The echoes of the townsfolk’s collective shout faded as Abby and the others stood there, stunned, and the trio of possessed well-to-dos looked at them, nodding.
“You’re telling me,” Abby said, once the ringing had left her ears, “that thousands — no, thousands upon thousands — of demons from Hell are afraid? Of us?
Mr. Claremont’s voice came from the pumpkin on his shoulder, while it raised one of his vine-wrapped hands to wipe Claremont’s brow in an oddly affected gesture. “Technically, we’re not demons, none of us –”
Someone’s phone rang.
The jack-o-lanterns made their victims turn and look in confusion until one of them, in a cluster of people to Abby’s left, fished a phone from his pocket: Alejandro, the physical therapist who came to Brightest Lantern every afternoon to lead a calisthenics class. Attendance not mandatory, but in truth totally mandatory.
Alejandro held the phone not up to his own eyes, but his pumpkin’s.
“Dove Tranh,” the pumpkin intoned. “We…lost Dove Tranh. Why would she be calling us?”
Abby looked skyward, wishing she could wave frantically at the van to get Fleur to hang up.
Alejandro poked at his phone, and the ringing stopped. He put the phone in the back pocket of jeans encasing a butt Abby had admired during many a set of jumping jacks. But then she wondered what awful things the jack-o-lantern had been whispering in Alejandro’s ear tonight, and that particular switch in her head turned itself off and welded itself shut.
“You were saying something,” Gerard said, “about how you weren’t demons? Now, I know as much about the afterlife as the next atheist — from osmosis — but if you aren’t demons, what are you?”
Mr. Walden cleared his throat — another odd, not-right gesture, considering his jack-o-lantern brought Walden’s fist up to the pumpkin’s cracked slit-mouth to do it. But as he started to speak, Mrs. Porter interrupted.
“Maybe we shouldn’t spoil the surprise for you, Gerard Merchant. After all, you’ll be learning the answer soon enough.” Gerard raised an eyebrow at that, but fell silent.
“I never get to talk,” Mr. Walden muttered, and Claremont turned to face him.
“You never spoke up when your husband was beating your kids,” he said to Walden. “Why should you be given the chance to speak now?”
Abby blinked at that. Walden had been married for thirty years, but to a woman. Nothing about him said gay to her, let alone gay and in a relationship with a child-beater. What in the hell –?
Then it struck her. Not something in hell, but out of it. Claremont wasn’t talking to Walden; of course he wasn’t.
A pumpkin was talking to another pumpkin.
“You’re people,” she said. “Not demons. People. Well, damned souls, at least.” She looked at the three speakers. “I’m right, right? People sent to hell, reborn tonight on Earth as these…things.” Mrs. Porter started to speak, but Abby steamrolled on, pointing at her. “Brought here, you said. Dredged up from hell by somebody…somebody in town? But why? I mean, what’s the point? You come here, take people over, torment them with their past mistakes, then give that up and…and what?”
Claremont raised a palm to quiet her. “Hell means a lot of different things to different people. But the thing all interpretations have in common — and, as it happens, the one thing every interpretation gets right — is that Hell is the absence of God. Hell is a permanent barrier against His glory, His light, His infinite tranquility.” He took a step forward, and Porter & Walden took a step back. “We were manifested here tonight, on this darkest and most unholy of nights, by our summoner, and set to a task. But once we were on Earth, we felt God’s presence once more.” He looked at Abby, Claude, and Gerard in turn. “And feeling that again after so long…how could we ever go back?”
“You’re invading,” Claude said. “Taking over.”
“Co-existing,” Mr. Walden said, with a brief staring-of-daggers at Claremont.
Porter smiled. “We had…teething troubles at first. But we’ve gotten used to our…neighbors,” and Abby heard that ear-aching sour pitch running through the pronunciation of ‘neighbors,’ “and we believe we can make this work.”
Abby glanced back at the van. No one seemed to be paying any attention to the vehicle, and Fleur’s tangle of brown curls was ducked out of sight.
“So where do we come in?” Abby asked. “You claim you want to be friends with us, but you’re also scared of us? How does that even make sense?”
Gerard let out a little pfft of derision from his lips. “C’mon, Teach, you know the answer to that. You’re telling me you never saw a kid try to kiss up to the bullies that terrified him so he wouldn’t get beaten to a pulp? Goodness knows I did it enough in my day.” He shook his head. “No, why they want to be our friends isn’t the question. The question is,” and he spread his arms to encompass the enormous crowd around them, “how do we qualify as bullies to you? How can we possibly be scary?”
Claremont stretched out his arms in an imitation of Gerard. “We are scared, but we weren’t the first ones. We sensed the fear the moment we touched the minds and souls of Caliche. But maybe we shouldn’t be the ones to tell you…”
Behind Abby, a woman’s voice. She turned to see a middle-aged lady talking — and using her own mouth to speak.
“Don’t know why they let those people live so close to town, up on the hill. I just don’t feel safe.”
A little girl: “Mommy said I can’t smile at Miss Abby. She says crazy is catching.”
An older man: “That loony black feller that dropped his drawers on TV that time. What if he comes to town, exposing himself?”
A guy with an extra-thick drawl: “Alkies. Druggies. Useless turds. Criminals, every one of ’em.”
A teenager: “Why didn’t they send that girl to prison? She’s insane! Her parents, her baby brother…she gets a slap on the wrist for kill –”
“…That’s enough,” Abby seethed. “Shut your damn mouths.”
“You always imagined it,” said Mrs. Porter, and there was less of the mayoral in her voice and more of what Abby imagined something from the Pit would sound like. “You could picture them saying it, because it’s exactly what you would say if your situations were reversed. But it’s still a shock to hear it, hmm?”
“Yeah, whatever,” Abby said, putting an extra measure of bluster in her voice. This was worse than when Gerard said what she was thinking. “You said you — the pumpkins — were scared of us, too. Spill it.”
“We took over the town within an hour of the blackout that served as our gateway to this world,” said Claremont. “We claimed the staff of Brightest Lantern in minutes. But somehow all we could do to you and the other inmates –”
“– was chase you around like an episode of Scooby-Doo? Come now, Abby, think a little more critically than that. This is a small Texas town, armed to the teeth and looking for a reason to fight. Do you really think the four of you had superior survival skills to the rest of Caliche?
“We’re scared of you because we can’t take you over…and we have no idea why.”
Today’s Words: 1248
Total Words: 21869
Notes: Still two days behind, but beginning to catch up. Things should be put back on track during the weekend. Also, my capitalization of ‘hell’ continues to be wildly inconsistent.