Downhill To The Underworld

For the next five Saturdays Phil will be sharing a spooky short story in anticipation for Halloween. We thank him for these excellent & ghoulish contributions.

On an innocuous night at 10:58 PM, Laurie Thomas Arrow, a young demon from the Underworld felt true terror for the first time in his short life.

“Oh, no, no, no!” he loudly whispered under his furry claws, so that no one outside the room could hear his panic, his eyes shaking as he stared down the clock’s face. “My mom’s gonna kill me!” He turned to look at the confused face of his human friend, Gracie Sherwood. “We have to go, now. If I’m not back by midnight, I’ll be in serious trouble!”

It was Halloween that night and Laurie had made his yearly trip – up from the Underworld, and out of the forest – to Goshen, Gracie’s hometown. He would always stuff his backpack to the zippers with demonic treats like spicy firecrackers, different bags of tea whose leaves only grew in his home, his toothbrush, a few old albums from his dad’s closet, and of course, his homework for the holiday. Even doing reading assignments and worksheets always felt fun on Halloween because he could show off and teach Gracie a few things.

At this point though, Laurie couldn’t afford to take inventory of all the fun he had that day as he packed his bag back up, double checking for his grimoires and toothbrush. If anything, he was lamenting all the time he had spent eating sweet candies under an orange sky, scaring Gracie’s friends, – who are starting to believe she’s a real witch – and playing Castlevania on her new Playstation. In times like these he could hear his mother’s voice reminding him, “The trouble with trouble is that it starts as fun.”

“I uh, I need to ask you something,” said Laurie as he finished zipping his bag. “There’s still some way I can make it back home. I know a shortcut, but uhh…” He scratched the hair of his ear with his claw. “Look, I’m just scared to go by myself.” His head bowed. “Can you go with me, please?”

Unbeknownst to Laurie, Gracie had silently clamored for an opportunity like this. Walking home with Laurie could mean that Gracie had a chance to see the Underworld with her own eyes, even if it was for just a peek. She smiled with a nod. “Of course.” Laurie exhaled and let his shoulders relax. “Just one thing. Stay here.” Laurie obliged as Gracie deftly stepped across the carpeted hall, peering into her parent’s bedroom to make sure they were both asleep. Just as she’d hoped.

“Okay, we have to go through the window.” Without a second thought Laurie opened it up, maneuvering his claws around the latch and handle so as not to break anything. He was used to climbing into the house through it, but never going down. Before leaping out, he mouthed, “I’ll catch you.” His landing created wind ripples on the ground, widening the circle of leaves around him. Just as he turned back around, Gracie’s diving body crashed into Laurie’s arms. He grunted as he lowered her onto the ground. “You’ll get back up later?”

“Yeah.” She turned and pointed at the ivy that crawled up the wall. “I climb that thing all the time.” Facing Laurie she asked, “Okay, so where are we going?”

Every year since they met, Laurie took a long circuitous route up the mountain where Gracie’s house sat, avoiding contact with anyone. Even if someone were to follow him, they could never trace his route back. This time though, his path home would have to intersect with the nightly strolls of anyone disturbed enough to be in the woods that late, people who both his mom and Gracie had warned him about.

The sky was sprinkled with thousands of little stars, and one tangerine moon ready for harvest, back-lighting the dead trees that were about to watch over the young demon and his human friend.

Even under his furred exterior, which itself had been covered by the flannel, jacket, and jeans, that Gracie had bought him, Laurie felt cold. He brought his arms around his waist, tightly hugging himself as the leaves and twigs crunched beneath their shoes.

It killed Gracie to see her friend as nervous as he was. “Hey Laurie,” she called. “How come your mom wants you home, like right now?”

It was a little chilly, but nowhere near as bad as Laurie thought. Their breath wasn’t even visible. “She just uh, she likes me home for dinner.”

“But you just ate a little while ago.”

“It’s not really about the food or anything. She just likes me at the table. She and Dad work a lot now, so that’s the only real opportunity they have to talk with me.” They stepped over a small stream as a plane’s wail over the night sky made Laurie more tense. “She takes away my stuff if I’m not there. One time it was my CD player, after that it was my séance grimoire.

Gracie took in a light gasp, stopping herself from laughing. “That’s why you couldn’t talk the last time we had one?” She love-tapped his arm. “I had all my friends over and everything. They all held your little no-show against me for like month.”

Laurie finally loosened up, evenly distributing the weight on his shoulders from his backpack. “Well, I think that scare we gave them was enough to win them back.” They laced each other’s fingers together.

“Oh yeah, you were so good tonight!” Her head brushed up against his sleeve. “You didn’t even have to say anything! It was just that face, that look. Can you, like, do that now? Just real quick?” Laurie stopped to concentrate. His face contorted into a sick smile, unsheathing his mouth’s knife set. His eyes blacked out, becoming portals to another dimension, one of fear and terror for anyone who stared into them. A friend of Gracie’s turned white as a sheet after looking at them. Even the crickets stopped their performance as Laurie became something urban legends are written for. The type of thing a kid tells a ghost story about at camp.

“Oh my god, yes,” chirped Gracie as her nails dug into her palms. Laurie sighed like he just finished working out as his face changed back to normal.

“I think doing that in front of your friends was the hardest thing I did today. Either that or beating that boss.”

“Yeah how’d you get so good at Castlevania?”

Laurie grinned, oozing confidence, “I mean, I grew up around demons, it makes sense I know how to kill them in a game.” Stretching out his arms as he stepped in front of Gracie, leading the way, he went on, “Honestly I don’t know why you all are so scared of us. We’re just-” A shotgun cracked through the air, and Laurie hit the deck, claws covering his ears. “What the hell was that?!” He caught his breath until another one blasted off. He whined just a bit as all of his muscles tightened up, locking his body.

“I got one!” echoed a voice further down the path, one Gracie knew from school.

She lightly lowered her hand on Laurie’s shuttering shoulder. “Laurie, it’s okay. It’s just some of my classmates.”

“I can’t let them see me out here like this!” he somehow screamed and whispered at the same time. Gracie stood and thought for a moment, then got an idea.

“You need to take off your clothes.”

Sneering at her as he unfurled, he quipped, “Maybe I should just go by myself.” Another shot was fired. “OK!” He began prying off his shoes. “How is this going to help?”

Gracie turned around out of courtesy. “Remember how the first time I saw you I thought you were a dog?” Laurie stuffed his clothes into his backpack before killing his bones back into position, transifiguring his body into some canine shape. It didn’t need to be convincing, just enough to look dog-like in the low light.

“Yeah. Is that the plan? To make them think I’m your dog?”

Gracie nodded as she took on Laurie’s baggage. “Let’s go, boy.” Laurie really started to feel cold as they approached three of Gracie’s classmates, all wearing bright green camouflage and brandishing twenty-gauges.

“Oh, hey, it’s Gracie,” said their leader motioning his hand down so his boys would lower their weapons. “You’re not sick? We uh, I-I didn’t see you at school or the party tonight.” Lauire’s legs shook as they stood in place.

“Yeah I just didn’t feel like doing anything today.” She shrugged. “Anyway, uh, your guns are kinda scaring my dog.”

The leader’s cronies stared him down as Laurie bit the inside of his lips. “Oh, uh, yeah sure. We can take this to the other side.” They shook their heads as they turned around. He walked away with his friends, still facing Gracie and fumbling his hands around his bag. “Oh, by the way, we, stole from beers from my dad’s fridge. Do you want one?”

She put a hand up, sweeping away. “No thanks.”

“Oh, okay. Hey we should hang out some time soon.”

“She doesn’t want to talk to you, idiot!” said one of his friends.

Once the crunch of the trio’s footsteps ceased to carry to their ears. Laurie returned to his upright posture and redressed, again with Gracie providing the wall of her back for some privacy.

“Shoot, that was close.” Laurie tapped the side of his shoe with his fist then got back to walking, snaking their way down a coiled hill. “You know that kid likes you, right?” He took the weight of his backpack back onto his shoulders. The wind whirred, bending the branches above.

“Mhm.”

“I mean like, like-like.”

“I know. But I can’t do anything about it. He’s usually too scared of me to do anything anyway.”

“Who would be scared of you?”

She rolled her eyes. “A lot of people I guess. But I don’t mind. I wouldn’t want to stop being myself.” She held his hand again. “When people are brave enough to talk to me, it’s better. If they’re scared of me, they’ll be afraid of everything.” Just then, a voic hit the hears of the couple. Not one voice, but rather twelve, harmonizing into one to make an ominous and droning tone. “What’s that?”

“Let’s check it out. We got a little time.” Just off one of the turns was a path trying to be hidden, maple and oak leaves heavily arranged over where the feet had trodden on the ground. Laurie and Gracie stepped so as not to disturb too many of them. The voice got stronger, but met their ears differently. Gracie could only here it rise in volume as she got closer, but Laurie could hear it fluctuate and sparkle, hitting his ear drum the way tea met his tongue.

Through the screen of trees, the two of them could see twelve hooded bodies, seated and joined in hands, their mouths all agape letting out a note that sounded just blank to Gracie but formed positively harmonious polyphony.

“It’s a coven,” quietly remarked Laurie.

“Like in the books,” added Gracie. “Do you wanna meet them?”

He hesitated, arguing with his own voice of reason in his head. He had to come home, but wouldn’t it be so cool for Gracie to show up to them with a real live demon? That could make her like, head witch, on day one, at fourteen. He also wondered how they would treat him. Maybe they could be his servants the next time he came back.

Unfortunately though, his mom’s slogan won out. “I’d like to. I really would. But I gotta get home.” They turned around and headed back and continued downward. “You know it sounds different to me, right?”

“How?”

“I learned in school that humans can only and see so much, because wavelengths of sound and colors are so tightly packed, that your eyes or ears can’t pick it up. It’s why sometimes people see the devil when they do drugs. But really, what they see is all around them. It’s just invisible most of the time.”

An owl hooted as they reached the base of the mountain. “I can’t see it most of the time, but I do hear the hidden notes that your voices hit.” Laurie’s hands rotated on the axis of his wrist as he explained this concept that Gracie, years later would just call Real with a capital R. Laurie’s hands rose and lowered as if he had something to conduct.

“Well, I hope you hear everything from that MBV album I packed in there.” She patted the pocket where it was stored.

“You have no idea how good human voices sound.” Looking her way, he finished with, “It’s the good in your voices. I hope you never lose it.”

Just as Laurie finished saying those words, he heard a voice that sounded devoid of its humanity, no hidden notes, no harmonious quality, just a voice. He flatly sang. “Hey.” The cacophony had both Laurie and Gracie still. “Just my luck. Finding a hot snack like you out here alone in the woods.”

Laurie and Gracie turned and saw this gangly man across from them. Thin waves of aged hair swam over his wrinkly head. Laurie’s arms started tightening up again. He felt the chill wrapping around his stomach. “I can have some fun with you if you send your friend for a walk.” The man pulled out something from his pocket. It reflected the aggressive moonlight. “Better yet, how’s about I just cut him loose right now.”

Laurie got tighter, and tighter, every part of his body twisting with tension, trying to lock him in, yet again, but this time, he snapped.

With all his energy, he recreated that face that he showed Gracie’s friends, but stronger, so horrifying it could make anyone curse the light for letting them see such a thing. With his claws flaring, Laurie stepped into the moon light and said in the tone of a banshee having a bad day, “Take one more step, and I’ll eat your soul right out of your body. ” A split second of silence made him worried that all this effort and bravery was wasted.

Then the man broke down, colorless and screaming before hitting the ground to cry and scream like a baby overwhlemed by all the sensations of the world hitting them at full blast. “Pathetic,” Laurie whispered, finally understanding what that word meant. With his body easing up again, he walked back to a still Gracie. “Okay, let’s keep going.” Her hand gripped into Laurie’s claw, almost wanting to get cut by the nails.

Laurie and Gracie entered the brightest part of the path to his home, a cave swamped with mushrooms, stalagmites, and stones, all shining and shimmering like magic crystals in a fantasy game. Gracie didn’t know, but she thought she could hear the Real sound of her shoes hitting the dust on the ground, her hand touching his claw, but like with anything that’s Real, she could never be sure.

She at least knew though that in the center of the cave, flanked by crystals, jewels, and other marvelous light, was one black luminescent portal. It looked like those pictures of eclipses she saw in her science books.

“This is it. This is how I get back home,” explained Laurie.

“There’s no way I can come with you?”

Laurie wiped his brow off and shook his head. “No, not as my friend, at least.” She looked disappointed. “You wouldn’t like it anyway, at least not as much as I like it here.” His reassurance didn’t help. She still really wanted to come. Laurie thought of something. “Well, I mean, you can come with me one way.”

She gasped, “Really?”

“Yeah,” Laurie chuckled, unable to contain himself. “As my food!”

He wound his claw up and swung toward Gracie, who stood there, calm as a statue. He stopped himself with his claw a few inches from her neck. “You, uh, you didn’t even flinch.”

She laughed, “Well duh.” She tried composing herself. “I mean, first off, you’d never hurt me.” Laurie knew immediately he could never pull that prank again. “And second off, you didn’t even do the face.” Most certainly, he could never just conjure the face up for a prank on Gracie. He just could never find it in his heart to do something like that

“Well,” said Laurie as his hands went back to his pockets. “I do gotta go though.” He turned toward the portal but felt Gracie’s hand on his cuff.

“Wait,” she said. “We still gotta do it.”

“Still?”

“Every time.” She locked her pinkie with whatever one calls the smallest digit on Laurie’s claw. “Laurie T. Arrow, I promise to make myself as available as possible, three hundred and sixty five days, to show you the best of the human world, and to burn a new CD for you, because nothing makes me happier than waking up and seeing my devil on the bed.”

“Gracie White Sherwood, I swear to make the journey to your world every Halloween, to bring only the best treats and teas from my world, to show you the coolest spells I’ve learned at school, and,” he was adding something. “Keep those creeps away. Because you’re the best human this world has.” They pumped their hand and claw up and down. “Happy Halloween, Gracie.”

“Happy Halloween,”

They slipped each other’s grip as Laurie entered the portal. She watched it fade out, along with all the luminous stones and shrooms.

The next day in her art class, Gracie didn’t talk to a soul, but gathered a crowd as she drew what she remembered of the cave, using black paper and the pastel colors. She wanted to get it perfect, but some colors they just didn’t have.

At dinner Laurie took a little scolding for cutting his arrival so close, but ultimately got off without losing his CD player again, with his dad reminding his mom that he was in fact on time. As he washed the dishes at his house’s waterfall, he asked his father if it was possible for him to marry a human girl. His father quipped, “Sure. Human girls marry monsters all the time.” Laurie knew he was joking and rephrased it.

“No I mean, like, can I marry a human?”

His dad sighed, “Well hey, God willing, all things are possible.” That was dad-speak for, “I haven’t seen it happen yet.”

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