by P. T. Corwin
Gage wiped Rick’s spit off his face. He tried to make it a controlled gesture, cool, like those heroes in action films, just before the trap shuts and the bad guy gets sucked out the air lock or something. He held Rick’s gaze, stared right into Rick’s snarling grimace, not moving back an inch.
Rick was a little older than him and might have gone to the gym a little more regularly, but without his mates, he was just a short bulky guy with a voice like a door that needed oiling.
“I told you to go fetch,” Rick said and pointed at his cap, which Gage, in a rush of pure adrenaline, had thrown over the fence, where it now lay between a pile of rocks and a bunch of weeds. “Or do you need an incentive?” Rick raised his fist.
It had started to drizzle a little earlier, the world tinged in wet grey, the asphalt growing a shimmering film like a face growing stubble. It was enough to clear out the playground behind them. Enough for people coming down the steps from the station to hurry down the alley on the right, hunched, trying to make it home before the real downpour started. That meant that if he wanted to, Rick could do Gage some damage without anyone interfering. But he had to catch him first, and Rick wasn’t a very agile runner.
Gage grinned. The grin of a madman. The grin of a fighter pilot stuck in a jet with a wing shot off. He was going down, but he would take the bastard with him. “Why don’t you get it yourself, Dick?”
Rick’s eyes narrowed. People who called him that usually ended up with a broken nose. Or worse. “I swear, you little mutt, I will turn your face Picasso.”
Rick charged. But his attack was so telegraphed, it was easy for Gage to step out of the way. The fence rattled. Rick turned around, rubbing his forehead, where the fence had left a bruised X.
Rick huffed. “You’re fucking dead now.”
Gage couldn’t help but laugh, a chuckle that had built up over the years and finally had a reason to come out. “This,” Gage pointed at the cap across the fence, “is for all the wedgies while I was in primary school. This is for taking my lunch every day during secondary. This is for the nosebleeds, for throwing apples at me, for drawing on me with chalk. This is for everything you’ve ever done to me.”
An arm wrapped around Gage’s throat from behind. “And this is for you being a little bitch about it.”
Rick was the one laughing now. “Dean.”
Gage smelt him before he saw him, a mixture of cigarettes and sweat. Then Dean dug his knee into the back of Gage’s knee, forcing him down to the ground. Gage tried to wriggle away, but Dean’s gangly arm pressed on his throat. Then Dean’s face appeared above him, long and covered in acne, like a scarecrow that had fallen face-first into a cheese grater.
He was a dead man. Two against one, and one of them Dean. Fuck!
Why did he have to draw it out? Why didn’t he just throw the cap and run? It would have been enough to make a good story, show the other kids that fighting back was possible. What example would he be now?
They’d mess him up good now, both of them. Rick, who had a reputation to uphold, and Dean, Rick’s faithful bloodhound, who punched first and considered the consequences later. They’d leave him with something to remind him never to piss Rick off again. Never to call him Dick again. Shit! Maybe together they’d be crazy enough to carve Rick’s name into his stomach or something.
He could scream, of course, but Dean would probably press down hard on his windpipe before he could even gather enough breath.
Rick strode over, kicking grit in Gage’s direction as he walked, and Gage almost expected him to pull out a switchblade. “Little mutt here thought it would be real funny to throw my cap over the fence.”
“Did you?” Dean’s arm pressed down. If he wanted to, he could easily strangle Gage like that. If he wanted to.
“I asked him to get it for me,” Rick said, “but he refused.”
“Did he?” Dean’s flat palm socked Gage on the ear, making it ring. “Maybe now he’ll listen better.”
“Are you?” Rick stood right in front of Gage. His shoe lifted, wet grit stuck in the grooves on the sole. It hovered, ready to smack down with force. “Or do we need to hurt you a little more?”
If that shoe came down, it wouldn’t just lightly tap him. Oh no, it would come down like Thor’s hammer. Gage had never had a tooth knocked out before, and he wasn’t going to start with that now. “I’ll get it.”
Rick bent down and patted Gage on the head. “Good boy.”
Dean grinned. “You’ve got to hand it to him, Rick. Little mutt showed some balls.”
“He did.” Rick stood by Gage’s feet now. Gage couldn’t fully see him, no matter how much he twisted under Dean’s arm. Rick was just a pair of legs. “But you know the rules: mutts got to be neutered.”
It took a split second for Gage to connect the dots. A flash went off in his mind, shouted, “Close your fucking legs! Now!”
But too late. The pain exploded like a landmine between Gage’s legs. He folded inward, cupping his balls, gasping, coughing. Tears filled his eyes. Something had gripped his balls in a vice and slammed a rock on top of them.
Rick bent down, his smug face right in front of Gage’s, blurry through the tears. “Now, go fetch!”
They gave him a moment to recover and then stood on either side of Gage as he climbed the fence.
It was relatively easy, even with his balls still throbbing and the metal wet from the drizzle. The mesh diamonds were large enough to get his hands and feet through, and soon enough, Gage slipped through a gap at the top, where someone had cut the barbed wire and pushed it to the edges, and dropped down on the other side.
Now he just had to pick up the cap and pass it through the gap underneath the fence. He didn’t even have to climb back over. He could return the cap and wait for them to leave, satisfied they had taught him a lesson.
But would they leave? Would they let him go so easily?
“Get on with it, then,” Rick said, slapping the fence with an open palm, making it rattle.
Gage scanned the ground. Didn’t the cap land somewhere near the fence, between the pile of rocks and a bunch of weeds? He saw nothing there now, nothing but an empty water bottle and a plastic bag.
Shit! If he couldn’t find it, they’d murder him for sure. But where could it be? A cap couldn’t just get up and walk off.
Maybe he should, though. He could try and climb up the wall on the back, maybe make it to the road and hop on a bus before Rick and Dean had realised what was going on. Except they’d get him the next day, with interest.
“Quit gawping.” Rick rattled the fence with both hands. “Go get my cap!”
Gage looked around. More rubble to his left, a few bushes dotted here and there, more rubbish. Where was the-
He spotted it to his right. It lay, obscured by a branch, in front of a piece of rock. Square, smooth, with a perfectly rectangle opening in the middle, the rock looked like a miniature bridge. Maybe a piece of a building that had collapsed or been torn down a long time ago.
Gage walked over, bent down… and stopped.
Closer to the opening now, he could see through it. Only he didn’t see the other side, the moss or the rain-covered ground. He saw blackness, swirling, pulsing. And there, clear against the background of darkness, two red dots. Gage stared at them, transfixed, as they closed in, morphing into eyes. Eyes like lava, burning with a red-hot rage. A snout materialised around them, black fur growing wild, like sparks. The mouth opened, revealing teeth made to tear into flesh, black goo dripping off them like tar. And the stench, the unbelievable stench of wet dog.
Gage fell backwards, the wet ground against his hands a soothing sign of sanity.
Behind him, Dean laughed. “He slipped.”
“Quit playing around,” Rick said. “My hair’s getting wet.”
They clearly couldn’t see what he was seeing. They had no idea they just uttered the last words Gage would ever hear.
Gage closed his eyes. He could have run, of course. But what was the point? With the monster close enough to breathe on him, he wouldn’t get very far. It would catch him before he’d even managed to get up. It would sink its claws into his back and then…
Breathe on him. Wait a second. It was close enough, but where was the hot breath? Where was the stench coming out of its mouth?
Gage opened his eyes. The creature had halted, the huge red eyes staring at Gage through the opening, steam shooting from its flaring nostrils and stopping short before it came through the gap, as if stopped by glass.
Gage found his voice. “W-What are you?”
The creature growled, its red eyes flaring up, and a voice in Gage’s head spoke: “Power.” The creature’s mouth distorted into a grin. “Yours.”
Power. Just what he’d been missing. The strength to finally fight back. To show Rick and Dean what a mistake it had been to pick on him all these years, him and all the others. No more ducking through school corridors. No more sneaking out through the back, climbing over bins. No more flinching when he heard them shout his name during the break.
A pebble hit the back of his shoulder, and somewhere far away, Rick said, “Move!”
Gage got on all fours and the rocks dug into his knees as he peered through the gap. “How do I get your power?”
Gage had read stories and seen films about stuff like this. Deals with the devil. Deals that always ended bad for the little guy.
Better to just say no, get the cap and hand it to Rick and Dean.
And then what? Keep living in fear, avoiding, ducking? Living a life ashamed of himself for backing down when he had the chance? An actual chance. A chance that would never come again.
Gage reached out. His hand broke through something – something like invisible gelatine – as it disappeared through the gap. The air on the other side boiled. It rippled with angry static, raising every hair on Gage’s arm. He tried to pull his hand back, but the invisible gelatine gripped him tightly.
“Price,” said the voice, but Gage didn’t need the hint. There was always a price.
“Will it hurt?”
The demon opened its jaws. The black goo dripped onto Gage’s hand, as the fangs positioned themselves around it.
“For everything you’ve ever done to me,” Gage said in a low whisper, like a prayer or an incantation.
The jaws snapped shut.
It wasn’t pain that shot through his limbs, then. It was much more. Immense heat, spreading, like pepper coursing through his veins. Then everything turned red.
Rick’s voice brought him back: “Quit messing around and get my cap!”
Gage found himself lying on the floor, his cheek pressed against the ground.
“Did you hear me?”
A rock barely missed Gage’s face.
Gage pushed himself up with his one hand. “I did. I just don’t give a shit.”
Gage’s hand tightened into a fist. The tension filled his arm, travelled through his whole body. He was a weapon now, a slingshot pulled tight. “Get your own fucking cap!”
Rick put both hands on the fence, as if he were preparing to climb over. “What did you say, you little shit?”
“I think you need a smack on the ear to make you listen better.” Gage hunched over, like a wolf ready to pounce on his prey.
Rick laughed nervously and let go of the fence.
Gage charged, heading right for the gate.
Rick’s eyes shot open. “What are you-?”
Rick jumped aside as Gage broke through just a few feet beside him, the gate thumping to the ground. Gage stood for a moment, like a bull choosing his target.
There. Dean stood, mouth open, under a street lamp.
Gage stalked up to him. “You thought it was funny to strangle me, did you?”
Dean pointed. “R-Rick t-t-told me.”
“I don’t care.”
Gage threw Dean to the ground and pinned him down with his body. Dean flung his gangly arms around, but there was nothing he could do. Gage grabbed one arm and pulled, ripping it off with a squelching sound.
Dean howled. “Rick! Please, he-”
But Gage had found Dean’s throat, tore into it, hot blood shooting into his mouth. Dean gurgled, his lips trying to form words. His limbs were still thrashing, scraping the ground, as the blood went out of him.
Gage didn’t wait for him to stop. Not while Rick was still standing.
The stench of urine climbed up Gage’s nose, and he spotted the source by the fence: Rick, backed up to the fence, clinging to the mesh, a wet patch on his jeans.
How odd! Why hadn’t he come to beat Gage while he was occupied with Dean? Why wasn’t he flinging any threats at him now, call him a mutt or tell him to get his cap?
Behind Gage, the scraping stopped.
This wasn’t just payback. He could have thrown the empty bottle at them or a rock or something. He could have threatened and laughed as they turned tail screaming. He could have pushed them into the dirt at the most. Maybe a well-aimed punch would have taught them. Instead, Dean lay still, his arm tossed away up the hill towards the playground like a chicken bone. And Rick. Trembling like a lamb. Afraid like… like Gage just moments before. Before the demon.
“Run,” Gage told Rick. “Run away!”
Rick didn’t move.
“I said run.” The heat in Gage’s body pulsed, begging to be released. “Please.”
Rick gripped the fence tighter, bracing for the attack.
No. No more.
But the heat. Where could it go?
The voice of the demon whispered in Gage’s head. “Kill!”
Across the fence, the gap in the stone swirled red. Gage could almost see the demon’s eyes. What if it stepped through and finished the job itself?
But it couldn’t. Right. It couldn’t get through. Nothing got through, at least-
The heat pulsed, pushed against his body from the inside.
It was the only way.
Gage ran. He leapt through the space where the gate had been, his blood beginning to boil. Then he dived, like a baseball player heading into home base. He dived at the gateway in the stone. Please, let it work.
His body compressed, his bones bending but not breaking, as he poured through the gelatine.
When he opened his eyes, the blackness surrounded him like inky water. The heat had vanished, and Gage floated, filled with a sense of calm.
The demon appeared next to him, its hot breath in Gage’s face. It reeked of undigested meat, of millennia of death and decay.
“Mine now,” the demon growled, the voice in Gage’s ears now.
“No.” Gage closed his eyes, eternity in this swirly space ahead of him. “Not anymore.”
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