Tuesday, 1 January 2013

The Lesser Evil

“Light the candles, Freddie.”

Freddie took the blue plastic lighter from Caroline and went around the candles, taking care not to burn his thumb. They’d spent nearly an hour ensuring that the pentagram was laid out correctly according the book that Caroline had bought online, which reeked of damp and something else that made Freddie keen to avoid touching it. Caroline coughed, a lengthy hacking that sounded painful. Freddie wondered how long her cold was going to hang around for. Still, if her dad wouldn't turn the heating on in January, he supposed that was what happened.

They were in Caroline’s father’s barn, by the woods at the edge of his property. Freddie worried even though Caroline told him that her father had passed out in front of A Touch of Frost at about seven and wouldn’t stir till morning. Freddie couldn’t help but feel like someone might happen by and wonder what they were doing. Someone might see.

The barn hadn’t been used for years. At least, not for the purposes for which it was originally built. It was mostly used for storage now. As Freddie lit the candles he illuminated a series of trunks and old boxes. He’d never been told but he was pretty sure it was mostly Caroline’s mum’s stuff that was in here. The candles also cast an appropriately sinister light on their pentagram. Caroline had read that they could use any kind of blood and so Freddie had bought a fresh cupful belonging to an unfortunate pig, trying all the time not to make eye contact with Mr Redmond who sold his mother her weekly order of pork chops and beef mince.

Soon they were all lit. Freddie didn’t know what came next. Caroline hadn’t told him what the ritual would actually involve. She said that she didn’t want him to know more than he had to, which was a step up from her initial decision to keep him out of the thing entirely. It was like she was trying to protect him. He’d never get anywhere with her if he let her keep that attitude. He’d tried to let her know he could be useful but he hadn’t been able to glean a single piece of useful information. All he could do was stand there and try to be helpful. Freddie knew he’d be doing better if he wasn’t so scared. What did he have to be scared about? It wasn’t like this was actually going to work. He hadn't even asked what she was wishing for he was so sure of it.

While Freddie fretted, Caroline had started to speak. He was going to ask her to repeat herself before he realised that she wasn’t talking to him. He saw the candles flutter and shadows flittered across the barn that made him wish he was at home in bed. He squeezed his eyes shut.  Then he opened them.

In the middle of the room a man stood in the centre of the pentagram. Short black hair, a light grey suit. He reminded Freddie of the lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird. The man looked at them, smiled, and nodded a greeting.

“Hello there.”

The man’s voice was clearly not from around here. Not English, not American, somewhere in between. It was somehow neutral. The man looked down at his feet and slowly lifted his polished right shoe. When he looked back up again he seemed genuinely excited.

“A pentagram! How nice of you to make the effort. No, honestly, you know, so much is done online these days it’s nice to be called by someone who really knows what they’re doing. I had a bloody print-out last night, if you can believe that. Well done. Both of you.”

Caroline took a step forward. Before Freddie could think of whether or not he should too, she addressed the new arrival.

“Are you him?”

Freddie thought that was a bit vague but the man seemed to know what she was talking about. He shrugged and turned his smile upside down with theatrical ease.

“Me? No, sorry. I’m not the one you’re waiting for. He’s very busy, as I’m sure you can imagine. No no I’m the on hold music, if you like. I’m the annoying Abba song that gets stuck in your head. But the big guy will be along in a minute.”

“What’s your name?” asked Caroline.

“Ah, I’m afraid you wouldn’t be able to pronounce it, and I don’t have the time to teach you.” He cocked his head to one side, taking the measure of them both. Freddie felt like he was in P.E. waiting to be chosen for a team. This was not a situation in which he’d ever done very well. But the man’s smile returned, slowly spreading across his face.

“It’s very nice to meet you. Caroline and Freddie. Very nice to meet you indeed.”

“How do you know our names?” asked Caroline, before Freddie got the chance to. The man sniffed.

“Sorry, that’s one of the benefits of this; we know who’s summoning us just as you know who you’re summoning. At least I hope you do.” The man’s expression became graver and Freddie realised he was starting to move behind Caroline. He willed himself to stop. He was here to help. He was here to be strong.

The man continued with a hint of force in his voice telling them just how serious he was. “You did read the instructions, didn’t you? Because this is not somebody you want to be fooling around with. Not that you want to be fooling around with any of us, miss, but this one is particularly quick to anger. Let me tell you, if you have any uncertainties about what you’re doing, any questions, concerns, best to get them out in the open now before he shows up.”

“We know what we’re doing” hissed Caroline. The man held his hands up, pressing his palms together in penitence.

“Of course you do. With this very fine pentagram here it was foolish of me to even suggest you were…amateurs. Forgive me.” His eyes flickered between the two of them, back and forth between Freddie and Caroline. Freddie felt the same unease as he did whenever someone looked at the two of them. What would a girl like her (tall, lean, blonde and with the kind of face that would drive the poetry weirdos as well as the sports team idiots to a frenzy) be doing with him (twitchy, odd, and with a face nothing short of drastic surgery could rescue).

“May I ask what it is you’re after?” asked the stranger. “Just what you’re hoping to get out of this little transaction? I mean, I can’t actually grant anything, not while I’m waiting here, holding the line. This limits my powers somewhat. But think of me as…a lesser evil in these moments before a great big arch-demon comes flaming into this…sorry, what is this? Is this a barn?”

Caroline stared back at him. She didn’t flinch. Their guest nodded.

“Never mind. You don’t have to tell me. I understand, these things are delicate. Personal.  You know, I admire you two. I do. You’ve got it figured out; you know what you’re doing. You’re not messing around, it’s good. And he’ll respect that too. You’ve done well. And don’t worry about the flaming by the way. I mean, he will be on fire but he’s not going to burn this place down. Unless you ask him very nicely. ”

Then he turned back to Freddie and for the first time he felt the full weight of his attention directly on him.

“Freddie, you can look at me, you know. There’s no need to be shy.”

“Don’t you fucking talk to him. You talk to me!” Caroline took a step forward, shielding Freddie from the stranger. Freddie felt his failings twist around his stomach like a snake. The man’s face flipped once more from friendly to apologetic.

“No, of course not, Caroline. I will address only you if you so desire. I didn’t mean to cause any friction. I was just being friendly.”

Caroline turned her head slightly towards Freddie. Not all the way. She didn’t take her eyes off the man in the pentagram.

“Wait outside, Freddie.”

This cut him to the core. This was the final humiliation. In the face of a man who appeared from nowhere, she would rather he wait outside to let her face it alone.

“Caroline, I…I can help.”

He didn’t even convince himself. She shook her head.

“Wait outside. Please.”

That was it. He turned and walked out of the barn, shoulders slumped. In a long list of personal failures this was might be the worst. He heard the man talking as he left.  

“Oh, don’t send him away. You don’t have to…Bye, Freddie!”

He closed the barn door and leaned against it. Reaching into his coat he found the half-empty bottle of corner-shop vodka he’d stolen from his brother’s room. He was planning to use it to console Caroline when the pentagram idea hadn’t worked, which had seemed like the only outcome at the time. Faced with the reality of a demon talking to the girl he loved and being sent outside like a leper, Freddie put the bottle to his lips and drank.

It wasn’t long before everything got a bit hazy. Freddie had never been able to handle his booze and the excitement of the evening seemed to further quicken its effects. He put his head against the door and listened in the hope that they were talking about him. And, as chance would have it, they were. Or at least the man was.

“It’s nice the way you look after him. You’re like a big sister to him, aren’t you? It’s nice, I mean it. Does he know?

Freddie slumped. The words ‘big sister’ were the kiss of death. That made him the little brother and that made the efforts of last few years of his life spectacularly pointless. He zoned out, began to luxuriate in self-pity, when he became aware of someone standing next to him.

The man stood, watching him with a smile on his lips.

“Hi there, Freddie.”

Freddie struggled to stand up straight. How had he got out of the pentagram? What had happened to Caroline? As if reading his mind, the man held his hands up.

“Not to worry, Freddie, Caroline’s fine. The big guy’s finally arrived; they’re in there now, hashing out the details. And I’m not going to hurt you either, in case that’s what’s troubling you. I just want to talk. You know, Freddie, you impress me. You know why?”

Freddie didn’t, and shook his head to let him know.

“You’re brave. It takes courage to come out to a place like this and be there for your friend while she does something this dangerous, this insane. I mean, you appreciate how dangerous what she’s doing is, don’t you? Of course you do. I mean, she’s literally playing with fire. Hellfire, anyway. And you’re out here, helping her. It’s courageous.”

Freddie decided to let the stranger salve his pride a little bit. He nodded. Why not? He was courageous. He’d come here at least. Even if Caroline had decided that his services weren’t required.

“Does she know, Freddie?”

Freddie looked up, about to ask the man what he meant, but knew instantly from the sly grin on his face what he was talking about. He started to stammer out a question but the man held up his finger.

“No point denying it, it’s as plain as anything. You love her, and you haven’t told her have you? It’s obvious. Maybe you haven’t told her because you think she knows anyway. Let me tell you something, that girl isn’t guessing anything. Did you see her in there? A girl like that in a situation like this, Freddie, it’s all about focus. She’s got one goal in mind. She’s getting it done in there. She’s got a mission.

But maybe you haven’t told her because you’re afraid she’ll laugh. People have laughed at you before, haven’t they? You don’t have to answer me, it’s fine. People can be very cruel. And maybe she’ll laugh too. But do you know what will be worse, Freddie? If she tells you that she doesn’t see you that way.

Oh she sees you as a friend, for sure. You’re out here with her, aren’t you? You’re helping her. But you need to make her see you as more than just her little brother. You need to show her what I can see to be true. That you are a strong, courageous person. That you have so much more to offer her. You need to let her see the strength of your feelings.”

With that, the man from the flames paused and turned away. Freddie leaned back against the door, thrown by the flurry of words. He wasn’t being told anything he hadn’t already thought to himself. But it was something to hear someone else expressing his feelings. It somehow made it all feel more possible. The man turned back.

“Do you know what she’s asking for in there?”

Freddie shook his head.

“Have you ever met Caroline’s father?”

Freddie’s heart beat a little faster as he started to realise what Caroline was doing.

Caroline’s father was a bastard. There was no other way to describe him. He knew that her father beat her on a regular basis. Freddie was used to lending her sweatshirts to help hide the bruises on her arms from their schoolmates. After the head teacher had finally noticed and paid a home visit it looked like he might have been easing up on his daughter but over the last few weeks it had been getting worse again. Yesterday she’d shown up to school with a black eye.

So that was it. Caroline was finally doing something about her father.

“Is she just going to ask him to help her stop him or…”

The man sneered, and for the first time Freddie caught a glimpse of something that wasn’t quite benign.

“Do you think she just wants him to stop, Freddie? She wants him gone. Now listen to me, because I have some experience in this. If it were me, I’d just do the thing myself. If I were the one with the power to grant these wishes, I’d just grant the bloody thing. Click my fingers and stop the bastard’s heart. But him in there, you have to understand, he’s in his position for a reason. He’s going to twist it so that there’s no easy option for Caroline. The only way he’ll let her do it is by making sure she doesn’t get caught.”

“Get caught doing what?” asked Freddie, understanding his own stupidity.

“Why, murdering her father. He’s not going to just do it for her, she’s going to have to take the life and live with the guilt, just not the prison sentence. But here’s where you come in, Freddie.

I know something about guilt. It’s hard to live with. And she will live it with, to be sure, but she won’t be the same Caroline you know now. You say you’re looking for a way to show your love for her, well what could be nobler than taking on her burden? If you tell me right now that you authorise a switch, that you decide to carry that weight, I can make it happen.”

Freddie reeled. “I thought you said you couldn’t grant anything!” The man nodded. “But you can…swap? I don’t know, I’m not…”

“But you are, Freddie!” interjected the stranger. “I know that you have this within you, the power to do this. And she will never forget it.

But I need your decision now, Freddie. She’s in there right now, it’s been at least five minutes already, and they’ll be closing the deal. If you want to do this, we have to do it now.”

Freddie turned away, but the man grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. He looked into the man’s eyes and saw them glow.

“Let me show you,” he said, and Freddie felt his feet give way from under him. He was back inside the barn, watching Caroline reach out and take the hand of a tall, sneering man with long black hair. The man laughed, and he could see a tear trickle its way down Caroline’s cheek. There was a bright flash and the room changed again, and now he was in Caroline’s sitting room at home. He saw her father asleep in an armchair, and saw Caroline drop a match into the sleeping man’s lap. He felt the heat on his face, smelt the stink of flesh cooking and burning hair. He cried out as the flash came again and saw a woman, older but unmistakeably Caroline, alone in a room he didn’t recognise and understood that it was a place he didn’t belong. With a final flash the heat returned, and the fire, and a legion of screams. Freddie knew where he was, this place both horrifyingly dark and terribly illuminated, before he saw Caroline being bundled, howling over a ledge by a mob of grotesque figures.

“Enough!” he cried. He opened his eyes and found himself outside the barn, with the stranger now standing about a foot away from him. “I’ll do it. Tell him I’ll do the swap.”

“You accept the gift and the price?” asked the stranger. Freddie nodded.

The stranger smiled at him. “You’re a good man, Frederick. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise. Why don’t you go on in and give Caroline the good news? Go ahead. I’ll wait.”

Freddie took a deep breath and opened the door to the barn. He didn’t fully understand what he had taken on but he knew that he done what he had to. To protect her.

Caroline was kneeling on the edge of the pentagram, shaking. When Freddie put his hand on her shoulder she turned sharply.

“Where did he go?” she asked. “He was right here, we’d agreed…”

“Don’t worry,” said Freddie, “I’ve taken care of it. You don’t have to do anything.”

“What do you mean? What have you done?” She didn’t sound relieved. She looked furious. She got to her feet and started towards Freddie. “What did you do?”

“He’s taken your deal,” said the stranger, slinking back into the room. “I let him think you were finally doing something about your daddy issues and he agreed to take the burden for you. Look on the bright side, Caroline. You still have your soul.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Freddie. “If it wasn’t her father, what I have I…what have taken from her?”

“Well, Frederick,” said the stranger, stepping back into the pentagram, “Caroline’s still got a few months left before her time is up. And you’ve got…so much longer. Freddie, you should have told Caroline that you love her. Caroline, you should have told Freddie that you’re dying. Communication is so very important.”

The candles fluttered and went out. “I told you I was the lesser evil. Tell yourself that it could have been worse if you think it’ll help.”


Hi there.

So, there's been a delay of at least a month since I last posted anything here. Which is bad. Sorry about that. In my defence, things got quite hectic. At the time when I started writing this story I got an interview for a job, and then I had a second interview, and then I was told that I got the job. Which means that I have now relocated to Bournemouth to start as a Staff Writer at SciFiNow, which is hugely exciting and I can't wait to start. Tomorrow!

But fiction-wise, I'm hoping I can get back to some kind of schedule once I've settled in. I wanted to get this story done. The title comes from @SFXPennyD, and the first thing that came to mind was some kind of basement, torture-type scenario but I didn't really fancy writing that after the last story. So I wrote this instead. I started writing it as a monologue by the demon but I felt like I'd done something similar a little too recently. So there's this, which is possibly a little monologue-y, but if anyone's going to be overly verbose, it's going to be a demon trying to sell you something you shouldn't buy.

I'll be trying to update the blog more regularly over the next few weeks and months. I know I've said that a lot but I really mean it this time. Definitely.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Jonny, congratulations on the job! Did I say that already? I think I said that already.

    Anyway, great to see you're still keeping them coming. I always enjoy teenagers summoning demons, too, so that was a plus.