Jenna Black was the kind of tortured soul that could come across as bitchy if you didn’t know her. Tyler knew her, though. Better than anyone. They had been best friends for as long as either of them could remember. Well, only friends, really, and that was okay. Tyler and Jenna didn’t need anyone else – especially Jenna’s piece-of-shit father.
“Your dad gonna be pissed?” Tyler asked as they lay across the top of his car, staring up at the stars.
“Of course,” Jenna answered. She turned her head to look at him. “What for?”
He bumped her arm with his elbow, laughing as he said, “What for?! Does the name ‘Jeremy Reid’ ring any bells?”
Jenna pressed her lips together as if thinking it over. “Hmm... nope.” She turned her attention back to the sky. “Should it?”
Tyler gave an amused snort. “Well, I usually remember a guy’s name when I break his nose.”
It was Jenna’s turn to laugh. “Please, you’re a softie. You’ve never broken a nail, much less some douchebag’s nose.”
She was right about that. Tyler was as soft as they came. Everyone at their school knew Tyler was the pushover, while Jenna was the unpredictable ball of rage that could explode anytime, sending even the largest varsity footballer crying to the nurse.
“Seriously, Jen,” he said, ignoring her barb, “how much trouble are you gonna be in?”
Jenna’s father hadn’t exactly been blessed with an overabundance of patience. Or compassion. Or human decency. He was just some guy who’d gotten stuck with a kid he’d never wanted when his wife went and died on him.
Home life was pretty damned miserable for Jenna, but Tyler knew she didn’t like to talk about it. In fact, Tyler was the only one in town who knew anything about Jenna. The only one who knew Jenna’s father smacked her around when she half-assed her chores. When she talked back. When dinner wasn’t ready on time. When her grades slipped. When, like tonight, she stayed out past curfew.
And sometimes, just for the hell of it.
Tyler had given up on trying to get his friend to tow the line when it became apparent her father would beat her regardless of whether she “deserved” it or not. He’d offered to call the cops, then threatened to call the cops. He’d asked her to stay with his family. He’d promised her a ride to her aunt’s in Florida. Each time, Jenna would just shrug off Tyler’s suggestion and it would happen again. The only thing that ever changed was the faraway look on Jenna’s eyes, which grew more and more distant as the years wore on.
Sometimes, when they gazed up at the stars together, Tyler wondered if that was where Jenna went when she shut down: galaxies away. Was she there now?
“It doesn’t matter.”
Tyler was so busy imagining Jenna perched alone, aloof, on the nearest star, that he was momentarily confused by her words. “Of course it matters,” he insisted after a moment. She always did that; acted like her problems weren’t important. “You can’t keep letting him do it, Jen. You don’t deserve it.”
It was the truth, even if Jenna didn’t believe it. Tyler would keep telling her, although the words seemed to ball up and rolled right off, because she needed to hear it. Maybe, if he just kept telling her how good she was, she wouldn’t let that bastard treat her like garbage... “I mean it, Jen. If you...”
She sat up and looked down at Tyler. “I won’t,” she promised. “I’m done. He’s not getting another chance.”
He searched Jenna’s face for the lie he thought must be there, for any sign that she was just saying it to shut him up. There was nothing but a tired resolve.
Tyler was proud of his friend at that moment. After all those years of abuse, she’d finally found the courage to end it. He was so happy he sat up to throw his arms around her. If Jenna held him a little too tightly, or a little too long, he didn’t notice.
“Do you want me to come in with you?” Tyler asked excitedly. “You can grab a bag. My mom won’t mind if you...”
Jenna shook her head as she pulled away. “I have to do this alone.”
“You’re never alone,” Tyler argued. “You have me.”
“And you have me. Remember that.” She gave him a small smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “I’ll always be with you, no matter what.”
What a funny thing to say, Tyler thought. He was so happy she was finally doing something, though, he didn’t give the strange words a more than a passing thought. Instead, he slid down off the roof and drove Jenna home. His good mood followed him back across town to his own place. It lasted right up until he kicked off his shoes and fell onto his bed.
I’m done. He’s not getting another chance.
Typical, cryptic Jenna. What did that actually mean? Was she going to fight back? Sure, she’d taken down Jeremy Reid without any effort, but her dad was ex-special forces. Jenna was tough, but she wasn’t trained-killer tough. No, she couldn’t have possibly meant she was going to fight back. That would be crazy. Then… what?
Tyler frowned at his ceiling, wishing he’d pushed Jenna to explain herself. A tiny ball of guilt formed in his chest. The more he thought about it, the more convinced Tyler was that he shouldn’t have left Jenna alone, even though she ordered him to “Get the hell outta here.” What if Mr. Black refused to let her go? What if she did take a swing at him and he did something even her dark, emo makeup couldn’t hide?
He’d nearly decided to drive right back over there when another thought occurred to him – one that made the world drop away and left him floundering wildly against the dark void that took its place.
A cold fist grabbed Tyler’s gut and twisted. The void rushed up around him.
I’ll always be with you, no matter what.
How could he have misunderstood? How could he have thought it was a good thing?
No, no, no, no...
Tyler struggled to break free from the dark void. With a gasp, he scrambled up and ran from the house so quickly he forgot his shoes.
Jenna’s house was only a few miles away, but it felt like it took an eternity to get there. Tyler dialed Jenna as he drove, steering with one hand. The call went to voicemail without ringing. Her father probably confiscated it, Tyler told himself. He’d done it before. So, her phone was off. It didn’t mean anything. The lie didn’t bring any comfort.
When Tyler’s car screeched to a halt outside Jenna’s house, he found Mr. Black sitting on the front steps. Hate, so intense it turned the breath lodged in his throat to lava, filled Tyler at the sight of the man. His hands clenched into fists as he slammed the car door shut. Military or not, Tyler was going to destroy the man if...
Hot lava swallowed the thought before it could choke him.
Tyler didn’t bother with a greeting. He didn’t show Jenna’s father the respect an adult deserved. Instead, he stormed right up and said, “Where is she?”
He knew something was wrong when Mr. Black didn’t snap at him. It was no secret the two didn’t like one another. But the older man didn’t answer, either. All he did was raise his head to meet Tyler’s furious expression. When he did, Tyler sucked in a gasp of breath and stumbled backward.
Mr. Black’s eyes were red. They weren’t the red of a man who drank too much, but the flickering red orange of a live flame. The fire within them shifted as Mr. Black stared at Tyler.
“You’re too late,” he said in a voice that did not belong to Mr. Black.
The void of despair Tyler had been trying to escape since he left his bedroom rushed up once more. He ran from it – and the thing that looked like Mr. Black but wasn’t – around the house to the backdoor that was never locked, through it, and up the stairs to Jenna’s room. That was where the void caught up with him. Tyler fell to his knees by Jenna’s bloody body and let the void take him.
“There was nothing you could have done,” the thing in Mr. Black’s body said, drawing Tyler out of the darkness. Blinking through tears, he looked up to find it sitting in a chair, its legs crossed casually at the ankles.
“What are you?” Tyler demanded. He wanted it to tell him that it was just Mr. Black. That his grief was making him see and hear things. He wanted a lie.
It wasn’t that kind.
“You’re a good, God-fearing Christian boy, Joseph,” it said. “You know what I am, and you know why I’m here.”
Against his will, Tyler’s gaze was drawn to the body on the floor by the bed. To… no, he wouldn’t think of that thing as Jenna. If that was Jenna, there was no hope. If the demon was still there, it meant there was a chance. Tyler rose and faced the creature in Mr. Black’s body.
“Give her back,” Tyler said. Tears streamed unnoticed down his face. “You give her back now.”
One corner of the bright-eyed demon’s lips quirked up.
“Tell you what,” it said. “I like your spunk, so I’ll give you a shot. I’ve finished my rounds for the night,” it told Tyler. “If you can pick your friend’s voice out of all the lost souls who took their own lives tonight, you can have her back.”
Hope swooped down to wrap is fragile wings around Tyler. Dare he trust it? Could he let the elusive creature that was hope carry him away?
Or would he come crushing down with a bang?
He had to try. Tyler would do anything. Even if there was only tiniest chance of rescuing Jenna, he would take it.
The demon grinned. It was a twisted, gruesome expression – one that looked far too at home on Mr. Black’s face. Tyler had a sudden, horrible idea of what would become of the cruel man when his time passed.
“Then let the challenge begin,” the demon said.
As the demon spoke, a noise like the roar of a waterfall – but a hundred thousand times worse – filled Tyler’s mind. Rushing, fluid, it slammed into the confines of his skull and echoed back on itself, more horrible each time than the last. The roar drove Tyler to his knees where he pressed his palms against his ears, desperately trying to shut out the roar.
No. Not a roar, he realized as it went on and on. It was... human. Human voices. So many voices, raised in pain and fear. The screams piled up, twisted together into a single sound. Try as he might, Tyler couldn’t separate them, couldn’t find that one voice he knew so well. There were just too many.
Tiny, winged hope nosedived. It fell hard and fast, taking Tyler with it.
“Please,” he sobbed into the floor, unable to lift his head against the assault of noise, “just make it stop.”
The roar died in an instant. The silence that took its place was so loud it hurt. Trembling, Tyler pushed himself to his hands and knees. Tears flew from his cheeks as he shook his head.
“There are so many.” He raised his aching head to fix stricken eyes on the demon. “You’ve taken all those souls in one night?”
It shrugged. “It’s a slow night.”
A slow night.
Tyler was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who, every single night, lost the battle against their tormentors. Against circumstance. Against their own minds. The ones who felt death was the only way out. Who, because of their pain, would spend eternity burning for their sins.
He was filled with a sudden resolution, a determination to make the suffering stop. His limbs shook as he slowly climbed to his feet. Clenching his hands into fists at his sides, Tyler stared the demon down.
“You can’t have them.”
The demon stared at Tyler a moment before bursting into laughter. “And who will stop me?” It gave Tyler a once-over that told the boy exactly what it thought of him. “You?”
Tyler knew what he must look like: a scrawny teenager with ripped jeans, gangly limbs, and unruly hair. A weak human with red-rimmed, dark eyes full of steel. A kid whose fists had never taken a swing at anyone but were ready to take on the hosts of Hell, all alone, if it meant silencing the screams of the lost.
The demon’s grin faded. It tilted its borrowed head as it considered Tyler. “How do you intend to do that?” it asked. “You couldn’t even save one girl.”
An invisible knife twisted in his heart at the demon’s taunt. It was true, of course. Losing Jenna should have broken Tyler – should have, but it didn’t. Instead. it lit a purpose inside him he never knew was there. His thoughts traveled to the keyboard hidden in his basement, to the songs he’d never had the courage to share with anyone but Jenna.
I can do this, he thought, for her.
Strange how nothing in the world – not standing up to the bullies, not singing in public – seemed quite as scary anymore. Not even the demon smirking down at him.
Tyler stood up straighter as determination slogged through his veins. “I will save them,” he vowed.
The demon’s cocky expression slipped. “You’ll try,” it conceded. “But you’ll never save them all.”
“Maybe not all of them,” Tyler said. He had seen enough in his short life to know not everyone wanted to be saved. “But I’ll save as many as I can.”
I’ll turn that roar into a whimper, he added silently.
“It will be the death of you,” the demon warned. It wasn’t a threat, just a statement of fact. “If you try to save them, it will burn you out. Are the souls of strangers really worth it?”
“My life for theirs?” Tyler didn’t make the decision lightly, yet it took only a heartbeat. “Absolutely.”
It didn’t matter that Tyler only had the vaguest idea of how to do it. All that mattered was the memory of that roar, forever scored across his mind.
He couldn’t, wouldn’t, look at the body. That husk of defeat wasn’t his Jenna anymore. His Jenna was a naughty laugh and schemes that could only end in trouble. She wasn’t just another lost soul, another scream; Jenna was a memory that would light his way through the darkest parts of the path he’d chosen.
“If that’s what it takes,” he said.
The demon shook its head. “You’re a fool.” With that, Mr. Black’s body fell to the floor. The demon was gone.
Jenna’s personal demon would wake in moments and be forced to face the Hell he’d created. Tyler didn’t stick around for that. He drove home, locked himself in his basement, and put pen to paper.
Tyler Joseph was a man of his word. He vowed to save them – and save them, he did. As many as he could, anyway. The rest, the demon claimed with a triumphant grin. Over time, Tyler’s victories grew larger while the demon claimed fewer and fewer of the lost. It checked in on Tyler from time to time. Sometimes, it took familiar faces, just to taunt the singer. Others, it stood in the shadows and silently fumed. That was exactly what the demon did at that moment. It fumed.
There, on the stage, in front of twenty-thousand cheering people – many of whom had already been wrenched from the demon’s grip – stood Tyler. The singer smiled as he held a hand to his heart. He knew, because the demon often reminded him, the fragile organ in his chest wouldn’t hold out much loner. That his time was ticking down.
Still... he smiled.
Tyler didn’t smile because he’d defeated the demon. That was impossible. No, Tyler smiled because he knew he’d done something better. He’d built any army of soldiers who would keep fighting, long after he was gone. Because of Tyler, because of Jenna, the war for life would rage for generations.
As the demon glared at the stage, the soul it had come to collect slipped from its grasp and winged its way to Tyler’s cause. The demon’s bellow of frustration was drowned out by a chorus of “Stay alive for me.”