Words By S.D. Brownlee, Art By Karen Nadine
So far, it had been nothing like what Brandon had expected. But then, as the gaunt man had already told him, folklore was really quite…ignorant about demons.
“It’s getting late, Brandon,” the dark man was saying patiently. His voice was calm, yet demanding. It was as though his tone was holding back some malicious stream of demands.
Like his voice, the man’s appearance seemed more layered than would a normal person’s. He was tall, at least to fourteen-year-old Brandon Lakes. His eyes were dark amber, his skin sallow and taut though it showed age. He stood erect, confident, commanding.
“The deal is really quite simple, and there are no hidden consequences, no other strings attached,” the man continued. As he spoke, he kept his skeletal fingers in a steeple at chest level. Occasionally, he would glide the tips of his fingers across each other. “Nothing to sign, simply a friendly handshake and the exchange is complete.”
“And then…they just stop?” Brandon asked, knowing the answer he expected, but still trying to build his courage.
“No, Brandon. I have told you; myth and reality have little in common. When you commit, I do not just snap my fingers and the boys keel over dead. Can you snap your fingers and kill me an angel?”
“No,” the boy replied.
“No. Neither can I snap a finger and kill the boys who torment you. I told you, I will not lie to you and I will not over-promise. BUT, when you agree, I belong to you. And you…belong to me. I protect what is mine and you are expected to protect what will be…yours. Rest assured, the idiotic bullying will quickly cease, but such things require a sort of …finesse.” As he stressed the last word, he closed his eyes, almost as if savoring a certain secret memory. As his eyes opened and regained their contact with Brandon’s, the smallest lift at one corner of his mouth accompanied the stare.
“But for how long? I mean, how long are we…together?” He had gone through his battery of questions, but the answers made no sense to him. They went with nothing he had heard or read, and there had been one hell of a lot of Internet reading on dealing with demons. Demons didn’t wear simple, black, collarless suits. They didn’t speak honestly either. But then, this man had once said that even Brandon’s name for him was ignorant; he was not a “demon.”
“Until someone or something else wants to buy you, Brandon. Or wishes to buy me. This is all very clear; everyone belongs to someone. We have all been bought. And…we have all been sold. The only change is who owns you…People are much like the lonely dollar in your pocket. Do you own it? Of course you do. And yet, does it not also own you? Are you not just as much a slave to it as it is to you?”
“But, still, this isn’t like, for my soul?” Brandon’s voice raised more than he wanted. He was young, obviously, but it seemed very important to try to keep a semblance of strength in front of this thing that was now going to “own” him.
“What the hell good is your soul to me? Can your ghost attain things I wish to possess?” The dark man was insistent that Brandon understand this point. “Other than moaning and pushing open an occasional door, your soul is worthless to any being in the flesh. You rely too much on old books written by old men who know nothing about the unclean. Often, they know nothing about their own God, but I digress.
“On the topic of your soul, keep the thing. What I desire are services rendered for services given. That is all,” the man replied opening his fingers as if showing that there was nothing further hidden in his remark.
“When…when does the deal end?” Brandon asked more quietly now.
“Again, when you or I decide. When one of us agrees to sell the other. Nothing is free, boy. Believe that. All things are bought. All things are sold. We are no different.”
The unembellished honesty that the dark man spoke with was nearly convincing enough on its own. He didn’t try to twist Brandon’s mind into logic pitfalls or tell him fanciful lies. True honesty was not something Brandon had experienced much in his life.
They had met for three nights now. Each time the demon listened to Brandon’s problems, his reasons for summoning him. Each night the man offered his hand and his services, but he knew negotiations took time. He had done these things countless times before and would continue to countless times hereafter.
For the boy, however, an offer of friendship was wholly unusual. Brandon had been bullied for months at his new high school and with an incompetent fool of an old woman as his Principal, nothing would ever be done about the problem. Nothing ever was any more in public education. This too had been seen in a thousand institutions throughout history, mostly a precursor to epic failure of that institution, and the signs never lied.
But history lessons weren’t something Brandon seemed interested in, so the dark man kept his memories private.
“And there was one other thing,” Brandon began. “There’s a girl.”
“There always is.”
“No, she’s really cool. Her name is Amanda. She’s in my fourth hour science class. Most kids think she’s kind of weird, but I really like her. She’s never even looked at me, but I want her to. But not be forced, ya know, not like that. I just want her to notice me and maybe…I mean, just see that maybe I’m someone she’s been looking for. I just think we might have a connection.”
“Absolutely. Again, Brandon, finesse. I wouldn’t force her into anything. We do not work that way. We simply…guide ideas that previously existed, even if the thinker has not recognized those thoughts themselves. I would simply….suggest,” the man concluded by offering Brandon his hand for the fourth time. As always, the boy studied it as if gauging the value of a potent drug, certainly destructive, but possibly divine.
The boy raised his own hand and took the man’s, giving a solid handshake and meeting the other’s eyes.
“Then the sale is complete and I will uphold my end of this bargain beginning immediately. Now, if you will pardon my abruptness, there is work to do. You know how to call to me, so please do not hesitate,” the man said as he released Brandon’s hand and began to step backward. The departure of the man had become something that Brandon was mesmerized by. No matter how many times he might see it, the novelty of the act could last forever.
“Wait,” Brandon called, halting the man’s movements.
“I don’t even know your name.”
The man gave a light, humorless laugh, then smiled wryly at the boy before replying. “I have been called hundreds of names. But the one I prefer is Alba.”
At this, Alba stepped slowly backward into a corner shadow of the bedroom and melted into the blackness.
The suicide of two senior boys was a significant shock to the high school they had attended. Neither boy was exceptionally popular, but they were athletes, they were fairly well-liked, and no one had noticed any signs of depression. Nor had any one previously noticed anything other than friendship between the two. Nevertheless, here it was: a double suicide of two boys whose letters reflected their self-hatred at being gay.
Brandon did not respond like he had thought he might. Twenty-four hours ago he relished the thought of the pair of them being justly humiliated, or possibly harmed. Now, he just felt hollow. Maybe it was coincidence that on the night he had made his devilish deal his tormentors would decide to end their own sufferings. But maybe something had been…suggested to them. Brandon thought this might well be true and considered the personal cost of asking Alba for confirmation.
The day dragged along for Brandon. People, especially girls, seemed distraught. The guys had started making quiet jokes about the situation. Brandon would have thought they were funny too, had his stomach not been hollowed out the whole day. He wanted to vomit, but there was nothing to throw up, so he quietly suffered through his classes where teachers tried to address the issue while skirting the issue directly.
“You said you couldn’t just snap your fingers and kill them!” Brandon was furiously whispering to Alba that night in his room. For the first time, Alba had taken a seat in the boy’s desk chair. He was calm and appeared not at all interested in the topic of conversation, but humored the boy anyway.
“And I did not. I didn’t kill anyone. I didn’t just snap my fingers. Really, boy, you act upset that you got exactly what you wanted. And rather quickly, I admit. Often I am still surprised by how simple teenagers are. So willing to kill. So willing to die. Full of life and potential, yet they toss it aside more carelessly than an octogenarian struggling with impending death. Odd, really, don’t you think?” Alba offered.
“I don’t even know what that word means,” Brandon answered both embarrassed and offended.
“Of course. This conversation bores me, Brandon. It really does. So if you have nothing better to discuss, I may as well be off. I have multiple engagements tonight,” Alba said as he rose from his seat.
“Wait,” Brandon started, but he was unsure how to continue. He wanted an answer or a solid rejection to his question, but battled with how to ask properly. “Can you see the future?” he finally questioned shamefully.
Alba closed his eyes, lifted his head up, and breathed deeply once before replying.
“Some times. Some things. But there is nothing you should ask about that. It is never beneficial.”
“What about me?” Brandon persisted. He had not suddenly become interested in his mortality; the concept of his life and death had always been on his mind. But now there was an urgency, having realized in the last twenty-four hours that he was immensely susceptible to suggestion.
“What about you?” Alba replied, obviously withholding some frustration at the demand.
“When do I have to die? How does it happen?” Brandon nearly whispered.
“Brandon…” Alba tried to dissuade the boy, but Brandon was insistent.
“I have to know! If you can see it, you have to tell me. You’re mine, remember?”
Again, Alba breathed in, held his breath and exhaled before speaking. Behind his closed eyelids, Brandon could see his eyes twitching back and forth rapidly as though gathering in a wealth of views.
“As you wish. I cannot tell you when it happens. That is beyond my scope. But as for how, let’s just say that you will have an experience that few have before they perish.”
“What…what experience?” Brandon asked feeling as though he were suffocating a bit.
“Brandon, you will momentarily know exactly what it feels like…to have an air-conditioned brain,” Alba finished without any humor at his statement. “Now, before I go and before you speak again, dress warmly tomorrow. I need your services after school.” And with that, Alba again shrank into the shadows of the room and simply dissolved into them.
Brandon could not find sleep until only a few hours before he had to wake up the next morning. When he finally did trudge across the room to turn off his alarm, his head ached horribly, he was cold, and his eyes were so puffy from fatigue that he had trouble keeping them open, much less focused.
Unlike the previous school day, the hours zipped by, due mostly to Brandon’s fears of whatever task he must perform that afternoon. If it was to be a fair exchange for what Alba had done for him, the inner consequences were gruesome.
Alba was nowhere to be seen after Brandon was done with school for the day. He expected the man to be waiting for him at home, but there was no visitor sitting in the desk chair as Brandon had been picturing and fearing on his walk home.
After forcing down two cheese enchiladas, Brandon excused himself from dinner with his mother. She had concluded that his new melancholy was due to the suicides at his school—despite the boys’ treatment of her own son—so she dismissed the depression she had noticed and let her son mourn alone. It was probably what boys did. She wasn’t completely sure because she had never understood men. Not her long-gone husband. Not her son.
Alba was waiting for Brandon this time when he retreated to his room. He stood in the shadows again as though he had also just entered the room. His image was the same as it had always been, but this time he held an elongated box wrapped in simple brown paper.
“You will want your jacket, Brandon,” he said flatly when the boy had closed the door.
“It’s not cold out,” he replied just as flatly.
Alba exhaled a single laugh and continued. “No, here it is a calm sixty degrees. Oklahoma has mild fall evenings. Still reeks, but the temperature is mild. Not everywhere else is as comfortable. Now, before we begin, allow me to give direction of what I require from you.”
Brandon was right about one thing: It was gruesome.
Hours later he sat on his bed cradling his throbbing head in his hands. Immediately after being told what he was to do, Alba had slammed his palm against Brandon’s face and as Brandon tried to take in a breath, he crumpled over in extreme pain. Breathing had become an agony and he fell to the ground gasping. Within seconds his insides were cramping, wanting to explode and, had he known what the experience was, he may have recognized the feeling of severe decompression.
Brandon had been moved instantly from small town Perry, Oklahoma to Summit County, Colorado. It was a jump in altitude of more than a thousand feet and the effect on his body was murderous.
For nearly an hour Brandon cringed, ached and hurt, writhing alone beneath the cold aluminum of the football stadium bleachers. When the symptoms subsided somewhat, he was able to gather the contents from the box, right himself, and begin searching.
It wasn’t long.
Almost as if on cue, a boy with long, dark hair was walking across the field towards the parking lot. Technically, he should not have crossed the field because students were always told to go around, but to him, rules had ceased to matter.
Michael Steimer had a charmed existence. He was loved by everyone in his school, and indeed in his entire community. He was a sports standout, recently granted admission to Dartmouth, enjoyed unexplainable wealth of late, and had grown into quite the heartthrob to many girls over the last year. Girls, most unfortunately, were the reason he had stayed late at Spring Play practice, which he was now leaving. Truly, he was living a perfect life.
Such thoughts were likely going through his mind milliseconds before the long, cylindrical blade of the pig-sticker was plunged through it as well.
Brandon had been told what to do, how to do it, and to act quickly. He hadn’t even been heard trotting up behind Michael since the iPod in his ears was rhythmically popping out Pitbull. Almost effortlessly, the knife found its mark at the base of Michael’s skull and plunged into his brain stem, then his brain. His body fell instantly, dead before it could even settle in the grass.
Brandon had a terrible moment to stare at what he had done before the pain of altitude change struck him again. He clenched the knife hard and luckily did not fall on it when he tumbled to the floor of his bedroom. He managed to hide the knife under his bed, flinging bits of blood and brain as it spun into the recesses beneath.
For hours after, Brandon wept and vomited.
After a few months, Brandon had begun to grow out of his strange stupor. He was starting to like school again and had not seen Alba since the night he had held up his side of the bargain. Certainly he had not summoned the demon either. The cost of asking for anything from that creature was far too great.
Of late, school had improved significantly for Brandon. He was doing better in his work, had gained a few friends, and, on a Thursday during Science, Amanda had looked his way, as if for the first time. She cocked her head the tiniest bit and smiled at him through a lopsided curtain of black hair. He smiled back and had even exchanged a few highly energetic words with her as they left the classroom. It had been a perfect few moments.
The following day Amanda spoke casually to him when she asked what he was doing after school.
“Just going home, I guess. My mom is out for the weekend at my grandparents’, so that’s about it,” Brandon had answered, trying to hold back the hopefulness he felt in his voice.
“So,” she crooned at him, “would you want to come over to my place for a while? My dad isn’t going to be back ‘til late. We could watch a movie or something.” Amanda was perfectly beautiful to Brandon at that moment. Amanda’s appearance and her occasional sharp comments didn’t earn her many friends, but that bit of almost arrogant wit was overpowering to Brandon. He accepted the offer instantly, beginning to fantasize about what they would talk about. About what they might do…
It was nearly six o’clock and the afternoon had gone nicely, if not as physically as Brandon had hoped. There had been some laughs, some near-touches, and some conversation.
The conversation had been the most interesting—and sometimes the most frightening—part of the day. They had discussed school, of course, other students, teachers, but shockingly, Amanda had briefly spoken about a subject that hit Brandon in the pit of his stomach, leaving him almost speechless.
“Sometimes I just want to kill somebody,” Amanda had said in a passing tone. Brandon had not answered. Instantly he saw gray, gelatinous bits of brain tissue on dry grass. He heard the wet spurt as a blade was pulled from a boy’s skull. He wanted to vomit again and felt immediate cold all over his body. Amanda had noticed his silence and thought that maybe she had said a bit too much. It wasn’t the first time a guy had thought she was weird, but it wouldn’t last for long, she had been previously assured of that.
“Don’t freak out on me. I’m not crazy or anything,” she explained more cautiously.
“No,” Brandon recovered, “I didn’t think that. I mean, I’ve thought about it lots of times before.” And that was true. He had thought about it constantly for months. That and the dark man that had been curiously absent since his request to kill another boy.
“Sometimes I just fantasize about it, ya know. Just killing someone and never getting caught. Did you ever think about doing that?” She asked interestedly.
“Yeah,” Brandon replied with flat emotion. “I don’t think it’s all you would think it would be.” As he spoke, the nights of the dark man flashed back in his mind. All he had done. All he had said. The damned concept of ownership.
“Maybe,” Amanda replied thoughtfully, “there would have to be certain arrangements made, though. Too easy to get caught otherwise. But anyway, let’s forget it. It’s morbid.”
“It is morbid,” Brandon said, glad for the respite. “So anyway, I should go soon.”
“Wait,” Amanda asked more desperately. “Do you…do you wanna see something I bought a little while ago?”
“Um…ok,” Brandon questioned more than answered.
“Just come this way. It’s in my dad’s room.” Amanda led Brandon down a long hall to a dark bedroom with a laminate floor. She walked to an elongated green steel box with “Remington” labeled on the front. A gun cabinet.
Amanda reached into the cabinet wordlessly and, even as she drew the weapon from the case, the meaning of her actions was becoming clear in Brandon’s mind through Alba’s voice:
We’ve all been bought.
We’ve all been sold.
“Oh my God…” Brandon choked out. He saw a slight cock of her head, a small grin. He felt an odd, cool breeze.