Another place I find, to escape the pain inside
|Vern wasn’t exactly known for his eloquence, but he was right about the overabundance of religious imagery.
It was surreal, as if I’d stepped into the solemn atmosphere of a church, half expecting an altar boy to come around the corner and light a few candles. August noticed me taking in the pious decor but said nothing. Instead, he asked if I was able to take off my shoes.
"Mom will wring my neck if we dirty her beloved carpet." He explained sheepishly.
Nodding, I slipped out of one sneaker and tried to shake off the other one. It came free as I lost my balance, my body swaying dangerously as August managed to keep me upright.
"Easy there, tiger," He glanced at me, eyebrows bunched together with worry. "Let's get you a seat and you can rest a bit."
Wordlessly, I shook my head and pulled him closer. Trembling arms held his lanky body against mine as my battered frame shuddered, sobs welling up from the depths of a tormented heart. I felt August envelop my shaking form, limbs softly squeezing me into his firm chest. The teary maelstrom threatened to overwhelm my psyche, sweeping all thoughts away in that tidal wave, gasping for breath as I clung to the single landmark in my rapidly eroding world.
He was all I had left, this carefree boy. I held onto him as though August was my life preserver, the only thing keeping me afloat as I slowly drowned.
"Hey," He murmured. "Everything's going to be okay. You're safe now." Warm hands stroked my tangled locks. I sniffled, nose running like a faucet.
"Didn't mean to soak your shirt," I groaned, wiping my eyes.
August half-smiled and lifted my chin with a gentle touch. "Oh no, if only I had more where these came from. Don't even worry about it. I'll even let you pick out the next one."
I snorted, lips curling in amusement. He always had an effortless way of lifting my spirits. Nestling closer, I nuzzled his sternum with my nose and sighed dejectedly, dreading the moment where we'd uncouple, when I'd be forced to spill my guts. But right here and now? I never wanted to let him go.
We stood there, feeling each other's heartbeat as I slowly rebuilt my composure, piecing together the scattered remnants of a fractured soul. Gods, it felt so good to hug someone. It seemed like months, years even that I last shared an intimate embrace. The mournful waves lapped at me again, crashing against the fragile foundations I worked so hard to assemble.
He said nothing, waiting until I felt brave enough to push away from the damp patch staining his torso.
"Okay," I remarked with forceful cheer. "That's enough waterworks for one day, I think. I'll take that drink if you're still offering."
August searched my face carefully before nodding. "The bar's still open for business. At least, until the adults come home tomorrow. Let's get you comfortable first."
We limped over to the living room, where he set me down on a hideous paisley couch. Thankfully, the fugly furniture was easier on the body than on the eyes, with feathery cushions and plushy pillows sent from heaven itself. I could have drifted off to sleep if it wasn't for the TV blaring sensational broadcasts.
Squinting at the talking heads, I rolled my eyes at their cartoonish overreactions and animated gestures while they argued incessantly. You'd think the newsroom was on fire. Then the images changed and my stomach plummeted.
U.S. GOVERNMENT ENACTS MARTIAL LAW IN RESPONSE TO RECORD LEVELS OF VIOLENT CRIME.
The bold lettering ran beneath video footage of National Guard troops gearing up and mobilizing, grim faces staring off into the distance as hands clutched automatic rifles. These scenes were overlaid with snippets from riots around the country. Smoke rose over Los Angeles as crowds of angry homeless looted stores before torching them. Chicago was an active war zone, rival gangs engaging in open turf disputes by unloading clips into each other while civilians ran for cover. Not all bystanders were fortunate. Children lay in those crimson streets, blood mixing with people from every walk of life, all unified in death.
I knew nobody saw the demons pulling the triggers, angels desperately guiding companions to safety, invisible worlds warring over cities and their inhabitants.
When the focus shifted to New York City, I couldn't stomach it anymore. It was just an endless stream of suffering. Was I eager to hide from the sights because I didn't dare face that harsh reality, or was it because of my guilty conscience? Before I could discern the answer, August returned.
He held the glass of amber fluid before me, clutching a twin in his other hand. "Might as well join you, right? Felt only fitting since the whole world is losing its collective mind."
I accepted the beverage but didn't indulge. For some reason, I cupped it in both hands and stared into the murky depths. He sat next to me, nudging my shoulder.
"What's wrong? Not what you ordered? Could have sworn you said whiskey..." August frowned at his cup.
Swirling the alcohol, I watched ethereal spirits spiral in a hypnotic dance. "No, you were right. I just..." I took a deep breath and met his uneasy hazel eyes.
"It's all my fault. All of this. I was destined to destroy the world and so far I've done a pretty good job of it." A tear slid out, falling into my glass with a faint plop. "My best friend sacrificed himself for me, Mom's been possessed, no clue where the hell my dad is, and here I am sounding like a lunatic in front of the only person who I can trust."
He listened as I relived my youth with Vern, eyes widening slightly at the epiphany when I discovered my true nature, sharply inhaling at the descriptions of Hell. When I finished, his glass was empty and looked sorely in need of a refill. I hadn't even touched mine.
"So... Let me get this straight," August rubbed his face. "You're THE Whore of Babylon, but didn't know until today, and your guardian... demon? Didn't tell you because he wanted to prevent the End of Days and got punished for it. I just don't understand the logic. If you are unwilling to become the... you-know-what, why are things escalating? Shouldn't it start AFTER you accept the mantle and not before?"
I shook my rat's nest of a head. "Your guess is as good as mine."
August sat back, struggling to process the nuke I placed in his lap. Tilting the glass back, August frowned as he realized there was no more liquid courage.
"Huh. Didn't think I was that thirsty. I'll get you a refill..." His voice faded as he noticed me cradling the half-full beverage. "Or not. Guess you're still working on it."
Placing the container on the coffee table, I rubbed at some gunk on my hands. "Is it okay if I get a shower? I just... I need some time to think and I'd prefer it if I didn't smell like a dirty hobo."
August agreed that I'd feel better and less bedraggled. "To be fair, you could definitely rock the wandering bum look. Might even be the new style in a few months." He grinned as he led the way to the bathroom. I felt strong enough to walk on my own, albeit very carefully.
"I'll run your outfit through the wash but you can wear this in the meantime." He laid out some old sweatpants, boxers, and a long sleeve shirt for me. I thanked him profusely, which August waved away. "Least I could do for a friend in need. Let me know if you need anything, I'll pop a pizza in the oven for us."
The hot water was a blessed relief. I gasped as the scalding drops hit my skin, partially from stinging scrapes and bruises, but mostly from the ecstasy of blasting away grime and sweat, shedding the filmy layer in a reverent sigh. This was really all I needed. Not the booze, not the comfort of a kindred soul. Just a blistering shower to stoke my ashen spirit.
I slid down the tile wall, limbs folding into the chilly tub as I melted beneath the searing torrent. It wouldn't have been surprising if I died right there. Completely overwhelmed by bliss. Or just falling asleep, which was a very possible threat.
Closing my eyes for a moment, I breathed in the steam and let the rain wash away my troubles. The nozzle hissed faintly, pleasant susurration lulling me into a dreamless slumber.
A clamor startled me, jolting my body awake.
Darkness smothered the bathroom, a thick gloom that swallowed my sight. How long had I been asleep? I rubbed my burning eyelids until I noticed something else was wrong. The shower had stopped hissing. No more water flowed out, leaving me laying in a rapidly cooling pool.
I shivered, feeling chilly in the inky abyss. The noise started again, making me jump with a splash.
Thumping, aggressive knocking on the wooden door, booming thunderously around the cramped surroundings. It ceased without warning, leaving a deafening silence in its wake.
"August? Are you messing with me? Stop being an idiot and turn the power back on." I wasn't in the mood for any pranks. Shivering, I reached for the knob and twisted it in hopes of resurrecting the warmth. It squeaked, turning back and forth. Nothing.
Something clicked behind me. Hinges creaked, swinging open. A gust of cloying air swept over the room, stale wind reeking of earthen musk.
I froze, unmoving as a new sound broke the disquiet. Hooves clacked on the tiles. Behind the flimsy curtain, I saw sparks fly from cloven feet. A figure was briefly illuminated in those flashes, shadowed outline wavering over the thin plastic barrier.
In that instant, I knew who had come for me.
The embers buried themselves in the walls and floor, bursting into dark flame. They crept behind the panting intruder, casting his twisted form in sharp relief as I shrank away. He reached out towards the curtain. Long nails slowly curled around the edge, pulling my defenses away.
"No, no, NO!" I screamed, holding my arms up as the curtain was ripped back.
Lilith was there now, holding August up as he struggled weakly in her merciless grasp. The ivory circlet dripped with gore, blood running over pale skin. Empty eyes gazed at the boy turning purple, fingers tightening around his neck.
"Look upon your lover and know what happens when you go against the Morningstar." She cackled.
"Bell..." August rasped, moments before the succubus twisted his head off. I tried to say his name, choking on the warm crimson shower as it drenched me.
I opened my eyes, sputtering, coughing up the water running into my mouth and nose. Light flooded the bathroom, washing away the nightmare while the nozzle gently hissed.
"Are you okay in there? I heard you shouting." Concern tinged August's voice. His presence was a comfort after the eerie vision I endured.
Wiping snot away, I answered. "Fell asleep by accident. Sorry for scaring you."
"If you need a nap I wouldn't advise one there," He sighed. "You can always crash on the couch. Pizza's done if you want a bite."
"Sounds good. I'll be out in a sec."
I turned the faucet off, looking around apprehensively before I stepped out of the tub. For some reason, it felt like I was being watched. A needlepoint of the divine savior smiled above the laundry basket, stitched eyes crinkled with good humor. Squinting at the decoration, I covered myself subconsciously before drying my dripping hair with a soft towel, rushing so I could return to August and take sanctuary once again.
Wiping steam off the mirror, I gasped at my reflection.
Gone were the cuts and scrapes, no purple bruises, no dark circles. I was immaculate, flawless even. My skin practically glowed, hair flowing exquisitely around my bare shoulders. It looked as though I stepped out of a fashion magazine, airbrushed and tweaked to perfection like a runway model.
I touched my face, half fearing the illusion would crumble beneath my probing fingertips. Nothing happened. I brushed dimples, blinking in shock at the lack of blemishes. Even the most stubborn patch of acne behind my ears had been washed away, a miracle no beauty product or cream ever managed.
As I leaned closer to inspect this strange development, a movement caught my eye, drawing attention to the corner of that reflective surface. A lumpy face leered grotesquely through the bathroom window. It licked the glass with a grey tongue, making obscene gestures at my nude figure.
Whirling, I held the towel up over my lady bits. The peeping tom had vanished, leaving only a tree branch waving dead leaves. Was I imagining it? Shaking my head, I pulled the curtains closed and got dressed in seconds. I didn't want to be alone. Right now, I never felt more vulnerable, fearing unknown threats were lurking around, hoping to prey on me.
Gingerly, I descended the staircase. August's clothes were cozy if a bit too baggy on my slim body. Somehow, I didn't mind it. The creepy pervert left me more shaken than the vivid nightmare.
Voices rose from the kitchen. I stopped momentarily, overhearing the heated argument.
"... she needs to leave. I can't protect you if that hussy is around, filling your impressionable mind with temptations."
"Her name is Bell, you know. And I don't care for your attitude. You're always nagging me not to do this, not to do that. I'm sick of hearing about God's plan. What about what I want? Ever think about that?"
"This is what I'm talking about. She's made you belligerent. Put that down! Haven't you had enough?"
"I'll have as much as I want. What does it all matter, anyway? The world's going to shit-"
"-shit shit shit shit."
"You're out of line."
"And you're annoying. I thought you were supposed to be on my side but all you do is push me to make choices I don't want. I have parents for that."
"She's listening to us, you know. Skulking in the shadows like the very hellspawn she runs from. And you trust this snake?"
My cheeks flushed as I emerged from the hallway. Tucking my hair away, I threw my shoulders back and faced Laila defiantly. "I wasn't eavesdropping! I just didn't know if I should intrude is all..."
The angel crossed her arms, rolling baby blue eyes at my interruption. "Uh-huh. Why don't you save those excuses for St. Peter." She caught sight of the clothes I was wearing. Her jaw clenched, lips quivering with indignation.
August was red-faced, but not from embarrassment. The half-empty bottle lay in his grasp, refilling a tumbler with more alcohol. I strode over, placing my hand over his.
"Hey, don't tell me you're cutting me off too." He frowned, pulling away from my touch.
I gently plucked the whiskey from his tipsy fingers and shook my head. "While I usually appreciate a good pity drink, she's right. You should slow down before you get sick."
Laila scoffed at my words, incredulous that we agreed on something. I ignored her, nudging August's shoulder.
"Are you alright? I know things are insane but I need you in control of your senses. We have to figure out how to stop this."
This made Laila screech with laughter, holding her sides as she squealed mirthfully. August glared at her. I didn't know how to react, watching the guardian somersault, flapping her wings, and scattering feathers around.
"As if you think you can stop this. We've gone through the looking glass now, darling. There's no going back." She giggled.
August pointed to the door and barked a command. "Leave. I was sick of your complaints but gloating is even worse. Get out of my sight before I do something you REALLY won't like."
The angel tucked her wings away and straightened, brushing imaginary dust away from her tidy robes. "Have it your way, then. Don't come crawling back to me when she breaks your heart."
She sashayed through the walls, shooting me the dirtiest of looks. I smiled sweetly and replied to the stink eye with a little wave, enraging her even further. Then Laila was gone, leaving a cloud of heavenly fluff behind.
Brushing snowy feathers from the countertop, August sighed deeply. He looked older, worn down, lost in a thousand-year stare. I squeezed his shoulder, bringing him back to the present.
"Hey," I searched his face. "Are you okay? I know I dropped a bombshell on you but we can work this out together, right?"
August nodded and pulled away from me. "I'm fine. Pizza's still warm if you want a slice."
Stepping in front of him, I blocked his path, hands falling to my hips. He leaned against the stove, pretending to busy himself reading the instructions on the empty cardboard box. I snorted, not fooled in the slightest.
"Seriously, dude? What's wrong? Do you want me to leave?"
"No..." He said slowly. "It's not you, it's..." August took a deep breath and exhaled, running fingers through his curly brown hair. When his hazel gaze reluctantly met mine, I felt a sudden pang lance my chest, battered heart twinging with bittersweet ache.
"Is this really the end of things? Do we even have a chance?" He muttered.
I bit my lip, unsure what words could comfort the morose sentiment, to dissuade the underlying dread I buried deep inside my churning guts. All I could think of was what I feared most. It was a gamble. But I'd risked everything to get here, betting all hopes against the logical outcomes my pessimist brain conjured.
I laid down the final card.
"Do you know what my biggest fear is?" I turned away from the dejected boy and peered out the kitchen window. Demons scurried beneath the cold rays of streetlights, vanishing into the murky shadows. Angels pursued them, wings faintly glowing in the gloom.
Not daring to look at August, I continued. "It wasn't that the world I knew was changing forever, or that I might end up as a pawn in this screwed-up game. My worst fear was that I'd never get to tell the one I loved how I felt about him."
Behind me, I heard him inhale sharply.
"Life has a fucked up sense of timing, doesn't it? Or maybe that's just me. If I didn't wait so long to be certain, if I just was more honest... Maybe we'd have had a few more days before-"
My voice grew thick, words caught in my throat. I swallowed, shoving down the shameful regrets I carried for so long. Footsteps quickened as August approached. I shrank away, head shaking.
"Laila's right. I'm not good for you. Everyone in my life is either dead or worse. I should have stayed away, should have kept you out of my troubles. I've been cursed from birth. My destiny is to ruin everything I touch."
He slid his arms around my waist. I didn't shy from his touch. Instead, I leaned against his chest, eyes downcast as I wiped my face.
"It's not, though," I mumbled.
"I'm sick of hearing about how our paths are predetermined, how it doesn't matter what we do. Yeah, it's not really looking great right about now. But you can't expect me to sit by. I care about you a lot, Bell."
My heart lurched. I refused to believe it, not wanting to let myself buy into false optimism. August continued, warm breath tickling my neck.
"When you didn't show up to school, I kept looking at your empty seat, wondering what happened. When you didn't show up at the park... I didn't know if I'd ever see that girl again. It's not fair to come into my life and expect me to forget you ever existed."
Lightly, he turned me around. I kept staring at the ground, bitterly refusing to confront his tender acceptance.
"We can't be together... It's just not in the cards for us."
"Oh, Bell." August chuckled softly. "If God had a destiny for everyone, he wouldn't have given us free will."
I looked up, seeing his sad smile through my dark tresses. He brushed the hair out of my face, affectionately tucking errant strands behind my ear. My chest thudded rapidly, skin burning. Why was I so anxious? I wanted this more than anything and yet it seemed more daunting than the creatures outside.
"Who knew a girl was hiding underneath all that." He teased.
I punched him softly. "Jerk."
"You can still run away, I won't stop you."
"I... I don't even know what I want."
"Well, I do."
He leaned forward. My eyes closed as his lips brushed mine. We pressed against each other in that wondrous darkness, all cares melting away, losing ourselves in the blissful sensation. My hand wrapped around his head, fingers exploring his curly tangles. It could only have been a few seconds but the kiss lasted a small eternity, neither one wishing to let it end.
When we parted, I had to catch my breath. I was trembling like a leaf, my heart threatening to explode, mind whirling dizzily.
August shuddered, looking as nervous as I felt. "Sorry, I just got impulsive and-"
I shut his babbling up by placing my mouth on his, not wanting to tarnish the moment with second thoughts. But I should have known it wouldn't last. Something clanged outside, a feminine voice grunted, shouting muffled words.
Breaking free from his caress, I glanced out the window and witnessed Laila clashing swords against the lumpy-faced demon. It spat at her, tongue waggling suggestively. The incubus said something I couldn't hear, doubtlessly a vulgar insult.
Laila shoved him back, turning her face skyward. A lightning bolt struck her weapon, electricity arcing over the metal as she raised it triumphantly. In response, the foul wretch ran his jagged blade under his drooling mouth. Green poison dripped from the saber. Both opponents watched each other carefully, waiting for the chance to strike.
August leaned forward, ready to kiss me again. I slipped out of his arms, ducking his embrace.
"What's up? Did I do something wrong?" His eyebrows bunched together in confusion.
I tapped on the glass and pointed outside. "Don't you see that?"
He frowned, peering at the dusky streets. "See what?"
Diving forward, Laila swung her crackling sword at the devil. It ducked, tucking leathery wings, and rolled away from the humming razor.
An awful realization dawned. The pedestrians walking by, unable to comprehend the swarms of mortal enemies clashing. Each locked in fierce combat, warring over individual souls.
August was in danger. His divine guardian struggled against the spry hellion, trying to inflict a fatal blow. What would happen if she lost? I didn't want to find out, having seen the terrible outcome of previous skirmishes. Why now? Why couldn't I get a few minutes to enjoy this small comfort?
I held his face in my hands, wistfully gazing at the one thing I could never have. "I can't stay. You've been dragged into this and I have to leave before it gets worse."
He opened his mouth to argue but saw the expression I was wearing.
"I know," August relented. "I just hoped it wouldn't be the case."
We kissed one last time, holding each other until I didn't dare trust myself to leave his side. Then I released the boy I loved, turning my back on the last fragment of hope I had.
"You never dragged me anywhere I didn't want to go," He called after me.
I laughed mournfully. "That's the problem," I glanced back. "This road is only meant for me."
Why did I give him one last look? His wounded eyes tore at my heart, twisting the knife even further. I didn't know if I had the willpower to step through the door and leave that oasis behind.
Laila cried out in pain.
That was all the encouragement I needed. I turned the handle and raced onto the porch, glimpsing the lumpy demon slash her wings. She fell to the earth, feathered appendages hanging limply as the angel writhed in agony, crawling over the tulips.
"Oh, heya there cutie," The incubus drifted down with a toothy grin. "Guess who got assigned guard duty? Don't worry about this weakling seraphim, you can go back inside and return to wooing lover-boy."
I blinked at his introduction. Was this creep supposed to be Vern's replacement?
He started towards Laila. She moaned, clawing at the grass, pulling herself towards the fallen sword. Her pale features were haggard, wordlessly pleading for my help.
"Leave her," I coldly remarked. "She isn't worth it."
Shrugging, the incubus sheathed his blade. "Might not even survive the poison anyway. So what can I do ya for?"
Fighting the urge to curse out this slimeball, I ground my teeth. "We're leaving. Take me home."
"If you insist. Keeping it short and sweet, huh?" He opened a portal and gestured towards it, performing an exaggerated bow. "After you, your Whoriness."
Laila scrabbled on the lawn, trying to get to her feet. I took a long look at August's house, spotting his silhouette in the window. He waved listlessly.
"Tell him," I choked. "Tell him I'll see him on the other side. Can you do that for me?"
After a lengthy pause, the angel nodded. She winced, clutching the gash in her side, and coughed up golden ichor. The incubus snickered.
"Sure you don't want me to put the poor thing out of her misery?"
I glared at him until he spread his arms.
"Okay, okay. Let's get out of here before someone thinks I've gone soft."
The portal fizzed and snapped, howling as the demonic winds swept my feet far away from the only haven I had.