It took every teacher in the school, the principal and the fire department to restore order at Muddy Gap High. I don’t think anyone living in the rickety old town had seen that much action in one afternoon in years. Katelyn tried to edge away from the havoc, but the Study Hall teacher ratted her out to the principal and she was dragged into his office for a chat.
“I should go in there,” I said as I paced the floor in front of the principal’s office door.
“Stay out of it,” Duffy said. Phil, Min and Anna were loitering on the couch and chairs in the main office with me. “Your girl has got to stand on her own two feet.”
“Yeah, but it’s my fault she’s in there,” I said. “The least I can do is chuck in a Communication bomb or something.”
“The only thing that’ll do is strengthen the principle’s argument,” Phil said. “She’s not exactly innocent right now.”
“Thanks to Duffy,” I said.
“I only take credit for the spiders,” Duffy said. “The fire alarm and sprinklers are all on you.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I grumbled irritably. They weren’t helping my considerably darkening mood. I turned my back on them to face the principal’s office door. I folded my arms and began chewing on my thumbnail. I hated waiting and the interview felt like an age to wrap up.
When the door finally opened, Katelyn walked out, stony-faced. Duffy zipped in to find out if she got only a stern talking or something worse. As for me, I followed her, one step behind, gripping my gun just in case. School got out an hour ago and Katelyn went straight outside through the front doors. The busses had all left a while ago and the parking lot was nearly empty. There was one boy left sitting on the bottom step, bored and waiting.
Great. It was Staring Biology Boy.
Katelyn sighed heavily as she stood in the courtyard in front of the school. No doubt she was reviewing the worst day ever in her head as the doors clicked shut behind her. She stared at the ancient fountain that only partially worked, spewing a gurgle of water out a crack in the spout. It was overflowing in multicolored foamy soap bubbles, which was probably another one of Duffy’s pranks.
“I need a ride,” she mumbled to herself.
“You and me both,” the boy said.
Katelyn jogged down the steps and sat down next to him. “I thought your mom comes and picks you up after school, Greg.”
“Usually, but since the divorce, sometimes my dad forgets what days he’s supposed to take me,” Greg said. “I’d call, but…”
He held up his fried phone for Katelyn to inspect. It looked familiar. I leaned in closer for a better look. The screen was cracked and it shimmered with a faint unearthly light, like it’d been shot. It was the phone I’d destroyed that morning.
Wow. Not only did I stink up Katelyn’s day, I’d managed to mess up Greg’s too. I was on a roll. Even as the annoying, staring kid that he was, I felt bad. I shouldn’t have shot his phone.
“We could use the phone in the office,” Katelyn said.
“Can’t. Doors lock at three thirty,” Greg said. “And the office is closed too.”
I spun around, but Anna, Phil and Min were already outside and Duffy was still checking up on Katelyn’s fate. Anna tried the doors, but they were locked, just as they should be.
“Sorry, Greg,” Katelyn said. “I’m going to head home. Want to come with me?”
“Nah. My dad will figure it out eventually,” Greg said glumly. “See ya.”
Katelyn waved goodbye and headed across the lawn to the street. I knew I had to follow her, but I wanted to hear from Duffy first. Katelyn was a block away when Duffy came around the back of the school, kicking clods of weeds with the toe of his boot.
“What’s the verdict?” I said, anxiously.
“In school suspension,” Duffy said.
“Are you kidding me? She didn’t do anything that bad!”
“About that…” Duffy shifted uncomfortably in his boots. “I couldn’t get to all of my pranks in time. The principal found the soap I used to foam up the fountain in Katelyn’s backpack.”
“So, what does she have to do?” I said. “Shelve books in the library?”
“Clean gum off the underside of the lunchroom tables.”
“Ooh, that’s a bummer,” Phil said, grossed out.
“Ugh chop,” Min muttered.
“Geez, this day just keeps getting better and better,” I said, thick with distain. “I guess I should head after her. You guys coming? We could party on her front lawn.”
“I’m out,” Phil said. “The varsity football team just showed up and somebody is always getting hurt out there.”
“Chop,” Min said as he whipped out his twin swords and sat down behind Greg. He kept a wary eye out, not letting even a fly land on Greg.
“Dude, count me out,” Duffy said, putting his hands up. “I was assigned to the school, not individual Mortals. She’s your girl, not mine.”
I turned to Anna, who, surprisingly, was still awake…barely.
“Get my name right and I’ll hang out with you,” she said. Her eyes narrowed as I stalled. Being put on the spot like that didn’t help my memory any. In fact it made it worse. I blanked, big time, and I really wanted to hang out with her.
Duffy cleared out, climbing through a window to get back into the school. Min was never going to be much help when it came to anything else besides whatever went well with ‘chop.’ Phil had pity on me though. He stumbled down the stairs and gave me a friendly slap on the back.
“Anna,” he fake sneezed then fell face first into the foaming fountain. He resurfaced, covered in soapy multi-colored bubbles. “I’m okay!”
For Phil, there should be a law against walking and talking. Regardless, he saved my butt.
“Anna, will you help me?” I said, grinning. Phil gave me thumbs up before skirting around to the back of the school to the football field. Anna shook her head, but she still said yes.
We headed out of town, me walking with my hands stuffed into my pockets and Anna next to me as she switched off between walking normal and staggering sleepily. After the day she had, I was surprised she could stay awake at all.
It didn’t take long to catch up with Katelyn. I kept my distance from her, letting her take a break from my unhelpful Guardian tactics. It got dark early and a nippy wind blew at her singed hair. The trees were all bare excluding a handful that still clung to their leaves. Winter would hit soon and in Wyoming, it always hit hard.
Katelyn was shivering by the time she got to her house. Her family was home and I let her go in and didn’t follow. Usually parents were Guardians enough.
I headed for an ancient pine tree in the front yard and kicked away a few layers of needles.
“Pull up a seat,” I said offering Anna the best spot first. “Tree roots are extra comfy this time of year.”
“Thanks. I don’t think I’ve been outside the high school more than twice since I got assigned here,” she said, sitting down. I unstrapped my shotgun, loaded it with Anti-Demon shells that appeared at the school in a white box from Headquarters via HPS (Hallelujah Postal Service) earlier today. They sent extra ammo, which I was grateful for. I loaded up every pocket I had on me with them. I sat down next to her and rested my shotgun across my knees.
“You should get out more,” I said. “It’s not that bad out here.”
“For being in the middle of nowhere,” Anna said, nudging my arm playfully. “You like moving around a lot?”
“I live for it. I worked big cities, the more people, the better. I had four areas and it was always something new every day”
“So, you’ll leave someday?”
“I go where The Boss tells me to go,” I said with a shrug. “It’s what we’re supposed to do, right?”
“Sometimes,” Anna said.
“It’s different for Miracle workers?”
“No, we get around, but I asked to stay here.”
“You can do that?” I said, floored.
“The Boss takes into consideration special requests,” Anna said with a slight smile.
“Oh, right. Because of your narco-whatever that is, sleep problem?”
“I’m not completely dysfunctional, Gideon,” Anna said wryly.
“I know you aren’t, but we’ve all got problems, right?” I said. “So you drop off once and a while. How bad can it be?”
Anna paused so long I almost thought she’d dropped off, but she hadn’t. She was gnawing thoughtfully on her bottom lip.
“I fell asleep once in the middle of a miracle. I was supposed to heal this kid in ICU and dropped off mid-detonation.”
“Dang,” I whistled. “Did he die?”
“No, but he’s living a half life. He can’t talk or walk and it’s my fault because I couldn’t help nodding off.”
“The Boss sent you here,” I said. “That makes sense.”
“Actually, I asked to be sent here. I wanted a place where miracles are needed, but nobody’s life depends on me. The Boss picked the location and I’ve been here ever since.”
“Oh.” I didn’t know what to say to that. I don’t think I would ever ask to be taken out of the buzz of a city to live in Muddy Gap, Wyoming permanently. Besides the incessant wind that blew everything that grew here to a forty-five degree angle and the sheer boredom of a small town, the monotony was mind numbing.
Anna yawned wide and settled back against the tree trunk. “Besides, I like it here,” she said drowsily.
“The scenery is fabulous,” I kidded because it wasn’t. No place flat, dry and relentlessly windy could be.
“Very.” Anna was almost out. “Thank you, Gideon.”
Her eyes drooped slowly and it was like watching the lights dim and go out. Halfway between awake and asleep her head lolled to one side and toppled over on my shoulder. “Best day ever,” she mumbled.
I had to admit, that made me feel pretty good. I’d done a pretty terrific job bungling up Katelyn’s day and managed to throw Greg in the mix too. Though, when I reviewed my day with Anna, it wasn’t much better.
“Wait a sec,” I said. “Which part? When I shot you? Or when I dragged you to all of Katelyn’s classes with me? I’m confused.”
“I punched…you,” Anna said with a dreamy grin.
Anna chuckled in her sleep, mumbling incoherently about spider sprinkling systems and creep crawly smoke bombs. I let her get on with it and soon her mutterings turned into snores.
I sat and listened to the goings on in Katelyn’s house. The Cody’s seemed like decent people. I sat quietly so I wouldn’t miss anything going on in the house. There was a shouting match over dinner. It was the normal stuff; parents freaking out when they get word their kid has been rule breaking. I wondered if it would make any difference if they knew Katelyn was framed by a loser bunch of Junior Angels.
Katelyn was sent to her room to study, which she had double to do seeing as all her completed homework got soaked by the sprinklers. Sometimes I wished Mortals could use the excuse “an angel destroyed my homework” because in this case it was the truth.
Late into the night, Katelyn completed her homework and her light went off. Her family stayed up a little later and once the TV was shut off and the house locked up for the night, all was silent.
There is nighttime quiet, and then there is angel quiet, which is nonexistent. I monitored the surrounding area for even the slightest movement. That was my job and I was good at it. Which was probably how I spotted the demon before it spotted me.
Seeing demons in the dark takes practice. They’re blacker than the deepest shadow and they cling to dark corners and hide out of sight. The only way I could see one was if I caught a shift in the night as it flitted from one dark space to another. If I hadn’t been paying attention, I would have missed this demon. I saw it only once. The moon was out and cast a pitch-black shadow behind the house and the demon made it waiver for a moment as it passed through it to scamper up the drainpipe.
Quickly and silently, I grabbed Anna by the shoulders and carefully lowered her to the ground to sleep on her side. Hopefully she wouldn’t snore in that position and give me away.
My first priority was Katelyn. Once I knew she was safe, I’d check on the rest of the family and blast the guts out of the demon. I was looking forward to that part.
I dashed around to the side of the house with the most light and blasted the lock with a Nose Picker. Not kidding. It’s a tiny, noiseless shell and its uses are pretty much universal when it comes to locks. The door handle gave way and I slipped into the kitchen. On the way up the stairs, I reloaded with fat new Anti-Demon shells. Whoever this demon was, he was going to regret messing with my Mortal.
Silently I slid into Katelyn’s room. All seemed normal. Katelyn was sprawled out and her head was stuffed under her pillow as she lay on her stomach. She wasn’t a snorer like Anna; her breathing was even and heavy. The demon was on its way in. The shadowy mass turned fluid as it curled around the edges of the window and poured itself onto the floor. The pitch-black substance made a quiet hissing sound as if its guts were being forced through the cracks. The black fluid turned solid as it quickly began to take form. I dove for cover behind a bookshelf and waited. I’d get a better shot when it was whole.
The demon solidified bit by bit like it was growing from the feet up. When his face actually looked like a face, he cracked his neck and knuckles to get down to business.
I planned on springing into action the second he was all in once piece, but the demon was fast. He soared to Katelyn, half-formed and climbed up and over the edge of her bed. It was like watching a nightmare in real time while fully awake.
I cocked a shell into the barrel and stopped him cold in his tracks.
“Move and I’ll blow your head off,” I said as I shoved the barrel of the shotgun against his forehead. The demon froze.
“It appears we meet again, Gideon,” he said in a thick rolling accent.
I lowered the barrel an inch to get a better look at his face. He was the same demon I’d blown to bits back in London fifty years ago and took his head off just last weekend. He’d already fully re-formed, which was disappointing. It’d be nice, one of these days, to incinerate a demon and have it be permanent.
“You again?” I said. “Can’t you just, I dunno… stay blasted to bits for once?”
The demon grinned. “Immortality is such a b—,”
I shot him in the mouth before the swear word came out. At close range, it blew a hole straight through to the back of his head. I cocked another shell in the chamber while the demon clawed at his face. Muted screams of pain came from the hole, but it wasn’t until little bits of his mouth began to reform that he could speak again.
“Gah! That stings!” he squeaked.
“Watch your language then,” I said.
“If I do, will you stop shooting my head off?”
“Probably not, but it’s the quickest way to shut you up.”
The demon glowered at me, which looked hilarious with his mouth half formed and twisted in a tight knot like the back end of a dog.
“There are other ways to shut me up,” he said.
“I like my way, thanks,” I said.
“You want me here, admit it. We demons force ourselves on Mortals, who only have to choose to have us gone, but angels are different. Angels have to invite us.”
I shivered despite the warm room. “Why would I want a demon around? I didn’t invite you anywhere.”
“Ah, but you need me, Gideon.”
“Then why haven’t you shot me yet?”
Good question. I nailed him good in the mouth, but I could have pumped the trigger until he was nothing but demon splatter. I hadn’t lowered my shotgun an inch, but my finger froze on the trigger.
“You know you need me, Gideon. I can make your poor memory nightmare go away. All I need is one little Mortal.”
“Liar.” My brain cranked double time. “Mortals choose their own fates. I can’t give you any one of them.”
“True. Demons feed on hopelessness and despair. We can push those feelings on a Mortal’s mind, but they have to want it for our lust for despair to be slaked. All an angel has to do is ask. You can ask a Mortal to give up and it will. Do you understand?”
My stomach soured. I understood, all right. “Two forces, right and wrong, always fighting for Mortals to choose one or the other.”
“Join forces and—,”
“And the Mortal feels there is no good left to believe in. It’s easier for them to fall into despair.”
The demon licked his lips hungrily as my shotgun lowered a notch. This demon was out of his mind. No angel in their right mind would even consider it.
“This Mortal is your last chance,” the demon whispered.
I snapped out of it, my shotgun came up and I shoved the barrel up his nose, my heart beating double time.
“What do you know about that?” I demanded. The demon backed up, his eyes crossing to keep the barrel in sight.
I aimed and took out his left arm at the shoulder, shot it right off his body.
The demon wailed in agony. “I know nothing!”
I aimed again, this time blowing off his right foot. The demon hopped around on one foot, bellowing curses.
“I’ll take you apart one limb at a time,” I warned. “One last time, what do you know about my Mortal?”
“Only that one of you is destined to fall,” the demon hissed. “And their fall hinges on her life.”
I took out his knee. Not because he hadn’t answered me, but because I was so mad, my finger slipped on the trigger. “Who?”
“The angel’s name and fate is unknown.”
“Then why are you here?” I didn’t like this one bit. Fate was stacked against me with Stan in town and his ominous assignment from The Boss. Even Anna thought I had the most to lose and, with a demon who stuck to me personally, my near future wasn’t looking good.
“You want me here,” the demon said.