Sunday, February 3, 2013

Demon At My Door--First FOUR Chapters!


Title: DEMON AT MY DOOR
Genre: New Adult Paranormal Romance
Release Date: 2-15-13




**Not Final Version. Subject to Change.**


 

Chapter One

 

            Someone in this room is about to die. The hum, deep in my bones, is undeniable. Shockwaves roll through me whenever I’m near a person who is about to bite the big one. I feel it now and I hope like hell it’s not me. But it’s definitely going to happen right here in the Upper Arlington Country Club. Soon.

I scoot back further in my seat and slouch down, trying to block out the incessant buzz in my skull. I hate when shit goes down at my job. This has been the best job for me while I got to college. The flexibility here cannot be beat. Not many jobs would hold your spot every summer.

It’s bad enough I got arrested at my last job for possession of a deadly weapon. Thank god I was underage at the time and that whole ordeal was expunged from my permanent record. I don’t need a repeat of that here. I mean, it wasn’t like I was going to hurt anybody or anything last time.

Well, I guess that’s not exactly true. I had every intention of shooting the boy demon with the silver bullet I had loaded in the chamber of the revolver I snaked from a local gun dealer, but he’s pretty damn quick.   

The vibration in my bones increases in intensity, breaking me out of thought and my teeth rattle a little. My eyes scan the area for the cause.

It’s happening. Right now.

My heart thunders as my eyes lock on a rather plump man with salt and pepper hair with a spray tan from hell. He kind of reminds me of an over-sized Oompa-Loompa dressed in tennis whites. The heavy man curses at the girl behind the reception desk to my immediate right and treats her like she’s not fit to lick the mud from his boots. Every fiber in my body is drawn to him and I know without a doubt he’s the one. My bones are like tuning forks for the damned and they are never wrong.

 Sweat beads on his forehead and the vein in his neck distends while he growls at the girl. His protruding belly bumps against the marble counter in front of him with each labored breath he takes. It seems there was a mix up with his tennis reservations. He says he has one, but the petite blonde girl wearing a ‘required’ smile isn’t able to locate his name in the computer.

“Where is the manager? Do you even know who I am?” the fat man yells at the girl before he blots his forehead with a perfectly pressed handkerchief. 

My heart bleeds for the receptionist. I hate it when people are rude, but when the ones who are about to die are jerks, it helps lessen the guilt I feel for them when the sadistic creature from hell comes.

The girl chews her bottom lip. Her pale skin shows a hint of red in her cheeks, no doubt caused by shear mortification. “I’m sorry, Mr. Wellington, but my manager is out sick. Let me—”

He holds up a chubby hand and his face turns the shade of a beet. “I don’t want your damn excuses. I want a court and I want it now!”

“I’m sorry,” she apologizes again. Her bottom lip trembles, like she’s about to cry, but he’s doesn’t care. He points his finger under her nose and continues to berate her during his little tantrum.

 “I said—” He grabs at his chest in mid rant and grunts in pain. That’s when it happens. Time stands still. There’s no movement or sound in the crowded lobby. The silence in the room allows the faint sound of my breath to echo around the room. The receptionist is frozen in a look of fear, hair stuck in mid-swing, her eyes still glued in Mr. Wellington’s direction. Two little boys in front of the entry door across from me are stuck in a game of catch and a cleaning lady, wearing a blue uniform, in mid-sweep—all of them unaware that time has stopped and true evil is about to enter the room. None of them will have a clue they were even put on pause, like a DVD. The only people still able to move at all are Mr. Wellington and me.

My eyes search the immaculate room. He’s here somewhere—the little demon who stole my soul. Now, I just have to wait on him to make his grand appearance.  

The fat man falls to his knees in front of me with a heavy thud and a combination wave of sweat and fear blows in my direction. His eyes widen as he gasps for air and clutches his chest. They always look at me, probably because I’m the only thing moving around them. They all have the same look in their eyes, too. Fear.

I should be used to this. But no matter how many times I see it, soul bargains still creep me out.

“Help me,” Mr. Wellington rasps.

My mouth pulls into a frown and I bite my bottom lip. I shake my head. There’s nothing I can do to help him, even though I want to. He’s going to die and the demon has already come to offer him a deal. There’s no stopping it now. I’ve tried before, countless times, but each time my attempt is overcome by the sheer strength and power of the demon boy.  

Mr. Wellington collapses on the floor, riddled in pain, and stretches his hand toward me. I press my back into the chair. The fancy buttons in the fabric press against my skin through my thin, black t-shirt. I bring my legs up to my chest to get out of his reach. I hate it when they ask me for help. It makes me feel like crap when I can’t.

A vortex of air blasts into the room and whips my black hair in my face. My eyes water as loose strands snap into them, so I close them tight and begin to hum. Thank God no one can see me. I know I look insane rocking back and forth like this, but I don’t care. A distraction of any kind is better than bearing witness to another death. 

When the room grows still, I know he’s here and my pulse quickens. I can sense his presence and, after all, this is his trademark tornado entry. One of the daggers I had blessed by a priest off the internet few days before presses hard into my back. The steel handle warm against my skin as the blade remains covered in the waistband of my pants. It’s the next method I’ll use to try and kill the little demon bastard.

“Hello, Natalie.” I open my eyes to the sound of the little dark-haired demon boy’s voice. He looks innocent as he stands in the doorway of the lobby in his black slacks and white button down shirt and vest, definitely not what first comes to mind when you think of evil creatures from hell.

My eyes roll. Here we go again. I wish he wouldn’t address me like we’re friends, because we are so not. Sure, I’m grateful he didn’t kill me when he had the chance, but still, he’s ruined my life with his little visits. The whole town thinks I’m a crazy nut-ball thanks to him. Hopefully this dagger will take him out once and for all and I can finally get my life back.

My right hand inches behind my back. The hilt of the dagger is firm in my palm. This is it. It’s now or never. My muscles tense in my shoulder as I start the motion to jerk the weapon from my waistband.

Wind whips in my face and I suddenly find myself pinned against the chair. Damn. He’s quick.

The demon grips my arm with his tiny fingers. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. You know your plans to kill me never work. Why even try anymore?”

He grabs the dagger from my hand and checks it over, flipping it over and over in his hand. He smiles at me, takes a couple steps backwards then throws it straight up into the ceiling.  It sinks into the fancy marble clear up the handle, like it’s cutting through butter. 

My mouth goes dry. Damn it. There goes that idea. I really thought that dagger would finally do the trick. Now, I’m forced to sit here and watch. Powerless, yet again.

His dark gray eyes stare into me and my insides churn. Why does he look at me like that, like there’s more he wants to say? It scares the hell out of me, but I can’t let him see my fear. Fear is a weakness to him and I can’t let him know he has that much power over me.

I clamp my eyes shut again, and take a breath in through my nose to stop the quiver I feel prickle in my throat as I say, “Just do what you came here for and leave me alone. I’m not in the mood to chat today.”

His footsteps echo off the marble floor, each one sounds closer than the last. When he stops, I can sense he’s about an arms length away. “Have it your way, but you did promise to be mine. You’ll have to get used to talking with me eventually. We made a deal, remember?”

How could I ever forget making a deal with him when I was five to save my mom? If only she hadn’t chosen to make us hot dogs for lunch that day, she wouldn’t have choked. And he would’ve never came to my door and been able to trick me into promising him my soul.

When I don’t answer he takes a slow breath and then sighs. My eyes snap open in time to watch him squat next to the dying man. Mr. Wellington’s humongous frame dwarfs him, but the boy exudes power, and is in total control of the situation at hand.  Mr. Wellington’s skin is a faint shade of blue, signs of no circulation—heart attack victim this time. The demon bends down and slips a faint whisper in Mr. Wellington’s ear. He closes his eyes and slowly nods.

I’ve never figured out what the demon says to the people he steals souls from, but whatever it is he promises them, they always say yes. He knows what gets to a person. He knows what it takes for a person to give their soul to him, just like how he knew how to get to me when I was a kid.

Mr. Wellington attempts to extend his shaky hand to the demonic boy. The boy’s eyes light up and his little pink lips curve into an angelic smile. The demon shakes Mr. Wellington’s hand.  When their hands meet, my palm screams with the same electrical shock I felt the first time I shook the boy’s hand. I can feel the energy that flows between them as they seal the deal. A low grunt escapes my lips and I grimace from the pain. Every time he makes a deal in my presence and shakes a hand I’m tortured.   

Without warning the little boy whips his head toward me, his gray eyes flash a blinding, white light. “Natalie, close your eyes.”

The vibration in my bones heightens as the demon exerts more power. On command, my eyes snap shut once more, and I bury my face into my knees. He always tells me not to watch. My index fingers jam into my ears, but I can still hear Mr. Wellington’s screams while the demon finishes off what the heart attack started.

Curiosity wins out and I peek over my knees. It’s like a car wreck. I can’t help but to look.

My body trembles as the soul of the man darts through his open mouth. It hovers like a see-through angel above him. Pulling a black-glass vial from his pants, the demon chants some foreign language and his eyes glow a brilliant white as he says the last word. His fingers twist off the lid. Mr. Wellington’s soul morphs into a ball of white light and bounces in a current of air. It’s ready to be collected.

The demon extends the black vial away from his body. His white eyes stare at the hovering ball of energy, like if he blinks it will disappear.  The soul shrinks to the size of a dust particle and plummets into the tiny, glass container. After the demon double checks the lid, he stuffs it back into his pocket like it’s a pack of gum. Mr. Wellington’s lifeless body is all that’s left behind.

The demon always kills them. Not once has he ever left a person who made a deal alive. Not one, except me.

 


Chapter Two

            Tears stream down my face as the demon’s words reverberate in my brain, haunting me every night since I made the deal with him. “You belong to me now, and I’ll be back to get you after your twenty-first birthday, when the time is right. No one else can touch you until then, but I’ll always be around to make sure.”

I dry my face with the sleeve of my pajama top and check the clock. It’s 3:33 in the morning. Why am I not surprised? I’ve been waking up at this time for sixteen years now. At first, the same dream every night kind of freaked me out, and telling Mom about it is one of the reasons I ended up in therapy when I was a kid. 

After my body calms down, I glide my legs across cotton sheets, feeling their smoothness against my skin. I stretch my arms over my head and yawn. Slowly, I sit up and the memory of the dream floats into a foggy haze. My hand slides into my night stand drawer and opens it. I pull out a picture of Stew from between the worn pages of my favorite book. A smile tickles my cheeks.

For the past couple of months I’ve had a nightly sneak-out date in the old, backyard tree house with my neighbor, Stewart Masterson. We’ve had to slink around all summer because his dad doesn’t approve of me. Stew says it’s not me, per say, just what my reputation says I am.

Crazy.

            Sure, if I saw Stew walking with me hand–in-hand down the street, I’d do a double take, too. We couldn’t be more opposite if we tried. He’s like perky golden sunshine while I’m an overpowering eclipse.

            I shimmy on a black tank top, pull up my dark-green pants, and slide my feet into my black Converse. After I run my fingers through my long hair, dab a little lip gloss on, and pop a piece of gum in my mouth, I’m ready meet Stew.

My bedroom window opens with ease and I make sure the backyard is clear.  I straddle the windowsill, and then start down the trellis. Thank God, I’m light enough not to break it or this would be a hell of a lot harder to do every night. That’s one good thing about being petite. 

            Butterflies fill my stomach when the tree house comes into view. A rush of adrenaline fills me as I creep through the backyard like a secret spy on a covert operation. I wish our relationship didn’t have to be a secret. Falling in love with Stew was so easy. Did I ever imagine Stewart Masterson, Ohio State’s golden boy, would be my friend? No way, at least, not until we discovered each other in the backyard at four in the morning this summer. Not only do we both not sleep, we also have parental issues. It’s a match made in crazy heaven.

            Stew is the only person, other than my sister, Alicia, that I’m close to. I tell him everything. Well, almost everything. I didn’t tell him I see a shrink—no sense in scaring off the one person I want around before the junior demon comes to drag me to hell—but I did tell him demon stuff freaks me out. He thinks I have Demon Phobia. A term he discovered on the internet after Googling “fear of demons”.

Stew thinks all my issues stem from my dad always working late and Mom’s frustrations falling on me. He believes he has me completely figured out. I don’t have the heart to tell him that he’s not even close—that my problems are way bigger than bickering parents.

Most of the time we just hold each other, make-out and talk until the sun comes up, but last night we came close to doing it. He told me I was perfect and I turned into putty in his hands. It was almost the best night of my entire life, but I decided at the last minute it’d be best to wait. I don’t think I’m ready just yet. I know I’m a little old to still be the big ‘V’, but sex hasn’t exactly been the top priority on my brain.

Fall semester starts back in a couple of days and we’ll finally spend some daylight hours together…in public—away from all the parental authority. Stew’s dad, Mr. Masterson, would split us up in a second if they knew. His father made it quite clear he wants him to stay away from me one evening when he spotted us talking across the fence in the back yard. Mr. Masterson grabbed Stew by the arm and practically dragged him to the back door.

My heart crumbled when Mr. Masterson referred to me as a ‘crazy demon lover’ before shoving Stew into the house.

            I climb up the ladder. Stew already has the little shack aglow with a teacup candle. The tiny flame flickers and the light dances around on the old, wooden walls. After our first two extremely dark visits, we decided to cover the windows with black trash bags to keep our nighttime adventures a sealed secret. We don’t want people to discover our secret spot or interrupt our private moments. How embarrassing would that be?

            “Hey,” Stew says, as he sits up on his knees on our makeshift bed of old comforters. He runs his hand through his brown hair. “I’ve missed you.”

            He reaches for my hand and pulls me down so I’m on my knees, mirroring his stance. He’s almost a foot taller than my five-foot-two frame, but on our knees our faces are much closer. I breathe in the scent of cinnamon and earth as he rests his forehead against mine. His chiseled features look even better than I remembered from last night as he brushes a stray hair away from my cheek. The touch of his finger tips on my skin makes my whole body tingle.  

            “I’ve thought about you all day. Did you miss me?” he asks. A smile flirts across his face.

            Since elementary school, I’ve had a major crush on him. When he sat behind me and pulled my ponytail, I knew he was special. We spent almost every day together in this tree house when were little kids. Before Stew’s mom died, his dad was okay with us hanging out  Back when I still owned my own soul. But after that his dad was hell bent on us not being friends.

It was like he knew I had been touched by evil and was no longer good enough to be Stew’s friend. He separated us when Stew needed me the most and he went the grief process of losing his mom alone.

            I wish we hadn’t listened to his dad back then and been friends anyway. We lost so much time we could’ve spent together. It took our second year of college to actually speak again.  

I think I fell in love the first time Stew smiled at me. It was like I was drawn to him and the older I got, the more I liked him. I wasn’t sure if he even remembered my name though, because he stopped talking to me just like everyone else back in high school. But I still harbored a secret crush.

Things changed this summer though.  When I discovered the reason he pulled my ponytail back then was because he felt drawn to me, too.   

            I bite my bottom lip and nod.

            His gray eyes sparkle against his tan complexion and hair, and a grin stretches across his face, putting his dimples on full display. “Good,” he whispers, before his lips crush into mine. “God, you’re beautiful,” he murmurs between kisses.

            Every inch of my skin aches, longing to be touched by Stew when he pulls me against his hard body. My hands run up and down the length of his back, tracing the outline of muscle underneath his blue t-shirt. Tonight is definitely not going to be a talking event. He’s a little more aggressive, almost hungry. He kisses me deeply, and intertwines his fingers in my black hair. There’s no other guy that I’d rather spend what little bit of time I have left on this earth with. I’ve struggled with the thought that I shouldn’t start a relationship with him, because my twenty-first birthday is just a few days away, and I know that little demon bastard will be back to collect on my promise and ruin everything. But, I figured I should live a little before I die. The thought of dying a virgin is mortifying.  

            He leaves me breathless—my lips swollen—and pulls away. His hands, calloused from a summer of football practice, cup my face and he stares into my green eyes. “Do you like me?”

            Oh my God! My heart beats wildly in my chest and my stomach flips. I’ve imagined this moment all summer, Stew telling me he wants more with me. This is what I wished for since the first night he pulled me into his chest and wrapped his arms around me.

            “Yes,” I whisper, unable to hide my huge grin.

            His smile reaches his eyes. I knew he loved me, too. “Do you want to keep meeting me?”

Of course I do. What kind of question is that?

            Without a second of hesitation, I answer, “Yes.”

            His fingers trail along my cheek, leaving a line of fire on my skin from his touch. “Good. I was worried with fall classes starting…you might want to stop.”

            He leans in for another kiss, but I shove him back a little. The smile now erased from my face. “What?” Now, he’s got my full attention and my guard, which is usually down around him, springs into action. Why would we stop meeting if we finally admit we have feelings for each other? That’s insane.

            He sighs and shrugs. “I figured you wouldn’t be cool with all the secrecy.”

That makes no sense. “What does keeping our relationship secret from your dad have anything to do with school? We can be together at school without him finding out.”

            He lets go of my face and sits down on the blanket, not looking at me.

            Nausea rolls through my belly. “Stew?”

            “Natalie, I’m being unbelievably selfish. I’d be pissed and never want to see me again, if I were you.”

            My lip twitches as I fight back the emotion that threatens to expose how uneasy I feel. “You aren’t making any sense, Stew.”

            His gray eyes appear deep in thought. “Not secret just from my dad,” his whisper barley audible.

            I gasp. “What?” My pulse pounds in my ears. I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Do I mean nothing to him? He’s the one person I thought I could trust and spent most of the summer opening up to.

            He reaches for me, but I shy away. “I do have feelings for you, Nat. I want to keep seeing you—” My arms cross instinctively and uber-bitch mode goes into effect. Alarms continue to sound in my head.

How could I be so stupid? He’s only with me because I’m next door and convenient for the summer while we were both home from college. Practicing with the squad for a school as big as Ohio State doesn’t exactly leave a ton a free time to find girls. I was just accessible and seemed overly eager. What a jerk. “But you don’t want anyone else to know.” I lift my hand to cut him off, finally understanding he never wants to be seen with me.

            He faces away from me, like he can’t bear to see me as I call him out. “I’ve told you—people expect things from me. My dad doesn’t want me to see you.”

            Expect things? That’s the crap answer I get after a whole summer together? I should’ve listened to my sister, Alicia. She’s the men expert, not me. Guys really do only care about one thing. “I only had one expectation of you, and that’s not to be an asshole. Guess what? Epic fail, Stewart.”

            He picks at a loose string at the seam of the blanket and doesn’t attempt to look at me. I wait for a couple seconds, hoping he’ll redeem himself. When he doesn’t answer, I shake my head in disgust. “Don’t worry. You don’t have to worry about keeping your dirty little secret anymore.”

            I fling my leg over the opening in the tree house and place my foot on the ladder.

            “Please, Nat,” he whispers and grabs my hand. “Don’t go. We can work this out. I need you.”

            My hand balls into a fist and it takes all my willpower not to punch him in his stupid face. “Stew,” —I jerk my hand free—“when you decide you can talk to me in public, let me know. Until then, stay away from me,” I huff, and then climb down the ladder without looking back. My feet pound the damp grass as I run away from the only boy I’ve ever been close enough to develop feelings for. And now that I’m out of his sight, I allow the tears to roll down my cheeks.

            “Who’s the guy?” The voice stops me dead in my tracks in the darkness as I fly past a tree.

            Quickly, I wipe my face before I turn around and attempt to slap all emotion from my face. “What guy?”

I might be ticked at Stew right now, but there’s no way I’ll serve up info to evil boy about him.

            The boy demon steps from behind the shadows of the trees and nods toward the tree house behind me. “The guy in there. You’re not dating him, are you?”

            I’m so not in the mood to deal with this little, demonic twerp. “Look, you may own my soul, but you don’t own me. Not yet, at least. So I can do what I want with my life.” My voice sounds a little hoarse.

            He shakes his head and looks down at the ground. “I knew I should’ve checked in more as you got older.” It’s almost like he’s talking to himself for a second before his eyes snap up to meet mine. “You know you can’t date. You know the rules. You’re taken.”

            “Taken?” I let out an exasperated sigh. “My soul may be taken, but you don’t own me.” This isn’t a good time for another argument over my eternal soul. My mission has always been to try and stay on his good side. If I piss him off now, I may never get my soul back. “If you aren’t taking me to hell anytime soon, please leave me alone.” I try to step around him, but he blocks my path.

            He moves closer and glares up at me. “You are going to be with me, just like you promised. Like it or not, so you might as well forget about Romeo up there.”

            I step back. “There’s no way I’m going to let you tell me what to do. Besides, I never agreed to being tied to you forever. You get my soul, as promised. That’s it. You can stuff it in your vial or whatever, but you don’t get to keep me as your side-kick for eternity. That wasn’t part of the deal.”

            “You don’t have a choice in this matter. Your soul is you, and I own it. You’ll do whatever I say. This is how it is going to be.” He reaches out and grabs my hand so quickly I wasn’t even ready to try and jerk away.

An electric shock jolts me. I drop down to my knees and groan as mind-numbing pain tears through my flesh. I open my mouth to scream out, but hold back when I think about Stew hearing me and getting involved in this situation. The intense jolt is gone within seconds, but my legs weigh a million pounds and are close to giving out on me. Winded, I plop down on my butt, unable to run away, and cradle my burning hands to my chest.

My eyes sting as fear overwhelms me. A single tear drips from my eye onto my palm. The solitary drop evaporates on contact, like my hand is a recently put out fire. I stare up at him, ready to scream at him for being so evil. His eyes narrow, like he dares me to say more.

Anger flows through me and I wish I had some demonic strength of my own to kick his little five-year-old butt. “You’re an asshole.” Is all I can manage to mumble under my breath.

 His lips draw down into a pout that would be cute on a normal five year old, so I know he heard me. “You hate me now, I know, but you didn’t always. There’s something you need to know.”

Before I have a chance to come up with a snarky comment about not needing to know anything else about him, he touches my forehead with his index fingers and my breath catches.

At first, everything is pitch black, but I can hear a voice—my voice—in the distance. As I try to make out what I am yelling, a picture pops up in the darkness. It’s far away, so I can’t make it out. The blackness surrounds the image and it appears to be at the end of a long tunnel.

Colors blur together. The greens and browns mesh together, so I strain harder without much success to figure out what I’m seeing. Then I hear it—my voice clear as day screaming, “Run, Sarah! Hide!”

A gasp of air fills my lungs and I am no longer in the dark vision. I clutch my chest trying to get my bearings as I try to recover from the amount of sheer panic that I just heard in my voice and try to figure out who in the hell Sarah is.

As my eyes focus, I note that I’m still in my back yard with the demon standing over me.

He’s dropped his finger away from my forehead and now stares up at the tree house where I left Stew. I hear the tree house creak.

Stew coming down the ladder has distracted him.

The boy turns to me and in a rush says, “Your human life is nearly over. Tie up your loose ends. You’ll want a clean break.”

            “But, I—” Before I can ask what the vision he just showed me meant, he’s gone just as quickly as he appeared. I stare blankly out into the dark yard. He’s never done anything like that before and it scares me a little. What did it mean and why did he show me that?  Whatever is was, I get the distinct feeling he isn’t quite done with me yet.

            My hands shake as I rub my face. I need to kill a him so my promise won’t matter anymore and I can be free. Everything I’ve tried so far has lead to a marathon of failures. I need get my soul back. There’s no way I want to spend eternity with that twisted freak and become a killer like him.

I don’t realize I’ve clenched my hands until I open them up and see the imprints of nails in my palms. My brow furrows as I notice something strange. The life line on my hands glows like hot coals straight from a fire and I know this isn’t a good thing. I’ve got to find a way to get out of this deal, and fast. Something tells me shit’s about to get real.  

 

Chapter Three

 

Life lines. Most people don’t think much about them. Me? I’m obsessed with them. Mine started fading last night. And there’s only one thing, or person rather, I blame it on.

That sadistic, five-year-old soul-stealing bastard. 

This is the fourth therapist I’ve been to this year. Each one causes me to question my sanity a little more, so there’s no way I’ll spill my guts about my newly discovered countdown clock of death. My chart’s filled with enough crazy.

This particular doctor approached Mom at the country club yesterday when she brought me lunch and offered to treat me after she spotted me in the lobby. My daily look of dark clothes and hair must scream mental patient. The last doctor I saw kicked me out of his practice for not “trying” enough, so Mom was grateful when Dr. Fletcher eagerly offered to squeeze me in today.

I gaze around the office. The space feels tight since there are no windows and only one way in or out. The fluorescent light buzzes overhead and feels very intuitional. I notice Dr. Fletcher’s family photos positioned for display on the coffee table in front of me. It looks like she’s married. One picture is of who I assume is her daughter and right next to it is one of a guy—looks like she has a son about my age, too.

He’s tall with dark hair and gray or blue eyes. It’s kind of hard to tell because it’s not a close up of his face, but still, he looks pretty cute. And oddly familiar.

Her family is all smiling, and it occurs to me that people always seem to smile in photos. It’s like they’re always perpetually happy. Like they’re in some fairy tale waving good-bye and ready to live happily ever after. Yeah. Right. No family is that happy. Ever. Well, at least mine never is. But I’m sure Dr. Fletcher will cure me and make me the perfect, preppy robot Mom wants me to be. Whatever.

            After eleven years of therapy, they decided to label me as a paranoid schizo. If I were actually crazy, like they say, that’d explain why I’m on constant look out for the boy demon. But I know I’m not mental, even if no one else does.

            The door creaks open. A petite, brunette doctor in a white lab coat, wearing black stilettos, sashays into the room. Dr. Lilim Fletcher sits stiffly in her high-back leather chair across from me and crosses her panty-hosed legs. Her hair is in the tightest bun known to mankind and she’s got a weird look on her face. Determination, maybe?

 Great.

Instantly, my body stiffens and the defense mechanisms go up, as my brain morphs into uber-bitch mode. This one has to be kept at a distance. She seems dangerous, because of the mission mode vibe she’s giving off. I hate shrinks that make it their mission to fix you, like they’ll be the ones who will finally cure you with their overly huge brain and skills.

            “Hello, Natalie. I ask that all my patients call me Lilim to keep it casual.” She smiles at me. “Shall we being?”           

            When I shrug without a word, she cuts the small talk. Guilt fills me for being such a pain. Really. But who wouldn’t feel a little snippy if they had to spend all their free time stuck in therapy? It sucks. Big time. Just one whole happy hour of major suckatude.

            “Okay, since your mother gave me an introduction on your history, are you ready to talk a little more about why you are seeing me?” she asks and then places her glasses on her perfect heart-shaped face.

            It’s then, I realize, she’s just like the rest of them, already diagnosed me as crazy before I’ve opened my mouth to speak. Is that something they teach in shrink school? I mean, I know it’s possible for a soul to be stolen, so why doesn’t anyone else? Have they never seen The Exorcist or The Omen? Sheesh. Since no one ever seems to believe me, I’ve learned to keep things bottled up.

            “Um, you have my previous records.” I point to the thick chart in her hand. “We can save the small talk. I’ve been through all this before. Why do you think I’m here? I’m sure you’ve read it by now.”

            I wrap my arms tightly around my body. My gaze shifts toward her when she readjusts in her chair and she lifts her eyebrows.

            “Hmmm.” She clicks her pen and writes some notes in my file. “Well, according to your last physician’s notes, you’re having issues dealing with what you perceive as threats against your life from a” —she clears her throat but continues to look at her notes— “five-year-old boy no one else has ever seen. It says here that you often carry weapons for what you claim is personal protection.”

            Here we go again. I roll my eyes. After a moment, I force myself to unclench my teeth. I really, really hate it when people size me up for a strait jacket.

 “I’m not crazy,” I say with a sigh. “He is real.”

            She looks me in the eye. “Can you tell me where he lives?”

            I shrug. “He’s the spawn of Satan, okay? It’s not like he lives down the street. He just sort of appears.”

            Again with the notes? Just once I’d like to see what they write about me.

            “Natalie, if this boy first appeared at your door when you were five-years-old and he’s never aged through the years, could it be possible that maybe the whole incident regarding this boy could be a bad dream? Have you ever thought about how this relates to your diagnosis?”

            “Right. I made it all up. So never mind that I’m disturbed enough by it to dream about him every single night when I close my eyes.” I shudder. The thought of his touch on my hand to seal the pact for my soul is enough to make my skin feel like a million fire ant stings simultaneously.

            She flips through my file. “Do you ever dream of anything other than the day the boy came to your house to save your mother?”

            I shake my head. “Nope. Same dream, every night.”

It’s amazing how the questions are always the same. I bet if I try really hard, I could give them all the answers they need before they even ask.

            “Then it’s possible it could be a dream, albeit a recurring one, but just a dream nonetheless?”

            I shrug again because I don’t want to get into this with her. How many times do I have to say I don’t believe the stupid dream theory?

            “According to Dr. Prior’s notes, your mother says she doesn’t recall seeing a boy matching your description in your neighborhood.”

            “If you read my file a little closer, you would’ve noticed that per my recount of the incident my mother took her last breath when the boy came into my house and stopped time to make the stupid deal for my soul.” I still remember my mother choking – on a hot dog no less – and then everything stopped with the knock on the door, changing my life forever.

Lilim gets her pen out and makes extra notes. I’ve never figured out if standing my ground and telling the truth helps clear my mental diagnosis or not, but they’ve already documented my story. There’s not much I can do to avoid the subject anymore. I just wish I’d found out earlier to keep my mouth shut. My life would’ve been a lot less complicated if I could’ve avoided therapy and meds altogether.  

            “Hmm,” Dr. Fletcher mumbles. “Okay, let’s say what you’re saying is true”—whoa, wait a minute. Does she actually believe me? Wow, this is a first—“when do you suppose he’s coming back to collect?”

            I stare blankly at her. The world screeches to a halt and for once, and I do mean once, I’m totally and completely speechless. No one has ever asked me that before, and it throws me off a little. Oh, she’s good. Acting like she’s on my side so she can poke around in my head, but I’m not telling her anymore than what she already knows from that file.

Because that collection day is always on my mind. Especially now that my freaking life line started fading. I drop my head into my right hand and sigh.

            “So you’ve never thought of it before?” she questions, after a moment of silence passes between us.

            I shake my head slowly. Numbness fills my body. I swallow down the large lump in my throat and fight back the tears that threaten to expose my fear. Am I ready to die? There are so many people I’d miss: my sister, Mom, Dad, and even Stew. I’d hoped we can get past the fight we had last night and he’d come to his senses, but maybe he shouldn’t. Maybe it’s best to end things now. Demon boy did order me to tell everyone goodbye.

            She removes her glasses and carefully folds them. “Well, Natalie, I can say, personally, death isn’t something I like to think about too much. And I know you believe you’re damned because you made this deal sixteen years ago, but I don’t think you are. We are the masters of our own destinies. You have to live for today and not dwell so much on death. You’re twenty-years-old. Worry about clothes and finding the right guy, not the Grim Reaper. You still have time to make choices about who collects your eternal soul.” Her eyes narrow and she stares at me with hardness in her eyes. There’s a quick flash of sliver in her brown eyes, like a wave of mercury shimmering in the sun. The only other time I’ve seen anything like that is when the little, evil freak is about to turn on his demonic powers.

My mouth goes dry and my pulse pounds like I’m running for my life. Her eyes won’t let me go. It feels like she’s peering into me, taking inventory of my insides. My breath catches and before I completely pass out, she looks away. The rhythm of my heart slows the moment her eyes leave me and I grip the chair arms to steady myself.

A moment later she glances back at me, one eyebrow raised in question. There’s no trace of anything odd in her eyes. 

I shake my head. What the hell was that? Maybe I am going crazy.

She slides her glasses back on, wearing a satisfied smile. “I think if you take a step back, you’ll see there’s more to life than just death. Maybe start small, like wear something other than black for a change.”

            Not wear black? The whole campus knows me as Natalie Sugarman, the Crazy Goth Girl. Why would I ever want to mess up that stunning reputation? Before I can stop myself, I snap, “Sure, I look great in pink.”

            Lilim ignores my reply. “Good. You see, progress already. We are going to be great friends, Natalie.” She smiles and looks down at her watch. “Well, it looks like our time is about up. We’ll talk again next week.” She holds out her hand and waits for me to shake it.

I start to reach for her, but instead I bolt from the couch. I don’t do handshakes anymore. They can cause your life to be hell. Literally.

 
Chapter Four

            Today is the first day of the fall quater and I haven’t talked to Stew since the night in the tree house a week ago. I’ve wanted to call, but my pride won’t let me. Besides, he owes me an apology, not the other way around.

            The steering wheel glides with ease under my hands as I turn onto the street my school is on. Thanks to Dr. Fletcher’s little talk with Mom, I have my own car now. They all thought it would be good for my self-esteem to have a little independence. Mom says the car is the first part of building trust and Dad, well, he’s never around to care much about what I do.  

            I’ve been extra careful with my driving – I don’t want to wreck the car a week after getting it - so I look both ways at the stop sign. I don’t see any cars coming, and I cautiously accelerate. Out of nowhere a black, sports car zooms into the intersection. I slam on the brakes. My hair flies in my face, the sound of screeching tires echoing in my ears. When my car grinds to a stop, my neck whips back a little.

I watch the black car streak past me, missing my car by inches. I punch the horn and curse under my breath. The driver is concealed behind black-tinted glass, and for a second, I entertain the idea of chasing down the car and beating the crap out of the person driving.

I run my fingers through my hair, an attempt to calm my nerves. Reality sets in and my anger turns to rationality. It’s probably not wise to track down a stranger and scream at them for nearly killing you. It could be a 300 pound raging crack-head with a gun. God knows I don’t want to start my eternity any sooner than I have to. 

            I whip my custom bright green Focus into the empty parking lot and put the near crash out of my mind. A tingle trickles down my spine as I eye the football field. Passing Stew and pretending I don’t still have feelings for him will be hell. My insides quiver, and if I’d let myself, I could cry all day over him. Instead, I decided it’s better to just ignore him.

            My teeth grind together. Next time I get involved with a guy I’ll make sure he likes me for me. If I ever have a next time, that is. 

            With a sigh, I throw my satchel over my shoulder and trudge through the parking lot. Not much has changed over the summer. O.S.U. campus still looks exactly the same as when I was here last spring.

            “Wonder if I should waste what little bit of time I have left in this place?” I question myself quietly. I check my vanishing life lines to see how much they’ve changed. They fade a little more each day. Last night I did some research on the internet about life lines and demonic soul possession. There wasn’t one site that was even remotely helpful—probably because most people don’t live through demonic encounters. But I did order some holy water and a bag of salt from a demon hunter website. One can never be too prepared when their soul’s at stake.

A couple of sites mentioned winning your soul back after a demonic deal, but basically they said I’d have to make another deal with the demon that currently owns it. No way do I want to make anymore deals with that little shit. Shivers erupt through me. He could be anywhere, just waiting to pounce on me like a lion does its prey.

            “Hey! Wait up!” I hear someone call, but I don’t stop. No one ever talks to me. Well, at least not in public. My reputation as a certifiable nutcase precedes me.

            “Hey!” the male voice calls again. It’s closer this time, and there’s a light touch on my elbow.

            I glare down at the hand on my elbow and then allow my eyes travel up the tattooed arm of the brown-haired guy holding it. He’s cute in that bad boy biker kind of way.

My eyes narrow.

He immediately releases me and holds his hands up, palms out. “Sorry,” he says.

            He’s hot and all, but I doubt he’s here to ask me out. Most people at school never actually talk to me – unless you call making fun of me “talking.” I stare up at him and demand, “Are you talking to me?”

            “Yeah.” He raises an eyebrow and smiles. His teeth are perfect—probably cost his parents a mint. “Who else would I be talking to?” He chuckles as we both look around the empty parking lot.

            “Okay…soooo… what?” I ask a little more brusquely than I meant to and then take off in the direction of the school before he can answer. I am so not in the mood to be messed with. 

 “Whoa, hold on there.” He catches me and matches my pace. “I was just wondering if you could show me where the main office is. This is my first day on campus. By the way, I’m Rick.” He holds out his hand as a standard greeting, but I just keep walking. “Rick Steele.” He tries again. I glare at his hand for a second before he shrugs and drops it down to his side.

            He’s new. That explains the tinge of southern accent I hear in his voice and why he’s not afraid to be seen out with me. He’s got a great smile and a deep throaty voice that makes me think of hot caramel over smooth, cool ice cream. He’ll do well in the girl department here. Especially with those intriguing gray eyes—the kind that can peer into your soul – and thick, dark hair that nearly touches his shoulders. Girls eat that crap up.

Even though I’m not really feeling hospitable, especially to a guy that’s going to eventually ignore me like all the others, I decide I can show him. He hasn’t done anything to me. Yet. “Sure. Follow me.”

            I pick up the pace, wanting to get into the building before anyone tries to use me as target practice with their half-empty, fancy iced-coffee cups. For some reason the prep crowd around here think that kind of shit is hilarious.  

            We arrive at the main office. I smile faintly at Rick. “Here you go. See you around.”

            “Wait,” Rick says, as I turn away from him. I whip around to meet his gaze. “What’s your name?”

            I roll my eyes. Why does he care? “Most people call me Sugarman.”

            He tilts his head to the side. “That’s your last name, I take it.”

            I nod and walk backwards, trying to get away as quick as I can without looking like a total bitch.

            “What’s your first name?” Yep, he’s a smooth-talker.

            “Natalie.”

            A slow grin spreads across his face and his smile leaves me feeling a little light headed. “Thanks for helping me out, Natalie.”

            My name rolls off his tongue with ease, like he’s said it a million times. His accent gives it a special twist. Damn it. I can feel my cheeks to grow warm with embarrassment. I duck my head, trying to hide my reaction.  

            He chuckles and then heads into the main office.

            Ugh. What a flirt. I flee down the hallway, completely baffled in this guy’s interest in me. He probably plays all the girls like this and causes them to swoon all over him. I’m sure Rick will fit in just fine.

 After survive all my morning classes, I head to lunch. Usually, I sit alone outside during lunch under a big oak tree—trying to disappear—until it gets so cold we’re forced inside. At that point it turns brutal. No one except the smart kids let me sit at their table and that’s only because the group is so small they can comfortably fit on the opposite end. Not even the Emo kids accept me,

            Ah, the lonely life of a loser. Was I always seen as social pariah? The answer is no, not always. As hard as it is to believe, I was once accepted, and - I might even dare to say - semi-popular.

At least until I went to Taylor Gee’s freshman year sleepover back in high school. Thanks to Mom, She revealed my psycho status to practically every girl in my grade by storming over to Taylor’s and making a huge scene. Talk about mortifying. Going on and on about how I’d forgotten my ‘crazy pills’ at home and how it would affect my ‘condition’ if I missed a dose. From then on people started avoiding me like I had leprosy. 

I saunter over to the lunch line and grab an apple and a bottle of water and head out to the tree.

            Great, so much for being alone out here. The entire student body seems to be spread out across the quad and—wouldn’t you know it?—there’s someone in my spot.

            “Hey, again.” Rick grins as he looks up from his book to meet my stare.  His long legs stretch out in front of him and his black tee shirt clings to his chest as he moves his books out of the way. “You want to sit down?”

            Ugh. What’s the deal with this guy? I might as well set him straight about my social status around here and hope he goes away. Now’s not the time for new friends, especially a guy friend. Demon boy made that quite clear. “You do realize that’s not the smartest move. I’m probably not the best person to be seen with,” I say as I take my satchel off my shoulder and toss it down. “This is usually where I sit.” He looks at me, like he doesn’t get it, so I state the obvious. “Alone.”

            He laughs and crosses his legs at his black, booted ankles, like he doesn’t plan on moving anytime soon. “Everyone needs a friend. And well, lucky for me, I’m not the kind of guy who cares what other people think. Come on. Sit.” He pats the ground next to him.

            I raise my eyebrows and give a quick shrug. If he wants to take on the wrath of the prep crowd to hog my spot under the tree, so be it. Doesn’t mean we’re friends, though. Finally, I take a seat in the cool grass next to him and bite into my apple, ignoring him the best I can.

It’s epically silent, except for my thunderous chewing and the mindless chatter in the quad. Rick seems oblivious of me as he reads his book. Even though I shouldn’t, I glance around, hoping to spot Stew. It doesn’t take me long to find him. He’s at the picnic table in the center of the quad, not more than twenty feet away, surrounded by the entire puketastic cheerleading squad. Taylor Gee—the most vomit-inducing of all the cheerleaders and my previous best friend—is perched at his side.

Sometimes I hate that half of my high school class got accepted into Ohio State University along with me.

Taylor giggles at Stew’s every word and flaunts her A cups at him. Her brown hair twirled around her perfectly manicured index finger as she makes goo-goo eyes at Stew. Are they hooking up now? The whole scene makes me want to hurl. I don’t know how I could have ever been her friend.

Blood burns in my veins and I’m ready to explode. Frustrated, I squeeze the crap out of my apple and grind my teeth. From the outside, it looks like they’re perfect for each other. But Stew told me he hates superficial people like Taylor as much as I do. The only reason he puts up with it, and pretends to be friends with those posers, is to appease his domineering father. He wants him to surround himself with only good people, and obviously, according to Mr. Masterson, that excludes me.

But God, Stew doesn’t have to pretend he likes it so much.

            My stomach churns for believing what we had together was real. 

            Rick pulls me back to reality. “Friend of yours?”

            My head snaps in his direction. “Pssssh. Hardly.”

            “Hmmm.” He lifts an eyebrow and then goes back to his book.

            This guy thinks he knows me. Whatever. He’s known me all of four hours. “What’s that suppose to mean?”

            He snaps the book shut and looks me in the eye. “It just means I’ve noticed you two staring at each other when you think the other one’s not looking. It makes me wonder what’s going on there, because you two don’t exactly look like you travel in the same circles. No offense.”

            I shrug. “Not much to tell. He’s my neighbor. That’s all.”

            He cocks his head, almost like he’s suspicious of something. “Right.” He smirks. “You know, I want us to be friends, so you should be honest with me.”

            For a second, I think about how amazing it’d be to have a friend like Rick, someone who isn’t afraid to be seen in public with me. But I haven’t had a real friend –not counting Stew, for obvious reasons - since the Taylor incident and the one thing I’ve learned since then is to protect myself.

  I roll my eyes. “Whatever. Think what you want. I gotta go.”

            I stand, throw my satchel on my shoulder and turn back to address him. “What makes you think we’re friends?”

I hear Rick call my name as I walk away, but I don’t look back. No way do I need the new guy knowing any of my secrets. I’ll have to make sure I’m more careful with the Stew situation so the demon doesn’t suspect there’s something still going on between me and Stew.

Because if the new guy can see through me, so will everyone else.