With little to no remaining spirit, Ryan trudged up the steps of the narrowly-built, oak-wood staircase that winded through the multiple stories of his apartment complex.
If it wasn’t obvious enough to his, ugh, coworkers at the office, he was completely spent. The dread-filled day— week, month, he couldn’t keep track — had taken its toll on him, leaving him as burnt-out as a chunk of grilled squid. A strange analogy, sure, but what did Ryan care about how jumbled-up his mind was? Besides, as far as his belief in the supernatural went, nothing he believed in was capable of any sort of telepathic ability just yet.
His mother’s ability to sniff out every opportunity to embarrass him in front of his high-school crushes? A curse of its own.
Ryan noticed that the building was quiet. Too quiet.
The only other tenant he’d seen in weeks had been his ghoulish (which, in fact, was not a hyperbole) landlady; a particular type of creature he didn’t want anything to do with whatsoever. Let’s just say that after a personal visit to drop off the payment for his first lease, Ryan would later strictly (and very gladly) choose to pay all of his monthly rent through the mail.
In sheer exhaustion, Ryan reached the last platform that adjoined to his floor, and without a tight grip on the banister, nearly tumbled back down the stairs like a tipped-over stack of jengas. Fortunately, he caught himself at the last second, letting himself stumble over his steps like those failed swing dance compilations he found himself looking up well past midnight.
Once he planted his feet against the ground, he turned around, wistful. Contemplative.
Almost like he missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity.
Ryan gnawed his bottom lip.
Don’t get him wrong, he was nowhere near depressed enough to be considering suicide as an option—
—but if an incident were to happen, say, by “accidentally” tripping over his bedroom’s pile of week-long, unwashed socks and out of his (admittedly ridiculous) glass-stained windows to fall to his gruesome death and somehow make it onto the headlines of the LA Weekly as the “Laundry Man That Went Splat”, well, then it wasn’t necessarily a series of events that he dreaded.
Or at least, not up until that last point.
But as fate and the powers of the Ryan-hating-world would have it, he was quite evidently, quite unfortunately, very much alive.
And to make things worse, that very same world also seemed to have a very large, very Ry-unfortunate affinity for him crashing into doors. Which he did. Twice. Ow.
He leaned against the wall (the only single part of his floor that didn’t seem to hold a personal vendetta against him), nearly dropping the grocery bag that would be revealed to hold a six-pack of La Croix, a brand of Italian beer that he wouldn’t dare pronounce, and a disappointing amount of egg cartons.
Face burning with the embarrassment of how pathetic he felt, Ryan quickly reached into his back pocket for his keys, even despite the lack of security cameras (on the bright side, that removed security costs from his rent) and sentient beings. He fumbled with his keys a bit, probably resultant from his unbearably shaky hands (which, in turn, were probably caused by a few rounds of his covert “afternoon activities” over at the bar on Rose Avenue and Speedway). Thankfully, with the awkward pause that lingered came the subsequent, life-saving click of his lock that followed soon after, and Ryan finally made it into his apartment with a half-hearted victory as well as a wholehearted desire to (in no particular order) drink, unashamedly watch reruns of the X-Files, and sleep his way into oblivion.
They were all a series of actions that, over the years, seemed to bolt themselves as a part of his tepid routine.
Ryan’s early years of working at Buzzfeed were certainly a dream, what with all the somewhat-easy pay he made and the leniency he received from his bosses. But after an endlessly repetitive amount of working with cat-clickbait, being on the receiving end of (admittedly bizzare) pranks, and an indisputable, irrefutable, aching mound of loneliness, his job had soon fallen into the grey spectrum of dull days, restless nights, and lots of heavy drinking.
His head pounded.
To reiterate, lots and lots of heavy drinking.
Resting against the door frame, Ryan rubbed his eyes in exasperation, muttering something about his need for a drink.
His stomach growled in protest, pleading for him to eat something, anything.
Ryan, in all his stubbornness, told it to shut the hell up .
A sharp pain shot through his abdomen.
God- Ryan shut his eyes, waving the dull pain away.
Then he sighed something low and heavy, and begrudgingly made his way towards the kitchen.
Eating wasn’t so much just eating anymore as it was the bitter reminder of how constantly lonely he was. When Ryan was much younger, his dad had always told him that his meals were a blessing, not because of the food that would be provided, but because of the people surrounding him in that time.
His dad didn’t recount the possibility that Ryan might never have “ people surrounding him in that time.”
So much for that, old man.
Plus, Ryan’s age wasn’t the only thing that grew as time went by; he grew and adjusted to the idea of doing things, all sorts of things, alone . Whether he was somehow at the center of a work party, or a high-school reunion, or even a Tinder date for god’s sake, he always found himself to be somewhat of a social recluse.
And it wasn’t like he never tried to make friends in the past, because he did, he really did.
There was Steven, always as enthusiastic, carefree, and candy-bar-crazy as an eight-year-old boy. They turned out to be pretty good friends for awhile, but then Andrew came along, and he and Steven started working on that popular Buzzfeed show– “Work It”? No, “Worth It” – and, well, even Ryan had to admit that they were perfect for each other.
After that, things sort of spiraled down into what was an unintended “this town ain’t big enough for the two of us” gimmick. Inadvertent, sure, but still one hell of a mess.
Point was, as Ryan recalled, Steven chose Andrew in the end. Not him. Never him.
Ryan tiredly rubbed at his eyes.
The next and final person would sober Ryan right up, even despite always having a minimum of one glass of scotch beforehand.
He took a swig of the Jack Daniel’s that was left untouched from his morning endeavors.
Helen, his perfect angel. Helen, the most beautiful woman that would ever grace the earth.
He wasn’t too keen on getting into the details of their breakup, but ever since Helen packed up her stuff from his apartment, Ryan was grateful, thankful, relieved, that she had left him , a broken puzzle piece who could never make her whole.
He had to give her some credit; Helen had tried to repair him for as long as she possibly could, even committing to one small deed on the day that she left. Ryan recalled when Helen had mournfully stood on his doorstep, a heartbreakingly beautiful sight ( always so beautiful) , and how just before she shut the door on him, she whirled around, wishing him good luck and sending him one final peck on the lips.
Ryan rubbed the corners of his mouth, searching for the familiarity of her kiss, and knew that was what haunted him the most.
Not demons. Not the bogeyman. Not aliens.
It was, and always would be, the ghost of Helen’s lips on his.
A heavy weight settled on Ryan’s shoulders. It was a familiar burden, one that he never seemed to be capable of easing.
She told him to call her if he ever felt like it. Sometimes he wondered if “it” referred to giving their relationship a second chance. Or if “it” was maybe a quick catch up between friends, and not a date of any sort. Or, worst of all, if “it” was just another empty phrase for him to toil over, for them to end on somewhat good terms.
Anyways, it didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to carry through with it either way.
Ryan looked down, caught unaware by the texture of something soft rubbing against his calloused hands. In the amount of time that he was trapped in his reminiscent stupor, he had somehow grabbed two slices of bread, a disgustingly half-brown head of lettuce (again, not that he cared if he got food poisoning), his half-empty Tupperware of shredded cheese, and a plastic mayonnaise bottle. When the fuck did I do this?
Ryan glared at the deconstructed sandwich at hand, willing it to assemble itself into a whole, somewhat-edible stack of food.
Another reason that Ryan dreaded eating: he couldn’t cook for shit. A few months back, when Helen had left him, he tried doing all of that self-love bullshit that was advertised all over the internet. One of the activities he found, which, to be fair, should have been fairly easy, was cooking pasta.
Five minutes in and the LAFD rushed over to his apartment to distinguish the flames.
Ryan’s gaze on the sandwich never left. He wasn’t surprised by the possibility that the shredded cheese might spontaneously combust. If Mary Reeser could do it, then so could dairy.
His stomach growled again, even louder that time. Ryan inhaled. Exhaled. He timidly lifted the first slice of bread. Is the bread on fire? No. He lifted the head of lettuce and slowly tore it apart. Am I on fire? No. He warily eyed the container of cheese. Is my kitchen intact? Yes? He inhaled. Exhaled. You’re being fucking ridiculous, Ryan. It’s just a sandwich. Nothing you haven’t seen before.
With a newfound courage coursing through his veins, Ryan grabbed the mayonnaise bottle and squirted its contents onto the open sandwich. With a decorative flair, Ryan decided to embellish it with (what he imagined to be) a pretty little symbol. He looked down at his masterpiece, taking pride in what he accomplished for the first time in weeks .
Ryan’s lips quirked up into a half-smile.
A split second after, the sandwich went up in flames.
Ryan stood directly beside the burning sandwich, frozen in disbelief. He couldn’t move. Even when he tried to lift a finger, it was as if all of his motor skills had failed him. His first instinct was, naturally, to call the fire department, because that’s what you fucking do when your sandwich is on fire, Ryan! But he didn’t. He couldn’t. Because the only thing that kept him from passing out was the endless mantra of WHAT THE FUCK playing in his head.
And as if things couldn’t get any worse, the entire tabletop proceeded to catch on fire. Ryan didn’t even know how it was possible considering the fact that the counter was made out of marble .
Shattered out of his incredulous and shocked reverie by a surge of flames that licked at his fingers, Ryan jumped back and grabbed the closest thing he could find to extinguish the fire.
In all of its ill-fated irony, the closest item that Ryan could find turned out to be a no-good, pathetic, crusty ol’ broom.
He flashed a quick glance of disapproval at the tool, as if it were magically able to metamorphose into any other commodity.
The flames were growing immeasurably higher now, its fiery tips barely brushing against his drab ceiling. Rather it be drab than incinerated.
Ryan wielded his broom with resolve, looking partially like a witch in his depressive, black clothing.
Just as he brought the weapon down to flatten out the growing blazes of heat, he noticed, with utter horror, what seemed to be a pair of horns emerging from the tabletop.
A pair of obsidian-colored, brimstone-like fucking horns.
In the very midst of a fucking inferno.
Having watched far too many horror movies in his time, Ryan instantly knew what this meant. The rush of adrenaline that surged through his veins had momentarily prevented the shock from registering across Ryan’s mind (PTSD be damned, he needed to save his own life), and as fast as Mr. Explosive™, NBA Player Russell Westbrook himself (an analogy he’d take pride in if it weren’t for the fact that he was in mortal danger), Ryan scrambled backwards, whirling around to search for an effective weapon.
Shit shit shit, where’d I put it?
After nearly skewing his arm through the whetted end of a half-gnawed candy cane ( when this disastrous ordeal is over, I’m going to clean the fuck out of my apartment ), Ryan finally managed to get his hands on his saving grace.
Like one hell of a typhoon, Ryan whirled around to confront whatever hideous creature had emerged from his kitchen countertop, his bottle of holy water in hand.
Their eyes locked, and Ryan was immediately taken aback.
The demon (and he knew what it was, for it was a comically terrifying representation of the stereotypes on TV)– the horrendous, hellish, god-awful demon – leaned against Ryan’s countertop, an impish grin playing across its face.
He hardly noticed that the countertop’s flames had evaporated with the demon’s arrival. Its bleak, wide-set, mahogany eyes held him in a trance, thunder and lightning crackling within the demon’s irises like a flickering mirage.
The demon’s pointed nose resembled its dragon-like tail which slithered out of its back in the manner of a serpent, an onyx spade protruding from its tip. The aforementioned horns poked out of the demon’s tousled muss of coffee-brown hair, a similar shade to the light stubble on its face. With neutral-beige skin, rough and firm, hiding layers of what was assumably fiery-red, jagged scales, the demon pressed its calloused palms together, unsheathing its sharp claws.
Then, there was the demon’s height.
It was over a whopping six feet, a height too tall for any human to be anything other than awkward and clumsy, but then again, it was no mere human; as a demon, its height was conducive to its menacing, gargantuan appearance.
Dressed in a plaid-red flannel and slim jeans, it was primly situated against Ryan’s wall now, carefully posed in such a way that the demon could have been mistaken as a devilishly-handsome, young man. In its form, Ryan thought that the demon actually looked quite humane.
He shook the thought free from his head.
With a shaky grasp, Ryan pulled up and squeezed his bottle of holy water onto the demon, hoping to send it back to its abode of eternal damnation.
It seemed to be working, for the demon began to unleash an atrocious howl, one that pierced through Ryan’s fear, and instead fueled him with determination. With every drop of holy water, Ryan noticed that the demon began to shrink, its claws retracting and its skin hissing against the spray.
With the demon’s final shriek, Ryan pressed in on it unrelentingly, pushing, and pushing, and pushing, until the creature had finally evaporated into nothing.
Ryan sighed in relief. It was gone, the thing . No matter how it may have entered Ryan’s home in the first place, what mattered was that it was finally gone.
“Nice try, pal. Though, quite frankly, that was actually a pretty good attempt at killing me. Or, y’know ‘killing’ me, coz I’m technically already dead.”
Ryan slowly inched around to discover that the demon was looming over him from the horrifying distance of less than three feet away.
“But you should know that it’s not easy to get rid of the ol’ Shanemeister!” The demon spoke with a ridiculously ill-fitted yet undoubtedly smooth American accent. It left Ryan unnerved. And maybe a hint fascinated.
The demon drawled out, “At least, not when your choice of weapon is a bottle of unfiltered tap water.”
Ryan, having not lost his voice but conveniently having lost his ability to bolt for it , managed to choke out, “Wh-what?”
“Ding, ding, ding! That bottle you’ve got right there? It’s not filled with holy water.” The demon, presumably deemed the ‘Shanemeister’, smirked. “It’s just plain H2O with a dash of seltzer, maybe, and some salt that your religious cousin brought back from his business trip to Jerusalem. I hate to break it to you, man, but you were scammed.”
Move, damn it, move!
The demon, conceivably sensing Ryan’s untimely inertia, rambled on, “If you were anybody else, I’d probably have snapped your neck by now,” it quickly shot its hands up, “but today’s been a good day, and I’m willing to let bygones be bygones.”
The demon rubbed its chin thoughtfully, then said, “I’ll even throw in a tip about where to get some authentic holy water! I’d personally recommend that you go meet a friend of mine in San Jose. They call him Father Gary Thomas, but I always refer to him as Lil’ Tommy Boy.”
As if ‘Little Tommy Boy’ was a type of hypnosis-release trigger phrase, Ryan tumbled backwards into his fridge by the sheer force of delayed shock and panic that crashed over him like a tidal wave. Suddenly, it was everything, all too much at once. The surreality of the situation, the burning sandwich, the hellish flames, the demon that loomed over him. His stomach lurched. Pressed against the refrigerator, Ryan blocked out the world, if only for a second, and let his thoughts hammer down on him.
This can’t be happening. No- no, it’s not happening, it’s just like that time I saw a walking hot dog and egg but only I didn’t actually see any hot dogs or eggs because I was having some kind of freakish nightmare. It’s probably just the whiskey. Ah, damn, but I only had three glasses today, and I’m not feeling wasted enough for this bullshit. Ryan inhaled. So I’m obviously dreaming, right? Exhaled. I should pinch myself awake.
Shit, that hurt!
Ryan peeked through the slits of his eyes, and, to his horror, the demon was still there, ever blabbering on.
Oh god oh god oh god, I’m awake and I’m delusional and I’ll end up like one of those poor souls in the Pennhurst Asylum and rot in some shithole mental institution for the rest of my miserable life. Fuck! And I won’t be able to get any more steak burritos from Chipotle!
“Before you start hyperventilating from whether or not you’re turning into a total nutjob, I just want you to know that all of this?” The Shanemeister said, gesturing towards its form. “It’s as real as Bigfoot, baby.”
And it was precisely then, that Ryan Bergara, believer of ghouls and monsters and the bogeyman snapped out of his ironic disbelief, and saw the horrid, horrid truth in his inconceivable reality.
Ryan fearfully shuddered out, “Are you here to drag me to hell? Is this for the rap video I produced in high-school? Shit, I always knew it was a bad idea.”
“Ryan, calm down. It‘s alright, everything’s gonna be fine.” The demon spoke, in all its hellish glory, with hints of quiet exasperation. Very interesting. “I’m here because of that .” The Shanemeister motioned towards Ryan’s half-burnt plate.
“My grandmother’s china?” He knew the decor was pretty, but he never thought it was worth rising out of hell for.
“What? No!” The Shanemeister said as it furiously shook its head, “I’m here because of the occult symbol that you designed. You summoned me, Ryan.”
Ryan echoed, “Occult symbol?”
The Shanemeister nodded feverishly and said, “I’m going to get into a little bit of history, so bear with me here.”
It leaned forward studiously, beckoning with its lanky arms for Ryan to listen, “First off, my real name’s Shane. What kind of person would name their kid ‘The Shanemeister’? Actually, no, don’t answer that.” It shivered. “Anyways, back to the occult symbol. All demons, from the day they were born, are marked with a type of emblem.”
Shane lifted its sleeve, unveiling the etched mark on its skin. It was eerily parallel to the one that Ryan drew up. “Think of them as birthmarks, one that everyone has. We demons pride ourselves in our designs, because it’s the one thing that belongs to us individually.” Shane motioned to its back. “The tail? Claws? Horns? They’re moldable. Anyone can have ‘em. But our designs? That’s how we differentiate ourselves from each other.” Shane stopped, “But most importantly,” stared Ryan square in the eye, “it’s how your type calls on us.”
It clicked its tongue, “And that little symbol you happened to draw earlier on, with your little mayonnaise bottle? It was mine.”
Despite the multiple thoughts and actions that ran through Ryan’s head at the time, some of those entailing Shane’s very detailed, very engaged explanation on the history of demons and their occult symbols, and the uneasy puffs of air that synchronized with his rapid heartbeat, the one thought that kept pushing through to the forefront of Ryan’s mind was damn, this dude’s breath stinks.
Shane abruptly stopped in its tracks, turning to fully face Ryan with a scrunched-up expression.
Flabbergasted, it exclaimed, “Not cool, man!” Shane backed away from Ryan, moving to woefully sit atop the counter.
Ryan instantly feared that Shane had somehow read his thoughts.
“No shit, I can hear you, Ryan! One of the perks of being a demon is our telepathy, and I would’ve gotten to that part in my explanation if you’d actually listened.” The demon harrumphed, muttering under its breath, “It’s a demon thing. When we’re famished, or sleep-deprived, or, well,” Shane’s face flushed sheepishly, “aroused, we emit an exceptionally rancid odor that only humans can seem to smell.”
Ryan didn’t dare ask which one of the three it was.
“Take it easy, I’m just hungry.” Ryan could’ve sworn that as Shane spoke, its gaze roamed over his body in a way that convinced him that he was about to become the demon’s horrific version of a bacon cheeseburger.
Maybe it was the ever-heightening fear in Ryan’s bloodstream that caused him to do what he did. Hopefully not. Ryan still liked to think that he was strong enough to whoop some demon ass.
Whatever the reason, Ryan was nonetheless able to squeeze out, “So uh, do you want a sandwich?”
He held his breath.
Shane’s eyes gleamed with amusement, as if Ryan’s statement was just another one of those little things that the humans say ; another strange aspect of God’s experiment gone wrong. “Sure.”
Arms raised defensively, Ryan slowly scooched away from it ( it? Him? Ryan still wasn’t sure what the demon’s chosen pronoun was), and headed for the countertop adjacent to the one Shane was perched on, where some of his leftover ingredients had fortunately remained intact.
“You can refer to me with the ‘he’ pronoun, by the way. I won’t hold it against you. I know it gets confusing, me being a demon and whatnot.”
As Ryan assembled the ingredients, his hand gave out a little twitch, and for once, he wasn’t sure if it was his anxiety kicking in or if it was because a fucking demon was relaxing in the middle of his kitchen. Probably a combination of both.
Demon shit aside, he still didn’t know how to act around Shane. The being seemed so casual that Ryan could’ve easily mistaken him as one of his college buddies, but the facts still prevailed: he was a demon that was capable of killing him with the snap of his fingers.
Simultaneously trying to balance together the right amount of cheese and mayonnaise, Ryan peered over his shoulder, relieved to see Shane’s back turned towards him.
Ryan swiveled back, gingerly adding the final touches to his simple, cheese sandwich. At least he didn’t have to worry about setting it on fire anymore.
With a slight tremble, he carefully picked up the plate for fear that it would shatter in his hands. Ryan set the sandwich down a few inches away from Shane, his watchful gaze flitting to the clawed hand that reached out towards it.
As if it was an entirely new concept, Shane curled his fingers around the sandwich, lifting it slightly above eye-level in a thoroughly inspective manner. He brought it forwards, darting his tongue out to prod at the protruding slice of cheese. Shane’s eyes widened, and he chomped voraciously, ostentatious manners be damned.
Shane paused midway through his bite and spoke, “You should get Kraft’s next time instead of Hellmann’s though.” He chewed thoughtfully. “It’s a lot less creamier. A ‘Hell’mann’s of a lot less creamier, heh. But it’s good. It’s really good, man. Thanks.”
He took his last bite. Took his time chewing too. When he was done, it was as if an ethereal atmosphere had replaced all of the tension in Ryan’s kitchen, which, yeah, was ridiculously ironic considering, hello? Address the demon in the room?
But despite his satanic aspects, when Shane managed to pull up a soft, relaxed smile, Ryan couldn’t help but feel it settle over him comfortably.
Morale boosted by Shane’s change of mood, Ryan crossed his arms and asked the question that lingered at the back of his mind, “So how do I know you’re not gonna kill me?”
Shane swiped the smears of mayonnaise off the edges of his mouth and chuckled, “Ryan, Ryan, Ryan, don’t you see?”
Shane’s grin was sinister under the shine of the weak, fluorescent lights.
“You don’t! That’s what makes our little game so fun !”
The casual façade was gone; the demonic being he feared was hidden underneath Shane’s layers had emerged, and Ryan was rendered utterly terrified. He swallowed, despite his desert of a mouth, his throat suddenly swelling up with a suffocating type of fear, worse than the ones he ended up trying to avoid at night when his insomnia would kick in on the particularly bad days. No, he recognized this one as the grim face of death.
Shane gave him a once-over.
Then he guffawed. “You should’ve seen your face!”
Ryan froze, and quickly proceeded to narrow his eyes, body language screaming sure-you’re-a-demon-but-why-the-fuck-do-you-act-like-you’re-five .
Shane spoke, between snorts of laughter, “I’m just messing with you, Ryan. I only murder –and is it really murder if the law can’t touch me?– those that deserve my trademarked,” Shane smugly tugged at the lapels of his own flannel, “special sprinkles of slaughter.”
“And you?” He tapped Ryan’s nose with a boop . “You don’t.”
Before Ryan could find the appropriate ( let’s not forget the whole hellish being shtick ) way to respond with “ you demon fuck ”, the familiarly saccharine scent of pumpkins and sandalwood permeated the air, striking at his core.
Ryan’s fear and irritation dimmed down and was replaced by the low, dull ache of something much, much worse.
He couldn’t help but sniff. It smelled like–
But then Ryan shut his eyes, if only for a few, brief moments, to cancel out the hollowness that pricked through him.
When Ryan opened his eyes, the fragrance was gone.
He prayed to god that Shane didn’t just Kylo Ren his thoughts.
In a desperate attempt to move away from the subject as fast as he could, an essential question promptly pushed its way out of Ryan’s mouth, “Wait, so if I unintentionally summoned you, and I don’t actually want anything, then can’t you just leave?”
Shane threaded a hand through his hair, “No, it’s kind of in our code to return the favor.” Shane pointed an accusatory finger in Ryan’s direction. “Hey, don’t look at me like that! I’ll have you know that, contrary to popular belief, we ghouls of the underworld are really quite chivalrous!”
Ryan shook his head and said, “What do you mean by ‘return the favor’? I didn’t do anything.”
The demon explained, “The sandwich you made for me was a sincere act of kindness. A favor, really, so unless I can either A, find some way to earnestly repay you,” Shane paused, adding with the mock-impression of a posh accent, “and my good sir, I do mean earnestly, or B, get myself summoned by some other douchebag, then I’m stuck here forever.”
Ryan’s eyes widened like those of a fish’s and, somehow having lost all his prior knowledge of the English vocabulary, could only reply with, “Wow.”
“Right? And I can’t even return the favor with some generic clean-up-your-room bullshit because apparently, Satan, yes, king of hell and prince of evil himself, is trying to impress this angel that he’s crushing on and thinks that we’re fucking it up for him.”
Shane’s shoulders slumped. Ryan, to his own surprise, found that he disliked the sight. “Yeah, the hard work that we demons do for you humans actually goes uncredited most of the time. ‘Stinks, man.”
No longer as intimidated, Ryan made a sort of nudging motion towards Shane, not quite reaching him but close enough to hold some form of sentiment. “Then I guess we’re just going to have to wait until we can figure out something else for you to do.”
Shane grinned and curiously nudged his head towards the refrigerator.
Hesitantly, Ryan nodded.
He gnawed on his bottom lip thoughtfully. Shane was rummaging through Ryan’s fridge, and, as Ryan predicted, was about to cringe at the sight of what was presumably his week-old, half-eaten, Kobe steak.
Which, speaking of.
Ryan made his way over to his couch, which had been worn-down with years of coffee spills, agitated naps, and, in one case, blood splatter, but, as he ultimately decided, he wasn’t going to get into that .
After all those years, Ryan’s couch had steadily remained his most reliable item and friend.
He sat down on the sofa’s left side, scooting over a bit to leave some extra room for the demon. When Shane poked his head out of the counter it was hidden behind, Ryan took the opportunity to jerk his own in invitation, patting the couch in a beckoning motion for him to sit down.
Shane plopped down beside him, making sure to take up as little space as he possibly could, even with his tail and distinctly long legs.
As if they had somehow been lifelong buddies since their acne-filled teenage years (applicable only to Ryan, of course, unless, demons go through puberty too? ), Shane asked, “What‘s on the agenda?”
Ryan reached over to grab the TV remote when a bite of pain sunk into his right hip. Shit, I really need to renew my CrossFit membership.
He pulled back, his grimace turning into a grin at the admittedly appeasing sight of Shane’s expression of childlike wonder.
Not that seeing Shane happy procured him a bloom of hope in his chest, if that was what anyone was thinking.
Ryan was simply glad that the demon beside him seemed less likely to go into a murderous fit. That was all.
Brushing his thoughts aside, Ryan proudly said, “Shane, we’re about to watch the single most legendary and news-breaking sports channel to have ever appeared on both national and international television.”
“Yeah? And what’s that?”
Ryan thumbed the remote’s power button firmly and let the television screen fizzle to life, immediately expecting the channel that he pre-set as his homepage years ago.
Ryan’s proud, shit-eating grin was one for the centuries.
“The NBA, baby.”
Fifteen minutes barely went by before Shane finally piped up.
“ I’m-” There was a long, pregnant pause. “Ryan, this is-”
“Great? I know.”
“Terrible. I was going to say terrible.”
( Helen chucked one of the couch’s horrendous throw pillows at him, the mass of feathers smacking his face. She giggled, “Your TV opinions are terrible!”
Ryan‘s mouth quirked upwards, “You love me nonetheless.”
“That, I unfortunately do.”)
Shane was staring at Ryan with a quizzical expression on his face, his brows tightly-knit into something of a frown.
Ryan pinched the bridge of his nose. “Right. Telepathy.” He groaned. “Sorry. I don’t mean to be that one guy who constantly thinks about his ex.”
Shane fidgeted. Ryan immediately knew that something was off.
Ryan raised an eyebrow, and under the scrutiny of his gaze, Shane sheepishly muttered out, “I have to confess that, uhm, I’ve been intentionally emitting whiffs of Helen to see how you’d react.”
Ryan tensed. “How’d you know about Helen?”
Shane, almost pitifully, explained, “No matter what you do, your memories of her constantly linger in your subconscious. So instead of, ah, directly asking you if you wanted your greatest desire to be granted, I tried to bring you around to asking for it yourself.”
Ryan felt like crumbling.
“No. No, that’s- that’s not what I meant. Sorry. I’m sure you’re trying to help, but I won’t– can’t– date Helen like that. She doesn’t deserve that– I don’t deserve that.” Breathe. You’re about to have a fucking panic attack.
Ryan registered the sensation of Shane’s warm fingertips lightly skimming over his scalp. It did little to ease the darkening swirl that was forming at the back of his mind.
What’s your greatest fear, Ryan?
“Shh. It’s okay, man.”
The demon beside you? He couldn’t breathe, no, there was no air in his lungs.
“You’re going to be alright.”
Or the one that you’ve tried to keep hidden within? Nothing left, nothing left, nothing left.
“Just breathe. Just breathe, Ryan. It’s okay. Just breathe.”
Why listen to him, Ryan?
“Listen to me, Ryan. Just breathe. You can get through this if you’ll just breathe again.” And then and there, Ryan heard the promise to Shane’s voice.
So with his ever-trusting soul, Ryan did what he could and just breathed.
He inhaled, the voices in his head lowering in volume.
Exhaled, letting the noise drift off into static.
Ryan kept breathing until he could feel the oxygen pull into his airways. He kept breathing until he could focus on the O2 molecules diffusing in his alveoli. He kept breathing until he could let his light puffs of air dwindle slightly above his upper lip. He breathed, and breathed, and breathed, and allowed himself to simply exist within his sphere of inhaling and exhaling.
Somewhere along the way, Ryan realized that he was alright.
He wasn’t sure if it had anything to do with Shane’s powers, or, as terrifying as it was to admit, Shane’s presence , but at that point, he didn’t care enough to dwell upon it. The bitter, nagging echo at the back of his mind seemed to no longer co-exist with his other thoughts, instead locked away for being the invasive presence that it was.
Sure, his moments of calm might’ve been fleeting, but fleeting was still a sign that it’d happened, right? It was a pretty great alternative in light of the years he’d spent toiling away.
There was a soft, scratching sensation at the top of his head and Ryan’s natural instinct was to jerk away, but then he remembered that it was Shane. Just Shane.
Ryan glanced his way, trying to work up something to say. Anything to say.
Shane merely nodded, and gently said, “I know. I already know.”
Releasing his hand from Ryan’s hair (a sensation that Ryan admittedly already missed), Shane practically glowed with the ghost of a smile on his lips. He gripped Ryan’s right shoulder, a surprisingly comforting touch, and said, “Ryan, whatever you’re thinking, whatever you eventually choose, I just hope that you find yourself in a good place.” He cast his gaze downwards, and Ryan suddenly wished that he had the ability to take it all away. “I’m sorry that I tried to force a decision on you. You’re a good person, and if I wasn’t,” Shane briefly gestured towards himself, “the way that I am, then I’d support you in any way I could.”
Shane’s eyes shone with empathy, and Ryan was struck like a bolt of lightning at the oddity of his entire situation.
Ever since the demonic entity had stepped foot in his apartment, a particular thought kept nagging him at the back of his mind, but until a few moments ago, it hadn’t fully captured his attention.
Hesitantly, Ryan said, “As far as the lore goes, demons aren’t typically this,” he hesitated, “nice.” Ryan’s voice softened as he added, “But you? You’re nicer than most of the humans I’ve met, and that’s saying a lot coming from me. If I’m being honest, you’re the first since Helen that hasn’t proved themselves to be a complete dickwad.”
Shane retracted his hand, and for a second, Ryan was worried that he touched the wrong nerve, before the demon quietly spoke out, “Being evil’s cool and all, but it always ends the same way: with death, destruction, and hatred. Lots of hatred. People end up despising you, and all I can say is that it hurts.” Ryan felt a pang of empathy. He certainly knew how that felt. “I guess I wouldn’t care so much about what people think if I actually had friends in hell, but the only thing that people do for fun down there is jerk off, torture souls, and jerk off some more. Me? I like to read books, watch television shows from the 90’s, and observe the way that you humans behave.”
An idea struck Ryan, and with the gentleness of a breeze, he reached out and placed a hand on Shane’s shoulder. He didn’t know how he’d accomplish it, but he trusted that Shane’s telepathic-ass abilities would transfer Ryan’s feelings and thoughts over to his. Ryan never thought himself to be adept at conveying his emotions through his words, but he just knew that everything would break through to Shane somehow.
Shane’s eyes widened, brightening like two twin flames in a tunnel of darkness. That was when Ryan could tell that it’d worked.
Shane was quiet.
For a chatterbox demon chock-full with a millennia of small-talk between raging, half-witted hellish underlings (“So Bob, what did you have for lu-” “GLLArGHgh”)?
He was far too quiet.
The atmosphere felt wrong, completely off-putting. It was akin to the apprehension that one felt after receiving the universe’s most chest-constricting text message of “we need to talk” (enter Mom).
“What’s up?” Ryan croaked. It came out way more nervous than he anticipated, the tremor in his voice easily giving his qualms away.
Shane, thankfully, dismissed it, and opted to stare at his lap in silent contemplation instead.
Ryan, a tinge nervous (but mostly concerned), prodded, “C’mon Shane, you have the same expression as someone who was deceived into believing that aliens aren’t real.”
Shane gave him a skeptical once-over (heavy in judgement, light in careful deliberation), then started, “Alright, first of all, I’m not even going to begin with that analogy, and seco-”
Ryan cut in, “Wait, hold up, what’s wrong with that analogy? How is it-” “I mean-” “Dude, a satanic being just ups and pops into my kitchen,” Ryan deadpanned, “so, really, how unreasonable is the potential that aliens might exist too?”
Shane rubbed his chin thoughtfully, pondering upon his words. Eventually, he answered, “I think that I could entertain the idea of foreign organisms floating around somewhere in our galaxy, but I’m just saying that there’s not enough solid proof to reinforce the theory of kooky butt-probers who abduct any poor, unfortunate, regular joes.”
Shane scratched the back of his neck, abashedly mumbling, “I watch the X-Files in my free time, alright? And yes, before you ask, we demons can’t actually confirm if anything’s out there in space because our powers can only extend to this earthly domain. Sorry to let you down.”
Shane shook his head and said, “We’re straying from the point.” He sighed, all his energy swooping out of him in one heavy breath. “Humans. So power-hungry but so incredibly frail. Before I met you, people would summon me and beg for riches or sex or drugs or power in exchange for their souls and families. But you? I’ve never met someone so damn different. It’s weird.”
Ryan narrowed his eyes. “Gee, thanks.”
Shane didn’t even try to bite back his grin. “Sorry. Point is, you’re strange. But in a really good way. Probably not good for my demonic kind of species, but good nonetheless. And I just wanted to say that I’m glad you summoned me here today, unintentional or not.” ’
If he didn’t know better, Ryan would’ve teased him for his sentimentality. Instead, Ryan opted for settling in against the comforting silence that followed. After all, it wasn’t every day that he found himself confiding in a demon.
Then Ryan felt some kind of pointy-ass knife poking at his rump, and he nearly jumped out of his skin. He whirled around, realizing that it was just the tip of Shane’s fucking tail.
Shane flinched. “Let’s not call him just yet.”
Then the room swayed, completely throwing both their atmosphere and Ryan’s hard stomach out of anywhere remotely comfortable. By pure instinct, Ryan grabbed onto Shane’s sleeve, completely latching himself to the demon’s warm body to steady himself against the ground's low tremble.
That’s when his eyes fell, and he noticed that Shane’s symbol was pulsing through the fabric.
Ryan’s initial response was to grab him even tighter, concerned that he was about to vanish into thin air. It wasn’t until later that night that Ryan would question the reasoning behind this course of action.
The room eventually slowed to a halt, and it was moments after that Ryan finally realized that he was still tightly gripping Shane’s sleeve. With a nonchalant expression, he released it, using the same hand to palm his chest to even out his breaths. It was easier, now that Shane was beside him.
Shane grimaced, “Shit, Satan’s alerting me that I’m being summoned by someone else. I have to go soon.” Never in his entire life, would Ryan find an expression so forlorn and disappointed as the one plastered upon Shane’s face. Not even in his own reflection.
The thought nearly shattered him.
Pushing past it, Ryan joked, “Didn’t know that the whole room trembles when someone wants you to come.”
Shane barked out a laugh, and brought his gaze downwards, eyes lilting in both mirth and thoughtfulness as he procured an uncapped Sharpie out of thin air. He grabbed Ryan’s arm, asking, “If I may?”
Of course . “Go for it.”
When Shane was done scribbling god knew what on Ryan’s arm, Ryan turned it over, and sharply inhaled at the sight.
It was Shane’s occult symbol, drawn as a precise match to the one on Shane’s own skin.
“Well, now you know where to find me.” Shane paused, re-considering his words. He corrected, “ How to find me. Coz, y’know, if I found you in hell, that’d be pretty alarming.”
Ryan gave him a nod, a bit reluctant, but mostly relieved.
Shane tipped his head in a very gentlemanly way, a mischievous glint to his sanguine eyes, and a delicate smile graced upon his face. “I’ll see you around, Ry.”
Then, he was gone.
The only two items Shane had left behind were the faint traces of ash and smoke slowly dissipating in Ryan’s living room, and the memories of a night that Ryan knew he’d never forget.
He supposed that he should’ve been relieved now, right? Shane- the demon, was gone. Favors were exchanged, and that was that. He never had to see or summon him again.
The thought punctured a gaping cavity in Ryan’s chest.
It was like the day that Steven had missed out on their lunch all over again.
Ryan glanced at the scrawled emblem on his left arm, crooking a finger to trace its lines, ridges, curves, and grooves.
A brilliant sequence of actions clicked in him then. Though he argued that, at the time, it was purely hypothetical.
It went something like this:
If, hypothetically, Ryan would later spend hours memorizing Shane’s symbol for any potential cheese sandwiches he’d decide to make—
—and of course, this was purely hypothetical, then maybe his life wasn’t going to be so miserable after all.
(WHAM! Oh, for the love of -
For the hundredth time in the upcoming week, the irked landlady dropped the voodoo project she was working on and jabbed the dull end of her broomstick against the ceiling above her.
She grumbled, “Damn kids and their demons these days.”)