Authors: Joshua Ingle
“The fear of loss,” Shenzuul said again.
“Joel and Angela are well educated. They’re part of the intelligentsia, the tastemakers. They have the means to effect great change in the world. Don’t ever let them use it, unless for vanity. They should spend their money only on making more money, their power only on gaining more power.”
Shenzuul grinned and slapped Thorn’s back. “Subtle! Good. Teach me subtle.”
First I may have to teach you English.
Shenzuul’s broken speech puzzled Thorn, who spoke over eighty languages, including many dead and ancient ones. Every demon had been on Earth since before the dawn of human history, and they’d all had plenty of time to learn humanity’s tongues. Thorn could only guess at how or why Shenzuul had avoided learning modern English well. But then, Shenzuul probably wondered why Thorn had never bothered to learn Swahili or Hausa.
At least the sight of Marcus’s former servant at Thorn’s side would cement Thorn’s authority in the city. Hundreds of other demons—Thorn’s followers—flew behind him now, keeping a respectful distance. More met him at the house.
The hasty divorce was nearly completed now, and had been only two weeks in the making, so Thorn expected to find Angela reading legal documents, or perhaps browsing the internet, and Joel away at his restaurant. But when Thorn and Shenzuul entered the house through its roof, a laptop zipped through them and shattered against the ceiling.
“No! No, no, no.” In a Hawaiian shirt and khakis, Joel started to move toward his damaged computer, but his wife shoved him into the kitchen. He tried to shield himself from her blows. “You don’t just throw—”
“You wanna look at pictures of naked girls, you go do it somewhere else. Not in
house. Not in the house our children live in!”
, thought Thorn.
She found his stash.
Thorn was not in the mood to deal with this now, but at least it would be an acceptable first lesson for Shenzuul.
“Baby, I had important work stuff on that laptop, okay? You might have just destroyed months of—”
“Was this going on even before the divorce? I bet it was. I bet it was going on way back when you had your practice, too.” Angela was in tears.
Codependent as ever, Joel tried to subdue her. “I—I swear, I have no idea how it got there. Maybe one of the guys is playing a prank. If you would just let me see what the damage is—”
“So you can try and back them up? All your camgirls or fuckbuddies or whatever? Fuck you, Joel.”
When she raised her hand to smack him, he ducked under it and ran up the stairs. As she chased him, Thorn gave Shenzuul the rundown. “These two had a shotgun wedding when they were younger. Do you know what that is?”
“Shotgun wedding, yes. Blood everywhere. People die horribly.”
“Ha. No.” Thorn had to yell to be heard above Angela’s squawking. “She was pregnant, and they had religious parents. So they were forced to get married. But she had a late-term miscarriage. Do you know what that is? A miscarriage?”
Shenzuul dumbly watched the fight, his mouth agape, as if Thorn hadn’t spoken.
“The baby died. Okay? And they’ve never been close since. He’s wanted out of the marriage since a few years after that, but he knew his family would kill him if he divorced her, so it took twenty years and two children until he had the balls to do it. He grew addicted to her affection during that time, so now he’s having trouble letting her go. And she him.”
“So we make them end in sadness, pain?”
“No, no, my whole point is it’s a destructive relationship and we want them to stay close even after the divorce. You, Shenzuul, see the fight and wonder how you can end it with him beating her, but you should be asking yourself how you can get the fight to go on forever. If you cause them to stop seeing each other, no matter how painful that is temporarily, it might be a
thing for them in the long run—who knows? If you want humans to think short-term, you can’t think short-term yourself. In America, sophisticated demons play the long con.” Thorn hated instructing Shenzuul like this, but the Judge had forced his hand. Thorn floated past Shenzuul and whispered softly in Joel’s ear, countering everything he’d just told the little twit. “She loves you. Why are you hurting her?” Thorn had tried helpful phrases like this on the couple before, and they seemed to work a small bit of good. He turned back to Shenzuul. “I just reminded him of the spark they used to have, and how it’s gone now.”
“I tell her same thing?”
“No, she knows. She was already thinking it.” Another lie. Although Thorn’s power plays in the demon hierarchy had always required him to lie to his peers, his lies these past few months felt like an entirely new experience. These weren’t lies told to hide his evil intentions; they were lies told to hide his
ones. These were dangerous lies. If his tongue were to slip, if he were to be found out…
Joel was already apologizing to Angela, offering to take her out to a fancy restaurant and—absurdly—have breakup sex later tonight. “We stop this,” Shenzuul said. “They should not be happy now.”
“Shenzuul, it’s fine if they’re happy. What we don’t want them to be is
“What you mean?”
“This is the spark. They have the magic back. For a night. I’m letting them have the high now so that the pendulum can swing the other way tomorrow.”
“Ah. Roller-coaster relationship.”
Thorn raised an eyebrow at the Western idiom. “Exactly. Use movies, music, childhood dreams. He’s her prince and she’s his princess. Let their relationship be based in romance instead of friendship. Let them think the marriage was doomed just because the spark wasn’t there.”
“Because spark never last.”
“Because spark never last.” Shenzuul learned quickly. Perhaps this tutelage would not be so difficult to endure. “Extremely romantic today, extremely malicious tomorrow. Encourage extremes as much as you can, Shenzuul, in politics, religion, drugs, food, sex, any kind of emotion. They don’t need to be violent. Any extreme will isolate your charge as an outlier, making them fearful and therefore dangerous.”
But are there any other outliers like me?
Amy had asthma, so since the weather was too cold for her to exercise outdoors in early March, she’d taken to working out in the recreation center at Georgia State, where she was in her second semester. The stocky girl was doing sit-ups on a mat in a secluded corner of the gym when Thorn arrived with his entourage. He expected that Amy would remain a point of contention between Shenzuul and himself. Perhaps her presence would expose Shenzuul’s true motives for his charade. If so, Thorn would have cause to end this nonsense with the Judge.
“You should not have taken her from me,” Thorn told Shenzuul as they drifted past a jock spotting his bench-pressing friend.
“Marcus told me to. Sorry. But you stole her back, so all good.”
Actually, Marcus had let Thorn have her back, but saying this would have made Thorn appear weak. “You should not have backed her into a corner.”
“I was feed her insecurity.”
“No. She was already insecure, and you foolishly let her become aware of her problems. You pushed her so far that she had to deal with them.”
“I hurt her bad.”
“Then what is she doing at the gym? She never exercised when
was with her.” Thorn used to steer her away from activities as proactive as exercise, and publicly, he still did. But privately, he whispered encouraging words to Amy, effecting this and many other positive changes in her life. Undoing years of his own destructive whispering to Amy still felt bizarre, even one small step at a time.
“Thin people here make her more insecure,” Shenzuul said. “See? Look.” As Amy rose from her mat and paced to a large mirror-wall, her guarded eyes glanced around the room, as if to spot any judgmental gazes straying in her direction. None were, but she didn’t know that. Shenzuul stepped forward and whispered to her. “They all looking at you. You so ugly. Weird-shaped body on you.”
Despite Thorn’s inner transformation, his competitive nature remained. He could not allow Shenzuul to harm Amy’s fragile psyche. Fortunately, Thorn was in charge, and could embarrass his pupil as much as was needed to keep him under his thumb.
“Fool,” Thorn said. “That won’t work any longer. You already made her aware of how toxic her negative self-talk is. So now and in the future you must be more subtle than that. Let me.” He maneuvered around Shenzuul to Amy and whispered loud enough for his followers to hear. “Lexa uses your presence to make her look better around her friends. You need a friend in worse shape than you to make you look good too. What about that girl over there?” The whisper was unfortunately negative, but it would still steer her in the right direction. For days, Thorn had been watching an overweight girl named Shelley, who was now running on a treadmill nearby. Her personality was highly compatible with Amy’s and, given some time, she could become the altruistic friend Amy so badly needed.
Shenzuul huffed indignantly and opened his mouth to retort with a whisper of his own, but Thorn shushed him. Amy glanced between Shelley and the mirror. After half a minute, Thorn thought his whisper might not have worked; Amy just stood examining her own stomach, then her butt. (
Why do humans care so much about butts?
Thorn had never understood the compulsion.) But soon Amy straightened her posture and paced toward the treadmills.
Shenzuul hurried behind Thorn. “Why this girl so important to you?”
“She isn’t,” he lied. “She’s just a charge.”
“But in the club—”
“I was desperate.”
“And how you keep her away from Chaz?”
How does he know about that? Has he been tailing me? Or did he hear about Chaz through the grapevine?
Amy had met her first love just after Christmas, at the campus bookstore where he worked. Thorn was still recuperating from the shooting at the time, so he hadn’t been there to witness it, but he later learned that Chaz had seen Amy in his Principles of Biology class, and bet his friends that he could get her into bed in two weeks. So he struck up a conversation ending with him asking her on a date. Elated that a seemingly nice guy had finally paid her some attention, Amy started dating him, and he played all the right cards. Even if their long and intimate conversations hadn’t convinced Amy that he was genuine, she would have fallen for his friendly texts and other small gestures of affection. She’d never experienced romance firsthand, so it was all bliss to her. Especially when she gave him her virginity. Chaz had lit some candles, cooked her dinner, and told her he was falling in love with her. Thorn heard later that she’d been beaming all the next day. But when Chaz suddenly stopped talking to her, and bragged to his friends that he’d popped her cherry, Amy grew distraught. She spent four straight days in her bedroom, sobbing on and off, which was when Thorn had found her. He’d seen cases like this many times before—had caused several—but it saddened him that this had happened to Amy. She and Chaz knew the same group of acquaintances and often passed each other on campus, so reminders of her pain lay all around her. She started skipping the two classes they shared. She even deleted her social network profiles after Chaz’s cruel friends kept posting about what a bad lay she’d been. Her new interest in physical exercise had evolved partially as an escape from these troubles.
To demons, this was all routine. Even in Thorn’s former malevolent disposition, he would have found only mild amusement in it. But to Amy, Chaz’s betrayal had been the highest form of emotional torment, and she’d told her mother she was considering dropping out of college over it. The demons who’d orchestrated it continued to boast that they’d done more with Amy than Thorn ever had, but Thorn was just glad Shenzuul hadn’t been behind it.
“I don’t need to explain myself to you,” he told his student.
“Yes you do. You teach me.”
“Shh.” Out of the sea of treadmills, Amy picked the one next to Shelley, who wiped some sweat from her forehead and glanced curiously at her new companion. Amy smiled at her briefly, then activated her own treadmill and started running.
After a few more awkward glances and another quarter mile, Shelley grinned and said, “It’s more comfortable running next to the fat girl, huh?”
Amy was taken aback. Her eyes flitted about as if searching for a way to avoid the question. “I, uh—”
Shelley laughed and dismissed Amy’s fluster with a wave. “It’s all good. Tell you the truth, I don’t really care. After this, I’m actually going out for fries and a large milkshake laden with copious amounts of sugar.”
“I—I didn’t mean to—”
Shelley cracked up. “You’re good. Hey, you’re totally fine. The gym is an evil dungeon meant to torture poor souls like us. I could use a buddy too. I’m Shelley.”
“Pleasure to meet you, ma’am. Are you a regular at our illustrious gym?”
“It’s my first time. My Nazi sister dropped me off here, said I had to lose five pounds by the end of the day. Normally I’d just sit and check out all the sculpted bronze man bodies, but I figure, you know what? Just to spite my sis, I actually will get some exercise, because it’s the last thing she’d expect. She’s also well over two hundred pounds, just so you know.”
“That, uh… that sucks.”
A thin girl in a sports bra and spandex shorts passed nearby, trying to disguise her gawking. Shelley threw her a too-wide grin and waved excitedly, speaking softly enough that only Amy (and Thorn and Shenzuul) could hear. “Heeeey, skinny bitch.” The girl quickened her pace. “There she goes, off to the restroom to vomit her lunch up. So what’s your major?”
Finally, Amy smiled a bit. She slowed down her treadmill so she could talk. “Biology.”
“Nifty. How do you like it?”
“Uh, a lot. Hopefully going to med school in a few years.”
“Nice. You look like a… hmm, a podiatrist?”
“Actually I want to—”
Amy laughed. “Absolutely not.”
“Clearly then, you are a proctologist.”
Amy laughed again then mock-sighed. “Ah, yep, you caught me. No, I’d really just like to work at a hospital, maybe—”