he finds the house in the woods.

It’s more of a cabin, really, that looks like it hasn’t been touched in decades. Chase pokes at the rotted wood and wanders around it for few minutes, peeking through the dirty window curiously.

It’s small, a tiny bedroom and a main room only slightly larger. There’s even a kitchen that could be cozy if it were clean.

He loves it.

It feels like a secret, something impossible and hidden and just for him, something she would have loved. He curls up against the door, listening to owls hooting and a coyote crying in the distance.

He falls asleep there, and later wakes up damp from dew and stiff from cold, the woods darkening around him. He stretches carefully and pats the wood affectionately before he stumbles away, heading back to the big house that feels too empty and smells of fading perfume and strong whiskey.

~*~

He doesn’t go back for four months. He spends the summer in Washington with his grandmother and a bevy of cousins he doesn’t know, people who don’t know how to talk to a boy so quiet and sad.

He wants to tell them it isn’t catching. Just because his mom died, doesn’t mean theirs will, too, if they talk to him.

It's a lonely place to be, even surrounded by people, and when he’s overwhelmed by the noise and the loneliness, he thinks of it—of the quiet house that needed a little bit of love, a family to fill it up.

He misses his Dad, and Ben, and his mother, so much it aches in his gut.

Missing a house he slept next to for a few hours is a bit of a surprise.

~*~

It’s late September when he picks his way back through the woods and freezes, breath caught in his throat.

There’s a man sitting in front of the house. He's in a wheelchair, with a thick blanket wrapped carefully around his shoulders, his eyes dull and sightless.

Chase stares for a long time, creeping closer when curiosity overwhelms him.

The man never reacts. He’s pale, with what looks like burn scars covering half of his face. His hair is a dirty blonde, and his eyes—Chase shivers and looks away. H, is eyes look dead, a glassy pale green that reflects nothing.

“How’d you get here?” he murmurs, glancing around.

“Get away from him,” a sharp voice snaps out of nowhere.

Chase stumbles away with a yelp, landing on his butt and scuttling back awkwardly.

Another man—dark, scruffy, scowling—stalks up and runs a hand over the wheelchair man’s shoulders, glaring at Chase the whole time. “What did you do to him?”

“Nothing,” Chase protests hotly. “And you shouldn’t just leave him out here alone! It’s dangerous!”

He knows the woods are dangerous. There was a body found here a few years ago, and the Reid house burned down just two years ago. His Dad used to tell him to stay out of the woods.

He doesn’t tell him anymore.

The guy is staring at him like he’s a puzzle he’s trying to figure out. Chase squirms.

“Why are you out here?” he asks abruptly.

Chase shrugs and glances at the house. “I like it,” he says simply. It’s more complicated than that, but he doesn’t know how to explain it, so he doesn’t try. The man’s eyes narrow and Chase skitters back a few more steps. “I’ll go,” he says, lingering a moment longer to add, “Take care of your friend, ok? He could have gotten hurt.”

Not bothering to sort out the strange expression on the man’s face, Chase trots away.

~*~

He hears the sound of hammering before he reaches the house, and if it had been a slightly better day, he might have turned around at the sound of them, might have said nevermind, but his stomach aches and his face is throbbing from where a kid at school hit him, and he’s so angry he almost wants to fight with the dark haired scowly man.

He trudges forward with dogged determination.

The guy in the wheelchair is parked in the shade near a radio and a folding chair, a blanket tossed over his legs to keep him warm in the cool October air. The younger man—and Chase has decided Scowly Grump is younger—is on the roof ripping shingles off, banging around with dogged determination. Chase doesn’t think he’s actually getting much done, but keeps his mouth shut.

Chase watches for a second, and then Scowly Grump flicks a glance at him. “You,” he says, not surprised.

“Me,” Chase agrees sourly.

“This gonna be a regular thing?”

“Maybe,” Chase snaps.

The guy nods, his scowl deepening. “You got a name?”

He hesitates before heand then answers, “Chase.”

That earns him a hum of acknowledgement. “I’m Tyler. That’s my brother, Lucas.”

And then he goes back to work, seemingly uninterested in Chase at all, certainly not in the bruise blooming on his cheek. After he watches Tyler for a few minutes, Chase drags his bookbag around and starts his homework. He hears Tyler make another hum of approval from the roof.

When he’s finished his homework, he twitches, anxious and restless. He gets up and hesitates for a moment, expecting some dismissal from the roof, but when nothing comes, he grins to himself and sets about gathering the discarded shingles with real intent.

“You don’t have to do that,” Tyler calls from above him, sounding almost angry.

Chase shrugs and gathers up a few more shingles, tossing them into the back of the pickup with a grunt. “Might as well.”

Tyler falls quiet and then goes back to work, careful to avoid where Chase is picking up shingles when he tosses them down.

Later, when he climbs down from the roof, Chase collapses near Lucas, panting, and he grins a thank you when Tyler hands him an orange and a bottle of water.

“Gonna be dark soon,” Tyler says eventually.

Chase gives him sidelong look. “That your way of telling me to go home?”

Tyler nods and Chase blinks hard. He dusts his hands off and stands up.

“Are you coming back tomorrow?” Tyler asks. “I’m gonna keep working on the roof, then.”

Chase blinks at him again, then nods, a tiny pleased smile on his lips.

~*~

When he gets there the next day, there’s a small pair of gloves and a sandwich waiting near Lucas.

“Do your homework,” Tyler calls from the roof, “then you can get started.”

“Bossy,” Chase grumbles, and Tyler pauses, scowling down at him. Chase smirks and opens his backpack.

~*~

“Are you gonna fix the whole thing?”

They’re almost finished with the roof. It’s been two weeks of working on it. Chase thinks Tyler only gets a few hours a day, most of it when he’s there, to work on the house, and that he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.

Tyler grunts and Chase sucks on an orange slice speculatively.

“Why?”

“Because if we live here, I want it to be nice for him,” Tyler answers.

Chase glances at Lucas. He doesn’t move, doesn’t blink or acknowledge them at all. But like he so often feels around the scarred, silent man—Chase thinks he’s listening.

He’s curious—of course he’s curious, he was born curious, something his mother used to laugh about, even when his curiosity led him and Ben head first into trouble—but he hasn’t asked about Lucas yet. He hasn’t pushed to find out what happened, or why they’re out here in the woods.

Tyler seems to relax more and more, the longer he goes without asking.

~*~

“You weren’t here yesterday,” Tyler says, about a week later. The roof is finally done and the three of them are sitting under Lucas’s tree. Chase is scowling at his homework and Tyler is—

Chase frowns.

The man looks strangely tense, but he hasn’t worked on the house today, just sat close to them, muscles tight and jumping beneath his skin.

“My Dad got in an accident at work. I was at the hospital with him.”

Tyler’s gaze is sharp and assessing. “Is he—”

“Fine,” Chase says shortly. He shoves his papers into his bag with sticky fingers and scrambles to stand up. “I’m gonna go.”

“Chase,” Tyler says.

Chase pauses, looking back at Tyler and Lucas, both sitting too still in the fading light.

“I’m gonna start gutting the inside tomorrow. It’ll be dirty—bring something to change into.”

Chase huffs and shifts his bag higher on his shoulder. “Ok,” he says softly and calls over his shoulder. “Bye, Tyler. Bye, Lucas.”

~*~

A week later, an RV appears next to the house and Lucas vanishes from under his tree.

“It’s too cold,” Tyler says. “His fingers were blue when I got back to the hotel.”

He sounds truly baffled, in a way that Chase finds amusing. Tyler is older than him, in his twenties if Chase is any judge, but sometimes Tyler’s so confused by simple things like the cold and working in the dark that Chase wonders how he actually functions.

“It’s ok,” he tells Lucas as they sit in the RV while Tyler goes back to work, “I won’t let you freeze, buddy.”

Lucas is quiet, just like he always is.

“I waited for you to read today’s homework,” he continues.

The thing about Lucas is that Chase knows he can’t respond. Tyler told him that Lucas probably doesn’t even hear him, but it feels wrong to sit next to the man for hours and not speak, especially when he’s learning.

Tyler doesn’t talk about his brother much, and never about what led him to the wheelchair and the scars on his face, even when he’s carefully tending the older man, always aware of where he is and what he’s doing. But when Chase sits next to him, he doesn’t feel alone, like he is sitting next to an empty shell.

Lucas feels present, like behind that blank stare and still expression, something is alive and desperate for interaction.

“Ok, so we’re on chapter three,” he says, opening up Number the Stars.

Chase glances at Lucas once more, then starts reading.

~*~

“Don’t your parents worry?” Tyler asks.

They’re sitting at the little table in the RV. Lucas’s blank gaze is on the wall while Chase does his math homework. It’s not unusual for Tyler to take a little time to get out of the work and come into the RV, lingering while Chase pulls out his school work.

“Dad doesn’t get home until after I do,” Chase says, flicking a look at the older man from under his lashes.

Tyler frowns.

Chase huffs. “He’s—he’s the chief of police. So he works long hours, you know?”

Tyler makes a sharp, wounded noise and Chase scowls harder at his papers. He adjusts them needlessly and waits for Tyler to say something—that he’s sorry, that she was too young, that he reminded them of her, that his mother was a wonderful woman, and he was lucky.

It’s all the useless shit people say when someone dies, all that shit that doesn’t mean anything, that he’s been hearing at school and in the grocery store and everywhere he goes since his mother’s funeral.

He waits for Tyler to kick him out.

Tyler is silent for a long time, and then says, “When you finish that, I’m going to be in the kitchen. Bring your gloves, ok?”

Chase doesn’t say anything, but Tyler squeezes his neck briefly as he walks out. Something small and scared inside him loosens as he starts his homework.

~*~

He can’t really put his finger on what changes after that day, when Tyler finds out who his father is—but it does. The older man is still gruff, grumpy and sharp some days, teasing and funny on others, and Lucas is still quiet and unseeing in his chair.

But it’s easier. Tyler seems less tense, and he touches Chase now—steers the boy around the house with a hand on his shoulder while they're working, moves him with a hand to the back when Chase spends too long at the sink, pushes him out into the dusk with a friendly hair tousle.

It’s like Tyler is letting himself breathe around him now, and Chase wonders why—what about his mother being dead makes Tyler trust him?

~*~

In mid-November, when the days turn dark and the nights turn long, Tyler starts walking him home, hands tucked into the pockets of his leather jacket, shortening his stride for the younger boy. Some days, he takes Chase’ bag wordlessly, and Chase bounces a little bit lighter, talking about school and what they’re going to do tomorrow on the house, and that Lucas ate two whole cups of applesauce today and did Tyler see the new trailer for the Marvel movie, mouth moving a mile a minute as Tyler listens.

Tyler always listens to him, a quiet attentiveness that reminds Chase of Lucas.

Sometimes, he thinks that’s why he likes going to the house in the woods. Everyone else in his life is too busy, too impatient for his constant stream of thoughts—but Tyler isn’t. Tyler listens when he talks about nothing and seems to always hear the tiny bit of something Chase doesn’t mean to sprinkle into the babble.

Lucas listens because he has no choice, but sometimes, when Chase is mumbling about World War II or Aurora, the pretty redhead he’s crushing on—sometimes he feels like Lucas is listening with attentive interest, like if he could respond, he would.

~*~

Tyler doesn’t mention Thanksgiving to him and Chase doesn’t bring it up. He goes by the RV in the morning and is quieter than normal, something he knows Tyler notices.

One of his favorite things about them is that neither push him when he goes quiet, respecting the still raw grief of his mother’s death. He snuggles into a blanket that usually drapes Lucas’s legs and listens to Tyler read The Hobbit, half asleep until Tyler nudges him.

“Do you want pancakes?” he asks. Chase nods, blinking away sleep and tears that hover too close, and stays there, tucked in the strange feeling of home that they always bring, while Tyler grumbles softly and cooks him pancakes.

When they’re sitting down and Chase has cut Lucas’s into very small bites that he feeds the older man carefully, Tyler says, almost shyly, “My dad—he used to make us pancakes, when one of us were sad.”

Chase stares at him, stricken, until Tyler nods at his food. “Eat before it gets cold.”

He does, and for a while, he forgets the empty house that smells stale and cold. Tyler makes him forget until it’s time to go home.

~*~

“He was sarcastic,” Tyler says slowly. Chase blinks at him and he shrugs. “He lived with us after college. He was my best friend, but he was always a sarcastic bastard, always playing some kind of mind game, usually four at the same time.” Hhe pauses, smiling fondly. He stirs the chicken and rice he’s making for dinner and shrugs again. “I don’t know, he was just Lucas. Usually trouble, but always fun. Moody, sometimes. Mom said he had the ego to rule the world, if only he had the motivation.” Tyler’s lips quirk a little and he glances at Chase, listening raptly at the table. “He was a lot like you, actually.”

Chase grins, hiding it in his homework. He thinks there are worse things than being similar to someone Tyler loves.

~*~

It’s mid-December when Chase arrives, his nose red and his teeth chattering, and Tyler frowns at him as he clangs into the RV—he stopped knocking within a week of it arriving outside the little house—because he’s anxious, shifting on his feet. His bag is missing.

“Where’s your homework?”

“I—um. I don’t have any.” He hesitates, and then, in a rush, says, “I’m leaving. I won’t be able to come back until after New Years.”

Tyler goes very still.

Chase squirms. “I know—I know you don’t really care, but I would worry if you vanished. I wanted to tell you.”

“Chase,” Tyler says, in a tone he rarely takes with Chase, a tone that cuts him off cold, stills the words in his mouth.

Chase slumps, miserable.

“I’d worry,” Tyler says gently. The boy’s head comes up, eyes widening hopefully, and Tyler smirks at him. “Now, we’re going to start tearing up the kitchen floor. Can you stay?”

Chase grins and nods, reaching for his gloves.

It’s only when he’s tired and after Tyler has fed him soup and hot chocolate before walking him home, that the older man grips him by the shoulder and says, “Be safe while you’re gone, ok?”

Chase nods and hesitates, there in the tree line. He throws himself into Tyler, snuggling into him in a quick, fierce hug. Tyler huffs softly, squeezing the back of his neck reassuringly, then nudges him away.

“Go on, then.”

Chase goes.

~*~

When Chase comes back to the house and the RV in January, it takes a week before the quiet, haunted glaze in his eyes fades away and he starts talking to Tyler and Lucas the way he did before.

Tyler doesn’t say anything about it, just drapes an arm around the boy’s shoulders when it’s time to walk him home, and fills up his quiet spaces with talk about tile and what he’s making for dinner.

It isn’t perfect, this quiet thing the three of them do—sometimes Tyler even says, dryly, that it’s unhealthy—but it works.

For them, it works.

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