Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Demon Next Door (Full Story)

Ever since the demons moved in next door, my life has gone to hell. At least, I’m pretty sure they’re demons, because: One, they moved in in the middle of the night. Two, I keep getting woken up by all these weird shrieking sounds. And three, they have horns. Not huge ones or anything, but like these yellowish tusk-like things that stick out of their temples and curve back toward their ears, like mini rams or something. Despite this, every girl in school thinks the new guy, DJ, is the hottest guy that ever existed ever. And that includes my best friend Andrea.

His first day of school, Andrea and I both dropped our books as he passed us in the hall. I thought for sure she was seeing what I saw, but then she leaned over and whispered, “Oh my God! Have you ever seen anyone that hot in real life?" And that’s when I knew I was the only one that could see my new neighbors for what they are.

Other girls swoon when he looks them in the eye, I get nauseous. Unlike non-demons, who might have green or brown eyes, DJ’s irises are full of flames. Literally, they’re like, on fire. But only for me. According to Andrea, DJ’s eyes are "the color of the ocean off a tropical island." So, you see what I’m up against.

I looked up demons online and it says they have some kind of magic trick they pull called a “glamour," but that they don’t work on about one percent of the population. Lucky me. The website advised that if you can see them, keep quiet about it or you’ll get locked up with the crazies. Probably by a demon who happens to have a day job as a doctor.

Nobody would believe me anyway. The Harmons are the perfect suburban family. They keep their yard neatly manicured, they barbecue on Sundays, they have two Suburbans, one black, the other gray. And no one but me seems to hear the screams coming from their house at night.

Supposedly, the more human looking demons are mostly harmless. Every fifty years or so, they steal the soul of a young person in order to stay immortal, but otherwise, they’re usually upstanding members of society.

I guess I could be cool with that if DJ wasn’t spending so much time flirting with Andrea. No offense to her, but she’s definitely not one of the more… sought after girls in school, if you know what I mean. She’s plain. Mousy. Not the kind of girl the hottest guy in school – or any guy so far, if we’re being honest – is likely to go for, unless he plans on eating her soul and banishing her to hell, or whatever it is they do with them. And Andrea’s read Twilight like ten times so her danger detector is way off. She actually thinks DJ is into her, like soulmates into her. I don’t know how to break it to her without hurting her feelings.

So now, even though Andrea is all swoony all the time, and has basically forgotten I exist thanks to Demon Boy, I’m going to try to save her. If demons are as reasonable as the internet says, DJ should be willing to hear me out. I just want him to take someone else’s soul. Maybe someone evil, like a serial killer, or Lisa Jansen, who still calls me Brace Face even though I got them off two years ago.

The Harmon family is nothing if not predictable. Every evening at six pm on the dot, DJ’s parents hop in the car and drive off, leaving DJ home alone. They return every night at ten, and the shrieks begin promptly at eleven. I can’t remember the last time I got a full night’s sleep. I wait until his parents have been gone a full ten minutes and then make the short walk across the lawn.

DJ’s house is the mirror image of mine, but meticulously kept. The flower boxes are full of bright red pansies. The kind my mom can only make last for about a month. The only thing spoiling the look is the faint screams coming from somewhere deep inside the house. It takes several knocks before the door begins to rattle and I hear the clicking and sliding of locks. The flames in DJ’s fire eyes flare in surprise when he sees me, but otherwise he seems relaxed, pleasant even. An ear-splitting shriek comes from somewhere behind him.

“Why Erica! Hello!" he says, stepping onto the porch and pulling the door shut. He’s tall and lean, and judging from the way his black t-shirt clings to his chest, he works out. Or maybe that’s just how demons are built. He flashes the smile I’ve seen make girls stumble over their own feet. “It’s so great that you finally stopped by. Andrea has told me so much about you.”

“Right..." His teeth are just a bit too pointy to look human, but I guess I’m the only one that can see that too. I try to stay focused on the plan, but this is the closest I’ve ever been to his horns and I’m fascinated. They grow right out of the skin, with the base surrounded by little tufts of hair that are more blonde than golden brown like the rest.

DJ catches my gaze and ruffles his hair sheepishly, like I just caught him with bedhead or something. “What brings you today?"

Before I can answer, another shriek leaks through the door. This time there’s something familiar about it. I could swear it’s Andrea. “What was that?" I ask.

The flames in DJ’s eyes leap, but he just shakes his head. “Oh, it’s just the tv. I like horror movies.” He reaches back and opens the door. His smile is still friendly, but his voice has a new edge to it. “Would you like to come in?"

No. I don’t want to go in. But he’s got my best friend in there, and I came to save her. I take a deep breath and force my mouth to smile. “Sure."

DJ steps aside. "After you."

I walk through the door.

The funny thing about putting yourself in danger is that you don’t always realize you’ve done it until after the fact. That is, unless you know the guy standing next to you isn’t human. If that’s the case, you have, like, no excuse for the sort of reckless behavior that’s likely to get your soul sucked away. Then there’s not really anything funny about putting yourself in danger.

The inside of the Harmon house is just as manicured as the outside. All of the furniture is nicely maintained and positioned to make the room feel as roomy as possible. Airy colors accented with hard wood stained a dark brown that make the whole place look like it was plucked right out of a magazine. In fact, the only thing I see that looks out of place is the TV, which, true to DJ’s word, is vibrant with blood.

On the screen, an ill-fated heroine screams and runs through a dark house. Did I only imagine that scream sounded like Andrea? It’s far too early for the Harmon’s nightly horror, after all. Their scream fest doesn’t begin properly until the after the parents have returned at ten and it’s not even six-thirty. I can’t leave until I’m sure, though.

“Can I get you something to drink? Soda? Juice? Water?” DJ gestures toward what I guess is the kitchen, but is just as likely the direction to his lair for the innocents.

I shrug, using the movement to push my hands into my jacket pockets and clutch at the collection of items there. There are way too many sites out there with opinions on the proper protection from demons and I've taken notes from each. In one pocket, I have a small baggie of kosher salt, violets purchased from grocery store I pass on the way home from school, and two magnets stolen from the assortment on the fridge that I hope are made of iron. In the other are the items belonging to another school of thought, which is that demons aren’t afraid of items, but faith. We’re not the most religious family, but my grandparents found Catholicism late in life and did their level best to infuse as much of it into my life as they could. I’m thankful, now, I have a rosary blessed by the Pope once upon a time and I’m more ready than every before to believe it has power.

Just in case, I also grabbed my lucky pencil, which hasn’t failed me on an exam yet. But who actually walks into a demon’s place of all things demon-y with a rosary and an automatic pencil thinking they’re armed to the gills?

That’s right, I do.

“Sure, a soda sounds great,” I answer, winding the rosary through my fingers in one hand and crushing the violet in the other.

I follow DJ through the short hallway and into the picture perfect kitchen. No signs of Andrea or life really. If this were my kitchen, there’d be at least three cups stacked up in the sink and evidence of some frenzied foraging in the cabinets by me or my dad. It was the sort of thing mom gave up fighting long ago. “Crumbs,” she’d say, “are my décor.” But here there was nothing. Every countertop shines like it was just bleached and polished. Which, I suppose they have to do daily if they’re in here massacring the unsuspecting like Andrea.

DJ pulls two sodas from the fridge and places one in front of me. It occurs to me that the thin aluminum shell would be easy enough to puncture if he wanted to inject the thing with drugs or something less natural. This could be how he gets them.

I place my hands around the can, bow my head, and begin the only prayer I know. “Our Father, who art in heaven…” I say the rest as quickly and quietly as I can before popping the top.

DJ’s expression is amused when I look up. The flames in his eyes dancing like laughter. And even though I know what he is and how much he doesn’t belong in my neighborhood, embarrassment makes me blush. I’m pretty sure I got all the words right, but there’s something oddly uncomfortable about saying a prayer out loud alone.

“My family’s a little religious.” I offer both as an explanation and a warning. “I mean, more than a little. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been blessed by our Pastor. I’ll bet my blood could even kill a vampire. You know,” I add, laughing awkwardly, “if they existed or whatever.”

“Mmm,” he murmurs in answer and his voice is like the purr of a vicious wolf. Not that I’ve ever been close enough to a wolf to hear one purr, much less purr viciously, but I feel the comparison’s apt. “My family’s pretty religious, too. Faith makes a family stronger, don’t you think? Gives you an ability to see the world in a different light.”

“Yeah,” I answer, trying to ignore the little voice in my head calling me a liar. “The town, too. I know you’re new, but the whole town’s religious. We’re all pretty protective of our souls and such.”

I sound like an idiot. He’s going to know exactly what I’m up to and eat me alive. I’ll never even find Andrea if I keep this up. I need to figure out what I’m doing and do it. Fast.

“Do you mind if I put this in a glass?” I ask. “With some ice, maybe?”

“Sure.” DJ does what I was hoping he’d do and turns his too-beautiful-to-be-real back to me.

Quickly, I dig my cellphone out of my jeans pocket and press the power button. It lights up and I swipe the screen in a pattern so practiced I could do it blindfolded, which, thankfully, I’m not. A picture of Andrea wearing a stupid, pink tiara pops up to confirm the call is about to go through. I shove the phone back in my pocket just as DJ slides a cup full of ice across to the counter to me.

“Now, would you like to watch the movie with me or did you just come by to hang and be neighborly? Which, if that’s the case, then I’m glad you did. It’s about time we did.” When he smiles, the points of his teeth draw little lines over his lips. It’s hard not to stare.

I pour the soda over the ice, keeping my eyes on the flames inside his. He’s too smooth. Too good at playing this part. I think even if I couldn’t see the horns curling out of his head, I’d know something was “off” about DJ. No one is this good at everything. No one is this clean, this beautiful, or even this polite.

“Actually, I was looking for Andrea. She said she might be here this evening.”

“Well, I’m sorry to say she’s not here. I haven’t seen her since the end of school.”

Two things happen then, one right after another. First, DJ’s skin sort of shimmers and grays like it’s made of smoke. I stumble back, unable to keep my surprise quiet.

And second, the sound of the Andrews Sisters singing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B” comes eking out through a plain white door to my left. Andrea’s ringtone.

“Well,” DJ says, frowning first at the door and then at me. His skin is once again too perfect but for the horns. “It seems we’ve both done a little lying tonight.”

Andrea’s song keeps playing and panic starts to claw its way up my throat. Why can’t she answer? There are only horrible reasons she wouldn’t be able to. I try not to picture her body, broken and soulless, but I can’t help but think I didn’t get here in time. I should have said something sooner.

DJ isn’t panicked. In fact, he’s smiling. “But your lies, Erica, were exactly what I was hoping for. Have I mentioned how happy I am that you stopped by?”

The ringtone stops abruptly. And that’s when it sinks in that DJ’s moved between me and the only way out of this sterile kitchen.

I’m trapped.

I take a step back, stumble, and when I reach for the back of a chair to catch myself, my rosary and the bag of salt I was holding fly from my pockets. DJ’s eyes flick to the items on the floor.

“See,” I say, in a last ditch effort, “religious. Like, Bible thumping, Jesus humping religious.” I swallow, lick my lips, and try to breathe.

DJ lunges toward me. I fall to the floor and grab the rosary and I slam it against his cheek.

And nothing happens.

The fire in his eyes flares, but it calms just as fast. He gets up and offers me a hand. “Really, Erica? There’s just no need for this.”

“Stay back!” I make a cross with my fingers. DJ smiles, laughs in that way that Dad sometimes does when I’ve stuffed too many marsh mallows in my mouth. “I mean it!” I reach in my pocket and throw the crumpled violet at him. It lands unimpressively next to his shiny shoes.

He laughs louder as he turns his back to me. I jump to my feet and arm myself with the last weapon in my arsenal—my lucky pencil.

DJ spins back around, holding something in his hands, and I jam my pencil in his right eye as hard as I can. He drops what he’s holding and his skin turns gray and smokey again. He lets out a triple octave death scream that no human boy could ever pull off. I knew that pencil was a good idea.

While he’s fighting with the pencil stuck in his eyeball, I make a mad dash for the white door. “Andrea!” I don’t know how I’ll get us both out of here, but I have to try. I can’t leave her here with Demon Boy.

Too strong, too perfect arms wrap around me. DJ’s skin is burning hot. Can other people feel this? I pull hard on the knob and the white door swings open, nearly dropping me on top of him. “Andrea!” She’s not there. Her purse is lying on a steel table in the center of an otherwise empty room. “Andrea?”

“I told you she wasn’t here. I didn’t lie about that.” DJ stands and pulls me to him. This time I don’t fight. “Now,” he says, handing me a big gold cup like the ones they use in movies with barbarians or something, “drink this. It will make you feel better.”

I’m not drinking that, but I don’t really have many options. I put the cup to my mouth and pretend to swallow.

“I usually go for the meek ones. The ones that need the most attention.” He strokes my hair. “They tend to be full of lies and deceit. I couldn’t get Andrea to lie about anything. She’s an open book. But you? And I didn’t even have to try.”

“So that’s it? I just lie to you and you get to eat my soul or whatever?”

“Mmm,” he says, amused. “How are you feeling? Care for another swallow?” He lifts the cup.

I’m not much of a runner, I stopped using my inhaler about the time I got my braces off, but my house isn’t far. The Internet said something about demons not being able to come where they haven’t been invited. Or was that vampires? I wish Andrea were here. She would know. But then again, her knowledge of vampires comes from Twilight, and they sparkled. I don’t think real vampires sparkle.


“Um. I think I should—” I shove him away and the cup sloshes, spilling dark red stuff all over the clean floor and my sneakers, and I run. Out the door, across the lawn and into the foyer of my own house. DJ doesn’t follow me.


“That night was the last night I saw the demons next door.”

The man in the white coat across from me scratches down some notes in his yellow notepad. This room is cold and empty, save for the skinny table between us, and everything is white.

“Mmm,” he says. The flames in his eyes reflect off his glasses and it’s hard not to stare. His horns are filed though. Maybe it’s more professional. Like being clean shaven. “And you’re sure what you’ve told me today is the truth, Erica?”

“Yes, doctor.”

I dare not tell a lie.

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