by Christopher Kelley
Phil Chamberlain couldn’t decide which cutesy knock-knock pattern to use at his girlfriend’s apartment door. What ended up drumming the old wood was a fusion of the classic “Shave and a Haircut” knock and a sloppy freestyle solo.
He checked his muddled reflection the best he could through Sharon’s brass number plate, giving his tie a quick tug to loosen it and hooking his sport coat over his shoulder. Then he moved onto his next important decision. The bouquet. Hold it out as she answered the door? Or hide it behind his back? Phil test-drove both options more than once. He opted for behind the back as Sharon’s deadbolt unlocked.
The door cracked open until the chain halted it. A dim glow from within. Sharon’s eye peeked around the corner, widening at the sight of Phil. “Uhhhh...”
Chamberlain winked at her monosyllabic reaction. “Baby, I’ve heard worse.” Then he thrust the bouquet forward.
Sharon flinched as if he might strike her with flower petals. “You’re here,” she said in a dull shock.
“Here,” Phil mused, “there... You pick the place and I’ll make it happen.”
“I mean, you’re early.”
“Oh, come now. You know I’m always right on time.”
“Did I get your flight wrong? I thought you were set to come back tomorrow.”
Chamberlain shrugged. “What can I say? My need to be near you couldn’t wait another day.”
After a brief silence between them, he lowered the bouquet and explained, “The conference ended yesterday so I switched my flight.”
Sharon’s eye left the door crack for a second then returned. “Um. Okay.”
She closed the door. He could hear Sharon on the other side, shuffling around and spitting breath, light switches flipping. The chain slid and clanked against the frame. The door opened all the way for Phil. He stepped in casually.
The apartment was upscale-cute, slick and bright; all the lights on, now.
Sharon immediately sealed the door shut again. Phil noticed her hair was down: thick locks of black spilled over her shoulders, blending seamlessly with the dark, inky robe wrapped around her slim figure. It was quite the contrast to her usual appearance: pony-tailed hair wrapped above a JC Penny’s business suit. This was a look Chamberlain loved and often encouraged, although the robe was new. He could see it was lined in red silk and had a baggy hood drooping in the back.
She said rather quickly, “I’m sorry, but I had a long day and I was just reading and getting ready for bed—”
Sharon winced in surprise as he extended the bouquet once more. He said, “It looks as though, perhaps, you knew I might make an appearance tonight.”
Sharon accepted the flowers and smiled, saying, “No idea.”
Chamberlain’s smile faded as he looked past her to the floor next to the attached kitchen. “Oh, God... What happened here?”
“Oh!” Sharon cut in, spinning around to kick at a large pile of salt on the floor. Not just a pile, but a circle.
Before her bare foot scattered the design, Chamberlain could’ve sworn he saw a star in the center of it, but the thought drifted to the back of his mind.
She said. “I was fixing dinner, earlier, and I... I dropped the salt.”
“I guess so,” he said, stepping around the spilled salt to the kitchen counter, where there were five, fat candles extinguished but still smoking and a single glass of red wine. He dropped his coat over a chair. “What, were you spicing your dinner with a whole bag of Morton’s?”
Sharon lifted her foot to scrape off a layer of stuck salt granules. “I need to get a vacuum; pardon me a sec.”
She made a move for the utility closet, but paused as Phil scooped the glass up. He eyed her with a hooked brow. “I see you started before me.”
“Well, I didn’t know you were coming, so...”
She reached for the glass, but Phil pulled it back, playfully.
“No, Phil... You don’t want that.”
He swirled the wine and took a whiff, applying the tasting methods they had learned from a recent visit to Missouri wine country. The smell made him snap his head back up. “Ew, minerally.” He went back in for another sniff. “No sense of fruit at all. Pretty thick for a Norton. What is this?”
Sharon seized the glass and took it to the sink, setting her bouquet aside. “The bottle was corked.”
“You drank that?”
“No,” she said. “I dumped all but this.”
She overturned the glass, keeping her eyes on Phil as the stiff red emptied down the drain. Sharon’s mouth opened wide in a comical yawn. Chamberlain didn’t catch the hint. Though, if he had been paying close enough attention, he might have wondered about that yawn’s authenticity. Instead, he was captured by a bulky plate of rare roast sitting on the counter near the sink.
“I think you undercooked your dinner,” he said, squinting at the carved, chunky slices that bled all over the plate.
“I like it rare,” Sharon told him.
“Since when?” Phil approached the meat, reaching for Sharon’s carving utensil. “You sent back a medium flank at Chili’s last week because it wasn’t well done.”
“Well rare,” Sharon corrected him.
“That’s not a thing,” Phil laughed.
He hoisted the carving knife, noting its bizarre shape - a swervy, curvy blade with a sleek, decorative hilt made of... what was it? Bone? Ivory?
Sharon held out her hand. “That knife is full of salmonella.”
He flipped the dagger around, gripping it by the slimy blade, and handed it to his lady.
She shook her head. “And now you have salmonella.”
“Cows don’t have salmonella,” he told her.
“Who said it was cow?”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Phil interrupted, reaching for her neck, which was slightly obscured by the collar of her black robe. He sounded concerned. “Did you cut yourself?”
She pulled away, covering a small skin puncture with her hand. “Phil, I’m really tired.”
Chamberlain stepped back, hands up in surrender. “I know, I know. You were reading.”
He backpedaled away from the attached kitchen and plopped onto the sofa in the living room. Beside him, on the cushion, was a tattered, leather-bound book. Sharon approached with arms folded. “Seriously, Phil. I love you, but—”
He swept up the book and stared at it. Branded into the cover was a design that reminded Phil of the salt shape on the floor as he walked in.
“Phil,” Sharon started.
“Is this the new J.K. R...” he faded as he looked closer, then thumbed through several of the pages. “What language is this?”
She snatched the book, walking away. “It’s old, Phil. And fragile.”
Chamberlain looked around the apartment, wheels spinning. He grabbed at his tie, loosening it even further in an awkward dance of head bobbing and hand jerking. He stood up, suspicious. His lovey-doveyness evaporated. “What’s going on here?” he asked.
Sharon laughed, reeling back to flash him a glance of shocked innocence. “Nothing, no one, what?”
Phil set his grave look upon her, hands on hips. “Oh, come on, Sharon. Red wine, salty foods, sexy robe, erotic book. I may be in love with you, but I’m not an idiot.”
She sighed and drifted to the far end of the kitchen, near the door to her bedroom. “It’s not an erotic book.”
He followed close behind. “I know what it is.”
“And I’m not cheating on you,” she said.
“No, but you are summoning a Hellbeast, aren’t you?”
Sharon choked at the accusation. Her voice shrieked two octaves higher. “Excuse me?!”
Phil took a breath before launching into a sleuth-like pontification. “I remember that weird knife. You found it in a junk shop in Augusta while we were bicycling the wine trail. I thought you were low on blood sugar because you screamed and said something sounded like Latin.”
“It was an antique store... And so?”
“You must have purchased it while I excused myself to the little boys’ room after we took the rosé wing challenge at the winery’s diner.”
Phil aimed a finger at the ancient volume in Sharon’s hand. “What about that book?”
“I’m a collector. You know that.”
“It’s written in Latin. And it looks like a witchy Grimgroar.”
“Nnnnope,” Sharon cringed and groaned. “That’s not how you say it—”
Phil’s inquiries were becoming more intense. “What happened to your neck?”
“Let me guess: shaving?”
Sharon’s eyes rolled hard. “Why not?”
He took a step closer. “The wine was your blood.”
“It was corked.”
“And the robe?”
Sharon wrapped it tighter around her body. “It’s comfy.”
Another step closer. “The roast. Was it a sacrifice?”
“Human or animal?”
“I’m really done with this—”
He was inches away. “Sharon, tell me you’re not a devil worshipper!”
She and Phil locked eyes in a silent, old-fashioned staring contest, that time-honored court of judgment between the irrational. The victor would decide this dispute.
But the contest fell into default a moment later when, somewhere beyond Sharon’s bedroom, a toilet flushed. Then a deep, booming voice called out from the distance. “Oh, no! Sharon? Sharon? Sharon, it’s spilling over the side again!”
Sharon’s eyes went wide. Chamberlain’s view shifted from Sharon to the dark bedroom and back to her again.
“It’s getting on my cape, Sharon! Oh! Sharon!”
She only sighed again and shook her head, slowly.
The booming voice continued, “Don’t be mad at me, but I had to use your raven embroidered hand towel to sop it up. Sorrrrry.”
Sharon’s gaze fell to the floor as she whispered, “Oh my God.”
Light spilled across the dark bedroom as the bathroom door opened and a giant shape maneuvered through. Phil watched in silence as it approached, thumping forward with floor-shaking footsteps, two fiery orbs for eyes in the darkness getting closer and closer.
“Babe?” it said.
Chamberlain got his first look at the demon. It was easily seven feet tall, the color of coffee creamer, size-nineteen cloven hooves, ripped with muscle, shredder claws topping massive fingers, razor incisors jutting from its chiseled face, and swervy curvy horns atop its head. Phil noted the horns had a similar shape to Sharon’s weird dagger.
The demon dipped low to enter the kitchen right behind Sharon. Its attention was fixed upon a long, velvet cape worn around the neck. The devil-like creature was frantically rubbing the bottom corner of the cape with a washcloth. It muttered, “I got poopy water on my favorite—” He was caught off guard by Phil’s unexpected presence. “Oh—”
Sharon’s eyes lifted to Phil who was understandably gawking at the great creature before him. The demon looked back and forth from man to woman, then released the cape and slowly raised its destructive claws. The putrid stench of Hades flowed from its fingertips in wisps of smoke until both unholy hands stopped in a gesture of submission.
“Whoa, dude,” the demon said with a heavy sense of guilt, its hot, glowing eyes cooling to a dull maroon. “It’s cool. Chill. I’m Kruxor, Lord of Human Suffering and I... really don’t wanna be in the middle of this.”
Kruxor leaned over Sharon’s shoulder to catch a peek of her mortified expression, then eyed Phil again. “Yyyyeah,” the demon muttered. “I’m just gonna take off.”
Sharon jammed her palms against her forehead, then slid them down over her face. Phil continued to stare, slack-jawed, at the creature in his girlfriend’s apartment.
Kruxor carefully scooted Sharon aside. “Excuse me, babe. I mean, my acolyte.” He then stepped around her, his girth knocking over a collection of framed art mounted on the wall.
The demon whelped, trying to catch the décor. “Sorry.” Then it sighed in annoyance, looking down at the scattered salt on the floor. “Oh, man. The summoning circle is ruined.”
The Lord of Human Suffering looked back to Sharon, arms raised to her as an unspoken request to restore the circle’s broken portal power. She only peeked back at the demon through her fingers.
Kruxor gave his acolyte pistol fingers and said, “I’ll just go out the front door, then.”
Sharon nodded emphatically.
More banging as the demon stumbled over an accent table displaying some tasteful pottery.
The door to the common hallway opened, and Kruxor stepped through halfway before turning back. “Hey, dude? Look, I know this is awkward and everything, but, I just want you to know, it was just meaningless devotional sex. Listen, she may worship me, but she really digs on you—”
“My Lord,” Sharon’s voice topped Kruxor’s, her hand back to rubbing her forehead in mental anguish.
The demon got the message right away, saying, “Yep,” and peeking down the hallway before ducking all the way through. He carefully closed the door, blowing Sharon a clawful kiss at the last second.
Phil Chamberlain finally turned his head away from the apartment door, looking at Sharon with somber, heartbroken eyes.
It took her a while before she could meet his gaze. After a long breath, she said, “Thank you for the flowers.”
Copyright © 2019 by Christopher Kelley