“I’ve gathered you all here today because…” Hanna chokes on her words mid-sentence and muffles the rest of it with her over-long sweatshirt sleeves. “…because I’m pretty sure Chloe is a demon.”
There are four others gathered around Hanna’s platform of gym mats: Priya with her twin endless braids; Leo of the bottomless closet of basketball shorts and Nike t-shirts; Ruby with her fuzzy, untamable curls; and Malik, uncharacteristically keeping his opinions to himself. They all look up at Hanna with a gentle combination of affection and concern.
“Hann, Chloe is a raging bitch.” Ruby reaches up and tweaks Hanna’s elbow, smiling into her friend’s concerned face. “But I’m pretty sure she’s not a creature of the underworld.”
Hanna’s whole face scrunches up. “You should hear yourself right now, Ruby.”
Ruby flutters her eyelashes, widens her eyes, and keeps any further opinions behind her attractive lips. She dips her head to concentrate pointedly on her phone.
Shuffling from foot to foot, Leo rubs the base of his skull hard with one palm. “Listen, while I would love to take on demonic threats to Springvale High like some kind of regular Buffy squad, I think you might have the wrong party configuration.” He gestures to the rest of the group. “Theatre kids, third-string athletes, teacher’s pets…” For a moment, he lets his hand hang in the air, then he drops it to his side and chuckles. “OK, now that I say it out loud, maybe you do have the right party configuration.”
“You started behind Travis as second-stringlast game,” Priya points out. Leo rewards her with a silencing glower.
“You guys. Please.” Hanna clenches her hands into fists and balls them into her eyes. “YOU GUYS. I can’t handle this anymore. Chloe is such a headache. Literally!” She pops her fists away, revealing eyes bulged by horror. “I walk by her and my head starts throbbing. She’s bad magic, I swear.”
“Huh. I never realized it was Mrs. Wilson’s bad magic that made me fail her chemistry tests.” Malik made a show of stroking his sparse chin hairs and gazing up at the pair of retired uniforms in the rafters. “How interesting.”
Hanna shoots him a look that would wither most other high school seniors, but that only summons a sly grin from Malik. “Malik, don’t,” she huffs. “This isn’t about Mrs. Wilson, and this isn’t about your grudge that she held you out of AP Calculus.”
“Are you sure that this is not about Travis?” Malik asks, blinking his innocence at Hanna.
Her lips make a complicated expression and she looks away. “This is about Chloe, and how she is a straight up demon.”
“And what are you going to do about it, Hanna?” Priya asks, twisting her braids across her chest.
“We…are going to cast a spell.”
Hanna throws her arms up. “Really? None of you know witchcraft? Wizardry? Warcraft, or whatever?”
“Oh my god. Hanna.” Leo covers his face in both hands.
Priya rolls her eyes. “Look, we all hate Chloe as much as the next Springvaler, but what makes you think that magic is the answer?”
“She. Is. A. DEMON.” Hanna clenches her hands into fists at her sides. “Think about it. A perfectly pretty, perfectly perfect girl shows up in the middle of the school year with a mysterious story about ‘moving across the country with her parents so her dad can pursue a career as a doctor.’ Then she gets amazing grades in all of her classes despite missing several months, snags first chair violin out from under Leslie, and steals away the star quarterback in all of her ‘spare time.’” Hanna makes massive air quotes around the alleged details.
Blank stares from her friends.
“Do those not sound like supernatural feats to you?!”
More blank stares.
Hanna forms fists at her sides. “Are you all serious right now? Has the school system squeezed out your ability to imagine things?”
“It sounds like you’re the one imagining things, Hann,” Ruby says as gently as she can.
Hanna sucks in a shaky breath, rotating slowly to look at each of them. Then she bursts into tears and sits down hard on the mats. Worn-out foam squelches under her butt.
The rest of the group looks at each other, then back at Hanna. She’s sobbing with her face buried in her hands, so Leo can mouth the words, What do we do? to Malik and Malik can say back silently, We cannot leave her here.
Ruby and Priya watch this soundless exchange and nudge one another’s elbows.
Ruby pulls out her phone and taps at it, the keyboard spitting and popping as her fingers fly. “We can watch a tutorial on YouTube. I’m sure someone out there has cast a successful spell and made a video about it.”
“To the expert channel!” Leo cries.
Hanna raises her head, snuffling. “I—what if—not everyone on YouTube knows what they’re doing. We could really mess it up.”
Ruby looks up with a scowl, the lines in her face deepened by the pale blue light of her phone. “You literally just asked if anyone knew Warcraft. Whatever magic you thought you were doing before YouTube was going to be much worse.”
Hanna puffs up her cheeks. “I was going to find a book, OK?”
“This one claims to be a medium from Venezuela,” Priya says, stabbing at the phone with a finger.
“If nothing else, there’s related videos,” Ruby mutters.
Hanna sniffs and pats the mat beside her. “I wanna see.”
So they cluster around the phone, each with their suggestions for search terms, shushing each other while self-proclaimed experts in magic from around the world whisper and giggle and yell their advice.
They each have their assignments and the order to report back to the gym at 9:15 PM, which is as late as any of them can convince their parents they’re heading out for innocent reasons. It’s the middle of winter, so it’s pitch dark; only a streetlight from the parking lot outside the south window throws shadows across the polished boards.
Hanna and Malik are late, so it’s just Priya and Ruby and Leo for a few minutes, sitting on the gym mats.
“I can’t believe I found a stag’s heart on such short notice.” Ruby pulls a face at the reusable shopping bag at her feet. “I can’t believe the butcher keeps stag’s hearts stocked.”
“Year-round, apparently,” Leo says. “That’s not really a stag, is it?”
Ruby pouts. “Shut up. Don’t tell Hanna. It’s a goat.”
“A goat seems sufficiently satanic,” Priya says.
Ruby nods towards Priya’s beaded bag. “Those aren’t your mom’s bathtime candles, are they?”
“Only the ones scented like sandalwood. Two birds, one stone.” Priya makes a graphic motion with her hands to illustrate her metaphor.
“Here she comes,” Leo says under his breath, and Hanna’s approach is audibly evident: a swish of plastic bags, the clatter of her hard heels, vocalizing dissatisfaction to a dutiful listener.
“…not be the right setting. What if this ground isn’t hallowed enough? Do you think we’ve hallowed the gym enough, Malik?”
“I am certain no amount of sacred blessings could cleanse this gym of the woes of youth it has seen, Hanna,” Malik responds, his respectful amusement coloring his voice.
As if she didn’t hear him, Hanna drifts on. “I wonder if celebrating Travis’s first win against Rain Valley High counts as a hallowing ceremony. We all had a lot to drink and sang a lot and I almost caught Travis’s eye.”
Hanna steps into the patch of streetlight. She’s done her hair up big and 90’s-style and is wearing enough moon-and-stars fabric to look like an offensive illustration of a fortune teller. Leo pretends to scratch his chin with his shoulder. Ruby ducks to look at her phone. Priya toys with one of her braids and says, “Wow, Hanna, you look outrageous.”
Hanna huffs, clearly unsure if she should be offended or flattered. She opts to curtsy slightly and cast her gaze heavenward. “Well. One must, for magic.” She spins smoothly on the ball of her foot and plants herself facing Malik. “Did you find a suitable vessel?”
He holds up a raggedy Target plastic sack and shakes it. “Yep. Nothing but the best tiny prison for our friend the demon. No, seriously, I found something perfect. I hope you will appreciate its irony.”
Hanna regards him for a long moment. He regards her back.
“Good. OK.” Hanna claps her hands together once, the sound echoing to all four corners of the gym. “Leo, the scroll.”
“You’d better be damn impressed,” Leo mutters, retrieving something from his messenger bag and smacking it firmly into Hanna’s outstretched palm as he shoots Ruby a pointed look. “This is a real scroll.”
Priya pops up and traces a wide circle around the stack of mats, dropping candles at sloppily accurate intervals until she runs out. The last thing she draws out of her bag is a small fire extinguisher, which she sets on the mats.
“Now for the stag’s heart. Ruby…” Hanna wrings her hands together, looking uncertain of her plan for the first time.
Ruby visibly steels herself and reaches into the burlap at her feet. She withdraws a bloated plastic bag, sloshing with liquid it’s too dark to see.
Hanna makes a tiny gagging sound. “Oh. God. Yes. The heart.” She takes the bag from Ruby and holds it as far from her body as she can. “Malik… Malik, the vessel.”
Malik rustles in his Target sack and then places something in Hanna’s free hand. “I am sorry in advance.”
Hanna thrusts the object into the crooked square of streetlight and squeals.
It’s a left shoe.
A New Balance running shoe.
Maybe it was white once, but it’s pale grey-brown now, with laces speckled by mud and who knows what else. It’s lost its structural integrity, collapsing inward like a dying star of sweat and fungus-odor.
“One of yours, Malik?” Hanna says. Everything about her voice screams, I wish I could plug my nose right now but I’m holding a stag’s heart.
“An old one, yes,” he says, “as I have just replaced them.”
Leo splutters. “Really? A shoe? That’s low even for you, dude.”
“Whaaat? It is a lot like an oil lamp.” Malik taps the side of his head, his dark curls bouncing. “Think about it. The shapes are more or less the same. If a genie can fit into a lamp, Chloe Brockett can fit into a gym shoe.”
Chloe’s full name settles on all their ears like a delicate dusting of snow, a reminder of her potential humanity. For a moment, they can’t meet each other’s eyes.
Then Hanna wails low under her breath. “Ohhh Goddd it’s drippingggg…”
There’s a scramble of activity as they move to bundle up Priya’s old sweatshirt and cradle the compromised bag and the heart at the top of the mats in the center of the candle circle.
Hanna, visibly stifling the urge to wipe her hands on her skirt, says through her teeth, “Light the candles, Priya. With the ceremonial words!” she adds as Priya slides down the pile of mats, cackling and raising a lighter into the air.
This last stifles Priya’s good mood and she sulks from candle to candle, lighting the wicks until there is a formidable circle of firelight surrounding the sacrificial altar, muttering some hastily-memorized Latin as she does so.
Hanna waves Priya back into the circle and points to a mat several levels below her. “Sit, sit. We all have to be close to the sacrifice.”
Muttering, grumbling, the five of them sit as near as they dare to the bag and its contents, which despite the sweatshirt’s valiant efforts is leaking all down the mats. Hanna pops back up onto her feet, unfurling the scroll with a flourish.
“Alright! Yes! I must… read this!” She clears her throat. “ ‘A Spell to Summon and Trap a Demonic Being.’ Nice print job, Leo. Well, here goes nothing.”
Hanna starts reading a series of words that are not quite nonsense, but not quite Latin nor Gaelic either.
She’s timid at first, voice wavering and head bobbing, but as she picks up speed she picks up confidence too. She straightens and tosses her head back. She lets her voice come from her chest.
As Hanna’s conviction grows, a wind whips up in the gym. The others shield their eyes and watch the candle flames flutter wildly.
The double doors on the south side bang open, slammed against the walls by some mighty, unseen force. The wind triples in force, howling towards them with leaves and dirt caught up in it, like a cartoon breeze. The fire extinguisher falls onto its side. Leo and Ruby dive behind the mats, bracing their backs against the gale, and Priya turns her body away from the debris.
“Shit! This is getting too real! We have to stop, Hanna!” Priya yells.
In answer, Hanna redoubles the set of her jaw, the plant of her foot, and keeps reading the spell. Moons and stars flutter wildly around her body.
Priya pulls on her braids and growls in frustration, but finally she too is driven back by the battering debris and she dives into hiding between Leo and Ruby.
Hanna and Malik still face the wind. Hanna nears the end of the spell, her words quickening, her breath coming shorter and shorter. She gasps between every few words. Malik reaches up and gently puts his hand around her ankle to steady her.
This makes Hanna close her eyes very tightly. Clutching the scroll against her chest, she shrieks out the last words, in plain English: “And may all of that which is you be revealed and bound now to this vessel and held there forever AHHH!”
This last is not because some strange force has entered the gym, but because to complete the binding spell, Hanna has to plunge the holy water-dipped knife she pulls from its sheath on her belt through the plastic bag and into the heart. Her scream is accompanied by a wet squelching sound.
The earth rumbles. The wind roars. Something heavy and angry whistles like steam below the gym floor. Halfway between the candle circle and the open doors, several boards buckle upwards as pipes burst free, hissing, a nest of dark metal snakes.
Malik gets up into a crouch, and Hanna crouches down beside him. They watch the doors.
A light is coming.
Hanna drops the scroll and covers her face with her hands inside her sleeves, leaving just enough room to see over her fingertips. “Malik… What have I done?”
The light draws nearer. Now they can see the silhouette of a girl walking slowly up to the gym doors. She hesitates on the threshold, twisting as if someone is trying to pull her forward, but it’s only her. At last, dragging her feet, she steps through the doors.
Instantly the wind becomes a laser-focused beam of power and air that’s only as wide as the girl is tall. All of the swirling leaves and rocks explode like scattershot at the walls. Hanna and Malik cover their heads as they’re showered with the debris.
“Oh my God,” Malik breathes into the eerie, wind-tunnel-marred silence after the tiny bits of wood and dirt and rocks stop pelting the floor.
The wind tunnel is pulling the girl straight to the shoe.
And the girl is Chloe.
They can see her in the disembodied golden light that seems to be following her. Chloe’s makeup is running down her face like she’s been wailing and struggling. She’s a delicate person, with wispy straight hair and overlarge clothes and oversized glasses, and right now everything about her is rumpled, battered. The glasses sit askew on her face. There’s a bruise on her left cheek.
She catches sight of Hanna and Malik and starts struggling anew.
“Hanna! Hanna, Hanna, please, please, you have to help me! Something’s pulling me—I don’t know—I can’t—help me, Hanna!”
Hanna, please, you have to— The words are familiar, but another time, they were finished a different way: —stay away from me.
Everyone there knows the ending to that sentence. Hanna and Chloe were there: freshly best friends turned bitter enemies on that dock at summer camp. Malik was there, fishing two docks down, close enough to hear. Leo and Priya found out about it in the cabin that night. Ruby found out when Leo texted her about it and Hanna confirmed it on a teary FaceTime.
Malik looks up in time to see Hanna fix her expression in stone again and take a pointed step back, away from the shoe. Her heels splash in the blood and heart-flesh.
“Please, Hanna! You can’t just let it take me!” Chloe screams, a heart-breaking, broken-hearted screech of loneliness and terror.
Hanna’s hand twitches. Her legs tremble. She doesn’t move.
The wind drags Chloe across the nest of pipes. She wails as one scrapes her leg deeply.
Malik hesitates, head swiveling between Chloe and Hanna. He lurches forward but stops himself, features pinched.
“Hanna,” Malik starts to say.
Barely two letters of her name have left his mouth before the girl that was Chloe explodes in a graphic shower of meat and light.
Instead of a small human standing there, a long, horribly crooked neck arches towards the rafters. It ends in a face like haunted coral, gaping a crusty maw at them to reveal a row of teeth. At the center of each of its teeth is a bottomless pit. At the center of each of its eyes are the flames of Hell.
Malik yells and Hanna shrieks. The demon lunges, spidery limbs flailing and clattering together. Chitin whistles through the air an inch from where Malik’s curls were a second before. The wind tunnel picks up strength and howls so piercingly that every human in the gym slaps their hands over their ears.
The demon moans back, but its sound is full of anger and cruel intentions, nails and shattered glass against a concrete chalkboard. No matter how hard they press their hands, they can’t shut out any of it. The infernal, eternal voice whips frenzied around their brains.
For a moment that stretches like a body on the rack, it seems the demon might resist the wind. The strength of the spell and the strength of the demon are equal. No matter how they each pull, neither gains a nanometer on the other. A divine deadlock.
Then, light again in the gym doorway, blue this time. Hanna points soundlessly; there’s no use throwing words against the braided wails of the demon and the wind. Malik looks where she bids him.
He’s haloed in a gentle blue light, as gentle as his bemused expression. He moves nothing like the cocky star quarterback they all know too well: his confidence is gone, replaced by a mechanical swing of arms and legs, a softer version of the force that drew Chloe the demon to them.
The vessel wants Travis.
Realization hits Hanna and Malik at the same time, because they whip their heads to stare slack-jawed at each other. They bound Chloe and everything she was—and that meant Travis too.
The two of them whip back around in time to see the wind win.
As if giving one last mighty heave, the spell jerks the fabric of the world such that the demon and Travis both stumble forward. The demon pinches at its unseen foe, its jagged lips making O’s in the air like a dying fish. It arches its spine until it breaks, arches it further until it rolls into itself, a horrid ball of twitching legs and vertebrae. Its unholy scream rises to an unfathomable height.
“NOT A FUCKING NASTY-ASS SHOE!” the abomination roars.
The demon vanishes into Malik’s ratty New Balance.
In the merciful quiet, Travis stands where the demon did a moment before. Bits of Chloe cling to his slippers as he sways for balance. A dim light registers in his sleep-heavy eyes and he blinks, as if waking up, as if seeing Hanna for the very first time.
“You’re… Hanna,” Travis starts to say.
The quarterback disappears into the shoe.
The wind dies.
Hanna falls to her knees beside the shoe, oblivious to the splatter of heart and Chloe viscera. “Oh, Travis…”
Priya crawls out from behind the mats first, followed by Ruby and then finally Leo. They stand around Hanna, their eyes readjusting to the near-darkness. The shoe is the brightest thing in their midst, even stained darkly with blood.
Leo breaks the silence. “Fuck.”
“Fuck,” Priya echoes.
“We killed Travis.” Ruby chokes on her words. “Damn.”
“Shit,” Malik says.
Malik sinks down beside her, wraps her in his arms. He sits stiffly as Hanna falls against him, her tears coming freely now, her hands tightening on his shirt.
Ruby reaches out a hand as if to touch the top of Hanna’s head, but withdraws with a hard swallow. “I—you were right, Hanna.”
“Yes, Hann, you saved Springvale High.” Priya considers this. “Maybe even Springvale itself. Bless YouTube.”
Hanna’s sobs double in shuddering power.
Nobody says another word. Leo motions and Priya and Ruby follow him to the south doors, which they carefully close behind them.
In the crooked square of streetlight, a demonslayer and her sidekick hold each other for comfort.
The questions linger, but after three weeks, the disappearance of Travis Riley is no longer novelty. The police know, and they’re looking; the teachers know, and they’ve stopped looking. They know better than that. Chloe Brockett is gone too, and it’s obvious what happened: Travis got Chloe pregnant, they were in love, they ran away to start their life together. Classic Springvale, honestly, the teachers mutter to each other in the lounge.
Hanna knows, and she can’t stop crying. Until one day she does. She picks up her phone and calls Malik. “I didn’t want to text,” she says.
Malik sets the phone on his nightstand and rests his hand over it for a long moment. He’s not sure he’s processed everything that happened. He trusts his brain unconditionally with money matters and to some degree with code, and he even lets his fancy loose on a creative narrative now and then.
But demons and spells and shoes-turned-everlasting-prisons?
That’s all something for ancient times. Ancient people and their ancient dreams.
Besides, Hanna wants to go running together.
Malik stares at the mirror leaning against the wall while he ties on one of his brand new Nike running shoes. He looks older than he remembered. He tries to crack a smile, but winces at the result.
The repetition and mutation of an earlier thought hits him. Ancient times. Ancient customs.
Now Malik’s smile is real.
He kicks off the shoe and scrambles over dirty laundry and open textbooks to get to the closet. It takes three plunges into the piles of discarded jackets, but he finds what he’s looking for.
It takes him an extra minute to tie the laces, his hands are shaking so badly. When he’s done, Malik stands and puts his hands on his hips.
“Just like the Romans,” he says. He takes off for Hanna’s house at a flat run, crushing his enemies beneath him in the old New Balance shoes.