The castanet clank of fingernails drumming on a metal desk dropped out of the air between Beth and the demon for no apparent reason.
There was no desk in the room, metal or otherwise. And as far as she could tell the demon was sitting on nothing more substantial than air.
Even when her chest was so full of grief that drawing breath was a struggle, the air wasn’t solid enough to play like maracas. It seemed, that for demons at least, conviction was sufficient to rearrange reality.
Enough for floating on nothing and making sounds that really shouldn’t be happening, anyway. Was it something you learned how to do? Or maybe there really was a metal desk in the room and she’d missed it.
Abbie had been gone for almost a year and still, her voice echoed in Beth’s mind as if she was just coming around the corner, tripping over her own feet and giggling.
“People can’t usually see me.” The demon seemed more perplexed than upset by this fact.
“I don’t usually see demons.” It was supposed to be sassy, but Beth was tired.
Not the fatigue that sleep mends, but the soul-numbing exhaustion of carrying a loss that makes other people uncomfortable.
Entertaining a demon had not been on the schedule for this evening. Reassuring her co-workers that she was fine (she wasn’t) and her friends that they were being helpful (they managed most of the time) took all the strength she had.
Nothing left for dealing with the scaly being sitting on the air in her kitchen, drumming its fingers on echoey nothing, and looking perplexed and annoyed by turns. Not so different than the people around her then.
Beth relaxed a little. They didn’t know what to do, or say, or how to hold themselves when she was around either.
As if one wrong action, one stray word, one touch would crack her right open.
Most people didn’t want to know what was hiding behind the bit of her that went to work, and fixed dinner, and remembered to pay the car insurance on time.
Maybe, she thought, when you bury someone your insides decompose too. Maybe the bits that are you go all smelly and runny and different.
“What do you desire?” the demon asked. It was clear that charm was not something it needed to employ often.
The words were all right, but the delivery was fantastically off. If someone had handed her a picture-perfect cheesecake slice trimmed with a stunned hedgehog holding a tiny spear dipped in poison, Beth would not have felt less odd.
“Do you usually have to ask? I mean if folks can’t see you and all, how do you normally find out?”
Part of her brain was obviously trying to employ logic, but was that the best tool against levitating monsters with no practice in wheedling?
“I’m here to bargain with your pain. I don’t usually have to engage the rest of a person,” the demon pouted.
Beth would have liked to say a thing or two to her pain. Starting with shut-up, moving on to stop hitting me, and probably culminating with can you wait until I get home? Please?
It was like being forever accompanied by a 300lb sleep-deprived, hungry, itchy, shedding badger that no one else could see. And it always wanted attention.
“You’re here to tempt my grief?”
“Who said anything about temptation?”
“I thought that’s what demons did? Besides, what could grief possibly want to bargain for?”
And there, with all the abruptness of a supernova, was the answer, glowing so hot in her head it might burn right through her skull. “I can change the past.”
An amateur magician producing an unexpected rabbit in a professional company could not have been smugger.
What was the bulk of her grief after all, but a saw-toothed scream to undo what was done? A chance to be enough to save her Abbie. A tiny difference or a huge one.
Anything to go back and get it right.
While Beth stared at nothing and felt the inside of her head start to unravel into hope, the demon smiled. It was all sharp teeth and malice aforethought, and some small part of her noticed.
“Don’t you want to see Abbie one more time?” it oozed.
The drumming fingers might have been the demonic equivalent of special effects, but there was nothing fake about the sound of the back of the demon’s skull hitting the wall at speed.
Beth squeezed its sinewy neck with all the rage she could not take out on the world. This creature could not possibly change the past. If that kind of magic existed in the world, it would not go unused.
“You want to tempt me? Do you want to bargain with me, demon? I should sell my soul, my heart, my future to some devil? Then offer me justice for my child.”
Beth’s rage was incandescent – she could not tell if she was speaking or screaming.
“You cannot tempt me with just once more. Once is not enough. Change the future and everything I have is yours. I will sell my soul for a future where children like my Abbie are safe. Can you offer me that demon? Do you have such power?”
Beth didn’t wait for an answer. She didn’t need one.
Hauling open the kitchen window with one hand, she threw the demon out with the kind of heave that only comes with well-aged anger.
She heard the window screen tear and a satisfying crunch as the demon hit the shrubbery below. She was sure it would be back.
Could she remember the lie? Would it be easier next time?
Two deep breaths later, Beth folded up, imploding around the core of pain the anger exposed as it evaporated. The future, intractable or malleable, was going to get a damn good kicking, but first Beth was going to cry until her insides were wrung out.
Until there was space enough in her existence for hurting and doing.