Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

The Skin of a Teenage Boy Is Not Alive

Parveen isn’t there when Benny falls off the roof. But everyone knows the story. Benny and his dumb demon cult.

It happens at one of their houses, a place built like a modern-day cathedral. The kind of hovel that has a saltwater pool with a vanishing edge and a wine cellar with someone’s entire life savings down there and red-glazed tiles cutting swoops into the Los Pueblos skyline. Six-day-old moon, a wide goblin grin from above. The hot strobe of synth-pop booming everywhere. The hazy, electrostatic currents of teenage bodies thrilling with vodka and happiness hormones. Those pretty girls and pretty boys, everyone whose beautiful teeth could be pasted in a magazine. Come on, says Benny to the beautiful kids, the dumb demon cult kids. I wanna get possessed.

They go up to the rooftop terrace—and yes, of course there’s a rooftop terrace, and obviously, it has a tidy flower garden, and a glittering, breathy view of the ocean. The student council secretary discreetly pukes into the rhododendrons when she thinks nobody’s watching. It’s January. Five months until graduation. Benny says, let’s go, let’s go. Time for the ceremony.

What happens next, the cult kids won’t say. Won’t, or can’t. And something happens, that much is certain. A secret ritual, a ceremony in darkness, whatever. Something happens on the rooftop terrace, with the beautiful demon cult girls and boys. The true believers.

The music clicks off. Now it is shivery and quiet, only California crickets lisping into the dark. The night closes upon them, an enigmatic fist. And when it opens its fingers again, Benny is possessed.

He tries to speak, but it doesn’t quite work. His eyes are wet, black. Crawling with unrecognizable stars. They know it is Benny and not Benny. The way anyone knows that something is wrong. There is a face underneath his face, and it is very, very old. The face swivels on its neck to look at them.

Say something, one of the cult kids whispers, practically palpitating with fear and excitement.

Benny, who is not Benny, hisses: What a waste. What a fucking waste.

The face shuts. He turns, and climbs over the railing, and walks off the roof. Just walks off the edge. Bam. There is a thump below. And a silence. The music clicks on again, like magic. Like something else. Seventy decibels, the bassline whacking them right in the cranium.

One of the lacrosse girls screams, a defensive midfielder, but no one can hear it over the heavy artillery of the music. All they can see is the wide-open whites of her eyes, the black hole of her mouth. Those gorgeous teeth, right out of a magazine.

• • • •

Benny will live, although it will take months for the demon to evaporate from his skin, maybe years. No one’s looking closely, least of all him. They will graduate. At the ceremony they will release tiny nervous hummingbirds, rainbow-throated, tremulous with anxiety, trapped and suddenly free. The comparison will be apt.

After graduation, Parveen will leave the dust of Los Pueblos in her cracked rear-view mirror. Fingernail frogs whirling past her into the sagebrush, palm trees doing the Macarena to the afternoon breeze. See you later, alligator. The demon cult kids will grow up, because that’s what most kids do. The kids will get jobs. They will invest in retirement funds. There will be other cult kids after them. There are always others.

Thirty years will pass. The demon will return, as he always does. The high school, it’s always the high school for him. Always the skin of a fucking teenager, wearing the clammy eagerness of a burst pustule. He will want to escape the body, but there’s no escaping a juvenile body. He will try to snap the wrists of the teenager. He will try to punch open a window with its skull. He will try to combust its body with the incendiary force of his rage alone. He will howl, yanking on the cords of this body’s throat, he will howl until this mouth is full of blood, but it won’t change a thing.

• • • •

Parveen has known Aisha from the very beginning. 3000 BC, first day of grade school. Paste in jars, kids upchucking on the monkey bars. The only two brown girls in class, they make a studious point to ignore each other for the first few years. They become friends anyway.

Like every good friendship, they follow the beats of falling in love. Breathless sleepovers with the soundtrack of the night unravelling around them. They hold hands when they watch horror movies. They wage fights through passive-aggressive melees and nursed silences. They invent their own language. Hello is a three-note whistle, used sparingly. A tug on the ear, that’s goodbye. The middle finger, a classic: you’re being kind of a gonad. (It also means, of course, fuck you.) It’s pretty corny, yes. But they are kids, on their way to being teenagers, certain that they are headed for somewhere better.

They try alcohol together for the first time, a clandestine bottle of Smirnoff Ice in Parveen’s basement, peach Bellini-flavored, and when they stand up, the basement sways with them like it’s waltzing, like they are all waltzing together into something marvellous.

They are forever opposites. Parveen becomes sort of famous for her healthy dose of suspicion. In eighth-grade English, the teacher discovers her recording license plate numbers in her textbook, every dodgy car that passes by. Aisha, she is a wide-open book. Who hurt you? Aisha says sometimes, laughing, and Parveen always says, Why didn’t anyone hurt you? Parveen is convinced that if a stranger were to give Aisha candy, she’d swallow the razorblades whole, and thank them for the kindness of severing open her intestines.

When Benny falls off the roof in senior year, the cult kids start hanging around Aisha. They might be in a demon cult, but they’re also a little obvious. They sit beside her in advanced calculus like eerie, stunning vultures. They ask about her kid brother, achieving that perfect crook of concern in their eyebrows when they do. They compliment her hair. (And to be fair, Aisha has great hair.) They say, Want to come for lunch with us? Want to come to our place?

They do not ask Parveen, and this does not exactly come as a surprise to anyone involved.

• • • •

They’re going to eat you, Parveen stage-whispers to Aisha.

Not everything has to be life or death, Aisha stage-whispers back. The girls are up against the grilled barricade at the school’s annual Darwin Day Parade. It’s February. Four months until graduation. Thirty students twirl past them, preening and bowing elaborately, decked in full-body finch costumes. Galapagos finches. Darwin’s own. Each a copy of the other, except for one meticulously rendered detail. The beak, the wing, the claw, the eye. The marching band comes next. It is all so lovely, and it is so unbelievably stupid.

They’re going to sacrifice your lungs to a third-rate snake god, Parveen says.

They just throw some weird parties, that’s all. You think everyone is evil.

In the parade, a majorette whips her baton too high and careens straight into the drama department float, shearing the oil-painted diorama of Darwin’s voyage to South America. The Pacific Ocean wilts onto the road, wreaking geographic catastrophe. Aisha says, You know, you could just come with me. If you think it’s so interesting. You can write about it for the paper.

I don’t think it’s interesting. I just think you’re going to die, and I’m going to get the High School Pulitzer for your obituary. And only one of us is going to be right.

It’s a good thing you’re not petty, Aisha says, but oh, she says it with such a smile.

• • • •

Parveen will think of Aisha, and the demon cult kids, and Benny, when she is twenty-five, on a date with the boy who almost becomes her husband. They will buy an apartment together. They will adopt a war veteran of a tabby, a prickly, nervy, battle-scarred wreck, and when she finally gets the tabby to relax in the seat of her lap, seven weeks in, it feels like she’s won Olympic gold. In her adult life, there will always be victory in these small, furiously won intimacies. She will wonder why she didn’t prize these when she was younger, and she will realize the obvious. She wouldn’t have recognized intimacy if it was a fifteen-pound tabby clenched on the couch beside her.

On a Richter scale, the resulting earthquake could devastate a small, pastoral country. He will keep the cat. She will keep the apartment, for some time. Living there alone will feel like a cohabitation with the elderly phantom of their happiness. A creaking, cranky, manacled creature that rattles in the middle of the night and during lengthy silences. She will hold a séance; she will sell the apartment. See you later, alligator. It seems it is that easy to say goodbye to an entire life. Trapped, and suddenly free. An anxious, rainbow-throated hummingbird.

But first, a date. She is twenty-five. He is ruefully handsome. When she was younger, he could have fertilized her eggs just by looking at her. They slurp ramen and make furtive expeditions in touch. Knee against knee, a collision of hand here, an elbow there. For now, it is all wildly chaste. He says, Any good horror stories from high school?

Parveen says, Isn’t that the whole horror story? High school? Put it in a book, you’ll sell a hundred copies.

All the same, her gut will lurch like it used to. Aisha and the demon cult kids. Those ecstatic houses filled with light, rich-kid citadels, jewels in the Los Pueblos nights. And her, clumsy octopus at a ritzy dinner party, the eternal weirdo. Come on, Aisha would say to her, so trusting, you don’t have to be so scared of everything. And she’s right, of course, and she’s wrong, of course.

A flashbulb of memory. It is a shock to learn that it is all still there, waiting to leap out of the bushes. It is there and gone just as fast, like a swift mugging. When she closes her eyes, she will still see the afterimage, a crescendo of electric blue, brightest blue, already receding out of focus.

• • • •

The demon has plans, better believe it. He always has plans. He wants to scorch the earth and begin again. He wants to obliterate this entire stupid species. He wants to pop every human like a blister. He wants to slurp their enthusiasm until they wilt in shame and failure. He wants to pour out of their eyeholes until they disintegrate. Standard demon shit, basically.

The kids always find him. In the one-room schoolhouse days, they summon him with one-two clapping games and bowdlerized nursery rhymes. Later, young men in dowdy school jackets carve him into the pine frames of their slates. During the sixties, they call him Rogo, like a fountain drink. Teenagers. Little demons, all on their own. It’s easy for them: he is angry and desperate and horny and sad and trapped, so are they. A square peg in a square-ish hole. So to speak.

There are other demons, of course. The kids find them, too. But he is the one who always comes back. He is the one who can’t get away.

• • • •

On the night of the wrestling tournament (junior boys’ all-star, except they lose), the demon cult kids go for cheeseburgers before they initiate Aisha. It’s March. Three months to grad. The air is damp with steaming cow and runny cheese and Heinz and livid, crispy fries. Elbows churn and jaws grind, an orgy of teenage hunger.

Outside, the wet smear of bloody sunset. Tractor trailers belch down the road. Inside, the fluorescents hum like high priests. It’s kind of apocalyptic and strange.

Parveen is invited, a courtesy to Aisha more than a real invitation. They do not talk to her, but through her. Parveen is too stubborn to start conversations, so she scowls in silence and pretends to take indecipherable notes in sloppy cursive. An article she will never write: how to vanish into air by sheer concentration. How to unzip her face and crawl right out.

It will be startling, years later, for Parveen to realize that she remembers this moment with lurid, surround-sound-including-subwoofer clarity. This little, shitty moment. Aisha is knee-deep in conversation with Clinton Chen, the handsome debate club president. Parveen will remember that this is the moment she is truly on her own, clutching a soggy, falling-apart vegetable burger that she only bought because everyone else was going for cheeseburgers and she was being prickly. She will remember how it feels to be in her skin and to want to be anywhere else, anywhere but this body, sweaty and unfamiliar. But of course, there’s no escaping a juvenile body.

She steps outside. Fresh air and diesel fuel. Benny is sitting on the curb, head flung to the heavens, like he’s watching the universe wheel past them. On his best day, Benny has never been the kind of guy anyone would mistake for cerebral. (He is lovely, though, basically a model, woeful guppyfish eyes and a gorgeous, almost floral mouth.)

But Benny is far from his best days now. It is obvious, even to Parveen who does not know him, who has spoken maybe sixty, seventy words to him over four entire years of high school, that Benny is not Benny. He is a body, wavering. A boy, yes, but something else, too.

In a voice that is not entirely Benny’s, he says without looking at her, You put mold on a rock, and you know what grows out of it? Humans. Sticky little humans.

Parveen says, Um, I can leave you alone if you want.

That’s what you are. Sticky little human. But it’s fine. You hate them, too. So that’s good.

That’s not true, Parveen says. I don’t hate everyone. Or anyone. Maybe. I’m not even sure I know what hate really feels like.

Just wait until you’re older. You’ll see. You know centipedes? You know how big they can get? Almost the size of a baby. Just imagine, all those squirmy fucking legs. And you know what? Humans are still worse.

But you’re a human. So what does that make you?

It’s okay, says the demon. It’s a temporary situation.

• • • •

From here, they go to Ansley North’s house. Aisha’s initiation. A coin toss decides who will perform the ceremony. One of the running backs and the student council secretary. The cassocks tent their bodies in strange triangles, like they are a six-year-old’s drawing of teenage priests.

Ansley North fixes drinks of sparkling wine and lemonade. The drinks make things swivel, unsettling but not unpleasant. Aisha is spinning her glass in her hands, again and again, slopping wine and lemonade on herself. Parveen takes the glass from her hands and puts it on the table.

Right before the ceremony, Aisha says to her, Is this the worst idea I’ve ever had?

Absolutely, Parveen says.

But it’s what I want.

I know. Parveen leans forward and kisses her forehead. She is aware, even now, that it matters, what she does, how she acts. She will not throw a tantrum. She will not beg. She will be herself, and that is the worst thing she can be.

She says, You should do it. It’s what you want.

Aisha smiles. A perfect Aisha smile. Okay, she says. I’ll see you on the other side, I guess.

They daub Aisha’s face in paints. The priests move their hands and murmur in stumbling Latin. Aisha swims in and out, tipping like she’s about to pass out. Her eyelashes flutter. It’s hypnosis, someone whispers to Parveen. It’s fine.

Aisha straightens her back. Her eyes go clear. But she is not quite there anymore, Aisha and not Aisha, someone new, masked in fingerpaints, looking Halloweeny and ethereal. My beautiful friend, Parveen thinks with a pang. There is nothing she can do, other than what she has already done. Aisha is already going. She is already gone.

You’re in control of what you do next, aren’t you, says one of the priests.

She nods. Complete control, she says.

Say these words.

And she does, her Latin just as bad as theirs.

Raise your hand.

And she does.

Cut it open, they say. They pass her a knife.

She makes a shallow slice.

Give your blood, just like this. You’re with us, don’t forget.

And she does. And she is.

• • • •

Later in life, Benny will lose himself, like a ring of housekeys, or an old friend. He will misplace the person he used to be when he was younger, the dopey beautiful boy, starlit with the spectacular certainty that the world has a miraculous order. The boy who said to the other kids, the dumb demon cult kids, I wanna get possessed.

It will get cloudy, after a time. The thing he will never be able to remember, the worry that frets him from the moment he graduates high school, is that he does not know. He will never remember if he was ever really that boy, that rapturous boy, full of light, or if this too was an illusion, if it was really just him, this glum sucker, if he was really the demon all along.

• • • •

In April, there’s a school dance. The theme is Teenage Bloodsport. Senior boys wear hockey masks like serial killers, or gladiator costumes from the theatre department, or doofy wrestling belts over their formal slacks. There’s a girl in the bathroom doing realistic bloody makeup with melted Jolly Ranchers and fruit punch. Parveen gets a garland of wounds, starting from the base of her neck and winding around her arms like grisly, gaping corsages. People stare and it gives her a powerful headrush, like she’s actually bleeding out, like she’s leaving the Earth’s atmosphere and everything is starting to slide marvellously sideways.

Harriet Holliday, one of the Goth girls, is selling squibs full of fake blood near the punch table. I’ll give you a discount, she says to Parveen. Her nails are grooved deep with red food coloring. Parveen takes three. It’s two months to graduation. She bites into a squib. Her mouth fills with blood.

The cult kids come in together, apparitions of Roman soldiers, with hammered metal breastplates and centurions’ helmets, wild crimson plumes like the rumpled combs of roosters. They are, yes, hypnotizing. They don’t look like teenagers, but the teen actors who play them, thirty years old, in the full bloom of adulthood.

Aisha is there, and Benny. Aisha waves at Parveen, but between them there is an entire gymnasium full of sweaty, bloody teenagers, practically moshing to the slow dance tunes. It doesn’t matter. Tonight, Parveen is made of gore and brimstone. She can bleed, but she won’t ever die. She has decided she is no longer a teenager, either, but a traveller from another dimension, just stopping by. She, too, moshes to the slow dance tunes. She, too, sways to the songs with basslines like jackhammers. She moves into slow collision with Benny.

Hi, she says.

Hi, he says.

Are you Benny, or the other guy?

He shrugs.

I want to talk the other guy, she says.

They dance. Not close enough to touch, though not for lack of trying. (You’re in high school, not married, snaps the physics teacher as she skulks past.) Close enough that his body heat feels like a supernova, trying to make its way to her. Close enough that she thinks she sees something crawl out of his eye and into his hair. But no, that can’t be right. He’s just Benny. Well, Benny and the other guy.

You said being human was temporary, she says to the demon.

For me, sure.

So what’s the secret? How do you stop being a human?

He grins, and it feels like the crappiest grin in the world. He says, I’m going to escape this body. And then I’m going to burn this fucking world to the ground.

• • • •

She will see the demon everywhere, in the years to come. She will see him hiding in the faces of shitty college boys who try to follow her to the bathroom, she will see him slit-eyed and giddy in gorgeous girls screaming at each other on a city bus. She will see him in the people she dates, a photostrip of dunces, each with his sharp-toothed smile.

She will see him in her dreams. She will see him writhing and sweating and fuming at parties and bars and on sailboats and in limousines and at weddings and at funerals. And always she will be struck how she feels at the sight—horrible, lonely, familiar. The most familiar thing in the universe. Like seeing a long-lost friend. She will think, I know you, I know you.

Sometimes he will look up her and grin through the face of a stranger, and it will make her skin crawl. It will make her want to evacuate her body and probably the Earth. Yes, he might as well be saying, of course. I know you too.

• • • •

Parveen shows up on Aisha’s doorstep one night, with two sleeves of microwave popcorn and a horror movie. The road is indistinct in the jaws of fog. Palm trees smudge into uncertain ostriches. She does not know if Aisha is home, or if she will answer the door, or if she will care. It’s May. One month until graduation. Parveen has been packing and unpacking a suitcase on weekends. She is so close to getting free, it feels like jet fuel in her veins. Just one more month.

Aisha answers the door. She smiles when she sees Parveen and the popcorn and the movie.

It’s like any other night from before. They hold hands at the scariest parts. They watch the movie late into the night. When the credits sputter on, Parveen says, Again, again, and so they watch it again from the start.

We’re going to be fine, you know, Aisha says at the end of the night. You and me. Some things don’t change, that’s the point.

Parveen reaches out and tugs Aisha’s ear, their old goodbye. If she knew how, she would try to go back. If she were a better person, she would tell Aisha it’s too late for that. If she understood, like maybe she will later, she would see that Aisha already knows. They are already going. They are already gone.

• • • •

At the reunion, Parveen will see Aisha again for the first time in fifteen years. One decade plus one half decade. They have followed each other with casual indifference on the internet, through milestones and minutiae, but still it will be a shock to see how the flesh has grown along Aisha’s jaw. The way her wrists have thickened. The deeply creeping caverns of her eyes. She is lovelier than ever. My beautiful friend, Parveen thinks, with a pang.

When she was younger, much younger, she used to fantasize about this moment. The reunion. But it is nothing like she imagined. Of course it is not. They do not start to spontaneously cry when they see each other. They do not go out for a hilarious, melancholy night of drinks at a crappy dive bar. They do not say all of the things they have been storing up for fifteen years. They do not pick up where they left off. They do not promise to start again.

They smile at each other. They exchange a few memories. Do you remember that time when you left the sleepover in the middle of the night, do you remember when we saw that raccoon on the side of the road and you cried, do you remember, do you remember. It’s all in the past, right there with Spanish influenza and dot-matrix printers, far away enough that it can’t make its way back to them.

• • • •

The demon makes a break for it on the last day of classes. It’s a beautiful day, one long impossible soap bubble. The seniors throw a party in the woods behind the high school. Parveen goes, and the cult kids, and the underdwellers who seem to have hibernated for four straight years. Everyone goes. They build a bonfire. A clenched fist of flame. Day melts into night. Grimacing pines lean over their shoulder. The stars shift into focus.

This day, Parveen knows she will get in her car the day after graduation and get the hell out of Dodge. California is over. If she was a Galapagos finch, she’d be the one that turned into a seagull and moved to New York. She plunges her hand into a cooler bristling with ice chips and illicit drinks. The bonfire snaps and spits. The wicked blade of the moon glitters.

The cult kids find their own elbow of the woods. It figures. Parveen slips in, to find Aisha, she tells herself, but really it is to find Benny, to see what his lovely floral mouth will do. She is getting tipsy. She is feeling free.

You can’t be here, says Clinton Chen, the handsome debate club president.

It’s okay, Benny says, or the demon. You want to join?

She sways. What are you doing?

Getting me out, the demon says. Come on. You know you want to see what happens.

No, she should say. What a terrible idea, she should say.

Yeah, she says. I want to see what happens.

They join hands, Parveen with the dumb demon cult kids, and Benny, and Aisha. The demon starts to hum, and the cult kids join in, and after a time, so does Parveen. It is a weird, creepy drone, a shitty teenage opera, all of their voices together in a hum.

And Parveen feels it. She does. She feels the ghouly, subterranean thing, whatever it is, light them one by one, like they are all part of an impossible candelabra, and it is spooky and it is magic. She sees it, in their faces, the cult kids, as each of them is stung by it, it, and goes into a blazing trance. But the thing, whatever it is, gets to her, and it stops. And she can almost feel it shaking its head. Like: nope, sorry. Not you. And it swings past her, onto the next person.

In their trances, the cult kids are dazzling. Light pours out of their eyes and their ears and their mouths. Benny is distorting, like something is coming out of him, is trying. They’re all in it, everyone except her. She is the anomaly, the weirdo, the octopus at the dinner party. And she wants it, she wants it so badly, she has never known how wide this ocean of want could be, but it does not want her back, it does not choose her. It passes her right by.

• • • •

Does it work? Does the demon escape? Of course it doesn’t work. There is no escape. Not for the demon, not for Parveen, not for any of them. It doesn’t ever work that way.

• • • •

The thing is, Aisha will remember high school quite fondly. She will grow up. She will leave California. She will return. She will not get married, no, but she will raise two stupidly smart kids. She will watch them skip from six to seventeen, like she’s fast-forwarded through a movie, like she’s spoiling the ending for herself just to make sure it turns out okay. She will help them get dressed for prom. She will turn the tassel on their graduation caps and cry a little, knowing that they are fleeing the coop. Off to college. Already everything seeps with a Kodachrome nostalgia.

She will feel a bud of relief spring from her chest, just a tiny one, that they have made it to the other side. High school is over. Thank God. She will move on.

• • • •

This demon will come back, as he always does. After him, there will be others. There are always others.

They will try to escape these teenage bodies, yes. They will try to turn into smoke and drift out of the ears. They will try to turn into birds and fly away. They will try to crack the bodies wide open. See you later, alligator. In a while, crocodile.

This demon is here, always, straining. Imprisoned in brittle, spidery limbs, in useless, still-mutating childbodies, he bides his time. He is an abracadabra of fury, itching to get out, crawling with the desire to be gone, waiting, just waiting to be incanted into something more.

Senaa Ahmad

Senaa Ahmad lives in Toronto, where she fails to improve her Arabic and tries not to kill all the house plants. Her short fiction also appears in Strange Horizons and Augur Magazine, and is forthcoming from Lightspeed and Uncanny Magazine. A Clarion 2018 alum, she has received the generous support of the Octavia Butler Scholarship, the Toronto Arts Council, and the Ontario Arts Council. You can find her, sort of, at senaa-ahmad.com.