Nightmare Magazine




Demon in Aisle 6

I first saw the demon the Sunday after you died. It was 11:53 p.m. Just seven minutes until I would have grabbed my knapsack and biked home to Mom and bed and a life of sound sleep. That night the flurries were drifting down like nuclear ash. Most folks had fled for warmer places, but a few shopper-zombies still wandered SuperMart’s bright aisles, seeking redemption in the form of deep discounts. I was wheeling a mop and bucket down to Aisle 17, where a crate of cherry soda had fallen from the shelf and sent high-fructose fizz all over the concrete floor. When I passed Aisle 6, the demon looked up at me.

I felt as if a swarm of moths had hatched in my belly and were wriggling out of their cocoons to feast on my organs, as if someone’s hand had clutched my heart and squeezed. It hurt so much I gagged, because there he stood, this giant ball of brown afterbirth, eight feet tall, hunched and crooked, one eye white and huge, like the moon on the night you died, the other this black drop of oil, a black hole sucking up all light. He was a pinwheel of jagged teeth and claws and bones, like some aborted dinosaur fetus.

And I didn’t want to look. I was too afraid. But there he was, more there than anything I’d ever seen. And he stared at me, this nightmare fetus, eating candy. Shredded bags of Skittles and Starbursts and Tootsie Rolls lay over the floor like confetti after a parade. A strip of orange plastic hung from his disjointed mouth. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I ran.

I shoved the bucket down to Aisle 17 and mopped up the sticky black puddle and pretended I’d never seen him, hoping he would go away and never come back. But that was stupid, because he made sure to keep coming back until I understood he was as real to me as you once were.

• • • •

I still have that selfie you took at Onderdonk Lake as the background pic on my phone. It hurts like hell every time I check the time or take a call, but it hurts even more when I think of removing it. It makes me remember your smile. Your big, pouty, red lips. Your huge front teeth. My little Freddy Mercury.

Do you remember when we first met, outside school? It was the end of lunch period, and all the kids waited by the doors for the bell. I was talking to Deb and Jen, my new BFFs, puffing a smoke, trying real hard to make more friends, because to everyone else I was that weird transfer kid from New York who pronounced “coffee” with a “W,” who dressed all in black like some “Goth heathen,” who had to be shunned because he came from that place with too many “tree-hugging liberal faggots.”

I only knew you as this shy boy who sat in the back of my physics class and made everyone look stupid with your perfect grades. I told this dumb joke, and I heard this enormous laugh, as if the whole world was shuddering with joy. I turned, and I saw you smile, and this sugary-sweet feeling filled my heart, like my chest had become a giant balloon and I was floating way up above all the bullshit of the world, and all that was left was you, me and endless blue skies.

You asked me for a smoke.

I said, “I’m Lucas,” and shook your warm, soft-but-firm hand.

“Davis,” you said, your eyes watering from the smoke, locked hard to mine.

Later, you told me you’d never smoked before, that you’d puked in the bathroom halfway through English class. We laughed a lot about that. We laughed about a lot of things. And when you died, I thought I’d never hear you laugh again.

Now? I’m not so sure.

• • • •

The nightmares came like freight trains, loud and huge and terrifying. I’d wake up screaming, shivering, with memories of vague, bloody shapes, limbs and teeth and bones all mixed together in a monster smoothie. Once I dreamed of you standing outside my bedroom door, your body open to me like those cutaway slices of earth in our physics textbooks. You stared at me, and I wanted to say something, maybe goodbye or hello or just anything, but you turned and walked away.

I woke gasping. I wondered what you were trying to say, if you had wanted me to follow you. And, yeah, I considered following you many times. How could I not?

I tried to convince myself I’d hallucinated the demon, but he was more full of life than all those shopper-zombies wandering SuperMart’s bright aisles. I avoided Aisle 6 as much as possible, afraid he’d come back. But he did. He had to.

It was Tuesday, 11:47 p.m. I was tired and wanted to go home. Your Freddy Mercury smile stared up at me when I checked the time on my phone. I was restocking Aisle 7. I didn’t want to be so close to 6, but my boss had noticed that the shelves near 6 were getting sparse and sent me on a mission.

I worked as fast as I could, but after twenty minutes I decided my fears were stupid. I had to stop being a baby. I peeked into Aisle 6, where this toddler sat in a big red shopping cart, kicking his legs, while his mom rifled through huge bags of M&Ms.

And as I look into the aisle, the kid says, “I don’t like him, mommy.” And the mom says, “Be nice, Mikey. He’s just doing his job.” But then the kid says, “No, not him, mommy. I don’t like that one.” He points over her shoulder to the end of the aisle, where the shadows fell all wrong, as if the light got lost and confused before it hit the ground. The mother has her back to this, but I see it clearly.

The kid starts howling, and the hairs on the back of my neck rise as the demon lopes into view like he was stepping through an invisible door.

He’s all white and glistening, with a new crooked head and a mouth like a blowfish. Thousands of long, sharp teeth, and a honeycomb of cow’s eyes, all dark and black and huge. All gazing at me. And, yeah, he’s different this time, but I know he’s the same demon because the same colony of termites are eating my intestines, the same firm hand is wringing my heart.

The mother doesn’t dare look where the kid was pointing. But she must have seen the terror in my face, because she says, “Por favor, espíritu, leave us be! We’re shopping for his birthday!” She crosses herself and shoves her kid and cart toward checkout like she’s racing the Iditarod.

But me, I can’t move. I’m frozen with dread as the demon lopes over to the shelves and tears open a bag of Tootsie Rolls with his teeth. He swallows them whole, wrappers and all, while his lips smack wetly together. Gobs of black saliva drip to the floor and make these weird rainbows in the fluorescent lights.

I feel a touch on my arm and I scream. But it’s just this long-bearded dude that smells like cigarettes and bourbon. And when I look back, the demon is gone, but he’s left the shredded wrappers behind.

The dude says, “Sorry to startle you, man. Coffee filters? Which aisle?”

• • • •

I asked you to tutor me, but I think you knew I was after more than grades. Mom works two jobs and I need to work six nights just so we can starve more efficiently. It’s been like this since Fuckface left us for sexier pastures. Mom’s almost never home, so I knew you and I would be alone for hours.

We did physics problems. Motion, energy, momentum. I got frustrated, and we stepped out into a gray and rainy autumn day that made me want to wear wool sweaters and drink soup and nap all afternoon until the sun set too soon. The leaves had just turned this luscious gold, and when I mentioned their color you said, “The leaves don’t actually change color. They’re always golden, or orange, or red, but their colors are hidden under the green of chlorophyll. It’s only when the chlorophyll breaks down in the fall that their natural color emerges.”

And I said, “Just like people. You only see their true colors when their defenses break down.”

And you said, “Yeah, but people’s true colors aren’t always beautiful.”

And that’s when I knew you and I were each half of a greater being yet to form.

We shared a cigarette. By then you smoked like Louis Jourdan, every puff an erotic display. Grace and angst danced blissfully across the micro-expressions of your face. I wanted you so badly I shuddered. You told me about your favorite books. To Say Nothing of the Dog and The Road and a writer named James Tiptree, Jr. who was really a woman. You got excited about this TV show where this closeted doctor in a religious English town hid his desires for fear he might lose his thriving business if his patients knew he was gay.

The conversation had to go this way, toward sex, toward desire, in the same way that water has to flow downhill to merge with other streams until it forms a gushing river. Hunger burned in your eyes as you gazed at me. Ancient glaciers melted in my body, flooding me with heat. I wanted to connect your universe to mine so together we could birth galaxies.

But the water hit a dam, pooled, and stopped. You turned the conversation to your dad, a detective. He worked late nights, and you told me how he’d come home drunk and break things, and every now and then he’d try to break you.

My heart broke a little too. I told you to report him, because fuckers like him deserved to die, but you said you thought it would only make things worse. Without your dad, you had no one. Your mom died from breast cancer when you were six.

And I said, “God, Davis, that must’ve been so hard to lose her so young.”

And you said, “No, I haven’t lost her. Life is energy, and energy can’t be destroyed. I don’t believe in death, Lucas. Mom’s not gone. She’s just traveling.”

Words more beautiful had never been spoken. I leaned in, and you didn’t stop me. Your hot tongue tasted like cigarettes, and all the pain I had been carrying, the anger about my dad leaving us to fend for ourselves, my frustration at all these ignorant kids in this podunk town who had no room in their cliques for a gay freak like me—all of that melted away into the flood of warmth radiating from my heart. I was a new star, blazing. Life had brought me to this moment, and therefore life was beautiful.

It was the first time you’d kissed a boy. It was the first time you’d kissed anyone. I’d kissed plenty of boys back in New York. In my public school in Manhattan, kids had two moms, or two dads, or a black dad and a white mom, or a white dad and an Asian mom, or a Jewish mom and a Buddhist dad, or a Muslim dad and a Christian mom, or no mom, or no dad, or no parents at all, and it was all one beautiful, glorious, dancing spectrum of color, and no one cared, because that’s just how it was.

But here in podunkville, if a boy dares want another boy, you’re Satan’s spawn, or a pedophile, or you sweat AIDS and exhale sin, and I’d absorbed all these disgusting worlds of hate in the three months that I’d lived here, in overheard snatches of conversations, in people’s hard expressions and uncomfortable sighs, or more overt revelations shouted in the halls. But I kissed you anyway.

“You’re shivering, Davis,” I said.

And you said, “I feel like a leaf, stripped of my outer covering.”

And I said, “And your true colors are beautiful.”

• • • •

When SuperMart’s security guard went on one of his epic-long breaks, I snuck into his office and cued up the surveillance tapes. I needed to know if I was losing my mind, or if my demon was real. Maybe I’d see him, but I’d settle for hovering bags of candy, unnatural shadows, or really any damned scrap of evidence proving that I’d seen someone swallowing massive doses of high-fructose corn syrup in Aisle 6.

It took some time to find the right tape. I cued it up, and there I stood on the blurry screen, this horrific blank stare on my face, jaw open, arms at my side, like some tranced kid at a stage hypnotist show, frozen by a magic word. There was no one else in the aisle with me.

Eventually this blank-eyed figure walks over to the shelves and opens a bag of Starbursts with his teeth. After I’d watched myself shove a third handful of still-wrapped candy into my mouth, I stopped the tape.

• • • •

I’m pretty sure Mom knew I was gay for years, but I told her on the drive from New York just to be sure. Eyes fixed on the road, she barely nodded, as if I were telling her my shoe size was 10 or that I had brown eyes. But after, I sensed that she was happy to know how different I was from Fuckface, that I’d never destroy a woman like he destroyed her. But I’m not so different from Fuckface after all. It’s just that my targets are a different gender.

You came over every day after school, and the tutoring quickly stopped. Or at least you stopped teaching me physics and I taught you how to kiss, where to touch, when to be gentle, and when to be rough. But that first time we curled up in my bed, our bodies pressed together like two clinging atoms, you needed no instruction.

I felt as if we were wrapped in a warm blanket that would enclose us forever. We held each other and stared up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling. But after, your thoughts turned to your dad. You told me he’d shot some unarmed kid, that he was on paid suspension, that his drinking had gotten worse, and that he’d smashed your laptop. I noticed the bruises on your chest.

I’d never hated a person more than I hated your dad then. Not even Fuckface had induced such rage in me.

But you talked me down, turned the conversation to your mom, how much you missed her, how you regretted never getting to know her, not having her around. You curled up in my arms and cried, and I held you until you fell asleep.

No one had ever opened up to me like this, and I savored my role as consoler. It gave me purpose. When you awoke, we talked about moving to Copenhagen or Berlin, starting a new life someplace where people didn’t give a damn who or how you loved.

We walked a lot through the streets after school, passing quiet houses, kicking up leaves, holding hands. You picked up a small stone and told me how its matter was formed in the heart of dying stars, that everything in the world was formed when ancient stars exploded. I loved that, both of us, cosmic debris. Your hot breath misted the air as you handed me the stone.

“Here,” you said, “have a little star.”

I’d put it in my pocket, held onto it like it was gold.

You read me your favorite sections of books and a short story you’d written about a blind boy who wanted to be a pilot, and it was beautiful and brave and heartbreaking. You said you wanted to be a writer someday, or a scientist, or both.

We were walking home under a majestic spray of stars, and I was in awe, because we never had skies like these in Manhattan. You pointed out Orion and Sirius, bright in the east. Your house was this small, crooked thing, the lawn overgrown, junk piled on the side, weeds everywhere, and I fell in love with it instantly, because this was the place that had formed you. But you wouldn’t allow me in.

“My dad,” you said, “he won’t like you. He doesn’t like anyone, really.”

But I pushed and prodded, because I wouldn’t let this alcoholic child-abuser stop me from visiting the home of the boy I loved, and after a time you relented, but not before you made me swear I wouldn’t say a word.

Your dad sat on the couch. The TV was on and a Marlboro burned in the ashtray. Snickers wrappers littered the table. He looked at both of us, back and forth, in that probing way that only cops can do. I tried to hold his gaze, because I wanted to let him know I knew the monster he was, that he didn’t scare me. But I shivered and looked away. I’d expected this buff, hard-jawed, mountain of a man, but instead there sat this pathetic hunched and balding creature drunk and disheveled on the couch, and I almost felt sorry for him. Almost.

He turned back to the TV, told you to take out the trash, slurring his words.

My heart pounded as you led me away. Your room was small, with bright red walls, and posters of the periodic table, the Sombrero galaxy, Nikola Tesla and Neils Bohr. You organized your books by color, and it was adorable. But the room had a faint odor of sadness, as if I could smell a decade of tears.

“Well,” you said. “Here we are.”

I went to kiss you. But you stopped me. “Not here,” you said. “Never here.”

And I said, “Why do you let that shitbag control your life?”

And you said, “Stop, Lucas. Please.”

But I knew just how to touch you, what words to whisper in your ear to stir your desire. Soon I had you panting, my hands wrapped around your erection. Later, you told me you’d never come so hard.

• • • •

After I’d seen the security video, I thought I was going crazy. But I went on mopping up shattered pickle jars and toddler vomit, working the register, smoking by the dumpsters like I always had, trying my best to forget.

It was Thursday, 11:39 p.m. It had been raining all day. A blanket of fast-moving clouds hung low over the parking lot, reflecting the orange streetlights into absurdist paintings across the sky. I hadn’t slept more than two hours the night before and hadn’t eaten all day. I had finally become a shopper-zombie, flitting through the world from one aisle to another without reason or purpose.

Cold red light smacked the side of my face, and I gasped when I realized I had wandered into Aisle 6. Shadows leaped over the candy as if swarms of birds spiraled beneath the high fluorescent lights. And in the far corner, like a jagged oval mirror, hovered a crack in the world.

On the other side a flat and brown and utterly barren landscape spread under a bleak sky. Here and there, twisted metal shapes spiked up from the ground, like half-buried debris from an ancient civilization.

A dim red sun glowed behind black clouds, and its blood-red light shifted over the ground. Creatures with too many limbs loped across some distant, twisting road, fuzzy and indistinct. A hot wind blew in my face that reeked of ancient tears. Something wailed, the sound of an enormous beast crying, and the whole world shuddered.

This was familiar. We had met, this world and me, but where or when, I didn’t remember. But I had to know. I took one step toward the door. Two. Answers lay on the other side. The hot, reeking wind tousled my hair as I took a third step. A fourth.

I stood at the threshold. The oval boundary flickered with whorls of blue fire. I knew whatever lay on the other side would destroy me, that after I entered, I would be erased forever. But I wanted to be destroyed. I deserved to go up in flames. And so I stepped through the door.

• • • •

Those days with you were the happiest in my life. You had unlocked me from the cage I didn’t know I was in. I boasted of you to Deb and Jen, and they giggled and hugged me and were glad I’d finally outed myself to them. I posted sappy song lyrics on Facebook and wrote that I’d finally found happiness. I tried to hold your hand in the halls, but you yanked your fingers away and gave me hateful stares. I tried to kiss you by the bleachers after school, but you shoved me away.

“They might see!” you said.

“Who?” I said. “The gay police? Why do you care what anyone thinks?”

You gritted your teeth and said, “In gym they threw me to the grass, called me a faggot. I scuffed my elbow.”

“Those fucks!” I said. I kissed your elbow, where the skin was red and raw. “You can’t let them do this, Davis. You have to fight back, or they’ll do it again.” What I didn’t say was that a kid had spit on me that morning and the day before another had shoved me into a locker and called me queer. But these small bruises were unimportant. We had each other, and that was enough.

And you said, “I’m not a fighter, Lucas.”

And I said, “We have to be.”

“But how do they know?”

“It’s obvious, Davis.”

“But is it?” you said. “I hardly speak to you in school. And outside physics class, we don’t see each other much.”

“Maybe they heard rumors.”

“From who? We both promised not to tell.”

My face burned as I remained silent.

“Who?” you said. “Who did you tell, Lucas?”

“No one,” I said. But this was a lie. I’d already told Jen and Deb, because I had to share my happiness with someone. And they had to share it too, because I’m pretty sure by then the whole damn school knew.

“I have to go,” you said, avoiding my eyes.

“But it’s early,” I said. “I thought we would go to the park.”

“No,” you said. “I have to go home.”

• • • •

When I stepped through the burning door the first thing that struck me was the sound. A cry from some immense, distant beast. It was low and deep and lingering, and shook my belly until I felt like throwing up. The sound grew in volume until it filled the stale air. I should have turned and ran, but I stayed.

The ground was soft and spongy, and a weight pressed on my shoulders so that my feet sunk halfway into the brown foam. All was dull and shapeless, but my senses were heightened, as if I had drunk too much coffee and was watching a hi-def film flickering before my eyes. A trail of footprints, huge feet with branching potato-spud toes and fans of claws, led me forward. I grew weaker with every step, until I stood dizzy and panting before one of the twisted metal shapes.

Like the skeleton of a huge iron flower, it spiked from the ground toward the red sun. In the flickering light the metal seemed to breathe. On its twisting girders smaller spikes branched from the larger, and smaller spikes branched from these, and so on, and so on, down and down into fractal infinity. And all over the spongy ground lay little rusty fragments that had fallen off. I picked one up, and it was hot, and my fingers turned red with dust.

And suddenly there he was, my demon, standing beside the iron flower as if he had always been there. This time he was full of eyes, a thousand black, huge and angry orbs, all staring at me, accusing. A hole opened in his side, as if he were splitting in two, revealing rows of small, sharp teeth and a black tongue. And from this came such a scream that the whole world shuddered, and I fell.

He crawled over to me, end over end like an inchworm. A lump formed in his side, a pseudopod reaching, that became a long, fat limb. On its end was a giant hand, flying toward my face. It slammed into my skull, and I screamed and fell back again.

Then I was flying through space, zipping around an immense black void, trillions of stars spiraling with me, falling into the void, one by one. And I swung around this cosmic whirlpool, for ages and ages. And I knew that I’d spin like this for eternities before it was my turn to fall into the void and be destroyed. And I spun, and spun, and spun, and spun . . .

I awoke on the floor. My coworker, Mary, held a cup of Hi-C to my mouth, and the red liquid shimmered in the lights. I spent thirty minutes begging my boss not to call an ambulance because I didn’t have health insurance. It was low blood sugar, nothing more, I said. He gave me the night off, with pay, and as I unlocked my bike for the ride home I noticed my palm was red.

I thought, finally I had proof that all of this was real. But I remembered that some of Mary’s Hi-C had spilled down my hand. My tongue was still sickly sweet.

• • • •

On Monday, I walked you home after school under towering sycamores on Benefit Street. You walked fast, and told me you had a lot of homework and probably wouldn’t have time to hang out for the next few days.

“What is it?” I said, sensing the wall rising between us. “What’s going on?”

You didn’t answer at first, but I pushed. “Some kids posted all this homophobic stuff on my Facebook page,” you said.

“Who?” I demanded. “We have to report them to the principal!”

“No, Lucas. No.”

“Tell me, Davis! Who was it?”

“Just forget it.”

I took out my phone to look, but you said, “I’ve already deleted the posts. Do me a favor and just let it go.”

“No,” I said. “I won’t. And you shouldn’t either. You need to come down hard on them, or they’ll do it again.”

You stopped and faced me. “Why do you think you always know what the fuck is best for me?”

You never cursed, and the look in your eyes was close to hate, so I pretended I hadn’t seen it. “Davis,” I said, “you have to stop hiding your true self from others. Be proud of who you are. Be brave.”

And you said, “That might work for you, Lucas. But you and I, we’re different.”

“Yes,” I said. And maybe because I remembered the hate in your eyes, I said, “You’re a fucking coward, and I’m going home.”

I turned down State Street and never looked back. I’ll never know if you stopped to watch me or kept on walking.

• • • •

On Friday I snuck into the security office and stole the store key. I had it copied and returned before anyone discovered it was missing. That night, around 1 a.m., I snuck into SuperMart. It was easy enough to turn off the alarm, having watched the guard enter the keycode a hundred times when we smoked together. I’d swiped a bottle of Gordon’s from Mom’s stash, and by this time I had a solid buzz on.

“Hello!” I announced to the empty store. “Lucas is here!” The aisles were dark and full of shadows from the dim red exit signs and the orange streetlights glimmering through the front windows.

I sauntered into Aisle 6, half expecting my demon to be waiting. But there was only candy.

“Where are you?” I shouted. “I’m here! Come get me!”

I had my phone ready, camera app open. He wouldn’t escape this time. I took a swig of vodka and put down the bottle.

“Where are you?” I shouted. “I’m here!”

I walked up and down Aisle 6, over and over, like a marching soldier. I knocked candy to the floor, and I shouted at the top of my lungs. “Where are you? Show your face, you motherfucker!”

My voice echoed and faded, until the only sound was the faint thrum of the highway beyond the parking lot.

I stumbled toward the vodka bottle and sat next to it. I remained there for a while, slowly finishing the bottle, until I was so drunk the candy seemed to shiver.

“Davis,” I said, tears rolling down my cheeks. “Davis I miss you. I miss you so goddamned much. Why did you have to leave?”

I lifted the bottle by its neck and swung it down onto the metal racks. The glass shattered and pieces spread far and wide. I rubbed my face and it felt wet. In the shadows the blood looked black as oil.

“Oh, god,” I said, pulling pieces of glass from my cheeks.

I stumbled out of the store, blood and tears spilling down my face, and somehow managed to bike to Jen’s house. I called three times before she awoke, and she snuck me in her room through her first-floor window. And there, as she carefully removed the glass from my face with tweezers, as she applied swabs of stinging alcohol, and wrapped me in a warm blanket, I told her everything. I told her of you and me, and I told her of the demon.

And God bless Jen, she didn’t judge. She didn’t say I was going crazy or needed meds. She only listened and nodded and held me until I stopped shivering.

“I’m sorry I told people about you and Davis,” she said. “I regret it every day.”

“It’s not your fault,” I said. “Davis asked me not to tell anyone about us, and I did anyway. You can’t be held responsible for a promise you didn’t make.”

“I guess I just got excited because you were so open about it,” Jen said. “Lucas . . . Deb and I, we’re gay too. We’ve been together since junior high.”

I stared at her, shocked. “Really? I can’t believe I never noticed.”

“We keep real quiet about it. You know how this town can be.”

And I nodded, because I did know. But by then was too late.

• • • •

The day after I left you in the street, you didn’t come to school. I called and texted you a dozen times, but you didn’t respond. All these hateful, homophobic posts piled up on your Facebook page, and I wondered why you weren’t erasing them. School was dreary without you. I didn’t eat lunch, and a cramp gnawed at my stomach. I went straight home after school, and when the sun went down early, I got frantic. I had to see you and apologize for calling you a coward and for telling others about us, because I had broken my promise.

I knew you’d be angry with me, but you’d soften. Eventually, you’d forgive me. And later, maybe even that same night, we’d cuddle, and all would be right again.

When I set out for your house, it was getting dark. A full moon rose above the black trees, shining like an enormous eye. A single light was on in your house. I was trembling as I stepped up to the door, but it was open, and I went in. Your house reeked of cigarettes and sweat, and empty beer cans and candy wrappers covered the table by the TV. In the distance, someone was crying.

Time slowed as I approached your door. Your dad crouched on his knees just inside the threshold, weeping and shuddering.

He looked up at me, his eyes red pinwheels surrounding pools of black, and he said, “You! You did this to him, you selfish motherfucker!” Saliva dribbled from his chin and splattered to the floor.

I stared at him, unable to move.

“Look!” he screamed. “Look at what you did!”

You lay on the bed, as if sleeping, and for a moment I pretended that’s all I saw. But your dad’s nine millimeter was still clasped in your hand, and little red pieces of your skull were scattered all over the room. I was still staring at you, unable to believe what I was seeing, when your dad’s fist struck me in the face.

• • • •

I found out about the funeral a day too late. Your father didn’t make it public. You were buried in a small Jewish cemetery eighteen miles from town. I had to take a bus there. I didn’t even know you were Jewish. You’d never told me. People had left a few pebbles on your headstone, so I added the one you gave me when you said we were all formed in the exploding hearts of stars.

I had a black eye for a week, but I didn’t press charges against your dad, because I deserved it. He was right. It was my fault. I was a selfish motherfucker.

There was an obit for you on the school blog written by some kid who never knew you. In the moderated comments students wrote that you were with God now, that Jesus forgives all sin. No one ever mentioned you were Jewish. People spoke about you for a few days and pointed at me in the halls. The hateful comments on your Facebook page were removed and it became a makeshift memorial. But all this soon faded, like a cinder in a dying fire. The school bells went on ringing as they always had. And I still had homework and my job at SuperMart after school.

And I thought, this can’t be all. You couldn’t have been snuffed so easily. When I told Jen about the demon, she offered some armchair analysis.

“It’s all very clear to me,” she said. “The bleak world that you walked into, that’s Davis’s bedroom. The weird metal plant, all twisted and broken, that’s Davis. And the demon’s accusing eyes, those are his father’s. You see, Lucas? The demon is your guilt.”

It seemed obvious when she said it. All the pieces fit. My guilt had been so overwhelmingly strong that I summoned the demon from my subconscious. And it had haunted me until I acknowledged it.

And so, knowing this, I’ve tried to go on living, as the scabs on my face slowly heal and my black eye fades. But then last night, as I was emptying my pockets before bed, out came a small piece of metal.

I thought it was the stone that you’d given me when we were walking through the streets, the ash from an ancient exploding star. But I had placed that stone on your grave. My fingers turned red from touching this one, and I remembered that I had picked up a fragment of the metal plant when I had stepped through that flaming door.

And I thought, if the intensity of my guilt could summon a demon, what could my love summon? I put the stone on my windowsill last night, under the bright stars of Orion and Sirius, and I focused all of my love for you onto it. I thought of your Freddy Mercury smile and your world-shuddering laugh and I thought of your gentle kindness that carried me through these autumn days.

I fell asleep, thinking of you, and when I awoke, the east was orange with the coming dawn, and the little stone on my windowsill had sprouted five tiny new limbs. And that’s when I knew, Davis, that like your mother, who left you far too soon, you’re not really gone, you’re just traveling.

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Matthew Kressel

Matthew Kressel

Matthew Kressel is a multiple Nebula Award and World Fantasy Award finalist. His first novel, King of Shards, was hailed as, “Majestic, resonant, reality-twisting madness,” by NPR Books. His short fiction has or will soon appear in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed,, Nightmare, Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Interzone, Electric Velocipede, and the anthologies Mad Hatters and March Hares, Cyber World, Naked City, After, and The People of the Book, as well as many other places. His work has been translated into Czech, Polish, French, Russian, Chinese, and Romanian. From 2003 to 2010 he ran Senses Five Press, which published Sybil’s Garage, an acclaimed speculative fiction magazine, and Paper Cities, which went on to win the World Fantasy Award in 2009. His is currently the co-host of the Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in Manhattan alongside Ellen Datlow, and he is a long-time member of the Altered Fluid writers group. By trade, he is a full-stack software developer, and he developed the Moksha submission system, which is in use by many of the largest SF markets today. You can find him at online at, where he blogs about writing, technology, environmentalism and more. Or you can find him on Twitter @mattkressel.