Check the water.
I woke up with the annoying chafing of exhaustion hanging about my body. Everything was dry. I checked the clock. Three in the morning. Yep, that was about right. Four more hours until the time I preferred, so of course I felt like I’d been set out for five years under the sun. Of course. And I’d been woken up for what reason, exactly? I didn’t need to use the restroom. I hadn’t been having a particularly frightening dream. There were no noises outside, or even in the house. No alarms were going off. It was just normal. All of it, normal.
But my throat was hurting a little, like there’d been a little vise pinned around it. It was only squeezing softly now, but I could also feel the murmur of chills in my arms and back… I was probably getting sick. Strep or something. Figures. The third most important week in the year and I got to go through it with disease crippling me. That sounded right.
I needed some water. I’d left a pitcher of it in the fridge. It was probably too cold, now, what with the temperature outside being almost below freezing. But if one discomfort would soothe another, greater one, one that had presumably yanked me out of slumber, I figured it was worth getting my teeth sore.
I opened the fridge.
There wasn’t supposed to be anything red in the fridge. Especially not in the clear glass pitcher. There was a whole swarm of them, probably about fifty. No larger than marbles, but skinny, sleek, and crimson. In curiosity I put my hand up against the glass. The forms shifted about in cold slumber. I put both hands against the glass. A couple of them woke up, and their motion jolted the others into a ravenous frenzy. The water chopped up and down as the forms battled against the glass. I yanked my hands back in horror as the little thin shapes pressed their ravenous, toothed maws against the side of the pitcher.
Leeches. There were leeches in my water. And they were really strange leeches at that.
Lemuel. This was obviously another one of his things. My hopes for clean, crisp water dashed on the rocks of hell, I resolved to pay my downstairs neighbor a visit. I didn’t bother getting dressed or anything. The bastard didn’t deserve it.
As the sharp winter air sliced into my newly exposed skin, I pondered whether I should take the eastern or western stairway. Every single day, I took the western one to get to my car. That stairwell was usually not gibbering something in Aramaic, or covered in blood. I mean, sometimes it was. And then I called the landlord. But the eastern stairwell was faster, and if I was going to be confronting the ghoul in the first place, I might as well… eastern stairwell it was.
I hadn’t been stupid enough to not put on a pair of new shoes. Last time I tried this, I was wearing some sneakers that were only a week old. Last time I did that. And then I went to the landlord. Never got compensation from the horned bastard, but…
Right. I was walking down the eastern stairwell. To my knowledge, Lemuel never used it himself. It was just too close to his corrupting presence to not be horrifically warped. And one of the most annoying features of it, besides the whole soaking your feet with enough lamb’s blood that no amount of washing could ever get it out, was that it would muddle your thoughts. Make you repeat stuff you’d already thought, tie your brain into knots. One time, I started descending it and then just wound up back in my own apartment watching Family Feud, which was really weird, considering I didn’t have cable. Or a tv. To be frank, I think I was just in someone else’s apartment. Damn that stairwell. Nah, nah. Redeem that stairwell, even though to my knowledge, Lemuel never used it himself. It was just to close to his corrupting… and there we go again.
I shook my head to knock some sense back into my mind. The half eaten rabbit which had fused with the wall was singing something in German, something about driving the British into the sea. I always wondered whether Lemuel did this stuff on purpose… I mean, after all, he was…
One more step. I needed to concentrate on my feet, and nothing but them. That last step was always the slipperiest. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone had broken their spine on it.
My foot tapped down on concrete. The rabbit sang about the joys of trains. And then…
Two thousand, nine hundred and fifteen years ago. No, there was no “ago”. It was just now. It was a weird thought to be having in the first place. The sun is beating down hard on my head. Sweat’s beading so thickly on my brow that it starts sliding into my eyes. It stings horribly, but I keep threshing. Ezekiel expects the winter to be particularly bitter this year, and I’m not going to spend another spring hungry. Not when the last famine got dad. No, I was better than that. Better than this. God would give me strength.
I finally look up to wipe the sweat off my brow. I wasn’t so desperate for time that I couldn’t spend a little bit of it saving my eyes. But there’s someone else in the field. They’re dressed in a blue cloak, like the sky. It’s so thick I can’t see the figure underneath it; the fabric wraps the man in shadows.
Blue. A blue cloak. How? Where did he?
The man raises a hand to shush my mind. There’s an easier solution to all of this, one that won’t get me killed.
I take it.
That mother f’in stairwell. One of my hands still clung onto to the railing. With my mind back in full I briskly yanked it off, so that I might live a bit longer in the present. The memories the stairwell dropped in you were always so weird. Well, not weird, but dark and boring. Always someone in a desperate situation looking for a little bit of help, and then some shadowy guy shows up to make a deal. Lemuel. But I was going to die before I ever made an agreement with that bastard, that was for sure.
The hallway leading up to his place was distorted in a similar manner to the stairwell, although it thankfully didn’t pull any psychological tricks on you. No, instead the blood tinged walls smelled of sulfur and gangrene, like the kind that develops in wounds made by a whip. Utterly no clue how I know that smell. I guess it’s just kind of intuitive when you’re around Lemuel so much.
Anyways, the landlord had the good sense to keep the apartments closest to the demon’s abode unoccupied. One could only imagine the horrible nonsense their tenants would have to deal with. Wouldn’t even be worth the rent if they were free, if you ask me.
Just a few more steps and I would be at the accursed place. The floor was slick with viscera, yet clingy with rust. Made it easy enough to walk up to his apartment.
The door was always surprisingly clean. No flesh, no bombs, just a few scorch marks here and there. You could still easily make out the number. 521. The bastard had moved in the day after I had, and everything had just gone downhill from there. There was no telling how many times my knuckles had rapped against the door. Never pressed that doorbell. How could I? It always looked at me all angry like, and I, for whatever reason, preferred my doorbells to only look at me in a metaphorical sense. And usually not even that.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
Somewhere inside I could hear a sports commentator, but I couldn’t quite make out their words. Some stats about goat slaughterings and blood drives. Oh, and I could smell a bit inside, too. Raw potatoes and misery. No idea how I could smell misery. It just seeped out from under the door.
After half a minute, I figured I had better bang against the door again. My knuckles were an inch away from the door before it started squeaking open. I quickly yanked my hand back, eager to not accidentally have it crash into the figure of shadow which was now standing right in front of me. That would have been awkward.
Lemuel. It was hard to make him out, especially considering that all the hallway lights had now flickered out. There was no light from inside his place, either, making it so that the little hint of starlight peeking in from outside was my only guide. Not that I wanted to see him, mind. He didn’t look particularly great in daylight, what with the pustules, scales, and scars. My primary indication of his presence was not so much his looks, but the steady rasping of his breath which mirrored the sickly sweet beating of flesh from inside his abode. Not sure what was going on there, and, frankly. I didn’t want to know.
“For what reason does the little flesh creature disturb me, at this, the darkest of hours?”
“There’s leeches in my water, Lemuel.”
“There’s leeches in all water, fool. One atom leeches off another, heat flows eternally to degradation and death. It is the nature of heaven’s rancid god, not a reason to be bothering my slumber.”
Boy oh boy, he was always a fun one to talk to. “Hey, no. Lemuel, you’re not giving me any of that poetic b.s. about entropy or whatever. There’s little red leeches in my water. They’re like a different sort of leeches from anything I’ve ever seen, but they’re leeches.”
“And so the purveyor of sin and ignorance decides that he is both blameless and knowledgeable of the blame. Little flesh creature, do you not understand how many other times you’ve been critically wrong?”
“Dude. I have eyes. I’ve seen other leeches down by the river. These are leeches. And as for blame? Come on, man. You think I would be putting leeches in my own water?”
“This paragon was not suggesting that you were to blame for corrupting your own water. I was merely suggesting that there might be others in the complex who would wish you harm. Lady Sophia from down the hall, perhaps? You two have shared fiery conversations before.”
“Yeah, Lemuel, she parked in my spot. So maybe we argued. But humans don’t just go around putting leeches in each others’ water because they’re slightly mad at them. And even if we did, we wouldn’t be finding leeches that don’t normally exist to do the job.”
“Perhaps, fleshly one.”
“Perhaps? No. I’m right, man. You caused the leeches to appear in my water. Now, I’m not saying that you intended it or anything. But you caused it. And I want you to take them away. I’m thirsty, and I want to go back to sleep. I’ve got a really important presentation tomorrow.”
“Ah, yes. The presentation. But does your little mind know what other buildings were slotted for the lot?”
“What? No. I didn’t bother checking. We just made the best bid. Stop trying to change the subject.”
“But the subject is wrong, little flesh creature. You are here trying to obtain salve for your rest, when your rest is both unnecessary, and perhaps even sinful. You should be knocking on your own door with those rust stained knuckles.”
“Rust stained? Lemuel, you aren’t making sense. Get the leeches out of my water, or I’m going to him.”
I could see a little flare of red light in the darkness where I presumed the demon’s eyes were. “Always to him with your problems. Everything exterior, everything coated in blood or corrupted with magics of the flesh. But you are lazy, ignorant, bound for a place where there are so many leeches in the water that they are one and the same. And yet still you will drink.”
“Sure, sure. I’m going to hell.”
“The other bids were made. One for banking, one for a patisserie, the last for a clinic. The final was near closing the deal.”
“So? You’re trying to deflect again. Get the leeches out of my water.”
“Evil done cannot be undone, only repaired and prevented in the future, little flesh creature. There is time.”
“It’s three in the morning. Yeah, there’s time, but your ramblings are wasting it. Get the leeches out of my water, and do what you say you want me to do. Prevent your own evil. Don’t do it again.”
“Evil done cannot be undone.”
“Fine, if you’re going to be like that, I’m just going to Barach.”
“Fine, flesh creature.” There was a light slithering sound as the demon retreated back into his abode, slamming the door shut behind him.
No results, per usual. The only time the bastard had actually done anything for me was the week after he moved in. Brought in a grilled cheese sandwich to my door. At that point I just thought he was some real mangy dude, but then I had nightmares of grilled cheese sandwiches eating my face for over a week. Sounds silly, sure, but these were some real gruesome sandwiches, man. Teeth and everything. So even that good deed was overwhelmed by the sheer evil of his existence.
Anyways, it looked like I was going to have to complain, per usual. I took the western stairwell this time, and only heard the dim hint of gunfire in the distance. Could’ve just been standard city noise. Or it could have been Elizabeth killing her son Remus for the thirteenth time this month. Their apartment number should be obvious.
Ah, the fresh night air. It was always a relief to taste it in my nose. So… well, it was polluted beyond belief with car exhaust, but it still felt… real. Relieving. As though it were right, even though it wasn’t right, you know? At particularly bad times I’d go on a midnight walk of the grounds just to get that mundanity back into into my bones. There was nothing special about the apartment complex, otherwise. A bunch of units with people struggling to pay the bills. A couple of flags, people growing plants on their windowsill, a pool that was always too dirty to be enticing to swim in. But I couldn’t drink in the ambiance this night. I had another objective.
Barach’s office was open twenty-four seven. If you went in the day you usually got stuck with Angela or Terese. Neither of them were exactly capable of doing anything with Lemuel. But, luckily, it just so happened that my problems with the demon always occurred in the middle of the night, and the middle of the night was precisely when Barach was in.
Barach was, well… he was Barachiel. Really strange guy. Looked like some normal middle eastern dude in every way except for the eyes. There was something in there that… I missed my family. I needed to call them. It’d been months sense I had heard their voices, and I knew they wanted to hear from me too… there were so many things I could make better in my life. My shower times were too long, for one. And I could cut back on the ice cream, maybe give that money to sick kids or something. I don’t know.
Oh, right. Barach’s eyes were incredibly annoying. Though on a cursory glance they were simply bright, if you looked directly into them there was every chance you would fall into the ever loving vistas of good, and… and I was about to lose my mind again. It was incredibly infuriating. Anyways, Barachiel was an angel. I was certain of that. No one could be so… effervescently radiant without the touch of heaven. Or something. Bit strange that he was a landlord. Seemed a weird job for an angel.
“How are you on this chilly evening?” Barach asked with a smile so charismatic it stirred some weird feelings in my gut.
“Uh, fine, I guess.”
“In the perspective of all time, you are not lying. But you cannot see the future in full, so I am afraid you aren’t telling the truth.”
“Okay, sure. I’m here because of Lemuel.”
“What has he done this time?”
“Well, I tried to have him clear it up on his own before I came over here. And he didn’t. Lazy prick.”
“That’s not the answer I was looking for, Mike. It would do you good to not insult the poor demon. What has he done to you tonight?”
“Well, it’s the water. It’s full of leeches.”
“Leeches in the water. Tut tut. An old trick of his, to be sure. Last time he pulled that, we had three missionaries dead by Manaus.”
“So he meant to kill me, then?”
“He’s a demon, Mike. He doesn’t mean to kill anyone, unless he thinks there’s a good chance the lower forces will be able to win their soul. That, or they’ll use your corpse for ammunition materials. But they usually don’t need the living for that.”
“That’s… that’s really reassuring.”
“You’re uhh…” the angel’s smile got all sad, “you’re not doing too bad. There’s still hope. So, no. I don’t think Lemuel tried to kill you.”
“Wow. Really reassuring.”
His smile perked up again. “But trying to work this through with him first was a good thing. You don’t always have to have an authority figure intervene in your problems.”
“You trying to give me a moral lesson at 3 o’clock in the morning?”
“Yes. Not the best time, I know, but all time is time, and all actions have consequences.”
“But you forget. Every human forgets.”
“Are you… are you going to get the leeches out of my water or not?”
“Of course, Mike. Of course.” The angel rose out his chair with the athletic grace of an olympian athlete. Had no idea that was something you could be skilled at, but it made me feel ashamed of the pudginess I’d build round my waist.
The walk back over to my apartment almost didn’t feel like a walk. More like a dream, almost. The air smelled sweet, like someone had doused the world in honeysuckle. The streetlights shown both more brightly and also less keenly, bathing the sidewalk and grass in warmth like that of the sun. And Barachiel… the way he walked always perplexed me, saddened me, almost. So carefree, and yet still so purposeful. Like something, someone I should have been.
We took the western staircase this time, either by accident or by a purpose I couldn’t quite understand. No hint of whispering intruded into my mind. Just… peace. The steady rap of tree branches across the apartment’s side formed a slow sonorous melody.
Barach opened the door without unlocking it. The door swooped open without a single creek, the dirt stains from the front that I’d been meaning to clean having miraculously vanished.
“The water in the fridge?”
“No, just that jar on the counter.” I pointed to the blood soaked slime, finding it strange that Barach was asking that question when his eyes were doubtless better than mine.
The angel made a slight flick with his wrist, and I sheltered my hands in my eyes to avoid the flash of light. There was a slight sizzling sound as the red figures in my pitcher bubbled away like they were nothing but carbonation.
“But what about the rabbit? You’ll get around to fixing that?”
“All living things are perfect, in their own way, Mike. There is no need to fix any of them, for they fit the plan God has laid out for them.”
“Well, if the leeches weren’t part of the plan, I really doubt this rabbit is.”
Barachiel raised his eyebrow quizzically. “What is so horrible about this rabbit that it would draw your ire so?”
“It’s the one on the stairwell? Fused into the wall? Singing some Nazi war song?”
Barachiel chuckled in a way which should have been unpleasant, but wasn’t. “Oh, that rabbit! I understand the misconception. That rabbit is dead, and has been for a good month and a half. What remains of its flesh is preserved and animated by foul magics, not by the pure soul of the living. So, there is no suffering involved, and no need for you to worry.”
“No suffering involved? It’s half a rabbit, fused to the bloody (literally) wall! It creeped me out to hell and back! I think that’s suffering!”
“And so I fix your suffering here. But the stairway is Lemuel’s. It is part of his contract. His influence may range there as he wishes.”
“While we’re on suffering… why do you even let that demon stay here? Aren’t you supposed to, I don’t know, smite him back to the abyss or something?”
“No, no elaboration. Anyways, you shouldn’t be having any demonic infestations for the next five weeks with the ward I put up. You have any problems in that time or after, my office is always open.”
“Can I, I don’t know, move into another tenament? You know, maybe building seven?”
“Tssk, tssk, Michael. You ought not to tempt yourself by putting your home so close to Alexis. It will end badly for both of you. You know that.”
“Alright, fine. Building three?”
“No openings anywhere but building seven.”
“Yes, all will be fine, and all manner of things will be fine. You have a good rest of your night, okay?”
“Sure. I’ll try. Thank you.”
So the angel slipped out of my apartment, leaving everything back in its normal, mundane state. Sort of. He left the place smelling of lilac. It was a nice smell. Oh, and the water was not too cold and certifiably leech free. A weird hurdle to be setting for things to be good, but things were good. And I needed to go to sleep.
I came back from work the following day exhausted. The presentation was a success, and I expected to be keeping my job. What a complete and utter relief. There was now a goat on my balcony, and it was eating my rosemary. Vaguely mencacing tatoos of faces were carved into its side, and they were all weeping ink. I guessed that was fine. The rosemary was going to die anyway from not getting enough sun. But it was still Lemuel’s fault.
I really needed to move.