Monday, October 31, 2011

Storykeeper (Part 1 of 3)


I didn’t know Nana Marin was dead until my seventh birthday.

It wasn’t a great shock, though I realize now that it should have been. I asked my dad when she would arrive and whether or not she’d wear a pointed hat for the party – I had it in my head that nanas were given to wearing pointed hats at parties. Dad gave me a strange look and told me that she’d passed away when I was just a baby, but Mom took me by the hand and said, “Don’t tell stories, Sophie.”

That made a sort of sense to me so I nodded and never mentioned Nana visiting again. It was easier to go to her.

She lived in a slouching old shack in the steep hills behind my house at the end of a little trail that forked off of a bigger one that forked off of an even bigger one. I don’t remember how I found it the first time, but by the time I was eight I could get there in my sleep. Once a month I visited and on every birthday after the seventh.

Nana was always dressed in layers of wool and flannel, her hair was pinned up in a bun that looked like a pastry rested on the top of her head, and she smelled like lemons and honey. Her house was warm despite the way light seeped in around the logs and autumn winds snaked down from holes in the roof. When I visited, we would sit on the dusty ground and weave together ropes of pine needles I’d collected or little bits of yarn she produced from somewhere in the house. She taught me songs I’d never heard and when we sang them together, the wind whistled through the trees in harmony.

When I turned twelve, I brought her a deck of playing cards because I overheard Mom telling Mrs. Gallow how much Nana Marin loved a game called Gin Rummy.

“Ah!” She said, snapping them apart and back together again. “Shall I tell you your future?”

I was suspicious that magic could be done with an ordinary deck of cards, but I nodded and said, “Please, Nana.”

The cards said, sssssnick.

She flipped over the first card and pressed it into the dirt between us. I remember it was the eight of clubs and the corner was bent. She didn’t say anything, but she nodded, took a small breath and laid down every single card in that deck. She piled them in rows, all climbing toward my shins, and then sat back to examine them.

“Mmm,” she said and pressed her fingers together so that they pointed like the tip of her house. “Mmm.”

“What does it say?” I was not feeling patient and not enjoying the fact that these very unmagical cards were doing magical things. “Nana!”

“Oh, Sophie,” she said with a laugh. “You will never have trouble getting the things you want out of life. You are far too stubborn. This is a good thing because the cards are telling me a story. About you. And on your sixteenth birthday, they will tell you, too.”

“But I want to know now.” I protested, careful not to whine.

“Now is not the time.” She swept up the cards and returned them to me. “Cards like these have many stories to tell, but they will not be pressed. They hold tightly to them until the time is right.”

I never brought her cards again.

I asked Mom once, around my fourteenth birthday, if Nana had ever read her future. Mom’s face sort of emptied out until all that was left behind were the pieces of it: eyes, lips, nose, and the same pointy chin I carried on my own face.

Her only response was, “Where do you get such silly questions?” Then she pushed a bag of green beans into my hands and said, “Snap.”

Nana never mentioned the cards again and neither did I, both of us looking ahead to my sixteenth birthday as though it were nothing special. The closest she came to saying anything about it was on my fifteenth birthday.

“Feel any different today?” This question was a tradition and she asked it with playful smile. Or, she usually did. Today her mouth was serious.

“No, Nana,” I said. “I feel like the same old Sophie.”

She pressed her hands to my cheeks; they were no warmer than the cool dirt we sat on, but far more forgiving. “Next year. That’ll be the one. You watch.”

I was used to setting aside the strange things Nana said because when it came down to it, everything she said was strange. She was dead and I knew by now that the dead don’t talk. At least not to most people.

The night before my sixteenth I woke in the middle of the night. I was hopeful that this was the change Nana mentioned and I would feel it. It wasn’t, and I made an indifferent trip to the bathroom.

When I returned to my bedroom, annoyingly awake for so early in the morning, I reached for a book to pull the waking from my eyes and knocked over a small jewelry box. Two green, plastic bracelets and the entire deck of playing cards spilled to the floor. I sat to collect them, but ended up shuffling them.

The cards said sssssnick.

I shuffled until my hands felt warm and then laid them out on the carpet as Nana had done, in long rows of eight and nine. The first I recognized immediately; the eight of clubs with one corner turned. The second also looked familiar and the third and the fourth.

“They’re exactly the same,” I said, breaking the silence that suddenly felt too close.

Silence rushed in again, holding the house hostage. My breath, too, became thin as I considered the cards before me. I thought of all the words I could use to describe what was happening; eerie, unlikely, coincidence, impossible. And as I stared at the rows of cards, laid exactly as they’d been four years ago, a story began to unfold in my mind.

It started with a young girl who lived at the bottom of a hill who considered things that were not in any way ordinary to be ordinary. She saw things others did not, could do things others could not, and it was all because of one, very unordinary thing.

She was a witch.

*****
Valerie's up on Wednesday with Part 2!

Photo by Striking Photography by Bo via Flickr Creative Commons

Friday, October 21, 2011

Crossroads (Part 3 of 3)

Before she appeared, he’d known the answer to that. If the demon that answered his call had born any other face he’d have said, “My soul for health and wealth.” Now, though, it wasn’t so simple.

“I’m here to make a deal.” Jason said, finding a small piece of resolve to stand on. He cleared his throat and smoothed his shirt before he continued. “I’m here to bargain for your soul.”


Meredith looked at him for a long, long time. Her head tilted slightly to the right, her face revealing nothing. The breezes twisting around her stopped, and everything went still. Too still.

Jason felt his certainty waver. The selfish part of him wanted to dig up his bag and run. Not out of fear, but from the shame. She’d always been good at this. Holding back, using her silence to make him speak. He felt fifteen again as he asked the question he didn’t want to hear the answer to. “What did you do, Mere?”

At this, her eyes turned kind. For the first time since she’d appeared, she looked like Meredith, and not some demon hiding behind her face. “I promised I’d always look out for you, didn’t I?”

“Not like this.” The sickness that had started in Jason’s stomach reached out for the rest of his body. Anger like liquid fire shot through his veins. He wanted to climb into hell and take down whatever demon had convinced his sweet, selfless sister to give up her soul. She didn’t deserve hell. Especially not for him. “You should’ve let me die.”

Meredith nodded. “Maybe I could’ve, if you were dying, but you weren’t.”

“I don’t understand. If I wasn’t dying, then why?”

“Would you have rather been a quadriplegic for the rest of your life? I couldn’t stand it, my baby brother, forever strapped into a chair, all because I was late picking him up.”

Jason thought back to the accident. So much of it was missing from his memory. He didn’t know why he’d been on the roof of the school that day, or how he’d managed to fall off. And since it was after school hours, no one had seen him but the janitor that found him splattered on the ground and called 911. He didn’t even know he’d been waiting for his sister. “No that’s…” He wanted to say that wasn’t true, but suddenly truth seemed like a slippery thing. Instead he told her what he knew. “That wasn’t worth your soul.”

Meredith shrugged. “What’s done is done.”

Jason walked toward her. The closer he got, the more he could feel the heat leaking from her in waves. It reminded him that she was here with him, but her soul was down there burning. He cupped his hand around the bag dangling from her wrist. It was heavy. Too heavy for someone as frail as Meredith to hold. The longer he held it, the more he realized he wasn’t feeling weight, he was feeling pull. The bag was her anchor. It kept her tied to hell even when she was out in the human world. It only increased his determination. He held his gaze steady on hers. “I can fix this.”

“Don’t.” She whispered.

“My soul for yours.” He said, and the bag he held in his hand began to glow.

They both studied it for a few moments before Meredith took a deep breath. “Are you sure? Your soul for my freedom?”

Jason knew he should be feeling fear, or at least sadness, but all he felt was relief. He would be redeemed. His life, all the terrible things he’d done since his sister died would be erased. Meredith would make the world a better place then he ever could’ve. He was positive, and he made his voice show it. “My soul for your freedom.”

A blast of heat burst at them from the ground, shooting Meredith’s hair straight up into the air. For a moment Jason thought she looked like she was falling. And then he realized the sensation was his. His feet stayed rooted to the ground, but he felt his soul detach and drop down, farther and farther until it touched flame. He squeezed his eyes shut in agony, but behind his lids he saw a landscape of fire and torture so horrific it made the burning of his soul feel like a slight itch.

“Jacey, open up.” Meredith teased. She sounded much more vibrant and alive than she had moments before.

Jason opened his eyes, grateful that at least his sister was saved.

Meredith pulled her bag free wrist away from Jason’s hand and grinned as he panted and tried to catch his breath. “Thanks, kid,” she said, in voice not at all her own.

As Jason watched, pale, pretty, teenaged Meredith morphed into a gorgeous, golden-skinned, raven-haired woman of about thirty. Without the headscarf and the shabby clothes and the wrinkles, it took him a moment to recognize the gypsy woman who’d told him how to summon the demon.

Jason glanced down at the heavy bag that now dangled from his wrist and could hardly speak. “Where’s Meredith?”

The painfully attractive woman threw her head back and laughed. “Hell if I know, kid.” she ruffled his hair as she walked past him, still grinning. “Thanks for the trade.”

*****
Next week is our week off, but we'll be back on Monday, October 31st with an all new tangle started by Natalie!

Photo found via google images, original author unknown.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Crossroads (Part 2 of 3)

When the truck had gone, and the dust settled, the demon stood before him. It wasn’t what he’d expected. It had no horns. No forked tongue or spaded tail. No pitchfork like a cartoon devil. It had eyes, not red, but as green as his own. And skin the color of milk with a touch of honey.

And a face Jason Turner could never forget.


The demon wore his sister’s face. There was no mistaking her crooked smile nor could he miss the small scar on her chin.

“No,” he said and retreated one small step. A feint at what he actually wanted to do in that moment.

He’d been prepared to go toe to toe with something inhuman, with something grotesque and terrible. He’d never seen a demon before tonight, but he’d had it on good authority that they weren’t that easy to look upon. Of course, he wasn’t finding it easy to look upon his sister, either.

The demon cocked its head to the side regarding him through amused eyes. “No? C’mon, Jacey. Is that any way to greet me after so long.”

The pain in his stomach writhed again. “You can’t be here,” he said, gritting his teeth across his words.

“I’m afraid I can,” was her response.

For a quiet moment, Jason watched the demon, his sister. He had come here to change his life. He’d come looking for the means to forget the person he’d been in all the years before this one and be better. There was irony in it, to be sure; selling your soul in order to convince yourself you have one. That was the level to which Jason had fallen. Only a demon could raise him up again.

But his sister hadn’t suffered from his less desirable traits. She had been kind and loving and good. The sort of person who’d give the coat on her back if she saw someone in need. The sort of person who made sacrifices for others. Jason had never been that good or selfless. He was the sort of person who chastised her for confusing recklessness with kindness. He was the sort of person who summoned demons at crossroads. Not her. She couldn’t be here.

A trick, he thought, that’s all this is. “Why are you using her face?”

Slow snaking breezes lifted the dust around her feet. It billowed around her, obscuring her feet in dull clouds. Moonlight cast pallor over everything, greying even her vibrant skin. And all around them, beetles snapped and clattered from the tall, dying grasses.

“Always so good with denial.” The demon with his sister’s face said sadly.

Lifting her hand before her, she opened her fingers to reveal a small leather bag. Not his, he realized. This one was darker, the drawstring at the top adorned with beads that glittered green and pink in the moonlight. Its strap was long and coiled around her wrist many times. At the edge of those coils her skin was pinched and pink. Even at a distance, Jason could see the scar from where it had dug into her skin.

He didn’t want to recognize it and he didn’t know what it meant that he did, but the beads on the bag were distinct. They were the beads from a necklace he’d given her on her seventeenth birthday when he’d been barely fifteen. It hadn’t been in their budget, but he’d taken extra work at the butcher for a month to afford it. That was before he’d discovered easier, more practical ways of affording the finer things in life.

“Jacey.” Her hand closed again on the little bag, clutching. Her fingers flushed white and Jason remembered how they twisted in the bed sheets at the end of another sleepless night. Her skin had lost its blush of honey so quickly and no one understood how or why such a healthy girl had grown so suddenly ill. Exceptionally tragic given her brother’s concurrent recovery from a fall that should have left him immobilized if not dead. “Jacey, why are you here?”

Before she appeared, he’d known the answer to that. If the demon that answered his call had born any other face he’d have said, “My soul for health and wealth.” Now, though, it wasn’t so simple.

“I’m here to make a deal.” Jason said, finding a small piece of resolve to stand on. He cleared his throat and smoothed his shirt before he continued. “I’m here to bargain for your soul.”

*******
See you Friday for Valerie's conclusion!

Photo found via google images, original author unknown

Monday, October 17, 2011

Crossroads (Part 1 of 3)

He left the BMW sitting beneath a crooked street lamp next to an ancient pump, the keys dangling from the ignition. The attendant smiled a patient smile and asked how much.

“Just fill it up,” he said, with a wave of his hand. He had no intention of paying the man, or using the fuel that would fill his empty tank. He had somewhere else to be, and he had no desire to return to his old life. He’d forget the beemer and buy himself a Bentley by morning.

The crossroads are a place where devils dance in the moonlight. Where souls are traded like stocks on Wall Street. A place where a person can forget who he was and the things that he’s done, if only he’s willing to pay.

He smoothed down the front of his collared shirt and loosened his tie. Nothing was too costly for Jason Turner. This, he decided, was what had to be done. A practical measure. A bump in the road to success.

He stood in the center of Cropsy and Manson, two dirt roads that lead to nowhere and the sight of far too many fatal car accidents. Someone should put a stop sign here, he thought. But there would be no stop sign, no traffic signal. Too many souls would be saved. Not many made the kind of deal Jason was willing to make and the crossroads demons had to meet their quota one way or another.

A soul like Jason’s wasn’t ideal, he knew that. They’d want someone pure, someone virtuous. Someone who didn’t already have one polished loafer in the devil’s door. He’d need more than just his weathered soul if he wanted to strike up a bargain.

From the pocket of his trousers, Jason removed a small leather bag he’d bought at a charm shop from a gypsy woman. The bag smelled like cat piss and dirt, but she’d assured him it would do the trick. He dug a small hole with the toe of his shoe, tossed the bag inside, and stamped the dirt back into place. With fisted hands and a rigid back, he waited.

Nothing happened. He was duped, he knew it. Something heavy settled in his stomach. He doubled over, heaving into the dead grass along the side of the road. He was out of options. He needed this. He needed to enlist the help of hell’s best businessmen. Without the deal, Jason was done.

Maybe the gypsy woman had forgotten to mention something. Some key that would unlock the gates of hell and grant him an easy way out. “Bury it,” she’d hissed at him. “Bury it, and face your demon.” She’d gripped his hands so tightly Jason could still feel the bite of her arthritic boney fingers. He was ready to face the demon, any demon. If only one would show.

An eighteen wheeler sped down Crospy leaving Jason just enough time to jump back. When the truck had gone, and the dust settled, the demon stood before him. It wasn’t what he’d expected. It had no horns. No forked tongue or spaded tail. No pitchfork like a cartoon devil. It had eyes, not red, but as green as his own. And skin the color of milk with a touch of honey. 

And a face Jason Turner could never forget.

*******
See you Wednesday for Part 2 by Natalie!

Photo found via google images, original author unknown

Monday, October 10, 2011

Second Star Run


Somebody had to do it. Holes in the N.E.V.E.R. shield were to be expected - you couldn’t put something so close to the sun and not expect a few holes to appear now and again - but even so they needed be filled. That meant requisitioning an atmospheric cruiser and a solider. One of those was easier to come by than the other, so it was good or lucky that the need only arose every half century, give or take.

Nobody ever wanted to be the one chosen to patch the holes.

This time, though, it was a boy of only seventeen who volunteered. Before the lottery was even announced, he stepped through the heavily tinted doors of the Department for Atmospheric Management and asked to speak with Commander Rivera.

Petty Officer Cooper would tell the story later. How the boy walked in with a smile on his face and stole the air from the room. How the dust that seemed to settle on everybody’s shoulders, had somehow missed his, leaving his uniform a dark and unfiltered blue. How certain he’d been and how selfless. How Commander Rivera told her with tears in his eyes that the boy was the bravest soul they’d ever know.

The story hit the news before the all the appropriate paperwork had made its way through the system. “A boy to save the world!” they shouted across every feed still available, “A boy to do what men feared to!” How could such a boy exist and could he really know what it was he had committed himself to? Some, perhaps many, doubted he’d follow through. Cynics called it nothing more than a cruel publicity stunt and argued that the lottery should continue as scheduled. Others demanded he be evaluated for illness and others still called for someone else, someone past the prime of life to step forward and take the boy’s place.

The morning of the launch, the boy arrived at the hanger early. He wore the same jumper he’d been assigned on his first day of training a year ago. Though it showed signs of wear around knees and elbows - he was a still-growing boy, after all – it was clean and adorned appropriately. His hair was perhaps a touch longer than it should have been, brushed back into a dark cloud behind his ears. Nothing about him spoke to the importance of the task that lay just ahead, and though everyone in the hanger stopped to watch him walk to the center where his cruiser stood in a halo of light, he didn’t seem to notice.

With the sort of practiced disinterest of someone who’s logged hundreds of hours of flight time, he inspected his new cruiser. It was old. Not so old that it wouldn’t make the trip, but old enough that it would handle differently. More weight in the nose would require a certain amount of adaptation, he knew, but he’d taken more easily to flying than anyone Flight Deck Officer Darl could recall. He’d have preferred one of the newer models, of course; the cruisers that could punch through the atmosphere without even trying. For volunteering he might have gotten it. The DAM was so stunned by his unprecedented offer that they might have given him his pick of birds to ride the back of the wind, but sending new tech up to the shield was a waste.

Only one person was brave enough to be near the boy that morning. Airman Evans was at the top of the ladder, leaning over the prow of the cruiser, polishing the windshield one last time. She’d been going over and over the craft all morning, constantly tinkering with anything her fingers touched. If the old girl didn’t fly, Evans would take the blame and her birds always, always flew.

“Ever gone up in one of the ancients?” She called down to the boy. Even at the top of the stairs, she was small. More than once in her term as resident grease monkey she’d been mistaken for a child. The boy, though, knew that powerful things often came in small packages and had never underestimated Evans.

“Not like this,” he answered, running one hand over the nose where the cruiser’s name, Second Star, was painted in blue and yellow. Though scratched and faded, the words were still legible and fitting, he thought, for the work at hand.

“She won’t let you down,” she said as though this were any other flight on any other day. “I’ve made sure of it.”

The boy’s smile was clever. She had never let him down and he was very well aware that without her, he wouldn’t fly at all. “What a good team we’ve been.”

Quickly then, she descended the stairs and wrapped her arms around his neck, and with great emotion, she spoke into his ear, “The nanogel distribution pods for the N.E.V.E.R. shield are already loaded and ready to go. When you’re outside the shield, all you have to do is locate the hole and drop the NPDs. Drop and run, got it? The sun’ll do the rest and more if you’re not fast. I’ve pushed as much fuel into this thing as it’ll hold. If you burn hard, you might be able to make it back through. If anyone can do it, you can.”

Everyone in the force knew what it took to patch the shield even if no one ever wanted to do it. It was long before their time that the sun grew too hot and the atmosphere too thin. The shield was designed to make life bearable on Earth in the absence of natural phenomenon meant to do the same. Those things were more myth than memory these days. The boy and Evans had only ever seen things like snow and ice caps in old photographs, films, and paintings. The shield was a masterpiece of atmospheric engineering and when it operated properly, it hardly mattered that the earth hadn’t seen snow in more than a century. But every once in a while, it would succumb, much like the ice sheets had, and require attention.

The review wasn’t necessary. Evans seemed to say it more for her own comfort than anything, but the boy was patient. He pulled his arms tight around her waist and nodded his nose through her curly, blonde ponytail. “Understood.”

If there was sadness in him, he didn’t recognize it and therefore, decided there was none. He didn’t regret his choice. It was, in fact, the most selfish decision he’d ever made. That was why he refused to speak to the press and why he’d politely declined all efforts made to throw him a pre-launch party.

“Good.” Evans pulled away, searching the boy’s face for something to keep with her when he left. She didn’t find it. “Oh, God love you, why are you doing this? They could have found someone else. Someone older, you know? Like they usually do. Someone with an incurable disease with two months to live, or like last time, that convict who murdered those kids and wanted redemption? Someone who’d already lived.”

The boy knew his answer wouldn’t satisfy her, but he gave it still. “I want to go.”

“But why? Please, just tell me why because I don’t understand.” She took a small step back, pushing fisted hands into her hips.

Outside the hanger, the sky was dusty and hot, a claustrophobic sky with no room for hope. He wanted to be above it, where history promised something wide and open and blue. As blue, perhaps, as Airmen Evans’ eyes.

“I want to touch the sky,” he said, placing a hand on the ladder railing. He imagined how incredible the sky would look through the polished windshield and his smile was uncontainable. “And I never want to grow up.”

*******
Thank you for reading! Come back on Monday for a new Tangle started by Lacey!

Photo by Global Jet via Flickr Creative Commons

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Demon Next Door (Part 3 of 3)


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.

Crap.

“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.

********
Thanks for reading! We come back next week with an untangle by Natalie!
Photo found via google images. If you know the creator, let us know!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Demon Next Door (Part 2 of 3)

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 d├ęcor.” 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.

*****
Come back Friday for the final piece by Lacey!

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Monday, October 3, 2011

The Demon Next Door (Part 1 of 3)

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.

*****
Come back Wednesday for Part 2 by Natalie!

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