Authors: Tori Centanni
Tags: #Demon's Assistant Book 1
“Did I do something wrong?”
“No.” He reaches forward, like he might take my hand, and then he drops it down near his tiny espresso cup. “It’s nothing you did.”
I stare at the black paper like I can set it ablaze with my mind. Then I look him straight in the face and hope I’ve managed to meet his eyes. “Does this mean I’m going to die?”
“No. It means our contract has run its course. You’re free to go. You held up your end of the contract.”
“Oh.” It’s all I can manage. The ground has shifted beneath me, but the world is still spinning on its axis like nothing happened.
“I admit, I thought you’d be a bit happier.”
I’m too stunned to be anything but disoriented. “Is it because of that guy? Xanan?”
“Not really.” Azmos sips his espresso. “If you must know, in the past month, we’ve had a few… incidents.” He says “incidents” like a movie villain. The ways in which my life resembles a bad movie are many.
“What kind of incidents?”
“Mortals attempting to get out of their contracts through means that should be left well enough alone.” Azmos taps the black envelope. “You needn’t worry about it. Take care of yourself.”
He reties his scarf and leaves me sitting there alone. He walks toward downtown like a normal businessman. Staring down at the envelope, I continue to drink my cola until there’s nothing left in the can. Only then do I turn it over. My name is scrawled across it in the familiar calligraphy, only it’s written in silver pen. I tear it open like you tear off a Band-Aid and shake out the card. It’s also black and written in silver. It says the date and then, “Contract Terminated. Services no longer needed.”
Azmos is right; I should be happy. I’m alive by supernatural means and my demonic debt is paid. Instead, I feel like I’ve been set adrift, alone in a raft in the middle of the ocean.
Cam sits on the cement wall that lines the walkway in front of my apartment building. His backpack sits at his feet and he has a book in one hand, but he’s not reading it. He scans the street and straightens when he spots me. Next to him sits a plastic bag filled with lumpy take-out containers. My stomach lurches and the guilt worm makes another pass through my insides. I’ve completely forgotten he was coming over.
I wave and smile, but he doesn’t smile back.
“I’ve been worried,” he says when I reach him.
“You know how it is.” I move past him and dig out my key to unlock the door.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t worry.” His voice is low. Cam wears his heart on his sleeve and he looks miserable. I bite back more guilt, because if I don’t, it will burst out of my chest like a little guilt-alien. “You didn’t answer your phone and I called over a dozen times.”
“The battery died.” My cellphone battery holds a charge like a net holds water. It’s always dead by the end of the school day.
He follows me to the elevator and we ride in silence.
I unlock my door and I drop my backpack and coat in the hall before turning on the lights. In the kitchen, I pull out clean plates and utensils. When I look back, Cam is standing at the edge of the kitchen, still wearing his coat and holding the plastic bag in front of him.
“Take off your coat and stay a while, Cam,” I say. I bring the plates and silverware to the dining table.
I hear a loud exhalation and then the rustling of fabric. I get glasses from the cabinet and see him hanging his coat in the hallway. He rakes his hand through his golden hair. It’s shaggy and looks like it might be curly if it ever got long enough. He’s put the bag of food on the counter and I tear open the plastic and start pulling out containers. I should be starving, but my stomach is too knotted up for me to feel hungry, even though the smell of curry is strong.
“I get scared, Nicki,” Cam says.
“So do I.” I pull out serving-sized spoons and jam one into each container, and then I carry them two by two to the table. By the time I finish, we have enough food for a small army. Fried spring rolls, both brown and white rice, yellow curry, pad thai, and something with spinach and red peppers I can’t name. Cam’s still standing in the kitchen.
“What?” I ask.
“Are you okay? Did something happen?”
“No. Maybe. It’s a long story. I don’t want to talk about it. Can we just eat?”
“Yeah, okay.” He eyes me suspiciously, but opens the fridge and pulls out a can of lemon-lime soda. He fiddles with it and then sets it unopened on the counter. “It’s just sometimes I think I’ve gotten used to it, and then… and then, it freaks me out all over again.”
“I know the feeling.” I laugh nervously. “I’m the one with a demon popping up at all hours.”
Cam flicks the soda can with his fingers. I can tell he wants to say something else, but his gaze passes over to the table, and he apparently decides food is the more immediate concern. He pulls out a glass, fills it with ice, and pours his soda over it before going to the table. I join him and start scooping food I don’t really want onto my plate, hoping that the sight of it will stir up my appetite.
I should tell him about the black envelope that’s burning a hole in my backpack, but I can’t force the words out. He’ll be more than relieved; he’ll be utterly ecstatic. I can’t deal with that yet. I need to ruminate and process what happened before my boyfriend throws me a freedom parade.
“I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you,” he says. “That’s all.”
“It won’t. I promise.”
“You can’t promise that. No one can.”
“You know what I mean.”
“We could draw a demon trap under your doormat,” Cam suggests, “like in those demon-hunting comics.” He finally smiles and I weakly smile back.
“Somehow, I doubt it would work. But we could try salt, like that girl tried on me.” I stuff pad thai into my mouth to bury the guilt.
tell him. I just need a little time to come to terms with the reality of it. He’s going to be elated. He’ll want to shout about it from the roof of my building. Maybe that’s how I should feel, too, but I don’t. I feel like the rug was ripped out from under me and I’m struggling to regain my balance.
Now that the job is over, I can see that it was something I was really good at. And Azmos was finally starting to answer some of my questions, to let me into his world. Now that I know demons are real, it’s not like I can be satisfied with a career in pizza delivery or some desk job. I’ll never stop staring into shadows, wondering what they hide. How am I supposed to be happy living a mundane life when I’ll always be looking for demons and monsters over my shoulder?
I groan softly to myself. Life’s not fair, but that doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it.
“Is the food okay?” Cam asks. He has a tiny crinkle in his brow and his green eyes study me like I’m an algebra equation he can’t work out.
“Great. I’m just tired. It’s been a long day.”
“Yeah,” he says. He doesn’t look sure that exhaustion is my problem, but he picks up his fork again and goes back to eating.
I should tell him. Just blurt it out and let his excitement and relief wash over me. Except I’m not excited or relieved. I’m disappointed and bummed out. I need to wallow and Cam won’t understand that. So I pick at my food in silence, holding the secret in and letting it gnaw away at me instead.
The next few days are normal—if you ignore the fact that my dad is in California with my aunt and cousins and my grandmother, who is slowly dying. He calls every day, and every day his voice sounds more haggard and rough. When he reports on Nonna’s declining status, his words catch in his throat.
“She’s mostly sleeping now,” he tells me on Wednesday, while I stand in the kitchen eight hundred miles away and boil water for boxed macaroni and cheese.
“Maybe I should come down,” I suggest. I do not want to. I do not want to sit in a hospital waiting room that reeks of bleach and flip through old magazines. I don’t want to watch her slowly fade away.
“I can arrange it if you want,” he says, “but there’s nothing much to do. She’s never awake and I doubt… ” He trails off. “If you want, sweetheart.”
I pretend to consider. I wonder what Cam would do. He’d probably have gone the first time, after getting a month’s worth of homework in advance and signing up for independent study in classes where that wasn’t even possible. He’d probably sit at her side day and night and hold her hand and read her stories. Compared to me, Cam is an angel. But then, given my recent employment under a demon, most people are. “I guess I should stay for school,” I say.
“That’s probably best. I love you, Nicki.”
“I love you, too, Dad,” I say, my voice hitching at the end. I try to think of something else to say, but nothing comes to mind. Since my mom died, Dad and I have stayed close, but it’s been a surface closeness. We change the subject when things get too serious. He never says her name. I never say, “Mom.” It’s like we both enable the other’s need to shut and deny our pain. Now that we’re forced to face grief again, I don’t think either of us know what to say.
I hang up and then dump the elbow noodles into the boiling water. I don’t know what it’s like to slowly lose someone. Losing my mom was devastating, like part of me was ripped out and left a gaping chasm that nothing could fill. It still aches, like a phantom wound that has closed, but will never heal. But it happened in one quick moment, a matter of seconds. She was there and then she wasn’t.
It took time to adjust to the idea, of course. When someone dies suddenly, it’s hard to really grasp the entirety of the loss. I kept expecting her to show up with Dad in my hospital room or to be home when I was finally able to go back to our old house. But, despite that, part of me knew with certainty that she was truly gone.
When I picture my dad and my Aunt Mary watching Nonna die, I picture the same gaping chasm in them, only instead of it being blown open with a sudden explosion, it’s chipped open one piece at a time.
So while that’s at the back of my mind, everything else is normal. Dad being gone isn’t unusual. He’s away on business all the time. And the demon doesn’t darken my doorstep or lurk outside of my classroom or show up on the bus with an errand.
I keep the black envelope to myself. The more I think about telling Cam, the more I think about how happy he’ll be… and the more I put it off. I’m not happy. And it doesn’t matter that I should be, because emotions never listen to reason.
Besides, it still feels like a practical joke. I know that my obligation to Azmos is over. But I still expect him to appear at any moment and tell me he’s changed his mind. I tell myself it’s not fair to get Cam’s hopes up until I’m really sure, which is the sort of lie you tell yourself to avoid doing the thing you know you should do.
Dad flies home on Thursday evening. Nonna is stable and he has work things to take care of. He keeps a bag packed, though, and I know he’ll be leaving the moment anything changes. When I get home from school on Friday, the apartment is actually warm, the television is on, and it smells like spices and peppers. Sometimes I forget how much I miss that semblance of normalcy.