Graham sat up quickly, sticky with sweat and breathing hard. Something was wrong.
Glancing around the dark room, he reached for the flashlight he kept beside his bed for occasions like this. The bright beam pierced the darkness like a knife. Nothing was out of place. The creaky, drafty room was the same as he’d left it. Like always.
He sighed, landing against his pillows with a soft thud. That nightmare always got him. It had been almost a year since he had seen his grandfather pass away in the hospital, but it was always the same nightmare. He was back, listening to the ramblings of a senile man about to die, holding his hand as machines hissed and beeped in the background. That was the worst, the noises.
Rubbing at his face, the young man put his flashlight where it was supposed to go.
It would be a long– how long until morning? Graham checked the clock with a groan; it was only 1 AM.
Reluctantly, he settled back into his pillows and closed his eyes. If he was going to get any sleep before work, he needed to sleep now. It was always hard after that nightmare, though. The whistling of the wind sometimes sounded eerily like the screech of a heart monitor, and the rattling pipes could be mistaken for any number of hospital noises, especially for Graham’s sleepy brain.
“He will come,” repeated Poppa, eyes closed. He’s hooked up to several machines and an oxygen tube. “I did something stupid as a young man.”
There was a pause. The machines rattled and screamed in the background. Something was wrong, but Graham couldn’t focus on what it was.
“What do you mean?” Graham’s voice sounded thick and slow, like molasses, but the words come out just fine. He knew that what his grandfather had to say was important, but he couldn’t place why.
“From the shadows,” he said, coughing once. It was a gurgling noise, nothing good could come from it. “I did something bad.”
Graham waited, more screaming machines urgently trying to grab his attention and failing against pure willpower. He had to hear what his grandfather was saying. He had to.
Finally, he spoke again. “I was in trouble. Big trouble. I dabbled in things I never should have… There was a time in my life, my Graham, my wonderful grandson, my only grandson… There was a time in my life when I did some bad things. I was into bad things, Graham. You have to understand that I didn’t know. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I am so sorry. I’m so sorry, Graham.”
Graham shook his head. “Poppa, it’s not your fault,” he began to say.
“He will come from the shadows,” interrupts Graham’s grandfather. “He will come to take you with him.”
Slowly, raising his hand to point at the corner, he said shakily, “Him.”
Graham sat up again, fumbling for the flashlight. The bright light cutting through the darkness like butter.
Sighing, the young man relaxed, flicking off the light and turning to put it away just as something else cut through the darkness. “Hello,” said a voice.
Graham froze, poised over the nightstand.
“You must be Graham.”
Swallowing, the young man flicked the light back on, sweeping it around the room quickly. Nothing. Even the shadows in the corner were the same ones he had always seen in the room. “Hello?”
“Hello again, Graham!”
Without pants or a shirt or shoes, Graham got up, crossed the room, and headed for the front door as quickly as he could without running like a chicken. He would not be staying in a haunted house, but he wouldn’t run from a ghost either.
“Where are you going?”
He didn’t answer, pausing only to slip on a jacket and sandals before he yanked open the front door. Before he could step through, it slammed shut. His heart lept into his throat.
“Tut-tut,” sang the voice from somewhere beside him. “Can’t have you leaving before we’re properly acquainted!”
Graham stared at the back of his door in the dim light. trying his hardest to keep his breathing even. He kept nightlights in each hall, for this exact reason. He had somehow always expected ghosts to be what did him in. Reaching to the left of the thick pine door, he flicked on the light above him. His hands shook slightly, but he wouldn’t admit that he was scared just yet. So far, it was just a voice. “Well,” he said, throat squeaking. “Who are you, then? You seem to know me.”
“Oh, I know all about you!” The voice sounded further away. “You’re the son of Andrew Maller! You play football with your friends on Saturdays and your favorite food is macaroni and cheese.” Graham followed the voice, flicking on lights as he went. “You used to draw your grandfather such cute drawings as a kid!”
After Graham had flicked on his third light and lit up the whole place, the exasperated, disembodied voice said, “You’re being rude. That light is hard for me to be around.”
“Then you get the hint.”
“Oh, I see what this is.” Graham had turned to return to the front door, freezing. “You’re trying to get me to leave.” A being that could only be described as pure darkness stood in the way. From what Graham could tell, they had their arms crossed. They were also where the voice was coming from. Shadows wrapped themselves around the figure like a mist, darkening everything around them. It was like looking at a bright light. It hurt Graham’s eyes to stare directly at them, but if he looked out of the corner of his eye it was annoying but fine.
“Yes,” said Graham tightly, doing his best to keep an eye on the being without giving away how freaked he was currently. He wanted nothing more than to back away instead of converse with this creature. “Yes, I want you to leave.” His voice shook. He wasn’t tough like the other boys, he ran away from everything. Graham was scared.
The figure sighed. “Look, I can’t. Your grandpa sold your soul to me.”
Graham’s jaw clenched. “He wouldn’t.”
“He did. I have the contract right here, signed in blood!” With a flick, the shadow produced a folded piece of paper from thin air.
“That could have come from anywhere,” Graham said, narrowing his eyes as the shadow unfolded it and tried to hand it to him. He wouldn’t take anything that thing handed to him, not until he was sure it was safe. “That could be anyone’s blood.”
“Fine,” said the figure, paper disappearing as quickly as it had been summoned. “Fine! You don’t believe me, that’s fine. Okay.” Throwing up their hands in what sounded like exasperation to Graham, the shadow turned and flicked off the hall light. It made looking at them much easier, somehow. “Look, Graham, I get it. I come out of nowhere and demand you get to know me. It’s weird! But,” The shadow reached forward but Graham stepped away. “Demons don’t just come out of the woodwork for just anyone.”
Graham stared for a moment before swallowing thickly and asking softly, “Then what makes me so special?”
“Well. It’s really your grandfather’s contract that’s special, but what’s some semantics? The deal was simple. I could have all the freedom I want in your material plane, but he sold two souls to make it come true.”
“What was in it for him?” Graham watched the shadow closely, frowning. This sounded like an awful deal so far.
“Well,” said the shadow, “Andrew got his own freedom.”
Skeptical, he took the bait. “What do you mean?”
“Andrew was a very self loathing man, Graham.” The shadow gestured for the young man to follow, phasing through the wall to flick off another light before sitting at the kitchen table. “Before you knew him, he was trapped in an awful life. Or, he felt that way, anyway.”
Reluctantly, Graham sat down across from the shadow.
“My name is Aleal, by the way.” Graham had the impression that the shadow was smiling, but it was impossible to truly tell. “Your grandfather and I were very close. He summoned me several times in his youth, before he knew he would fall in love and have children who would have children of their own. We made a pact when he was still young and naive, and he signed it in blood. He would give me his soul in his final breaths and I could use it to have my own freedom. The problem was that I needed two willing souls.” Aleal cocked their head in the semi-darkness to inspect Graham. “That’s where you come in.”
“You want me to give you my soul.”
Aleal shrugged. “More or less.”
“I’m still using it,” blurted out Graham, “You can’t have it.”
There was a silence for a tense moment. Then Aleal broke into barking laughter.
“What?” Graham stared in confusion as the shadow demon’s laughter calmed. “What did I say?”
“I’m not taking your soul right now, Graham!” Aleal reached forward and this time Graham didn’t jerk away, letting the shadows touch his hand reassuringly, briefly. It felt like nothing he’d ever felt before. It was unnerving, unreal, and slightly wet. Settling his hand back in his lap, he decided not to touch the shadow again. “If you’re going to want to give me your soul, you’ve got to know me first! Or, that’s what your grandfather said, anyway. He really loved you, Graham. Never talked so much about anyone else, I swear.” Aleal chuckled, leaning forward. “He wanted you to meet me, but never had the chance I suppose. Human lives are so short.” Aleal sighed.
“So, I’m stuck with you.”
“Until I die?”
“You got it!”
Graham stared for a moment.
“We’ll be great friends!” Aleal vanished into thin air, right before Graham’s eyes. Glancing around, he could only hear Aleal’s voice as they chuckled and said, “It’ll be fun, I promise!”