“My heart was pounding as I peeked past the haybale to the crowd across the dirt road. I had never before seen this many demons gathered in the countryside. Was I safe? I wished profoundly that I was with my parents in the human world. The world where humans were at the top of the food chain. The world where I didn’t have to worry about being hunted down.”
My heart was pounding as I peeked past the haybale to the crowd across the dirt road. I had never before seen this many demons gathered in the countryside. Was I safe? I wished profoundly that I was with my parents in the human world. The world where humans were at the top of the food chain. The world where I didn’t have to worry about being hunted down. The largest of the demons turned toward me, and I quickly ducked behind the hay bale. I peeked past the edge to see his back turned on me. I tried not to gag as the horrendous stench of human blood hit me. No doubt the demons were hungry.
“I heard there were humans hiding in these places. I can smell one nearby. Tonight, we hunt. We smell. We look. We will bring the best quality meat home. At midnight we go. We do not stop until dawn.” There were cheers. “We have families to feed,” he continued. “So do not be late.”
Humans have families too, I thought. Humans have lives. Humans have feelings.
The crowd slowly began to thin out. Eventually, there was no one left. Only the acres of farmland I was tired of seeing. When I got to the old barn, the sun was getting low in the sky. There was not much time to run. There wouldn’t be many places to hide if I fled now. I had to stay and hope that our hiding spot was good enough.
I brushed back the hay and opened the cellar door. I tossed down the ears of corn I had harvested. I climbed in, shut the door, and began climbing down the rusty old ladder. “Emma?” I called. “Emma?”
“I’m here,” replied a small voice. I felt my feet touch the bottom and rushed to greet Emma. “Why were you gone so long?” She saw the worried look on my face. “Is everything alright, Layla?”
“Everything is fine.” I smiled at her. “I brought food.” Emma smiled at me with a missing tooth.
“It’s not potatoes again, right? You promised.”
“It isn’t potatoes. Promise.” I whipped out the ears of corn. She grinned.
“Corn!” I forced a smile back and worked on peeling off the husks. I handed her two and kept two for myself. After dinner, I put out the old lantern and made a pile of hay for us to sleep on.
As we lay there in the darkness, I couldn’t help but think that we would be dead in a few hours. I thought of that day when we were shipped off into the demon world. When a cloaked figure had snatched us up and stuffed us into a wooden crate. I had felt a jolt when the figure picked us up. He had set us down on a vibrating surface. I’d peeked through the crack and found that it was the back of a truck. We’d driven for hours, and the whole time, I had tried to break out. The wood had weakened. It had creaked. And eventually, I had made a hole big enough for the both of us. We had crawled out and I waited for the truck to come to a stop. Then, I’d lifted the truck door and ran the fastest I had ever run, with Emma on my back. I ran all the way to the outskirts of the city before I realized that I wasn’t in a human dimension. I was in a demon dimension. I had to bite my tongue so I wouldn’t scream. It was a miracle no one noticed me. That was four years ago. I was nine at the time. Emma was only two.
I lay there for a few more hours. Suddenly, I heard footsteps above us. Emma had woken up. “Layla? I’m scared.” She grabbed a hold of my arm. Then we heard voices. Demon voices.
“I smell humans. Top grade humans.”
“There are no humans here.”
“Lies. I smell them. And soon, I will find them.”
“I’ve been eating meat. Found a child a few miles down.” And that scared us even more. Emma clung onto me for dear life.
“Fine. But I’ll be back. My senses have never failed me.” We heard fading footsteps. And then they were gone.
We waited hours upon hours clinging on to each other. We waited until bright light peeked through the cracks. It must have been at least mid-afternoon. We waited a while longer before I went over all the procedures with Emma again before I got ready to leave.
“Don’t light the lantern by yourself. It’s dangerous, and we don’t want to waste it during the day. If you hear any noises, stay right where you are. And if there’s talking loudly close by, use the sound for cover as you bury yourself in hay. Got it?” I could tell she was tired of hearing this. She nodded, her eyes wide.
The last night had clearly taken a toll on her. Her hair was frizzy, and her face a pale white. It made me sad, because she had always been upbeat and positive. She smiled a lot and was the type of person who would brighten your day. She was all I had left.
I knew she had a stressful life for a 6 year old, but it was my job as an older sister to make it less stressful. What I would give to be 6 years old again. I sighed and made my way to the old ladder. “Rusty” was the name Emma gave it.
All of a sudden, the cellar door opened. “Hey. Wait.” Two red eyes peeked out from the opening. I was paralyzed with horror. I forced myself to take slow steps back.
“Stop. Don’t come out today. It’s too dangerous.” I realized I didn’t smell human blood. What was going on?
“Sorry if I scared you.” They flipped the bony mask onto the top of their head. It was a blond haired boy. “The name’s William. William Lewis. You can call me Will.” I realized it had been so long that I had forgotten my last name. The memory and symbol of my parents. My family. I felt like crying. William continued on. “I’ve been watching you from afar. Seen you coming out every day. You’re not very good at it. There are much better hiding spots than behind hay bales around here. This is where I used to live. Anyway, are you gonna thank me for saving your life yesterday night, or are you just gonna stare at me?”
“Wait. That demon was you?” He nodded. “But- that was a demon’s voice. I know one when I hear one.”
He chuckled, “Clearly not.” He spoke in the exact same voice I had heard the night before. “But — how?” He thrust his chin forward. “I’ve learned to talk like one. Most demons can’t tell, but you should’ve been able to tell it was a human. The high tone at the end. Humans can’t speak that low for very long. Amateur mistake.” He stood with his hands on his hips and his head held high.
I rolled my eyes. “Whatever.” Emma sat in the corner. She glanced at me. “Who are you talking to, Layla?”
I glared at William, “A friend.” He laughed.
“A much smarter friend,” he joked.
Suddenly, he got serious. “We need to get out of here. The demons are planning another attack tonight. We have to get far from this area. They’re going to find you this time.”
Horror struck me. I had never thought that the demons would attack two nights in a row. “But where will we go?”
Will gave a short, swift nod of his head. “Just follow me.” I motioned for Emma.
“Take the lantern, Emma.”
“Where are we going?”
I forced out a smile. “You’ll see. We might not be back here for a while, so say goodbye to this place.”
Her face fell. “But — I like this place. Please, can we stay?”
“It’ll be fun. An adventure. We’ll find a big house with running water and electricity. And the whole time, we’ll be guided by my friend and expert Will. Don’t you want to spend time with my new friend? Wouldn’t you like a nice big house?” I knew this was probably never going to happen, but I would do whatever it took to get Emma on board.
She smiled. “Really?” I nodded. “Alright. But we gotta come back sometime. Promise?” I nodded. I had a churning feeling in my stomach. It was the first promise to Emma I knew I’d break. I watched as she began all her goodbyes. Goodbye to the old cellar, goodbye to the stack of hay, and lastly, goodbye to Rusty, the old ladder.
When we finally climbed out, it was almost evening. I had no idea we had spent that long just talking.
Will froze after seeing how low the sun was in the sky, “We have to go. Now.” I nodded, and we swiftly and sneakily made our way out the door. William led the way while Emma and I followed. We made our way behind the barn and walked almost a mile before I began to question Will’s abilities.
“You know, we aren’t really traveling away from where the demons are, right? We’re just going further behind the barn.”
William nodded. “Just trust me. I know more than you do. We’re nearly there.” We walked past many more farms until we came to a grassy field with tall grass that stretched for miles. “We’re here. This will provide cover. Now we can make good progress without worrying about being hidden.”
Emma tapped me on the shoulder. “I like him,” she whispered. “He really knows how things work around here.” I rolled my eyes. Apparently, Will had good hearing, too, because he smiled smugly at me.
“Let’s go already,” I hissed. “Before it gets too dark.” We traveled many miles in the tall grass. When we were sure we were far away from the demons, we took a little rest. Emma was so exhausted she laid down on the grass and fell asleep instantly.
Suddenly, Will’s face went hard as stone. “I smell human blood a few miles away. We have to keep moving. The demons are coming.”
What? Will could smell blood from miles away? What was up with him? Did he have super senses? Will scooped up Emma and hoisted her onto his shoulders.
“Let’s go. We have to keep moving.”
I couldn’t help but think that Will was strong. Maybe even stronger than me. I brushed that thought away and kept moving. We traveled many more miles. The sun was beginning to rise. “I can’t smell them anymore,” Will remarked. “I think it’s safe to take a break.”
Thank goodness, I thought to myself. My feet felt like they would fall off. Will put Emma down and she woke up with a start. “Were you carrying me?” she asked me. “No. William was.” I felt my face getting warm. Emma looked up to me more than Will. I should’ve been carrying her. She looked at Will. “You were?” Will nodded. “Yep. And you may have drooled a bit on my shoulder.” Emma giggled, “I did not!” Will laughed, “Whatever you say.”
Will looked up at the sky, “It’ll be lunch time in a few hours. I’d better go out in search of food. Stay here with Emma.” I opened my mouth to argue but Will was already gone. I had a churning feeling in my stomach.
Great, I thought. There’s Will taking charge again.
“I kind of miss the cellar,” Emma sighed. “It’s way better than this field. There isn’t even a roof here.” For a moment I felt proud. Emma still looked up to me. She liked the shelter I found more than Will’s field. She grinned, “But I like Will.” The churning feeling returned. She must’ve seen the look on my face, because she put a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, Layla. I still like you. You’ll always be my big sister.” She sure was smart for a 6-year-old. She grinned with her missing tooth. I stuck my pinky finger in the hole, which always made her laugh. We lay on the grass together until Will returned.
When he arrived, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Emma had fallen asleep. I sat up. “Are those really — ” Will nodded. Apples. He had apples. I hadn’t had one since I had been in the human world. In the countryside, Emma and I ate mostly potatoes, carrots, and corn. I hadn’t seen a fruit in so long.
Will sat down next to me with a soft thump. “Don’t wake Emma,” I whispered. He handed me an apple and I caressed the smooth cool skin. I took a bite of the shiny red apple. I felt a burst of flavor and let the sweet juice dribble down my chin. “So, how’d you get apples, anyway?”
“I jogged a few miles to a farmers market.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “You went to a demon’s market? Seriously? You could have died!”
“Well, I didn’t, so it’s no big deal. I do it all the time. Nobody knows I’m a human. I’m already considered a regular. With my demon voice, red eyed costume, and herbs to get rid of the scent, I’m bulletproof.”
I sighed, “Okay. Whatever. I trust you. We gotta get moving soon, so we should probably wake up Emma.” I grabbed another apple and hid it behind my back. I shook her gently.
She looked up at me groggily. “Layla? What time is it?” I smiled wide at her.
“Lunch time.” I handed her an apple. Her eyes grew wide and she smiled big.
”An apple?” she gasped. I laughed as she took big bites into it, devouring it in seconds.
“Why don’t you savor it?” I laughed.
She grinned, “It’s even better if you don’t.”
I shrugged, “Okay.”
Many more days went on like this, traveling under cover of darkness (and tall grass), and at dawn Will went to find food. There were fewer and fewer demons as we traveled, and I wondered why. “Will,” I asked. “Why are there fewer demons here?”
“The demons like warm temperatures,” he responded. “Since we’re traveling north, it’s getting colder. We can’t really tell, because we have been traveling a few miles at a time. But the demons have really sensitive thermoreceptors.” At my confused look, he added, “That’s what helps the body detect temperature. But don’t worry, I didn’t expect someone like you to know that. It’s like you haven’t learned anything these past few months.” I felt dumb when I was in William’s presence, but I laughed inside my head because he always had to add a little sassy flare at the end of a few sentences.
We traveled for many months. I started to wonder how William had survived like this. “Now that we’re in the North, wouldn’t it make sense to find shelter and stay there?” I inquired. Emma jumped in.
“Can we go back to the barn instead?” I pulled her close. “We will, we will,” I lied through my teeth. “In good time.” Once again I felt bad for lying. Emma was growing older. She would realize eventually. Will shook his head.
“If I wanted to find shelter, I would. Have you not realized after all this time that we’re going somewhere?”
I looked at him. It was such a simple thing. I should have realized that a while ago. But where were we going? I was afraid to ask. If Will was taking us, it must have been safe, right? We traveled a little longer until we came to a wooded area.
“This is it,” Will whispered, gesturing toward the forest. “Stay on high alert.” I saw fear in Emma’s eyes, the same fear I had sensed in the darkness that night the demons came. We walked a little while until everything looked the same. Massive trees towered over us as we walked deeper and deeper. There was an eerie sense to the forest, with dark gray clouds looming over us and a thick fog in the air.
“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” I began to question Will. Will nodded.
We stopped at an old tree that looked just like the other ones. “We’re here,” Will pointed out.
“What’s so special about this tree?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” was his terse reply. He twisted the lowest branch, muttered something I couldn’t make out. “Layla, Emma, stand back.” At first, nothing happened. The tree looked as if it had stayed that way for centuries. Then, slowly, a gaping hole opened up into the middle of the tree revealing a cement tunnel underneath. The tree creaked aside allowing us to crawl in. Emma’s eyes shined.
“This is awesome!” she gasped. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” William smiled for the first time since he had entered the creepy forest.
“Come on.” He motioned to the tunnel. We crawled in the tight space one at a time. The tunnel itself was spacious. It looked quite old and cracked. Now more than ever I wondered where we were going. We walked down the tunnel for a few hours, but it felt like days. The anticipation was killing me. The tunnel got darker and darker. “Can I have the lantern please, Emma?” She nodded and handed it to him, a big smile on her face.
He lit the lantern out in front of him and held it out to light the way. He turned around to make sure we were following, and that’s when I noticed his eyes. The light flickered against his red eyes. When I first met him, I had thought it was a part of his demon mask. How had I not noticed this?
“Your — your eyes,” I gasped. “Demon eyes.” I couldn’t believe it. This explained his peculiar sense of smell.
“I knew I would have to tell you eventually,” he sighed. “I’m half demon. My mother was a demon. She fell in love with my father early on. Before demons relied on eating humans. Many ate humans, but not all. So despite what anyone said, they married. And they had a baby.” I gasped.
“You.” He nodded. “But — where are your parents?” I inquired.
“My mother died giving birth to me. Human and demon blood clash. My father was heartbroken. She was his only love. He raised me until I was 13. And then he died of heartbreak.” He sighed. “I am frozen at the age of 13. The blood formed some kind of compound that keeps me young. I am much older than you think. Now you know. Let us continue. Please.” A tear rolled down his cheek. I was speechless. All I could do was put one foot in front of the other and follow him deeper into the tunnel.
We walked in silence for many more minutes until finally, we came to a big black rimmed portal. It contained some purple fluid substance. Armed guards jumped out of nowhere and surrounded us. “Relax. It’s me,” William said calmly. “The keeper of the portal. Return to your posts.”
“You’re the keeper to this portal?” I gasped.
“Yep.” He stood in his familiar triumphant stance. Emma stared at him with wide eyes.
“This is the portal to the human world isn’t it?” He nodded. His eyes sparkled.
“I’ll miss you, Emma.” He scooped her up into a big hug. Then he turned to me. “Forget everything negative I said. I have lived many long years. Saved many humans through the portal. And you truly are one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. You sure are experienced, too.” He winked. “Goodbye, Layla. Stay safe. You will be returned to your parents.” Then I did something I thought I would never do. I gave Will a great big hug.
“Goodbye, Will. I will never forget you.” A tear rolled down my cheek.
I took Emma’s hand. “Ready?” She smiled at me. We stepped into the portal together. “This truly is our gateway to heaven.”