Authors: Robert Chazz Chute,Holly Pop
Robert Chazz Chute & Holly Pop
Published by Ex Parte Press
Copyright 2015 Robert Chazz Chute
Any semblance to any other published work, person or characters, living, dead or fictional, is purely coincidental.
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Special thanks to Russ Sawatsky, Christina Rivers, Tiffany Diem,
Dr. Janice Kurita and Mazie Lane for editorial assistance.
And, of course, thanks Patton Oswalt. You’re an inspiration.
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Ghosts & Demons Series
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Dedicated to the memory of Johnny T. Collins, friend and fellow demon slayer.
We sure hope you found what you were looking for, Johnny.
Magic remains powerful until all is understood.
Later, magic disappears into smoke.
All that remains is the way things are.
Knowledge is the key to Imagination’s lock.
he horns kept growing. They made my scalp itchy and the smooth black bone felt thick at my skull. The Mets cap Manny bought for me would not conceal my shame. I felt jealous because, on the same shopping trip she got my baseball cap, Manny got a cute strawberry beret. I was sure I could never wear a beret. Not without tearing through it with the sharp points of my horns, anyway.
Before you ask, no. The horns could not be trimmed back. We tried. It didn’t hurt, but the hacksaw blades broke. All the blades we tried broke.
Manhattan must have heard me sniffle when I caught my reflection in the screen of my phone. She glanced back from her seat by our apartment window. “They aren’t that big. You look fine, Tam. Really.’
“I want to believe you, but then you had to add the extra ‘really,’ and that blows it.”
“Okay,” she admitted, “the horns are a little freaky, but in a good way. They’re symmetrical, at least. Not like the weird antlers we’ve seen on battle demons. You won’t have trouble ducking through doorways.”
“Great. I am not a moose. The glass is half full. Of poison, but — ”
“Seriously, Tam. All standards of beauty boil down to symmetry and athleticism. That’s all you. When the Ra invade our cozy little dimension, they’re going to be worried as soon as they spot you at the front, leading the charge. Iowa, Castrator of Demons! Glad you’re on our side.”
As Manny watched traffic plug Church Avenue, car horns blared. I’d missed the latest storm to hit New York. You don’t see much hiding in your room with the lights out. The city was buried in dirty snow under a flat gray sky. How Brooklyn looked is how I felt.
We had returned from Iowa in the early morning hours. One determined grim-faced jogger had spotted my horns but said nothing. He didn’t even blink. He must have thought I was a club kid returning home from an after hours joint. For some of those basement raves, it is Halloween year round, even with every store blaring Christmas carols.
In the unforgiving light of day, I was circus freak show material. I could handle fighting demons. Mirrors were another matter. Self-pity often has a theme. We have the worst jobs of our lives, the worst relationships and the worst summers. While Manhattan paced the apartment humming yuletide songs, the theme to my pity party was, “Welcome to the worst Christmas of your life, Tamara Smythe.”
It wasn’t just the horns that had me down. When Rasputin’s spell was broken and my half-demon lineage started to emerge, I began to see the world differently. I hadn’t noticed the space between people and objects before. Now I was aware of that space with bizarre clarity.
Until my demon side was revealed, I didn’t know that there is no such thing as a smooth surface.
has texture. Every surface is rough if you look close enough. I could see the world through a macro lens at a glance. The next moment, my vision could be telescopic. And seeing in the dark? I could pick out black cats down the block during a power outage.
Lesson 154: nothing is as it seems. The more you can see of the world, the more you realize how much the first glance misses.
Oh, yeah. Confused about the whole lesson thing? The previous 153 lessons on how to survive Armageddon are in
The Haunting Lessons
The End of the World As I Know It
. It’s all there. Demon army invasions, battles, the job I lost, witty banter. You’ll like it. My misery is fascinating, even to me. That’s one reason I write. The other reason is that I’m here to recruit you to Earth’s dimensional defense force, the Choir Invisible. More on that later.
Those first days back in New York, I felt like I was watching myself watch the world. I didn’t feel like writing books about the Choir Invisible’s quest to defeat demons from another dimension. I mostly slept and dreamt of my home in Iowa, before the war. I didn’t have horns then and never suspected that was a possibility. The future’s always a surprise, isn’t it?
When I awoke, the first thing I did, every time, was feel for my horns. Every time, the horns were still there. I’d retreated into sleep when I wasn’t staring into the bathroom mirror.
Mama told me that sleeping too much was a sign of depression and said I should snap out of it.
“Thanks, Mama. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.”
I hung up on her and tried to detect more horn growth. Despite my improved senses, I couldn’t see the horns grow. I was convinced I could feel it happening, though. The tip of each sharp point was itchy. Being me was suddenly weird…well, even weirder than usual.
I used to play classical piano. I thought I’d be a doctor. Once upon a time I’d wanted to marry a nice guy, get a dog, live on a farm and have kids. Now, my once upon a time had turned a little too
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
. I loved that show, but living it is another matter.
The demon genes I got from my father. That demon called himself Peter Smythe to disguise his demonic origins. It was a good disguise, but the demon always comes out in the end, I guess.
Aside from being stronger and feeling more alert, just like dear old dad, my sense of smell made me as sensitive to odors as a hound dog. I hadn’t noticed before that, when the wind blew in an unfortunate way, Brooklyn smelled like urine and garbage. When spring and the heat of summer came, I assumed I’d smell that even more intensely. So, yay, hyper senses.
Despite better hearing and sight, I found I was so distracted with thoughts of doom and gloom that I often tuned out my best friend. Like now.
“Have you heard a word I’ve said?” Manny asked.
“Um…I, uh— ”
“You were narrating your misery in your head again, weren’t you?”
“Not the whole time you were talking. I think I spared a moment there to think about how the floor used to feel smoother under my bare feet and now it feels like it’s got rough channels through it.”
Manny glanced at the sanded and burnished wooden floor. “Okay.”
“Oh, my God! Manny! What if I get
Nike doesn’t make sneakers for cloven hooves!”
“Like Victor said, one day at a time, honey bunny.”
“Nice. Victor Fuentes, my hero and fearless leader. I wish he’d warned me all I was in for when he recruited me. He seemed like one of the good guys. The old man hasn’t come around to see the freak, though, has he?”
“No, though, to be fair, you’ve been hiding in your room under your blankies for days.”
“Yes. And thank you for the steady supply of hot cocoa.” One of the delights of heightened senses was that food tasted better. That’s one mark in the asset column, though it occurred to me the one benefit of being a demon might easily lead to getting fat.
I was stronger and I could contribute to the war effort, but what about me? Assuming the war would end and we won, what future did I have after it was done? That’s what I obsessed over in the dark of my room.
I didn’t want half-demon kids. When I told Mama that, she tested a joke to lighten my mood. “When you were three and four, you were
demon, Tamara. Half-demon is an improvement.”
It wasn’t a good joke. Not to me, anyway. I’d had a harsh case of traumatic pimples when I was fifteen. A few pimples in puberty are nothing compared to growing demon horns. It had been more than a week since my body started changing and there’s nothing at the drugstore that conceals demon horns. Proactiv and a bit of concealer weren’t going to do the job.
“I talked to your Mom this morning,” Manny said.
“Weird. I didn’t hear the phone. I hear
the neighbors’ phones now. People are always on their phones. How do they have time for sex and books and…well,
“I was down at the bodega refilling our cream, mocha and popcorn supplies. I called her, asking what to do with you.”
“And Mama said?”
“I’m supposed to stop enabling your self-pitying behavior and return you to the Keep to get back to training.”
“No more hot cocoa. You said you wanted to train. Let’s train.”
“My horns were little nubs when I said that. They’re long enough now that a little depression is justified. It’s a fact. Look it up. I googled it. PubMed.”
“Mr. Chang wants you to work with Devin Anguloora more on your archery.”
I sighed. “Mama feels bad for me, though, right?”
“Yes, of course.”
“I wouldn’t be a half-demon if she hadn’t slept with Peter Smythe, or whatever his real name is.”
“Mama feels bad for you, but she says to stop babying you. She says as long as we’re too nice, hiding under the covers will have too much allure for you.”
“Allure. A lure. I never noticed that connection until now. Do you think that’s a demon thing, too, like hearing the tap drip all night in the next apartment?”
“No, Tam. Your obsession with words is just dumb and irritating.”
“Oh. Okay. Well. Kinda overshot the runway on Mama’s mission not to be nice to your sister sword singer, there, Manhattan.”
“Tam, you know she didn’t want this life for you. She tried to keep you out of it as long as possible. But the war is on now. Your mother feels terrible about how things have turned out. She cried. Now she’s done crying. She’s on to the next thing and you should be, too. And you know I’m right. It’s in one of your books somewhere. No whining.”
“Sure. Use my words and truth against me. That’s a dirty trick.”
Manny gave an encouraging smile. “Let’s get you back to the Keep, fight demons alongside the Choir Invisible, save the world…you know, the superhero stuff.”
“Wow. Mama bounced back quickly. Her resilience is — ”
“Pissing me off.”
“There really is no time for this. She has to organize the Keep’s drug supplies. There will be casualties. With you back to duty, we’ll have fewer casualties.”
“Are we going on a guilt trip? Is it a long ride?”
“Tam,” she said patiently, “with your town blown up, I think your mom is putting her energies and talents in the right place and looking to the future.”
“The future might be pretty short,” I said. The demons had broken through the dimensional rift to Medicament, Iowa with almost one hundred soldiers.
“The Ra came after you personally, Tam. But what makes you think they won’t invade Times Square next?”
“Times Square is for tourists,” I said. “The demons are more of a terror in the East Village kind of crowd, I think.”
“Was that technically a joke?”
I went back to my bedroom but this time Manhattan followed me.
“Good. Get your groove back, Stella.”
I climbed back into my rumpled bedsheets. “I never read the book.”
“I saw the movie on a DVD when I was seven,” Manny said.
“Absent parents. TV babysitter.”
“It was that moment I began to suspect I was a lesbian.”
“Really? Angela Bassett lit you up, huh?”
“No. Whoopi Goldberg. That’s why I wasn’t really sure which way I was leaning.”
“Was that a joke?”
“Technically,” Manny said. “A mean one. So, how about it? Are you going to stop feeling sorry for yourself and be the badass for goodness’ sake? Are you ready to be the superhero you were born to be? Or are you determined to be the Grinch who stole Christmas? Let me know now so I can get out of the apartment.”
“Feels like you’re asking me to steer into the skid, Manny.”
“Well, yeah. That’s how you get out of the skid, kid. You’re suddenly a half-demon and that sucks. I get it. We all get it. But you’re
“I’m not sure who I am. Not anymore.”
“You’ll find out if you get out of bed, have a shower, put on your best yoga pants and come with me.”
“But I don’t wanna go to school!” I pulled the bed sheet over my head. My right horn tore through it as easily as breaking a spider web.