FROM ANY POINT IN BRIARDALE, the bare crest of Button Up Hill looms. Two great sentinel oaks stand to either side of the hill’s grassless forehead, like a pair of disapproving grandmothers watching over their ward of rowdy children. If you climb the hill and peer into the intervening space between the trees, you might notice the subtlest mottling of the air, like waves of heat rising from black asphalt on a summer day. If you wait long enough, for a season, for a year, you might just see the air discolor, thicken and even open like a yawning mouth. That’s where it happened, where all of this happened. On the wind-struck apex of Button Up Hill.
THE FALL AFTER WHAT happened to Jonathan happened, when the tell-tale whispers of autumn wind rent the steamy air of August, I began to shiver. I shivered all the way home and climbed into a bath drawn as hot as I could stand it. I shivered afterward, my teeth chattering and my lips blooming purple.
I shivered into September when the temperatures dipped into the 50s and the winds blew in force. On Halloween night, I only stayed out for an hour because no matter how many layers I piled on under my Freddy Krueger costume, I couldn’t shake the cold. I shivered through November and Thanksgiving dinner, during the day and all night long, shivered in front of a blazing fire, shivered as I gulped down hot cocoa, camomile tea, egg nog and even a clandestine shot of brandy from my grandfather until finally my mother brought me to the doctor thinking I might have bad circulation.
Dr. Adler smelled vaguely of glue and gazed at me through wide-framed bifocals, breathing his coffee breath on me, listening to my heart, checking my ears, blood pressure and temperature. On this last, he said I was a bit below normal but also said it was nothing to worry about. He shook out the thermometer and peered at me.
“You were friends with the Michaels boy, right?”
“No,” I said. I didn’t want to talk about it. Jonathan was dead. Dr. Adler wasn’t going to bring him back to life.
“He was,” my mother said lightly. “But we don’t—”
“I just wondered if you’d seen anyone, a psychiatrist, about that,” Dr. Adler cut in.
My mother’s eyes flashed. “It’s been a year, Bob,” she said. “We’ve let it go.”
Dr. Adler raised his hands and smiled. “Okay,” he shrugged. “Hot soup, I’d say. Maybe some indoor exercise. A little exposure to the cold wouldn’t hurt either. They say the more you’re outside, the less the cold bothers you.”
My mother frowned. “He’s been like this for months.”
Dr. Adler opened his mouth to say something then closed it again. The overhead lights buzzed at a pitch almost too high to hear. “Just talk to Kelly on your way out, okay?”
Kelly handed my mother a small white card after they settled the bill. My mother’s eyes narrowed before she placed it in her mock leather purse and said a curt goodbye.
“Seventy-eight dollars for that?” she said as we made our way to the car. She held the white card between two fingers. “And now he’s trying to send you to a shrink?”
THE FEBRUARY BEFORE, Jonathan trudged the face of Button Up Hill ahead of me, his orange plastic sled skipping over the hard pack snow. I followed with my aluminum saucer tucked under my arm. The ground was more ice than snow. It lay in frozen stasis, dotted with the boot prints of a hundred other kids and slashed through with sled tracks.
“Think if we had a rope tow,” Jonathan called back. His breath exploded into white clouds in the bracing air. “This would be way easier.”
“Or a chair lift.” I said as I tamped upwards, turning my feet sideways to keep from sliding back down. “Sucks climbing the whole damn thing every time.”
Jonathan crested first. He planted a foot then leaned over and put a hand to his heart.
“You okay? Is it beating fast again?” I asked.
He shook his head and reached back to help me up. I grasped his hand, but his frozen mitten slid off. I pinwheeled back and landed hard.
“Ow.” I rolled to a sitting position.
“Are you okay?” Jonathan laughed. The tips of his dark brown hair stuck out under his stocking cap. He grimaced in a gust of frigid wind and stuck his now bare hand in the pocket of his encrusted jeans. “Frickin’ cold.”
“Frickin’ hurt. Here.” I tossed his woolen mitten at him and crawled up the last few feet to the top of the hill. The snow was as staccatoed with footprints as the rest of the hill but some powder remained. Across the center of the crest, someone had carved a deep, straight groove, likely with a large stick they’d found somewhere.
Jonathan put two fingers to his neck and drew a slow breath. Sometimes his heart beat too fast. A hole in it or something. The doctors weren’t sure. He was supposed to take it easy, not stress his heart. I wondered if climbing Button Up Hill counted as taking it easy. I opened my mouth to ask whether he wanted to sit down, but Jonathan drew a cigarette lighter from his pocket and flicked it.
An electric thrill washed over me. “Where’d you get that?”
“Took it from my dad.”
“Won’t he miss it?”
“Nah, he’s got like twenty.” Jonathan pursed his lips. “Wish we could just start a fire. Then we’d be warm.”
“Start it with what?” I asked, looking around.
Jonathan seemed to think about it. He wandered from one oak to another, crossing the deep grove in the ground, treading an arc between the two trees. At the second oak, he reached up for a low branch. It snapped off easily. “With this.”
He held the lighter to the branch for a long moment, but it wouldn’t catch. “Crap.”
“You need something bigger,” I chuckled.
“Yeah,” he smiled back. “Like this tree!”
He held the lighter up to the bark, his eyes wide, his arm shaking dramatically, acting like at any second the tree would explode into flame. Nothing happened. He seemed to be feeling just fine. No more putting his hand to his chest or neck. I always kind of watched him now that I knew about his heart. He told me not to tell other kids, not even our friend Becca.
“Nice try,” I said, setting the edge aluminum disk into the snow and leaning on it.
The top of Button Up Hill hosted the best view in Briardale. The hills outside of town, lit in rose and violet by the setting sun, lay in perfect repose at the horizon. Behind us, between the oaks, the tidy homes of our town tessellated out as far as we could see. I’d sledded Button Up Hill ever since I could climb it myself. It was fast. It was unforgiving. If you fell, you’d roll to the bottom, bouncing your bones against the hard pack snow all the way down.
“It looks frickin’ deadly today.” I said.
“Hopefully not,” Jonathan smiled, flicking the lighter again. He tried warming his hand over the flame.
“Ouch.” He said shaking his fingers. “You ready?”
“Yeah,” I said, but the word drew from my lips like taffy because something was wrong.
I couldn’t identify it right away. A change, a subtle shift of movement, of sound or temperature. I swung my head around to glance back at the twin oaks. The air shimmered in the space between the trees. As I watched, it discolored and began churning like water over stones in a fast moving river.
“What do you mean ‘yeaaaah’?” Jonathan laughed then stopped short. “What is that?”
“I don’t know,” I said in a voice that betrayed nothing of the cacophony inside me. In front of us, the air writhed like smoke issuing from a doused fire. The swirling spot in the air grew to the size of a beach ball, then larger, until it extended from one oak to the next. We had stepped back, but now we leaned forward as a strange keening seemed to emit from the air itself. The whine became louder until it was all we could hear.
He flicked the lighter and held it out in front of him with a shaking arm as if it were a weapon. The tongue of flame appeared, flickering in the suddenly still air.
“Dude!” I shout. “Let’s get out here.” There was only one way down. I threw my aluminum sled onto the ground in front of me, but Jonathan still hadn’t moved.
I flopped down onto my aluminum disk and glanced back to make sure he was with me. That’s when it reached out for him with half a dozen transparent arms like roiling water. They rolled over Jonathan and swept him up. If he shouted or screamed I don’t remember it. I only remember his face in the moment just before that thing overcame him. He didn’t look scared or angry. His face held a look of abject fascination.
I remember screaming. I remember crying his name as the creature dissipated and the mottled air between the trees drew back, dropping Jonathan to the ground. I shook him, but he didn’t move. He never moved again.
I SHIVERED IN MATH CLASS on a rainy November Tuesday. I could sense the elegance of the series of postulates Mr. Dilley laid out in chalk, some of which ancient Greeks had written down thousands of years before. Even so, the whir of the box heater at the far side of the room, the close air and the drone of Mr. Dilley’s patient but persistent voice all conspired to turn our usual class of energetic 5th graders into yawning, blear-eyed zombies.
“Three points not in a line form a plane,” Mr. Dilley said, jabbing three distinct dots onto the board. He then drew a rectangle around them. “See?”
In the front row, Becca Rickey did him the service of nodding. I found my mouth yawing wide and my eyes moistening as I raised a hand to my face. For the hundredth time that day and for the ten millionth since his death, I thought of Jonathan. If he’d been there, it would have made the lesson bearable. A familiar serrated disk of ice turned in my stomach.
“Right,” Mr. Dilley said. He slashed another rectangle on the board next to the first one. “And three other points can form an additional plane parallel to our first plane.”
In the row across from me, Ramey Anderson looked up from his doodle of a giant- breasted goat person and squinted. He went back to his drawing.
“These two planes then,” Mr. Dilley intoned, jabbing the board. “Are parallel. No matter how far they extend, they will never touch.”
I blinked the moisture out of my eyes and gazed at the board. An unfamiliar prickling feeling of warmth trickled into me. Two parallel planes, one above the other. Mr. Dilley had drawn it in two dimensional space, but the concept was easy. I could imagine two flat surfaces that extended in every direction, like one shelf above another, identical, parallel to each other, never touching.
In a thunderclap of realization, I found that for the first time since August, I wasn’t shivering. It wasn’t the warm room. If a hot bath didn’t work, warm air wasn’t going to. Maybe Mr. Dilley’s stale cracker voice had managed to bore the cold out of me.
“If two planes are parallel, how do you get from one to the other?” I asked suddenly. It seemed to me the words had left my mouth before I even decided to ask the question.
Mr. Dilley blinked. He was the sort of teacher that made no impression on me one way or the other. He wasn’t permissive or strict, bland or eccentric, nice or mean. He wore button up shirts tucked into belted jeans and kept a short beard speckled with the first hints of gray. I had just asked the first non-prompted questions in a week, maybe more. His face blossomed with a look of naked satisfaction.
“Good question, Greg,” he said, his eyes glinting. “How would you get from one plane to another?”
I recognized the obvious gambit. If I knew the answer to the question, why would I ask?
“Jump?” Ramey suggested, tapping his pen against his desk.
Perhaps it was a testament to the sedative qualities of Mr. Dilley’s voice that no one but Mr. Dilley himself laughed. “Maybe. But along what figure would we have to travel to move from this plane,” he said, rapping the chalk against the board. “To this one?”
I stirred. It was my question after all. “A line.”
“Right!” Mr. Dilley said with too much enthusiasm. I imagined this conversation might just be the highlight of his day. He drew a line between the two planes. “A straight line.”
I was about to ask stupid question. I could feel it coming. In all of my elementary and middle school years, I had bitten back and wrestled stupid questions to the ground of my mind. Sometimes, though, they got out. More often than I liked. This one charged the gates.
“But how do you travel along the line?”
From the front of the class, Becca turned and shot me a look that said “Huh?” Mr. Dilley’s face went slack. He seemed to grasp that the conversation had veered from the abstract to the everyday.
“Well, okay. Sure. So in this classroom we have two parallel planes. This wall and that one,” he said, pointing to the classroom door in front of him and the wall of windows which faced the empty playground behind him. “To get from one to another along a line what do I do?”
Ramey raised his hand.
“And don’t say ‘jump’.”
Ramey shrugged and put his hand down. A ripple of laughter made its way around the room. A few more heads were up.
“I walk, don’t I?” Mr. Dilley asked, strolling from the row of windows to the door.
Another stupid question struggled in the depths. I grasped its head and pushed down until it stopped moving.
“Does that answer your question, Greg?”
I blew out my cheeks and stared at the man. “What? Oh. Yeah. Totally.”
The disappointment on Mr. Dilley’s face was complete. The bell rang.
As I rose to collect my things, I’d wondered what Jonathan would think of this conversation. Even more, I wondered if what I’d seen the winter before was exactly what Mr. Dilley was describing: another world, parallel to our own but not touching it except along one line, a line that ended between the two oak trees at the top of Button Up Hill. I wandered out of the classroom with the mass of other kids.
“You into Geometry now?” Becca said, coming alongside me in the hall. She reached back to straighten her ponytail.
Becca eyed me. “Geometry? You know the class we just had? You asked that question? About planes?” She was joking, but only a little.
“No. Yeah. I know,” I said without meeting her eye. “I just wondered about them, I guess.”
Becca gave me a slow, appraising look. “You doing okay?”
It wasn’t the first time she’d asked me. I couldn’t count how many times, actually. Becca lived three houses down from mine. I had known her since we were little. She’d hung out with Jonathan and me sometimes. She was into video games and fantasy books like we were, and she didn’t think of herself as a “girl” and us as “boys”, if that made any sense. Anyway, we liked her, I liked her, but now that Jonathan was gone, I couldn’t quite figure out how to be her friend. Since he’d died, we hadn’t spoken much. It wasn’t from a lack of effort on Becca’s part.
“Yeah, I’m okay.”
“I have this new game,” she said brightening and digging in her bag. She pulled out deck of oversized cards. “It’s called Orcs and Knights. Two player. You get to be either the orcs or the knights. The orcs have like secret knowledge of the woods, but the knights have better weapons, so they’re evenly matched, you know?”
I nodded, but I wasn’t paying attention.
She pressed her lips together. “Anyway, I thought we could play. After school maybe? You could come over or I could come over to your house. Whatever you want.”
“Yeah,” I said watching the other kids stream by. “Uh, sorry, my dad wanted help with something tonight after school.” He didn’t, but I just didn’t want to hang out with anyone. Not anymore.
“‘Something’?” She said with a skeptical expression, but the hurt in her amber eyes was plain enough.
“Okay. Sure,” she said, tucking the cards back into her bag.
I cleared my throat. The second bell rang.
“No we’re late. I guess we better go.” I said lamely.
“Yeah.” Suddenly she brightened. “Hey!”
“You’re not shivering!”
I WASN’T SHIVERING AFTER SCHOOL. I didn’t shiver on the way home, and I didn’t even shiver when I hit my front porch and glanced up at Button Up Hill. It hulked on the horizon. The twin oaks glared like a pair of unblinking eyes. After school, I usually got an hour to myself before my parents got home. I would have taken a bath on any other day, but I wasn’t cold. And geometry class had given me an idea.
Since the past winter when Jonathan died, I’d never once climbed Button Up Hill. Why would I? I didn’t want to die. Neighborhood kids spent most of their time either on the hill or in the soccer fields at its base. When Jonathan died, I stopped doing much of anything, but I definitely didn’t go near the hill. I wouldn’t even walk on the same side of the street. Now I was thinking about planes and lines and well, traveling between them.
For a long time, I’d thought of the monster, the beast, whatever, as maybe some weird creature that lived in our world. What it if wasn’t? It could have come into our world from somewhere else, from another plane. Or something. I couldn’t quite get my head around it. Maybe if I went back up Button Up Hill, I could see if somehow there was a gateway or a portal. Look at the spot where it had come from. Maybe there was something there, something that could give me answers, maybe even bring Jonathan back.
I began shivering again when I stepped outside and started toward the hill. It felt like Button Up Hill was pushing back at me. I stared at its peak until my eyes streamed with tears, but I still couldn’t manage it. I couldn’t—I wouldn’t—climb Button Up Hill.
I turned towards home, wiping my eyes. Becca stood alone on the sidewalk.
“Thought you had to do something with your dad,” she said without accusation.
“I did,” I said, pressing the heels of my hands to my eyes.
“No,” I said, dropping my hands to my sides. “I didn’t—sorry.”
Becca chewed her lip. “What’s your deal? You don’t like me anymore?” She said it with what sounded like a mix of defiance and fear in her voice.
“No, that’s not it.” I did. I did like her. Of course I did. Now she was my only friend. “I was going to go up the hill, but I couldn’t.”
“Because of Jonathan?”
I didn’t answer.
“Listen,” she stepped closer. “I know you haven’t wanted to tell me but…what happened?”
I just shook my head.
“You can tell me,” she insisted. “Seriously. It’s been long enough.”
I glanced up into her expectant eyes. I had figured it would pass, this feeling, the weight of Jonathan’s death. I thought if I just didn’t talk about it, I’d feel better. Now months had passed and it hadn’t worked. I’d tried telling my mom, but I could tell she hadn’t believed me, thought it was a way I was coping. I’d never told anyone the whole story. Maybe that was because I kind of doubted it myself.
Becca pressed her lips together. “He was my friend, too, you know.”
I shrugged. “He died. What more is there to it?”
“They say his heart failed. Like a freak accident.”
“Yeah,” I said without meeting her eyes. “Kind of.”
“Kind of?” It was as if two antennae had sprouted from Becca’s head. She was all attention and suspicion. “What do you mean?”
A swell of anxiety washed through me. I could feel my face reddening. “No. I mean, yeah. He died of the heart thing. Yeah.”
She narrowed her eyes, gazing at me in that special way of hers. Before, whenever Jonathan and I had a plan to do something without her, Becca somehow knew it. Like she could read our minds.
“What aren’t you telling me?”
“Nothing.” I’d meant it to come out as innocent, but the way she was looking at me made me nervous so I’d blurted it like a guilty criminal. Now I could feel the story welling up in me.
“Just tell me. Please.”
I did. I told Becca what happened. How the thing came and took him. How he wouldn’t move after. That I sledded down and ran home, screaming and made my dad come to the top of the hill where we found him laying in the snow unmoving. How my dad carried him as fast as he could down the hill and into our car. He told my mom to call Jonathan’s parents. The ride to the hospital. The cold, cruel air that day. So cold. The sunlight and shadows rushing over Jonathan’s face in the backseat as we gunned it to the local clinic. How Jonathan’s parents came into the clinic and wept. How Mr. Michael’s lip quivered. How Jonathan wouldn’t wake up. How it was my fault. How I should have pulled him away, saved him. How the funeral was terrible. How I wanted to throw up. How I’d started shivering after that and couldn’t stop.
“Holy crap,” she said when I was done.
“How come you didn’t tell me until now?”
I looked at her out of the side of my eye. “I didn’t think you’d believe me. And…I don’t know. Ever since he’s died I just wanted to be alone, I guess.”
She nodded seriously. “I guess it is pretty unbelievable, but…”
“I believe you,” she said, nodding like she was thinking. “I don’t think you’d make something like this up. It’s too serious.”
“It is. I’m not. I swear”
“I know,” she said gravely.
“I could’ve—I don’t know—grabbed him, pushed him, away from the water.”
Becca frowned. “It probably would’ve gotten him anyway. Killed you, too.”
“I guess so.”
“I think I know what it is.” She put a hand to her brow and looked to the top of Button Up Hill in a proprietary way.
She nodded.“My dad has these books. People, Prophesy & the Preternatural. There’s all these different ones. Anyway, in one of them, there’s all these demons. One of them can only be seen at a certain time and under certain conditions, I think. Like in a ritual.”
“What, like sacrificing a goat?”
“I don’t know. We’ll have to check.” Becca murmured without looking at me.
I could tell she was still thinking as she turned away. I watched her walk back toward her house before she turned back to me, a look of mild irritation on her face.
BECCA’S BASEMENT WAS NOTHING like the dark and dusty one at my house. Hers had shag carpeting, paneled walls, a television set and even a bar in the back corner.
“This is nice,” I said, running my hand over the bar’s formica surface.
“Yeah,” Becca shrugged. “My dad did this like five years ago. He said it was going to be a neighborhood hangout where he and other dads could like watch football and drink beer.”
“Is it?” I asked, feeling bad my own father hadn’t been invited.
“No,” she said, opening the door to a storage closet. “Not really. Help me look.”
She led me into a small back storage room where shelves of boxes and Christmas decorations sat in a silent purgatory.
“There’s like a bunch of volumes, so they’re all in one big box together.”
I counted two dozen boxes just in my first look around. I pulled open the nearest one. A baby doll looked back at me.
“Uh, what’s in the rest of the boxes?” I asked.
Becca hovered over an open box then closed it. “What’s in anyone’s storage room? Stuff my parents don’t want but can’t throw out for some reason.”
I held up the baby doll and made it do a little dance in the air. “Like this?”
Becca snorted. “That’s Mindy. It’s my mom’s old doll. Be nice to her.”
I tucked the doll back into the box and folded the top down.
“Here they are,” she said, pulling a battered cardboard box out from underneath a low shelf. “See?”
In the box lay a 24-volume set of People, Prophesy & the Preternatural. I’d seen them before. They were for sale in the grocery store.
“Your dad believes this stuff?” I said, pulling one out and examining the black cover. The faintly barfy scent of cheap ink wafted up from the surface.
“I don’t know,” Becca said, waving one hand in irritation, while she ran the pointer finger of her other hand over the spines of the books. “Found it! This one has the demons in it. See? Volume 5: Cure of Ars to Drugs.”
She rolled her eyes. “This is the one with demons. Alphabetically. Get it?”
“Oh, right.” I said, shooting her a sheepish smile.
Becca led me out of the storage room and shut the door. She laid the book open on the carpet and flopped down next to it. “Here,” she said, flipping to the section on demons. “There’s a whole bunch of them. Xofos, Demogor, Zephysyr. Tons.”
“Tons might be the weirdest name of the bunch.”
“Ha ha. You going to look with me or what?”
“Oh. Yeah. Sure.” I mumbled. It was nice to be here in the warm, quiet basement with Becca. Comforting. I hadn’t felt this safe and tucked away since Jonathan and I used to hole up in my tree house and play Dungeons & Dragons all day. I settled down next to her. She smelled like bubble gum.
“Look,” she said pointing to the book. “There’s these symbols for all of them.” She traced over a whole page of markings, each labeled with its name and associated demon. A star, a horned moon, a set of overlapping circles.
“They call them sigils,” she murmured. “Each one is for a different demon.”
I frowned. “They’re just random squiggles and lines and shapes. They look like rejected letters of the alphabet.”
Becca snorted again.
“Like this one.” I said, hamming it up. I pointed to a semicircle cut through with a single straight line. “That’s like the prototype for the letter “A” that got rejected by Gutenberg.”
“The printing press guy?” she laughed.
A chill rode through me. “Wait. Oh god.”
Becca turned to me. “What?”
“That symbol. It was on the hill. That day.”
She shot me a skeptical look. “What?”
“Seriously,” I insisted as the chill seemed to descend into the room. I began to shiver right there next to Becca in her cozy basement. “There was a like, a straight line in the snow. Like a kid would make with a stick.”
“So?” she said, tracing the symbol with a finger. “This isn’t just a line. It has that curve crossing it.”
I looked at her over the book. “Jonathan did it.”
“Jonathan completed the sigil. He crossed over the straight line with his footprints, made a kind of arc, I guess. I remember it.” I paused and swallowed. “I remember everything from that day. He made an arc with his footprints from one of the oak trees to the other.”
“But you needed more than that,” Becca said, reading lower in the entry. “Here. It says ‘To summon the demon Anxiel, Demon of the Lines, the caster must bring together an unlit candle, a heavy spoon of alum, and the wishes of two unaged souls between two trees of ancient purpose on the bitterest day of hiemal slumber.”
“What the does that even mean?” I frowned.
“‘Hiemal’ means something to do with winter.”
I decided to trust her on that one. “Well, the tree part is true. Those oaks are ancient. I don’t know if they have a purpose, whatever that means. I guess we had the unlit candle, too.”
“Right,” Becca said, snapping her fingers. “The lighter. And you two are unaged. You know, young.” She said, as a look of confusion passed my face.
“Sure,” I said. “That still leaves the heavy spoon, though. Alum is aluminum, right? But aluminum is light, not heavy.”
“Greg.” She stared at me with wide eyes..
“Your sled. It’s aluminum, right?”
“Oh crap.” My face twisted in disbelief. “And it’s spoon shaped.”
“And heavy. Well,” she considered. “Heavy for a spoon.”
I shook my head, my brow furrowing with disbelief.
“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.” Becca shot to her feet. “You called a demon accidentally?”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!” Her mouth hung open, and she just stared at me with what looked like a mixture of exasperation and disbelief.
I gave an apologetic shrug. “We didn’t know. We were just…hanging around. ”
“Yeah, with a spoon of alum and an unlit candle at dusk on the coldest day of winter between two trees of ancient purpose.”
“Don’t look at me,” I said, scrambling to my feet. “Jonathan was the one with the lighter.”
An idea had just occurred to me. Not an idea, exactly. A question. A stupid question, the kind of question I should have grabbed by the scruff of its ugly neck and booted into the next county, the kind I should have bound with iron and sunk in the deep blue sea of my mind. But this idea was too big and brutish and haunting to keep to myself.
“What is it?” Becca asked, searching my eyes.
I swallowed. “Does it say how to kill it?”
MOMENTS LATER, I MARCHED DOWN TO SIDEWALK AND INTO my own backyard. I knew exactly what I was going to do. The book didn’t say exactly how to destroy Anxiel, but it did say the demon hated fire. If that was true, I had just the thing.
“This seems like a bad idea!” Becca shouted over the wind.
I looked up at the trees whipping overhead. Drops of fallen rain cast off the branches pattered down all around us.“Then don’t come!”
I wasn’t shivering anymore. I was positively burning inside, filled with the sort of purple rage and can only be quenched by the sweet elixir of revenge. I turned right onto my lawn and made for my backyard.
“I didn’t say I didn’t want to come. I just think—” she paused as the wind rose to a howl. “This. Is. A. Bad. Idea!”
“I don’t care!” I shot back. I pushed by the patch of black raspberries at the back of our lot and made my way into the familiar stand of birch. The moving air smelled of wet leaves. Naked trees quaked against a white sky.
I started toward my tree house. My father and mother and I had built it three years before. It was in good shape. Mostly. Unlike Jonathan’s parents, mine had allowed me to place it well off the ground, 15 feet in the air, propped up on sturdy struts of doubled 2x4s bolted to the trunk of a hearty maple some 60 feet tall. A set of boards nailed shoddily into the tree led to an opening in the floor of the tree house. I placed my foot on the first board.
“What’s even up there?” Becca’s breath clouded in the cool air and was blown away almost instantly by the wind. “A rocket launcher?”
I grimaced. “Not exactly. Did you bring the book?”
She opened her coat to reveal a corner of the volume of People, Prophesy & the Preternatural, eyeing me with concern.
“Great. Now be careful on these.”
Becca pushed me aside and started up. “YOU be careful,” she called down.
I watched her disappear through the opening and then went up myself.
“Door’s locked,” Becca said, standing on the deck. She rattled the plywood gate that led into the tree house itself.
“No it isn’t,” I said, giving her a smug look. “You just have to know the trick.”
I swung aside a piece of the cedar shake siding and pulled on the end of the rope sticking through the wall. “Now try.”
She rolled her eyes. “Cool,” She said, pushing through the door. It creaked on cock-eyed hinges I’d installed myself. I followed her inside.
“This is cool,” she said. The air was cold and still. My parents and I had built the treehouse pretty air tight. They’d even insulated the walls. Jonathan and I could come up here even in the early winter if we could brave the cold long enough for our body heat to warm the tiny room.
“You like it?” I asked.
She gave a slow nod, taking in the two bookshelves of comic books, antique beer cans and bottles (Jonathan was a collector) and tabletop gaming manuals, the well-trodden rug once light blue but now stained brown with a thousand footprints, the dusty central plywood table and bench, the tightly fitted double paned windows. “Hell, yeah. This would be a perfect place to play Orcs and Knights.”
I nodded noncommittally.
“I knew you had this. How come you guys never invited me up here?”
I hesitated. It wasn’t that we wanted to keep her out. It was just kind of my place with Jonathan, a place we’d made our own. Of course, there was also the obvious.
I adopted a cave man voice. “You girl. I boy. We no mix-mix.” I gave her a sheepish grin. “It’s stupid, I know.”
“That is stupid.” She put her hand to one of the plywood walls. “I wish my parents were cool enough to build me a treehouse. I’d just sit in here and read all day.”
“That’s pretty much what we used to do. Before, anyway.”
Becca expression grew sad. “God it sucks that Jonathan died.”
“Totally sucks.” I agreed as a shiver made its way up and down my body. The great weight of Jonathan’s death seemed to shift a bit with Becca and I alone just remembering him there in the tree house. Sometimes it felt like I was the only one who thought of him anymore. Everyone else went on with their day, but I was left with memories of him and an empty space where he used to be.
“Anyway…” said Becca, turning to me with a discerning look. “What are you planning to kill this thing with?”
I blew out my cheeks. Our stash had been a secret thing, known only to Jonathan and me, but Becca was offering to help me do this.
“I guess not a lot,” I crouched and slid the rug aside. Jonathan and I had cut into the floor with a hand saw to make a secret compartment between two of the floor joists, accessible by the panel in the floor.
“Holy crap” Becca said in astonishment. “This place has everything. What do you have in there?”
“You’ll see.” I removed the panel an dug around for a moment. Slowly, methodically, I set all of our implements of destruction on the floor next to us: a battered slingshot, a rusted swiss army knife, a nearly empty lighter, a miniature baseball bat Jonathan had pounded a nail through, a cap gun, empty soda bottles, a bunch of old firecrackers and, of course, the mother lode: Jonathan had nicked the small gas can from his own garage. He said his dad never asked after it. We’d kept it in the compartment and talked over various ways to use it that we never had the guts to try.
“Whoa.” Becca eyes went wide. “What’s that for?”
“It doesn’t like fire, right? That’s what the book said?”
“Yeah,” Becca said, narrowing her eyes. “But what are you planning to do with it?”
Ignoring her, I grabbed the lighter from the scattered implements I’d left out on the floor and flicked it. Sparks erupted from the top, but nothing else.
“Dammit.”I flicked it again and again.
“Give me that.” Becca said.
I handed it over, shrugging as if I weren’t embarrassed I couldn’t get it going. Becca eyed it for a moment, gave it a shake, tapped it against her knuckles and sparked it. It flared up.
“Works,” she said. “Now what the hell do are we going to do with this?”
I took a breath. “Um.” I held up an empty bottle of Coke and the gas can I’d snagged from the garage.
“Whoa, whoa,” Becca said, holding out her hands. “That really seems like a bad idea.”
“Do you even know what I’m going to do?”
Becca frowned. “Greg, duh,” she said seriously. “I know what a molotov cocktail is.”
“So you going to help me make them or what?”
“Do you know how dangerous that is?”
I stared up a her with raw anger. “Do you know what that thing did to Jonathan?”
When she didn’t say anything, I handed her one of the bottles. “Here. One for you, and one for me.”
She took it from my hand and stared at it. “Ok, fine.” She looked around. “We’d better at least open the door.”
“We’ll pass out, dummy. Gasoline is dangerous. Don’t you know that?”
I SHIVERED HARD AT the top Button Up Hill. So hard it pained me.
“So…here?” Becca asked.
“Yeah. Right here.” I pointed to a spot a few feet off the ground, the midpoint between the oaks. The choking stink of gasoline issuing from the bottles was still present, even here in wind. Pouring the molotov cocktails hadn’t exactly gone as planned. We’d spilled as much as we’d gotten into the bottles. Some of it had slopped to the floor of the tree house, some had splashed onto my boots, and some had soaked into my gloves.The gasoline smell was everywhere.
“It came out of the air.”
Becca put down her bottle and squinted over the volume of People, Prophesy and the Preternatural. “How is it that this happened?”
“You don’t believe me?”
Becca’s hair whipped across her face. She pushed it aside. “I believe you. It just doesn’t make sense. You had to do too many things perfectly.”
I had to agree with her. How was it I just happened to be carrying the right ingredients and wrote the right thing with my footprints in the snow? It seemed kind of dumb.
“Let me see that,” I said. My hand shook as I took it.
“To summon the demon Anxiel, Demon of the Lines, the caster must bring together an unlit candle, a heavy spoon of alum, and the wishes of two unaged souls between two trees of ancient purpose on the bitterest day of hiemal slumber.” I read aloud. “You’re right. Bitterest means coldest. It was cold, but the coldest day last year was in, like, January, not February when Jonathan died. The unlit candle could be the lighter, but we’re kind of reaching. My sled isn’t a spoon. Plus, I’m not sure we made an exact copy of that sigil. I mean, it was footprints and a line, but it was pretty rough.”
“Maybe it was close enough?”
“Maybe.” I said, unsure. It was a ritual. Wasn’t the point of rituals that you had to do them exactly right?
“So what then?”
I paged through the book absently. “I don’t know. I just know what I saw. There was this thing that came out of the air and washed over Jonathan and—and then he died.” The open page’s text blurred. I wiped my eyes and blinked in the wind. It was cold enough that my ears hurt.
“And it came out of the air?”
“Kind of. It came out of the whole space between the trees.”
Becca squinted in the wind. “Well,” she shrugged pointedly. “So maybe if we, you know…” She pointed to the gasoline filled bottles.
“Lit one of those?”
“Ok. Let’s do it.” I brought out the lighter and flicked it. Nothing. I flicked it again and saw sparks. The third time, a flame erupted from the opening it vanished in the wind. “Crap. I don’t even know if this is going to work.”
“Yeah?” I asked, but I already knew why she’d said my name. There was a strange keening in the air, the ringing of a far off bell too quiet to hear but somehow impossible to ignore. Ahead of us, at the midpoint between the two trees, the air grew dark.
Becca’s voice shook. “Is that it?”
“Yeah,” I said, backing away, reaching out for Becca to pull her away.
Becca blanched. “What the…”
It was like watching a black hole form in midair. A blob of what looked like violet tinted water appeared.
“Don’t let it touch you,” I warned, my heart rabbiting in my chest.
We retreated, backing up away from the shape forming in the air. Becca stumbled, flailed and fell backward onto the ground. The watery being grew in size. I reached for us. Panicking, I grabbed Becca’s jacket and pulled. My grip slipped. I stumbled sideways. The beast rushed toward us.
“Stop!” I screamed, holding up a gloved hand.
All at once, the water seemed to freeze in place. I could still see the inky water churning inside of it, but its exterior remained still. As we watched, it formed into the crude shape of a hand.
“I didn’t do that before,” I breathed through clattering teeth.
Becca got to her feet. “Oh my god.
As we watched hand collapsed and the water churned into another shape. A human shape.
“This is impossible,” Becca said in an airy disbelieving voice. “It’s impossible.”
The image shivered. Tiny ripples formed and ran across its watery surface. Becca gasped as the features of the figure’s face became more refined.
Tears sprang to my eyes. “Jonathan?”
Every part of my fought to keep me from reaching out for it, for him, for Jonathan. For a flash, it was like he was there in front of us.
“What are you?” Becca managed.
The water rippled and the image of Jonathan was gone, replaced by a perfect circular ring of moving water. The beast paused, floating in the air.
Becca straightened. “You’re that?”
The ring became a circle, a flat, featureless oval. For a moment, Becca and I could see ourselves reflected in the purple waters. Then an image appeared, a snowy hill. This hill. Button Up Hill in the winter. Two figures appeared, climbing the hill. It was us, Jonathan and I climbing the hill last January. In the image, Jonathan broke off a branch. He held a lighter to the tree. The image rippled violently as the tree caught fire. Waves coursed across the surface. Then the image went dark.
“The tree actually caught fire?” Becca said. “You never told me that part.”
“No!” I protested. “Obviously, that never happened. Look at the tree if you don’t believe me. Jonathan just put his lighter up to it.”
Becca glanced between me and the water and the trees as wind course over us. “I don’t think that’s how it sees it. I think this place, these trees, are its home.”
Gradually, the flat circle formed back into a ring. It looked so peaceful, so harmless. Looking at it, you wouldn’t suspect it was a murderer.
“Why did you kill Jonathan?” I demanded, stepping closer.
The ring rotated in the air and began to fade back into the air.
“No!” I shouted stepping closer. “Tell me. Why did you kill him? What did he do?”
I snatched the lighter from an inside pocket and sparked it. If this thing wouldn’t give me answers, I would get my own. Flame sputtered up at the tip of the lighter.
I ignored her. The watery ring broke apart, forming into a pinwheel, a starfish with five arms that grew in size and reached for me. Forcing away the warnings in my head, I touched the flame to the molotov cocktail’s gasoline-soaked rag.
“Wait!” Becca said, but the rag ignited. For a moment, I watched in macabre fascination as the flames grew. I hadn’t thought about what might happen next. I knew I was supposed to throw the bottle, break it against something. The arms of the beast reached for me. I raised my arm.
My gloved hand burst into flame. Shouting, I dropped the bottle. Becca called out something I didn’t hear.
The bottle thudded unharmed to the bare soil, but like the needle of a compass tilting toward true north, its flaming top spun toward me. There must have been just enough gasoline still on my boots because all at once, my feet were engulfed in flame. Simultaneously, a searing pain erupted in my flaming hand. I thrashed about, throwing my glove to the ground, stomping my feet, believing insanely that the effort would somehow put out the flames. Instead, the fire only spread, licking up the boots onto my jeans. I fell to my side, kicking my legs. I reached down to pull off the boots, but I only burned my hands.
“Watch out!” Becca screamed, rushing toward me.
The watery arms rotated. I only had time to glance up as the waters roared over me.
I WOKE IN THE DARK on a warm, soft bed. I blinked, yawning and rolled over. Something hurt. I was in my own room. My own bed. There was the murmur of adult voices downstairs and the smell of ointment all over me.
In the darkness, a violet form swam. I gasped, pressing my body back into the bed, scrabbling at my throat, taking great heaving breaths. The shape faded to nothing. I inched my hand up to pull aside the curtain of the window above my bed. Afternoon light blared into the room. The shape vanished. It hadn’t been there at all.
The monster, the demon, thenbeast, the water. The fire. My feet, my legs. I whipped back the blankets. Someone had wrapped thick white bandages from my ankles to my knees. I peeked underneath. It was worse than I’d expected. Scabs covered every inch of my skin. My ankles and calves were covered in a slick vaseline-like substance. The thrumming of pain beneath the bandages had been there ever since I awoke, but now it raged up for a brief moment. Tears came to my eyes, hot and fast. The pain settled back into its thrumming hum. I decided not to look underneath the bandages again for now.
“Greg?” Becca’s voice
I snatched up my blankets and mashed them into my face before Becca came in.
“I thought I heard you.”
“Yeah.” I said without looking at her.
“I’m glad you woke up.” She began.
“So the—thing—the demon,” I interrupted, “I mean, you were okay?”
“Me?” Becca’s face widened in disbelief. “I wasn’t the one on fire, Greg. I’m fine. The last two days have been pretty bad, though—”
“Last two days?”
She gave me a long look. “Yeah, the doctors said it was better to keep you sleeping with all the pain. You woke up here and there, but there was, like, sedative in your medication so you have been out for like awhile. Now they started putting in pain killers too, so you might feel a little loopy. That’s what my mom said.”
“Oh.” I murmured. I didn’t feel loopy. A tiny twist of fear snaked through my stomach. “Are we in trouble?”
“With you lighting yourself on fire with a molotov cocktail? Yeah. Big time.”
“Oh. Then how come you’re here?”
“My parents made me come to apologize. I’m pretty much only allowed to go to school and back home for the rest of the year. Well,” she said, her eyes widening. “That’s what they’re saying now. In a month or so, they’ll probably let up a little.”
“Oh.” I said, feeling dumb. All of this was hitting me at once, and all I could say was ‘oh’. “I’m sorry.”
“It saved you, Greg. It put you out.”
“What do you mean?”
Becca stared out the window for a moment then shook herself. “It saw you were on fire and it put you out.”
A quake of fear rocked me. “That means I’m going to die.”
“I don’t think so.”
“What do you mean? Jonathan died. He died right away he—”
“Exactly.” She said, staring at me with an expression so serious I had to look away. “Greg, if you were going to die you would’ve done it already. I…I don’t think it killed Jonathan. My parents said Jonathan really did have a heart condition, that maybe the fear and anxiety, that’s something that just happens. It was just…unlucky I guess.
“Unlucky.” The word seemed to hang in the air like the monster itself. It was an unsatisfying conclusion, that Jonathan had died for no reason. That he just…died.
“It’s water, right?” I said after a minute. “We had fire. It thought we were was trying to kill it or hurt it.”
“Right. It was protecting itself, I guess.”
“Or maybe protecting you.”
“Maybe,” I said. “I don’t know.”
“Afterward,” Becca said, looking down at the carpet. “It kind of—I don’t know—rolled you over, tried to get you to stand up again.”
I couldn’t take that particular piece of information in. “Not a demon then?”
“It’s definitely not a demon,” Becca snorted. “I put the books back. They’re kind of stupid.”
Becca gave a half smile. “Or maybe it is just its own thing. One of a kind.”
“Maybe.” I said again. “It was real, wasn’t it?”
“It was definitely real.” Becca winkled her nose.
“I wasn’t going to say anything, but, Jesus, did you fart in here? It frickin’ reaks.”
It was something Jonathan might have said.
“Maybe.” I said, embarrassed.
Becca shot me an incredulous look. “Maybe? Either you farted like 90 times or there’s a giant sewage leak directly under your bed.”
I laughed into my blankets, cringing a little because now I could feel the pain ebbing through the drugged haze but not wanting to make too much noise, not wanting my parents to come in and interrupt us.
IN THE STILLNESS of a frigid Saturday just before Christmas, Becca and I climbed Button Up Hill. My legs still ached. The scars on my legs would always be there.
We didn’t bother to take our sleds. The hill was no longer our playground. We may have grown out of it, but it had become something else to us too: a memorial to Jonathan. At the crest we approached the two bare trees, black hands against the clear blue sky. Nothing stirred in the air between the oaks. I reached down to scratch at my calves. The scar tissue was still sensitive. Dr. Adler said I was lucky I hadn’t burned my feet and made walking utter agony.
“Jonathan would’ve liked it up here today.” Becca said.
I cocked an eyebrow. “He would’ve said it was frickin’ cold.”
“It is.” Becca agreed. She gave me a sideways look. “Think it’ll come?”
“Not unless you brought a flame thrower you’re not telling me about.” I said.
“Me? It’s you I’m worried about.”
We glanced down to the bottom where a couple of kids were preparing to brave the hill.
“At least you didn’t die,” Becca said, watching me scratch my legs again.
“Yeah.” I smiled. Instinctively, I tightened my muscles against the oncoming shiver. Nothing happened. Even in the bitterest cold winter had to offer, I was okay. Not warm, but not desperately cold either.
Becca kicked at a chunk of ice. “Since we’re both finally not grounded, you want to come over and play Orcs and Knights?”
“What do you have against my game?” She frowned.
“It just sounds lame.”
“Look, we’ll play once,” Becca said, grabbing my shoulder and giving me a shake. “You don’t like it, we don’t have to play again. Deal?”
“Ugh. Fine. Deal.” I grumbled. Then I smiled. Jonathan had been my best friend. Now he was gone. Somehow, in the interim between his death and now, Becca had been there. All along. She’d been a friend, too, maybe even a new best friend.
“Good,” Becca said, lifting her chin. “Because I’m going to destroy you.”