Demon blood tingled along his shoulders, its warmth increasing as it rolled down his nine-hundred human muscles. When the sensation moved outward and reached his fingertips, the comfortable warmth turned into the inescapable burn of pushing a key into an electrical outlet. That burn wouldn’t let go. He blinked his human eyes—tears puddled in their corners and began to sting. The other swimmers warmed their muscles: jumping up and down, slapping at their chests, and rotating their torsos and arms in various motions. Some readjusted their water caps and plastic glasses; others blew through their mouths, hard. Then came the whistle: eee, eee, eee.
Fredrik Sköld’s salty eyes squinted into focus. He rolled his head in a circle and rubbed his hands together, quickly, to get that loose feeling.
Shake off the pain. You’re better than this.
This was the Freddie who was born knowing that he must swim to really live. Fredrik Sköld, when he was six, stood on a child’s wooden desk in his first-year grundskola classroom in Stockholm, fists on his hips as he proclaimed, “Du tittar på USA: s OS-guldmedaljören i simning!” Olympic champion for swimming! There was no stopping him then, and there would be no stopping him now.
Swim jackets and towels sprawled along white lounge chairs across from the swimming lanes, and, to his demon eyes, people strolled around the pool when they should have walked.
The demon blood, each bolus a slow-moving clot, had been difficult to transfuse. Mike, the demon, had an easier time of it: at the smallest prick, the blood had completely filled two very special syringes—all that he would need. But would the sludge kill Fredrik?
Bullet-like determination pushed through him—the crowd began to vanish, one small detail at a time. A tsunami of blood rushed through his veins, his heart audibly beating in deep, thick waves. Time crawled. Slowly, everything but the water dissolved and went white—no judges, no swimmers and their noises, and no girlfriend whistling and stomping her feet in the crowd.
Excruciating pain brought him to his knees, and he bowed his head. Fog surrounded him, it seemed, and pushed him farther and farther into the aquatic center’s smooth, painted tiles—pressure building on his shoulders. But the fog wasn’t fog. Not when he came to his senses. Blinking, thin cobwebs grazed his palms and his knees—air but more than air touched him. A few deep breaths later, he found the strength to pull himself up from his knees. It’s just a little pain. You’re unstoppable, especially now.
But there must be a sacrifice. That’s what the demon had said.
Coach Nils pulled him from the world of demons with a single gesture: pointing at the other swimmers, as if counting them. “Don’t forget. It’s your way now, and when it’s your way once, it’s always your way. The mind always remembers.”
Despite Freddie’s preternaturally silent nature, he managed to approach each swimmer, grasp his hand, and wish him luck. His father would have criticized his politeness. Pappa was always critical and suspicious of kindness, seeing it as a subtle form of manipulation.
Coach Nils loomed behind him, whispering advice while holding his shoulder in a brotherly way. “You go out there and give them hell, ya?”
“Did you call your pappa? I don’t see him here.”
Freddie, always interested in his father’s suspicious activities, swiveled his head around slowly and asked, “When have you ever met Pappa?”
“Stockholm, years ago. He came to the swim center once.”
“Huh.” But there was nothing else to say, and all the other swimmers had begun to approach the edge of the pool.
The painful sensations increased. Just how bad did he want it?
Eyes still blurred with tears, it was as if the smoke had cleared so that he could see everything around him, only sharper. Everything was sharper, more focused. He heard Jenny whistling the way she always did: with two fingers in her mouth as she stomped her feet. He could almost taste the lilac smell of her skin. Winning mattered—it really mattered—but what would he have to sacrifice?
The swimmers slipped into the water with their legs and toes pointed like ballerinas. They turned around and climbed up with knees bent to push their feet against the pool’s wall, gripping the sides of the metal rungs attached just beneath the starting blocks, but not quite in position yet. Then a second whistle screeched through the auditorium, pealing four times. “Take your mark,” said a man over the loudspeaker. They all pulled their bodies up into a slightly higher position, knees still bent. Boop! The swimmers arched their backs and pushed off the wall, pumping their arms and legs backward.
That TV had cost him too much.
Demon blood surged through his veins, driving him toward the finish line in an attempt to escape the burn. Pool water splashed through the edges of the swim goggles and into his eyes, and he welcomed the cool water on his face.
His fingertips touched the smooth wall, and he bobbed out of the water and allowed his feet to slap the concrete, splashing as he shook his head from side to side. A dog shaking his fur. The race had ended.
All the other swimmers had stayed in the water, floating, with their eyes fixed on the scoreboard. But Fredrik raced to his towel and robe, flipped his swim goggles to the top of his head, and started to make a run for it. Swirling his swim robe in a high arc, he pushed his arms through it, pulled his goggles off, tossed all his things into a duffel bag, and darted his eyes away from the thousands of people watching him.
The indoor arena was pocketed with darkness in the upper corners and clustered with harsh fluorescent light and flickering flashbulbs throughout.
Lilacs suddenly bloomed in the air; he ground to a halt and slowly turned. Jenny.
“Did you see your score?” her soft voice asked.
Fredrik scratched his chest, his legs—as soon as he had emerged from the water, little razor blades seemed to scratch and scrape just underneath his skin. Squinting against the shimmer of the water, an image appeared. He was the only one who had gazed at the water in amazement, hypnotized into attention as his demon rippled along the water and gave a high-pitched child’s giggle. “I could get used to this.”
“Well, don’t,” Freddie muttered.
Jenny touched his shoulder, and she kissed his cheek, pulling him back to a world without demons.
“You still think . . . some demon . . . . What do you think, exactly?”
He turned away from her, and the demon was gone; the burn continued deeply, but slowly became more of a flickering sensation—slow-racing Christmas lights. One foot in the demon’s world and one foot in the human world.
Fredrik ran his hand along charcoal-black waves of hair, which had been clipped very short. Static electricity pricked his fingers. People always stared at him—being so tall, having those teeth, and a body with pliable muscles as rounded as a doughy baguette.
“Isn’t this what you wanted?” Jenny asked.
There, on the scoreboard, an astonishing number: 1:53.88. Faster than the Olympic world record.
“That can’t be right,” he whispered. Unexpectedly, for a split second, a toothy grin crept up his face. One hand clenched into a fist, nearly ready to punch the air in victory. But he covered his mouth so as not to reveal the extreme overbite that hung far over his lips.
Jenny pulled his hand from his mouth and kissed it. “A man without flaws is no man at all. You are the most determined swimmer here, you know. The only one who will make it into the Olympics.”
A wide smile spotlighted his face as he squeezed her to him and kissed the top of her head. Two swans nuzzling at the crooks of their necks. But the pain continued. “I love you,” he said, voice breathy.
“I know.” She winked.
The smallest kindness can cause the most intense actions.
“Hey, are you okay?” Jenny’s face scrunched into a look of concern as her arms sagged into a limp hug around his neck. “You’ve worked so hard for this, but you seem . . . I don’t know.”
The roof of his mouth seemed made of cotton, and a marble-like lump drifted up from the back of his throat. “Oh, God.” He bent at the waist and put his head in his hands. Not like this. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Standing up straight again, the acidy feeling rolled back down his throat. I’m okay. Freddie hadn’t won the race; he was a puppet on a set of strings and his blood, the puppet master—it was as if the world had watched as someone had pushed him off a mountain but everyone believed that he had jumped. And the pain from the blood . . . would it be like that every time he raced?
Cameras flashed and glittered into a daytime meteor shower. Cool-cucumber Freddie pulled his gold-rimmed sunglasses from his swim bag, flipped them open, and jammed them onto his face. Jenny snickered. “Those ridiculous things always make me think of Elvis in sequin suits.”
“Eh, you can be as ridiculous as you want to be with numbers like that,” his swim coach, Nils, who’d just walked up, assured her.
His 6’4” heavier-muscled swim coach pulled him into a hug, jumped with excitement, and kissed the top of his head, but then he froze. “What’s wrong with your skin?” Nils whispered.
He stood up. “I don’t know, but . . . .” Snuff snuff. “You smell that?”
Sulfur. His skin like cracked parchment.
“We should get you home,” Jenny said.
She pecked his cheek and walked with them to the entrance of the locker room. Pushing her back against the clammy, smooth cement wall, she bent one leg and held her foot flat against the wall. A “cool kid” pose—you’d almost expect her to try to bum a cigarette.
Everything blurred, went into slow motion. Slooooow clapping. “Heyyy guuuys, greaaat gaaame,” a deep voice belched in the locker room. Bright lights everywhere from the press—people being interviewed on bench seats, clicking open their lockers, taking off their shoes and retying them for no reason. Were they modeling? Nothing made sense.
“Are you okay?” Nils said.
“Oh, uh . . . yeah. Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Just . . . .” He zipped into his track suit and pulled on his winter parka.
“You are sweating a lot.”
Freddie touched his index finger to his forehead, burned his fingertip as if touching a hot stove, and did his best not to react. “Maybe I’m siiiick.” The words drifted, and he wasn’t sure if they drifted . . . or of anything else. The demon crawled in a vapor trail along the locker room’s long, rectangular mirror, its image screeching against the glass.
Freddie held his hands to his ears and stumbled out of the locker room, a group of people huddled behind him. He turned and watched as Nils stopped, handed each of them business cards, and said in a low tone, “You can see he’s not feeling well.” The group was a blur, an abstract painting on a kitchen wall. But the crowd dispersed in faint mumbles.
Jenny jogged up to them, and despite being only five feet one, she managed to drape an arm around both of their shoulders. There was something so disarmingly genuine about Jenny that Freddie, like everyone else, went along with whatever she wanted; any tall man would lean down for her, and any short man would stand on his tiptoes.
“Onward, boys!” she suddenly shouted, her eyes sparkling as she broke free from their shoulders and led them through the maze of the two-story aquatic center in Greensboro, North Carolina. Nils loped after her, and they walked side by side, while Freddie lagged far behind.
Trudging behind Jenny and Nils one leaden step at a time, walking through quicksand toward the Jeep, the other vehicles reflected sunshine off their windows and clean, metallic bodies. The demon appeared—a voyeuristic presence.
Jenny pried the duffel bag from his hand. There was bottled water in the SUV.
“Water, please,” he gasped.
A bottle soared through the air, and he caught it long before it began its descent. Slurp slurp slurp. The Jeep’s driver-side door clapped shut, and they were on their way home. Reflections surrounded him: traffic lights, vanity mirrors, the windshield, and even the sparkling-clean hood. Glug glug glug. The demon grinned into a billion fractured pieces so that Fredrik had no perception of himself anymore, only the demon.
“Tonight’s the night, Freddie,” the demon whispered. The sacrifice.
The sharp burn that had covered his entire body had calmed into a dull ache, muscles twitching involuntarily. All those reflections . . . but now, the demon had gone. He relaxed back into his seat.
Olympic fantasies played behind his half-closed eyes, as they often did during calm moments. A gold medal dangled from his neck, and someone handed him a ridiculously large bouquet of flowers. He smiled and bowed, gracious.
But when he raised his hand to wave at the crowd, it wasn’t a human hand. It was a claw attached to a wolf-like forearm—a demon’s limb.
His eyes flew open.
The miles from Greensboro, North Carolina, to Brimfield, Ohio—465.88—streamed by in thin, rectangular cylinders outside the rear passenger window. All blurring together. Miles and miles. Chatter, laughter, country stations being tuned to polka stations being tuned to talk radio being tuned to static. Nimble fingers unwrapping road food from cardboard and cellophane.
A fist of violent tension had balled its knuckles into his solar plexus right after the swim meet had ended. The heat that had nearly burned through his veins as he pushed to the finish line had become pressure. DEEP pressure.
Freddie moved his mouth very near the back passenger window, dropped his jaw to shape his lips into a perfect circle, and let out a hot puff of air. The change in air temperature fogged the window into a whitish haze. His face serious and introspective, he smeared a thumb across the window, writing FRUKTA MIG. Fear me.
“You okay back there?” Nils asked, head in a half turn.
“Yeah, fine.” Fredrik erased the words with his shirtsleeve, eyes again transfixed to the window as they had been just seconds before.
The first time it had happened, Nils had tilted a cup of hot coffee toward his lips. What if I pushed that cup into his face—spilled it all over him? The burns would be nothing more than red patches on the swim coach’s neck and hands, an ache that would flutter away within minutes. But wait—hurting people wasn’t part of the deal. Not for him.
Then the Jeep stopped; he still stared out the window, a hypnotized child.
“Come on. Get out and stretch your legs,” Jenny said. How long had they been driving?
But the spell had been broken, and he rushed along the concrete walkways, into the square flat-roofed building, and into the restroom. Trying hard to close his eyes against the demon smiling at him on the bathroom stall’s shiny door.
“Really? Can’t give me some peace here?”
“Your bodily functions are of no interest to me but your lovely Jenny . . . .” The cold air puffed, and the demon was gone.
Rushing to pull his pants up, he ran from the restroom to where Nils and Jenny were beaming at one another in the happiness that came after winning a race.
Snow had piled over Freddie’s shoes, his feet wet and cold. The others wore boots and winter hats. Suddenly, the air became very cold, and the snow swirled around him, cutting into his cheeks.
SACRIFICE. That’s what the demon had said. Anything but Jenny.
Just outside the square building, there was a map encased in glass-like plastic, a dot marking their location. West Virginia. They were nearly halfway home.
Five minutes down I-77 North, and the snow fell quickly and drifted in thin wisps, rocking the Jeep off center from time to time. Visibility decreased to ¼ mile or less. Slush sucked the Jeep down the highway as the snow began to build, battering the windows with flakes the size of a woman’s thumb. The cold howl of the wind rocked him to sleep.
The second time it had happened, he stayed behind, rubbing his hands together in the cold Jeep while Jenny and Nils ran inside the rest stop. So easy to picture the two of them. . . . They got along so well . . . kisses, desire, legs wrapped over legs. No, no, it’s not real. It’s not true. His hands had balled into fists at his sides, coiled serpents. He tried to breathe.
Chuckles, shoulders shrugged up to ears to stay warm; the doors clapped shut.
Back on the road, his fists had relaxed, and that deep pressure moved through his body again, the deep pressure and the heat moving, pressing, him forward forward—bash their heads into the dashboard; leave them bloodied and scarred. And he could see himself doing it as if he had already done it. The thing pushed at him from all sides. NO! NO! He wouldn’t do it. He would never do it. Bent over, he tried to calm his panicked breathing.
There’s a demon in my blood.
Mike, the demon, answered in a whisper, giving a little finger wave through the passenger-side window, “There’s always been a demon in your blood.” No, but even Freddie didn’t believe his answer. And the demon had gone.
How can you tell what’s a dream and what’s real when you can't even tell when you’re awake and when you’re asleep?
Nearly home, Freddie’s eyes opened to weather that hadn’t changed much; they had stopped at the window of a fast food place in Brimfield, Ohio, on State Route 43. Jenny had just handed over the money.
They sat in the Jeep for maybe three minutes before getting annoyed with having to constantly use the windshield wipers to clean the snow off the windshield, so they ate inside where the lights were orange and bright-urine yellow. They cupped their hands around hot cocoa in Styrofoam cups, huddled in plastic chairs, and ate greasy hamburgers and chicken sandwiches, moving slowly.
“What do you think about Nils staying at our place, Freddie? I don’t feel like driving another minute.”
He shrugged. “Fine by me.”
So they finished eating and piled back into the Jeep, Freddie sitting up front.
At every red traffic light and stop sign, Jenny stared at him.
Her eyes darted toward the passenger-side foot well and then back to the road. Something crackle crunched as he shifted his feet—there were six empty water bottles underfoot. But he had only remembered opening one.
By the time they got home, it was long past midnight. Almost morning. Spikes of grass shivered as a breeze mixed with a tapering snowfall.
The Jeep’s inside door handle was warm; the seats and the air and the dashboard were warm. But the snow had already glazed the windshield and side mirrors. So cold. Freddie pulled the handle, triggering the barest click. The others had already begun unloading the Jeep, their breath white and shoulders shrugged up to their ears.
Finally, he planted his feet on the concrete driveway. Jeep to home, home to Jeep, and Jeep to home again—always the same routine until spring. Every year, resigned to being caged in metal and plastic and wood and drywall. The sky was a lavender haze, and something about it made him bounce on his heels and chew on his thin beard. Squeezing his eyes tight. Just howl. Howl, and get it over with. SCREAM.
Instead, he slouched out of the Jeep and walked toward the house, all three of them with their heads bowed in a sleepy crawl.
I’m losing it, aren’t I?
Jenny walked alongside him and, once inside, peeled off her winter coat, hat, and gloves and dropped her keys with a shuffle and a clatter as Fredrik fell face-first into their plump couch. Nils followed, his cheerfulness dampened by the late hour.
“I don’t know about you,” Jenny said, “but I need to get some sleep.” She rested a hand on his chest until he leaned down. She kissed his cheek and caressed his face, tiny brown-black facial hairs starting to show in patches. Then she walked upstairs toward their bedroom.
“Do you mind if I use your phone to call Vivian?” Nils asked. “She’ll probably worry, because of the storm.”
Freddie tossed him one of the receivers and said, “Go for it.” Nils walked away dialing his number, and Freddie heard his sleep-cheerful voice fading as he walked through the house.
That TV had cost way too much.
His skin still crawled, and he was waiting for the demon.