I wrote a short today. Progress has been slow on the long form stuff, but this came to me fully formed so why not.
I hope you like it.
What do you say when someone slides into your twitter DMs and tells you he can teach you magic?
Sure, the obvious answer is to flat-out ignore him. Or say “no”. Or block him. It’s not like I’m not used to random dudes hitting me up out of the blue. And, any other day, I would have done any or all of these and gone on with my day.
But he didn’t half pick his moment.
I’d had a bad day. I have a lot of bad days – not to sound too maudlin or anything, just a fact – but this was the worst it had been for a while. No job, no prospects, no momentum of any kind. Not so much stuck in a rut as pitching a tent in one. One of those fancy tents people use for glamping and could easily be mistaken for some hoo-rah’s summer residence.
Point is, I was low and wallowing in it. I do stupid things when I’m low – ideas I’d usually discount as daft suddenly become potential ways out.
Such as setting up a meeting with some random twitter dude who wants to teach you magic.
He wanted to meet me in the back room of a local pub, which didn’t seem especially weird. It’s not unheard of for pubs to rent out spaces for parties or whatever, right? And it was a nice mix of public and private, which set my mind a little at ease. You know, for a given value of ease. By the time I was stood outside the place, I needed all of that and more just to keep this yay spontaneity! mood going.
I had a drink to steady my nerves. The bartender gave me a knowing look, and when I asked her about the guy who had rented the back room, all she said was that he was slick. Then she shrugged and wandered off down the bar. Not the best service.
Anyway, sorry, I’m waffling.
He was sat directly across from the entrance to the backroom, front and centre, just staring. I think he’d been trying to create some sort of air of mystery – he’d shut off all the lights bar one lamp that he had position carefully to backlight him – but he’d missed and hit creepy. I mean, he’d been creepy from the get go, but you get what I mean.
Silently, he beckoned me in and, like the idiot I am, I went. Thing is, despite the whole creep thing, I didn’t feel in danger. That’s a weird thing to hear, I’m sure. It’s weirder to say. But whatever else he was trying to do, he was projecting some air of safety.
Hell, maybe it was magic.
So, I stepped into the room, keeping my distance from him. He didn’t say a thing, just silently watched me approach, until I was about halfway between him and the door.
The door closed behind me and the room lit up as he jumped to his feet. All this while I, naturally, shit myself. Like, yeah, what did I expect?
I got ready to do my best to defend myself as he strode quickly towards me. I dropped my shoulders, set my feet, raised my fists. Fine, I’d walked into his lair like a big dumb idiot, but I wasn’t going down easy.
And then he walked right past me.
‘You were hard to find, love,’ he said, stepping past me to the door. He rolled up his sleeves and started running his hands over the wood. ‘First time I’ve ever divined a twitter account before. If I’d wanted a job where I had to stare at a computer all day, well, I wouldn’t be doing this. You might want to sit down, this is going to take a minute.’
There was a glow coming from the palm he was running across the door, and a sense of warmth I could feel despite the distance. Hardly a super weird sight or anything, but it caused my words to stick in my mouth a little nonetheless.
‘What the hell is going on?’ I said. A classic.
He didn’t stop whatever it was he was doing, nor turn to look at me, though he did gesture with his spare hand. ‘Just sit down, will ya? Lesson’ll start in a minute.’
I followed the path of his finger and there was a chair there. A chair that hadn’t been there before. Or had it? The room had been dark, but I was sure I’d had enough light to see the place that chair now was.
Either way, it was suspicious enough that I wasn’t going to sit in the damned thing, that was for sure. I was going to reclaim some of the control there, so I sat in his chair instead. He had left his coat draped over the back, and I dutifully dropped it on the floor in front of me before doing my very best to set my own powerful silhouette. I wasn’t going to let this weirdo intimidate me.
I watched him do his thing for another minute or so before he slapped a palm on the door and finally turned to face me.
‘That’s not bad,’ he said. ‘Not bad at all. You’re in my seat, though.’
I sank deeper. ‘Mine now.’
He smiled. I didn’t like that I liked it. ‘Keep it. I need you to listen, and I guess you’ll be more inclined if you’re comfortable, yeah? Did you have to drop my coat on the floor though? Were you born in a barn?’
‘It’s hardly clean, is it?’ I said, kicking it over to him as he sat in the magical mystery chair. ‘You’ve got sixty seconds to explain why I’m here before I walk out that door. And if you try to stop me –’
‘You’ll kick my nuts off? You’d be well within your rights to, love. Thing is, this might take a hair more than sixty seconds to explain, and I’d rather not get my nuts kicked off. Just give me time to explain myself, yeah?’
I nodded. He nodded back, icy blue eyes giving me the once over. The guy looked like a crumpled cigarette packet made flesh, but the eyes and the smile diffused a lot of the danger. Which, I suppose, made him more dangerous.
‘Make it quick.’
‘All right,’ he said. He stretched, and I heard a few joints pop. ‘You’re here because I offered to teach you to do magic, right? Wrong. You’re here because you’re listless and broken and just desperately looking for something to break the monotony. You’re all depressed, yeah?’
I frowned. ‘I can get crap pop-psychology from my friends, thanks.’
‘Mate, you’re not depressed. Let me just get that out there. What you’ve got is something that presents as depression, but it’s something else. You’ve got a demon in your head.’
I went to stand up, but he threw forth a hand. ‘Look, I know it sounds weird –’
‘Weird? It sounds like something a nutter says before he stabs you. I’m leaving.’
‘Think it though. If I was a nutter, would I let you leave? Besides, why are you even here, huh? Really. The real reason. You don’t just chat up random men on the internet and agree to meet them at the snap of a finger, even on your darkest day. Right?’
I was halfway stood up, but I lowered myself down again. ‘No.’
‘This is how it starts, love,’ he said. ‘He masks everything as depressive thinking. Like, I bet you rationalised this whole thing as something good to break the cycle. Spontaneous, if a little dangerous. But any other time you’d have seen this for what it is, the fucking shadiest setup possible. He’s in there, mucking up your sense of self preservation. Know why?’
I shook my head.
He didn’t wait for a better answer. ‘Can’t steal a living soul. Every deal they make is for the moment a soul stops being used. Same comes for ones they take. Can’t be in use, no empty flesh suits walking around, so they got to kill you off first. Love, you’re like the grannie in that old cartoon, walking into danger blindly. Which, I guess, makes me Bug Bunny? Or the lisping cat? I don’t remember. Bad analogy. Get what I mean, though?’
And I did.
Yeah, I was surprised too.
But I bet you’ve been thinking to yourself from the start of this: there is literally no way she’d be dense enough to do this. Right? Because I promise, I would have been saying the same thing. Sure, I’ll just stroll off into a dark room with a man I don’t know because he promised to teach me magic. What a perfectly ordinary idea to have, certainly something I would do.
But a demon? It wasn’t too hard to accept that I hadn’t been acting like myself, but it was a whole different order of magnitude when it came to believing I had a literal demon nesting in my bonce.
‘Even if I gave this credence, which I don’t,’ I said. ‘You’ve hardly endeared yourself as someone I should trust about all this stuff.’
‘That’s the demon talking.’
‘No. It’s the fact you popped up out of nowhere, lured me here under false pretences, haven’t told me your name, and claim there’s a demon in my head.’
He sniffed. ‘Fair.’
I took a deep breath. ‘Why do you think there’s a demon in me?’
‘I divined it.’
‘See, things like that aren’t helping.’
He smiled again and ran a hand over his stubbled cheeks. ‘Right, look, I’m a mage. I do magic and shit. Bit of a hero, when I have to be. On somewhat of a goodie goodie kick these days, so I’ve taken to divining the names of people in danger. There’s this sort of golden egg involved, and a fair bit of Enochian chanting… Some naked moonlight dancing…’
‘It’s a glamorous job. Point is, your name came out of the egg. That means trouble is coming for you, and I’m here to help.’
‘And if I said I believed you, what then?’
‘Then we exorcise the little shit, and you go home. Or you let me buy you a drink. I don’t mix business and pleasure, but once the business is out of the way…’
‘Was this all one elaborate chat up line?’
He laughed. ‘I wish. I’d rather get kicked in the bollocks than what we’ve got to do to sort you out.’
‘And that is?’
Reaching down, he picked up his coat and searched around inside it for a moment. He pulled out a knife as long as his forearm and just as thick. I guess that makes it a shortsword? ‘I do some sexy mumbo jumbo and force the demon to manifest in me. You face down the demon, tell it to piss off back to Hell, and then you stab me non-fatally as a ritualistic expression of how much you want it to piss off.’
I blinked. ‘Are you –’
‘Serious? Yes. Always yes. Are you going to ask that every time?’
I can’t really tell you why I agreed to it. I certainly didn’t believe him, not really. Takes more than a charismatic smile to spin that tale convincingly. But I was convinced. Or, rather, convinced enough to let this all play out. Whoever the guy was, I got the impression it was easier to just go with the flow than try and cut it short. He’d nag. He was clearly a nagger.
‘Will it hurt?’
He stood up and cracked his fingers, then his neck, and then put on his best bedside manner. ‘Not you. It’ll hurt like buggery for me. Let’s get going before I change my mind, eh?’
He signalled for me to stand up, and I did. Placing the knife in my hand, he winked and gently lay his left palm on my forehead. It was icy cold to the touch, and that chill spread through my body quickly, as if his hand was leeching the heat right out of me.
The world started to spin, and I felt my knees grow weaker. They buckled, but his other hand caught me under the chin and hoisted me up again.
‘Hold on, love,’ he said. ‘Hard part’s nearly over. Just watch my eyes, ok? You’ll know when.’
I couldn’t reply. My throat burned, completely dry now. I needed to cough, but there wasn’t enough air in my lungs to do it. And the whole time, I couldn’t look away from those blue eyes. But they were less so now. They’d dimmed, from ice blue to gunmetal grey. The pupil was contracting, ever smaller, closer and closer to a mere pinprick, and there were tears forming in the irises.
A blood vessel broke in his right eye, painting the white a deep red. He didn’t seem to notice, that same smile plastered on his face. Enduring. No, growing. But that wasn’t accurate either. It was all teeth now, it hadn’t been before. And his teeth were different, sharper, longer. By the time his eye had filled with blood completely, he had a mouth of blades.
The world lurched back into view suddenly, and his hands released me. We both staggered back from each other, but I had the good fortune of falling back into the chair. He tumbled, tripping over his and falling back onto the floor. Yet he was still back on his feet before I was.
‘Thisssssssssss isn’t playing fairrrrrrrrrrrr,’ he said, letters clearly catching on his razor teeth. ‘I’m impresssssssssed.’
I tightened my grip on the blade. ‘Wow, this is creepy as fuck.’
‘Ellllllloquent,’ he said. ‘That’ssssssss why I picked you. Sssssssssso much to sssssssssay, but too ssssssssssscared. I can hellllllllp. Jusssssssst take me back.’
‘Not to sound like a cliché, but I’ve heard that before. Didn’t work then, either.’
I launched myself at him, driving the blade down hard into his shoulder. He didn’t react, and it sank in with no resistance. Instead, he lent in close, locking eyes with me once again. All I could focus on was the red one. ‘Perhapsssssssssss later, then. Jusssssssssst call if you neeeeeeeeeeeeeeed me. You know my name.’
And then he was gone, and the mage was back. Normal teeth, normal eyes – well, eye, the bloodshot one was still red – but tired. Extremely tired.
Slowly, his head turned towards the knife sticking out of his shoulder. ‘Oh, fucking ow. Christ. This really hurts. Like, a lot. Did you have to jam it in quite so far?’
I threw up my hands. ‘It’s a knife! I didn’t know how far to stick it in! It’s not like you told me!’
‘Sure, but, this deep? I bet you’ve severed a nerve, you know. That whole arm, dead. Limp as your grandad’s dick.’
‘Fuck you, it was your idea!’
He kicked his chair upright and slumped into it before fishing around in his coat again with his good arm. He produced a cigarette and a zippo lighter, flipped the former up into his mouth and started to struggle to light it. ‘This was the easy way, believe me.’
‘I’d hate to see the hard way.’
‘Yeah, you would. Little help?’ he proffered the lighter. I took it and lit his cigarette, and he took a puff before continuing. ‘Those little shits crawl into you when you’re soul gazing in the mirror, vain little turds. We got to this one early, but if I’d let him get settled in that meat balloon of yours he’d have started flipping all sorts of switches. All rational thought, gone, inside a week. Then it’s just ooh, yes mister shady-knife-wielding-skinhead-in-a-dark-alley, I’d love to see your stamp collection. Can’t just expel the demon yourself then. Got to get creative.’
He took a long drag. ‘Well, for starters, you’d be the one with the knife in the shoulder, love. And I’d be having a knee-too-bollock scrap with a ten-foot-tall mound of gristle and bad intentions. Trust me, this way is better. NHS will fix knife wounds, but they’re a bit skittish on demon bites.’
‘Are you going to be ok?’
‘Sure,’ he said, wiggling the knife in his shoulder and wincing. ‘Grand. You better hop along now, I’ve got to clean up this mess. Better you don’t linger, slight chance he might be able to worm his way back in if you hang around too long.’
He flicked his head towards the door and after a moment I walked over to it. I placed my hand on the knob and stopped. ‘You never told me your name.’
‘I suppose I didn’t’ he said, spitting the smouldering cigarette butt onto the floor. ‘Which likely means I’m not going to.’
‘The man of mystery act doesn’t work for you.’
‘Neither does the sort of scrutiny that comes from putting my name out there.’
I chuckled and turned the knob. There was a small whoosh of air, as if a vacuum seal had broken, and the door swung open. I stepped out and started to close it behind me. ‘Fine. You play the mystery card. But they probably won’t let me put a drink behind the bar for mystery man.’
His head snapped around. ‘You what?’
‘Figured I at least owed you one drink.’
His eyes lit up. ‘Name’s John.’
‘Ok,’ I said and closed the door.