They got a deal on the apartment because it was in the basement of the building, which lent an eerie unfinished look to the dirty, threadbare carpet and cracking walls that might have otherwise looked vaguely shabby chic in the light of the two upper floors, and because the windows were ground floor and faced the Sunoco gas station instead of the much safer parking lot, or the grassy area in front of the building.
The unfortunate position of the apartment and of the three windows it contained necessitated bars in the sills to keep the windows from being slid open from the outside, but because the inhabitants were young and creative and busy, they often opened the windows to tempt a breeze and forgot to replace the security bars, and nothing much had happened to them to cause worry over it, until now.
It was one of those rare, gloomy days in August that feel as though fall might truly come after all, a crisp break from the heat that sets autumn souls free; the cool air that, when you step outside in the too-early morning, squinting into the slight haze that curtains the quiet blue-grey sky, a slight breath of hope raises in your chest for the turning of the seasons and the strange, unpredictable magic that lingers on the opposite side of the solstice.
Unfortunately, on this rare, gloomy August day, the unpredictable magic had arrived in the form of a rather unseemly demonic possession. Val was sprinting for the bus with a cream cheese bagel in one hand and a coffee thermos in the other, blue nails wrapped in a vice grip around a surface that had once been branded, and had been scratched off over time by the dishwasher, the sunlight, and those same blue nails in moments of extreme stress, in that order. The 9 ran hourly on Sundays, and if she missed this bus, the price of an Uber wasn’t worth the money she would have made for the trouble of showing up to work on time.
Fortunately, for now, the 9 was five minutes late and thus a perfect match to Val’s “I’m only three minutes late but still would have missed a truly on-time bus” (and thank God none of those existed in Philadelphia, anyway). By the time she’d crossed the threshold of the giant, benevolent beast, she had finished the bagel and chugged half of her coffee in effort to attend to the often-ignored “no eating or drinking” sign that hung behind the driver’s plastic partition, and her attention had shifted to the involved task of trying to coerce her bus card into scanning on the new-and-yet-still-woefully-outdated screen, and perhaps this is why she paid no remaining attention to either the eerily faceless state of the driver or the subsequently eerie graffiti on the back of her seat.
She was halfway through the bus ride and two chapters into the book she’d brought before she realized her body had been moving on its own accord for the past ten minutes, digging her bright blue nails into the seatback in front of her until jagged runes were splayed across the surface. And then she pulled the cord and departed the bus at a stop that Val herself was unfamiliar with, though her body seemed to know the way.
Twenty minutes after Val (or at least her body, who/whatever it was currently being piloted by) left the bus, Clare got a text from a friend that bartended on South Street. saw Val outside acting weird. she okay?
Five minutes after that, Clare had tried to call Val twice and gotten her voicemail both times. Fifteen minutes after that, Clare had utilized a series of semi-illegal maneuvers and was parked a questionably short distance from a fire-hydrant at the last known location of Val’s phone, to find her (or someone looking bizarrely similar) standing underneath an archaic mural with red spray paint (she hoped) stained across her hands and a can on the ground beside her boots. “Val?”
Val, who was clearly not Val, turned her (their?) head with a near-audible crack, at an angle that seemed uncanny for the average human being. Leave me, she (they?) hissed, a many-voiced entity undermining her usual clear, musical tone with a gravelly, demanding growl. “Yeah, okay. Wanna go home and make pancakes?”
This should not have worked. It worked, far too well. Demons are, evidentially, not immune to home-cooked breakfast breads. The ride home was silent, Val (the entity) still holding their stained hands awkwardly in their lap, Clare clutching the wheel with only half the amount of anxiety one might expect when chauffeuring a demon through the clutches of the Ben Franklin Parkway, which Clare had long suspected might also be the express design of someone with demonic inclinations.
They arrived at the apartment without incident, though Val (the entity) made their way through the hallways as though they had never before seen a private residence, a basement apartment, or a ceiling-mounted fire alarm, and were equally enthralled by the process of turning various keys in various locks as the two(ish) passed through the three sets of doors to the apartment.
Pancakes were easy, ingredients always on hand, and Clare shuffled Val into a chair at the kitchen table as she cooked and then, as the pancakes fried in the pan, snuck off with a nonspecific excuse to the bathroom. “Micah. I think Val’s possessed,” she hissed into the phone cradled in her hands, standing in the empty shower because there was better reception there.
To Micah’s credit, they remained unphased.
“How do you know?”
“She ditched work—”
“—and I found her downtown painting a weird mural.”
“I mean, she’s into some weird art.”
“Not that kind of weird. Strange letters weird. And it was all black and red? She’s an earth-tones-type.”
“Ah. Where are you?”
“Be right there.”
Micah let themself in with the spare key, armed with a cord of rope (“You just…had rope?” “Who doesn’t?”), a book that might have looked haunted if it weren’t clearly a library book with a spine label and a laminated cover, and a jar of clear liquid. Clare hoped it was alcoholic, but her hopes weren’t high. Val’s head spun around again, dreadfully fast, and Clare winced as she and Micah were fixed with an unblinking stare, acid enough to pollute the water supply and clog the AC units.
Micah was nearly as fast, thrusting their weight against Val in the chair with one arm and reaching the other around to loop the rope and tie the knot. “Clare, get the lights. And close the blinds.”
Clare did as she was told, flipping the switch in the kitchen and drawing the blinds as Micah and Val (the entity) fought over restraining Val (the physical person) in the kitchen chair.
Micah was midway through reciting a page of Latin (Clare thought) that she surely didn’t understand and clearly couldn’t pronounce, and Val (the physical person) was bleeding profusely from her eyes and shaking violently in the chair (which looked ready to collapse at any moment), and Clare was dutifully holding the jar (non-alcoholic contents) as Micah had instructed, when the three (four?) of them heard the unmistakable sound of a window being opened from the outside in the next room over and froze.
The sound of the window opening was quickly followed by the sound of the blinds being parted, and this was followed by an unexpected and very profane yell as, though the three (four?) in the other room were not aware, the individual currently breaking and entering (or perhaps just entering) had placed his bare hand directly into the flame of a candle Clare had left burning on the sill.
Still cursing, the group heard him cross the room, and at once began to move again in their panic, all except Val (the physical person), who was still tied to the chair and was merely squirming (and bleeding quite a bit) and throwing their head back in ways that made Clare’s hurt just to look at it. Clare dove for the machete hidden beneath the futon, and Micah dove for the still-hot, but currently empty, pancake pan from the stove.
When the intruder entered the living room, supposing by now that the apartment was empty as he had when he had seen the lights off and the blinds drawn and listened coyly at the bedroom window for quite a bit, but not closely enough to hear the sounds of the amateur exorcism that had, until then, been occurring in the living room, he was greeted with a still and silent chaos.
Clare wielded the machete (which she did not know how to use, and which did not matter because it looked terrifying and because it was sharp), Micah wielded the steaming frying pan like a knockoff Rapunzel in a babydoll top, and Val wielded the sheer horrifying shock factor of breaking into a house and finding someone tied to a chair and bleeding profusely from their eyes.
There was a moment of stunned stillness, and then Val hiccupped twice, coughed once, and retched out a cloud of green-grey smoke that overtook the man still standing frozen in front of them. He straightened, spine stiff and awkward, eyes wide and focused on the wall directly ahead, and then turned and walked out of the front door without a word.
Val (the physical person) relaxed and, in her usual voice, asked, “Can someone untie me now?” Micah did, as Clare stowed the machete and went to the bedroom to close the window and replaced the security bar.
When she returned, they all looked at one another. Clare asked hesitantly, “Do we follow him?”
Micah shrugged. “I think the universe dealt with it for us. Not our problem.” And Val followed this, red tears still running down her cheeks, with, “Are pancakes still on the table? I’m fucking starving.”
And Clare dutifully led the odd parade to the brunch place down the street. The kitchen was a mess, after all. A botched exorcism, a failed home invasion, and a round of dishes was far too much to expect from a Wednesday afternoon, after all.