Past Lives: 1945: Inflicted Insight

After your first time out with Melinda – after you see the demon, after you know how possessions happen – you suddenly… see. List’s sure there’s a better word for it, but he’s not sure what that word is. It’s just something that happens.

So you’ll hear about some girl gone missing, and the people talking on the L have decided it all already, judge, jury and executioner – y’see, she had a boyfriend who she’d broken up with and then he didn’t like her much, he’d been stalking her, so on – but you’ll be frowning and badly pretending to read the newspaper, listening in. It doesn’t add up, not at all – they’re just pushing the pieces together desperately like a three-year-old with a jigsaw, trying to make them fit when they just don’t. You’ll know you’re being paranoid, being stupid, but you’ll suddenly wonder if she got home after a rough day, and her ex had been calling and calling her, threatening her, and someone new was sitting in her best armchair. Maybe that someone offered her a way to get the guy off her back – all she had to do was make a deal…

And you’re standing, shaking your head and getting off a stop early. You can walk it. You know the way. Too many people, you think, and your shoulders are tense; there’s something buzzing in your blood tonight. It’s there, it’s there, all the time, underneath every innocent passerby and down every pleasant street. There’s a monster round every corner. Now you know, you’re not sure you can play dumb again.

Who the hell are you kidding? You are dumb. No need to play. Or at least, you were.

There are people, always people, milling around you, pressing in, crowds and faces and laughter somewhere. You want to scream at them, to grab them by the collar and give ’em a good yelling at. They all think they’re safe, the wayyou used to think you were safe, that it’d never happen to you, nothing ever happened to you. For God’s sake, man, you shout silently, wordlessly at a passing guy with a sharp suit and a hat you probably would’ve admired and cared about yesterday, bolt all your locks, even though locks don’t work against them, and grab your family and hold them tight. Maybe you say something through your eyes, because he swerves a little, moves so he won’t have to walk too close to you, staring at you wide-eyed. You probably look like a nut, or a drunk, even though you might just be the only sane one here.

You want a drink, actually.

You want to find some friends. You want to find a bar and lie about how old you are. You want to get in a fight – even though you never pick fights, you’re not a dunce – and you want blood and booze behind your teeth and you really, really need to forget everything right now. It’s forget or truly, honestly go nuts. Yeah, great options there.

You want to be that kind of man, do those kinds of things, but you’re not. You know you’re not. Even if you were, you’ve got nearly-empty pockets weighing you down and not a goddamn bit of luck.

Going home doesn’t feel right. You need to get out, get free, keep walking. It’s itching under your skin; everything’s itching under your skin.

You walk, and you walk. You listen while you do it, making sure that on this quiet street, the only footsteps are yours. They’ve always liked the chase. You find yourself grasping a door handle, and you look up and read the words on the frosted glass: M. R. Harrigan. You smile, even though it’s bitter. You remember that door; you remember being just the kid tinkering around and fixing the shelves, thinking you knew everything. Jesus, you were stupid.

You want to find “M. R. Harrigan.” You want to scream at her and ask her why the hell she’s done this to you, what the hell you’ve done to deserve this. Maybe you could do that if you’d actually gone and got drunk – or if you pretended to be.

But that’d be disrespectful, dishonest, so instead you walk quietly through the main office. You look at the desk, at the empty chair; there’s no point having them there, but you like to sit and drink your coffee there in the mornings. Listen to the radio. Maybe sing along a little, if it’s something you know and if it’s good. Melinda says she’s on the lookout for a secretary. Yeah, right. Like any secretary could handle this shit.

You walk through to the second door, frosted glass again, and you knock. Then you wait. Mom raised you well, not in a barn.

It takes a second, but you hear soft footsteps – she’ll be wearing practical shoes: quiet, good leather and good grips – and then the door opens. “List?” she asks, eyes widening. You want to laugh a little; it isn’t often that someone manages to surprise her. Her hand was at her hip, close to her gun, but she takes it away to sweep back her hair instead. You know this is weird; it’s way after working hours. She sent you home after yesterday to have some leave, take some time. You wonder if she expected you to ever come back.

“I don’t…” Your voice is rough, sounds rusty and old and barely-used. “How the hell do you stay calm?” you manage after a second or two. It comes out angrier than you thought it would. “How the hell don’t you tell them, or warn them, or something – ?”

The slick’s been pretty much sweated out of your hair, falling haphazard into your face, and you’re gonna start looking like a crazy soon. You must be wild-eyed, and maybe she recognises something in your face. Maybe she looked like this back when she started, whenever the hell that was. She gets it. You know from the look on her face. “You’re thinking of them as cases, aren’t you? Youcan’t, Alister.”

“Huh?”

“You think there are demons lurking under every bed, don’t you? And you’re taking one look at them and trying to exorcise them already.”

That takes the wind out of you. Yeah, that’s pretty much it. You shrug.

“Do you know how common demon attacks are?” she asks.

That gets your goat, actually – feels a little patronising. “Pretty damn common,” you snap. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be needed, would we?”

“Yes,” she says, and now she doesn’t take that gentle, come-down-here-kitty-it’s-safe-I-promise tone you’ve heard teachers and your mom use. She’s straight, matter-of-fact. “But not as common as you’d think.” She sighs. “The vast majority of the people you see every day will never meet a demon. It is very likely more dangerous to cross a street.”

You stand there a moment, considering. Wondering if she’s lying, trying to make you feel better. But you know Melinda; she doesn’t do that. “Promise?” you ask, and you hate how young you sound.

“I promise,” she says. Silence falls on the office, then she adds, “It will fade, Alister. When you wake up tomorrow, you’ll have rationalised it and reassured yourself.”

You’re not sure you believe her, but you breathe out, pull yourself together. You have to believe her, or there’s nothing to cling onto. You take her words as a life raft, because you sure as hell need one. “How can you rationalise something like this?” you ask her, more than a little desperate – needing someone to say that you can, that it’ll all make sense in the morning.

She stands there, hesitant, like she’s not sure whether she ought to say the next thing. Then she tells you, “You can’t. But if you were to truly understand it all – well, I certainly don’t. I’ve a feeling I’d go quite mad.” She puts a hand on your shoulder. “Don’t worry.” It’s firm and it’s an order. She’s your boss, you suddenly remember. “Worrying solves nothing and saves no-one. Fear – realfear, when you’re at gunpoint or a demon has decided to ask you for your name – well, that may save your life. Worry will just make you tired, and it’s self-indulgence.”

You nod numbly, believing her now. You already feel tired. Maybe the walk here was longer than you thought. It’s not really that late, but it’s late enough, and now the panic’s worn off, you’re nearly swaying on your feet. You need to go home. You need to see Mom, and hug her, and thank her for being… well, her. “G’night.”

“Good night. Can you be in tomorrow?”

“Sure.” You stifle a yawn. “Yeah, sure. See ya.”

You turn and head back blearily through the office. The streets are dark, and you hear no demons lurking. Your shoulders are maybe, slightly, a little lighter than they were.

Yay! Pretentious second person vaguely stream-of-consciousness stuff! Very probably a one-off, don’t worry. Inspired vaguely by Nathan Asher & The Infantry’s “Turn Up the Faders,” which is very likely about middle-class youth ennui, but instead made me think of… demon-hunting? Oh dear. Pretty sure that’s not normal.


Light strikes the suburbs in the summer,
Water trickles and runs down the features of children,
Laughter echoes rising
As they slip between the sprinklers.
Faces eager for no reason,
Is it the season, is that it?
This used to be enough for me, now it isn’t,
I need some different entertainment.

So we take the A-Train into the city,
Sticky seats shake at the station,
Women’s footsteps drag them,
From the cave of the tunnel dragon,
Into the open high-rises, buildings,
Street urchins come to siege us,
Corner preachers carry Jesus,
Like he carried the cross, toss leaflets.
All this misdirected lust,
All these, all these, all these people,
As dusk turns into evening,
We just get funneled to the clubs.


 

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