"Tell me, Johnny, why do you think you have these dreams?"
The man leaned back in his seat, a wide white smile splitting the brown skin of his face. He was too broad for the chair, which was padded in leather and put me in mind of a throne. Dr. Snow's smile was disarming, but I could not help but feel daunted by his bull neck and the mass of muscle and suet that strained the threads of his clothing. I had never been attracted much to black men, but there was something drawing about him, a force that was intangible as dread but inexorable as gravity.
"I don't know," I breathed. The corner of my eye twitched. The leather of the seat below me was making me sweat.
"I didn't ask if you knew, only why you thought you were having them." His voice was level, but its basso rumble held a hint of threat that may have been imagined.
Cowed, I slumped in my chair. "The accident. That's why I keep having them."
"You sound pretty certain about that."
"It was a car accident, wasn't it?"
"Yes." I shut my eyes, tight, as if to block out the reality of the questions. Maybe, I thought, if I shut them a bit harder he would just go away and leave me to the office and its roaring fire.
"Was it your fault?"
"Ye--no. I wasn't driving." My stomach turned.
"Where were you when it happened?" Snow's voice lanced through me with a bullet's force.
"I was... I was at home, I think, by then."
"But the accident is always in the dreams, even though you weren't there," he said. It was not a question.
"Right," I answered anyway.
Snow leaned forward, a panther ready to strike. "Why don't you take me through one of them. Start from the beginning."
"Okay." A flight of whimsy stirred in my belly, and I began. "Once upon a time, there was a boy named Johnny..."
"I've heard this one before."
"You haven't. I promise."
"Once upon a time, there was a boy named Johnny Ford. And he lived in a town called Carlsbad."
"I've heard it before."
"Be quiet, Doctor. I want to finish my story. It's like nothing you've ever heard."
It occurred to me of a sudden that something was wrong with Dr. Snow, or with my eyes. His tweed-encased bulk was stretching like a drop of ink spilled onto fresh white parchment. The edges of him grew indistinct, blurring and commingling with the very air.
I continued. "And Johnny knew a boy named Danny. They were very much in love..."
Snow was gone, evaporated like his namesake after a sun-kissed day. The entire office was following suit, blurring and melding, turning to runny watercolors against a canvas of unsullied light. I tried to close my eyes, but the light was inside me, too. I expected warmth, but the light was cold within me.
"...until one day, Johnny and Danny fought."
Figures played against the light, indistinct at first but growing in clarity. The world focused all at once, and I was somewhere else. The grass was green and manicured. A small Asian boy kicked a soccer ball toward his friend, who kicked it further down the field. Late noon's rose-golden light cast the surfaces of the park in a precious bronze, and a scent of clover flirted with the breeze.
Voices grazed my hearing from somewhere behind me. I fought the impulse to look, knowing with dread certainty what I would see. The impulse won out with barely a struggle. I turned.
A makeshift raft of beach towels floated on the sea of grass. Danny sat across from a younger me, legs crossed, his elbows on his knees. A pensive look shaded his features, so calm next to the frustration on my doppelganger's face.
"You never understand," the younger Johnny shouted, heedless of the turning heads of passerby.
"I swear I do," said Danny.
I remembered that he always sounded smug to me when we argued, but with the benefit of age I could hear him trying to restrain his tears. I knew that every argument we'd ever had was torture for him. I wished I could have seen it back then.
"You always take this self-righteous approach. You're never at fault. God, just fuck it! You'll never get it."
"Don't say that," Danny rasped. "You're going through a bad time, but if you let yourself start hating, it's going to take you down a dark road. One where I can't follow you."
"I don't want you to follow me."
If he had been standing, Danny would have staggered. "What?"
"I don't want you in my life."
My heart clenched in my chest in the memory of pain. I had felt something inside me tear when I'd said those words. They were poisoned with falsehood, said for effect, a spear of hurt I'd hurled because I thought that Danny was eternal, that I could do anything to bring him to my way of thinking and that he'd still be there.
I rushed forward to stop myself, but the grass had sprouted clutching vines. They twined about my feet, rooting me in place. The immutable past rushed onward.
"You heard me," my young self snarled. "Go home."
Something rattled to the right of my head.
The dream vanished like a pricked bubble, but threads of sleep still clung to me. I was lying flat on my back, sheets clinging to my sweaty body. I'd slept in the nude. My eyes were choked with grit. My head pounded faintly with the beginnings of a headache. There was an acrid taste in my mouth, and I was sure my breath reeked like carrion. What a wonderful way to start the day.
The rattling sound began again. I pushed myself out of bed, fighting off dizziness as blood rushed away from my head. Sitting on my nightstand was the box, and it was open. I'd thought for certain that I'd left it closed, but unlocked. It was shaking ferociously now, clacking against the wood of the stand.
"Shift?" I ventured.
The shuddering stopped.
I blinked. "Can you understand me?" After a moment of silence, I suggested, "Shake twice if you can."
The box rattled once. Twice.
"Okay, what now?"
"You could try nonverbal communication. I'm also proficient in sign."
I almost fell off of the side of my bed. The voice was husky and unctuous. It played with the syllables it spoke, as if somehow unfamiliar with or uncaring about their correct use. Worse, the voice seemed to be in my head.
I took a momentary inventory of my faculties. In the past few days, I had discussed the use of magic without laughing. I had been severely beaten, and revived by an old man without any medical equipment. I had taken a demon home with me, and now I was talking to it inside of my head. I hoped for a moment that I never needed to recount my story to any trained psychiatric personnel.
"You're not crazy. I'm real."
"That's what all of the voices say," I countered.
"That's different. The other voices tell people to kill their coworkers. I'm just going to give you your heart's desire."
"My heart's desire doesn't at any point involve toting a rifle up into the campus belltower, right?" My eyes started scanning the floor for the box's lid.
"You want to be big."
I coughed involuntarily. "How do you know that?" I wheezed.
"I'm a demon, stupid."
"You can read minds," I whispered.
"And project thoughts into them. Does that bother you? As I said, I'm also--"
"I don't know sign language, and you don't have a body."
I steadied myself, acutely aware of the demon's presence inside my mind. I tried to shut it out, to think of other things in order to cover my thoughts, but it was harder than I'd imagined. Everything I'd read on demons suggested that their human masters needed to take control, to bend them to mortal will. Shift had touched on my desire. A fluttering spark of hope warmed the inside of my stomach.
"Can you really make me... bigger?"
"Then do it," I ordered. Any foolishness I felt was banished in the warm rush of anticipation that rocketed through me.
"It's not that simple... master." The bodiless voice twisted that word with a hint of sarcasm. My face heated for a moment, but before I could respond to the demon's mockery, it continued its oily whispers in my mind. "The muscle has to come from somewhere. You have to fuel yourself with something to make yourself grow, and, while my powers are great, they are not limitless. And it has been so long since I have been fed. My powers are diminished."A flush of hot desperation quivered at the edges of my brain.
"I have some protein powder--" I began.
"I am the Father of Succubi, the Poison in the High Temple, Devourer of the Faith, the Taint of Sodom... I require sacrifice, my master. I thrive on life, on the pulse of--"
"The old man told me all of this." Feeling daring, I asked, "You need me to have sex? You know, I feel really stupid just talking to myself."
"So blunt. We could accomplish the objective by finding you some willing partner. An orgy of partners. We could create a symphony of sex that would shake the towers of heaven. But you also want revenge, do you not?"
A hot breath caressed my cheek. I twisted my head.
He was beautiful. The young man's lithe figure had materialized in the space between seconds, his appearance so subtle that I had not noticed his arms draped over my shoulders until I felt their solid weight pushing against my inferior musculature. He was slender, but like iron--sturdy and hard. Hard all over, I noted, as the cloth around his waist did nothing to conceal the massive organ pulsing between his thighs.
Fragrant oil glistened over his body, smelling faintly of citrus and sage. It emphasized the slender tautness of his muscles, the play of veins over striations covered by a thin layer of honeyed golden skin. As he breathed, the eight perfect bricks of his abdominals flexed and bunched.
His face was beautiful, framed by a mane of dark hair that was so black as to be highlighted in midnight blue. He had soft cheeks, but hard, high cheekbones, and lush lips that parted in sexual promise every time a new breath passed through them. His eyes, though, were nothing human. Limitless black, without any visible iris or cornea--I felt as if I could fall in to them and drown.
"Is this better?" Shift whispered, his scentless breath moistening my ear.
"A little," I wheezed.
He placed a hand on my leg. My cock leapt to full attention, and I almost came right there.
"Not yet," said the demon, and in an instant the boiling lust in my veins began to subside.
"You see how powerful sex can be," said Shift. "It is a gift given to the human race, the stuff of limitless creation. Do you know why the angels fell?"
I stiffened at the abrupt change in subject. "What?"
"The priests of this time, they will tell you, if you ask, that the Angels of the Adversary fell for so many different reasons. Enoch's writings say that the Grigori fell for lusting after human women, and were the fathers of the Nephilim. Milton would have men believe that Eblis's disobedience caused his fall. And many believe that Lucifer's pride caused his rebellion. The truth, though, is so much simpler. We longed to create."
"You have no input on the subject. After all, you have no intention of making more humans. Sex for you is as it is for me: for the pleasure of it. Still, you have a choice that my brethren would relinquish an eternity of lifetimes to possess."
"No need for apologies, master." This time, when he said the title, he ran a hand over the erect bulk of his cock. It leapt with pleasure, causing mine to follow suit. "I am here to serve you. You wish to embody masculine perfection, to become more than your pathetic birthright has allowed. Moreover, you long for vengeance against the two boys who left you for dead. I need the stuff of sex. I thrive on it. And I have an idea, a plan by which all our needs may be sated. You will be the envy of all, and I will have my sacrifices."
I looked into Shift's dead black eyes.
"Tell me what I need to do."