From the moment I woke up I knew it was going to be a terrible day. For a start, I woke up at exactly 1:46 am, as was clearly reminded to me by the bright red glare of the alarm clock. I had one of those awful itches on the sole of my foot that never quite goes away. I would reach down, disturbing my perfect sleeping position, scratch it and try to go back to sleep. Inevitably, the itch would start up again with a vengeance. On top of that, I just had a feeling of something being off. Nothing catastrophically going wrong, no alarm bells ringing in my head. Just that twisting feeling in your gut that something is wrong. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing on end, and it wasn’t even cold. If anything, the room was pleasantly warm. That didn’t do anything to slow the insane thumping of my heart, though.
After what seemed like hours, although was only twenty minutes or so, I decided to to just get up for now. I probably just had some stupid nightmare I’d already forgotten. But my brain wasn’t going to let it happen again, and by that, I mean go back to sleep. The human body is both remarkably intelligent and hideously stupid, I mused. I forced my breathing to slow from the breakneck pace into something sort of reasonable. With a great effort, I pushed all the covers off and slid out of bed. My foot decided to start itching again as I started to shuffle across the room.
“Oh fuck me.” I slurred and went to scratch it. As I was leaning against the bedside table and scratching like a madman, my phone lit up and shook gently. The light burned my eyes, but after a few seconds I could make it out.
“Benny: About to go into another borin…” I snatched the phone and unlocked it, flicking to the messages. “Benny: About to go into another boring meeting. 😦 Looking forward to getting home! Miss you! XOXO” I grinned and fumbled with the touchpad.
“You dork.” I sent. “Suck it up and make us some money ;)” I gave my foot another triumphant scratch and took the phone with me, walking lazily to the door. It only took a couple of seconds for the phone to buzz again.
“You’re awake?????” I yawned and texted back, only half looking at the screen. Autocorrect had better do its job for once.
“Yeah… couldn’t sleep lol. I just have one lecture today anyway hahaha”
“Don’t sleep through it! I would call you but I can’t really haha. Try and get some sleep, and give Lucifer a hug for me!” I chuckled and replied.
“Yeah sure. Miss you too, get home soon! ;)” I watched the phone for a few minutes, but no more messages lit up the screen. He probably was busy now. Drat. I finished my slow, zombie-like shuffle into the kitchen and laid the phone on the counter. I went to turn on the light, and saw a pair of bright yellow eyes piercing through the gloom of the corridor. Once again the hairs on the back of my neck pricked up, and the heart that Benny had managed to slow quickened to an insane pace. I was about to scream, until the dark figure meowed at me. I stared, and burst into laughter.
“Lucifer! You nearly scared me to death!” I flicked on the light and bent down to pick him up. The black cat strolled into my arms, purring loudly. “You little shit.” I chuckled, scratching behind his ears. He meowed again into my ear. I put him on the counter and found his food bowl.
“Just this once,” I told him as he rubbed against my face, “you can have an extra early breakfast. Don’t tell Benny.” I started towards the laundry, but paused in the doorway. That feeling was back again. Turn on the light, a voice in the back of my mind whispered. I took a long slow breath and flicked the switch. Nothing. Of course there was nothing. It was two in the morning, I’d just had some stupid nightmare, of course my brain was going to be playing tricks on me. I walked through the narrow corridor and opened the laundry cupboard. Stuffed between a half empty container of washing powder and a bottle of window cleaner that was probably as old as I was stood a box of cat food. Lucifer was already rubbing my unshaven legs and purring even louder.
“Sook!” I yelled at him and pulled out the box. “You want this?” I walked back to the kitchen and set the box on the counter. I paused and yawned, in that time Lucifer jumped up onto the table and meowed in my face.
“Oh hush.” I poured a generous serving into Lucifer’s bowl and went back to the laundry. I wedged the box back into its proper spot and shut the cupboard.
“I might as well put that washing on.” I said to myself, staring at the pile of dirty clothes on the floor. “I’ve been putting it off for ages.” I bent down and picked up all the clothes and stuffed them haphazardly into the washing machine. I returned to the cupboard and picked out the washing powder this time, grabbing half a scoop and dumping it into the slot. The washing machine took a few seconds of whirring to actually start. The thing was getting pretty old, it already had a myriad of scratches and stains I didn’t want to know the origin of.
Another feeling of dread hit me like a wave. It started in the stomach this time, like that gross sensation when you eat something that expired a couple of days ago. It worked its way up to my throat, which knotted in a most uncomfortable fashion. I leaned against the old plaster wall and forced myself to breathe slowly again. Stop. I held my breath and listened. There was the whirring and whining of the washing machine. The slow dripping of the tap that no one could get to stop leaking. Crunching as Lucifer noisily enjoyed his early breakfast. And the quiet drumming in my chest.
“I need coffee.” I groaned and went back to the kitchen. My foot had even decided to start itching again. I put on the pot of coffee and bent over, furiously scratching my goddamn foot. The stupid thing just wouldn’t go away. As the coffee heated up, I grabbed the milk out of the fridge and had a brief inspection. Butter, eggs, cheese, a half eaten pot of probably mouldy yogurt… and a pizza box.
“Yes!” I hissed to myself and pulled it out of the fridge. Nothing like a midnight snack to cool off these stupid nerves. There were three pieces of Hawaiian left. That was one good thing about Benny being away. He always insisted on half-and-half with double meatlovers. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but he always got it with that gross barbeque sauce. Tastes like licking a pavement. I scarfed the pizza hungrily and checked on the coffee. It had just come through. Perfect timing. I poured it into one of the many unwashed mugs, and mixed in the milk. I thought for a moment, then went to grab the sugar from the cupboard. I then proceeded to add three teaspoons, or as Benny referred to it, ‘a metric fuck-ton’ of sugar. It was ridiculously sweet, but that’s why I loved it. Like an iced coffee without the cold. I leaned on the counter, sipping slowly, watching Lucifer finish his food and slink into my room. He was going to get on my bed. He knew he wasn’t allowed there, but I was too tired to stop him. My foot started itching again. I absentmindedly started rubbing it on the fridge.
This time my fear took manifestation in a chill, running up my spine and spreading through my arms and fingers. I bit my lip and looked around the room. There was still nothing, there was never anything here.
“Then why am I so afraid?” I asked to the empty room. I was answered by silence. Better than the alternative. I sighed and slunk off to the bathroom. Inhaling a roomful of steam always helped to clear my head. As soon as I stepped into the bathroom and turned on the light, a new sense of despair swallowed me. I took a half step back without thinking, fingers slipping off the doorknob. I stared into the room. It didn’t look much different. The same messy countertop stained with toothpaste. Towels that were kinda wet and gross but not enough to justify washing. Tiled walls with only a bit of mould growing in the cracks. Nothing was amiss. But somehow everything was. I steeled my nerves and stepped into the bathroom, only wincing slightly at the cold touch of the tiles. I shrugged off my pyjamas and reached into the shower to turn on the hot water. Nothing jumped out at me when my back was turned, no monster shrieked in my ear or ate my face. I turned back to the mirror and stared at it. Damn, I really had had a rough night. My hair was tangled up into a wild frizz, my brown eyes were bloodshot and half lidded. The large dark bags underneath were a nice touch. I kept staring, admiring just how gross I could look. Then my reflection blinked.
Oh, that’s it. I thought. And then the realisation hit me. I jumped back, and kept my eyes on the mirror. Nothing changed. I stared at it for about half a minute, it not blinking the whole time.
“I saw that.” I said, dumbly.
“No you didn’t.” It replied. “Wait. Drat. Ah! I did it again!”
“Are you alright?” I asked. The reflection was glowering now, arms raised and folded.
“No. Go away.” It sounded just like me, down to the tired slurring of words. I guessed that was appropriate, for a reflection.
“Aw, c’mon.” I said, stepping forward. The dread in my gut had faded. This was a dream, I was sure of it now. This was the dumb nightmare that I thought I was afraid of.
“You’re meant to be scared of me.” It grumbled.
“You were doing a pretty good job.”
“I know!” It whined, and started pacing around inside the mirror, somehow. “It always goes so well! I get them all scared and worried, afraid for their lives. But then I make some dumb little mistake and it falls to pieces.”
“Wait, what? What are you trying to do?” The reflection sighed, and the mirror shuddered and flashed. I jumped back again and instinctively wrapped one of the towels around my chest. A shadowy tendril stretched out of the shimmering glass, twitched, then poured on the floor. It rose up from the ground, slowly, surely, darkness spreading across the whiteish-yellow of the tile. Giving a final shudder, the darkness took shape into a small hunched creature standing no taller than my knee. A pair of bat-like wings unfolded from its arched back, and it raised its head to look at me. Its skin was as dark as a moonless night, with countless pinpoints of swirling colour I guessed were its eyes. It looked like a tiny gargoyle, down to the face that was twisted into a snarl and hands with long, hooked fingers.
“Scare you.” It squeaked, not much different from a mouse. I stared at it, trying to suppress my laughter. “Shut up! It’s not funny.”
“Well,” I giggled, “you were scary for a bit. Now you’re adorable.” It stamped its tiny foot and turned away.
“See! You’re not scared! No one is.”
“Hey, hey,” I said, reaching into the shower and turning off the water, “don’t give up. You were really scary before. I don’t even know what you were doing, but I was scared out of my mind!” It turned back to me and those pinpoints of light turned off and on. I think it was blinking.
“You… really mean it?”
“Hell yeah I do!” I bent down to the tiny creature and held out a hand. It hesitated, but took one of my fingers in its grasp. The claws jabbed into my skin, and its flesh was ice cold. “I’m Karen,” I said, smiling. “What’s your name?”
“Eh… names don’t really translate well from my language.” It replied.
“Okay. I’ll call you Jimmy.”
“If you want…”
“Alright, Jimmy. Are you hungry?” Jimmy stared right into my eyes with both an endless void and a kaleidoscope of colours.
“Yes. Very. Do you have tomato sauce?”
I managed to find some ingredients for a sandwich in the kitchen. It was a slapdash ham, cheese and tomato sauce on some mostly stale rye, but Jimmy was wolfing it down anyway. Lucifer was watching with curiosity from the corridor. Jimmy gave him a brief glance, Lucifer hissed.
“Thanks, Karen.” Jimmy said with a mouthful of bread and sauce. Whenever it talked it flashed brilliant teeth with wickedly sharp points, even though they were no bigger than my little toe. “I haven’t eaten for ages. I’m starving.”
“Don’t worry about it.” I said. “What were you doing here, anyway?” Jimmy’s shoulders slumped.
“Failing a test.” It said miserably. “I’m a lesser demon, you see.”
“I see,” I replied, not seeing at all.
“And I’ve always wanted to be scary. My parents were labourers, their parents were labourers, all lesser demons are. Because we’re too tiny to be scary, only the big, tough guys get to be scary. I don’t want to spend my whole life in some stupid, smelly mine. I want to travel the world!” Jimmy had put down the sandwich and was staring at the ceiling, clawed hands stretched wide. “My world sucks. Yours is full of colour, life, delicious food and other great things. So I applied for the Academy of Scaring Stupid Humans. Their words, not mine. I totally ace the written tests, but when it comes to the practicals… like today… I always mess it up.”
“Hey, you’ve got great potential! You may be tiny, but you’re really smart. I don’t even know what you were doing, making me so scared, but you did.”
“Hehe. Yeah. I hang out in your shadow, actually. It’s a nice place to hide, and I can periodically zap you with some dark spooky magic.”
“Was that why my foot was itching?”
“Oh, right. Yeah, that’s me. I’m trying to iron out the kinks but it’s not quite there yet.”
“Well, Jimmy, don’t give up on being scary. You totally have the potential. Just resist the urge to answer back to me.” Jimmy squeaked louder, I assumed it was laughter.
“I like your optimism, Karen. Well, it was fun, but you’re going to forget all about this soon.”
“I am? Damn, this was pretty cool.”
“Yeah. My instructor will come in soon and erase your memory. Can’t have the stupid humans finding out, like they always say.”
Almost on cue, a dark cloud billowed into the room. Lucifer hissed and spat and ran from the room, I yawned. The shadowy mist swirled and twisted, forming snaky limbs and a monstrous head. The beast that stepped from the cloud was much unlike Jimmy, and I realised his point about lesser demons. It stood on four limbs, but was still taller than I was. A tail as thick as a tree trunk in places thrashed on the wooden floor with a rhythmic thumping. It had three heads, each with a crown of gnarled and crooked horns as white as driven snow. Its scaly skin was like Jimmy’s, as flat and black as obsidian, deep enough to drown in. The dots of colour were all over its multiple throats and heads, the colours swirling within themselves. The creature turned all three heads to Jimmy, and gave an ear splitting growl that sounded like smashing concrete. Jimmy responded with a whine, and they had a strange and wordless conversation for a few moments. While the larger one snarled, it flashed teeth as long and wide as my forearm. Jimmy gave a final grumble and disappeared with a puff of black smoke. The giant demon turned to me, all of its thousands of eyes alive with colours that I had never seen before. It coughed a barking cough, then spoke.
“Apologies, Mistress Karen.” It said, surprisingly clearly and with a vague hint of a British accent. “There is a new round of students and we require subjects for practical examinations. We at the Academy thank you for your co-operation, and we appreciate your ability to test the strengths of our students.”
“I.. uh… that’s okay?” I said, watching the monstrosity carefully.
“I am glad to hear your approval. Unfortunately, you are now privy to information no human should have. I’ll be erasing your memory now. Not to worry, you will only forget this morning. Good night, Mistress Karen.” All of its eyes flashed at once, so bright that they swallowed my vision and drowned me in colour.
I woke up to a cat rubbing its face on me. I pushed Lucifer off my face and looked at the alarm clock. 11:30. Shit. I jumped out of the covers and hurled myself off the bed. For some reason I was wearing a towel, and not my pyjamas. Probably had too much to drink last night. I shrugged into some jeans, and threw on a sports bra and sweatshirt. Lecture in fifteen minutes, no time to care about appearances. I ran into the kitchen to grab the leftover pizza I’d left in the fridge. Instead, I saw a mess of strewn ham, cheese, bread, and tomato sauce. As the cherry on top, the empty pizza box was sitting in the sink.
“Lucifer!” I screamed. “When I get back home, you’re in so much trouble!” I ran out the door, leaving the cat meowing behind me.