It had been a hard day for Ben Robinson. Not the hardest day, of course, but just because he’d literally faced the gates of Hell didn’t automatically make the rest of his life a cakewalk. He was entitled to the normal frustrations of normal college students with normal childhoods. Sometimes, he thought he might have been a little too determined to fit in with everyone else, all the other twenty-somethings struggling to make it through undergrad before their little bubble of continuing education burst and spit them out into a world that didn’t even work remotely the same way.
But Ben had been prepared for the world even before he’d reached high school. He knew the possibilities more than any of the other newly sprouted adults around him, bashing their heads against the wall at the thought of upcoming finals, how they’d get a job, and when they’d have to start repaying student loans. They thought they had it bad. The worst day of Ben’s life had hit when he was twelve. The truth bared itself in everything, stretching right in front of him all the time, and he did the best he could to focus on other things—anything else that didn’t remind him of his four dead friends. The truth was that they’d been murdered by things that shouldn’t have even existed; he called them demons, but he didn’t know what else to call them. The truth was that, for years, everyone had told him he was crazy, pumping him with meds while at the same time suspecting him of having killed those boys himself. The truth was that Ben and Peter were the lucky ones. They’d made it out of that house eleven years ago, but they’d stopped talking about it because it didn’t make their lives any easier. The truth was a secret, but it felt like a lie. More lying tonight, just like every day since his eyes had been pried open by the cruel fingers of another realm until he couldn’t close them again even if he wanted to. Now, he stood on the front porch of Boston University’s Phi Kappa Alpha house. He only knew the name because April had said it when she’d invited him. The white paint peeled off the huge, three-story, Victorian building, and the Greek letters rising up the side of both white columns in front of the door made him feel a little dizzy. The idea of taking that first step into a house he didn’t know and had never been in before sent a cold chill up his spine; it made sense, after what had happened in that abandoned but not-so-empty house the summer after seventh grade. Ben didn’t think the awful foreboding would fade any time soon, but he’d had plenty of practice pretending like it did. Really, if April hadn’t invited him, he wouldn’t have even considered it. They’d been stuck together for a four-hour wait in the Bursar’s office the week before, and in that amount of time, their conversation had apparently been enough for her to feel safe asking him to a frat party. He’d had his fair share of asking girls out and being rejected; after all, what was rejection compared to the terror of watching his possessed friends turn on each other and mutilate themselves while he and Peter left them there to save their own skins? Ben never really expected anyone to say yes to an invitation of his. And even if they did, once they heard about his past and what he’d been through—what he sometimes still went through—they’d turn and run in seconds flat, no questions asked. So it surprised him when April said her housemate had asked her to come to this party but she didn’t feel like being alone in a sea of drunken frat boys and equally excited sorority girls, plus whoever. She was smart and not afraid to show it, laughed at all his lame, unredeemable jokes, and even tossed in a few of her own to mix it up. Ben had asked Peter if he wanted to come too—a good wingman never hurt—but Peter declined with some story about a sinus infection. If one thing hadn’t changed since the worst day of their lives, it was Peter’s health. Ben reached out to grab the doorknob on the huge, oak front door, then pulled himself together, pushed the door open, and stepped inside. The music was awful. That was the first thing he noticed, and it immediately colored his opinion of frat parties in general and this one in particular. Red, blue, and green stage lights lit up the banisters of the huge staircase just inside, and someone had actually hung a disco ball in the center of the living room. A disco ball. The place was packed already, and Ben had shown up half an hour after the time April asked him to meet her because he hadn’t even been sure he wanted to get off his couch on a cold Friday in November and act like he cared for a night. But then he’d looked at the address and time April had texted him and thought about the way she smiled at him, how she’d nudged her shoulder into his chest when the clerk had finally been ready to see him and told him to give her his phone so she could save her number in it. April was reason enough to get out of bed—even if she’d invited him as a backup or just a friend—and he thought maybe he should have texted her and let her know he was still coming. He moved through the house, dodging the bodies that seemed to turn every available space into the dance floor and trying to see above the moving heads. He’d find her. He would. “Ben!” He heard his name and couldn’t for the life of him figure out where the shout came from. Spinning, he scanned the staircase, the couches, the hallway, and finally saw April through the entryway into the kitchen, waving both arms above her head like she was trying to land a plane. So much for a smooth landing. But he smiled at her, hoping it didn’t make him look either totally uninterested or completely terrified, and pushed his way down the hall through the bodies.
When he stepped into the kitchen, she actually hugged him. It was quick and a little jarring; she wrapped her arms around his neck, squeezed a little, and he only had time to barely bring his hand up to her back before she bounced back down from her tiptoes and tucked her blonde hair behind her ear. “I didn’t know if you were actually going to make it.”
“Yeah, well, I spent a lot of time on my hair.” It wasn’t the dumbest ice-breaker ever, especially when she’d already thinned it so much with that hug. But Ben always tried to hide his nervousness with humor, and it had a fifty-fifty chance of falling flat at any given time. He shoved his hands into his front pockets. April’s brows flicked together, she glanced up at his short brown hair—which he hadn’t even touched since his last shower yesterday—and her nose wrinkled before she let out a short laugh he thought was actual amusement but could also have been, ‘This guy is so weird. Why did I ask him to come?’
“Oh, I hear ya,” she said. “I spent hours trying to figure out what dress to wear.” She gestured to her dark, maroon pants beneath her cream, long-sleeved shirt and navy down vest, then actually did a quick, theatrical turn for him right there in the kitchen. Ben couldn’t help the quick smile pulling at his mouth. “It’s perfect.”
April laughed again and rolled her eyes, then met his gaze just long enough to make Ben think it didn’t mean nothing. “You want a beer?” She lifted one shoulder and made a face, like she’d been expected to ask the question because that was what one did at a frat party, whether they’d pledged or not. “Maybe later,” Ben said. That maybe was a lie; he definitely didn’t want a beer. After all the antipsychotics and mood stabilizers he’d sampled over the years like he’d stepped into the world’s largest ice cream shop, he didn’t at all feel like putting something else into his body that made him feel like a zombie. Fortunately, April seemed impressed by his half-lie of a decision.
He nodded. “Yeah, thanks.”
Around the island and toward the fridge, she did a cute, shuffling little dance to the horrible, pounding music, grinned when Ben chuckled at her, and opened the fridge to grab two plastic water bottles. She came back to him, set one water bottle on the island, and held the other in both hands, displaying it like a sommelier presented wine. “Does it suit your tastes, sir?” She half closed her eyes and drew her mouth down in a mockery of class. Incredibly grateful for her sense of humor easing his distrust of pretty much everything he didn’t already know, Ben tipped his head in acknowledgment. “Excellent vintage.” April snorted, grinned at him, then flipped the bottle up and over toward him. He had enough time to take his hand out of his pocket and catch the bottle against his chest, feeling like a smile came just a little bit easier around her. Two other guys wearing almost identical striped polos burst into the kitchen, yelling unintelligible nonsense at each other and nearly crushing April against the counter as they bounded toward the fridge for more beer. Ben had never seen guys that big move that fast in such a small space, and they were gone before either he or April could say a word. She blinked, rubbing her back where she’d been pressed against the counter, and glared after the guys. “Seriously?”
Ben tried to slap his head into focus, hoping she hadn’t completely written him off as useless now—that she hadn’t somehow expected him to do something and stand up for her in a situation that didn’t really call for standing up about anything. He didn’t think April was like that, but he’d heard stories about some girls getting really pissed off when their dates didn’t start a fight in their honor. And maybe that was ridiculously old-school; he had no idea what he was doing. So he just asked her instead, “You wanna go out back? Get some fresh air or something?”
April turned from where the two jerks had disappeared, and when her blue eyes caught his, her scowl melted. “I thought you’d never ask,” she said with a little shake of her head, clasping her hands together in perfect damsel-in-distress style. Then she rolled her eyes again and nodded toward the other end of the kitchen. “Back door’s this way.” A little flicker of curious resentment filled him with the fact that she seemed to know her way around this frat house pretty well. Had she been here before? A different party? With … some other guy? He followed her through the kitchen and past the two couples making out in the hallway, then called himself an idiot. April had invited him to be here with her, and however many times she’d been here before or whether there’d been other guys or none didn’t matter at all. If that was the worst thing she could keep from him, he had her beat by a long shot; Ben’s skeletons walked and talked and had once labeled him borderline schizophrenic. So he chose to focus on the fact that she seemed happy to be with him tonight, even if it was at a frat party neither one of them seemed to be enjoying all that much. When they stepped through the back door, the chilly autumn air was a relieving comfort after the hot, smelly, loud soup of people inside. Ben stood on the porch next to April, and when she glanced up at the night sky, he did too. The stars were pretty much impossible to see from below all the city lights of Boston, but the half-moon was bright enough to give them some kind of a view. April cracked open her water bottle, took a long drink, and sighed. Her breath misted in the cold. “Way better out here.” Ben nodded, then thought he should say something because she was looking at the sky and maybe hadn’t seen him agree with her. But he drew a blank. They stood there for a minute, then he looked down at the grated firepit in the middle of the small back yard and finally found a leg to stand on. “Wanna go sit by the fire?”
“Yeah, sure.” He let her walk down the porch steps first, and lucky for him, there were two empty lawn chairs in the ring of them around the crackling firepit. They sat, overwhelmed by a gust of cigarette smoke from somewhere in the yard followed by the sweet stink of what was definitely pot. And it was strong. Ben turned to shoot April a look, and she just gave him a goofy little smile and a shrug. “Someone’s having fun.”
Ben smirked. It was a little bit harder this time to look away from her when she focused on the fire, but he didn’t want to come across as some kind of creeper, so he eventually turned toward the flames as well and folded his arms. “This is your senior year, right?” April asked. Ben blinked; they hadn’t talked about it before, and he felt a little weird wondering how she knew. “Yeah. Almost done. You?”
“Technically not my senior year yet. I had to take a semester off sophomore year, so I’ll finish the rest of my classes next summer and graduate then.”
“Not bad.” Not bad? That sounded condescending as hell, and Ben just clenched his teeth together.
April nodded. “What’s your major?”
“Hey, cut it out.” The playful shout came from the side of the house, followed by a high-pitched giggle. Ben thought it sounded just a little too desperate. He cleared his throat; it was either take the dive or sit out on the edge and wish he had more courage. “Theology.” She looked right at him and tilted her head in surprise. Ben’s eyes moved slowly toward hers. “You want to be a priest or something?” “No.” It came out way too fast, and he tried to make it sound better by adding, “Not a priest. I don’t think I could handle that. I’m just … really interested in theology, religion, how it effects and relates to society today.” How it was possible that four of his friends nine years ago were possessed by demons and killed each other. No big deal. “Interesting.” She drew the word out like she couldn’t think of anything to say, and Ben tried not to frown. He’d probably blown it completely with her now. A high, giggling shriek came again from the side of the house. “David, stop it. I’m serious.” More giggles followed, and April briefly turned around for a glimpse of whoever was shouting behind them. It was too dark to see. Then she turned back to Ben. “Any specific thing you’re studying?” His pause seemed to last a lifetime, but he wanted to tell her. This was good; he was moving forward with his life and pushing through it, despite the fact that his entire college career now revolved around trying to make sure the nightmare he’d escaped as a kid never happened again. “Uh, angelology.” “The study of angels?” The smile she gave him either meant she was entirely more intrigued than she had been a minute ago or completely turned off and ready to run. Ben took a chance and banked on it being the first one. “Yeah, and demons.” He cracked his knuckles and tried not to look as embarrassed as he felt. “That’s really cool,” she said. “I didn’t even know that kind of thing existed as an actual major.”
“Well, it’s not an actual listed major,” he said, feigning nonchalance—at least, he hoped he was—but feeling more relief than he thought possible by the fact that she hadn’t just stood up and left him as soon as he said it. “Theology’s pretty unstructured to start, so I got to pick my own sub-discipline and have kind of been building the courses as I go. There’s a lot of stuff out there already, but for the most part, I get to put it together exactly the way I want.” “Man, that sounds so much cooler than just picking a random major and taking what they tell you to take.” Yeah, way cooler than not having seen his friends swallow broken glass or stab each other over fifty times or gouge their own eyes out, then be completely unable to put the past behind him and instead make this the sole focus of what probably would leave him career-less and broke when he graduated. Totally. Ben took a deep breath and nodded. But April seemed to take him seriously, which he added to the small, slowly growing tally of points for Ben Robinson.
“What made you want to study something like that?” She looked at him with wide, curious eyes that flickered in the firelight and made Ben want to stare into them forever. Some small hope rose up through his core like a rising stream of smoke. He could tell her. He could bring it up like it was no big deal, like he’d gotten over the worst of it already but wanted to figure out a way to explain it all, to deal with it going forward. So far, she’d actually listened to him, and she was asking questions, which meant something. He could start with just a vague story, nothing too graphic, maybe tell her more later if they went out again on an actual date. If she asked him about it again—
‘Don’t do it, Ben.’ He froze, that uncurling flicker of hope instantly crushed by one of the voices he hadn’t heard now for two years. ‘You have more important things to worry about right now.’
Ben tried to swallow but almost choked. Not now. Please, please not now.
“Ben?” April asked, leaning forward a little to get his attention. He realized he’d been staring at the corner of her lawn chair and looked back up at her in surprise. “Everything okay?”
“I… uh…” He cleared his throat. “I thought I … did you hear something?” Well that didn’t make any sense at all. Of course she hadn’t, and he highly doubted the voice would just suddenly reach out to both of them and drag her into his screwed-up world just so he didn’t have to feel so alone in it all the time. April frowned and glanced around quickly. “I don’t know,” she said. “The party’s pretty loud—”
“David.” The girl’s shout came again from the side of the house, stronger and with more urgency. “Stop it. I said stop. No! What are you doing—” The scream that rang out through the street of frat houses wasn’t playful anymore. It was filled with terror. April’s eyes grew instantly wide as she met Ben’s gaze, and without thinking, he jumped from his chair and ran toward the screams. He felt her behind him, heard her calling his name and asking what was going on, and he should have stopped. What was he doing? He felt moved to try to help, like someone else was pulling at his body and pushing him blindly forward. When he skidded around the side of the house, what he found there brought all the darkness from so many years swarming to the surface, and he thought he was going to either be sick or fall over when his legs gave way. The girl who was clearly screaming now flapped around like a terrified bird, slapping desperately at her own head and the long hair that had been set aflame and was quickly burning away. The guy standing next to her just watched, impassive, unmoved. Then his head turned slowly—so slowly—until it stretched over his shoulder and farther toward Ben than anyone had a physical right to manage. Black, dead eyes stared out at him, all pupil and no iris or white—or maybe the pupils were gone too, and all that remained was the soulless eyes of another demon inside another host, right there in front of him. A sick, gleeful grin curled up on the guy’s mouth. Ben staggered backward and braced himself with a hand against the outside of the house. “Oh, my god!” April shouted behind him, clearly focused more on the girl with the burning hair than the terrifying sight of those eyes and the guy’s unnaturally twisted neck. She was quicker on her feet, too, ripping the cap off her water bottle and squeezing the plastic so a stream of “the world’s finest spring water” shot out to splash over the screaming girl, who’d fallen to her knees and still flailed at her own head. Ben was only vaguely aware of the heroics on her part. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the black holes threatening to suck him in or the disgustingly dead grin on the guy’s face. But it wasn’t that guy anymore. It was a demon—another one—and it wasn’t done.
The guy slowly raised a hand to his face, his fingers pinched loosely around a thick, smoking joint. Then he blew on it until the burning end glowed a fierce red and flicked the joint down into the conveniently open window of the basement. Who left a basement window open in November?
Whatever was down there, whatever had been stupidly stacked against the outer wall by the guys who lived in this house and were clueless to the dangers all around them, erupted in flame with a thick whoosh of air. Ben felt the heat on his calves, even through his jeans, then finally managed to pull himself away from those consuming black eyes and looked down through the window. The fire spread—quickly. A thin trickle of dark smoke rose from the window, and Ben remembered where they were and how many people were in the house and how many of them had no idea they were about to be caught in a house fire. “April,” Ben said, but it came out as a shocked whisper and he had to try again. “April. There’s a fire.”
“No, no. I think I got it,” she said quickly, kneeling by the burned girl and checking the rest of her body with trembling hands. The girl moaned. “But we need to call an ambulance.” Ben swallowed thickly, trying to get the words out and not lose his shit under the soulless gaze he felt still on him like a clammy hand smearing down his face. “April, another fire. In the basement. We need to… we need to get everyone out.” She whirled to look at him, then noticed whatever odd expression managed to contort his features and glanced down into the inferno the basement had quickly become. “Oh, my god,” she breathed again, her hands resting limply now on the moaning girl’s shoulders. Before Ben had the chance to repeat himself or tear away from the rising flames below them, the guy with a demon inside him taking his new host for a joyride, took two steps toward the house. He put his palms on the white, peeling paint, leaned his head back, and threw his face against the wall with a sickening crack.
‘I told you, Ben.’