On Demon Wings (Experiment in Terror #5) by Karina Halle
I was standing in a forest, the trunks of the slender trees wrapped in a blue-green twilight that fell quickly from the East. I was alone except for the fireflies that darted about in the pine-scented air above my head. My body felt odd and slightly feverish, my limbs went from cold and goose- pimply to hot and sweat-sheened in cycles. I wasn’t sure where I was, maybe by the river where I had walked earlier in the day, but further away from the roar of the currents.
I couldn’t remember how I got here, or why I was in my sleeping attire, but I wasn’t worried and I wasn’t afraid.
For once, in a very long time, I was not afraid.
I heard my name on the wind as it brushed my hair off my shoulders and swirled the aqua light away from me. I followed it, my feet quick and quiet on the damp grass.
I cleared back the branches of the trees, hearing strange voices emerging from the dark places around me.
They sounded so far away. I heard someone crying. She sounded like my sister.
I continued through the glade, my pace quickening as the darkness dropped even faster. Finally I saw him, the one who had been calling for me.
He sat on a log with his back to me, a camera placed beside him, the light from it illuminating the trees and adding extra sparkle to the fireflies.
I glided toward him, drawn forth like a magnet. I couldn’t keep away.
He didn’t stir until I was standing right behind him. He raised his head without looking at me. Another breeze wafted past and tossed his black hair delicately. The scent of Old Spice and Nicorette filled my nose.
I hated that smell.
“Perry,” he said, his voice unmistakably Dex. “I thought I’d never see you again.”
“And you still won’t,” I replied.
I reached down with my hands, placed them on both sides of his cold, rough face and with one quick motion I broke his neck, the SNAP of his vertebrae shattering through the still forest.
Dex slumped to the ground, motionless.
I smiled to myself and walked away.
A giant shudder ran through me, almost causing the coffee I was handling to spill out over the sides. Sorry, not coffee, but an extra-hot, no-foam, triple-shot, gold-dusted, magic- whipped, unicorn-blessed mother of all cappuccinos.
I quickly glanced up at Larry, the regular who waited impatiently for his daily creation of pomp and circumstance in a paper cup. His lips were squeezed tightly together, his eyes on the beverage, more concerned for it than the deathly shiver that had just rolled through his barista.
I composed myself – that was the last time I’d let myself think about my disturbing dreams at work – and handed him his coffee with a smile.
“Have a great day!” I exclaimed. You nitpicking twat.
Larry took the drink from my hands as if I were seconds from dumping it on his head (he wasn’t too far off), shot me a barely perceptible look of disdain, and left the coffee shop.
I let out a sigh of relief and closed my eyes, a migraine threatening to appear.
“Hey, Perry, you doing OK?” Ash asked.
I looked up and gave my colleague a tight smile. I could keep up the cheery pretenses with the customers, but not with Ash.
“Just feeling a bit under the weather again,” I said sheepishly. I had only been working at Port-Town coffee for six weeks and it seemed like every other day I was suffering from killer cramps, a terrible migraine, dizzy spells, painful bloating or plain old pissyness. Oh, and a broken heart. I tried to keep my complaints at a minimum because I didn’t want the manager, Shay, to regret hiring me but sometimes it was hard to hide.
Ash was extremely observant, too. He was a few years younger than me and had aspirations of being a criminal investigator but his dirt-poor upbringing forced him to be a barista for way longer than he ought. I wasn’t much better.
There I was, a failed internet host, who, despite having a degree in advertising, had found herself unable to get any kind of respectful employment aside from shoving coffee down Portland’s throat. Not that being a barista was anything to look down upon, but I wondered if all my sudden ailments were related to the nagging feeling that I wasn’t doing what I should be doing.
That said, things weren’t all bad. Ash was a cute kid and I’d hung out with him quite a bit, as I did with Shay, Steve, Mikeala and a few other coffee pushers. We had fun at work, and when I wasn’t being bombarded with people like Larry, who demanded the most ridiculous drinks, or Marge, the old lady who paid with pennies, the job was fairly low- stress and it all owed me to continue living at my parents’ house without being guilt-tripped about it. It also ended the “I told you sos,” which had lasted for at least a few weeks after I returned from Seattle.
Oh yes, Seattle.
I don’t like to talk about that time, let alone think about that time. It’s probably why I’d been having so many icky dreams lately – my subconscious was pushing them up through the ground, like bones through a fresh grave.
To put it mildly, December had been a hell of a month. I was in a very black place, one I feared I would never crawl out of. But I did eventually crawl out that hole, dragging myself out of the depression by my fingernails. My younger sister Ada helped; she was a great shoulder to cry on. And by cry, I mean slobber. I was an ugly, hysterical mess more often than not. I never knew that kind of agony before.
Perhaps I had been lucky that so many boys ignored me for most of my life.
Finally, getting this job helped, too. It forced me to go somewhere every day and put on my best face. Put on my best face and try to forget the pain that stil ricocheted through me from time to time, pain that intensified when certain songs came on the radio, a pain that left you with a tear-soaked pil ow in the morning.
I never spoke to Dex again. He tried, though, but I’l give him no credit for it. I got cal s from him right after he twisted that pin in my heart, a mil ion voicemails that I deleted (before I smashed my phone in a fit of rage). I got a new number, changed my email and total y withdrew from the little life I had attempted, which meant no contact with Jimmy, Rebecca or anyone at the Shownet office. Nothing against them – personal y – but it was just too hard. I needed to move on.
By the time February rolled around, I was in a better place. Of course, it’s not fun to feel sick all the time. I gained that pre-bootcamp weight back, and I felt pretty disappointed in myself for taking the risk on Experiment in Terror in the first place. For putting my heart on the line.
But I learned, and I will live.
“Do you stil want to come out tomorrow tonight?” Ash asked, his eyes staying on me and not on the customer who just walked in the shop. He had very nice, bright hazel eyes. They didn’t appeal to me in a romantic way but they reminded me of a brother I never had.
“Definitely,” I told him. I pointed to the washrooms. “I’m fine. I think I just need to splash cold water on my face.”
He nodded and took care of the customer as I escaped to the safety of the washroom. I was lucky to have someone like Ash. I was only working part-time, but I desperately wanted to move onto ful -time and then hopeful y shift supervisor. As you can imagine, I made minimum wage and if I were to ever get out of my parents’ house, I needed a lot more dough. Feeling sick and occasional y trying to fight back tears when Bil y Joel comes on the stereo doesn’t make me look like the best employee, someone Shay would want to eventually promote, but Ash has been the only one who has caught on that not all is right with me and he’s been doing a pretty good job of covering up.
Of course, everyone else knows I’m not entirely normal – hence my nickname “Scary Perry.” They all know about the Experiment in Terror show (as does the occasional customer who comes in) and they love to tease me about it.
Shay believes in ghosts, so at least my manager doesn’t think I’m crazy, but I can tel the others don’t know what to do with me sometimes. Stil , they invite me out to the bars after work and to local band showcases (which is where I was planning to go with Ash tomorrow night), so I’m slowly feeling like a regular girl.
I locked the bathroom door behind me and scrunched up my nose at the smel . I knew it was up to me to clean the bathrooms most of the time, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t get rid of this foul, rank odor that emanated from the wal s. It wasn’t that it smel ed like piss and shit or anything like a normal washroom. Rather, it smel ed like something was rotting away. Sharp and acrid, almost tangy in a revolting way, like spoiled meat.
I stopped breathing through my nose and ran the tap until it was cold enough and began dabbing a wad of paper towels on my forehead, cheeks and eyelids, careful not to smudge my makeup. I was wearing a lot of it these days, feeling uglier than normal thanks to the purple rings under my eyes and a strangely grey complexion. Though. I wondered how much of it was actual y a manifestation of how I felt. Did I look like crap because I felt like crap, or did I feel like crap because I looked like crap? Ah, the mysteries of life.
I took in a deep breath through my mouth, the smel penetrating slightly, and I tossed the paper towels into the wastebasket behind me. I leaned forward and looked closer at myself in the mirror. I felt like I had changed so much in the past few months, Iike I’d gotten older or something. I had faint crow’s lines now. Wrinkles at the corner of my eyes! I was only 23 - what the hel !
A breeze blew at me from the side, tickling my bare arms and flipping up the bottom of my apron. I looked behind me at the closed door, not sure where the wind was coming from. It was chil y and moving fast enough to make the paper towels wave back and forth from the dispenser.
I frowned, confused. But we were in a drafty old building in downtown Portland. Too bad the breeze wasn’t clearing the terrible smel away.
I looked back at myself in the mirror, strands of my hair flying in my face. I pushed them behind my ears, just in time to hear a small poof from behind me.
I spun around.
The garbage can was on fire.
Yel ow flames were rising out of the mound of crumpled paper towels, moving in the wind, reaching for the ceiling with mesmerizing fingers.
I was stunned but not for long.
I let out a small , awkward cry and looked around me for the closest thing to put it out. There was nothing, just me, the paper towels, the sink and the toilet.
I didn’t want to run out of the washroom and cause an alarm, though. The last thing I needed was a coffee shop ful of panicked people.
Think, Perry, think.
I had an idea.
I turned on the tap, took off my right shoe and fil ed it with water.
It wasn’t my first choice, but in the name of saving face, it was my only choice.
It only took two refil s before the fire was out and the garbage can was reduced to a wet, smoldering pile. I peered down at it, afraid to touch the mess, wondering how the hel the fire got started in the first place. It’s not like I threw a cigarette into the bin. It had been a paper towel, and a wet one at that.
It was beyond weird but I couldn’t devote too much time to worrying about it. There was a knock at the door and I was holding a toilet-water soaked shoe in my hand. I had bigger issues here.
“Just a minute,” I cal ed out, trying to sound calm, like everything was fine in bathroom land, and stuck my shoe under the dryer while I soaked up the inside with more paper towels. When it wasn’t as sopping wet, I put the shoe back on my foot, wincing at the cold, squishy dampness.
I took a step, the water seeping into my sock. Double ugh.
I unlocked and opened the door to see a patron looking at me strangely. She eyed the bathroom suspiciously before stepping inside. I must have been making some pretty odd noises in there. Also, there was a trail of water dripping behind me.
I walked careful y back to the counter, trying to lessen the squish, squish, squish of my footsteps. I smiled broadly at Ash and took my place beside him, ready to man the machines.
“Perry, what, uh…”
“Don’t ask,” I told him, and turned to face the rest of my shift.
The next morning was grey, dreary and mild, as per usual for the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t have to work, so I laced up my running shoes and hit the trails down by the Columbia River. Aside from the first few weeks of December, when I gorged myself on Christmas cookies and eggnog in order to restore some feeling of happiness in my body, I’d actual y been pretty active and working out almost every day.
Stil , the weight that I had shed from my bootcamp sessions in November came back on. It was only about five pounds or so, but on a short body like mine, I could tel the difference. My ex-trainer and one-date wonder, Brock the jock, cal ed me a few times wanting to go out again, but aside from my heart and mind being too fragile, I felt like I would have just disappointed him if he saw me. It’s such a girl thing to do, to not be interested in a guy but stil want them to be interested, but it’s the truth.
At least running cleared my mind and made me feel a lot more energized. Ever since Seattle I’d been dealing with the restlessness I used to get, that nagging urge to be anywhere but here. I felt lost and directionless and my mind always wanted to go back to the happier times, the times when I felt everything was possible. But it wasn’t that way and I had to keep my eye on the prize. I needed to move out, move far away, and start finding myself all over again.
My life had reverted to the way it was before I met Dex in that lighthouse. Though, perhaps I was a bit wiser.
After I left the river bank and hit the long street that led me back to my house, I slowed, then stopped and stretched my muscles by a row of roadside bramble. I was surrounded by bare oak and cherry trees and the dull, frosted mint color of grass in late winter. My neighborhood consisted of family homes and retirement ranchers with an overal Victorian vibe and almost everyone, my house included, had at least a half acre of land or more. My lot was simple since my mom wasn’t much of a gardener, but some houses had beautiful y intricate gardens, while others had swimming pools or even chickens. One neighbor had a bunch of pigs, thanks to the generous zoning laws. >
I was bending over for my toes in a compromising position when the neighbor with the pigs walked past with Cheerio, her gorgeous chocolate lab. I smiled at the dog with my head between my legs and waved awkwardly at his owner. I was pretty sure the dog smiled back, looking as happy as ever. How could he not be happy; he lived with a bunch of pigs.
I straightened myself up slowly and walked along the road toward my house, watching for any signs of exercise- induced dizziness. It was when I was almost at the start of my parents’ long brick driveway when I noticed a car idling on the side of road, facing the opposite way. It didn’t look out of place, as it could have been someone waiting for Ada, or just someone who had taken a wrong turn down our street (people often got lost on their way to the mountains).
It could have been anything and anyone but my legs stopped moving and my heart slowed with a lurch. My body recognized the car before I did.
It was a little hatchback and though I couldn’t see who was in the car, I could smel the person, the cloud of pot smoke and perfume that emanated from the half-open window. The car turned off and my heart thumped anxiously at the sudden silence. The door opened and long legs clad in camel-colored breeches and black leather riding boots swung out and landed on the asphalt with a faint echo.
I stood there, red-faced, sweaty and confused, as Rebecca Sims got out of the car and gave me a shy smile.
I could only blink. So I blinked some more.
“Hiya Perry,” Rebecca said, shutting the car door, causing the cloud of smoke to dissipate in the damp air. I expected her to approach me but she just leaned against her car and looked around her at the sprawling acreages and spacious yards. “You’re almost in the country here. It’s lovely.”
I stil couldn’t say anything. Part of me wanted to throttle her, even though what happened with Dex and me wasn’t her fault. If anything, she had dropped hints that perhaps hooking up with him or tel ing him my unrequited feelings wasn’t the best idea. I’m glad now I only did the former, and not the latter. I would have never recovered my pride.
She smoothed her glossy black hair behind her ears, showcasing a row of diamond skul earrings that went surprisingly well with her elegant ensemble, and turned to me.
“I know I shouldn’t have just shown up like this,” she explained in her smooth British accent, “but I didn’t know how to get a hold of you. I tried cal ing you.”
“I changed my number,” I said, my tongue loosening.
“And I tried emailing you.”
“I got a new email.”
A small smile teased her magenta lips. “Wel , anyhow, Ems and I are here for the weekend just visiting her folks.
They live in Beaverton. I thought I’d escape from her mother and come see you. Hope that’s all right.”
I folded my arms and let out a short breath of air.
“No. It’s not all right, Rebecca,” I told her, looking her straight in the eye. “There’s a reason why I didn’t want anyone to get a hold of me.”
“I know. I figured. And I understand, I real y do. I’d do the same if Emily…wel , I just wanted to see you.”
“Wait,” I said, holding up my hand. “How did you know where I lived?”
She dropped her eyes to the ground. “A little birdie told me.”
A giant flame of anger erupted deep inside my chest.
“Is he here!?” I exclaimed, my voice shooting through the morning calm. My fists automatical y curled up into tiny, hate-fil ed bal s and I craned my neck at the car to see if anyone was sitting in the passenger side.
“No, no he’s not here,” she said, eyeing me nervously. I’d never seen her nervous before. I must have looked ready to punch her in her pretty face. “He’s at home. He’s in Seattle.
It’s just me. I promise.”
“So he sent you here?” I sneered.
“No,” she said and walked toward me. She stopped a few inches away, a sympathetic tilt of the head. “This has nothing to do with him. At all . I came here because I wanted to know if you were OK.”
“Oh, how thoughtful,” I said with a rol of my eyes.
“I was worried about you. all of us were.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Al of us? Who is ‘al of us’?”
She bit her lip, scraping off a tiny bit of lipstick from the surface, and looked at my house. “Perry, look, can we talk?
Maybe inside? You must be freezing your knickers off.”
I was only wearing my jogging tank top and pants and the sweat on me had cooled, but I’d never felt warmer. Stil , part of me did miss Rebecca’s company and did yearn to talk to someone different for a change. She also looked a bit awkward, standing on the side of the road like a jilted lover. It would have taken a lot of guts for her to just show up at my house, randomly, especial y when she knew I didn’t want anything to do with that life anymore.
I nodded reluctantly and headed up the driveway, hearing the clip clop of her boots as she fol owed.
Inside, the house was even warmer thanks to the stone- wrought fireplace in the living room that was giving off a cozy amount of heat. It was Saturday so my father was working in the study, grading papers probably, and my mother was out getting groceries. I didn’t feel like introducing Rebecca to my father though (it would have opened a can of worms), so we went upstairs to my room.
“Nice little room,” she said as she gazed at the posters on the wal s. I grabbed my robe from behind the door and told her to stay put while I had my shower. I didn’t need to impress Rebecca but I didn’t want to smel like a dirty gym sock either.
When I was done, feeling refreshed and more able to handle my unexpected visitor, I emerged from the steamy bathroom to hear a few strange squeals and giggles. I walked down the hal to Ada’s room and pushed her door open.
Rebecca was sitting on Ada’s fluffy bed, watching her bring out various amounts of clothes from her closet, an impromptu fashion show.
Ada swirled on the spot, the fringy dress she was holding swaying with her movement.
“Hey!” she said to me with an excited grin. “I was just showing your friend here my closet.”
I tightened my robe and leaned again the doorframe.
“Your entire closet? She’s not staying for a week, Ada.”
“Perry’s right, I just popped by to say hel o,” Rebecca put in.
Ada placed the dress in Rebecca’s hands, who in turn played with the silky fringes.
“Popped by to say hel o and check up on her,” Ada said knowingly.
Rebecca and I exchanged a look. Had Ada been listening to our conversation outside?
Ada shrugged, swung her bleached hair over her shoulder and went back to peering at her overflowing walk- in. “What? Rebecca’s your friend, right Perry? If I were your friend and I heard what...” she lowered her voice “...happened to you, I’d come check up on you too.”
“You’re not my friend?” I asked wryly.
She stuck her tongue out at me. “Only because I have to be. Bound by blood and all that.”
I couldn’t help but smile.
“So, thank you for showing me your clothes,” Rebecca said as she got up and handed the dress back to Ada. “But Perry and I have got some catching up to do and I real y can’t stay long. And I am checking up on her, natural y. But I just had to come visit her famous fashionista sister as well .”
She sure knew the right things to say because a pink flush appeared on the apples of Ada’s cheeks and she waved at Rebecca bashful y. Rebecca nervous, Ada bashful; what was going on with people today?
We went back to my room and I shut the door behind us.
I sat on the chair at my desk, feeling a little too exposed, while Rebecca perched graceful y at the edge of my bed.
My bedroom seemed incredibly juvenile with her presence in it.
She drummed her magenta nails across her knees.
“Your sister seems lovely.”
“She can be.”
“You told me you guys weren’t all that close, no?”
I cleared my throat, wanting Rebecca to get to the point, why she was real y here.
“No, we weren’t. But we’re getting better.”
She got the hint and sat up straighter.
“I know you think I’m here because of ulterior motives,”
she began, “like Dex hired me to come here or something ridiculous, but just know it’s not true. Natural y he knows I am here, or that I was going to try and see you, but it was all my idea. I’ve been real y worried-”
“You’ve said that. And you obviously don’t need to be.
Look at me, I’m fine.”
She nodded. “I know. You look…good.”
I could have sworn there was a slight hesitation before “good.”
“Wel , I just got out the shower,” I protested.
“You look fine, Perry.”
Ah, downgraded from Category Good to Category Fine.
What was next? Category OK?
“I wanted to see how you were handling things.”
I opened my mouth to say something but she continued.
“Come on, we both know what Dex did was a terrible, terrible thing. When I found out, I was livid for weeks. I knew how he felt about you-”
The anger built up in my abdomen again and caught the edges of my chest.
“Felt about me?”
“Yes. I mean, he didn’t mean to hurt you. He meant to hurt himself.”
I sprang to my feet, knocking the chair backward.
“I hope he f*cking did hurt himself! Look, I don’t care about what Dex did and why he did it. OK? That’s in the past here. We were both to blame. I shouldn’t have been so stupid and I shouldn’t have believed for one minute that he thought of me more as more than a friend.”
“But he does.”
“Bul shit! Friends don’t f*ck each other over. Or f*ck each other and then f*ck each other over!”
“I know, I know, but he’s a messed-up little bugger and he made a terrible mistake.”
I took a step closer to her and wagged my finger in her face. “Are you defending him? Did you think you could come here, to my house, to my life, and start defending him? F*ck you, too.”
She reached for my hand but I snatched it out of her way and glared at her. She gave me a steady look.
“I am not defending him,” she said with forced calm.
“Dex is an idiot and he has his issues. I just thought you‘d like to know that he lost the most out of this.”
My mouth dropped open and I let out a gasp.
“Let me finish!” she raised her hands. “Let me finish before you kick my bottom. I didn’t come here to tel you about Dex or try to make you feel sorry for him. I’m just tel ing you the truth, even if it’s the truth you don’t want to hear or want to believe. What happened, even though it was his fault, destroyed him total y. He was so far gone-”
“Rebecca!” I howled at her, the madness fil ing my face with heat. “I said I don’t care! I know Dex is stil your friend and that’s fine, but it’s all over. The show. Whatever thing we had going on. Even you and me. I have a new life now. I have a new job, I have new friends and I have new dreams.
You say you were worried about me; well all I can say is that I’m fine. I wasn’t fine for a while there, but I am now. It’s over. OK?”
She looked down at her immaculately manicured nails. I was breathing hard and starting to feel faint again. I felt bad for blowing up at her but she should have known just what she was walking into when she showed up here.
“OK,” she said, then sighed. She looked around the room again, avoiding my eyes. “I’l get going.”
She got up and made her way for the door. A small part of me wanted her to stay, to tel me more about how miserable Dex was and about how far he’d fal en. But that was the part of me that stil cried over love songs sung by a bug-eyed pianist and I was pretty good at burying her needs and wants.
She opened the door and was about to step out when I cal ed out after her. Something had been bugging me for the past few months, something I had no way of finding out.
She paused, her hand on the door, and looked at me with hopeful, glittering eyes.
“Did Dex ever say anything to you about the EVP tapes?”
“EVP tapes?” She shook her head, her bob swinging back and forth. “No. What are those?”
I sighed, disappointed. “We record sounds of what’s going on around us when we do our shoots. I…I had listened to one of the tapes and there was some pretty important stuff on it. But Dex wouldn’t have had a chance to listen to it until after I…left.”
“Oh. Sorry. Dex hasn’t mentioned anything about it to me.”
I sucked on my lip and thought things over. “Do you know who Declan O’Shea is?”
“No. Is that Dex?”
“I’m not too sure,” I said honestly. In the recording that Creepy Clown Lady (or Pippa, as she introduced herself as) had left, she had told me to ask my parents who Declan O’Shea was. I did about a week after I arrived home, when I finally calmed down enough to talk without sobbing or punching things. I asked my father, anyway, since he has a greater memory and he’s a lot smarter than my mom. He seemed surprised that I asked but he said he had no idea.
Then of course he wanted to know why I was asking. I couldn’t very well say “well there’s this old lady who looks like a clown. I think she’s dead. Anyway, she said you’d know,” so I just said I had heard the name mentioned once and wasn’t sure if he was a friend of the family’s or not. >
Regardless, Declan O’Shea was definitely not a friend of the family.
“I could ask Dex for you, if you want,” she said in a small voice.
The thought of that made my heart race and a strange heat creep up the back of my neck.
“No, that’s OK. I’m sure it wasn’t important anyway. You know how ghosts are.”
“Sure…” she said uncertainly. Then she smiled. “I’m glad you’re doing OK, Perry. I real y am. I hope we’l meet again one day.”
I nodded absently as she gave me a short wave with her dainty fingers and left my room. I heard her go down the stairs and shut the front door behind her. Then the car started up noisily and seconds later, Rebecca was gone and out of my life again. Perhaps forever.
I sank to my knees and felt tiny prickles of moisture stinging the corners of my eyes.
I didn’t know how I felt, but I felt…alone.
“You need a friend?” Ada asked. I looked up. She was standing at the doorway, looking down at me with pity, or maybe it was affection. “And not a forced friend either.”
I smiled grateful y as Ada sat down on the ground beside me and enveloped me in a much-needed hug.