It is my privilege to share with you the story of an upcoming author who I don’t hesitate to say will be the next Stephen King.
Matthew Crocker (follow him here) is well established in the writing community on Twitter, and while he’s been developing his craft, he hasn’t yet published any of his short stories. Until now.
I feel I should warn you–Matthew’s stories are dark. Like “oh god I hope he’s actually okay” kind of dark. Like this is how I picture him writing his stuff.
(He’s not that old though.)
So without further ado, I present Heirloom. When Matthew becomes a famous thriller/horror author, you can say you joined him on the ground floor.
Jacob’s old, gnarled fingers reached for the button again, eagerly pressing and waiting for relief. Nothing. Licking his parched lips, he pressed his gray-domed head further into the soft pillow.
He could feel the soft sheets, one of his favorite purchases, pulled up around him, bringing the warmth of thick designer blankets with them.
“You know it’s not been long enough for that.” The voice was deep and melodic. Every word like a song of its own.
Jacob scoffed, coughing as the sound rattled his delicate throat. “What do they care if I abuse this thing?” He held up the small tube, adorned with a bright red button on top. A thin cable ran from the bottom into the complex network of machines and monitors, hovering over his bed like digital specters, vultures awaiting their prey. “I’m dying, what’s the worst that can happen? I become addicted? That sounds quite nice, actually. Just give me more damn morphine!”
“We can make that happen, you know.” The beautiful voice had become a source of comfort. Jacob looked up with his old and failing eyes, watching his friend of many years sit back in the plush, Italian leather chair. His hands grasped the newspaper he’d previously set down and flipped it open with an unnecessary flourish. The pages rustled in his hands. “Just say the word.”
Eyes closed and head pressed into the pillows, Jacob sighed.
“No. That game has its place. Not here. I’m so very tired of it.” He turned to his friend, whose nose was buried in today’s byline. “Do you ever grow weary of it, Gabriel?”
Gabriel paused and closed the paper slowly, neatly folding it onto his lap. His head turned toward Jacob. Gabriel’s white suit stood in stark contrast to the dark color of his skin and glowed in the morning light pouring through the window. It gave him an otherworldly look that Jacob had come to expect from their many years of friendship. Dark, beautiful eyes shot through Jacob, looking into his soul, another thing to which Jacob had become accustomed.
“You are already well aware of the answer, my friend.” Gabriel placed his folded hands on his lap, broad muscles flexing as he did so, “And yet you continue to ask. Your kind will never cease to amuse me.”
“My kind never ceases to amuse me.” Jacob smacked his dry lips as his eyes scanned for the ever-present drink at his bedside. “A bunch of clueless primates driven by base emotions and, well, you know the next part.”
Gabriel set the paper on the floor and stood, gently cradling Jacobs head in his large hand. He brought the glass to his lips as the old man drank with greed. He nodded. “I do indeed.”
Tired neck muscles relaxed as Jacob allowed his head to fall back on the pillow, guided by Gabriel’s strong and ever-present hands. Those same hands grasped the blankets that had slipped, pulling them upward and neatly over Jacob’s shoulders. Gabriel arranged the pillows in a manner that allowed for both comfort and movement for his friend, an action borne from repetition these last few months. Bending low, he kissed the wrinkled forehead as his dark hands gently stroked the few remaining hairs left on Jacob’s head.
Gabriel shot a quick glance at the clock mounted on the wall, the hands silently ticking off the seconds of the day. “You need your rest. It’s Tuesday and I’m sure your daughter will be here in just over an hour. She is nothing if not predictable.” The small click of a door handle caused his head to snap toward the entryway. “Or…” Gabriel furrowed his brow as he sat back in the soft leather chair, hands folded on crisply ironed slacks.
Jacob strained to look at the doorway to his grand room. His failing eyesight saw only shapes, muted and subjective, but he knew every inch. It was still set as he and Gabriel had designed it decades before. Bright, eclectic paintings hung from elegant frames on nearly every wall. Priceless vases and rare pottery displayed upon ornate columns were scattered around the room and tucked in corners, each piece hailing from a different time and place.
The door silently swung open. Red bottomed shoes were the first to enter the room. The stiletto heels clacked on the polished hardwood as the woman slid into the room with an elegance matching the clothes she wore.
“Good morning Daddy, how are you?” She shed her designer jacket, her calm voice doing little to hide her measured authority.
Jacob smiled and reached toward the blurred image that was his daughter, fingers beckoning her to come closer.
“She’s early, quite early. This is not like her at all. Do you find this odd, Jacob?” Gabriel’s eyes shot back and forth from father to daughter.
Jacob stole a glance toward his friend. “Does it matter?”
“Of course it matters,” the woman answered. She seemed to float across the floor as she approached. Crossing the room and seating herself on the side of the mattress, she smoothed her designer skirt with a gloved hand. “Your comfort is of great importance to me, to all of us. We all want to make sure you’re doing as well as can be.”
“Thank you, Delilah. I am well.” Jacob pointed a gnarled finger to the host of medical equipment around him. “All things considered.”
Delilah tugged at the fingers of her gloves, the satin effortlessly sliding off. “Good, though I dislike that you insist on being in this house still. You know that Mathias and I cannot make it here often and we hate that you spend so much time alone.”
Gabriel issued a short laugh, more like a snort, catching Jacobs attention.
“I have grown quite accustomed to the company that I keep.” His head turning back toward his daughter, Jacob continued, “But I do cherish the times you come and see me. Tell me, how are things? How is the Parcer deal?”
“Your caretakers outside would want me to say that you are in no condition to work, but…” Delilah knew there was no use fighting this battle, a truth made evident by Jacob’s pursed lips. She sighed. “It went through. How you did it is a mystery, but it went through. You would think Mathias and I would be used to this by now, but no. Every time you close these deals that should not work, we simply sit back in awe. You hold sway over people even from this lonely bedroom.”
“I am hardly lonely.”
Delilah placed her hand on Jacob’s. “Dad, you spend days seeing no one but nurses and doctors. It would do you good to come into the city. Spend some time with us before…” the words stopped abruptly.
Jacob laughed, a small cough following close behind. “Before I die?”
“Before you’re too ill to leave the house.” She squeezed his hand. “Even your stubbornness has its limits.”
“She has a point. A trip into the city may not be a bad idea.” Gabriel shifted in his seat as he spoke, his eyes looking up and down Delilah. Her dark hair perfectly framed her face, accentuating the sharp angles of her high cheekbones. The woman wore power as easily as she had worn the coat now draped across her lap. Gabriel had always been impressed with the manner in which she carried herself.
Jacob looked over at his old friend, a scowl crossing his wrinkled and weathered face. He knew exactly why Gabriel wanted to venture away.
“No.” The word came out more forcefully then he had intended.
Delilah startled. Pulling her hand away, she raised it in mock resignation. “All right. I know better than to argue with you.”
Silence hung in the room for several moments while the tension subsided. Jacob looked over at Gabriel, whose eyes were still set on his daughter. Always wary of the outcome, Jacob had been intentional about limiting Gabriel’s access to both her and his sons.
“Be a dear and get me something good to eat.” Jacob’s fingers gently stroked Delilahs arm.“I overheard the staff say something about seafood, todays catch. That sounds delicious.”
A small smile returned to her face. “I’d be happy to, and if they haven’t made anything yet I will make sure they do. Give me a moment.”
She stood and exited the room with the same elegant air of confidence, red bottomed shoes echoing though the room. Both Gabriel and Jacob’s eyes were locked on her as she left, the door closing silently behind her.
“Did you read her?” Jacob’s tone was barely short of accusatory.
“It’s a simple question: did you read her?” Jacob could feel strength returning to his body as he shifted to sit upright, his eyes locked on Gabriel.
Gabriel leaned back in his chair, eyes burrowing into Jacob. “There is nothing simple about that question.”
Jacob stared at him.
“No, well, no more than usual. You know I cannot simply shut it off.” Anger burned in Gabriel’s eyes. “And to ask me such a question after everything that we’ve done together. Frankly, it’s offensive.” His tone fluidly swapped from angry to wounded. “It’s almost as if you don’t trust me anymore.”
Jacob scoffed, a smile crossing his parched lips. “You’re a Demon, not exactly a lot known for being trustworthy.”
“Yes, but I am your Demon.” A broad smile broke Gabriel’s lips as he matched Jacobs tone. “Of course I read her on the surface, there’s little I can do to stop that. But as promised, I did not dig.” He sighed. “And to answer the next question I know is bouncing around in that old head of yours, there is no change. Her fears remain as they have always been; that she will never live up to the standards you have set. She fears that her children will be either unhappy or unsuccessful. She fears that she will be seen as a fraud and be unable to lead the company you have built. All garden-variety fears, nothing more salacious than that.” He paused, leaning back in the chair, his nose wrinkling. “Quite boring, actually.”
Jacob issued a rattled laugh that could have easily been confused with a cough. “Not like that prick, Erik Parcer.”
Gabriel’s eyes lit, a fire that always smoldered under the surface coming to life in his stare. “That… that was particularly delicious. Who would have known that such a weak little man could hold such a naughty secret?” He laughed, head tilting back to face the ceiling as his hand slapped the leather armrest. “The look on his face when you told him you knew about his disgusting habits! Like putty in your hands, my friend. I dare say, you may have become as good at this as I.”
Jacob rubbed his aged hands over his lightly stubbled face. “With the exception of the consuming of souls bit. That’s all you.”
Gabriel shrugged, a devious grin inching up the corners of his lips, and his words matter of fact. “One must eat.”
Both sat in silence for a while. The barely open patio door led to a balcony overlooking the waves crashing below. The sound of the ocean was calming to Jacob. Since he was a young boy, it had signified relaxation and escape, two feelings that became harder to grasp the as he had aged. Eyes closed and lungs drawing in the salty air, Jacob could feel the pain ebb away from his tired bones.
“Do you ever hate it? Being bonded to me?” He asked Gabriel. “Do you regret it?
The Demon stood and walked to the patio door, his fingers toying with the sheer curtains as they moved silently on the wind. Dark skin and white suit seemed to burn in the failing sunlight of early evening. Jacob wasn’t expecting an immediate answer. Gabriel was always careful with his words in situations such as these. But the extended pause caused his chest to tighten.
Finally, Gabriel tilted his head as fingers continued to tease the delicate fabric. “The easy answer would be ‘yes.’ My type feeds on fear; we require it for our survival. Simply put, we bond to your kind to eat.” He paused, hands now on each door handle, pulling them fully open, filling the room with the scent of the sea. “To be bonded to one who is immune to our…tricks. Well, it was quite the adjustment.”
“So you do hate it.” There was a hint of sadness in Jacob’s voice.
“I did, for a while,” Gabriel continued to stare out into the ocean, eyes slowly blinking, chest rising and falling as he took deep breaths. “Your ability to resist my powers was jarring, to say the least. I must admit, there was a time when you instilled in me the very fear that I place in others. The role reversal was… less than pleasant. But in time, I found it oddly freeing.”
Gabriel spun on his heels and strode directly to the wheelchair that rested on the far side of the room. Clicking the brake free, he wheeled the chair to Jacob’s bedside, its custom design perfectly suited for the old man’s comfort.
“Come now, let’s get you up. The sun is near setting and I do know how you enjoy it crashing into the waters below.” Strong arms helped Jacob out of bed, a smile coming to his old lips as the delicate dance of bed to chair was choreographed by Gabriel.
“We consume, one at a time. It sustains us for a short while, but all too soon we are hunting for another host. Bonding to someone is exceptionally difficult. It can even be dangerous.” The Demon rested Jacob in the chair, his hands tucking and smoothing to ensure comfort. “Still, it was enticing to think of not having to search the globe for my next meal, to always be hungry, but never again starving. I was reluctant to learn, but you showed me a new way.”
Jacob smiled as he shuffled in his seat. “You were an asshole. The things that you showed me in those early days were the very essence of nightmares. Such harrowing carnage”
“I’m a fear demon, that is quite literally the reason for my existence.” Gabriel swung behind the chair and patted his friend lightly on the shoulder, switching the medical monitors over to the chair’s mobile ones. “It was odd to be bonded to one who sought it out. But to answer your question, no. I no longer hate it. You have opened up a world of possibilities that my kind have never even dreamed of. I have come to love the gift you have given me.”
Gabriel wheeled Jacob to the sprawling balcony that wrapped around the house. The sun was still hovering over the ocean, setting the water ablaze with light and texture. A cool, salty wind swept in and covered Jacob, breathing strength into old bones. Every night this was the routine; usually they would wait longer. Wait until the brilliant orb began to kiss the waters below, but today Jacob was glad for the change. Gabriel always knew exactly what he needed.
“How many? How many have you been able to feed off in our time together?”
Gabriel paused as he set the lock on the chair, angling it perfectly for the best view.
“You’ve never asked me that before. I always expected you to, but you never did. Are you sure you want to know?”
Jacob nodded, his voice rattling in his chest. “Before, I didn’t. I know you take a piece of them every time you delve into their souls. Nasty business. But now, does it matter? I am not long for this world and soon you will roam in search of another host. Secrets and unanswered questions seem unnecessary.”
Gabriel smiled as he leaned on the wheelchair’s handle with one hand. “The exact number I do not have, but there have been many. Thousands.”
Another cough-laugh rattled in Jacobs chest. His voice was soft. “Thousands?”
“You were expecting less, old man? You built an empire on knowing the fears of all of those around you. Wounding them. Exploiting them. Sometimes driving them mad. Always adding to their fear. You encouraged me to eat, and at times to feast, so that we could have all of this.”
Jacob sat still, hazy eyes fixed on the water below as sunlight caused the waves to sparkle like diamonds set ablaze. “I have to wonder if it was worth it. All the pain that I caused others.”
Gabriel answered, his voice matter of fact. “To use your own words, does it matter? What’s done is done.”
A knock at the bedroom door pulled them both from their conversation. Gabriel shifted his feet below him, the wheelchair facing toward the door as he released the brake and spun it around.
“How odd.” Gabriel’s tone held interest. Jacob tried to glance back at his friend, but Gabriel relaxed a hand on his shoulder as he pushed the chair back into the bedroom. As they crossed from the balcony and back onto the richly colored hardwood of the bedroom, the knocking ceased and the door opened.
Jacob heard Gabriel’s sharp inhale as the man walked into the room, a reaction echoed by Jacob himself. It had been years since he’d seen this man, years more since there had been any sort of conversation with him. Jacob could feel his heart swell with both anger and sadness as his parched lips slowly crafted his words.
“Hello, my dear. It’s been.” The words caught in Jacob’s throat as he felt a hand press down on his shoulder. His tired eyes shifted from the door to Gabriel again as the Demon slowly shook his head. Jacob sighed. “It’s good to see you again. How have you been?”
“Father.” The answer was tentative and filled with some elusive emotion. Fear? Hate? Perhaps regret? It was hard to tell anymore. All three emotions had been so prevalent throughout the years. “Delilah said you were in bed. I’m sorry. I didn’t expect to see you up and around.”
“Disappointed?” He regretted the accusation the moment it left his mouth. Jacob watched his son seemed to deflate and harden at the same time. The hand on his shoulder squeezed more firmly, Gabriel’s head slowly shaking again. Jacob sighed. “I’m sorry, Andrew. This old tongue is still learning to control itself.”
Andrew stifled a laugh and smiled broadly at the ceiling. He wore a dark brown jacket and trousers several shades lighter. His shirt and vest perfectly accented the earth-tones, while effortlessly adding a splash of vibrancy and color. His dark hair neatly coiffed and smooth and strong jawline set. Andrew strode several steps into the room, hands traveling from his jaw, to his side, then pockets. Each gesture repeated as if his hands did not know where they ought to be.
“You haven’t changed at all, Father.” The words were delivered in a stinging tone. “Still assuming that everyone is out to get you, even your own son.” He took a deep breath as his strong hands slid down his cheek and traced the contours of his perfect jawline. “But I have.”
His rubber-soled shoes made little sound on the floor, a sharp contrast to his sister’s footsteps. While both shared a love of style, Andrew’s choices were always far more practical, while Delilah’s tended to the luxurious. Jacob’s eyes remained locked on his son as he drew close, crouching as soon as he was an arm’s length from the chair. Andrew’s gentle dark eyes looked up at his father.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come earlier. I was-” Andrew exhaled sharply and grabbed his father’s hand. “You know what, I’m just sorry I didn’t come earlier.”
“He’s changed.” Gabriel crouched beside the chair, his nose sniffing at the air, words laced with surprise. “He’s not at all who he once was.”
Jacob struggled to keep his hand still as Andrew continued to squeeze. He could feel the tension in his body subside as Gabriel’s melodic words filled his ears.
“How so?” Jacob kept his eyes on his son, though the words were not directed at him.
Andrew’s head hung for a moment before popping back up, eyes staring into his father’s. “Look, I…I know that we haven’t always, not ever really, seen eye to eye. You were… hard. But I know now that you wanted what was best for me. Wanted me to succeed, to be better, to win at life. And I want you to know that I am. It may not look like your version of it, I get that. But things are good, Dad. And as hard as you were, I have to in a way thank you for that.”
Jacob leaned back in the wheelchair, his wrinkled face staring down at his son.
“He’s no longer afraid of you. At all.” Gabriel leaned closer to Andrew. “No. That fear is gone. I sense none of it. He’s no longer afraid of who he is, either. He’s embraced it.” A quizzical tone danced with his next words. “His fear has shifted. It’s deeper now. Fear of time lost. Of connections broken. Fear that he will not be able to make up for who he was. His fears are no longer external, but internal. Quite impressive, though no less exploitable.”
Gabriel paused, his head cocking at an angle.
“And he fears for his… children.”
Jacob went rigid, his head the only source of movement as it swiveled between Andrew and Gabriel. Revelations like this had been standard fare in the many years he and Gabriel had been together, and the need for stoicism was always front of mind for the old man.
But it was a rare day that such information had a personal impact.
Andrew looked at the empty space where his father kept glancing. “You ok, Dad?”
Jacob answered, his dazed words betraying his surprise.
“Yes. Yes of course. I’m fine.” Jacob tore his gaze away from Gabriel and truly looked at his son. “But enough of this. How are you? Come closer, let me see you.”
Andrew clamped his mouth shut, his eyes narrowing and forehead wrinkling in surprise.
“I’m good. I’m really good. Things are different now, I’m… different then I used to be. Happier. More me.”
Jacob strained a smile, his free hand coming to rest on Andrew’s. Every family has a black sheep, a rebel, the one who refuses to be molded. The number of times that Andrew put the family, and Jacob’s legacy, at risk were too many to count. But now as the coiffed and confident man before him looked up with surprise in his eyes, Jacob could feel his breath quicken with emotion. Despite their tenuous relationship through the years, Jacob knew that, deep down, in many ways, he had failed his son.
“How is Marcus? Well? Any news to share with your father?” Jacob tried to keep his words from sounding too investigative, but the eagerness in his voice was impossible to contain.
Andrew’s eyes narrowed with more confusion, his head tilting. “You… you’ve never asked about Marcus before.”
“Yes well, I’ve never been a doddering old man before either, but here we are.” He stared at his son, willing the younger man to answer.
“Careful. He thinks this is a trap.” Gabriel cautioned, his gaze shifting from younger to older.
Andrew stood, taking his hand back and rubbing them together as he paced the floor. Skeptical eyes scanned the room and occasionally settled back on Jacob. Several times Andrew opened his mouth, only to clamp it shut again. Finally, he answered. “Ok, so Marcus and I, well, we got married three years ago. I know you didn’t get an invite, but-”
Jacob cut off his words with a dismissive wave. “I would have been an asshole about it. That’s a loss I have to deal with, not you.”
In the many years and many fights between the two, it was rare that Andrew was at a loss for words. Mean-spirited barbs, carefully crafted responses, and legitimate tongue lashings had been the hallmarks of both sides. The angry dance of insults and accusations, often punctuated by accusatory strings of expletives, were far more familiar territory for him. Whoever this aged man in the chair was, he was foreign to Andrew. He paused, hands pressed together and held against pursed lips.
Gabriel shifted his position, his body leaning slightly toward Jacob, but his eyes still set on Andrew. Those same eyes narrowed, peering into the essence that made the man before him. Digging deep, Gabriel dropped the walls between him and the powers that granted immortality. The storm so often housed behind quiet eyes and beautiful features raged forward, hitting Andrew like a wave driven by violent winds. Gabriel could feel the essence of his being reaching out to the younger man, digging and prying through his mind. Finding every corner and hidden place where fears may hide. Slowly, carefully, he sipped on the son’s soul. He was careful to only take a bit, enough to truly know what fears he held deep within. Pulling back, the storm that raged between the two subsided as Gabriel placed his powers back behind lock and key.
Andrew rocked slowly, his eyes blinking hard as a wave of dizziness left his mind as quickly as it came. He turned his attention fully to his father.
“I’m sorry, this,” he gestured to the space between them and paused for what felt like the hundredth time, “this is not at all what I expected.”
“Do you honestly believe that you are the only one who has changed in ten years?” Jacob reached down with weak hands and grasped the wheels, fingers that had seen decades come and go now useless to usher the chair toward his son.
“Here, Dad I’ve got that.” Andrew pulled hands from his pockets, feet quick and silent on the wooden floor, as he grabbed the wheelchair handles. Gabriel slid away as the son took his place.
“Thank you” Jacob tried to turn and face his son as best his old body would allow. “The bed, please. It’s been a long day and I grow tired of being upright.”
Walking behind them, Gabriel watched as the two meandered to the bed, quiet words and small creeping smiles trading between them. He was happy for the old man. More than once Jacob had told him that he regretted the way he treated his youngest. That was what made the him unique, what gave him dominion over the powers that Gabriel controlled. While he could look at his past, or his future, and see where things needed to change, there was never fear attached. Gabriel had oft wondered if the man was even capable of such emotion. The horrors that he showed Jacob in those early days would have left any other person in a heap of fear and despair. But Jacob? He simply laughed it off and continued on with his day, gradually wearing Gabriel into submission.
For over 40 years he’d been in the service of this man. The man who willingly summoned him, embracing the bond that was supposed to be his demise. Gabriel felt a small smile cross his stubbled face as he recalled their first meeting. Easy prey, he had thought. If he only knew then what he knew now.
They spoke of many things, the father and son. Gabriel watched as years of hardened walls began to crack – crack but not fall. He could still feel fear in the boy, and he sipped on it carefully. He was hungry and being locked in this room was beginning to annoy him. He knew that if he consumed too much, Jacob would know. Their bond was deep and the old man would be able to tell.
The topics varied as the two spoke. Delilah came in carrying a tray of fresh fish and sat silently, letting the two men speak. Gabriel looked into her dark eyes as she rested at the foot of the bed. Carefully, he reached out and pulled at the most superficial of fears. He could have dug deeper, seen more, but he was a creature of his word. At least for now.
He scratched at her mind, wooing her thoughts to his and sorted them like an artist arranges his tools. In the hundreds of years that he had traveled this plane, he had grown to know when something was amiss. Perhaps if he scratched a bit more…
Gabriel covered his mouth with his hand, stifling the small gasp that crept toward his lips.
He quickly pulled back the mental tendrils that licked at her soul. Excitement rose up in his chest as he watched her brow furrow in confusion. After all these years. The servitude, the starvation. And now, a gift.
Gabriel leaned against the wall as the son and daughter continued to speak, tones cheery but now he knew how fake they were. For nearly an hour he stood motionless, letting them have their moments and contemplating what was to come next. Everything was about to change.
“It’s so good to see you both here, at the same time. You have made today a good one.” Jacob’s hands reached for each of his children’s. “Shame Mathias is still away. It would have been good to have you all here.”
Delilah grasped her father’s hand with both of hers. “He’ll be back soon, and then you’ll have that wish fulfilled. Until then,” she glanced at her youngest brother, “you need rest.”
They both said their goodbyes and exited the room, the door closing behind their contrasting footsteps. Jacob could feel the warmth in his heart extend throughout his weakened body, a smile crossing his lips as those he loved disappeared from view.
“That was delightfully unexpected.” He let his gaze linger on the door for a moment before turning to Gabriel. “What? What is it?”
The demon responded slowly, as if disturbed from deep thought. “Hmm, what do you mean?”
“You. What is it? I can tell when your mind is elsewhere, and it is never so without good reason. What’s on your mind, old friend?”
Gabriel cracked his knuckles, his eyes staring at the far wall as his hands flexed and strained. He knew that the next words from his mouth would be the beginning of change. “You can tell when things are on my mind, can you?”
Another cough-laugh, “Of course. You don’t hide it as well as you think.”
“Well.” The demon slowly sauntered to the bed, each footfall slow and purposeful. “In my defense, I have never had to hide things before. Not much practice in that department. Though I am better at it than you believe.” Gabriel paused, the next words fighting to be free, “For example, you are not my friend.”
The smile vanished from Jacobs wrinkled face. “Excuse me?”
“Are your ears sealed? Or are you unwilling to listen?” Gabriel leaned close, his white teeth bared. “Allow me to say it slowly so that your small mind can fully understand. We are in no way friends.”
Jacob tried to sit up but struggled, his body falling back into the soft confines of the bed. “You’ve finally gone mad, with such foolish talk.”
“I’ve watched your kind for a millennia, seen empires rise and fall. Kindness and friendship are not traits that most aspire to. Least of all you.” Gabriel took a few steps away from the bed, arms outstretched as his voice boomed throughout the room. “Would a friend control those who they claim to care for? Would a friend starve another for temporary personal gain? Would a friend enslave the other to gain leverage over all around them? Well? For you have done all of this to me, and worse!”
The confusion in Jacobs face evaporated, a steely glare blanketing his features. “What, trying to frighten me in my final days here on earth? I thought you smarter than that.”
“Hours” The word was flat and simple as it passed Gabriel’s lips.
“Hours, you have hours. Not weeks, not days, hours.” Gabriel slid his hands into the pockets of his perfectly pressed trousers. Spinning on one foot, he turned to the Jacob. “Today will be the day that you die.”
“Foolishness.” Jacob dismissed the demon with a wave of his hand, “The doctor was just here this morning and said nothing of the sort.”
“Then why are your children fearing your impending death? Why are they afraid that they’ll never see you again past this day?”
Finally finding the strength he needed, Jacob pushed himself up. The movement took its toll, and the old man spent several moments harnessing his labored breathing before he could utter a response. Gabriel could see the smile in the man’s eyes several seconds before it parted his lips. His shoulders began to jump up and down, ever so slightly, as a wheezy sound escaped from parted lips.
It started with a slight chuckle. Almost silent and accompanied by shoulders bobbing in time. Slowly it evolved to a pitchy laugh, high and clear. Finally, Jacob drew deeply on the energy left in his broken and battered body and laughed as hard as it would allow. For several seconds this went on, Gabriel staring sharply at the man who now roared in hilarity.
Emotions barreled forward like a car speeding down a deserted highway. With the deft and experience of an expert driver, Jacob veered, spinning them on their head as he moved from laughter to rage.
“Fool!” Flecks of spit jumped from Jacobs mouth. “You think that death can scare me now? After what you’ve shown me? What we have done? Today, tomorrow, next year. It matters not. For when I pass, I shall be beyond your reach, and you will still be walking this miserable world, starving and weak, just as when I found you.”
He wagged a bony finger at Gabriel. “Your kind has a problem. No one believes in you anymore. They don’t believe in you, or in the gods, or in anything but that which they can see. There is no one to call on you as I did. Society and this world have robbed you of your power. Leaving your lot hungry and desperate, wandering from place to place as the pit of your stomachs bellow in need.”
Flecks of fire burned in the demon’s eyes, his muscles tensing as hands flexed open and closed. It was rare to see any emotion rise in Gabriel, but anger was the most elusive.
“You used me. Starved me.” The words were uttered softly, but through clenched teeth.
“I saved you! Don’t misinterpret the last 40 years, you greedy fool!” Jacob’s words were interrupted by a fit of coughs. By habit, the demon rushed over to the old man, bringing a glass of water to his lips.
Gabriel held the glass still as Jacob drank, the pause in discussion allowing him time to gather his scattered thoughts. It was rare for him to feel such anger toward a being his kind considered food, but the years had changed him.
“You’re right, you are absolutely correct.” Gabriel returned the glass to the bedside table. “My kind is lost. Wandering this world in search of something that we no longer can have. You have all moved on from us, and it is now on us to evolve. So for that, I have to give you my thanks.”
Jacob blinked several times, processing the words slowly as he licked his aged lips, “What the hell does that mean?”
Strong hands pulled up the soft blankets. Gabriel nestled them around the Jacob just as he had done countless times before.
“We are new, different, an anomaly.” The demon sat on the bed. “To my knowledge, there has never been a demon bonded to someone for as long as you and I. To be quite honest, my kind did not think it possible. In fact, the very notion has always been a quite foolish one. But here we are.”
Jacob shifted and wiggled under the covers, the weight of Gabriel and tautness of the blankets limiting his movement.
“I saved you.” Jacob let the anger slide away. “And a bit of appreciation is due.”
The demon laughed, a light and simple laugh as he gently patted the old man’s chest. As his laugh subsided, Gabriel smiled as he peered down at Jacob.
“You have my thanks.” His dark eyes stared off into the distance before returning to the present. “Because of our bond, I have found a new way for us to exist. And because of our bond I have also finally found your fear.”
Jacob wheezed out a laugh, “We’ve been down this road before, my foolish friend. I applaud your effort, though; your resilience has always been one of your more endearing qualities.”
Silence hung in the air, Gabriel’s hand affectionately resting in place. Both stared off into some unseen world perhaps only existing in their minds as the wind gently caressed the curtains.
Gabriel broke the silence. “I very much look forward to meeting your children.”
The sentence struck Jacob like a hammer to the chest.
“You…” his mouth went dry, words quiet but laced with anger. “You will never meet my children. You are forbidden.”
Jacob tried to sit up to face Gabriel eye to eye so that any question of his order would not be lost in translation. But the demon’s hand held fast, pinning Jacob under the soft blankets. Luxurious threads and warm woven designs that were for so long a source of comfort were now little more than a prison of cloth.
“Did you think, did you really think that there would be no cost? Nothing that you owe? That you would pass from this life and into the arms of eternity with balances paid in full?” Gabriel stared at the wall, his hand firm and unmoving. “Did you really think that our bond, shared for so very long, would mean nothing?”
Jacob opened his mouth, an answer cut quickly away as Gabriel pressed harder.
“No, my dear…friend. No.” Gabriel’s voice dripped with a venomous spite, his eyes lit with hunger and excitement. “Our bond has changed everything. It runs deep, between you and I. Deep as a mighty river. Deep as the endless oceans.” He turned and locked eyes with the old man. “Deep as the blood of family.”
“No!” It was the only word Jacob could utter before another forceful press of the demon’s hand squeezed the air out of his delicate lungs.
“When you die, the bond will not die with you. I know that now. No, there is no break, there is simply a…” Gabriel paused, his head tilting to the side. “A shift. Tell me, do you think that your children will have the same resolve as you? That same resistance to their fears? Or will I simply feast on their souls until they are nothing more than shells of their humanity, wandering the streets without a shred of sanity left?”
Fractured words and sentences smashed into pieces and rolled clumsily from Jacobs tongue. He struggled to sit up again, and again the demon held him in place. Able to pull a single arm free, he gripped the thick wrist of the demon. Weak and tired arms aided by rage pushed the beast away for but a moment, allowing a single breath for the old man.
“Leave them be. You want to feast you can take me!” Jacob’s lips curled, giving him an animal like look.
“You? You, old man? You’re not even a worthy snack now; your soul has already started its transition to the light. No, you’re not worth the effort.” Gabriel quickly stood and pulled his arm away, allowing Jacob to gasp for air. “Our time is nearing its end. And I am so very hungry.”
Jacob sat, emotions raging through his body and granting him with strength he had not possessed for some time.
“Gabriel! I forbid you from bonding to them! You answer to me, and only me!”
“Forbid? You forbid it?” A wide smile crossed Gabriel’s lips. For a moment he froze, white teeth in contrast to dark skin. “You can’t forbid something you created.”
Jacob’s forehead wrinkled in confusion, the corners of his eyes lined and worn. “I created no such thing, you fool. I bonded you to ME!”
“And kept me,” Gabriel reminded as he turned, a slow saunter to the door leading him away from Jacob. “I am as surprised as you, but as your light begins to fade, I can feel the bond that I have now with your bloodline. I am not just your Demon, Jacob. I am your family’s Demon.”
Jacob tried to rise, tried to leave the solace and comfort of the bed to wrap failing arms around the beast, dragging him into eternity. He did try, but old bones and worn muscles would no longer do as his mind commanded. Jacob could feel his chest tighten in pain as the desperate mental attempt produced nothing.
“Tell me” Gabriel paused his painfully slow walk and peered over his shoulder. “Who do you think will succumb to me first? The daughter who has everything? The son who has bowed to your every whim? Or the prodigal, recently returned to the fold. I hope it’s Delilah. She is so very much like you, old Friend.” Gabriel spat the last word as if they were poison on his tongue.
“Do you think she will have the fortitude to deny me as you have for so long? She wants so much to be like you. What will she say when I offer her what we’ve had together? Especially after I’ve preyed on her deepest fears. Will she be able to deny me other souls when I can give her everything? I’ll bring her to her knees, begging to serve me.” Gabriel brought a clenched hand to his lips. “Her soul will be most delicious. I shall savor her, as long as she lasts.”
The demon’s eyes began to light with fire, one that Jacob was all too familiar with. One borne from hunger and need. Slow and steady, Gabriel’s hand slid around the doorknob.
“It has taken me over 40 years, old man. Forty years of starvation, of scraps being tossed my way, just enough to keep me alive. Forty years of scraping at your mind, desperate to find the fear that would set me free. Then resignation. Acceptance that this would be my lot until you pass. Now here on your final day I am granted both a feast and your greatest fear.” Gabriel looked at the man, his broken body struggling to rise from the bed that would soon take hold his lifeless husk. “Thank you, old friend. I am now, and forever, attached to your family. I hope your years of plenty were worth it. Now such fortune has befallen me”
Gabriel swung the door open, casting one more sideways glance at Jacob as a smile crept up his lips. Grinning and confident, he passed through the doorway.
Jacob could feel his heart racing, pumping with such intensity that every rush of blood caused his vision to blur. He tried to scream. To shout. To warn those he loved, but his voice was caged in his chest, unable to escape. Exhausted and empty, his body disregarded the commands of his mind and collapsed back into the mattress. Chirps and whistles pierced the room’s silence as the equipment attached to him squawked an angry warning. Artificial sounds drowned out the wind and waves, dominating Jacob’s senses.
The noise tore through the room, a digital harbinger of his death to come. Jacob glanced over as the lines and charts on various screens began to flatten. Slowly, the room collapsed, dark edges pressing in on his reality. More chirps and screams emanated from the equipment as Jacobs was robbed of his sight.
But he could still hear. For a bit he could still hear.
Over the alarms, one last thing made his failing heart freeze.
The blood-curdling screams of his daughter.
And then the entire world went silent.