Jolie ran up and up the stairs, leaping two steps at a stretch, the demon’s splayed claw-like fingers grabbing at her feet. The spiral stairway curled like the unbroken coil of an apple peel, climbing into an empty abyss above. Jolie had been here before, climbing one step ahead of the demon. The stairs never ended.
She remembered one of her mom’s friends talking about some addiction recovery wisdom that said doing the same thing over and over again with the expectation of change didn’t work. They called it magical thinking. As Jolie leaped from stair to stair, climbing the never ending spiral to nowhere, she thought about this: if she ever got to an end, what would happen? Did she really think that she would get away from the creature, or would this hide and seek play out as it always had, with the demon fighting its way into the little burrow it had been carving out for itself inside her mind?
“Where do you think you’re going?” the demon’s rough bass demanded, echoing her own thoughts. “You can’t get away from me. We are one now.”
“No, we are not,” Jolie shouted, adamantly.
Faith had taught Jolie that learning to control your actions in the dream world was an important skill.
Jolie stopped climbing and spun around to face the demon.
“Stop following me,” she commanded. The demon stopped an arm’s length away and they stared at each other.
“That was it?” The creature smirked. “That was your big strategy?” It threw back its head and laughed, breathing out a slaughterhouse stench. Jolie gagged.
“You’re disgusting!” She turned back around and began climbing again.
But as long as the demon hunted and chased her, it did not have a hold on her. It could not dig in. Surely, if she could avoid it catching her for long enough, a way to get free of it for good would present itself. Jolie leaped up another step and stopped, balancing precariously. The stairs had ended.
There was no door, no landing, nothing beyond them but infinite emptiness. They had just been stairs, without a purpose, leading nowhere.
So why had she climbed them?
“Give me a break,” Jolie shouted.
The demon was three steps below and coming forward.
There was nowhere left for her to go except into the emptiness. She could face the unknown, or face the demon; those were her choices.
Jolie turned and gathered her courage, ready to fight to the last. Whatever happened to her, this thing could not be let loose to wreak havoc on the world by inhabiting her. She had felt remorse for Axel’s death. This demon would not.
“I have you,” the creature purred with satisfaction.
“No. You don’t,” Jolie replied. “And you never will, because I will not give in to you, never.” She forced herself to wake up as the demon dove into her.
Jolie’s eyes popped open, her chest heaving like she’d been running a marathon. Gradually, she slowed and deepened her breath. She was in her body, in the physical world, and she was still herself. She rolled over on the bed, trying to breathe out the fear humming through her. That was all she ever seemed to bring back from these dreams: fear. Everything else faded to confused images.
“Damn effing demon.” She threw off the bedcovers and headed for the shower. No one was going to cut her any slack at school because a demon was trying to possess her, and she had a big day ahead. She was going to drive a real car for the first time in Driver’s Ed.
Hugo made the sign of a cross with his fingers like he was warding off a vampire. “Whatever it was, I didn’t do it, honest.”
Jolie felt like her body was a cement log she had to drag around.
Nothing felt right. The world was not her friend.
“What’s wrong with you?” Hugo asked, munching his burger.
“Why does everybody keep asking me that?” Jolie grumped.
“Because you look like you’re auditioning for the undead. I think you’ve got a shot.”
“Just for that, I’m not going to go to the dance with you, not ever. So don’t ask.”
Hugo looked perplexed. “I don’t dance. Anyway, aren’t you Remy’s girl?”
Bodhi plopped down on the bench glowering like the dark elf he impersonated most days. The look he shot Jolie had daggers in it.
“Remy doesn’t have a girl, Hugo,” the moody boy sneered.
“What is that, Bodhi?” Jolie demanded, not bothering to hide her annoyance with him.
“What’s what?” Bodhi feigned innocence.
“That grim reaper look you get whenever anyone mentions me and Remy in the same sentence.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve got a problem with Remy and me.” Jolie was ready to pick a fight and didn’t care who knew it.
“You’re hallucinating,” Bodhi accused.
“I don’t use drugs.” Jolie countered, smugly. “Now you say it.” Bodhi didn’t speak. “I didn’t think so. Only a coward lies to his friends. Take away all that Kung Fu crap, and you’re just another scared punk, aren’t you, Bodhi?”
Bodhi was shaking with anger. “If you weren’t Remy’s friend...” His fists clenched.
“You’d do what? Punch me? A girl? That’d show everyone what a great warrior you are. Remy would be so proud.”
Bodhi’s right hand shot out and grabbed Jolie’s wrist, his left hand held her elbow. He pressed her arm down hard against the table.
“Say that again, bitch,” he hissed, venom oozing from every syllable. His left elbow pushed into the hollow spot of her left shoulder and he leaned in, bringing Jolie’s other arm all the way down to the table. It hurt, but with a little more pressure, it could hurt a lot more. With a little more effort, Bodhi could either break her arm or pull it out of its socket.
Hugo’s eyes went wide. “Bodhi, stop,” he warned his friend, alarmed.
Bodhi didn’t move.
“You can’t control it, can you?” Jolie egged him on. “The drugs have you at the edge all the time, and you can’t get free.”
He pressed his elbow deeper into her shoulder. Jolie winced, but she didn’t back down. “Admit it, Bodhi, you’re a junky, and you need help.”
“Both of you stop it!” Hugo stood up ready to intervene as Remy came out of the crowd and walked up to the table.
“What’s going on?” He dropped his backpack onto the bench seat.
Bodhi released Jolie’s arm.
“Nothing. I was just giving your friend a demonstration.” A dark undercurrent of anger smoldered beneath his fake smile.
“A demonstration of what?” Remy looked from one to the other.
“Just how easy it is to pull someone’s arm out of their socket if you know how.” Bodhi took the apple off Jolie’s lunch tray. “See ya.” He looked at Jolie and mouthed “bee-otch”, bit into the apple, and melted into the crowd.
“Are you alright, Jo?” Hugo asked.
“Yeah.” Jolie rubbed her shoulder.
Remy frowned. “What was that all about?”
“Like he said, he was showing me how easy it is for him to hurt someone,” Jolie explained, dodging the bigger issue and Bodhi’s ill intent toward her.
Remy looked to Hugo, expecting he would fill in what Jolie seemed unwilling to share.
“Don’t look at me, Rem. I had nothing to do with it. I was trying to stop him.”
“Stop him from what?”
“Nothing. Let it go,” Jolie tried to end the discussion.
“It wasn’t nothing, Jo,” Hugo interjected. “He could have really hurt you.”
“Sifu would have thrown him out of the school if he had.” Remy examined Jolie. She refused to look at him. “Are you okay, Jo?”
“I’m fine,” Jolie snapped.
“I’d better go to talk to him,” Remy hoisted his backpack.
Jolie picked up her own backpack and stood. “You do that, Remy. He needs a lot of help. Has he taught you how to tie him off yet? Frigging idiots.” She started to leave. Remy stopped her.
“What’s the matter with you? Why are you so damn prickly?”
“I’m fed up with Bodhi’s bullshit, and I’m tired, Rem.” Jolie wiped a hand across her face. “I’m so tired.” She held back the tears by sheer willpower. “I can’t sleep. I mean I could, but I don’t dare. It’s the nightmares.” She looked up at Remy, her eyes begging him to help her. “I’ve been having them ever since that first night when you took me to Red Rock, but they’re getting worse and worse, and it’s getting so hard.”
“Is this about what happened in the apartment?” Remy asked.
“What happened in the apartment?” Hugo asked, confused.
“It’s making me crazy, Rem,” Jolie admitted, feeling exhaustion fissuring her resolve.
“I’m so sorry, Jo.” Remy pulled her into his arms and held her.
Kids streamed around them like Remy was a rock: her rock. “What if I come over for a few hours tonight and just sit with you while you sleep?”
Jolie smiled, weakly. “That’s sweet, but I don’t see what difference that would make.”
“I’ll bring some sage and sweet grass and we’ll smudge out your apartment to get rid of the bad juju. I hear that there have been some weird things going on upstairs.” He smiled his sweet smile.
“’You’re going to banish my bogeyman?” Jolie laughed.
“Absolutely. I’ll be over after practice. Okay?”
“Okay,” Jolie agreed.
Remy gave her a quick kiss and headed off to class.
“What happened at the apartment?” Hugo asked again.
“It’s a long story, Hugo.” When Jolie turned to leave, Bodhi was staring at her from across the commons, rage fixed on his face. He had been watching her and Remy from the crowd. “Great.” Jolie sighed as her cell vibrated.
“Hey, Jo, it’s Tru. Got a second?”
“I’ve got three, maybe four tops. Class is about to start.” Jolie kept walking.
Tru hesitated then blurted out, “Marty asked me to marry him.”
“Wow, congratulations. What took him so long?”
“I don’t think we saw ourselves as the marrying kind, but I’ve got to say that now that we’re actually engaged, things feel different between us: sweeter, and more romantic. It’s really sudden, I know, but we’ve set a date for next month, and I want you to be a bridesmaid.”
“Gee, Tru, I don’t know what to say,” Jolie stammered, hurrying along the breezeway. “I’ve never been to a real wedding before. I was the flower girl at a biker wedding once. Will it be anything like that?”
“God, I hope not.” Tru laughed. “Not with my mom involved. But you’ll do it, won’t you? It would mean a lot to Marty and me to have you be a part of it.”
“Sure. I guess I could do that,” Jolie sprinted the last few strides to get into the classroom.
“Good. I’ll text you the date, and the fitting times, and all that.”
“Fitting times? Wait--what?” Jolie skidded her butt into her chair just ahead of the bell.
Drivers Ed went better than Jolie feared. She didn’t fall asleep or crash into anything, and she kept a tight rein on her smartass mouth. Mister Anderson was a nice, fatherly Mormon who believed driving was a serious thing that left no room for joking.
Oddly enough, there were a lot of Latter Day Saints living in Sin City and working in the casino industry. Las Vegas was a popular place to raise a nice Mormon family, just one more of the city’s strange incongruities.
It was Tuesday after school, and without Faith, Jolie had nowhere to go. She lingered at the top of the steps outside the school, watching the other kids go off to their afterschool activities. There was nowhere she wanted to go, and no one--except Remy--that she wanted to go there with. But Remy had a full life without her. She had come into his life to try and save him, but it seemed more like he was saving her lately. She sat down on the school steps.
Some days, she almost forgot about Remy and the accident. She’d had the vision those few times early on, and then nothing. All she’d done for Remy so far was cause him trouble.
Rebecca strolled across the lawn toward her. The black lined lips and heavy eyeliner of her Goth phase were gone along with her jet black dyed and ironed hair. Without makeup hiding them, you could see Rebecca’s freckles. Her naturally curly brown hair was two toned, the ends still clinging to the black dye, while the roots grew out a warmer brown. She had even taken to wearing her glasses. Jolie sensed her friend’s new comfort with herself. Not all change was bad.
“How was the memorial thing?” Becca sat down beside Jolie.
“Weird because it was about someone dying, or weird because Sean was there with another woman?”
“It was very...Catholic.”
“I thought your friend was a New Age witch or something?”
“Well, she was definitely not Catholic,” Jolie said, wryly.
Becca fingered the gold cross that hung around her neck.
“Sometimes people come to God in the last moments of their lives, and he accepts them even then.”
“And sometimes people imagine things because they want so badly for them to be true,” Jolie countered.
“Have you ever been to church, Jo?”
“Yep. More than one. Some of the buildings were really nice.” Jolie stood up. “But it didn’t make me want to go to Sunday school.”
Rebecca chuckled. “Yeah. I can’t quite see you wailing out ‘Jesus Loves Me.’”
Jolie chuckled. “I learned the words.”
“Really?” Becca looked surprised. “I would have paid good money to see that.”
“Yeah, I was there a whole two days. They had graham crackers at snack,” Jolie confided. “And there was this really cute boy who’s mom taught the class...”
Rebecca laughed. “Ah, and now the truth comes out.”
“She didn’t like me much. After the second day, she handed me a Parks and Rec. flier, and suggested I might be better suited to their Backyard Scientist camp.”
“You know, we’re not all like that, Jo.”
“I know.” Jolie smiled. “And she did me a favor. I was much happier at science camp. It would never have worked out between me and her son anyway.”
“I know that we’re very different people,” Becca said. “But we can still be friends, can’t we, Jo?”
“Sure.” Jolie shrugged. ” As long as it’s okay that I’m a heathen.”
“That’s cool, as long as you don’t try to convert me to your pagan ways,” Becca teased.
“Then we’re good?”
“Well, you are anyway.” Jolie gave her friend a devilish grin.
“So, do you want to go to the library?” Rebecca asked.
Jolie considered her chances of staying awake sitting still in a quiet library.
“Only if we can stop for coffee on the way,” she decided.
“Done. I just have to get my books.” Becca headed back into the building.
Jolie closed her eyes, trying to steal a moment of calm. Focusing within, she sensed the demon, relaxing as she relaxed, settling into the little space inside her that it was trying to claim as its own. For a moment Jolie felt as if she could actually “see” it and it could “see” her. They studied each other, not forming thoughts or judgments; just observing.
Weird, Jolie thought, unable to put any other description on the interlude.
She felt a sort of ripple in the air. Opening her eyes, she brought her awareness back to the physical world.
The pickup of the Native man she had seen at Rose’s was parked by the curb in front of the school.
Jolie got up and sauntered over.
“Hi. I know you, don’t I? You’re a relative of Remy’s, right?”
“Yes. His uncle, Hoke.” The man’s voice was a soft low shushing, like the heads of ripe wheat rubbing together. “And you are the girl in Cowboy’s van.” Remy’s smile had come from this side of the family, but his uncle used it much more sparingly, smiling mostly with just his eyes.
“One of them, yes.”
“We met before that, though. You came to visit me out in the desert last winter.”
“You saw me?” Jolie asked. “You remember that?”
“Of course.” He nodded. “It is a night that would be hard to forget.”
Every hair on Jolie’s body was standing up as if Hoke’s presence was electrifying the air around them. How much did he know about the events of Solstice?
In spite of his weathered face and salt and pepper hair, the energy radiating from the man was vibrant and powerful, but it was more than physical power. Jolie sensed a strength that bridged multiple dimensions.
“So, you go to school with Remy?” Hoke said in his soft-spoken voice.
Jolie nodded. “I’ve seen you parked by the school before. You just drive over and sit and watch the school? Why? What are you doing?”
“Nothing really. I just come to make sure my nephew is okay.”
“Remy’s not really the kind of kid who gets in trouble,” she pointed out.
Hoke shrugged. “It’s something his mother asked of me.”
Jolie frowned. “His dead mother?”
“And so you see why I must come.” There was something Remy’s uncle was not saying, but he expected her to understand--something he was leaving out. “You care about Remy. I can see that” Hoke went on. “Like me, you care what happens to him.”
“Yes.” Jolie shifted, uneasy. “You hang out here just in case something happens to him? That’s kind of weird. What do you think is going to happen?”
“I don’t know. What do you think is going to happen?”
Jolie fidgeted. What was taking Becca so long? Her mind tried to back out of the lariat hold of Hoke’s presence.
“I think you understand my concerns because you have similar ones,” Hoke said.
“I don’t,” Jolie said, quickly. It wasn’t a big lie but it was a lie, and when she looked at him, she could see that he knew it. She felt the blood rush to her cheeks, uncomfortable with what else he might know about her.
“Relax, I am no danger to you,” Hoke said in his wheat-field voice. “We are on the same side, you and I. I am glad to know that when I am not here, you are here looking after him. Pilamaya.” The old Indian tipped his hat and started his pickup. He was driving away when Rebecca came up beside her.
“Who was that?” Becca asked as they fell in step together, headed for the library.
It was a much bigger lie. Remy’s uncle, Hoke, was many things, but he was not no one. He knew things; important things, but for some reason, he chose to pretend he was just a cowboy in an old pickup truck.
Like I pretend to be just a teenage girl, Jolie reminded herself.
“They don’t know anything,” Yanna Maria had sneered at Hoke and Rose.
Jolie did not believe that was true. Which raised the question: why would the fortuneteller say it?
"Because she did not want you to seek your answers from them,” a voice from inside her answered. “She wants you dependent on her.” Jolie considered what that might mean, but even before questioning the truth of the statement, she had to question its source. Was this voice the demon answering her internal question, or some part of herself? How could she know the difference?
The fortune teller had been a guest in Rose’s house, a member of the sweat lodge community. Jolie had seen Yanna Maria riding with Hoke in his truck. Those things indicated a friendship, didn’t they? At the least, they were spiritual colleagues. Jolie knew from her experience with Faith, and Rory, and the coven women, that just because a grownup claimed possessing spiritual wisdom didn’t mean it was true, and it didn’t mean they were trustworthy. Some were, and some weren’t.
Why can’t people just be who they say they are? Jolie thought in frustration.
“Don’t be naive,” an inner voice chuckled, sardonically. “Where would be the fun in that?” Jolie was sure that voice was the demon.
Shut up. No one asked you, she told him. She had no interest in such a chaotic universe.
On and on, Jolie ran along the twisted stairway following it as it curled sideways, then upside down, mocking any sense of gravity.
Ahead of her, a door appeared, so far away that she wondered if she could ever reach it, or so small that she would have to shrink to the size of a mouse to fit through.
“Leave your body behind,” something inside her suggested.
“That’s dumb,” Jolie realized. “I have nobody. This is a dream.” But if she didn’t have a body, then how was she running away from the demon? “If I can only reach the door and get through it, maybe I will be safe. Maybe he cannot follow me through it.”
She needed someplace where she could close the demon out, leave him behind, and shut him out forever.
“The rules of the human world do not apply here,” the inner voice reminded her.
The steps became taller, forcing Jolie to climb from tread to tread like a crustacean. As soon as the thought came into her head, Jolie’s body changed into a crab’s.
Ten jointed legs scrabbled from stair to stair stretching, pulling, and grasping over each lip.
She missed a step, and with nothing to grab, went bumping down the stairs, banging her shell with each bounce.
Crab-Jolie lay on her shell back on a landing at the bottom of the stairway she had just climbed, her broken crab legs twitching helplessly in the air above her.
A figure of dark smoke appeared from out of the darkness.
“Together again,” the demon wheezed.
Jolie inhaled and the creature rode the breath inside her.