Valerie wasn't surfing the Internet, she was drowning. Unless she caught a wave pretty soon, her whole life would be in the toilet, the twin turds of romance and career floating side by side. And this time Mark was going to flush.
She shivered a little in the early morning air, tucked the top of her flannel PJs into the bottoms for warmth. Maybe she should light a fire. Or just go back to bed. She eyed the unmade bed in the corner longingly. But she knew better. As soon as she fell asleep, Mark would call to check up on her. He always called at the worst possible moment.
With a click of the mouse, she switched from Yahoo Search to InfoSeek. She never should have taken the damn assignment. After all, what did she know about...
D-e-m-o-n-s, she typed, then clicked the Search button for the zillionth time. About as much as her 28-year-old cocksure editor and significant other knew about menopause.
Even as she thought the word, she could feel it flowing between her legs, the last sweet river of life from the secret cavern, the crimson thread that connected her with the labyrinth of her being. Too late now to excavate the hidden jewels -- unseen, their light had faded.
Valerie scanned the search results until a promising one caught her eye, Demon.com (Official website). Just as she clicked the link, the phone rang.
She punched the speakerphone button. "Mark?"
"How'd you know?"
"A little demon told me."
"Sounds like you're making progress," Mark said.
Lurid letters dripping like blood against a black background spelled out DEMON.COM, and when Valerie clicked "Enter," something scaly with glowing eyes opened its fangs and admitted her to the website.
"So how far along are you?" Mark asked.
"Pretty far, actually." Valerie leaned forward, watching the red and orange flames flickering across her computer screen. "Looks like I made it all the way to hell."
"How many pages have you written?"
Blood-soaked words were exploding out of the flames, CLICK HERE FOR STREAMING DEMONS. Not "streaming media," streaming demons. Valerie slid her cursor toward the words. This she had to see.
"How many pages, Val?"
She clicked, and all hell broke loose.
Valerie's eyes blurred as images streamed toward her at lightspeed. Dark flapping wings, ribbons of bloody flesh, pus-dripping eyes, flaming tails. And good lord, the sounds! She covered her ears, but it was impossible to shut them out. Soul-chilling shrieks and curses, lambs bleating in terror, strident alarm bells, shattering glass, and a sound like children drowning in their sleep.
"Val, what's going on?"
"I'll call you back."
She disconnected him and slid her mouse frantically, searching for some sort of exit or quit or stop button. Nothing. She clicked the back button on her browser. No response. In fact, her mouse didn't seem to be working at all.
Hands shaking, she tried to punch the computer's off switch, missed it, hit it again. The screen went blank. The sounds stopped.
Valerie took a deep, shuddering breath and realized that beneath the flannel PJs her skin was soaking wet. No hot flash this time. Just a little reaction to the flames of hell.
Her throat felt dry, and she worked up big gobs of saliva and swallowed several times until she felt back to normal. When you fall off a surfboard, you've got to get right back on, she told herself sternly.
With the tip of her index finger, she pressed the button to restart the computer. Nothing happened. She tried again, pressing harder. Dead.
Valerie hit the speed-dial on her phone, and he answered on the first ring.
"I'm afraid I'm going to miss the deadline," she said.
"My 8 o'clock tomorrow morning deadline."
Mark sounded annoyed. "Who is this?"
"It's Valerie." Remember me? The woman who's been sharing your bed for the past nine months?
"Oh. Everything all right?"
"No, everything's not all right," she said. "My computer's broken."
"So get it fuckin' fixed."
She hung up on Mark for the second time in her life.
* * *
Tall, thin, clothed in green, the man on her porch with a briefcase tucked under his arm looked like a giant stalk of asparagus. "I'm Drew, from Computer 911," he said.
Valerie opened the door wider. "Come on in."
Drew strode over to her computer, squatted beside the CPU. "You'd be surprised," he said, tugging on wires and pushing in connections, "how often it's only a loose connection. Or somebody unplugs their computer and forgets to plug it back in."
"I was on the Internet, and... "
Drew hit the start button. Nothing happened. He opened his briefcase, pulled out a screwdriver, a couple of disks. "I'll run some diagnostics. Take a few minutes."
"I just made fresh coffee," Valerie said. "Would you like some?"
A few minutes later Valerie emerged from the kitchen with a tray holding two mugs of steaming coffee, a small pitcher of milk, and little pink packets of artificial sweetener.
Drew grabbed one of the mugs, splashed milk in, raised the cup to his lips. He sniffed it a few times. "Milk's spoiled."
Valerie lifted the milk pitcher, caught a whiff of something sweet, decaying. "God, I'm sorry," Valerie said. "I just bought it yesterday." She took Drew's mug from him, headed for the kitchen. "I'll get you some fresh."
As she entered the kitchen, her feet slid across something slippery and she nearly fell. She looked down, saw the floor was covered with a glistening substance. It seemed to be dripping down through the closed door of the refrigerator -- strings of goo, some clear, some amber-colored.
Her heart was thumping wildly, but she told herself it was silly to be afraid. She walked over to the refrigerator and opened it, then gasped in disbelief.
Thick, slimy goo everywhere. Coating the cans of diet soda, packages of light bologna and mozzarella cheese, the fruit-at-the-bottom yogurts. Running down the plastic containers of grapefruit juice.
Ectoplasm. She'd read about it on the Internet when she was doing her research. Only if she remembered correctly, it was associated with ghosts, not demons. But who said they had to play by the rules?
She touched the goo with a tentative finger, then looked at her fingertip coated with the slimy substance -- and something else. Something small and white, hard like the broken fragment of an eggshell. And suddenly she realized it was part of an eggshell, and the goo all over her refrigerator was nothing as scary as ectoplasm, but simply two dozen eggs that had exploded. She began to laugh.
Instantly all was right with the world. The eggs had exploded for some unknown, but perfectly scientific reason, and her computer was about to be fixed. In fact, she could already hear Drew in the other room packing up his stuff.
"How's it going?" she called.
A moment of silence, then she heard Drew's rapid footsteps crossing the room. "Lady, you don't need a computer expert," he said. "You need an exorcist!"
A second later she heard the door slam shut behind him.
* * *
Valerie brushed the dust off her old electronic typewriter and plugged it in. She piled her notes in a neat stack beside it, then turned it on.
It hummed reassuringly, and she positioned her fingers lightly on the keys. Her notes were sketchy, but she'd just have to piece them together somehow. She was a professional, she could do this. She'd open with a strong lead and pray that Mark wouldn't notice how weak the rest of the piece was.
But what was the right lead? She flipped through her stack of notes, pulled out a list she'd printed from some obscure site. Anamalech, the demon of bad news. Braathwaate, demon of stupidity. Lanithro, demon of the air. Tenebrion, spirit of darkness. Colorful. She'd have to work those in somewhere, but not the lead.
Another list. Species of Demons, as described by Alphonse de Spina in 1467. Poltergeists, who cause mischief. Incubi and Succubi, who stimulate lust and perversion. Marching Hordes, who bring about war. Demons formed from human semen. Definitely not her lead.
She'd conducted an E-mail interview with a leading demonologist that was fairly interesting. Ah, here it was. She scanned the interview print-outs. They read like a bizarre etiquette book. Maybe she could find a juicy quote. "Always address demons by name." "Higher-level demons should be addressed before lower-level demons." "Never turn your back on a demon." "Demons will only enter your home if they're invited."
Valerie glanced at the clock on her desk. Jesus, three in the afternoon already. Well, the interview wasn't her lead, but it would make a good sidebar. Feeling desperate, she settled her fingers on the keyboard and typed, "Tips for the Safe Handling of Demons." Just as she finished typing the last word, the typewriter exploded.
Instinctively, Valerie ducked as bits of printwheel, keys, ribbon, and correction tape rained down. When it was safe to look up, she saw that what was left of her typewriter was a smoking jumble of melted plastic. It suddenly occurred to her those tips might come in very handy right about now.
She gathered up the charred remains of her typewriter, all the sundry bits and pieces, and dumped everything in a big trashbag. She tied it off with a twist tie and left it in a corner of the kitchen.
When she returned to her living room/bedroom/office, she could still smell the burned plastic all around her. She sat down on the bed and tried to think. She could ignore the curdled milk, the broken eggs. But not this, not an exploding typewriter. Something was terribly wrong.
Just before the lights flickered and went out, Valerie noticed that the clock was running backwards.
* * *
Valerie sat as close to the candle as she could get without burning herself, her eyes focused on the shadows leaping across the walls. Some of them she could trace to herself or the furniture, but
others... She reminded herself not to panic, to take deep regular breaths. Although she'd known for several hours now that the phone was dead, the door locked from the outside, she told herself there was always a way out. No matter how impossible it seemed.
Her left breast began to itch, and just as she realized something was crawling across it, she felt a sharp pain. She let out a yelp, tore open the top of her pajamas. Something dropped to the floor with a soft plop and scurried away. She watched it disappear behind the cast-iron fireplace, then turned and examined her breast. There was a trickle of blood from the nipple, and what looked like tiny teethmarks.
For a second she thought she was going to lose control of her bladder, and she rushed to the bathroom. As she sank gratefully onto the toilet, she saw the photo of Mark that usually sat by her bed now floating in the bowl, but she couldn't stop herself long enough to fish it out.
When she wiped, there was no red. The bleeding had finally stopped. Forever.
She looked at herself in the mirror for a long moment. "Congratulations," she said softly, echoing what her mother had said to her that first time at age 13.
The candlelight gleamed faintly. In the dim mirror, coated with a layer of dust she'd meant to clean off when the article was finished, she couldn't read the expression on her own face. But she saw how the dust particles shifted against the glass, forming patterns she could recognize. The faces of the children she would never have.
She slipped back into the other room, picked up pen and paper, and began to write.
* * *
Valerie looked out through a window that wouldn't open, watching the sky turn golden, then fiery red, a barren tree becoming lacework against the dawn.
Although the clock, running backwards all night, now read 12 midnight she knew it was really about 6 a.m. It had been a long night, but if she could find a way out of here, she could still deliver her article to Mark on time. One hell of an article.
It wasn't what she'd set out to write, of course. But then it never was.
She turned away from the window, looked around the room. A smelly, black substance, part boiling tar, part putrid flesh, was dripping from the ceiling. The nest of winged spiders in the bookcase was about to take flight again. Something that looked like a blood sausage galloped across her pillow. And that wasn't the half of it.
Thinking about what she'd survived, Valerie felt a surge of pride. But how could she have forgotten the most important rule of demon protocol? One last look at the
dawn... then she pulled the cord, and the drapes slid closed. Inter-demons should never see the light of day.
The pages of her article made a satisfying ripping sound as she tore them into tiny pieces, scattered them through the air.
"Men-o-pause," Valerie said thoughtfully, watching the bits of paper burst into flame. Could be a good time to take a break from men, spend more time with herself.
And whatever else was living in her house.
© Kristy Dark
Kristy Dark has written eight screenplays, one short film script, two novels, numerous stories, and a variety of non-fiction. Her story "The Last Story" won 3rd Place for Genre Short Story in the 2001 Writer's Digest annual contest and was published in The Year's Best Writing. A short film version is currently in the works. Several of her stories have received Bram Stoker Award recommendations, and her story "Descent of the Spirits" will appear in the prestigious EXTREMES 5 anthology edited by Brian A. Hopkins (Lone Wolf Publications).
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