I managed to clean the apartment to my satisfaction before Imogen arrived. As long as she didn’t get the urge to look in any closets, I’d at least give the appearance of an organized person.
Her knock was bewildering. Three soft, then three loud.
I opened the door anyway, and she burst past me into my living room.
“Wow. This place is pretty nice, for a college apartment. You must have a sweet part-time job. What do you—I’m sorry, I didn’t wait to be invited in.”
“Are you a vampire now? It’s getting difficult to keep track of your supernatural afflictions.”
“And I didn’t even say hello, either. Oh, man, I’m doing this all backwards.”
I waved to her, as though I’d just opened the door again.
“Hello, Imogen. Would you like to come in?”
“I would, thank you. My, what a lovely apartment.”
Somehow, the abridged versions are never as satisfying.
The way she casually dropped onto the sofa, one would think that we were in her apartment, not mine. But she sniffed at the air questioningly.
“Is that… incense?”
I sat next to her. Not too close.
Just close enough.
“It’s easier than convincing the neighbors to quit smoking.”
“Well, solutions are hard.”
“As a chemistry major, I find that particularly amusing.”
Why does that sound familiar?
“Actually, you know, my friend Alan said the same thing earlier today.”
“Is he also a Chemistry student?”
“Sort of. If it’s considered applied chemistry…”
“I find your tone of voice troublingly evasive.”
Witchcraft! Are those mind-reading demons in your head, or do you just have crazy-person psychic powers?
“Uh, he is what you would call a drug dealer.”
“I see. Is that the sort of person you’re usually friends with?”
“Well, no. I mean, yes, because I’m still—”
I stopped and cleared my throat, stalling for time.
“He wasn’t always.”
A weak justification. But she seemed to accept it, and laughed.
“One does hear about very few infants being arrested for Intent to Distribute.”
“No, no. He just… sort of snapped, or fell, or something. And he expected me to come with him.”
“Clearly you didn’t, though.”
But not for his lack of trying.
“It’s not really my idea of a good time, so to speak. Thing is, I expected him to come up with me. To college, to high-paying jobs…”
“But he got the second one, it sounds like. Without the first.”
“I don’t ask for details.”
“Did any of your other friends abandon you?”
That’s a a strong word.
“He was my only real friend. I think I was his, too. I never saw him talking to anyone else, at least. And he still tries to drag me down to his level. If he had a posse, he’d probably be hanging out with them instead of finding me.”
“Shame. Is there any hope left for him?”
“Well, if you ask him, he’s doing fine.”
“I’m not asking him. I’m asking you. What do you think?”
It took me a while to answer.
That Alan was how he was had just become a part of life. Like a lamp in a room that you never turn on. I’d made efforts, earlier. But Alan assured me that he knew what he was getting into. It would be all right. He only needed enough for a car, anyway. And I could use a car, too, huh? A bicycle’s no good for pickin’ up the ladies, man.
His mind was set, and my time was limited. College called.
Did that make it my fault? I’d always decided that it didn’t.
“I don’t think he’s beyond saving. But I think saving him is beyond me.”
She shook her head slowly. And her eyes flashed with, I think, disappointment.
“I bet you can if you try.”
“Maybe,” I said, trying to salvage her respect for me. “I have counterfaith in him though. He’s always going to steer me wrong, so I always know the right thing to do.”
“Hm. A familiar situation.”
“Er, right. Yes. Sorry to go on like that. You’re here to talk about your demons, not mine.”
“Except mine are more literal.”
“Or less literal, if it turns out that you’re crazy.”
Her face fell.
“You’re still going on about that, huh?”
“It is still a possibility. But you are, at the worst, only mildly crazy. Does that help?”
“A little. A glass of water would help more, if I’m about to carry the talking burden. Where are the glasses?”
“Oh, I’ll do it. I’m thirsty, too.”
In the kitchen, I grabbed a pair of glasses from the cabinet and headed for the refrigerator. I could see Imogen through the pass-through. She was sitting up straight, which I’d never seen her do in a class. And she looked around the room as though she owned everything in it. What made that confidence come and go?
As I picked up a pitcher of water, the glasses clinked against my shirt pocket.
Right. The vial.
With whatever was inside.
Does it have to go in alcohol, or would it work in water, too? If it’s flunitrazepam, then no, that’s not water soluble. Biological half-life of 20 hours, though. GHB would dissolve properly in either. Maybe juice would mask the taste. On the other hand, I think I still have a bottle of gin here, somewhere. I could change the subject and…
What are you thinking?
What the hell, hero?!
You have a girl over to your apartment, and the first chance you get, you think about drugging her?
Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.
“Is everything OK in there?”
Imogen was staring at me.
“You were kicking the floor.”
No lie that I ran through my head sounded believable.
“Yes. I was. No big deal, right?”
I placed the glasses and the pitcher on the pass-through, gesturing that they were no longer my responsibility. By the time I reached the living room, she’d filled both glasses.
“So, demons,” I said while sitting down again. Best to get back on topic.
“What are they telling you to do right now?”
Her answer came quickly and definitively.
“Just to leave?”
“To leave now. Immediately. Quickly.”
“And you’re not.”
She took a deep breath, in and out, before speaking.
“The more strenuously I’m told to leave, the more strongly I decide to stay. That is my counterfaith. It’s like you said earlier. I have a source that I know will always lead me down the wrong path, so I always know to do something else.”
“That sounds terrible.”
“No, not at all. It’s very freeing. People wonder all the time if what they’re doing is the right thing, but I don’t have to wonder. I know. It’s practically a comfort by now. So much that I was doing, I shouldn’t have been. I had the best of intentions, I’m sure. But having this… this south-pointing moral compass gives me the confidence to go through life without fretting the consequences. As soon as I started knocking on your door, I heard those familiar voices that tell me when I’m doing the right thing… by telling me that I’m doing the wrong thing. Um, which is why I kind of just barged in. Sorry.”
“I don’t think I could let an outside source rule my life like that.”
Aside from outside sources like media, advertising, the weather, and the behavior of other people, of course. Those are all different.
“That’s not letting the demons rule my life. That’s the opposite. Because I do the opposite.”
“But the opposite is still the same thing. You lack the choice to take your own actions; they’re predetermined by whatever the ‘demons’ tell you to do.”
“I don’t appreciate those quotation marks. And I don’t see it that way at all. Like, think of a lottery.”
“A tax on people who are bad at math?”
“No editorializing while I’m pontificating, thank you.”
I held up my hands in mock apology, and she continued.
“If you’ve pledged to write down any number but whichever number is drawn—let’s say it’s 47—you still have an infinity of numbers to choose from. You didn’t choose 47 beforehand. The lottery wasn’t predetermined. You’re still making a choice.”
“But what if 47 is the number you want to write down?”
“Wanting has almost nothing to do with it. When you make a decision, you have to follow through. That’s being an adult. That’s responsibility.”
On its face, it was difficult to argue with. But an adult’s decisions shouldn’t be arbitrary.
“What are some of the numbers you couldn’t write down? Some of the things that you shouldn’t have been doing?”
“Oh, I played a mean cello.”
The corners of her mouth curled into a wan smile. When she spoke again, it was softer than usual.
“Well, a meaningful cello. People told me I was good, and their tear-streaked cheeks told me that their words weren’t hollow. I could sing, too. Usually there’s only call for one of those at a time, though. But now that I have confidence I could use for performances, I can’t perform at all. It’s not for me. It took me seventeen years to find that out; I wish it had come sooner.”
“And you just stopped?”
“I sold my cello once I figured out what was going on. It was a gift from my grandfather before he died, so… it was hard. But I didn’t sell one of my bows. I keep it under my pillow. Sometimes I think I can still smell the rosin.”
She paused, then:
“I’ve been drawing 47 a lot.”
If this girl was truly possessed by demons, then that was the saddest thing I’d ever heard. If she was just crazy, well…
It probably still was.
“What do you do instead? Say, when you want to play the cello, but you hear that you shouldn’t.”
“Just… other things. Homework, cooking. Sometimes I light fires.”
“Twenty second timeout.”
She clapped her hands over her mouth.
“I mean, for cooking! I light the fires on the stove, of course. Not other fires, no. That would be cra—Oh, geez.”
“They were small fires!”
“I’m not helping my case, am I?”
“I would consider that minor evidence, rather than major evidence.”
After all, she was talking to a chemist. I think most of us are flameheads, to some extent.
She yawned, which made me yawn.
“Excuse me, my goodness. That incense is strong.”
“Ah, you’ve stumbled onto part of my master plan.”
“I love master plans. Go on.”
“I’m going to use the soporific powers of the incense to induce a sort of rêve à deux state, and hold an oneiric conversation with your possessor.”
Her hands waved wildly.
“You lost me halfway through that. You’re way out of my league again.”
Whoops. Slipped into geek-speak.
“Uh… The incense is going to put us to sleep. If you actually are possessed, then I’m going to talk to your demons in my dream. I figure that if they really want us to stay apart, they’ll try to convince me, too. If you’re just… not possessed, then a normal, fun evening will be good enough evidence for me that this is worth pursuing.”
“So, you’re going to drug me, then sleep with me?”
My heart stopped, just for a moment. She was joking. Of course she was joking.
“Is that the worst way to phrase it, or can we make me seem more like a criminal?”
We both laughed.
Good. Laughing is good.
“So, what do we do until then? Just keep talking?”
“I could go get a board game.”
And we played Parcheesi far into the night.