LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 3

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CHAPTER 3

It’s hard not to think the guy is joking, like any minute now some dopey-eyed actor is going to jump out shouting, “Punked!” I do a quick check around the yard. You know, just in case. But I don’t see any hidden cameras. What I do see, when I look back toward the old man, is that kid from the hot chocolate truck standing there at the mouth of the alley where he definitely wasn’t two seconds before.

I’m on my feet without even meaning to be, that knife in my hand again and my legs very nearly what you’d call steady.

“What are you doing here?” I snap at him, trying real hard not to look like a big gust of wind could probably knock me over at any second, but the kid doesn’t even respond. Just looks me over, his eye traveling past the knife as if it isn’t even there.

From this angle the whole shape of his body is telling me it wouldn’t take much for him to hurt me if he tried. Then, in this voice like someone who’s genuinely concerned and not at all psychotic, he blurts out, “Calon tân, you can barely stand,” and he’s moving toward me with a speed that is totally unnatural. I flinch away, but the old man’s already standing up and he stops the kid with just a gesture of his hand.

To me he says, “Dylan is with me. He won’t hurt you,” and you can tell the guy really believes it.

“Except for that he already did try to hurt me.”

The kid’s reaction is immediate and real earnest. “That was an accident,” he says, leaning around the old guy to talk to me. “I never even meant to touch you.”

With him looking me full in the face like he is it’s hard not to believe him. He just has the kind of eyes that make you want to believe. Plus, he’s got a point. I definitely was the one who touched him first.

“The other man that hurt you is a different story, however.” The kid steps out so he can look at both me and the old guy at the same time. “And, I’m sorry, but we don’t have time to hash this all out right now because he and all of his friends are already on their way to your house, and there’s no telling what they might do to anyone they find there.”

That’s all it takes to make whatever doubts I still had about the kid just kind of disappear. All he had to do was put an image in my head of my mom all alone and in danger. It wouldn’t matter if he were the devil himself now. I’d still do just about anything he said if he promised Mom would be okay.

“How far ahead of us are they?” that Agni guy asks.

“By now, five minutes.”

“Then we still have—”

“We’ve got to talk to the police,” I cut in, and I start taking some trembly steps toward the alley, but Agni grabs my arm to hold me back. It’s not like he grabs hard. There’s barely any pressure at all, actually, but there’s just something about his grip—some sort of instinctive authority—that makes me stop in my tracks.

“Your police can do nothing to help you against these people, but Dylan and I can. If you take us to your house now we can keep you and your mother safe. Will you trust us?”

I pause for a second and think about what it might mean to take them to my house, to my mom. What if this is all a trick and he and this Dylan kid are really the ones I should be worried about? I stare at the old man, look up into the kid’s eyes, and I get that warm feeling in my chest again. That certainty. If it had a voice it’d be purring at me, telling me that the answer is yes. That trusting them is exactly what I should do.

I hear Logan coming down the alley, then. The clumsiness of his footsteps in the snow is so unmistakably him that even Dylan and Agni have no trouble guessing who it is.

“Your friend cannot know about any of this,” says the man in this quick whisper. “It would put him at terrible risk.”

I look between him and Dylan again. What is most important to me right now is to get to my mom as quick as possible, and Logan’s just turned into a huge distraction. I head him off, kind of wobbily, a few feet into the alley, and he’s surprised to see me up and walking. His eyes go all wide with so much relief that I feel bad for being annoyed with him.

“Sara says Sheriff’s at the sleigh rides,” he says. “But he’s not answering his cell. I came to check on you on the way there.”

I can see sweat on his face as if he’s been running hard, which cannot have been easy in those boots, and for some reason this moment feels suddenly like it’s a goodbye.

“We don’t need to talk to the sheriff,” I say. “I’m okay. Everything’s okay.”

He squints real hard at me like he’s got a whole load of questions he’s about to ask, and just like that I lose all my patience again. I don’t have the time to do this properly.

“But you said those guys—?” he starts, and I cut him off.

“I was wrong. Turns out it was just weird hormones making me feel funny.” I say this because I know it’ll shut him right up. “I gotta go take care of things before, you know, anything’s showing.”

When I move to step past him now, he’s happy enough to let me go. Even shifts away from me a little bit like maybe I’m contagious. He’s lived his whole life on a functioning farm, but he still gets real weird about human reproduction.

I’m already almost to the end of the alley when he calls after me, “Are you okay to drive?”

I just give him a little wave and keep walking as if I am actually okay to be doing anything right now. The old man and the kid are waiting on the sidewalk. I don’t know how they got there so fast and right now I don’t care. I follow them across Main Street and down a residential road to their car. It’s a dark gray sedan, real nondescript and boring and the inside of it is the same. As in, every inch of that interior is the same dull gray, the same bland texture without even an ounce of anything that could hint at personality. As if the car was conjured up out of the dream of someone who doesn’t know anything about cars, just the bare minimum of what it takes to be an automobile.

As soon as I’m settled in the backseat I try to call my mom, but no one answers. I try again with the same result. So I text her not to open the door to anyone. Or better yet, to get out of the house completely before anyone comes. You’re in danger, I write, but still no one responds.

There are a lot of people out still. The festival will keep going ’til pretty late and now, with the evening creeping in real fast, the lights around town are starting to turn on. Snow-covered Flemingsburg is at its best at night, all lit up by the blue moon and with the snow sparkling like fairy dust under every patch of lamplight. As we pass Fleming Park with its hanging lanterns strung from tree to tree, it’s looking real magical. A place where nothing bad could ever happen.

I’m glad the kid drives fast. Like break-the-sound-barrier fast. As urgent as if it’s his own mom he’s rushing toward. But when we pull off the highway onto the mountain road and we’re barreling toward the end of the plowed pavement I sort of panic. Even in my truck I couldn’t take the ridged and frozen snow of the dirt roads at this speed. Their grandma sedan will probably just disintegrate.

“The road isn’t plowed,” I practically shout at them. “You can’t take the snow at this speed.”

The old man is already unbuckling his seatbelt and moving his chair back as far as it will go. He looks at me from the passenger seat.

“We have a secret weapon,” he says, holding his hands up and sort of twiddling his fingers. Then he crouches down on all fours under the dashboard and closes his eyes in real deep concentration. I don’t know how the guy even fits down there.

“What are you doing? What is he doing?” I ask the kid, but he’s too focused on driving and he doesn’t answer, just keeps steering the car straight down that road toward what is probably about to feel to us like a sheer wall of ice. I throw myself against the back of my seat and try to brace against the shock, but then there’s barely even a bump. Like we’d probably feel it more if we ran over a trail of ants or something.

I sit up again and lean forward as far as my seatbelt will let me, trying to get a good look out of the front window. Lit up in the headlights it’s all blue-tinged icy dips and ridges coming at us so fast that they should be completely murdering the car’s suspension right now, but out the back window we’re trailing a winding ribbon of fresh-looking snow packed just soft enough for the speeding car to leave real shallow tire marks.

I guess this isn’t too different from anything I’ve already seen the old guy do today, but it’s the scale of it that surprises me. And the speed. I mean, he’s just happily transforming whole stretches of snow pretty much instantaneously.

“Who are you guys?” I ask the kid. “Harry Potter or something?”

His lips twitch. I can see it from where I’m sort of leaning between the two front seats, so I know he’s that close to smiling when he says, “It’s not magic,” like he’s pretty sure I should already know this. “It’s painting. Agni’s fiddling with the molecules.”

He’s got some sort of British accent, but I’m not appreciating that right now because I’m thinking that if this old man can do what he’s doing to the snow, what will those other people be able to do to my mom?

“Turn here,” I remember to say just in time, and the kid takes the corner kind of sharp. Down on the floor, the old man bumps against the bottom of the dashboard, but he doesn’t react.

“How did these people know where I live?”

“Your boyfriend shouted your name out loud and clear. Might as well have handed them the directions,” he says like Logan couldn’t be a bigger pain, which is real unfair. We live in Flemingsburg, probably the safest town in America. Just what was Logan supposed to be afraid was going to happen?

Plus, Logan is not my boyfriend.

“Who are they? What is it that they want from me?”

The kid’s expression barely changes. It’s not like he flinches or does anything remotely dramatic. He doesn’t even take his eyes off the road. There’s just maybe the slightest tightening in the muscles around his jaw, but that’s enough to make him look like some sort of shadow’s passed right over his heart or something.

“They’re called takers. They live off of death and pain.”

It’s not exactly an answer to my question. It’s terrifying, but it’s vague. I already figured those guys weren’t headed to my house to sell bibles, if you know what I meant. But the way he says it, it’s like he’s sent that shadow of his stabbing straight into my heart too. Again I’m picturing Mom alone in that house, the nearest neighbor miles away.

“Turn,” I say one more time, and the closer we get the smaller my throat feels. Whatever that buzzy-ness is that I’ve been feeling all day, I’m barely aware of it now. I’m just a pillar of adrenaline, a ball of anxiety seconds from detonating in one giant blast.

After the next turn we’re sliding up the long drive to our farm and in the dusk I can see the shadowy shape of the house. The front door’s wide open, letting the light from inside beam out in a beacon across the snow-covered field. A snakey black body, all winged like a giant bird, rises up behind the house for a minute and then shoots down into the evergreen trees.

“What was that?”

“I don’t know,” Dylan says, and I can’t tell from his tone if he’s as freaked out as I am or if monster-sightings are just an every day sort of thing for him. Me—it’s like my heart’s right up in my throat, just pounding against the back of my tongue so hard I can practically taste it.

We’re slowing down now, coming up to the front of the house, and the old man is quietly unfolding himself from his spot on the floor. There’s a strange car in the yard, a four-door sports car, all sharp and dark. Dark windows, dark hubcaps, dark headlights. It looks more like a weapon than a car. The sight of it there, real out of place against the rustic homeyness of our log house, sets my pulse pounding like thunder in my ears.

Agni is already out of our car, almost before it’s stopped.

“You stay here,” Dylan commands me, but I don’t. There’s no way that’s going to happen.

I fumble a little with my seat belt, but I’m not too far behind them when I enter the house. The front door is broken clean off its hinges. It’s lying across the foyer several feet from the wall, as if it was thrown there by some raging giant. Agni and Dylan are disappearing into the other room and I hurry after them.

Our kitchen is a mess. Seems like everything we ever owned has been smashed across the place. There are scorch marks all over, one of our a butcher’s knives is imbedded in the wall by the hall, and the kitchen door has been blown off its frame and is lying in the snow in the backyard. Agni’s looking out there with this real worried expression on his face, and I can hear Dylan moving through the next room over.

There’s a U-shaped set of wood counters at the far end of the kitchen, and the island that’s usually in the middle of that is sitting all askew, backed up against one of the counter corners like it was thrown there by the same explosions that blackened the walls. The countertops are burnt and some tomatoes that were sitting out by the sink have been cooked through, their red juices still spreading all slow across the ruined wood and dripping onto the floor. It’s like a scene from a horror movie, except there aren’t any bodies.

Please, please, don’t let there be any bodies.

The only place in the room that’s nearly untouched is the nook between the refrigerator and the wall where there’s a little pantry. You probably wouldn’t notice it if you weren’t looking, it’s tucked back there so tight. I’m staring at it because we never keep the pantry door closed unless guests are over and the door is definitely shut now. Mom’s steel meat tenderizer is on the ground beside it, partly hidden underneath the edge of the refrigerator and reflecting the room’s light like some sort of signal.

I bend down and grab it off the floor, gripping the handle in my left hand like it’s Thor’s hammer or something. Everything in my body’s gone real still. As if there’s no heart pumping blood through my veins, no breath passing in or out. I wrap my fingers careful around the pantry doorknob like I could break it if I squeeze too tight, and with a tilt of my wrist it turns.

I don’t know what I’m expecting to see in there. My mom’s broken body maybe. Somebody else’s. Based on the rest of the kitchen, I’m definitely expecting something gross. Instead I see my mom standing there very much alive, her hair all wild and her eyes wilder, a gun in her hands and pointed at the pantry door like she’s absolutely going to use it. Like she definitely knows how. I didn’t even know we had something like that in the house.

At the sight of me she lets out this crazy little whoop that sounds half like a sob and she flings herself at me, wrapping me up in her arms so tight I can hardly breathe.

“Zanny, Zanny, Zanny,” she’s saying into my hair, and I’m mumbling back at her with just about as much relief in my voice, although I’m having a hard time concentrating on anything except the gun that is currently being pressed grip-first pretty hard into my spine.

Then Agni’s beside us and Dylan right after him, and they’re both asking Mom if she’s alright, and she’s swinging me around behind her and pulling her gun hand free.

“Who’re you?” she demands in a voice I’ve never heard her use before.

“Mom! Geez!” I grab for the gun, but she’s not actually pointing it at them. Yet. “They’re here to help.”

She’s standing there, still holding me a step behind her with one arm, and she’s staring at those guys like she’s the god of war or something and they’re just lowly worms she’d have no problem squashing to death with her almighty feet. Agni’s staring back at her with this smile on his face like she really is some sort of deity and he couldn’t be happier about it.

“Mrs. Monroe, what happened here?” Dylan asks in this quiet voice. “How did you drive them away?”

Her eyes fix on his face, bore into him like if she looks hard enough she might be able to read his soul. Then, and maybe it’s that sense of calm about him or maybe it’s those eyes of his, but she just sort of descends. As if every muscle in her body’s unwinding at the same time and shrinking her back down to her normal size.

“You’re supposed to be Zanny’s guardians, aren’t you?” she says, suddenly real tired, and she sets the gun down on the counter. “Daniel said I’d know you when I saw you.”

“And you are not a Painter yourself, I gather,” Agni says, his smile gone a lot more gentle.

I’m staring real hard at Mom now, watching her profile because it’s all I can see of her face. What does she mean, Dad told her she’d know these guys? Why is she acting suddenly and absolutely not even a little surprised? Just staring out the window like she’s found some sort of intense memory out there in the dark.

“I haven’t heard that term in ages,” she says.

“Your husband was a reader?”

With a little nod, she pulls something out of her pocket and holds it dangling from her fingers by its chain. It’s the locket she’s worn around her neck for as long as I can remember. I recognize the geometric design on the front even though the locket itself looks like someone’s tried to smash it to smithereens.

“This is how I got rid of them. Daniel gave it to me before he left.” That’s the way Mom talks about Dad’s death: leaving. “He told me they would come for her, but he didn’t know when. I guess it started to feel like a fairy tale, and when they showed up at my door they caught me off guard. I threw half my kitchen at them before I remembered this.”

“The golem,” Dylan says suddenly. “He programmed the dragon into the locket.”

Mom just sort of raises her eyebrows at Dylan and shrugs. “Daniel was always turning things into dragons. I should’ve known his idea of protection would be something like that.”

This conversation is making my whole world shift, like suddenly the Earth’s orbit doesn’t apply to me anymore and I’m being left behind. Mom’s always talked about Dad’s little magic tricks, but this was not one of them. Dragons was never one of them. I see it now, though. She knew all along that they weren’t tricks. She knew all along about all of this and she never told me, which makes everything I ever thought I knew about my parents kind of feel like a lie.

“Dragons?” Agni is saying with his head tilted to the side like some sort of broken bobble-head.

“Is that strange?”

“Oh, no, no. It is merely…an interesting choice.”

“How many golems were there?” Dylan asks Mom.

“Three, I think. They grew so fast it was hard to know exactly what was happening.”

“Five takers fighting off three golems. With dragons of that size I’m guessing we’ve got forty minutes at best, then. We have to go.”

“What, already?” Mom turns to Agni and there’s this question in her face that I get the impression he understands exactly.

He’s real direct when he responds to her, but also somehow kind of soothing. “It must be now. Pack lightly, only what you can fit into one bag. Alexandra will need warm clothes for camping.”

For a second Mom looks about as lost as I feel. Then she grabs my arm and pulls it through hers, squeezing her fingers in between mine and marching us out of the kitchen with Agni and Dylan trailing a few steps behind. The hand thing is something she’s done since I was a kid, to help me be brave. Only right now I’m pretty sure it’s more for her, and that’s when I realize we’re not coming back here. That when we walk out our door tonight, this place will stop being our home. I’ve spent nearly eighteen years in this house. This is all I know, and the thought of leaving it for good makes me wish I could dig in my heels and refuse to go.

We’re nearly to the foot of the stairs when mom lets out this little breath of surprise and stops walking. She pulls the locket out of her pocket where she must’ve been holding onto it with her other hand, and when she opens up her fingers it falls open across her palm, which is a thing it never could’ve done before. As a kid I played with it enough to know it didn’t have working hinges.

Staring down at her hand, Mom’s got a weird expression on her face, with all her muscles real tight and her mouth pulling down in this tiny frown. Sliding her arm out of mine, she takes a little square of paper from inside the locket.

“I think this is for you,” she says, and hands it to me.

It’s an old photograph of a man, probably in his mid-twenties with this head of tight curly hair that you’d only ever see on a total dork. Still, he’s handsome anyway, all strong jaw and broody eyes. There’s something about him that reminds me of me. Something in his half smile that’s so familiar it hurts. It’s like someone’s lit a fire in my chest, and crawling up the back of my neck is this sensation like two points in time colliding. I feel like I’ve just been given back something necessary that I didn’t even know I’d lost.

I’ve had barely enough time to get a grasp of the face when the photograph suddenly disintegrates into dust in my hand. Just crumbles away like ashes. Then it’s rising again into the air, melding together and growing until there’s a tiny little dragonfly hovering there in front of my face, all shimmering greens and blues. It’s wings, which look more delicate than glass, start whirring so fast you can barely see them, and the thing goes veering away from me and out the open kitchen door. In a matter of seconds it’s gone. He’s gone.

This is pretty much the last straw in this whole crazy day and I think everyone else knows it. My eye falls on Dylan, who’s watching me with this sympathetic expression that just about pushes me over the top. I cram my hands into my coat pockets, balling them up into real tight little fists, and will myself not to cry. Mom thinks swear words can actually alleviate pain. She likes to say that that’s why I should save them up until I really need them. This is definitely one of those times.

“Damn it,” I say, real quiet. “Damn it to hell.”


Previous: Chapter 2

Next: Chapter 4


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 2

Posting for feedback. Note for those reading this for a second time: this section is what used to be the last half of Chapter 1. 


CHAPTER 2

I wrench my hand away from the kid real fast, and as soon as I’ve broken my grip that rush of electricity stops and the images just sort of die away.

I may have been startled earlier when I’d first grabbed onto him, but I’m outright scared now. I start moving before I think my brain’s even registered it’s time to go, jogging in this sort of retreat backwards, bumping through the people behind me until I come out into the open and I can turn to run. But looking where I’m going is not exactly the first thing on my mind right now, and the person I crash into this time is so solid he just stops me dead in my tracks.

My first instinct is to apologize. It’s the Flemingsburg way. Our arms are kind of entangled and I try to pull mine away from him but, when he suddenly grabs onto me, you can bet I take a better look. He’s all leather and tattoos and these real black eyebrows like turned-over checkmarks above his eyes.

He’s menacing. Grinning hard into my face, his grip tightening around my arms and that rush of electricity starting up again. Only this time it hurts. Bad. And now it’s like something being pulled out of me. Dragged like barbed wire through my veins.

“It’s you,” the guy is purring, with these crazy hungry eyes. “You’re not so hard to find.” He’s digging his fingers into me like he’s never going to let go.

I’m pretty sure my eyes are sliding all over in their sockets. I’m in a panic and looking all around me, but nobody except that kid from the hot chocolate stand is really paying attention. He’s pushing toward us through the crowd, his eyes set on me and his face real intense. I’m pretty alarmed anyway, and that look on his face sends this scream off in my mind. Just somehow I can’t get it to come out of my mouth.

Now my vision really is swimming, and I’m thinking I’m about to learn what it’s like to faint when I hear a familiar voice behind me call out all cheerful, “Alexandra! Alexandra Monroe!” Saying my full name like he does because he thinks it’s real charming.

Some people turn to look at the sound of Logan’s shout, and finally the terrifying man let’s go of me. The bearded kid’s already gone. I mean, he’s striding at me one minute and then he’s just not there.

I’m not stupid and I’m not sticking around to give those guys another go at whatever they’re trying to do. I book it over to Logan’s side, a little surprised that my legs are still working.

“We’ve got to go.” It comes out in a hiss, like my vocal chords have gone dusty or something.

“Huh?” Logan says and looks around us all surprised.

He doesn’t pick up on things too quick sometimes, so I grab hold of his hand and just start moving. Glancing back, I see that tattooed man take a few steps after us as we walk away.

I move through the crowd as fast as I can, zigging and zagging until I’m sure the man can’t see us anymore. The whole time Logan’s chirping, “What’s going on? What’s going on?” as if someone set him on replay.

When we get out to Main Street I pull him down this narrow sort of alley that runs between the General Store and Rhoda’s Pawn, and I don’t slow down until we’ve come out into the silence behind the buildings. A place where no one else can see us, where it’s quiet enough we can hear the sound of our boots in the snow. A place where I can breathe for a minute.

Logan says, “Alexandra Monroe, are you gonna tell me what’s going on here?” with his hands on his hips, looking for all the world like his mom when she gets upset with him.

In response I just slump down into the snow. It’s not even a conscious thing. Just one minute I’m standing, and the next I’m not.

“What the—” Logan grabs for me and hoists me over onto an old bench that sits against the back of the store. He looks real worried now. “Zanny, for real. What is going on?”

The bench is still covered in snow and I can feel the wet and cold seeping in through my jeans. It’s a nice contrast to the heat burning up my body.

“Those guys—They must have had taser things or something.”

“Tasers.”

“They must have had something. I felt all this electricity inside me.” I remember the rush of images. “And my head went all weird.”

Logan stares at me a good long minute, reaching his hand up his coat sleeve and scratching his arm. I think maybe he doesn’t believe me, but then he asks, “You think they were trying to kidnap you to sell as a sex slave?”

I should’ve guessed he was just imagining up the worst possible explanation, but then, for all I know, whatever it was they were trying to do is even worse. Another thought occurs to me.

“We’ve got to tell Sheriff Ackerman. What if they hurt someone else?” I pull out my phone and call 911, but all I get is static. When I try to call the station directly I get the same thing.

“That’s weird,” I say, sinking back against the wall, real unsure of what to do now. “That’s real weird.”

Logan’s got his phone out too, texting someone. “I’ll see if Sara knows where her dad is. We can have her tell him.”

But Sara doesn’t text back. Neither does Melodie, who would at least probably know where Sara is.

“We’re going to have to go find him ourselves.” I try to stand up, but it’s like the earth’s folding in beneath me. Logan grabs my arm before I fall and helps me back onto the bench.

“I don’t think you’re going anywhere,” he says, kind of pushing his beanie back so he can pull at some tufts of his bright orange hair.

Leaning my head against the wall I look up at him with just one eye. “You’ll have to do it.”

“I don’t want to leave you alone.”

I don’t really want him to either. “I’ll manage.”

He just keeps watching me for a minute. Then he reaches down to pull this knife out of one of his boots and hands it to me. I shouldn’t be surprised he’s got something like that on his person. It’s a pretty simple thing, with a black wooden handle and a switch-out blade about the length of my palm. If it turns out I need a knife this one sure isn’t going to do much damage, which is probably what Logan’s thinking as he stands there eyeing me some more.

“I’ll be fine. Just hurry back.”

“You call me if anything happens,” he says, and he holds his phone up in one hand for emphasis.

As he disappears back down the alley, I let my eyes fall closed and I don’t know if they’re like that for fifteen seconds or fifteen minutes before I hear the footsteps in the snow. Someone’s coming real quick and light on their feet, sounding like the sort of person who is just about the opposite of Logan.

I stand up real fast. Or at least I try to. Really I just end up all flopped forward on the bench with my elbows propping me up on my knees and my hand gripping the knife and trying to point it in the alley’s general direction. I’m hoping it’s the sheriff, but I’m scared it’s one of those creeps who tried to electrify me. I’m not at all expecting it to be that Indian guy from the sledding hill, his mustache trailing sort of graceful behind him as he comes striding into the backyard.

His face is still turned back toward the alley as if he’s making sure nobody’s following him, and before he’s actually even looked at me he’s saying with this heavy accent, “Jansakes, you can sense your flaring from half a mile away. I can’t imagine how it must be affecting you.”

When he sees the knife he stops short, eyeing the way it’s sort of quivering in my hand.

“It doesn’t seem polite to mention it,” he holds his pointer finger up in a sort of apologetic way, “but in your current condition it’s doubtful that will be of much use to you.”

It wouldn’t be much use to me in any condition, but he’s right, it’s not real nice to say so. His face breaks into this sort of repentant grin and again I’m picturing him with some grandkid on his knee or something. I mean, you could just wrap yourself in the warmth pouring out of that smile. Still, I’m not going to forget the feel of that electricity dragging through my body anytime soon, and Mom’s warnings about strangers seems a whole lot more relevant now than it did even thirty minutes ago.

I keep that useless knife pointed right at the old guy even if it is mostly just on principle.

“I can help you,” he says. “You’ve had an upsurge of energy that your body is not yet equipped to handle. If I syphon it off, it should provide relief for a time.”

He takes a little step toward me, real careful and soft, with his hands held out like he’s trying not to startle a scared animal or something.

“Don’t worry,” he’s saying, all reassuring. “I’ve set up a temporary barrier. No one else can sense that you’re here.”

The words that are coming out of his mouth don’t make any sense to me and with the way I’m feeling I can’t be too sure it’s not me that’s the problem. I sort of squint at him, give my head this tiny shake to try and stop my brain from buzzing.

He takes another step and, on instinct, I try to back away from him, but with all the snow on the bench I only manage to slide probably half a centimeter further down the length of it. The man takes the hint, though, and stops where he is.

“I am Agnimukha Mitra. Does the name mean anything to you, by any chance?”

Again I get that sense of knowingness, like when I first saw him. Only this time it’s like maybe I know him too. Or like I’m supposed to know him, which doesn’t make any sense. I watch him without saying anything, trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do with this situation and kind of wishing that he’d just go away.

With a little sigh, he says, “It appears I have some explaining to do.”

He bends down with his hand an inch or so above the snow. When he straightens up again—well, if I thought my brain was playing tricks on me before, now I know it is. As he’s standing and bringing his hand real slowly upward, this little wooden stool rises up beneath his palm like some enormous mushroom growing in fast forward. He shuffles around and sits down on it as if it is a solid, honest-to-goodness, real thing. As if stools just naturally grow out of the ground every day.

He’s sitting there with his back real straight and tall and his hands folded neat in his lap and he looks at me. “I come from Daxa,” he says as if he’s making any of this any clearer. “I am a reader and—”

“How did you do that?” I cut him off, waving the knife at the stool.

His head does this little tilt and a turn and he studies me for a second out of the corner of his eyes. “It was painting, simple enough,” he responds, and there’s a sort of question in his voice that just makes everything feel more confusing. After a second he says, “You don’t know what painting is.”

Part of me thinks I shouldn’t even be having this conversation. I should be figuring out a way to get away from this psycho, but another part of me—a part that is somehow not at all worried by the weirdness happening today—figures if the man was going to hurt me he wouldn’t have made himself so comfortable on that magical stool of his just now and we wouldn’t be conversing at all.

“I know what painting is. That,” I wave the knife again, “is not it.”

About half of his face is trying to smile at this, but mostly he’s just looking real tired all of a sudden. His whole body seems to settle itself further toward the ground as if even his own weight is too exhausting.

“You know nothing about Painters,” he says more to himself and in a voice that makes me feel like I’m kind of a disappointment.

“I know what painters—”

He holds up his hand. “No, no, no, no. The Painters I mean are quite different. Our physiognomy allows us to sense matter on a much smaller level than anything other human races can detect. This is not something your parents have discussed with you? Seeing cells, molecules, atoms, particles even smaller than that?”

“Can’t remember my mom ever mentioning it.”

At this point it’s occurring to me that either I accidentally got high on something, I’m dreaming, or I’ve gone completely crazy, and the thing is that I’m not all that bothered by any of these options. No matter which one is true, it means I’m not really in any danger. No one is actually trying to fry me up like some Twinkie on a stick. I can relax and just ride this buzzy wave of hallucination until it fades away.

Plopping the knife onto the bench beside me, I lean back against the wall again and eye the old man, just daring him to do something else unbelievable.

“We don’t see it with our regular vision,” he’s saying like at any minute one of these things is going to ring a bell for me or something. “It comes to us through our bodies and our minds, and we can interact with it. Give it a tug, a pull, change the shape of it.”

“Yeah?” I say real cheerful, encouraging. He may just be a figment of my imagination, but I might as well be polite. “That sounds like it could be real useful.”

He seems to think this is a pretty funny thing to say, stroking his mustache like he’s wiping away a smile. “You’re humoring me, but it’s real. Let me show you.”

He presses together the fingers of one of his hands with them pointing upward in front of him. After a second this tiny sprout of green grows up between his finger tips, flops this way and that and grows some little leaves as it gets taller, and then this white bud appears and it spreads itself slowly out into a full flower.

If he’d done anything else I’d probably just keep thinking this was all my imagination, but I know about someone who used to do this exact same thing and that person was very real. Of course…if I were hallucinating, that’s just the sort of detail my brain would use.

“That’s just an optical illusion,” I tell the guy. “My dad used to do it.”

“Yes, probably your father can do it too, but it’s not an illusion. It’s painting, or particle manipulation. Observe.”

He holds his hand over the ground beside him and, as I watch, the snow there melts into this little pool of water and then solidifies into clear blue ice.

Leaning forward again, I look real close at his hands.

“You’ve got something up your sleeve,” I say like I’ve just guessed the right answer in a game of twenty questions. “Like a tiny machine or something.”

My whole face has gone all tingly now so I’m not totally sure, but I think I might be smiling pretty big as I’m saying this. I’m kind of impressed with myself, having a brain that can make up a mind game like this inside a hallucination, which is basically a sort of mind game itself.

The man raises his eyebrows up real high, looking like he can’t decide if he should laugh or cry at this point.

“There is no device. It’s all done with the force of my mind. Shall we try again?”

This time he tucks his hands nice and tight against his body like he’s showing me he’s not playing any tricks. Then, while he’s staring me right in the eyes, the snow at my feet starts to do this little shimmy and a little clump of white pulls apart from the rest. It floats up into the air about a foot and starts to change form in this series of shivers, stretching and shrinking and rounding in on itself until there’s a real small little snowman floating there in the air. Some lumps of coal grow on its face. A mini carrot extends out as its nose.

I look at that thing, and then I look at the old guy. It’s not that this stunt is any more believable than any of the other stuff. I’d probably be giving him a round of applause or something in total, loopy, disbelieving chipperness right now if it weren’t for the fact that I have seen this moment before. When I had hold of that bearded kid in the hot chocolate line and all those images were rushing through my head, I saw this moment. And now that I’m seeing it again, I’m practically filled to overflowing with this almost crushing feeling, all warm and absolute in my chest, that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be right now. And that, even more, this is real. Very, very real.

The old guy is saying, “Your father told you all this is just magic tricks?”

“No,” I shake my head. “My mom did. Dad’s dead.”

Despite all the buzzing in my body and my head, my mind is real clear now. I think I knew all along this wasn’t any dream, but if it’s not a dream that leaves me with some pretty pressing questions.

I look the man full in the eye. “Why are you here? What do you want from me?”

“Well,” he says with this almost smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “Not to sound overly dramatic, but you are going to save the world. Or, at least,” he qualifies, “significantly change it.”


Previous: Chapter 1

Next: Chapter 3


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LESSER DEMONS: CHAPTER 1

Posting for feedback. For those who have read this before, this chapter has been split up (so it’s about half the length) and there are some minor changes, but nothing integral to the plot. Thanks for reading!


CHAPTER 1

I’m driving down the winding, snow-covered roads that run between our little valley farm and the highway into Flemingsburg, and our old Chevy truck is rumbling and racketing around me in complaint over the ruts frozen into the snow. The sky is clear at the moment, but the evergreens crowding the sides of the road are real heavy with last night’s storm. My breath comes out in these cold little puffs, freezing the lipgloss onto my lips.

It’s the first morning of Swedish Days, the big Founders Day festival, and I’m headed into town to sell some of our greenhouse produce. I figure with the kind of crowds that come in for the festival I could sell everything before lunch and still have plenty of time for me and my friends to get our fill of what the festival’s got to offer. This is our last year before some of us, at least, will be heading off for college, so we want to make the best of it.

The sun’s only been up an hour or so, and, other than the noise of my truck, everything’s real still and kinda otherworldly with the way the light’s shining on the snow like it is. I’ve got this thing I do where I squint my eyes real tight and then flash them back open again, and suddenly it’s like I’m in another time and place. Blinking my eyes now I find myself in the pilot seat of a WWII-era plane. One of those with only two seats but lots of cargo space. And I’ve got a co-pilot who’s real handsome. Like as handsome as Matthew Wolfe, this actor my friends Sara and Melodie are into right now. It’s stormy outside and dark and we’re bouncing pretty heavy in the turbulence and it’s all I can do to hold the plane on course.

“We can’t see where we’re going!” shouts my co-pilot over the noise of the engine. “We have to turn on our lights or we might crash!”

“We can’t do that, Harry!” I shout back as loud as I can. “We can’t risk being seen. We’ve got to get our cargo to the drop site by morning or the whole plan will fail. We’ll just have to trust our instruments tonight. Old Jinny’s gotten us through worse than this.”

I pat the dash tenderly with one palm but have to quickly grab both hands to the wheel again to stop from losing control of the plane.

“It’s not Old Jinny that I trust,” Harry says. “It’s you,” and the look he gives me makes me feel proud and warm all over, like the way you imagine a kiss is supposed to make you feel but then it doesn’t.

Melodie says I have a “wild imagination,” which I think is kind of a compliment. Other people spend a lot of time wishing they had what they don’t or that their lives were different than what they are. If I want something, I just imagine I’ve got it and then I’m happy enough. Maybe imagining those things isn’t as good as actually having them, but I wouldn’t know the difference.

When I get to the smooth asphalt of the snow-plowed highway, I blink myself into a spaceship. I’m on a leisurely scenic drive through the Jupiter region. I stare out my windows at all of the moons, greet them by name like they’re old friends. Only I don’t actually know any of the names of the moons so I just make stuff up.

“There’s Gorgilon,” I say with my cell phone up to my mouth like it’s some sort of recording device. “Its reds are looking particularly vibrant this year. Just like the old historian wrote, ‘The blood spots of Gorgilon seem to pulse, like cavernous windows into the heart of the fiery moon’.”

A couple times cars pass by me going the other way and I turn them into asteroids, saying into my recorder, “The asteroid count is low right now, but they may just be outliers from a larger field. I need to keep my eyes open.”

My stomach’s a little upset. This buzzy sort of static behind my belly button. Probably because of all the jostling of the truck after such an early breakfast.

“I can feel the forces of Magnitronius tugging at my innards. I’m keeping my distance. Many a traveler’s fallen victim to the power of that giant moon.”

The traffic starts to pick up a little bit the closer I get to Flemingsburg. The thing about Swedish Days is that it happens right in the middle of February, and it’s always cold in our part of Idaho at that time of year. Like, it snows pretty much every day. So you’d think there wouldn’t be much of a turn out. I mean, Flemingsburg isn’t the biggest town around or anything. Definitely not the most exciting. But people really flock in from all over the area. Maybe because, in spite of having both Valentine’s Day and President’s Day, February’s one of the most depressing months of the year and they need something to brighten up their lives a bit.

It’s the only time that our little town has a crowd, and that crowd is not small. I’ve come pretty early, and I’m still just barely able to find a spot to pull up alongside Fleming park where most the activities take place.

Before I get out of the truck I take some hand warmers and scrunch them up to get them working. I put them in my boots and in my coat pockets so I can shove my hands in there whenever they get cold. Then I step out into the chilly morning to pull out the crates of produce and set them up on the snowbank by the sidewalk. Across the side of the truck I stream this big sign I spent pretty much all night on.

When I was first making it, I planned for it to say just “ROOT VEGETABLES!” I put my heart and soul into that thing. Painted little pictures of beets and potatoes and happy people with their mouths open getting ready to eat everything. But like most of my artistic efforts the thing failed pretty bad. Turned out looking more like people screaming and being attacked by giant slugs.

I didn’t have time to fix it, though, so this morning I just added some words at the bottom to make it seem like I did it on purpose: “ROOT VEGETABLES WARD OFF GIANT SLUGS.”

I call out to people as they pass, “Watch out for the giant slugs! Protect yourself with these sweet potatoes!”

Some people go way out of their way not to look me in the eye, but a lot of people grin back at me and stop to go over the selection. Our produce is pretty good so most of them actually buy something too. I’ve sold-out close to all the crates by the time Logan calls me and says he’s gonna be here soon.

Mom’s into what people call “subsistence living” and she always says, “We don’t own this farm to make money,” like it’s a badge or something. So I take her at her word and I just start giving out that stuff for like ten cents a pound, and after a group of old ladies gets done picking through everything I’ve only got one beet left. I give that to a couple of kids with pellet guns who want to use it “for target practice,” and then I pack all the crates back into the truck and fold up the sign. With a quick peak in one of the side view mirrors to readjust my beanie and fix my hair, I start off toward the center of the park where Logan and I are supposed to meet each other.

He’s not exactly the most handsome guy in the world. It’s not like Flemingsburg is full of gorgeous guys anyway, and Logan falls right about in the middle of the Flemingsburg scale. But he’s real nice and he’s funny and he likes to listen to my stories. So I’m pretty excited as I’m scanning the park for his scruffy red hair and his goofy cowboy boots he always wears. Nobody our age wears those things and kids tease him about it, but they were his grandpa’s boots and he’s proud of them no matter what anyone says, and I like that about him.

That fuzziness in my belly has spread to my arms and my left leg, right under my skin like that weird sort of tickle you get if you stand too close to the screen on an old TV. I jiggle my arms a couple times, kick out my leg like I’m shaking the snow off my boots, but the feeling won’t go away.

The morning’s pretty far gone now and the park is full. Everybody’s packed into these narrow lanes of shoveled concrete, sandwiched by the three-foot high banks of snow that rim all the festival activities, and even though it’s probably only ten degrees above freezing right now I start to feel pretty hot. Hot enough my scalp’s gone all sweaty and my fingers feel about twice as thick. For a second my vision even starts to swim a little.

Snatching off my gloves and hat, I swerve off the path real quick so I can rest against one of the rough picket fences that was thrown together for the festival, leaning with my elbows tucked between the fence’s wooden peaks and trying to act like I’m not having to struggle real hard to breathe.

The fence itself surrounds the big sledding hill that takes up a good portion of this side of the park, and up at the top of the hill I notice this old guy dressed in a real distinguished-looking wool trench coat and a bowler hat. By his skin tone I’m guessing he’s probably Indian or Pakistani or something, and he’s got this silver mustache that drips down almost to his belly and a bow-tie that’s as deep a grey as the sky.

In Flemingsburg—even during Swedish Days—you notice a man like that.

He’s gripping one of the rental sleds in his hand and he’s eyeing the slope in front of him like it’s some sort of abyss or something. I watch him as he sets the sled down on the snow and then sets himself down on the sled the same way you’d sit on a dirty park bench. He pulls the sled’s rope into his hands nice and tight for a second and breaths in real deep, scanning all of us who are watching from the fence line.

For a second I could swear he zeroes right in on me, just staring me straight in the eyes. He gets this big grin on his face as he lets go of the rope with one hand and pulls his hat off, exposing this real bald knob of a head. Then, swinging that hat above him like a flag, he lets out this battle cry you could probably hear all the way in Boise and pushes himself out onto the slope alongside an army of little kids and teenagers.

Real fast his battle cry turns into something more like bloody murder. He’s not going down any quicker than anyone else, but with that hat waving all frantic in the air and his mile-long whiskers whipping out behind him like some old lady’s dress, he sure gives off the impression of speed.

I can’t pull my eyes away from the guy. Not even after he’s slowed safely to a stop at the bottom of the hill, his mouth still half open in a memory of his shout and his posture still real precise and prim. This time when he turns his gaze on me, I know for sure it’s me he’s looking at. These dark, smiling sort of eyes staring right inside me, and I get this feeling in my chest like this man knows me. Not like I’ve met him somewhere before and just forgot about it or something, but like he’s always known me. Like he will always know me.

I stand up real straight then, my gloved hands wrapping themselves tight around the top of the fence’s picket slats at the same time that my shoulders are trying to turn my whole body away from the guy. It’s like even my instincts don’t know what to do with this situation. I mean, you don’t go around having those sort of feelings about people every day.

The man’s standing up, walking toward me. He could be taking his sled back to the rental booth further down the fence, but he’s still looking right at me so I doubt it. He’s got this sort of tentative smile that’s just begging for a smile in return. He seems innocent enough with his hat tucked between his slender hands and that face of his that makes me wonder if he’s somebody’s grandpa and what would it be like to be that kid, but I just keep thinking about how many times Mom’s warned me about strangers. About anybody acting strange.

Living in a place like Flemingsburg, it’s not a concern I’ve ever taken too serious but—and maybe it’s all that tickling under my skin right now—suddenly this whole day just feels real odd. Like the sort of day when you just know odd things are going to happen.

That man’s coming straight for me now. There’s no doubt he’s going to try to talk to me, and I get this jolt in my stomach just at the idea of it. With a flash of a smile at him that’s maybe a sort of apology, I turn real quick from the fence and slide back into the stream of people squeezing their way through the park.

When I glance back at the man, he’s not looking at me anymore. He’s stopped mid-stride with this serious expression on his face, and he’s got his head turned away like he’s searching for somebody else and like finding them right now is real important.

The momentum of the people around me is doing a pretty good job of swallowing me up into their flow, so I’m having to sort of crane around to catch a glimpse in the direction the man is facing, which means I don’t see the other girl until I’m nearly crashing right into her. She’s just standing there, all tall and sturdy, in the middle of the path as if this is exactly the place a person is supposed to be standing. Like the rest of us are being real rude by jostling her.

She’s turned away at first, but as I try to find a way around her she looks down at me all sudden, with this glare so forceful I kind of freeze in place and have to stare back at her. She’s real pretty, in a furious sort of way. Like every day of her life’s been one bad joke after another and she’s just waiting for this day to be the same.

“Sorry,” I apologize, even though I haven’t even actually touched her.

Her eyes just go real narrow and she lets them travel down to my toes and then back up again, nice and slow like she’s deciding if maybe she’d like to eat me.   

I get this stupid grin on my face, all stiff and lopsided and probably showing exactly how scared I am. I sort of shuffle to my left, inching my way back into the stream of people without my eyes leaving her face. My instinct right now is to get away from her as fast as possible—before she starts chewing me out for staring or something—but with her eyes still steady on me I can’t make myself look away until I’ve been swept around a curve in the path and there are enough people between us to block me from her view.

My stomach’s beating as if it’s taken over the duties of my heart and I’ve got this weird tightness at the back of my throat that makes it feel like I’m going to puke pretty much any second. Probably the run-in with that girl just now has something to do with it, but I figure maybe also my blood sugar’s off. It has been a while since I ate.

I know there’s got to be a food truck around here somewhere and while I look for one, I play this focus game Mom does with me. “You’re a secret agent during World War II,” she says. “You’re walking the streets of Berlin looking for your contact. Everyone around you could be your enemy. You have to watch for any possible sign that something isn’t normal. Tell me what you see.”

I start listing everything in my head. An older woman moving along the fence with this real thin, hungry-looking face and a glazed look to her eyes as they pass over me. A couple boys my age near the ice sculpture display, arguing real intense about something under their breath. A guy wearing a T-shirt and a pair of shorts and this forced grin like he’s pretending real hard that these were smart clothing choices, though, that’s not exactly strange behavior. There’s always a couple kids like that at Swedish Days.   

When I see the hot chocolate stand, I figure that’s close enough to actual food. You can get these Swedish-themed flavor add-ins like cinnamon lingonberry and stuff, and the owner of the place always dumps in loads of marshmallows. But the truck is a pretty popular one and, with this many people, there’s never a proper sort of line. If the sidewalks seemed packed, waiting in front of the hot chocolate truck is like being suffocated to death in the fumes of other people’s breathing. I’m regretting deciding on hot chocolate as soon as I’m far enough into the crowd to make it more trouble than it’s worth to fight my way out of it again.

The buzzy tickle’s all over my body now, even my tongue. When the people in front of me shuffle forward a few inches, their steps make them sway a bit in a way that, for a second, makes me think maybe my vision’s gone all swimmy again. Then I notice that the guy next to me is standing way too close. He’s dressed like some sort of lumberjack or something, in this hunting cap and a flannel coat and a cowboy shirt and lots of dark brown facial hair. He looks like someone wearing a hick-town costume, like it’s some sort of a joke. But he’s still real good looking and he’s got these real pretty blue eyes, and probably I wouldn’t be bothered at all by him if it weren’t for how interested he seems to be in me.

Not like he’s staring too hard or something, like he thinks I’m cute. I don’t think he’s actually looked at me even once, but it’s like I can just feel the weight of his attention. Like if this were a cartoon, he’d be leaning way into me and his ear would’ve gone real big and listeny and it’d be right in my face.

Maybe my imagination is getting the best of me, but Logan’s always digging up these news stories about perverts rubbing up against girls in public and stuff like that. “It’s a sick world out there,” Logan likes to say, as if Flemingsburg isn’t even on the same planet as the rest of the world, which I guess it practically isn’t. But who’s to say that none of those creeps would ever come to Swedish Days, and who’s to say that this kid isn’t one of them? Right now I’m just really not in the mood to let some freak get his kicks off of rubbing himself all over my arm or leg or something.

In fact, with my head all fuzzy and my guts topsy turvy and my sense of reality a little foggy maybe, it’s real easy to make myself believe that that is exactly what this guy is trying to do—even if there hasn’t actually been any rubbing. The creep is just waiting for the right opportunity, probably.

Which is why when we get to the service window of the truck and I see him stretching his hand out toward me, I realize a second too late that he really might just be reaching for some napkins. My reflexes are pretty quick, and my hand is around that guy’s wrist before either of us really knows what’s happening.

He’s obviously pretty startled by it, but not as startled as I am because as soon as I touch him something happens that is definitely not my imagination. Where my fingers are wrapped tight against the bare skin of his wrist there’s this feeling like static electricity biting and jumping between us, pushing into my hand and crawling up the inside of my arm.

I look up into his face and see that his eyes have gone as wide as I bet mine are. Then, with the force of an explosion or something, the electricity’s just torpedoing through my whole body. All these tiny shocks surging in my veins and, at the same time, a thousand images rushing into my head at once. Shapes and colors jumbling together into these visions of people and places, none of them things I recognize and none of them lasting any longer than the switch of a light.

The kid doesn’t look shocked anymore. Instead, he’s looking at me with all that interest I thought I might just be imagining from him before.


Next: Chapter 2


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